Twentieth Email- A little late with this one...Belgium

Sent 29.4.06


I think I promised this email a while's a bit late, but better late than never. Class finished up this past week, so I finally have a little time on my hands to get around to sending a few emails.

I returned from Marseille on a Tuesday afternoon (28th March); our class trip to Belgium began with a very early Wednesday flight to Brussels. At this point, it would be appropriate to explain why our programme was flying roughly 40 of us to Brussels, putting us up for two nights, and paying for some of our meals. Brussels is the home of the European Union Commission, Council, and Parliament as some of you may know. That was a primary reason for going. Over the course of the weekend, we heard lectures from an Irish MEP (Member of European Parliament), the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels, an EU Council member, an EU Commission member, and the US Mission to the EU. I definitely know a lot more about the EU after this weekend, so it wasn't all fun and games.

Luckily I was able to get back to Ireland to make our flight; as I said in the previous email the strikes in France made travel a bit tough the previous day. Some people had booked a Ryanair flight out of France back to Dublin, all of which were cancelled; they were able to scramble and get a train to Brussels from Paris and met us there. We met them relatively early in the morning, and started our lecture circuit by heading to the Irish Permanent Representation office, which deals with Ireland's interaction with the EU as a whole. We then headed over to the EU Parliament building, which is very impressive in both its size and design. Standing in the EU parliament hall was very cool; I can't imagine what it is like when in session with 732 members and over 20 translators at work. We then heard from an Irish MEP; his job is not even to represent Ireland, but just his district of Ireland where elected. It is the same with MEPs from every European Country- each has their own small district that they are directly elected by.

After hearing these talks, we headed to Leuven which was where we were spending the night. (Note: the city is spelled 'Leuven' in Dutch, 'Louvain' in French, two of the official languages in Belgium.) It is located about a half hour west of Brussels, and is home to the largest Flemish university in Belgium. It is also home to the Louvain Institute for Ireland in Europe- a college originally established to educate Catholics from Ireland when the British government banned Catholic education. This is where we stayed for two nights, and in some relatively cool rooms with spiral staircases and such. It was a cross between a hotel and a hostel, with rooms used for short-term visitors to lectures and meetings like us. We heard a few random facts about the place, one being that the first Irish (language) dictionary was published there. After dropping our bags, we headed out to the old part of the city, the béguinage. Several of these béguinages were established in the Low Countries by a group of lay sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. It was very interesting to walk around. The rest of the night was filled with dinner and a quick stop by a bar to enjoy some good Belgian beer. Almost everyone called it an early night because we were still dead from our previous weeks of travel.

Thursday began with a trip to the US Mission to the EU. This was interesting, and I hadn't heard the American spin on things in a while. The Mission is basically an 'embassy' to the EU, allowing the US to communicate ideas to all 25 member states at once. We then headed back to Leuven where we heard a series of lectures from people closely involved with the EU. Dinner time eventually rolled around, and then many of us headed out into Leuven to enjoy the wonderful Belgian beer. We managed to bring some of the crazy Irish weather with us; as we were walking around the city that night, it went from nothing to hail in about two minutes.

Our final day in Belgium began with a final lecture about EU trade policy. We then headed into Brussels for some free time. I went around with a small group of people and we saw such sights as Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, Palais Royal, and Cathedrale St. Michel. Brussels is a very modern city with wide streets and a relatively straightforward layout; this is much different than most European cities I've been too. After passing some more time at a bar, we headed back toward the train station to make our way to the airport.

I had plenty of room in my backpack on this trip because I had packed very light for three days, and had good plans for the space. I've already mentioned Belgian beer a few times- it is both cheaper and better than the beer you can buy in Ireland, so there was no reason not to bring some back, especially with the EU having no customs restrictions allowing you to bring as much as you want across borders. I was able to buy a decent amount and split it between my backpack and a department store paper bag that I had brought to Belgium for this very purpose. The collection included a 75 cl bottle of Chimay, 75 cl bottle of Affigem, 4x33 cl bottles of Leffe, 4x25 cl bottles of Kriek, and a 33 cl bottle of Rochefort.

This decision almost spelled disaster for me once back in Dublin, waiting in line for immigration. There was an incredibly long line that I had never seen before, and was moving slowly in bursts. Because my bag was relatively heavy, I set it down when we stopped moving and picked it up when necessary. 10 minutes later I was almost to the front of the line, about 10 people back, and was just about to pick up my bag when I hear a 'pop' next to me. I look down and see that one of my bottles (the Affigem) has broken and is spilling beer all over in the paper bag. It was a pretty loud but not very violent, so I almost think it was an implosion and not explosion, but I'm still not sure what happened. I pulled out the five other surviving bottles and forget my MP3 player was also in there; it was already covered by beer foam and I couldn't even see it. Someone offered me a plastic bag, and I put the whole mess in there. I went through immigration and got down to the baggage carousel before realizing my MP3 player wasn't in my pocket. Not good. I pulled the thing out of the mess and went to the airport bathroom to do what cleanup I could, and wasn't very successful.

At this point, I knew enough not to attempt to turn it on, but I thought I was out the $200 it would take to replace it, not to mention the 2000 songs stored on it. I woke up the next morning and went to an electronics store to buy a set of screwdrivers for €8, a complete rip-off which I planned on returning whether successful or not. I did a complete disassembly and sprayed it with some electronic cleaner that I had also bought. Seeing the inside, I didn't have much faith in resurrecting the thing. I let the parts dry for sometime before reassembly, and surprise, the first time I put it back together and turned it on it did nothing except make bad noises. I disassembled and waited the rest of the day, tried it again and somehow it turned itself on and started playing music. It really surprised me a bit for it to work at all, and now all I have to deal with is a power button that isn't quite as responsive as it should be.

Sorry if that last story bored you- I was pretty proud of myself to fix my MP3 player when I thought it was dead for sure. That wraps up Belgium, and I've actually already written about Amsterdam but didn't want to send it out until I got myself back into chronological order. Look for that email soon.

Keep in touch,

Dan McGee
Mobile: +353 87 056 4163