Monday, April 10, 2006

The last study trip posting

Day #1 in Brussels was spent in meetings at the European Commission. We had briefings on everything from the common foreign and security policy and Turkey to religion and the EU. On the one hand, the day was interesting because I know a reasonable amount about the EU. On the other hand though, many of the presenters couldn’t say much more than, “we spend lots of time in meetings and don’t have any idea when reform, the admission of Turkey, etc… will be realized.” I also found it difficult to follow some of the presentations because people were using a mix of foreign and English “alphabet soup” acronyms. "Decisions about the CFSP, otherwise known as GASP are made in working groups, which report to the PSK, which reports to COREPER, which reports to Council."

Embassy Reunion!

After the meetings were over, I dashed to the German Embassy to meet up with Wiebke, a former colleague who now works for the German ambassador in Brussels. It was a surreal experience to be at a German embassy somewhere other than Washington. There was a familiarity and level of comfort that was odd and inviting at the same time. The ambassador was extremely nice and sat down with me for a good 10 minutes or so to hear about my project. Wiebke and I then met up with Roric, another former colleague. The evening was filled with good conversation, good food and good friends, what could be better!

Friday was my day—briefings at my favorite international institution, NATO. (Yes, I have a favorite international institution… it’s the geek equivalent of having a favorite fussball or football team;-)) Anyway, NATO seemed to have more tangible goals than the EU, but is also in a period of reform and change. Surprisingly, the Russians had lots of questions about the NATO-Russian relationship, but the meeting was not as charged as when we went to the defense ministry in Bonn. The highlight of the day was lunch at the German ambassador to NATO’s residence. If lunch was a window into the world of a diplomat working in Europe, I want in! The first course was a filo dough basket filled with asparagus, sesame crusted langoustines and leeks in a lobster cream sauce. The main course was salmon wrapped in leek leaves with a corn fritter, tempura red pepper and something else that I can’t remember. The main course got a few minus points because each plate was served with a giant crawfish. Though surely a delicacy, I prefer my lunch plate to be face free! Dessert was a strawberry and mint mousse topped with fresh raspberries and served with warm brownies and mint tea. If it had been remotely appropriate, I would have taken a picture of each course. I think I might still be full!

With the 14-day study trip finished on Saturday, I headed to the US embassy to take the Foreign Service written exam, AGAIN. Hopefully I will be offered a job based on my most recent interview. But since the written test is only offered once/year, I decided that I should test again to keep myself eligible to another interview if need be. It might have been a bit more difficult than in years past, but overall not too bad.

After a quick stroll through the Grand Place and a waffle to celebrate the conclusion of the test, I met Wiebke and we took the train to Gent. Gent is a marvelous Flemish city 30 minutes north of Brussels that is most famous for its cathedral containing Jan van Eyck’s “The Adoration of the Lamb” altarpiece. Wiebke and I raced to get to the church before it closed and spent a good 45 minutes examining the paintings. It was by far the most magnificent work of art I have ever seen. The colors were vibrant, the details meticulous and the symbolism and history fascinating. The rest of Gent is also fantastic. My hotel, though a bit run down, overlooked a castle where bagpipers played until sunset. The old houses lining the canals have not changed a bit since the Dutch masters first painted them in their pictures centuries ago.

there were bikes EVERYWHERE!

boat tour

On Sunday, I visited the city’s many open-air markets and took a small boat tour. Then it was back to Brussels to catch a train to Cologne. I had time to say a quick hi to Torsten and then catch my plane to Berlin. The final part of my adventure was landing at Tempelhof airport. Used to facilitate the Berlin Airlift after WWII, the airport is a historic landmark. It will probably be closed soon, so it was neat to land there once. The main terminal looks like it is straight out of the 50’s. The view of the TV tower as we landed was also incredible.

So now I am back in Berlin. One load of laundry is finished; one’s in the washing machine and a third is waiting. Hopefully everything will be dry by late afternoon so I can pack my suitcase again and leave for the States tomorrow. The slight kink in my plans is that I think I discovered a leak in my bathroom ceiling. I guess the landlady will be my first call of the day. Always an adventure!


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