My arrival in Brussels was not a smooth one. I took the bus Monday morning from London which generally takes about 6 hours. However, I encountered this just before the Chunnel:
I arrived in Brussels 3.5 hours later than expected. I spent the next four days trotting from one big European Union (E.U.) building to the next with fourteen Germans, two Hungarians and one Swiss guy for, “The European Dimensions of Health Promotion Policy”. The course was meant to give us a sense of how public health policy is made at the E.U. level. In reality, it was more like how public health policy is influenced by Germany, in particular this one region (Saxony-Anhalt) where the professor organizing the trip is located and where most of the students were from. Perhaps even more disappointingly, it’s not. The discussions on public health generally were limited to organ donation, which isn’t really public health at all, while discussions on health promotion were non-existent. Like their governmental and bureaucratic colleagues in Canada, they don’t have a clue. This is both interesting and salient as the European demographic change marches on and healthcare budgets balloon globally. It seems obvious that issues like chronic disease prevention and more accessible medical services are not simply the “right” thing to do but also the most practical. Start now. But prevention and accessibility don’t necessarily show results in policy cycles so politicians tend to say, “Why bother?”
The truth is I have a strong (negative) visceral reaction to those glass monsters that house the obfuscated processes of the E.U. In each new building we crossed security checks just to wait for the Very Important People who are gracing us with their time but say so little of substance and nothing about public health even if it’s in their file. For this reason the highlights of the excursion for me was the trip to Amnesty International and the European Public Health Association. At the end of the day I always ask the same question, “How do you change policy?” Even with limited power and influence I find the strategies and campaigns by lobby/advocacy groups the most interesting.
Outside of the policy course I had some time to explore the heart of Brussels, beyond the European quarter. Central Brussels is enclosed within a pentagon of boulevards – the petit ring – which approximates the winding course of the medieval city walls. Historically, the centre is further divided into the Ville Haute and the Ville Basse. The Ville Haute was the traditional home of the city’s upper classes who lived more luxurious existences while also being conveniently situated to peer down at the workers below. And this is what they saw:
The Grande-Place. It really is kind of breathtaking to be walking down a tiny winding street just to find yourself spat out into this enormous square, flanked by huge ornate guildhouses and throngs of people:
This square was the commercial hub of the city since the Middle Ages and it is the spired tower of Hotel de Ville that is the most imposing and picturesque.
Apparently Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto gazing onto this square while I enjoyed over-the-top Belgian waffles, including a heap of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, just beside it.
My friend from school, S., also thought we should visit Manneken Pis. This is a diminutive statue of a little boy pissing that attracts an absurd amount of tourists (ourselves included). Apparently it is supposed to embody the city’s irreverent spirit or as the guide book says, “the ideal national symbol for a country that is also small and absurd”:
We had to elbow our way through the crowds to the front to take this picture which is pretty insane if you think about how it was a rainy day in the middle of the week in May. I don’t get it but Brussels has really cashed in. Everywhere you turn there are postcards, posters, key chains, etc. of this little man. I even saw a chocolate version of Manneken Pis, over twice the size of the original one. Can you imagine an equivalent in Toronto? North American (re: prudish) sensibilities would be so offended!
On my last full day in Brussels I trekked out north with my classmates to see the Atomium or "Brussel's Eiffel Tower" (That's what they say, I swear). Built for the World Exhibition of 1958 the nine balls represent an iron crystal that has been magnified 165 billion times. Apparently this was a time when people still believed the future was bright and atomic energy would save the world.
Luckily S. also enjoyed walking so we criss-crossed the city several times, trying to capture more of the true Brussels than illustrated by this tourist triad I've provided you. We walked through the art nouveau section, cinquantenaire park, the west end, etc. What can I say? Brussels was okay. Basically it is decent sized European city that hosts a hodge-podge of languages and people. There is an abundance of large urban parks, interesting architecture, and diverse neighbourhoods. But all that time in her streets, I still just couldn’t connect.
I left for Ghent on Friday to visit my good friend A. and explore the Flemish side of Belgium.