Travel Log #5: “Conversations” By Madeleine Harder. Brussels, BE

Studying abroad provides a tremendous opportunity for growth: whether that be personal or professional. For me, the theme of my residence in Belgium has been professional growth. I want to take this opportunity to learn about European Union politics while in the capitol of Europe and I want to work alongside veterans of the political communications industry. That being said for this assignment I chose to interview my boss, Gareth Harding. In true Brussels fashion, Gareth (or your lordship, as I’ve been instructed to call him occasionally) is not originally from Belgium. He hails from London and holds degrees from the London School of Economics and most recently (completed as of a week ago) earned a masters degree from the Vrije Universiteit Brussels.

It was interesting talking to Gareth about the Brussels culture, or lack thereof in his terms. The three topics from the Studying and Learning Abroad guide that provided the most discussion were independence versus dependence, materialism versus spirituality, and informality versus formality.

Right off the bat Gareth reminded me that Belgium is a special exception within Europe because while most of the countries are homogenous and have the same type of people, many groups have been brought to Brussels to be involved in government. This included politicians and their families, which I personally have found true, as many of the full time students at the college where I study are children of diplomats. There are also lobbyists and employees of non-governmental organizations. These groups of people have families and sometimes their children reside in Brussels permanently, making this hodgepodge of a city. There are also many residents of the city who do not speak any of the Belgian official languages. I found this fact incredibly interesting because I am at least trying to speak French.

I live with a host family and the word “family” in their context is confusing and nontraditional. There is my host-mother Fabienne and her 30 something year old son and his wife, and then there is an elderly lady who lives on the bottom floor known as “Granny.” However, Granny is not related to Fabienne or her son or his wife at all. I found it strange that the son still lives with his mother even though he is married and has a job (I think he is in some sort of special service). I asked Gareth if this was normal and he assured me that it was not and had a similar reaction to mine in thinking that that was strange. It seemed to me that the son still depends on his family for housing and leftover food. Gareth told me that he in no way plans on supporting his two daughters for 30+ years. He told me that generally when children pass their exams and accept admission to university they move out, get a job, and start their own life. I was reminded of the local friends that I made while in Germany and this was the path that they took. Though my host family is in a sense dependent on each other I got the general feeling that past 20 years of age a person was considered independent. This discussion also led us into the differences of educational systems but I left that part out and just gave the highlights on this topic.

The next thing we talked about was materialism versus spirituality. There is this stigma surrounding Americans as materialistic but Gareth was telling me that many Brussels natives are also materialistic, as can be seen by the massive shopping avenue two blocks away from our office. Gareth runs the Missouri School of Journalism’s Brussels exchange program and said he found that students coming through this program were not as materialistic as he expected. Brussels is a political city and success is measured in appearance up to a certain point. The politicians are expected to maintain their image and this is one way that materialism has become the norm and risen in Brussels over the past decade. Though we had a relatively short chat about this point I found it particularly interesting because the government was influencing culture even though there was no written policy to change anything.

Lastly, we commented on the emphasis of formality in Brussels and again attributed it to the presence of government in the city. On the days that I go into my internship I do have to dress up because some of our clientele are involved in these activities. But more than that people dress up here everyday for work and view it as a sign of respect. Both of my parents work for the federal government in the United States and by no means do they dress casually for work, but many Belgians were full suits to work everyday. Gareth remarked that in the US he never saw so many nicely dressed people taking the bus. In the United States there is an emphasis on comfort in clothing choice but here there is not. Women wear heels every day and importance is placed on physical appearance.

I really enjoyed talking with Gareth because it allowed us to understand each others backgrounds more thoroughly. It was also interesting because we both had experience with the others culture; Gareth spends time in Missouri teaching journalism and I spent time in Germany learning about politics. This familiarity enhanced our conversation and allowed both of us to draw counter examples at times. Most of the things he talked about I had noticed but wouldn’t have attributed it to the things that he did. All together I am incredibly glad I interviewed my boss and I will now look for things that are different than what I am used to.

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At Quinnipiac I am not great at getting involved in clubs. I tried my freshman year but found that the ones I joined weren’t right for me. This led me to sort of give up on that aspect of campus life. Many students join clubs to make new friends but I am perfectly happy with my network of friends. It’s also been a challenge because both last year and this year I was only on campus for one semester. I am all for stretching my comfort zone and trying again next year but I don’t think a one on one interview with a club head would help me. It’s one thing to be involved in a club for the cause but the social environment is also very important and was a key reason I stopped going to club meetings in the first place. When I return to campus in the fall I will begin to wrap up my undergraduate career and the next priority will be on applying for jobs and graduate school. My friend told me when she was younger that her parents had a “no thank you bite.” This meant as long as you tried everything once, it was ok. I take the same philosophy with student clubs, I tried and I can live with that. I think if everyone made an effort to do something that they were uncomfortable with the University would be better off because a group of those people would find a new interest. This would promote well-roundedness in the community and ultimately serve an individual well also.

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