EUCE Outreach

 

This short guide is intended to help young scholars studying the European Union prepare for field research in Brussels. It was originally written in December 1993, and has circulated as samizdat among EU-oriented graduate students since then. This version, specifically updated in September 1998 and hyperlinked to useful web sites, is based on my most recent field experience in Brussels, in June 1998. The guide will be most useful to students of EU policymaking and of the Commission, Council, and European Parliament; it does not contain advice for fieldwork at the plenary sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, or the headquarters of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The first section provides some recommendations about the use of primary and secondary sources in the United States. The second section provides tips for planning your trip to Brussels, including access to the Commission Library, making appointments with interview subjects, and arranging lodging for your stay. Section three then provides some nuts-and-bolts advice about research sources in Brussels, while section four discusses practical aspects of living in Brussels, such as cafes, entertainment, and travel information. In my experience, Brussels is a very pleasant and user-friendly place to live and work; the aim of this guide is to provide some practical advice for making it even more so.

I. Before You Go: Know the Sources

In my experience, the most important thing for an American academic going to Brussels is to know the sources on the EU in general and on your research topic more specifically, and to be aware of what you can get here in the U.S. and what can be gotten only in Europe. This will leave you free to spend your time in Brussels productively researching sources and conducting interviews that cannot be done in the US; it will also save you considerable embarrassment with EU librarians and fonctionnaires.

Most advanced scholars of the European Union will be familiar with the secondary literature on the subject, including the core textbooks like Dinan's Ever Closer Europe and the key journals such as the Journal of Common Market Studies, the Journal of European Public Policy, International Organization, etc. Before traveling to Europe, however, all scholars should make an effort to become acquainted with, and to exhaust, the primary sources on EU law and politics, many of which are now available in US libraries or on-line. I will not provide a complete introduction to EU primary sources here, but I would recommend a number of excellent introductions to EU documentation, many of which are compiled by the EU itself and are available on-line. I would recommend in particular the following guides:

  • Researching the European Union is an excellent introduction to official EU documentation, including information on the official publications of the Commission, Parliament, Court of Justice, and the other institutions of the EU. It also includes a superb chart outlining the complete documentation trail for EU legislation under different decision rules. This site should be visited and studied by every EU scholar, together with its companion site: European Union Electronic Information which provides summaries of and links to all of the major EU databases. Together with the previous link, this link provides as extensive and up-to-date an introduction to EU documentation as can be found anywhere.
  • Another brief, excellent introduction can be found in Ian Thomson's "Bibliographic Snapshot: Keeping up with Brussels: information sources on current developments in the European Union," in the bimonthly journal European Access (1996: No. 6, December). European Access itself is a superb bibliographic tool, available in some university libraries (including Memorial Library at UW-Madison), with official and unofficial sources provided by subject for the entire range of EU policies. I highly recommend it for anyone studying EU events from the 1990s.
  • Finally, a number of university libraries provide excellent on-line guides to EU documentation. I would recommend in particular the WWW Virtual Library: West European Studies Home Page offered by the University of Pittsburgh, and the European Union Research Guide offered by the University of California at Berkeley. Both pages offer useful advice for finding official and unofficial, printed and electronic information resources.

As a general rule, I always make a point of exhausting as many as possible of the EU's official sources (including the Bulletin of the European Union, the Official Journal, and all Commission documents and European Parliament reports) before I leave for Europe. Many, but not all, of these sources are now available on-line, particularly during the last few years, when the EU has begun to post the Bulletin, the Official Journal, and many other official sources on the Commission's Europa page. For the years before the mid-1990s, however, most researchers will have to descend into the printed and microfiche resources of the EU's Depository Libraries in the United States, a full listing of which is available from the EU Delegation in Washington.

In addition to these official sources, it is always a good idea to check the best journalistic sources as well. I would recommend four sources in particular, most of which are available in good university libraries:

  • Europe-Daily Bulletin is sometimes referred to by the name of its publisher, Agence Europe. It is a pink newsletter published six times a week (except August, when EU institutions typically go dark), with about 20 pages per issue. Agence Europe provides the most extensive journalistic coverage of events in the EU, including meetings of the Commission, the Parliament, COREPER, and many of the most important Court cases. A very few university libraries receive hard copies of Europe, which is also available via Lexis-Nexis (see below) since the early 1990s. You can also subscribe, but the price is prohibitive for most of us, upwards of $1,000 per year for delivery to the US. Before leaving for Europe, you should look for this source, which can be found in the Commission library in Brussels if all attempts in the US should fail.
  • European Report is the primary competitor to Agence Europe. It is published in Brussels by the Europe Information Service, and comes out twice a week. European Report is almost as thorough as Agence Europe, and its clear format makes it easier to use. It is, however, also phenomenally expensive to subscribe to, and is difficult to find in US libraries. As with Agence Europe, most major stories from European Report in the 1990s can be found on Lexis-Nexis; earlier issues are available in hard copy from the Commission library in Brussels.
  • The Financial Times of London provides excellent daily coverage of the EU, particularly the big things like the European Council and meetings of the General Council. Most university libraries receive the FT, which also has its own web site and is available for the 1990s on Lexis-Nexis.
  • Finally, the Economist magazine, itself a good source for general EU news, recently launched an excellent and affordable EU politics weekly called European Voice. The coverage here is less detailed than either Agence Europe or European Report, but more in-depth that of the FT. I highly recommend it for those who want to follow EU politics on a budget, and as a research tool for the politics of the EU in the late 1990s.

Finally, if you want to be as thorough as possible and cast your net widely across a number of official and unofficial sources, I would recommend the following on-line databases:

  • ECLAS is the on-line catalog of the Commission library, and is key-word searchable across the thousands of documents held in the Commission libraries. The actual contents of the documents are not on-line, but ECLAS is an excellent source for finding useful official and unofficial sources in the United States, and for giving you an idea of the kinds of resources you will find in the Commission central library in Brussels. Indeed, if you find a resource that looks useful in the ECLAS database but which you cannot locate in the US, keep the citation so that you can look it up in the Commission library when you get to Brussels.
  • SCAD is the EU's other major database, which again lists official and unofficial sources on a wide range of EU policies. SCAD allows you to access the full texts of some official sources, and provides abstracts of longer journalistic and scholarly articles, so you should plan once again on visiting this site before you leave for Brussels.
  • SCADplus is another excellent place to pursue a thorough research program, in particular with the up-to-date summaries and legislative follow-ups to all major EU policies. This site also features an excellent calendar of EU events, and a comprehensive guide to the Amsterdam Treaty.
  • Finally, you may be lucky enough to have access to the mother of all databases, Lexis-Nexis which has a licensing agreement with many American universities, including UW-Madison, where it can be used from any UW library terminal. This database is an extraordinary source of EU information, especially for the 1990s. Lexis-Nexis allows you to keyword search from the Financial Times, European Report, Agence Europe, and hundreds of other official and unofficial EU sources, as well as official sources like the CELEX database of EU law, and the RAPID database of Commission press releases. Furthermore, Lexis-Nexis has just adopted a new web-based version that is far more user-friendly than the previous DOS-based version. The only real downside to Lexis-Nexis is that most of the sources listed above are available only from the early 1990s, making Lexis far less useful for historical research. (Historically oriented scholars will therefore need to venture into the stacks, microfiche, and, for students of the EU's early history, to the EU historical archives). Nevertheless, if you have access to this extraordinary resource, you should be sure to make full use of it before you leave for Europe.

In short, scholars working in 1998 are now capable of finding at home, and usually via electronic databases, information that earlier scholars had to find, usually on microfiche, in the Commission library in Brussels. By comparison with today's scholars, my generation of EU researchers had to trudge to the Commission through six feet of snow, barefoot. Going uphill. Both ways.

- back to top -

II. Preparing Your Fieldwork in Brussels

Having exhausted every available resource in the United States, you are now ready to plan your fieldwork in Brussels. This involves such arcane matters as making sure your passport is up-to-date, finding a good air-fare, etc., which I will not discuss here. However, there are three key areas where, in my experience, young scholars could use some help: arranging access to the Commission library, arranging interviews with key actors in Brussels, and lining up housing for the length of your stay. The following sections provide some selective advice on all three fronts.

1. Get a pass to the Commission Library

The Commission library is a font of information for any EU scholar, even for those coming from an EU depository library. However, the library is not open to the public, and you must arrange to receive an access card by contacting the library at least two weeks in advance. Fortunately, the Commission library now has a very user-friendly web site, which provides complete details about how to get an access card, the nature of the library's holdings, its hours of operation, and so on. Visit the site right away if you are planning a trip to Brussels, and get the paperwork underway!

2. Arrange interviews in advance

One of the key reasons to go to Brussels for field research, rather than simply consulting printed resources at home, is to interview key actors in and outside of the EU's institutions. Arranging these interviews is not particularly difficult, but it involves careful prior research, particularly if you plan to visit Brussels only for a short period and need your interviews all lined-up before you arrive. The most important prerequisite to a good interview, which I have already emphasized above, is a mastery of your brief, so that you have a good, clear sense of who you want to speak to, and what you want to ask them.

Once you have mastered your brief in this way, you can and should consult one of the several good directories of the EU institutions and the larger EU-centric community in Brussels. Some of these are official and freely available, others are frighteningly expensive, but may be worth the money if you are looking to interview people outside the official institutions. I would recommend the following four sources in particular:

  • * The first, and most obvious, place to look is on the EU's Interinstitutional Directory, which allows you to search a large database of officials in all of the various institutions of the EU, either by name (if you know the name) or a hierarchical search by position. For each individual, you will get an internal phone number and a fax number. The site is updated every two weeks, and a quick check confirmed that recent appointments to various positions were indeed reflected in the directory.
  • The Europa web page is another excellent resource, with individual pages devoted to each institution (Commission, Council, ECJ, EP, etc.) Most of these institutions maintain individual directories, allowing you to examine the organizational charts (organigrammes in EU jargon) of individual Directorates-General in the Commission, committees in the Parliament, etc. Like the Interinstitutional Directory, the Europa page lists telephone numbers, faxes, and writing addresses for most of its officials, making it fairly easy to find the people you want to talk to.
  • The preceding two sources were official and free. The next two sources are commercial and expensive, but have the advantage of reaching out beyond the official institutions to include members of the larger Brussels community, and lobbyists in particular. The European Public Affairs Directory is published by Landmarks Corporate Publishers, and features listings for corporate and non-profit groups and media, as well as the standard EU institutions. It also features e-mail addresses for some officials in the EU institutions, and the addresses of officials in the various Permanent Representations of the member states, which are otherwise hard to come by. This is a wonderful resource to have, although the price-tag of $130 may be off-putting to those us of without large research budgets. You may want to see if you can get your university library to make the investment.
  • Finally, the EU Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Brussels publishes a number of equally expensive-but-useful guides and directories, including an excellent EU Information Handbook and an EU Environment Handbook, both of which are updated annually and available for purchase from the AmCham site listed just above.

Finding your interview subjects, therefore, should not be hard. But how do you go about actually arranging the interview? Here, I have found that direct phone calls can be frustrating and expensive, since one almost always gets a secretary at the other end who insists on receiving a fax before she will even contemplate setting up an interview for you. Most of the time, therefore, I try to send a letter to the individual's fax number, introducing myself and the nature of my research topic, asking for an interview, and suggesting a window of a few days or weeks when I will be in town and available. I also leave an e-mail address as well as my return fax number, so that they can return my message. Typically, one gets a response after the first fax, but if not, a follow-up message by fax or e-mail (if available) is a good idea. I generally try to avoid making a first contact by e-mail, which is a bit too informal by Brussels standards, unless I have been referred to someone by a colleague, in which case I begin with "Please forgive me for contacting you by e-mail, but I have been referred to you by Jacques de l'Euro, who provided me with your e-mail address..."

Ideally, you should line up as many of your interviews as possible, down to times, dates, and places, before you leave, particularly if your stay will be a short one. If you plan to stay for a longer period, you will almost certainly continue to make new appointments during your stay, but the rules of thumb suggested above should still apply.

- back to top -

3. Arrange lodging in Brussels

Finding an apartment in Brussels is surprisingly easy, especially if you plan ahead. There are two major considerations to keep in mind as you plan your stay in Brussels.

The first consideration is where in Brussels you want to live. The city is composed of 19 communes, including the center of town, Brussels 1000, which is generally crowded and prohibitively expensive for students. The EU district is located mostly in the commune of Etterbeek, just east of the center, and the area around the Commission is full of studio apartments renting for variable periods and cheap rents. This is where most of the Commission stagiaires, or interns, live, and as a result if you live here you will see lots of Commission people everywhere you go--which, obviously, has upsides and downsides. If, like me, you'd rather get away from the Commission at the end of the day, I'd recommend the commune of Ixelles (Elsene in Flemish), which is just south of the center of town and about a 20-minute commute on the metro. Ixelles is full of good cafés, restaurants and shopping, and many of Brussels' best flathotels can be found here. For most people, the choice is essentially between Etterbeek and Ixelles, and between the two it's hard to go wrong.

The second thing to consider when finding an apartment is how long you are staying. Most apartment buildings will not rent short-term (i.e. less than six months or a year), but others specialize precisely in short-term rentals. Thus, if you are only staying for a month, or a few months, your best bet is to call one of Brussels' many flat-hotels, which rent furnished and fully equipped studios or one-bedroom apartments by the month, week, or even night. A full listing can be found in the European Public Affairs Directory. The admittedly partial list that follows reflects my own rather idiosyncratic experiences, and my personal preference for Ixelles over Etterbeek.

  • Euroflat (Bd. Charlemagne 50, Tel: 32 2 230 00 10; Fax: 32 2 230 3683) appears to be the businessman's flathotel of choice, about a block from Rond-Point Schuman in Etterbeek. I have never stayed at this place, which is somewhat pricey, but the location is unsurpassed for power-researching. Eurochambres (Bd. Charlemagne 80; Tel. 32 2 230 85 55; Fax 32 2 230 56 35) is another similar flathotel right down the street.
  • Agence immobilière Gilson (Tel: (32 2) 538 00 40) is the largest real-estate agency in Brussels, and it operates a very ugly and functional apartment building at 32 Rue Blanche in Ixelles called (I am not making this up) The White House. The studios and apartments there can be rented by the month or even pro-rated by the day, and are fully furnished with kitchen, cable TV, the works. Lots of foreign businesspeople stay here, and I met Wayne Sandholtz in the lobby (!). The proximity to Place Stephanie, Place Louise, and the metro is a real plus.
  • Residence Hanovre (Chausée de Vleurgat 213; Tel. 32 2 648 90 70; Fax 32 2 646 30 84) is another Ixelles flathotel, somewhat further from Euro-land and the center of town, but with other features to make up for it. The building is located on the Chausée de Vleurgat, three blocks from the Avenue Louise and the 93 and 94 tram lines. The apartments here come in two sizes, studios or relatively spacious one-bedroom apartments with nice large balconies facing either the (noisy) street or the (quiet) park at the rear (for more money). The payoff here is the very large and beautiful Parc Tenbosch located right behind the building, which features a small but new and well equipped kiddie park. My wife and I stayed here with our two-year old, and he loved the building, the apartment (he got the bedroom, we stayed on the pullout bed in the living room), the balcony, and above all the park. The commute to Euro-land is longer than from the other flathotels mentioned above, but for families it may well be worth the trip.
  • Finally, there is Rusti's European Rentals (Tel. (32 2) 344 26 57). Rusti is an American woman who came to Brussels during the NATO real estate boom of the 1970s and stayed, and has good apartments all over town, some of them short-term.

There are many other flathotels listed in The European Public Affairs Directory, many of them well equipped and convenient, so it may be worth your while to search around. (An increasing number of flathotels are now developing on-line websites, although all of the ones mentioned above still take reservations primarily by phone or fax.)

The only problem with short-term rentals is that, while they are generally very convenient, they can also be scandalously expensive, especially on a student budget. A studio apartment can run up to $900 or so a month, and one-bedroom flats run upward from $1,000-$1,200 per month in most flathotels. If you plan to stay longer than a few months, therefore, you may want to look for a long-term furnished apartment, which is surprisingly easy in Brussels, especially if you can take a full-year lease. Gilson and Rusti's both have longer-term, and cheaper, places as well as shorter-term leases, so you may want to call them. Otherwise, The Bulletin, the indispensable English-language weekly magazine of Brussels, has good classified ads, for both short- and long-term rentals, as does the daily newspaper Le Soir.

- back to top -

III. Doing Research in Brussels

No guide can prepare a researcher for the cultural gaffes and the many false steps which are an inevitable part of any fieldwork experience. Advance preparation can minimize slip-ups, but never eliminate them. Nevertheless, I've included some basic advice for doing research in Brussels, under the following headings: intro to the EU district; the Commission library; other information resources; and advice for interviews.

1. Welcome to the EU district, namely the area of Brussels which is host to the various buildings of the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council Secretariat, and the various Permanent Representations of the member states to the EU. For most purposes, your metro stop of choice will be Rond-Point Schuman, from which point radiate the various buildings of the EU institutions. If you want to get an advance look at Euro-land and its institutions, check out the Europa web page's Virtual Tour of the EU Institutions, which will give you a good sense of the architecture, if not the culture, of the EU. The European Public Affairs Directory mentioned above also has excellent and detailed maps of all the EU buildings in the area, if you can afford to buy a copy. More general maps can be found in any good guidebook.

As you will see, none of the EU institutions is housed in a single building: the Commission has its main (temporary) headquarters in the Breydel building, but the various functionnaires of the Commission are scattered all over the Schuman neighborhood and beyond, and so you should make sure to get the specific address of anyone you plan to interview, and leave yourself time to find the place. Ditto for the European Parliament, which is mostly located in the new Leopold building but still uses older buildings on the Rue Montoyer and the Rue Belliard. The Council Secretariat is now mostly in the immense Justus Lipsius building on the Rond-Point, but the Perm Reps are located all over the area, each requiring a special search with a good local map. Once again, leave yourself time to find your building, and bring your passport with you for the security people at the entrance to each building when you show up for your interviews.

2. The Commission Central Library

Far and away the best place to start your research is the Commission Central Library, located at 1 Rue Cortenbergh, right at Place Schuman, which is the center of the EU quarter in Etterbeek. The library itself is located deep in the bowels of the building, and you'll need to present your laissez-passer to the guards at the entrance, who will tell you (in French) how to get there. Basically, you go up to the first floor and follow the signs.

There are two separate public rooms in the Commission library: The reading room (marked "salle de lecture") will be on your left as you come down the hallway, and the catalog room will be across the hall on your right. Start your visit by entering the reading room; the door to the room is kept closed, but just go ahead in, and don't bother to knock.

Find a seat in the reading room, and take a few minutes to explore. At one end of the room, near the door where you entered, you will see a smaller room where the reference librarians are located, and where you can request books; at the far end is another small office, with two librarians who can help with current periodicals. Copy cards can be purchased in various denominations from a machine about halfway up the room; the price is currently three Belgian francs per page, which works out to about eight cents a copy. Elsewhere in the library you'll find reference books and recent issues of a large number of journals and a huge selections of newspapers from the various member states, plus the International Herald Tribune for the homesick.

Americans, as a general rule, don't make a great impression at the library. In my experience, it's best to observe three simple rules which most Americans violate. First, although American grad students are used to dressing down to go to the library, I always wear at least a jacket and tie, both because most of the other readers are, and as a sign of respect to the librarians, who will take you more seriously. Second, and for the same reason, I always begin by speaking French rather than my irritating nasal American voice; if your French is not stellar, you can ask whether they mind your speaking English, which they won't. And third, never walk up to a librarian and say you're looking for books on EU environmental policy or whatever, because they will cut you dead and tell you to find your reference and get the code first. Those are the "don'ts" of the Central Library, in my experience.

What you should do is come with a series of references for books, journals, COMdocs, etc. Once you've settled in the reading room, walk over to the shelf where the newspapers are kept, and you'll see two piles of request forms marked "visiteurs" and "fonctionnaires." Take a stack of visitor forms and your references into the catalog room across the hall, where you will find a number of terminals set up to receive ECLAS, SCAD, and other electronic resources. If you run your search on ECLAS, which is the Commission's library database, you will find a code (or cote in French) at the bottom of each entry, which is what you will need to retrieve a hard copy of the source. Having found the code, you can then fill out the forms, and present them to the librarians in the reading room. Your books will come in about twenty minutes. If you are looking for a journal, you can ask the librarians to see a copy of their journals catalog, which lists all journals received by the library alongside their codes. If you need a COM doc, simply use the regular number (COM(85)310 for example), and specify that you want it en anglais. Similarly, for the Official Journal you can simply write OJ along with the date of publication, followed by en anglais. You can also get old issues of Agence Europe and European Report. Note, however, that the library does not have access to Lexis-Nexis, so you are advised to run any Lexis searches in the US if you can.

Overall, the Central Library is a mine of information if you use it properly, and is much easier to use than most US depository libraries, which do not specialize in EU affairs. In my experience, it is almost always possible to find all of the official, printed sources you might need in the Central Library; the other libraries (the Council, EP, and ECJ libraries, generally limited to staff use), and the DG archives, therefore, should be reserved for specific, hard-to-get documents unavailable at the Central Library.

3. Other sources for written documents

Right around the corner from the Library entrance on Rue Cortenberg, on the Rue de la Loi towards the Parc, you'll find the Librarie Européenne, or European bookstore, where you will find the best selection of general EU books and reference sources in town, as well as a very selective collection of official EU documents like the Treaties, White Papers, etc. The books here are woefully expensive, but you will find stuff here that you won't find anywhere else in town, much less at home, so most visiting scholars do a lot of financial damage here. The bookstore also stocks all the major directories mentioned above, so if you didn't buy one in the States, now is your chance. Another excellent bookstore is Waterstones, the English-language bookstore located downtown near the de Brouckere metro stop, which has an EU politics section on the second floor; and Libris, the French-language bookstore located in the Galleries Louise in Ixelles. If you have a book budget, you will have no trouble spending it in Brussels.

Another useful stop, while you are still at the Rond-Point Schuman, is the Infopoint office. It's right on the circle, you can't miss it. Generally, Infopoint is just a PR place with glossy brochures, but the people behind the desk can sometimes be helpful with more specific questions. And the free EU maps can help to decorate an otherwise empty apartment.

Moving out from Schuman, each DG has its own documentation center or archive, the address of which can usually be found on that DG's homepage on Europa. As a general rule, you should look in the Central Library first for any given document, since chances are that you'll find it there and because the documentation centers are generally understaffed and should therefore be used only as a last resort. The documentation centers also vary from one to another. Most will have large selections of journals for the use of the fonctionnaires, as well as piles of recent COM docs which are free for the asking (they also have old COM docs on fiche, but these are better gotten at the Central Library). In addition, you may find the archivists willing to let you look at unofficial documents which are not available in the library, but this depends on the subject, the archivist and the DG, with the less important or "low politics" DGs being more likely to let you snoop around. Once again, however, archivists will tend to be most impressed, and most helpful, when they see that you've done extensive research elsewhere and have come to them with very specific and well-informed requests.

4. A few tips for Euro-interviews

Interview technique is a difficult issue on which to give advice, in part because each researcher adopts his or her own style, and in part because larger questions of ethnography, participant-observation and research design enter into the picture. However, I would offer a few Brussels-specific tips for students conducting their first interviews in Brussels:

  • First, make your appointments as far in advance as possible, and typically by fax unless you are being passed on by a previous interview subject. Commission and EP luminaries can take several tries before you get a response, and even then you may have to wait several weeks for an opening.
  • Once you get an appointment, brief yourself as well as possible in advance. Make sure you know about the policies or decisions you are studying, and about your subject's role in those decisions. You may want to draw up a structured or semi-structured list of questions, depending on the nature of your research.
  • Begin by introducing yourself and your research, and assure your subject that the interview is for scholarly purposes only and that he or she will not be cited by name (unless they prefer to be, which very few do).
  • After the introduction, move quickly and in a businesslike manner into the substance of your interview. Try not to waste time with broad questions at the outset; these are busy people, and in general they like to see that you have specific questions that draw on their expertise. Some subjects will answer your questions quickly and usher you out the door, while others will talk for two hours and then invite you to lunch; so keep your schedule flexible if you can.
  • Languages, incidentally, are not generally a problem. English and French are the working languages of the Commission, and all officials speak one or both reasonably well. Thus you can survive with only English, and if you speak both French and English you'll have no problems whatsoever. The British, Irish, Germans, Dutch and Danes generally speak very good English and prefer that to French, while the French, Belgian, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are likely to prefer French, although most of them will speak English with you if you ask. I generally offer to speak either French or English, and let my subject choose. National officials and MEPs are not required to speak French and English, but most of them speak at least one or the other, so here again languages should not be a major problem, although it may be worth checking with the person's secretary beforehand if you have any doubts.
  • Tape recorders are a tricky question. In general, if you are interviewing people to capture specific attitudes, or if you want long quotes for an anthropological study, then you will probably opt for a tape recorder, although you may find that this leads interview subjects to be a bit more reserved. I generally bring a notebook, take the best notes I can during the interview, and then go to a café with my laptop to transcribe and flesh out the notes while they are still fresh in my mind. The choice really depends on your research aims and your personal preferences, which vary from researcher to researcher.
  • Finally, it is always nice to end with two useful, general questions: (1) "So, in your view, is there anything else you think I ought to know?" and (2) "So, given my interests, is there anyone else you think I should talk to while I am here?" The first question trolls for information that you might not have thought to elicit, while the second is an excellent way of locating the key players in a given policy area. And be sure to thank your subject profusely when you are done; they've given you their time!

- back to top -

IV. Living in Brussels

The best thing about Brussels, regardless of what most of the French might say, is not that it is easy to get out of the city on the weekends. After living there for the better part of a year, it occurs to me that Brussels is in fact a great place to live, more so than to visit. Outside the Grand Place, much of Brussels is indeed as ugly as people think, largely because of the gung-ho development of the city during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s which tore down whole neighborhoods to put up, among other things, EU office buildings. Still, behind the modernist and slightly grungy facades, Brussels is actually a great metropolitan city, yet it is far less expensive than other Northern European cities like Paris, London or Hamburg. I actually enjoyed Brussels, and in my experience most people who stay long enough to know the city also enjoy it.

Most of the guidebooks, unfortunately, concentrate on the ugly and official center of town and the rather unexciting tourist monuments. One notable exception is the Time-Out Guide to Brussels (Overlook Press, 1998, $14.95), which features chapters on the suburbs as well as useful lifestyle chapters on Brussels for kids, Brussels for women, and gay Brussels. The book also has good maps of the city, including the EU district in Etterbeek. Additional information can be found on the official website of the Belgian Tourist Office in the Americas, which has useful, up-to-date pages on events, accommodations and more. My comments here are therefore brief, and aimed that the medium- to long-term visitor to the city.

1. Cafes, bars and restaurants

Restaurants are nightmarishly expensive in Brussels, prohibitively so for students on a tight budget. It is possible, however, to have a very good and inexpensive meal at a cafe or bistro (see below), and the Commission offices in Schuman are surrounded by a mass of decent and cheap lunch places. For lunch, if you are really poor, I recommend La baguette magique on the Rue Archimède, where you can get a cheese sandwich and a gaufre (waffle) for only BF90. The downside is that the place is tiny and is unbelievably crowded from noon onwards. Somewhat more relaxed, but still cheap, is the aptly named Rond-Point Schuman right on the circle, where you can get a sandwich and a beer or coffee for about BF120. There are also lots of good Italian and Chinese restaurants around, if you can afford to drop BF400 for lunch. After hours, you'll find lots of good places to go for a drink around Schuman, most notably James Joyce on the Rue Archimède and Kitty O'Shea's pub next to the Berlaymont, both of which fill up with fonctionnaires after five o'clock. The Wild Geese opened just a few blocks away in 1995; it also fills up with Eurocrats around 5 pm, and later on with young stagiaires looking for company. On a more sedate note, there is also a coffee bar at the top of 1 Avenue Cortenberg where you can go for a FB20 cup of cappucino overlooking the Place Schuman, although you'll have to stand up, alongside everyone else in the building, to drink it.

Most of the best cafés and bars, however, are found outside Etterbeek, near the Grand Place, the Place du Grand Sablon, and in Ixelles. The best and most reasonably priced, in my view, are Le Perroquet in Sablon, and Amadeus, L'Ultime Atome, L'Amour Fou and Malte, all of which are in Ixelles, and all of which serve good and reasonably priced food as well as Belgian beers, coffee and drinks. Conway's, also in Ixelles, is the American expat bar in Brussels, if you are into that kind of thing, and Pablo's serves very good but pricey Tex-Mex food and drinks. Le Roi d'Espagne in the Grand Place and A la morte subite nearby are both famous and pricey tourist spots. Most of them are listed in the Time-Out Guide and other guidebooks, or in the pages of The Bulletin.

2. Movies/TV

If you can, get a place with cable TV, because the Belgians do cable better than anyone else in the world. Belgian channels are, by American standards, fairly low budget and boring, but with cable you can also get CNN, Euronews, MTV Europe, Arte, BBC1 and BBC2, French channels (TF1 and France 2 and 3), and German, Italian and Spanish channels as well. I've never felt more connected to European politics and culture than when I had access to Belgian cable.

Regarding movies, EU fonctionnaires love Brussels because movies here are shown in the original version, with bilingual subtitles, instead of the dubbed versions that dominate elsewhere in Europe. This is, therefore, a great place to follow French, German and Italian cinema, as well as American films (which are, however, released here considerably later than in the States). Big multiplex theaters like the Acropole in Ixelles and De Brouckere downtown offer a special student rate of BF180, as well as a Carte privilege good for four movies for BF620, which makes the movies in Belgium cheaper than in most US cities. Be aware, though, that you're supposed to tip the person who takes your ticket BF10 per person, and you may have to pay for the toilet as well, so bring change with you.

Both TV and movie listings can be found in The Bulletin and in Le Soir, especially the Wednesday edition.

3. Mass transit

Depending on where you are staying and the length of your stay, you may want to get some sort of mass transit pass. Buses, trams and metros all cost FB50 for a single ride, with transfers allowed within one hour of stamping your ticket. In other words, it's expensive. You can save money by purchasing a book of ten tickets for BF290. A monthly abonnement for all three forms of transportation costs about BF1200, or about $35, and represents the best deal if you are staying for more than a few weeks. Be aware, though, that monthly passes must start on the first of every month, so you may want to use single tickets or books for a while if you arrive mid-month. Single tickets and books of ten can be bought in any station, but monthly passes can only be bought in certain stations (Porte de Namur being the most convenient from downtown), and you will need to bring a passport photo for a monthly pass. Student passes are available only for the entire academic year, beginning in September, so you'll probably get stuck paying the normal adult rate.

4. Gyms

If you plan to be in Brussels for a while and want to work out, you have a number of good options. Most of the hotels around the Grand Place have ritzy and mind-numbingly expensive gyms, but you can also find more reasonably priced gyms elsewhere in town. If you are living in Etterbeek near the Commission, Winners' gym is supposedly good and is frequented by a lot of young fonctionnaires, although I haven't heard great things about their aerobics. I myself went to California Gym in Ixelles, near the Place Flagey, which is small but friendly. The owner, Bianca Cioni, is a former Belgian aerobics champion, and has opened a terrific salle d'aerobique, with multiple classes a day and very good instructors, including herself. Combination memberships good for both the salle de musculation and the salle d'aerobique are available for about BF2500 a month, which is about the average price for a gym membership in Brussels. I really liked California Gym, and I recommend it even if you don't live in Ixelles.

5. Bringing the Family

Kids and Brussels are a fine mix, but only if you plan ahead. By comparison with most US cities, Brussels is relatively child-unfriendly: most restaurants have no high chairs and no non-smoking sections; the streets are cobblestoned, making strollers difficult; and the city's parks are generally laid out for bourgeois contemplation rather than juvenile frolicking. By and large, children seem to stay primarily in the home in Belgium, and are relatively rare in public places. Nevertheless, my two-year old son had a wonderful time in Brussels, going on trams and trains, eating waffles and french fries and chocolate, and running around the Grand Place and the Galleries Louise shopping mall.

If you are travelling with small children, I would recommend staying at the Residence Hanovre, mentioned above in connection with its large apartments and nearby park. You should also pick up up a copy of The Time-Out Guide to Brussels for additional tips on Brussels for kids. If you have a television, you will probably have a hard time finding Sesame Street and other familiar favorites from home, but the BBC is available with Teletubbies and a number of other children's programs in the mornings and afternoons. Perhaps most importantly, be sure to bring a raincoat and a warm jacket for your kids, even if you travel in the summer; Brussels can be rainy and chilly, especially in the mornings, and you don't want to be trapped indoors for lack of proper gear!

6. Day and weekend trips from Brussels

Finally, it is true that it's easy to get out of Brussels for the weekend, and that from Brussels you are within striking distance of Paris, Amsterdam, Köln and other cities in Northern Europe. Intercity trains east to Germany leave about once per hour from all three Brussels stations, and trains to Paris leave, from Gare du Midi only, about as often. If you're on a budget, however, the best bet is to stay within Belgium, where you can take advantage of the weekend rates effective between Thursday evening and Monday morning. Under the weekend rates, the first person travelling gets 40% off the usual weekday fare, and any additional passengers travelling together get 60% off. A round trip to Antwerp, therefore, is less than BF300 on the weekends, whereas a trip to Paris, for which there is no weekend rate, costs around BF2000. There is, in other words, a strong financial incentive to explore Belgium rather than crossing the border into neighboring countries. Antwerp, Leuven, Ghent and Bruges are all Flemish cities within an hour's train ride from Brussels, as is the Walloon capital, Namur. A bit farther away, but still less than a BF500 round-trip, are the somewhat blighted Walloon city of Liège and the various shore towns, of which my favorite is Oostende.

In any case, living in Brussels should not be seen as punishment, but rather as a chance to spend some time in a diverse and cosmopolitan city that is, in the end, far greater than the sum of its parts.

- back to top -