Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Western European Trip

This entry could easily be a novel length, but I will do my best to not allow that to happen.

From February 23 to March 1, I went on my program's Western European field study trip. This trip basically included a whole bunch of meetings in Brussels at all of the important EU and NATO institutions, and then a couple meetings in Paris, notably the French Foreign Ministry, and Luxembourg, with the European Court of Justice. The majority of our "productive" time was in Brussels, which thankfully gave me time to roam Paris.

On the way to Luxembourg, our first stop, we took a detour to visit St. Avold (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorraine_American_Cemetery_and_Memorial). St. Avold is home to the largest US military cemetery in Europe. It was a very impressive memorial, and it is interesting to see the amount of American patriotism that can be safely expressed in a situation like this, even in France - a country normally considered to be anti-American.

After St. Avold, we arrived in Luxembourg City (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxembourg_City), which is easily the most pro-EU city I've ever seen. Luxembourg City gains all its international power from the presence of EU institutions, so interestingly, by promoting the EU it is actually acting in an exceptionally nationalist fashion. European political juxtapositions are always fun.

The city of Luxembourg is rather picturesque, and the town is built on a series of hills and valleys. In the middle of the valleys, one can still see all of the old fortifications that had been built up to protect the city, many as recently as World War I. The other interesting thing I found about Luxembourg was how open everything seemed. The Grand Duke's palace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Ducal_Palace,_Luxembourg) was squarely in the center of town. One could simply walk up to the doors of government ministries. It's a very strange notion in the modern political world, such physical representations of government transparency.

Following Luxembourg, we had several days in Brussels. I will spare you the details of our meetings, but we met with (lower level people) at almost every institution that the EU could throw at us. We also made a trip to SHAPE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SHAPE), NATO's military headquarters in Europe. The European Union institutions love to play the blame game with one another, which always provides comedy.

The city of Brussels was not my favorite of all of those we visited so far. Restaurants have wranglers standing outside their doors to harass passersby into dining there, which is a very disconcerting experience. Much of the city is not terribly aesthetically pleasing, either. It also ended up being the least safe of any cities that we have been to, as several students were followed extensively and some were even subject to attempted muggings. The picture above, however, is over one area that is incredibly beautiful, the Grand Place (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Place). The picture itself is of the town hall of Brussels.

After Brussels, we arrived in Paris for a few days. I have no complaints whatsoever about Paris. It is completely amazing - like no other city I've been to in the sheer volume of things to see. In Berlin (and New York, for that matter), there are tons of things to do, but there are still large areas of the city that simply aren't worth seeing. In Paris, such a place doesn't seem to exist in the city limits. In the Banlieue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banlieue), sure, but not in Paris itself.

Also, in a rampant attempt to defy stereotypes, I found the people to be incredibly gracious. It surely didn't hurt that I at least spoke some French with them, but no one had any problem reverting to English when it was necessary for me, and never once was I subject to any anti-American statements from anyone out in the city. Our hotel concierge was interesting, but that wasn't so much out of anti-Americanism as a need for attention and a desire to goad us into talking with him extensively so he could practice English.

As I was only really in Paris for two and a half days, I only had time to see the most basic of sites, so most of my comments really need no introduction. That said, I did make the effort to go to one area of the city that often is ignored by visitors: La Défense (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Defense).

La Défense is the modern downtown of Paris, on the very edge of the city. Being in it is a surreal experience. There is no connection to Paris at all, except that one can very faintly see the Arc de Triomphe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arc_de_Triomphe) down the main boulevard. Otherwise, you are in this district, feeling like you are surrounded by the future. The majority of the skyscrapers are all done in exceptionally modernist style, and the entire area is centerpieced by the Grande Arche (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grande_Arche), a modern representation of the Arc de Triomphe across the city.

Immediately outside the Arc de Triomphe, one enters one of the Banlieue, which is another complete culture shock. I explored for a while and stumbled across an impresive older cemetery, as is obvious from the picture. There was an obvious shift in the methods of construction - rather than beautiful old buildings or striking modern skyscrapers, one hit buildings that were obviously dated from the 1970s and 1980s, but still attempted to maintain some style. Several looked like they were inspired by Miami. Others were painted in camo. It was a thoroughly interesting experience to see the sides of Paris that many don't bother to see.

Beyond that, I did see all of the things that people decide to see. And they are entirely worth seeing. So I'll leave you with a couple quick pictures of Notre Dame (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre_Dame_de_Paris), the Louvre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louvre), and the Eiffel Tower (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eiffel_Tower).

No comments:

Post a Comment