January 17, 2018 / 4:50PM
Thursday-Saturday, January 11-13: Model European Union Conference
These three days were consumed with debating European politics at Vesalius College. I was representing the prime minister of Portugal on the European Council, and we focused on issues of cyber security within the EU.
At night, we explored the notorious Delirium Cafe — a three-story bar that is famous for offering over 2,000 different types of beer. There was live music Thursday night; a soulful group that played all American songs.
Friday night was definitely a huge highlight of the trip; after committee ended for the day, we all went to an Alt-J concert at a local venue. This is a band I used to really love during my senior year of high school into my first year of college, so there was a huge nostalgic element to the experience that made it amazing (on top of the incredible live sound and being able to enjoy it with some of my best friends IN BELGIUM). I will without a doubt remember this concert for the rest of my life.
Sunday, January 14
We hopped on a bus to spend the day in Gent, a city about 45 minutes outside of Brussels. It was the first time I saw the sun since I landed in Europe, and the weather made the city look even more breathtaking. The history of Gent was incredible — we were able to see, touch, and go inside buildings from the 13th century. There were massive, ornate churches on EVERY street corner, and even a castle still standing in the city.
The best way I could describe this place is that it looks like the pictures you see on European post cards (see the photos below). I also had my first belgian waffle while in Gent, but I was so excited to eat it that I forgot to take a photo, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. On the recommendation of a local tour guide, I got a plain waffle (she said a true Belgian waffle doesn’t need all the extra toppings), and it was easily one of the top five best things I’ve ever eaten.
Monday, January 15
On this day, we toured both the Belgian and Flemish parliaments, and were able to sit down with senior representatives in both bodies. The Belgian representative was more left-leaning politically, while the Flemish representative was the leader of the most right-leaning party in the parliament. With migration being a key issue in European politics right now, we spoke to both men about their party’s stance on the topic. Their views were more similar than they were divergent; both men spoke about the importance of integration.
The Belgian representative said they want migrants to feel like they belong in Belgium, and that is achieved through ensuring that they have access to quality education and job opportunities. The way I understood it, his viewpoint placed more of a burden on the government — he felt that greater efforts needed to be made on the part of regional and state bodies to facilitate effective integration.
The Flemish representative explained all of the programs that were already in place to help facilitate integration, like language programs. He said there is a difference between integration and assimilation — while they do not want total assimilation on the part of migrants, he said it is vital for people in a society to share common values and language in order to achieve peaceful coexistence. The feeling I got from his argument was that he believed sufficient framework was already in place for migrants to integrate into Belgian society — they just needed to utilize the resources already available to them.
He also explained the challenges presented by migrants who are passing through Belgium en route to the United Kingdom in search of job opportunities. When people are not actively seeking asylum, he said they go from being political refugees to being economic refugees — classifications which warrant different governmental responses.
Almost the entire Flemish parliament building was made of glass, which was intended to represent what they claim to be one of their central values — transparency. Whether this is true in practice or not, I thought this was a really compelling architectural design choice. A fun fact: currently 45% of the Flemish parliament are women.
That night, my advisor arranged for me to meet with a reporter for the Wall Street Journal based in Belgium, Valentina Pop. She is originally from Transylvania, and has worked for the Economist and The Financial Times. Pop was extremely down to earth and kind, and told me stories about her experiences working in the field. When I asked for her advice for young journalists, she kept it real with me. Basically, starting out as a journalist means crazy hours and not very good pay. But once you “get bit by the bug” as she said, essentially falling in love with storytelling, it’s all worth it.
The Hague, Netherlands
Tuesday, January 16
The Hague is BEAUTIFUL, and I wish I could have spent a week there. I truly felt like I was in a utopian society — the buildings were modern and gorgeous, and there wasn’t much traffic because everyone was riding bikes. Seriously, everyone. There were more bike racks (which were all full) than there were parking spaces.
What we did today was pretty incredible: we toured the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, which are the judicial arms of the United Nations. Nations can bring other nations to court in the ICJ, and state leaders responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity are tried in the ICC. Gaining access to these buildings is extremely difficult, so it’s pretty insane that I was able to have this experience as a college student.
Wednesday, January 17
We visited the US Embassy to speak with two foreign affairs officers — one representing the US to the EU, and the other to NATO. They were surprisingly very approachable and laid back, and gave us a glimpse into the life of an American diplomat. We all left that briefing saying “I want their job”, which they talked about as if it was an accessible application process that just required some “luck”. I don’t buy that at all, but it was humble of them to say.
When asked about Trump’s past statements against the EU and NATO, and reconciling their own beliefs with the comments of their Commander-in-chief, they replied very diplomatically that “colorful language is a part of our political discourse these days” and that it is more useful to look at Trump actions than to draw conclusions from his words.
Unrelated to politics, I went back to the vintage store that I got the sweater from a few days ago. Today’s deal — a camel colored peacoat made in France for 17 Euro. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to fit it in my suitcase, but I’m accepting the challenge.
I’m hopping on a train to Freiburg, Germany at 6AM tomorrow morning. Auf Wiedersehen!