Monday, February 27, 2012

L'Auberge Espagnol

So I left you in suspense re:Carnaval. Turns out it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. It reminded me a lot of the St-Patrick's Day parade actually. To enjoy it, one must be under 5 years of age or inebriated. Unfortunately I was neither. I ditched the group I went with because we couldn't move past the small talk stage. I stationed myself front and centre at la Grande Place and read my book until the event started. I arrived early and the parade began late, so by the time I had seen my first flying orange, my feet were blocks of ice and it was going to take an impressive scene to turn my frown upside down. I was expecting an elaborate dance sequence of some sort, but all I witnessed were men and children walking by in various costumes (k those were cool) marching to the beat of drums and occasionally throwing the odd blood orange into the crowd (they weren't even soaked in alcohol as I had been told previously!) I glumly bound the train back home and took comfort upon my return in analysing the legality of Israel's military operation in Gaza in 2008 for my peace and security class.

I can also officially say that I have moved into my new place! I LOVE IT. My little room is in the basement of a 4-storey house. There are 9 rooms in all but at the moment only 7 of them are occupied. I currently have the bathroom to myself as no one is living in the room next door to mine – but that luxury surely won’t last long. I was totally wrong about the other tenants - none of them are stagiaires at the European Commission - everyone is doing their own thing. There are two Spaniards working in hotels (they had to re-train as receptionists when they could no longer find employment in their industries in Spain), one German working as a lobbyist and one whom I have yet to meet, a Latvian woman looking for a job in European affairs, and a Belgium guy working at an NGO working towards the global eradication of torture. Apparently a Franco-Italian guy is moving in this week. So far, I get along really well with everyone - we share a big kitchen and living room and often have dinner together. It's also nice to be able to retreat to my quiet room where I can study without issue. I also live next to two huge parks where I go running and a gigantic weekend market that gives out lots of free samples! I had a post-run breakfast there this AM

Me in my room:

My courses are still going fabulously - we had a judge from the International Court of Justice give a lecture last week, a judge from the International Criminal Court is stopping by tomorrow and I've already attended lots of extra conferences on a wide variety of subjects. I met the corporal who directed Belgium's participation in NATO's Libyan operation last week which was fascinating. Now I am waiting in anticipation to find out when our field trip to The Hague will be.

The library I like to study in: it's all about the view from the top floor

I mentioned that I was hoping to score a job interview at Café Belga. I did in fact get one but once the manager explained the working conditions to me, I was less enthused. 8 euros per hour and 11-hour shifts. Is that even legal? Non merci! So I posted some ads online offering to give private English or French lessons or babysit and to my utter surprise, I received a ton of offers! Last week I began teaching two individuals language lessons and best of all, I got an offer for a more regular kind of job: I'm going to help an Irish family by supervising their young teens do their homework and preparing their dinner. I spent two hours getting to know the family yesterday and they are so sweet. I was nervous to admit that I was a vegetarian and that although my cooking repertoire was vast, it was limited in domain. To my relief, the son also happens to be a vegetarian and the daughter loves salads. Phew. The father is an Irish diplomat (they live in the embassy) and the mother is a lawyer at the European Commission. Their home is a revolving door for VIPs and I'm planning on meeting some! In July, once term is over, I'm actually going to spend all day with the kids while their parents are a work, taking them on day trips, playing badminton in their giant garden and just generally making sure they’re having a good time. While this seems like a divergence from my goal of seeking an internship, I feel that this is the right move. I don't think it's realistic for me to score a stellar internship for a period just short of two-months and I do believe that everything happens for a reason. This family already seems special.

Sunny day in Brussels: a rare and lovely treat - I walk along this pond to get to school (the Canadian geese often milling about warm my little heart)

Also, I had a very profitable meeting with the Senior Policy Advisor at International Crisis Group this week and he assured me that I'm doing all the right things in setting myself up to take on the world. He advised me to get my Masters degree sooner rather than later, to always to wear a helmet while biking in Brussels and that everything would fall into place once I had my qualifications out of the way. So now I'm focusing on getting into the program I've had my eye on for years: the Masters in International Law at l'Institut des Hautes Études de Genève. The course choices look fabulous and the program is bilingual. It's a two-year ordeal though, so that means I have 4 more years of schooling ahead of me! At least we live a long time these days so I'm in no rush. I've asked one of my professors at l'ULB about getting involved in the Center for international law at school and I'm hoping to get started on that in the coming weeks.

In other news, my social life is picking up nicely (It makes quite a change from when the highlight of my first few weekends was Skyping with my parents). This weekend I went for Thai with some friends from school, attended a vegan potluck dinner organized by a Couch surfer and went for a Moroccan lunch with my Sunday supper club crew. Busy times ahead - only 3 more weeks of class until I get two weeks off for Easter. Now that I have some income on the way I'm contemplating taking a little trip : )

Thai dinner with my Swiss friend, Claudia:

Moroccan lunch at Café Kif Kif:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Settling in

First of all - turns out I'm getting a ton of practice writing in French (I've already submitted two assignments!) so I'll spare all of us much pain and agony and stick to my mother tongue.

Well, I must have settled in because I hosted my first dinner party last night. It was a wine and cheese at Robert's pad for his friends who welcomed me to their place a couple of weeks ago. On my first visit to the market I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the amount of cheeses I wanted to sample - how would I ever get through them all? That's when I thought of a solution: why not have a party and get everyone to bring a different cheese and wine to sample? Robert provided the venue and I the accoutrements. I also made a decadent dessert - a double chocolate mousse cake with raspberry coulis.

The guests - (Robert is on the far left)

Le gateau

Me, enjoying my third portion :)

My classes are going brilliantly. Everyday I'm reminded of why I chose to come to ULB - there are opportunities here that I simply would not have had back home. In one of my classes a judge from the International Court of Justice is coming to speak to us and in another, we're making a field trip to the Hague to observe an international trial first-hand. I'm finally that irritating student who passionately completes class readings way ahead of time and has to hold back from over-participating in class. One particularity that took some getting used to, was that not every class is taught every week of the term. My WTO law class, for example, is being taught by two different professors - one was visiting from Columbia University so he taught his half over two very intensely long (but interesting) days. We haven't heard yet when the other half will take place - I guess the admin wants to keep us in suspense!

@ school

I have almost locked down a place to live. The search has been quite a struggle. I despaired so much at one point I actually had to play a string of Bob Marley songs in attempt to convince myself that "every little thing" was actually going to be all right. I found a room through a friend of Robert's that is located in a house shared with 7 other people. I went to see it and it looks great! Most of the other tenants are stagiaires at the European Commission so I think it will make for a very dynamic living environment. I'm only able move in March 1st but Robert has very generously offered to let me squat until then.

Now that my lodging has almost been sorted, I've started to hunt for a part-time job. I hope it won't be too difficult to find something suitable. I've applied mostly to cafés and restaurants so far. I would love to work at this hip joint called Café Belga - I fell in love with the place my first weekend here. It was where I consumed the fresh mint tea I spoke of last time. They have live Jazz on Sunday evenings and generally, it just exudes a very cool vibe.

I have yet to figure out what I'll be doing for exercice. I'm not sure whether I want attend the exercice classes at school, join a gym nearer where I live, hunt down a squash club or just go for runs. Even though exercice is an integral part of my life, for some reason it took all the will power within me to force myself on a run last week. My only goal was to break a sweat (not so easy when it's only 3 degrees out!). My efforts were rewarded by the discovery of a random patch of forest - it has a lake and chalet in the middle of all the winding paths and reminds me so much of Mount Royal in Montreal.

Tomorrow school is cancelled due to Mardi Gras. Apparently the thing to do is to trek to the town of Binche to witness the Carnaval celebrations. I'm not sure what it entails exactly - I've only heard it involves dancing, mask-wearing people who throw alcohol-infused oranges at the crowd - sounds like a good time to me! I'm heading there by train with a group of friends from school.

So Bon Carnaval!

Monday, February 6, 2012


Back by popular demand, I have accepted to blog about my experiences in Brussels. My objective is to write a least once per month and, to put a spin on things, include the occasional post in French (believe it or not, I need practice!).

My immediate arrival was fairly smooth - I have the fortune of staying at some luxurious digs while I hunt around for a more permanent abode. Robert, (occupant of luxurious digs), was away for the first 5 days so I had his whole place to myself! I fell quickly into a new routine of going for 2-hour exploration walks, organizing my life (opening bank accounts, acquiring a telephone, etc.) and searching for a place to live. Ideally, I am looking for a roommate situation in a nice apartment, situated in the quaint neighbourhood of Ixelles which is within a 20-minute walk from school. That being said, I'm getting closer to the point where I'll accept anything! Robert is being most kind, but I can't stay here forever (unfortunately).

School starts today - I'm excited and nervous. Due to the way l'Université de Montréal evaluates European credits, I have to take 6 classes here even though I would only be taking 4 were I at home. The reason I came to l'Université libre de Bruxelles was to take advantage of the specialized courses they offer in international public law. They're all at the Masters level so I hope I can keep up. I went to try and register this week but to my surprise that's not how they do things over here - everyone just shops around in the first few weeks for the courses they deem of interest, and they only officially register once exam period comes around. In theory, I'll be taking international criminal law, economics and the law of the WTO, international immigration and refugee law, current affairs in international law, international peace and security and international responsibility. Ask me again next week however, and my timetable might have changed!

I'm also looking for an internship with a major international organization. I've had my eye on International Crisis Group for a while and as luck would have it, their offices are only 5 minutes away from where I'm currently residing. Through a contact back home, I've set up a meeting with the Senior Policy Adviser there this Friday. He said that unfortunately Louise Arbour (the President and also a Montrealer) is away but that I'd meet her another time for sure. I'm determined to!

Brusselian eccentricities I've noticed so far:

- all the doors to enter a building PUSH to open. It's crazy how one becomes so accustomed to pulling open doors - I must have looked like a crazy person trying to get into the bank the other day
- instead of calling the number 90 "quatre-vingt dix", they say "nonente". When I was looking for a certain shop, I was instructed to go to numero "nonente". I thought that was its name or something. When I searched in vain for what seemed like an eternity, I momentarily suppressed my ego, and asked someone to literally tell me what number "nonente" was. Ohhhhhhhhhh. Shop found.
- they give one or three kisses on the cheek, not two.
- they don't wear hats even though it's cold! (even for this Canadian)

I promise to post a pic of me la prochaine fois, but for now, here is the fresh mint tea I sipped on yesterday while people-watching at my neighbourhood café. (The level of croissant consumption was out of control)