Sunday, September 19, 2021

9/17/21: Brussels' EU & Parliamentarium

If it hadn't been for the telltale European Union symbol, I joked with Steven that we might have thought we were in London with the English messages on the windows and not in Brussels, the capital of Belgium!

Brussels is definitely the unofficial 'capital of Europe' as it's the headquarters of the three-member Benelux countries, NATO, and became the seat of the EU in 1992 when 12 countries signed the Treaty of Maastricht establishing the EU. 

Steven and I had thought we'd only be able to visit the exterior of the EU complex as it was supposed to be closed after 11 on Fridays but we lucked out totally when we discovered on our arrival it would be open for an audioguide tour for just another 45 minutes. Though Brussels is the capital city for the EU, there were also much smaller branches in Strasbourg, France, and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg.

When we entered security, staff insisted that we remove our masks and wear new carbon masks provided for us. That was the first time since Covid-19 began 18 months ago that wearing not just any mask was insufficient.

The buildings that comprised the EU in Brussels were named after visionary Europeans. The EU Parliament was named in honor of Paul-Henri Spaak, one of the founders of the EU. 

The flags represented the 28 member nations after the EU began in the early 50s with just six countries. The EU changed from a consultative body initially to a law-passing body for 500 million citizens throughout much of the continent.

This was just one of the 600 sculptures and artworks from artists from all over the Union that were located throughout the complex. The audioguide indicated the art reflected the diversity of its member states. This piece with moving wire pieces, Confluence, symbolized the people of Europe united by one common purpose. If just one part of the sculpture or of the Union moved, it would all be affected. The pillar or base was the shared history of wars and peace.

We learned that there are 751 voting members in the semi-circular parliamentary chamber that was called the Hemicycle because of its shape. Each member is elected for a five-year term by all member states' citizens who are of voting age. The number of a country's representatives ranges from 5 to 100 based on each nation's population. The members range in age from 26-92, come from a wide diversity of backgrounds, and represent 200 political parties! I was glad to hear that the proportion of female members has risen with each election and now accounts for 37 percent of all members, double compared to those in member nation's parliaments. The European Parliament was the citizen's voice in the EU and is where EU members debate issues and cast votes. 

Prospective laws normally come to the EU Parliament by committee but it's not uncommon for petitions with one million signatures to be also voted on by all members in the Chamber. One law that passed that way was the water initiative that provided the right to water access throughout each of the member nations

While the EU has a Parliament, the EU is primarily led by the European Commission with commissioners appointed by each member nation and approved by Parliament and the Council of Ministers, comprised of the leaders of each member nation. Day-to-day business is conducted by bureaucrats.

Across from the Hemicycle was the Alviero Spinelli building named after an Italian visionary.

We then walked to the nearby Parliamentarium, a history museum of the EU. There we were reminded that the countries of Europe had fought for decades for their own progress, using self-serving means. The deadly consequences had been two world wars, widespread distrust, and a continent in ruins at the end of WW II. However, some felt that the ideas of the past must be disregarded, weapons must be put down, and interested parties should sit down around the same table. Eight hundred delegates met in 1948 to talk about how they could prevent what just happened in the wars from happening again. The idea was to have Europe working together politically, economically, and culturally. The result was the Council of Europe in 1949 with six founding members. 

Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared in 1940 that "We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living." The United Kingdom made two attempts to join the EU before they finally accepted in 1973. (We all know what happened to the UK's membership in the EU just last year!) 

The Norwegian government requested to join but their citizens overwhelmingly rejected membership so the government had to withdraw the application. When Ireland and Denmark joined, membership in the EU rose to nine. Greece became the tenth member after the EU imposed provisional membership until the country brought about economic reforms. Spain and Portugal had expressed interest in the EU but because their countries were both run by dictators, membership was forbidden. They were both subsequently accepted into the Union once their political climates changed. Membership has grown until there are now 28 member states. 

I was intrigued to learn that the members sit, not by country affiliation, but rather by party affiliation. The 200 political parties sort themselves into just 6 voting blocs, not including independents in the chamber with a minimum of 25 in each political bloc. The members are seated from left to right with the parliamentary President facing them.

We could have spent the next umpteen hours there reading bios of each of the 751 members. We did not, however! 

The map on the floor showed which European nations were members of the EU.

The EU accounts for about one-sixth of international trade and its trade policy operates within the World Trade Organization. In the US, we've always heard of former President Jimmy Carter and other dignitaries checking on elections in far-flung nations but I didn't realize that since 1994, the European Parliament has also sent member delegations as election observers to non-member countries to ensure election processes are conducted freely and fairly.

We also learned that the EU provided humanitarian aid by promoting "fundamental humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence" in non-member countries to save and preserve life in cases of natural or man-made disasters.

As human rights are at the core of the EU Parliament, its members visit regions having issues and legislate to improve the rights of all. One tool is the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought named after the Russian physicist to honor individuals or organizations who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

I hadn't realized that there were any, let alone over 140 EU delegations around the world and that they have similar functions as an embassy. They promote the EU's foreign policy, values, and interests on a global level.

It seemed incredible that in just one generation almost thirty European nations, with different languages, cultures, and soccer teams - have made the huge leap from being bitter rivals to colleagues. As a long-time political junkie, I was thrilled we were able to visit the EU Parliament and get a far better appreciation of how the EU came to be, the challenges it has faced, and its mission.

Next post: Brussel's exciting African community of Matonge.

Posted on September 19th, 2021, on our last night in this fun city. Tomorrow we head onto Antwerp, the city of diamonds, located in northern Belgium.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

9/16/21: Brussels' 'Grand' Place, Chocolates, Lace & the Atomium

Thank goodness, even at our somewhat advanced ages, Steven and I can still manage to huff and puff up several flights of very narrow stairs to our apartment here in Brussels. I must admit that we didn't demur, though, when the building super had offered to carry one of our duffle bags up by himself our first day!

The sculpture at Brussels' central station honored those heroes who died in both world wars.

I bet you thought, like I, that the cartoon character Smurf was an American invention - nope, he was created by a Belgian genius as were so many other comic characters you're likely also familiar with. We craned our heads to peer at the antics Smurf was getting into at famous Brussels landmarks on the ceiling of an arch just outside the station.

The magnificent Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries was the oldest still-operating glass-covered gallery built in Europe and was the inspiration for others in London, Paris, and elsewhere. The Galleries celebrated the country's new independence from the Netherlands when it was inaugurated in 1847 in the Italian Renaissance style. 

The Galleries had exquisite shops on the 233-yard long main level and elegant apartments above where French expats like Hugo, Dumas, and Baudelaire lived. The first Belgian motion pictures were shown at its two theaters. People still reside in the upstairs apartments. 

It was impossible not to gawk at the beautiful hand-crafted lace pieces in one shop.

I can't begin to count the locations around the world where Steven and I have spotted the iconic multi-hued LOVE statues. In the Galleries, however, there was a very different take as it was 'LOVE' on one side and 'HATE' on the other by German artist Mia Florentine Weiss. The steel ambigram structures reflected "the full ambiguity of modern life and encourage the one thing that the whole world needs right now."

Hometown singer-songwriter Jacques Brel dined on croquettes de crevettes (shrimp croquettes), tete de veau (calf's head), and other delicacies at the Taverne du Passage.

I popped into the flagship store of the famous chocolatier, Neuhaus, for a few moments looking for a couple chocolate caramels but there were none, tant pis - so sad! I read this is where Brussels natives buy their pralines that were invented in this shop in 1912.

In chocolate, of course, was a model bust of the store's founder, Jean Neuhaus. Yum, yum!

More of the divine Galleries in which, thankfully, there was no Gap, Foot Locker, or other mass-market stores:

Most European cities have a main square but it would be hard to find one 'grander' than Brussels' Grand Place. Though travel writer Rick Steves describes the city began in medieval days as a public market for a small village, the Grand Place has grown into a vast public space enclosed by Old World buildings with elegant gables. In the center of the square was the 300-ft. tall, skyscraping spire of the Town Hall. Topping it all was a golden statue of St. Michael slaying a devil. As the Belgian government requires all marriages to be initially performed in simple ceremonies, the Hotel de Ville hosts weddings.

Its peaceful courtyard:

Facing Town Hall was the equally impressive 800-year-old King's House that began as the medieval square's bread market. When it became the regional office for Charles V's vast Habsburg empire, it received its French name of Maison du Roi.

The smaller buildings around the square were former guild halls, now shops and restaurants whose stone facades were accented in gold, and gabled roofs were topped with more gold statues!

My eyes were drawn to the unique gables atop the guild halls

and Steven's to the gargoyles on another building.

To the left of the Town Hall was Swan House where a bar once housed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who met in 1848 to write their Communist Manifesto. Once their treatise ignited a socialist revolution around Europe, Belgium deported the two men.

As it was only mid-morning, we managed to stroll down the almost empty Rue des Bouchers that would be packed shortly at the lunch or dinner hours. I read that because of its proximity to major European cities, many visitors are day-trippers from the Netherlands, France, and Germany eager to feast on food that Belgium is famous for.

I couldn't resist gazing in awe at the gorgeous lace items in the Lace Palace window and inside the shop as Brussels is possibly the best-known city for traditional lacemaking. 

If you're a chocoholic, Brussels is heaven as there were chocolate shops almost on every corner!

I loved the motto at Elisabeth Chocolatier: "If you are what you eat ... then we're finger-licking sweet." As I mentioned in my previous post, I did regret that the establishment felt the need to have signage in English exclusively.

Across from Elisabeth's was the little Is it Raining Fountain?

The fountain was in front of De Witte Jewelers that had been built directly into the Church of St. Nicholas. A church had been on the same location since the 12th century and, when it was rebuilt 300 years ago, money was supplied by the town's jewelers.

The church was originally intended to be a market church dedicated to St. Nicholas, one of the merchant's favorite saints.

Even though it was nowhere near Christmas, there has been an extensive nativity scene in the church since 1994.

The gilded copper shrine in the church honored the Gorcum Martyrs, 18 Catholic clergy and I layperson, killed by thugs in 1572 during the Protestant revolution.

From the sublime to the ridiculous or ... at least yummy! By now, you know Belgium is famous for its lace, chocolate, and here we had waffles, too. The lure of melted chocolate drizzling on a hot waffle was just too much for me to resist!

Even though the French claim fries as their own, Belgian fries are well known to potato lovers. Though we're no connoisseurs of frites, these ones we tasted didn't match up with the best we've tasted elsewhere. They were a good treat, though, and got us through the day!

The mural depicted the favorite Belgian comic book hero, Tintin, a wavy-haired boy who gets involved with lots of adventures while accompanied by his faithful dog, Snowy, and friend, Captain Haddock, who always keeps an eye out for Tintin.

One of the most famous sights in all of Brussels was, I kid you not, the small Mannequin-Pis, a two-foot-tall peeing boy! Made in 1617, to provide safe drinking water to residents of the neighborhood, French soldiers had to salute the constantly pissing boy after the occupying King Louis VX knighted the statue. 

As visiting VIPS customarily bring an outfit for the statue, the boy has more clothes than you can shake a stick at. He dresses up for special occasions, too - on Elvis Presley's birthday, for example, he's dressed as an Elvis impersonator. The statue has such a collection of costumes from the past three centuries, an entire museum is devoted to them nearby.

It was fun to see the city's residents take such a light-hearted approach to life in Brussels. A sign by the statue showed the boy's day's outfits. When we were there, he would be dressed for a few hours each as a Catalan shepherd, and in honor of Mexican, and Costa Rican holidays!!

While Steven wandered around for a bit, I visited the Fashion and Lace Museum that was definitely more up my alley than his.

Guess who?!!

Some of the centuries-old lace was so intricate, I was glad for the additional help!

Many ancient pieces were kept in drawers that could be pulled out. These were from the Louis VIX era, 1643-1744.

This was created during the French (?) Second Empire, the period from 1852-1870.

I wondered what Belgian babe would have worn these gorgeous outfits!

Upstairs, there was a room devoted to the 'little black dress' and black dress attire from an earlier age by noted designers such as Chanel, Galliano, and Schiaparelli.

I enjoyed learning a brief history of wearing black: During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, black clothing was very uncommon because it was expensive to dye and thus was reserved for the elite. In the 16th century, it became the color in European courts but it was adopted by Protestants as a symbol of sobriety in contrast to bright, Catholic outfits. When the trend was reversed in the second half of the 17th century, light and cheerful colors came into fashion. The wearing of black was reserved for those in mourning until the 19th century and during the Industrial Revolution when smoke-filled towns made wearing black more practical. 

WW I helped to popularize the color when many women were in mourning and wore black on a daily basis. That was when simpler cute and more comfortable black dresses were designed. Black evening gowns were highly fashionable throughout the 1920s with silk and silver threads added. When the little black dress became an essential fashion item, fashion designers and stylists began to create their own version of the iconic piece.

We didn't see why there was such a prominent Don Quixote sculpture here in Brussels. 

One of Europe's classic Gothic churches was St. Michael's Cathedral that had been built between 1200 and 1500 and was the country's most important church in the largely Catholic country where about 80 percent of the country identify as Catholic.

In the entrance were photos of the royal family whose weddings and funerals took place at St. Michael's.

Another English-language sign!

The highlight in the church was the marvelous carved pulpit located midway down the nave. It depicted Adam and Eve supporting the preacher. 

On top was St. Michael slaying a serpent.

I was so accustomed to seeing very dark stained-glass windows in churches that these much lighter ones caught me by surprise. I immediately relished the bright colors and the contrasting white background.

One of the more unusual roundabouts I've ever seen!

As we knew Belgians were as proud of their chocolates, lace, and Stella Artois beer as of their comics, we wanted to make a quick visit to the Comic Strip Museum to see some of the world's most popular comic characters. The museum was located in a big Art Nouveau-style fabric wholesale business that was designed in 1906 by Victor Horta, the master of Art Nouveau, at the peak of his career.

Of the six big stores Horta designed, this was the only one that survived. After the store closed, the building was abandoned and was nearly destroyed. But, fortunately, it was reconverted and has, since 1989, celebrated two typically Belgian artistic movements: Art Nouveau and comic strips.

Another cute addition to my collection of bathroom signs from around the world, don't you think, Janina?!

A bust of the mask-clad Tintin as created by Herge, the Belgian cartoonist:

As we walked to the metro, we noticed the Covid-testing bus was thankfully doing a fairly brisk business.

We had about a twenty-minute ride on the metro en route to our final stop of the day so had a chance to observe some interesting metro stations.

The Atomium was a giant, silvery scale model of a steel molecule, complete with stairs and escalators connecting the various 'atoms' that was built for the 1958 World's Fair.

I don't think we minded too, too much discovering on arrival that it was no longer open on Thursdays as there were 80 steps to climb up and 167 steps to get down! Even though it was a longish trek out there, it was one of the neatest structures we remembered coming across and it was fun just seeing it from the ground.

Next post: Touring the EU Parliament & Matonge - Brussels' African neighborhood.

Posted on September 18th, 2021, after shortly coming back from a long travel day visiting nearby Waterloo. I think we've both had enough of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte to last us each a while!