Archived entries for Europe

Knight of the Order of the Thistle

I’ve been thinking about establishment. Partly it’s because, in my new job as a journalist on EU affairs, I’ve been in contact with several MEPs and commissioners and this morning I was taking pictures of the president of the European parliament for a feature on, yep, you’ve guessed it, electric bikes.

What also prompted these thoughts is the fact that the “in-house” style at the magazine follows the same style as the Guardian newspaper, i.e. to use lowercase words wherever possible. Writing in this way got me thinking about titles and honours and the establishment in general.

It’ll be interesting to see how my opinions change as I come into more frequent contact with politicans and heads of different organisations. At the moment, I still read a title like “Professor Sir Gilbert Knockbottle OBE PhD FRS LLM FRCP KCB PRA MSTA” with a certain amount of awe, even though I know that for a lot of these titles, it’s a case of approaching the right people with the right words and the right wine.

The other day I was trying to get in touch with somebody who is a professor and a knight, and again as I was dialling the numbers I thought about what I was going to say to somebody who was considered of great importance both in society and also in academic circles, i.e. on paper, both brilliant and charming. I’m not a particularly tied to social convention as such – I’ve worked for Greenpeace, for example – but there’s something about knowing that this person was an established authority that makes me want to make a good impression.

My guess is that the more time you are able to spend on the “inside” – in government departments, royal colleges, academic circles, international institutions and so on – the more you become aware of the tricks used to build up a favourable reputation. Perhaps I’ll come across these tricks the more contact I have with EU officials. Of course, there are exceptions where genuine hard work merits proper recognition. However, I have my suspicions that most post-nominal letters might turn out to be less about long-term committment and more about long-life Chateau Latour.

In This House…

It’s a time for change once again. Last week I was informed that I had successfully obtained a position as a journalist with The Parliament magazine, which was fantastic news for me because it’s a continuation of similar sort of work to that which I’d been enjoying for the last 5 months at the European Parliament in Brussels. So now that I’ll be getting an income, I was finally able to move flats and have ended up in a place that is very near to where I used to live but is a single appartment rather than a shared house.  Which will be a new experience, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’m imagining myself, three months down the line, with all these little routines that will establish themselves, unhindered by the need to accommodate other people. I might end up, for example, doing the ironing at exactly 6pm in the evening, then when people ring up and ask me out for a quiet Sunday drink it’ll be: “Hate to disappoint you but I’m afraid it’s Ironing Hour.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a fridge stocked in alphabetical order and when asked about the large plant that’s in my room, reply with: “Oh, that’s Horace. He’s quite moody so don’t get him talking about politics.”

Also I have been given about one hundred rules from the landlady. Not just the usual regulations you would expect, for example about keeping the front door locked. No, these are, it seems, rules which are so obscure that it is almost as if they were specifically put in place to be forgotten, and consequently broken. Rules about windowsills, carpets, when to open the curtains. The flat is above a doctor’s practice, and I hope the landlady never finds out that one particular memory that stands out from my previous work in hospitals is the occasion when I set the bank alarm off. For the second time. I just hope that here I don’t unwittingly lock the patients in the waiting room or mistakenly direct an ill person to the downstairs toilet instead of the doctor’s surgery.

Right now I’m being extra careful, making sure that, yes, the windows are shut when I leave and that this time I didn’t wrench the door of the wardrobe off its hinges within my first half-hour; at least with housemates I have the chance to explain that, no, I don’t know how on earth I managed to do it either but would they please just hold this while I look for the missing wall bracket/fuse box/fire extinguisher. This time, I will be shouting at Horace the Plant in exasperated tones, urging him to not just stand there but help me to try and put this back in one piece again….

Speakers

bruges.jpg 

 Lovely day out to Bruges on the weekend. The pictures, as usual, can be seen here.

I’m helping to cover this month’s plenary session in Strasbourg, and it’s got me thinking about speakers, speeches and the incredible range of ability when it comes to speaking to a group. I was at a meeting last week and listened to a fantastic talk for journalists by Michael Shackleton on the complicated process that is the co-decision procedure. By leaving out much of the jargon, and by keeping up a really enthusiastic attitude throughout, Mr Shackleton was able to get across just why the procedure was so important for the division of power here amongst the European institutions. 

On the other hand, I remember being in another meeting about three weeks ago, and listening in astonishment to someone who managed to speak for about 10 minutes and at the same time managed to say absolutely nothing. I was supposed to be taking notes, and I kept asking myself, after every few sentences, “What has he actually said?”

Sometimes it reminds me of this “management-speak” that you get on a lot of recruitment posters for big companies. You know the sort of thing I mean:

“Kick-start YOUR career by helping us to find strategic solutions tailored towards a client-orientated global financial leader.” 

“This (grinning idiot, pictured jumping in a field, in his suit, with his work mates) could be you. You too can a key player in developing an innovative, people-centric management system for today’s commitment-driven, asset-focused businesses. Reach further, faster.”

The only thing I’ll be reaching for is the dictionary.

Young and, er, wild…

A quick trip to Cardiff for an interview for a place on the postgraduate diploma course in journalism – and, in response to the forthcoming question, I think it went OK and I’ll probably find out next week – and, at the Youth Hostel, I got my suit out of the suit bag…only to find it had crumpled inside. I had got up especially early that day in order to first wash then iron a shirt for this interview, so I was pissed off. “What’s the point of you being a suit bag” I fumed (at the suit bag) “if all you’re going to do is abandon your duties?! Well? No, don’t just shrug your shoulders like that. That’s not going to get the creases out of my shirt now, is it?”
I’m glad no-one entered the dormitory right then and caught me arguing with my suit bag.

So I had the interview in a shirt that had more creases than Keith Richards, but I hope they were paying more attention to articles rather than attire. I had a really nice evening following the interview, actually. At the YH when I got back there were a load of teenagers and my first thought was “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? A tiring and testing day and now a noisy rabble to contend with. Fantastic.”

Actually, though, they were all surprisingly well behaved, and as I was cooking my dinner and hadn’t yet been stabbed by one of the sharp meat knives, I struck up a conversation with a few of them and it turns out they were all Danish, on a school trip to find out about the UK. We ended up chatting for a good while, me telling them about my work in the Parliament and about the great times you have at university, and they told me all about Denmark and their school. It was a fascinating couple of hours. Eventually their teacher came in and reminded them that they were supposed to be in bed 15 minutes ago. They all lept to their feet, apologised to him profusely and scattered upstairs. It could have been such a different set of circumstances, with them coming back at 3 in the morning having been out all night finding out whether beer or wine bottles have the best impact when thrown against a shop window. They had, in fact, been sitting around a table, politely making conversation, and had forgot about the time. I was impressed.

Today I have been mostly…learning about the co-decision procedure and sampling Greek food and wine at a reception.

Taking risks…

With Marta at the Commission press area

 

Security seems to be this week’s theme. I wrote an article about security at football matches for the briefing before the plenary session in Brussels, and in the report the committee called for the establishment of national football information centres, which would exchange personal information with the police about high-risk supporters, in accordance with domestic and international rules governing the exchange of information.

I also forgot my identity pass twice this week, the second time much to the amusement of the man on the security desk:
“Do you mean, you’ve lost your ID badge? So you need to get a new one?” asked the security guard, wearily.
“No, sorry…I’ve just forgotten it, that’s all.”
“Wait a minute…didn’t you forget it yesterday as well?” he inquired, a slight grin forming at the corners of his mouth as he savoured the moment.
“Yes” I replied, sheepishly.
“Hang on, so you’ve not lost it” he continued, “Just forgotten it again. Yesterday…and now today.”
“That’s right, yep. Sorry…” I said. “If you think about it, though, forgetting things makes life a bit more exciting, in a way…”
(Rule 1: Don’t try and be funny in another language.)
“What? I don’t understand. Forgetting things is exciting?” he asked, bewildered.
“No, what I meant was, if you got everything right all the time, wouldn’t life be so boring?”
(I should have just shut up.)
“Do you like getting things wrong? I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t like getting things wrong, exactly, but solving problems like forgetting stuff…makes life a bit richer.”
“Problems make life richer? Are you crazy?”
“Probably, yes. Could I have a Visitor’s Pass now, please?”

It reminded me of my first day at the Parliament when I managed to get into the main building without first registering for my ID card. As I was walking away from the first introductory meeting, the lady who was showing us around asked me where my ID card was. I told her I hadn’t got it yet, and after a short, puzzled pause she asked me how I had managed to enter the building without an ID card. Was I escorted by another member of staff?
“Not exactly”, I replied. “I just walked in.”
Maybe this answer would have carried less of an impact had I been clean-shaven, and without my a large rucksack covered in environmental campaign badges…
(The football security article – I wrote the second half- can be read here.)

New horizons

The gang from 46 Ave Albert Jonnart

It’s been a busy few days since the weekend, beginning with a wonderful day out with my housmates to Ostende, a chance to get out of the city and also to spend a bit more time getting to know the people with whom I’ll be sharing a house for the next 5 months. For me it was a strange resort because right next to the beach, there is a very built up area consisting of tower blocks of hotels and appartments. Even when you look along the coast, further along through the haze you can make out the tall buildings rising up from the sea and sand nearby. A visit to a new place with new friends, I stuck to the theme of novelty and tried some new food. The “Warme Wullocks” (sea snails), which Marta had bought, were very hot and very chewy, but didn’t really taste of anything. It was quite satisfying in a sort of “Yeah, I’ve had snails” way, but also disappointing in that I had sort of perversely hoped I might faint with disgust.

This week the Parliament has a Plenary Session in Strasbourg, a monthly meeting in which MEPs give speeches, debate issues, vote on resolutions and adopt reports. I’ve been following the proceedings closely, with a little help from Felix, a stagiaire with the French press service, who has been very patient and explained how a lot of things work.
This morning I followed a very important debate on the Berlin Declaration, which is to be signed to mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and which will set out a rough agenda for the future of the EU. It was an interesting debate in which many colourful views were expressed, and I helped produce our subsequent press release which can be viewed here:


MEPs expect a Berlin Declaration worthy of today’s EU

It’s been more relaxed on the cooking front so far, because often when I come home Anglela and Marta will already be making something and will just ask me if I’d like some. Fear not, though, because I have agreed to cook for a certain girl I’ve got to know – somehow my intial offer of a restaurant didn’t register – so we’ll see how that goes. I shall place my trust in Delia once again and hopefully can look forward to a kitchen that features many flavours rather than many firemen…

From Sitting in Seminars to Sipping Champagne

European Parliament

 

Quite a busy first few days of properly getting stuck into my traineeship! The general atmosphere at the moment is hectic, with a police presence everywhere because it is the first meeting this year of the European Council (the Heads of State/Government of the Member States) on the 8th-9th March.

 

I drafted, as my first task, an article from a 27-page report on corporate social responsibility, and I’ve also produced my first genuine piece of work, a summary about the (slightly lighter, 17-page) report about the role of local authorities in the development process. I’ve been to a couple of introductory meetings, and also to an equal opportunities award ceremony, then on Wednesday afternoon I went to a three-hour seminar for journalists on Women Politicians and the Media. Wednesday evening, there was a nice social gathering for all the new stagiaires (work experience people) at a bar near the Parliament, and it was a great to chat with people of the same age, from all over Europe (I was only there for a couple of hours but had a good talk – sometimes in French, sometime in English – with a couple of Italians, a German, a Spaniard and a man from Finland).

The multilingualism is something which is particularly noticeable in the canteen at lunchtime. If you stop for a while, and just listen to the general buzz of conversation going on around the room, it’s almost impossible to make out what any individual is saying; anyone who might want to try and get a snatch of Parliament gossip would have a pretty tough job.

Today was International Women’s Day, so after registering at the Parliament’s library this morning I joined a small gathering in our building, where we had champagne and bread with olives and tomatoes as our own little celebration of the event. My champagne glass kept getting re-filled as I was talking to people, so in the end I’d had about three or four glasses of champagne and was feeling much more light-headed than when I entered the room!

My supervisor clearly has my best interests at heart, and, perhaps having anticipated my eager acceptance of champagne before midday, had already thought of a cunning plan to bring me back down to earth.

“If you could proof-read this before this afternoon” he said, handing me the Briefing document for next week’s Plenary Session. It was 40 pages long.

 

(By the way….you can find my article here.)

Plat du Jour

As the first weekend of my time here in Brussels draws to a close, through the white noise of change and constant novelty, normality is slowly approaching. I am on the platform of adventure, awaiting the steam train of stability. (Yep, three glasses of wine so far..)

I’ve moved in to my house, and my house-mates are all fine. Two girls, Angela from Blackpool and Martha from Warsaw, and an Austrian lad, Gernot, from Vienna. We all get on really well. There are plans to cook together at least on the weekend, which will be fun – and hopefully I’ll learn something in the process!

Cooking is one of those things which brings that level of normality to my experience here. You might, I don’t know, be one of those people who takes a certain delight in all the forward planning, time management and generally practical and hands-on nature of cooking. I normally take a rather more defeatist attitude, I’m afraid. I’ll look at a recipe and spot the one obscure-sounding ingredient (Like Oregano…to me that sounds like a Spanish resort, viz: “EasyJet Spring Breaks – Liverpool to Oregano only £29.99 one-way!”). Then I join the “Don’t Have It, Can’t Make It” school of straight-jacket thought and reach for the frozen pizzas.

Tonight, howver, I surprised myself with my boldness in the kitchen. I’d bought some chicken, and I was going to do the usual thing, where I just fry the chicken and throw in a load of curry sauce (“They don’t do curry sauce. It’s a no-go on the curry sauce…”) to have with it. I think it’s probably my general feeling of carpe diem that I’ve had since I arrived that made me venture out and try something new. So I opened Delia (so to speak) and had a go at a recipe called something like Poulet Basque. So there’s me, in our tiny kitchen, chopped veg and knives and pans everywhere. Gernot, meanwhile, is standing in the doorway offering words of encouragement, as I’m stirring a colourful frying pan that’s in serious danger of overflowing. Snatches of conversation echo from the kitchen amid the hiss of steam, the “thlunk” of chopping knife on breadboard and the occasional swear word (“Pardon my French”, doesn’t really work when you’re swearing in French), as my cauldron spits hot oil onto my hands, like an angry cat.

In the event, despite my being slightly too generous with the pepper, my meal was a success. Gernot tried some, and said it was very good, and Angela (who has said she’ll teach me cooking) tried some, and said it was a nice surprise from “someone who claims they can’t cook”.

It’s all about seizing the opportunities and going out of the comfort zone; something which I think I’ll be getting increasingly used to as time goes on…

Familiarity

I’ve started my adventure in Brussels and today’s post, ladies and gents, is on the topic of familiarity. I’ve just spent a really good weekend in London meeting some old friends, some I’ve known for less than a year and others who I’ve known for at least the last ten years. I met some of their friends, all of whom were instantly welcoming, and it was interesting to meet some of the people I’d heard about in the stories told by my friends from home, during university holidays.

I’d been to Brighton the night before, a place I’m beginning to get to know better, and even though London is quite intimidating it’s still obviously British in character.

Arriving in Brussels on the Eurostar, was a bit of a shock, for suddenly I knew nobody and nothing was familiar. I was relieved at how quickly things started to become familiar, however. I started speaking French with the taxi driver, which was a source of comfort as I’ve been brought up going to France on family holidays, and spent last summer living and working in Bordeaux.

I checked into the Youth Hostel, and then took a taxi to drop off my heavy luggage at the house where I’ll be living for the next five months. I told the driver where I wanted to go and tried to show him the address on a printed email, but after about twenty minutes of driving he asked me to give him the address again, and then realised he’d be heading for a similar-sounding street in the wrong direction. It was alright, though, because he reset the taxi meter and then started talking in a lively manner about how he absolutely had to be finished by 6pm or else his wife would be angry. I was trying my best to understand and respond to the French, but secretly I was just willing him to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.

That evening I went to a St David’s Day reception hosted by the Welsh Assembly, although I arrived only in time for the after-speech food and drinks. In the crowd there was a surprising absence of Welsh, and of familiar accents. Obviously I wasn’t expecting the unmistakeable sound of Maesgeirchen to come drifting (or rather, charging) across the floor, but the sounds of somewhere in Gwynedd would’ve been nice. I didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up randomly introducing myself to a few people who looked about my age. I met a political researcher and a couple of interns who were really friendly; they gave me their contact details and invited me out for drinks once I’d got settled in Brussels.

Yesterday I thought I’d better try and explore a bit of the city, so I wandered around the centre, with its shops, and unwittingly tried out the metro during the rush hour, which was heaving (“I am not a wall, Monsieur”). I had a new room-mate in the YH, Nicolas from Paris, so we went for a drink last night. He told me that if I want to sound more French I need to speak in a more monotone accent (“Ton accent, c’est trop vivant”), and I told him that yes, it’s true, there are people in Britain who really do enjoy Marmite.

 

 

 

 



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