After what feels like a long wait, I arrived in Belgium on Saturday, enjoying time with friends, frites, beer, and Art Nouveau architecture in Ixelles. I'm also learning French on the fly, grocery stores and cafes are not a bad place to learn. Today I walked many miles through the city, picking up keys for my apartment and exploring for another five hours. The center has its charms, the morning light on the Grande Place was beautiful, but I also liked seeing the EU's government buildings, which are in the neighborhood to which I will be moving in several days, the European Commission's Berlaymont Building will greet me as I enter and leave the Schuman Metro stop on my way too and from work. A giant banner on the building welcomes Estonia into the Eurozone. Yes the timing is terrible, but as the Estonians point out, the kroon was tied to the Euro anyways with a peg from the beginning. Before I left Maryland, I searched for my Deutschmarks and Austrian schillings from a 2001 trip to Munich so as to add my 10 kroon note to the collection of historic currencies, but they appear to have escaped somewhere.
I arrive in Belgium as the current issue of The New Yorker features an article by Ian Buruma entitled "Le Divorce." A few years ago Buruma wrote an excellent and pithy book explaining the story of the Netherlands and Islam over the previous few years, starring the late Pim Fortuyn, the late Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as Geert Wilders had not yet taken the stage. (Incidentally, as I wandered into the European complex today, I noticed two offices in a parliament office building displayed posters for Wilders' party). The new article is even more pithy at five pages, and explains the background and dangers to the current state of Belgium - without a government for more than six months for the second time in four years. The impression you get is that Brussels is the last Belgian city - the rest is Flemish or Walloonian, and the capital is what is holding this relatively young (180 years) Western European country together. The condition of the country is on my mind, and I'll have more to say about this after more travel and observation.
I would link to the story, which is worth reading, except it's only accessible to New Yorker subscribers. So here are two quotes from it - an unflattering but wonderfully evocative description of one of Wallonia's largest cities, which gives a hint of why an independent Wallonia might not be such a fun place, and the conclusion of the piece:
"Charleroi is now a dilapidated, sooty town of boarded-up stores and broken glass in the streets, of strip joints, cheap Turkish kebab places, Eastern European gangsters, and middle-aged prostitutes strung out on heroin."
"... as Europe's bloody history shows, once nations, or empires, or unions fall apart, violence often follows. Bart De Wever, apparently the most benign of European nationalists, is leading his country to the brink of disintegration. A nation collapsing in the center of Europe would not bode well for the fragile state of the European Union. But then De Wever, as a historian, would be well aware of Belgium as the stage of shattered European dreams. Only ten miles from his office lies a town called Waterloo."