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Category: Brussels

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

It’s been almost two months since my last post, and, my god, what a couple of months they were.  Babies are quite something – It’s quite incomprehensible how much of a change having this little bundle of joy can have on your life. Looking at this scientifically, their effect is clearly inversely proportional to their size – massive disruption to normal life when they’re tiny (viz – now), and increasing “normal” function as time goes on and as baby gets all nice, chubby and big. Or am I being optimistic??

Now, considering my pre-birth blog was titled “contemplating diapers”, I can confidently state that I clearly did not contemplate hard enough!  Your child’s birth is a watershed event, even beyond what people keep telling you (“it will change your life”!) – at this point this is manifest much more in a practical sense than a mental one. One aspect of this is that having a two month old baby does not necessarily “register” – we don’t really feel as “parents” yet – rather you find yourself subdued to the whims of a simplified hybrid of you and your partner (“she has your eyes”; “she has your feet”; “she has your gas” – the latter being said to me , of course), and your whole life is suddenly taken over by the requirements of taking care of her. So it just happens. You get sucked along – I guess the realization comes afterwards.

While things for me have continued in some part unchanged – I still go to work every day, though come back earlier, for Anna life has completely been paused – a never-ending groundhog day cycle of sleep-feed-nappy-sleep which goes on and on. While we have tried to go out, have friends over, and are planning to go to Paris for the new year tomorrow, I do feel that it’s very hard for her. On a positive note, we have been interviewing nannies and it looks like we will be able to find someone, so Anna will be able to go back to work with reasonable confidence in February.

Of course, we had both grandmothers over for two week-stints – which was really helpful for us as the first month was  real boot camp experience. Let’s see: you don’t sleep much, run around a lot because someone is screaming at you, are lucky to have time to go to the loo, have to obey the needs of someone with the brain capacity of a baby (my sergeant major was a doozy) At least the food is better here!. I mean, who knew there were so many different forms of baby cries? The long nights, the steep learning curve, the support within such a new, demanding situation would be so much tougher had the grannies not been here! Of course, they got some quality granddaughter time and so a positive overall cost/benefit ratio 😎

Another aspect worth mentioning is the time factor – it suddenly goes by so quickly….days and weeks fly by, each one centered around what the baby has done, how has she slept/ate/smiled today…it’s quite amazing when you think of it. The days are packed, always a lot to do around her little highness, but as a whole you suddenly catch yourself and she’s already one month…six weeks…two months old…heck, we’ll be sending her off to college in no time.

The good news is the little lady is growing well, already almost 5 kgs of cuteness. Apparently her head is quite big (90th percentile), but what do you expect with two geeks as parents. She’s definitely eating well – she gets that from me, of course.

For reference or for posterity, a list of the favourite places to eat in Brussels, compounded over the last year we’ve been here. I will be regularly updating this list as we discover more places – in the few months we have left here.

1. Italian – La Trattoria: our local Italian place, and boy do we eat there a lot. The pizzas are superb, the pastas fresh and delicious, and the tiramisu divine. My sister visited us a few months ago and the first thing she asked after we paid the bill was “when can we come again?”. Clearly, my sister.  734 Chaussee de Waterloo.


2. French – En Face De Parachut: a great little French restaurant. Wonderful food, great wine, and even friendly service! A very good place for entertaining friends or for a romantic dinner. A bit on the pricey side, of course. Chaussee de Waterloo, 578.


3. Indian – Mumtaz: a great Indian restaurant, of which Brussels does not have in abundance, especially compared to the UK. We just had dinner there a few nights ago, and were very impressed. Good, friendly service, staff speaks English, and excellent food, even compared to the numerous curry houses I’ve been to across the channel. A place we will definitely return to!   Chaussée de Wavre 64.


4. Moroccan – KifKif: a more relaxed, informal and fun choice, especially for large get-togethers with friends. Very good assorted Mediterranean/middle-eastern starters (finger food – humus, aubergines, tehini, salads etc. with bread), superb meat dishes cooked in tajins, and delicious desserts (baklava etc.). The atmosphere is as fun as the food. Biarritz Square, just off the western side of the Ixelles lakes.


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