Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Brussels in the rain

I arrived at the heart of Europe just before 10am in the morning. Having gotten up at 4 to catch the Eurostar, I was feeling dizzy, confused, and sleepy. I never sleep much on the train, since it’s the most exciting way of travel for me, but I slept, from Waterloo, through ear-piercing announcements what wonderful (and expensive) snacks and drinks they have aboard, through Ashford, through the Channel Tunnel, through Lille Europe, and up until a few minutes before the train pulled into Brussel Zuid/Midi.

I was that tired.

I wanted to get off and walk around a bit, make the most out of my train ticket, since from Brussels to the Netherlands takes just two hours, and I could catch any train I want on the same day. The main reason for staying was to visit the Europarliament and other European Union institutions. I mean, the grimy metro, rude people and run-down streets and public amenities in Brussels (or any other big Belgium cities) are things I’d not like to be reminded of. Though the centre of town is always nice to visit, especially the Grote Markt (market), which is surrounded by beautifully gilded, decorated and carved merchant houses and town hall from the heydays of the 16-17th Century, when this part of Europe experienced its ‘Golden Age’. Feeling adventurous and having a couple of hours to kill before the tour through the European Parliament, I headed towards the Atomium—this gigantic structure shaped like an atom, on the outskirts. From there, I trekked back to the city centre, through dense woods and parks.

The weather wasn’t too kind, and rained almost continuously as soon as I arrived in Brussels. At first a slight drizzle, and made me wrongly believe that I could brave it. But it got a lot worse, and I scrambled to protect my backpack and the free posters I picked up at the EU Info centre from the rain. It was cold and damp, and for the first time in a long time I was reminded of what it feels like living in Europe, now that autumn is approaching fast. Those days of scorching heat and rainless days in the past few weeks seemed like distant memory.

Whereas in New York citizens complain about lawless UN diplomats, in Brussels it’s tax-exempt EU bureaucrats. Not to forget that NATO is also headquartered in Brussels too. There are over 4000 alone working for the Europarliament, and many thousands more for the Commission, and other bureaus and EU agencies spread across the city. This part of the city, earmarked the ‘European Quarter’, has streets, squares and buildings named after the people and places that made this huge project of human unity never before seen possible. Schuman, Luxembourg, Spinelli, Spaak to name but a few. All buildings of marvelous architectural design, out of steel, glass and concrete, employing and displaying the modern and artistic and creative elements this continent has to offer. Not sure how much money was spent building all these structures, and they don’t seem to have finished yet.

So I did the audio tour and walk around the Parliament building. This is the first multi-national parliament in the world, with more than 732 members from 25 member states, which is supposed to represent some 455million people across Europe. The Brussels building is the main seat of the Europarliament, with branches in Strasbourg, where it meets once a month for plenary meetings, and Luxembourg, where the Secretariat is. It’s still a mystery why this one institution needs to be split up into so many countries, but I suspect it’s different member countries wanting to vie for a place…at the expense of taxpayers and pointless traveling and moving around.

The building was massive, and very empty, since Parliament is on recess. So we could actually go into the main auditorium where the members meet and discuss. 25 languages are officially used, which means everything is translated simultaneously in the many cabins around the circular auditorium. Sitting there, watching the hundreds of neatly arranged seats and little podium at the front, it felt surreal that this is the place where so many laws, regulations, rules are made, that this far off place in Brussels, the many faceless bureaucrats hold sway over our lives and livelihoods.

I’ve done the tour before, and it was somehow ‘better’ the last time, perhaps because it was more interesting the first time around, and I wasn’t so soaked to the bone from the pouring rain, like yesterday.

Dampened and wet, I made my way toward the station, and home. Posted by Picasa

Please visit the following links to my travellog for more exciting pictures!

· Brussels Capital of Europe: European Parliament V

· Brussels Capital of Europe: European Parliament IV

· Brussels Capital of Europe: European Parliament III

· Brussels Capital of Europe: European Parliament II

· Brussels Capital of Europe: European Parliament I

· Brussels Capital of Europe: European Commission

· Sightseeing in Brussels: Colonial Park

· Sightseeing in Brussels: Atomium

· Sightseeing in Brussels: Grote Markt II

· Sightseeing in Brussels: Grote Markt

· Sightseeing in Brussels

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