February 17, 2010
Author: Agnes Lima
It’s raining again this morning and the wind makes a rustling noise when it rubs against the windows. It’s the second week that I refuse to carry my umbrella with me and I seek shelter under the eaves of the buildings stretching along the way to my office that is only a minute away from Place du Luxembourg, known for being an after work party place for people working in the European Parliament and the surrounding offices. It’s been two weeks since I have my ID card with the inscription ‘stagiaire’ or intern, and I need to show it every time I walk in and out of the Parliament’s building.
A common sight every morning and after working hours are young people rushing to the subway or the near-by cafes for a beer or a cup of coffee. Dressed business casual, they hail from every corner of Europe and are replaced by another batch of young people every five months or so; the internship programmes of the European Parliament and other European institutions usually last that long. The amount of money you receive is just enough so you can share a house/flat with a couple of room-mates, take a short trip to Paris or Amsterdam, go shopping in Antwerp, or go down to the sea in Knokke. On weekends people go out for a beer or a round of partying; interns are always eager to meet new people, because everybody is new in town.
People are always on strike, you see people holding banners and fighting for their rights. Even if you are in Europe’s capital there are always people that are not happy with how things are and they express this publicly. The city is divided into municipalities; Schaerbeek, the municipality I lived in, is one of the least safe and you are advised not to walk along its dark alleys after 11 p.m. Wandering through the alleys of Schaerbeek you feel like you are in a small oriental town on the Mediterranean or the Near East; a lot of colourful shops, barbershops, tea rooms and young people wearing jerseys of their national football teams. In the shops you could find products from the Balkans that I was happy to share with my room-mates.
The public transport of Europe’s capital is bad, streetcars skip stops all the time; they are not on time and almost always will leave you halfway offering no other explanation but that they are not going further. French is the language of communication; even on the central railway station in Brussels where trains of different parts of Europe intersect, arrivals and departures are not announced in English, and if you don’t speak French you sometimes feel completely lost. But the experience you gain working in the European institutions is invaluable, and in a month or so you can at least learn how to order beer, coffee or croissant in French.
The majority of young interns come from the European countries (people from other countries are rare), seeing their internship as a matter of prestige, because it’s really hard to get there. Competition is cut-throat, and young people see their Brussels experience as an opportunity to build their CV or make contacts that they can use to secure a future job. What is really interesting is that when you come to Brussels, at least according to some of my colleagues, you are bound to stay, because very often you get a job offer at the end of your internship; some of my colleagues were offered job positions there and they decided to stay. Having recently returned to my hometown I often wonder about the decisions my friends have made, to stay there, come home or go some place else and how casually they have done this; it almost makes you think that there are no barriers, borders, obstacles. I think of their experiences and friendships and how enriched they’ve become compared to the recently graduated students from Macedonia, who have never been out of the country, have no idea what they want to do with their lives and have no prospects. Being a ‘stagiaire’ in Brussels is an opportunity to see whether you can live on your own away from home, to foster friendships with those around you and, of course, to learn to cope with the weekend solitude. The only thing I wonder about today is whether I’ll be able to get used to the wind and rain…
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