Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Just some final pictures...

Along with my last written post, here are some pictures I took during my final few days in the city. Man, I miss that place!!!

Grand Place Pics



Just some final words...

Well, I’ve been back in DC for two and a half days now and I can’t stop having “Brussels pangs”. I miss everything: my breakfasts (which may or may not have included copious amounts of Belgian chocolate), speaking French on a daily basis, my fabulous internship, all my Brussels friends, who are more or less scattered across Europe for the next few weeks, the dynamic energy of Europe’s capital, and yes, the waffles.

This program was everything I could have asked for and more. I had a lot of fun (see above what I usually ate for breakfast!), and I learned a great deal about Belgium, a tiny country—just the size of Maryland—but, nonetheless, a nation that is unbelievably multifaceted. I also learned about the history and politics of the continent, and about the Europe’s working world. My internship at Liberty TV went above and beyond my expectations. The group I worked with was very talented and supportive, and I left with much more knowledge and many more practical skills than I had when I first arrived.


I am grateful for having had such an amazing opportunity and I strongly encourage others to participate in this program next year…just don’t tell me when you do, because I think I’ll be way too jealous to be able to handle it!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I ♥ BXL!

Well, our program officially ended yesterday (which was an amazingly beautiful day for that matter), and I am here in Brussels alone. Everyone else has either gone back to the U.S. or is off to some other destination in Europe. Meanwhile, I will be here for a couple of days before heading to Hungary, France and Spain, and I wanted to make one last blog post about my experience here. In short, it was amazing!

I have had the time of my life in Brussels. Seven weeks is not such a long time, but I feel like I have been here for much longer. I have learned so much about Belgium and the European Union. I was able to travel throughout much of Belgium, which is truly a beautiful country with pleasant surprises at every turn. Last but not least, I have had an amazing time with friends I had known before (who I now feel much closer to) and new friends I have gotten to know along the way. We have had such a great experience in Brussels together. I will truly miss being here with them, but then again, we are all going back to D.C., and it will be so nice to see everyone there. As for new friends I have met in Brussels, I will definitely be back to visit them!

I am so fortunate and grateful to have been able to participate in this internship program. This has been one of the greatest summers of my life. I have completely fallen in love with Belgium, and I can’t wait to come back! I would also love to work in Brussels at some point in my life because of my growing interest in the EU.

Thank you for a tremendous program!!! I will never forget it!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Silver Lining

Well, I am not the girl who enjoys writing blogs - or diaries - or really any type of thing like this. But, seeing as it is the end of the program, I thought I would take a shot at summing up my experience on this trip. 

  For me, this summer has been about the silver linings to this program! 

Bad things have happened. My sister has had her gall bladder removed after having to go to the hospital repeatedly; my dog that I have had since I was 7 may be put down before I get home in a few days; my grandmother, who has just fought off cancer in 7 of her organs, has now sustained damage to her heart from the chemo and is just now out of the hospital; my father got married (without me there); two days after my dad's wedding, we found out he now has retina cancer in addition to breast and bone cancer and that the drugs that he has been taking have not been working. On top of all this, I have stressed and worried over trying to get projects done, trying to coordinate weekend trips, and trying to maintain my sanity when I call my family back home to get an update.  

However, in spite of all this, I have had one of the best summers that I can remember. I have been lucky enough to have a great host family. My host mom, Patricia, makes sure that I know exactly where I need to go when I leave the house and my host sisters and I are chatting about the latest movies and music quite a bit. They have been incredibly kind to me. Once, after a very nice trip to the Pita Palace for mitraettes with Travis and Jenna, I got lost (or Travis pointed me in the wrong direction). My host mother and sister figured out where I was and picked me up on the street corner. When I told her how embarrassed I was, she told me it was ok and instead we went out and picked up dinner and treats from the grocery store. In fact, yesterday, my host mom and sister went to the gardens behind the African museum with the dog, Plum, and just walked and chatted. After coming home, we looked at pictures and had dinner. I didn't realize it because I was having a great time, but I did not make it up to my room until midnight. I adore this family and feel that I have been incredibly blessed to be welcomed into someone's home with such ease and friendliness!

Not to brag, but I also have had a fantastic internship with the Royal Military Academy. Some parts are not very fun: Rachel and I have had to write a 45-page paper on military academies in Europe, work 8.5 hours a day, and present our work in front of military officers. On the other hand, we are getting an actual project and we will be a part of the reason why this policy may or may not pass. The people in the office, contrary to popular opinion on military academies, have also been fantastic. Our supervisor, Patrice, stands up for the research we do and makes sure that we know that it is appreciated. He always tries to make jokes and to make us feel comfortable in the academy. The other intern, Marcel, also makes us laugh at his funny stories and at our attempts to speak Dutch words to him. Other people in the office – the Colonel, Pascal, and Jean-Pierre – have been very friendly to us and have tried to speak English to accommodate our (mostly my) inability to understand French or Dutch.

Finally, I have had a brilliant time travelling. I have been to the beach and rode in “kindercarts”, or bicycles built for 6. I have eaten Berliners in Koln, walked up to the top of many cathedrals, tried several different types of Belgian and German beers in pubs, been adventurous enough to eat national dishes, seen so many different parts of Europe and met so many kind and generous people on my travels. 

I am ridiculously grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this program this year, especially since I go to UNC and not American University. While some not-very-pleasant things have happened in my life, I am glad to be here and I know that this opportunity will be significant for my future. I will take the experience of the academy, living with a Belgian family, travelling to new places, and meeting new friends on with me as I go. Thanks again!  


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What I'll Miss Most

Ok, I'm not much of a blogger but I'll give this a try.

I can't believe that my time in Brussels has dwindled down to 4 measly days. When I originally arrived, the 7 weeks ahead of me seemed daunting. I was sure that by the end of June I would be ready to go home, but it is exactly the opposite. If I could stay in Brussels, I would. Now the thought of heading back home, aside from the joy of seeing friends and family, seems awful. There are a myriad of things I am going to miss dearly. So far my list consists of:


There is nothing better than an authentic Belgian waffle fresh from the waffle iron. They have quickly become my favorite snack and their wide availability makes them a staple in my day. I will miss having the option to grab on on the way out of the metro after work, or walking downtown. Eggo just won't cut it anymore.


So I wasn't an immediate fan. Originally I tried the Speculoos cookies, which I think are pretty meh. I was informed that I should dip them in coffee, which I don't really like, so I decided to abandon the mission of liking Speculoos. I later found out that it also comes in a spread, and I have since developed a taste for Speculoos and Nutella sandwiches (thanks to Rob and Chris). I can't really describe Speculoos, it is just one of those things you have to experience for yourself. I think I may have to smuggle a jar home


You don't realize how nice it is to have the option to sit outside with friends, enjoying a drink and perhaps a meal, and leisurely people watching. Cafes are a European staple it seems, and the landscape in D.C. just won't look right without them. Cafes are a great place to pop in quickly, or spend an afternoon. You can meet with friends or enjoy a little personal time, either way the atmosphere and the experience are something I am really going to miss. Perhaps outdoor cafes will come to D.C.


While most people think "France" when they think of breads, I'm thinking "Belgium." Belgium has an amazing assortment of breads for any meal and any taste. There are bakeries throughout Brussels, all filled with delectable pastries and loaves of soft brown goodness. I don't believe that Adkins would go over very well in Belgium, and I think that's a good thing. I am a big fan of the selection at Kraainem Carrefour, which spans several aisles in the back of the store stocked with tons of options, as well as an automatic slicer, so you have have your bread freshly sliced once you have made you decision.

Chocolate Shops

I pass at least 3 (if not more) chocolate shops on my way to work every morning. There is one in the metro where I change trams, and one within a 5 minute walk from my office. They are beautifully done, with shelves of perfectly aligned confectionery treats, in all kinds of chocolate, with all kinds of fillings. I have discovered a love for dark chocolate and hazelnut, as well as a new found appreciation for marzipan. My host mother gave me a 250 gram box from Leonidas and it was the most amazing gift I have ever received. I will miss popping into one walking down the street for a quick bite, or just to admire the stock. They also make great gifts as they will willingly wrap the boxes in decorative wrapping and ribbons. While leaving Belgium may be better for my diet, I will surely miss the indulgence.


I have a new found love of trams, and I really think they should re institute tram travel in DC. They can access places not serviced by the metro and they give you a chance to see the sights above ground. There is a tram stop at the end of my block and I take at least 2 trams every morning to get to my internship. They are simple, convenient and I just think they're neat. They give you another option besides the bus and the metro and sometimes are a lot easier and quicker than them as well. I fully support bringing back the tram :)

Train travel

I would love it if the U.S. expanded its train capabilities. The idea of showing up at the station, buying a ticket and an hour or so later being in a completely different country is so much fun to me. So much less hassle than catching a plane, especially with security the way it is, and if you have a fear of flying it gives another option besides making a ridiculously long drive. I love the trains in Belgium, even when the seats are full and you have to sit on the floor between cars. I can leave in the morning, spend the day at the coast, and be back before bedtime for 10 euro. That's a tough deal to beat.

Knowing exactly how much something costs
So while the VAT can be kind of annoying, knowing how much something will cost is fantastic. There is no confusion when you get to the check out, no need to configure additional costs. Splitting a tab at dinner is easy, and there is no need to worry that what you have in your wallet won't cover the ultimate purchase price. With the total cost already presented to you, you know what you can afford upfront and you don't have to worry about anything else on top of that. I think it is sooo much easier, even if it makes things a bit more pricey.

The Grand Place

There is nothing better than meeting friends for en evening on the Grand Place. At night, the buildings are softly lit and there are throngs of people sitting on blankets enjoying the evening. There are shops open late, cafes, waffles and chocolate on every side street, and the thrill of being immersed in the culture of a foreign city. There's nothing quite like it back home, and I will really miss it.

The Stockel Metro Station

I have spent a lot of time at the Stockel/Stokkel metro station, waiting for metros, waiting for Jenny, shopping at the Match or grabbing a fabulous sandwich. The Stockel metro is particularly endearing due to it's Tintin motif, which I think makes it one of the friendliest, most colorful stations. The walls are covered with Tintin scenes, and every time I glance at the wall I see something I didn't see before. It always puts a smile on my face :)

The Music in the Metro

So the metro is continuously playing music, and in the last 7 weeks I have heard more Pink, Lily Allen, and Katy Perry than I have heard in my life. It's usually the same few songs over and over, except at night a few hours before metro closes when it switches to classical. Then you know it's late and it's time to head home.

My abonnement

So when we first spent 30 euro for our metro passes I was a little taken aback by the cost, but now with how much I use it, I find that is is a far superior deal to the D.C. Smartrip card. I can use trams, buses, the metro, anywhere, all day long and I'm covered. I take at least 4 separate means of transport just to a from my internship every day, and I go from one side of the city to another. That kind of travel would be so expensive on the D.C. metro, and that doesn't include personal travel for meeting friends or sightseeing. I like the value and the freedom the abonnemont brings and I hope maybe one day the concept will make it over the Atlantic.

My Internship
I absolutely adore my internship. I am working at CEJI, an organization which works for an inclusive Europe. I have been working on a project lobbying the European Parliament to sign on to the London Declaration Combating Antisemitism, which entails a lot of research and grassroots kinds of efforts. I have learned a lot about MEPs, the Parliament, Belgian politics, and I have even been so lucky as to attend meetings at the Parliament. The people I work with are incredibly kind and friendly and they have taught me a great deal and made me feel really at home in the office. They have really enriched my experience here and I will never forget them.

My wonderful host family
So my host family is anything but Belgian, which I was a little disappointed about in the beginning, but have quickly gotten over. My family is full on British and live in Belgium for work. I have found that learning British English is almost like learning a completely different language at times, and I find their accent infectious. They are very kind and generous, they have totally opened their home to me, and last weekend they took me with them on a trip to London. I feel really lucky to have had such a positive experience with them, and I will miss them when I leave.

The amazing group of people I have met

I have met the most amazing people here and I will miss them terribly when we leave. I've been fortunate enough to have these fantastic people living close by so that seeing them is a breeze and it will be so odd when they are not a part of my everyday life. I'll miss riding the tram with Rob and Chris, meeting up with Jenny, Erica and Rachel for dinner, and meeting Luke, Caroline, Nikki and Lexi downtown. There are no other people that I would rather spend an evening with, or a day riding a kinderkart with at the coast, or even traveling to Paris. My best memories are filled with these people, and these memories are so cherished because these people are a part of them. Of everything, they are the best part of this experience.

All in all, this has been one of the greatest experiences in my life. If I could ever find a job in Brussels I would move here without hesitation. I love this city and this country, I love the people I have met and the things I have been fortunate enough to experience. I hope this is a program AU will continue for a while, especially for the grad students, because it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles...but mostly Trains.

Brussels and Belgium have an amazing public transportation network. In Brussels, if the metro doesn't take you there, then an easily accessible tram or bus surely will. What I find to be most impressive, and something DC should really look into, is that Brussels publishes a widely-available public transportation map that includes the Metro, Bus, and Tram lines so you do not have to spend time trying comparing Bus and Metro maps to figure out where you are going. The bus is not a mystery here, as it is to most casual public transportation users in D.C. It makes getting around town much more convenient, and the up to the minute GPS location of all public transportation vehicles is available online and over the phone (I hear D.C. might be trying to start this project up again). And on top of all that, a month long, unlimited public transportation pass, that is good on all forms of transportation is only 30 Euros for people under 26. As a carless District resident, I rely heavily on the metro and bus system to get to school and work and am grateful for the hard work of WMATA employees, but I really appreciate what the city of Brussels provides its residents and am looking forward to making some suggestions to WMATA when I get back.

Belgium is a small country; roughly the size of Maryland. Due to its size and wealth it has been able to build a rail network that zips you around the country in no time and with relative ease. Early on during the trip, I purchased a Go Pass for 50 Euros that provided me with ten one way trips anywhere in Belgium and have had a great time using it. With a Go Pass you don't need to stand in line at the station, you just fill out your destination on the ticket, hop on the train and go, no reservation required. Brussels to Antwerp in 45 minutes; Brussels to Gent in 35 minutes; Gent to Brugge in 25 minutes; anyway you get the idea. It’s easy to get around, making for endless possibilities for short day trips around the country so that you can make it back to Brussels at night and save on paying for hotels everywhere you go.

Belgium also has a great highway network for those places that don't have easy train access, and renting a car or finding a friend of a friend that has one is a great option for trips around Belgium. Gas is more expensive here than in the US, but you get the feeling you're actually paying what it’s worth. For those with travel ambitions a bit further afield, Brussels' main airport is easily accessible by public transport from multiple places in the city. Getting down to the Charleroi airport, where the budget airlines fly out of, is also relatively easy.

I know this may sound like an infomercial for public transportation in Belgium, but I am impressed and envious of the ease of travel here without having to own a car. As those who live in the DC area without a car know, it can be frustrating relying on infrequent, uncoordinated public transport without even the option of convenient travel to surrounding areas.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I never want to leave...

This has been a dream-come-true experience. Literally. My wildest dreams have all come true in Brussels. And honestly, I don't want to go back. I was pretty miserable in Washington. In fact, I'd been pretty depressed for a couple of years now. But I found my joy again in Brussels. I found my peace again in Brussels. I learned to laugh again in Brussels ... the laugh-until-you-cry laugh. God I had missed that!

Let me take a moment to express all my love and gratitude in the world to my 26 and 27-year-old "host parents," Isabelle and Jeff. They have been amazing "parents" to me! Even though I'm older than both of them, they have taken care of me in every way. Not only have they consistently cooked the greatest meals of my life for me, but Jeff has also been teaching me to cook! We've had great political and philosophical conversations, but they've also let me cry in front of them (I was so sad about leaving Brussels that I literally burst into tears in front of Jeff and Isabelle last week, but they assured me that I would be back, living in Europe, in no time, so there was no reason to be sad... they then handed me some chocolate to make me feel better ... and it worked). These guys are friends FOR LIFE!

Not only do I have the world's great "host parents," but I also have the world's great internship! Today, my boss Sharon said to me, "Leila, if I could, I'd hire you!" I love Sharon. She's the Managing Director of the State of Illinois - West Euopean Office of Trade and Investment. I've done so much at this internship! I've scheduled meetings with multinational organizations at the Paris Air Show. I've scheduled tours and briefings at the EU Commission and the Council of the EU for a visiting delegation from the University of Illinois (not to mention coordinating their hotels, restaurants, and 80-guest reception). Sharon has let me go to EU policy debates and panel discussions hosted by the European Policy Center and the German Marshall Fund. She invited me to the lauch of a new magazine called "WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) Magazine." While I was there I asked the editor if I could write for him, and he said yes! So I wrote an article about that night's launch party, and he wrote back to me today and said, "That was perfect. You set just the right tone. It'll be in this fall's issue." I'm going to be published in Europe!

Let me mention the Paris Air Show briefly. Yes, Sharon bought me a round-trip train ticket to Paris, a one-day pass to the Air Show, and tickets for the metro! I was there to man the "Rockford" booth. The city of Rockford, Illinois, had its own booth at the Paris Air Show to promote itself as a hub of aerospace technology and manufacturing. I also went to the booths of other aerospace companies and gave them information about "Quality Control Corporation," a precision manufacturing company from Illinois. So they definitely put me to work. But it was magical! While I was there I started talking to a gentleman from the UK. I told him that my dream was to live and work in the UK. He asked me what field I was in, and I told him that I was getting my Master's in International Media. He told me that he was a media consultant from the UK, gave me his card, and told me to email him my CV! What a day!

When I left the Paris Air Show, I only had a couple of hours before my train left back to Brussels. But I did have time to take the metro to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I walked around for about 30 minutes, and then I saw it -- the Eiffel Towel! This was my first time seeing the Eiffel Tower, in person, in my entire life! You know that scene in the second-to-last episode of "Sex and the City," when Carrie sees the Eiffel Tower out of her hotel window, and she clasps her hands and jumps up and down like a kid? Well, that was me. I was elated! I even got a stranger to take a picture of me with the Eiffel Tower in the background. It may be small, but it's there.

Words cannot express how life-changing and life-affirming my time in Brussels has been. It brought me back to life. I was dead in D.C., but Europe brought me back to life. It reminded me of my passions and purpose. It reminded me that all of my wildest dreams can come true. I don't want to go back, I'm thoroughly dreading the plane ride back (what if I turn into anxiety-depression Leila again the moment I touch down in Dulles?), but my one saving grace is that I KNOW that I am living in Europe when I graduate next year. I absolutely did what I came here to do -- I healed, and I layed the foundation for my future life and my future career in Europe. I will be back.