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A little over a week ago, 10 of the Mitchells and I boarded flights headed to Brussels.  We were going with the intent of learning more about the many, many workings of the European Union.  We were graciously hosted by the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU, the group of people representing Ireland in all parts of the European Union.

During our official tour of the EU, we got to sit in on the proceedings of the European Parliament, enjoy a lunch with the US Ambassador to the EU, learn about the many different committees and groups that make up the EU machine, and get to know some lovely Irish people in the civil service in Brussels.  The European Union gets a bit of a bad reputation for its unwieldy nature, and it’s hard to disagree with that in some ways.  The decision making process is long and complicated – but that’s part of the point.  The EU system is designed to ensure that decisions are made with a high level of buy-in from all member states.  It also tries to walk the oh-so-fine line between bringing Europe together around shared interests and becoming the United States of Europe.  It was great to learn about all of this from a closer perspective – and now I will understand so much more when reading the news about what’s happening in the EU.

After the EU portion of the trip was over, we had a couple days of free time to enjoy Belgium on our own.  A small group of us took a train to the neighboring city of Bruges, which is a huge tourist destination.  We wandered the cobblestone streets, watching boats cruise down the canals and tourists wander in and out of souvenir shops.  It was a lovely, sunny day and we celebrated that fact by eating outside and meandering in the sun; no big to-do list for us.  That night, we explored a bit more of “real” Brussels (the non-EU part), and got to see the beautiful Grand Place all lit up at night.

On Sunday, there was more wandering around – a farmers market, checking out some of the cool Art Nouveau architecture around town, eating fresh bread.

We took the tram out to see the Tervuren Africa Museum, which was a museum created by King Leopold to create interest and support for his “project” in the Congo, around the turn of the century.  Of course, King Leopold’s Congo project was essentially to force the Congolese people to work as slaves, with Leopold taking the profit from the vast amount of rubber and ivory exported out of the country.  All done without Leopold so much as stepping foot on the African continent.  (I highly recommend the book King Leopold’s Ghost for the story on the Belgian Congo.)  For this reason, the Tervuren museum is really interesting, as they have maintained the exhibits as they were originally designed.  We only had one short hour in the museum before we had to rush off to the airport – but I was really glad I got to visit.

All in all, a productive trip!  Made better with lots of Belgian chocolate, Belgian beer, frites, and the company of the Mitchell crew!

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