Ithaca, New York, USA
February 2, 2018 / 12:56PM
Now that I have been back in the states for two weeks and finally recovered from my first experience with jetlag, I wanted to reflect on some of the major takeaways from my experiences in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.
- Lack of reciprocity between U.S. and EU
I had very little trouble operating as an English-speaker in all three of these countries; everyone spoke, or at the very least understood, basic English. They would greet me in French or German, but then switch to English without flinching when they realized I was American (between my bad accent when I repeated their greeting and panicked look in my eyes when they continued speaking French or German, they quickly discovered I was far from home). What I mean to say is that I constantly felt like people were accommodating me as an American, and although they never seemed bothered by it, it was unsettling to me that I couldn’t return the favor. I was in their home, afterall. If the roles were reversed and a German native was visiting the U.S., no American store clerk would speak German to them to make them feel more comfortable.
Another point on this topic: the Europeans I met knew a lot more about the politics in my country than I did of theirs. I don’t just mean they knew about President Trump (he’s hard to miss), they knew about President Obama, and both president’s specific policies. I couldn’t tell you the head of state from Belgium or the Netherlands without a google search, let alone some of their key positions.
- Political rhetoric and language used when discussing immigration in Brussels
In our opportunity to speak with members of the Belgian and Flemish parliament, I noticed a similar sentiment between the two men who were of very different political parties. When talking about migrants in their country, the conversation wasn’t framed around deportation, building walls, or any other rhetoric that implied removing these people altogether from within Belgium’s borders. The immigration conversation was framed around integration — why it is important, who bears the burden of facilitating it, and if the local and national governments were doing enough to make it happen. Naturally, the more conservative representative said the government was already doing enough to aid in integration, and that the burden falls on migrants to take advantage of those resources. The more liberal representative said that the government could and should do more to offer migrants more opportunities to feel part of their new communities. Integration is a word never mentioned and a concept rarely explored in the popular political discourse around immigration in the U.S. — especially in the past year.
I want to be clear: this emphasis on integration is not in any way consistent across all EU member states. The recent rise of far-right parties in several EU nations have brought forth some of the same sentiments we’ve heard in U.S. politics in terms of closing borders to prospective migrants and deporting those already inside national borders. However, the discussions I engaged in during my time in Brussels were framed more around the question of ‘how can we help these people to feel more welcome and fit better into our communities in order to mitigate these issues that are arising from the influx of migrants?’ (These issues being various levels of violence, from petty crime to terrorism.) This is a framing of the immigration debate that I’ve regrettably never heard or explored until this trip.
- Symbols of a diversifying Europe
An image that has stuck with me was from when we visited the Heidelberger Schloss, a massive medieval castle in Heidelberg, Germany. There was a young Muslim couple, accompanied by their wedding party, all in traditional dress, taking wedding photos on the grounds of this ancient fortress. This image was beautiful and profoundly symbolic: a traditionally white, Christian nation, now home to young generations of religiously, culturally, and racially diverse people.