The two capitals of European politics. Two prominent cities where decisions are taken that influence life across the continent. Two governmental hubs between which a small army of politicians and bureaucrats shift to and fro (almost) continuously.

However, one is the capital of a (somewhat divided) nation, the other only the 6th largest French town, with just under a quarter of the population of its larger sister EU capital.

brussels grand placeWe spent over two years in Brussels, and have been in Strasbourg for nearly 6 months now. If I can say anything, it’s that these two places are very different. And it’s not just the French vs. the Belgians. It’s also the weather. The different size of these two cities. The region. The lifestyle. All make for two cities which are supposedly at the center of what is “European” but are completely different when experienced in-depth.strasbourg cathedral

Starting with the people: while French is the predominant spoken language in both cities, the cosmopolitan feel is much greater in Brussels due to the large international community living there (EU, NATO, Multinational corporations). Many more people speak English (also due to the Flemish population, the majority of which learn the language at school and watch un-dubbed television), and seem more tolerant to non-French speakers. In France, as it is well known, if you do not parler Francais you’re in trouble.

A related issue is the work ethic. While I’ve heard many complaints from friends in Belgium regarding the lethargy of the administrative system in that country, the French system is on a whole other level. The combination of a self-nurturing bureaucracy and and a mass of ridiculously inefficient, professionally stagnant and indifferent clerks leads to a woeful experience for everyone trying to get any administrative service. Not that getting a carte de sejour in Brussels was a bed of roses, but here they’ve made red tape an art form. Each clerk is responsible for filling in a line in the form, there’s a separatfrance-strasbourg-30e clerk for moving the form from one clerk to the other, and if one of them is missing then nothing gets done. Work hours amount to a staggering 3-4 per day, when lunch and breaks are taken into account.  All in all, there’s beauty in the the way this has been perfected, administrative inefficiency as a successful meme. “The horror, the horror” indeed.

Personally, the lack of substantial industry in the area (the main sources of employment here seem to be tourism, the university, and of course the EU institutions) is a drawback which means I have to work in Belgium – yes, drive there every week.

However, there are two factors that more than make up for these drawbacks : the weather, which is miles better than that in Belgium (warmer, much more sunshine and less rainy days), and the region in which the town is located, which is just stunning. Situated on the Rhine, between the Vosges mountains to the west, nestled by picturesque wine-growing villages, and the black forest in Germany to the east (cuckoo clocks and all), I can hardly think of a more varied, beautiful or pastoral region to live in. Atomium

Moreover, Strasbourg being a small city has definite perks – such as the wonderful rarity of traffic jams, the peace and quiet (I really don’t miss the incessant sirens going up and down avenue Louise), and the ease by which we can pop across the Rhine and visit another country…

Finally, the city itself is beautiful and charming. Anyone who has had a chance to wander around the Grand Ile will testify to this. The old town of Brussels has nothing on this place, it’s really a joy.

So, the verdict then: Strasbourg wins on points. Despite the sometime annoying tendencies of the locals, despite the horrendous bureaucracy, it’s a great place to live.

European Parliament Strasbourg