Today was our last day in Brussels! It’s incredible how so much time can pass without realizing it. We’ve spent roughly six weeks here, learning the ins and outs of this incredible city. It’s been a pleasure to learn so much about Belgian life through our host families and our many interactions with citizens. It’s bittersweet to think of all the hours spent in our favorite restaurants and bars and the countless trips to Maison Antoine that will end today. There are many lasting memories that we made and lots of times we’ll wish we could go back to. With one day left, there remained one final site visit in Brussels.
Late afternoon, we arrived at the Council of Europe where we were greeted by Ivan Volodin who holds the title of political advisor. Before we got to it, he presented us with a short video that outlined what the Council of Europe is exactly.
Often confused with the Council of the European Union, the Council of Europe is not an EU institution at all. It is composed of 47 member states that total about 820 million citizens. Each country in Europe is a part of the Council with the exception of Belarus. Established in 1949 after World War II, the focus of the Council was to create a safe place for countries to share and exchange opinions and values.
A human rights driven institution, the Council has 118 conventions to this day covering everything from torture to sports. The most notable being the European Convention on Human Rights (4 November 1950). The Convention abolished the use of the death penalty. The only European country that hasn’t signed is Russia, which hasn’t used the death penalty in over 20 years. Conventions aren’t limited to European countries though. Not all European countries must sign conventions and some are open to non-European countries.
There are several working parts that keep the Council functioning making it a complex body: the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Secretary General, and monitoring bodies. The European Court of Human Rights is composed of 47 judges (one from each member country) and hears cases regarding human rights from individuals, groups, or even governments. The Commissioner for Human Rights, not having much power, promotes awareness and protection of human rights and can provide criticisms of countries taking part in human rights violations. The Committee of Ministers is the primary decision-making body of the Council of Europe. Again, there are 47 foreign affairs ministers (one from each member country) that decide on policies and plans of action. The Parliamentary Assembly is the deliberative body made up of 318 members. The Assembly meets four times a year to make recommendations. The Secretary General co-ordinates activities and focuses on strategic planning and the administration of the Council’s operational program. Finally, the monitoring bodies are responsible for checking up on countries that have had to make reforms due to human rights violations. There are both independent experts and governmental evaluations. Definitely a complex institution, it was great to follow up Dr. Fabry’s earlier lecture on the Council of Europe with an informative visit to back it all up.
Last week in Paris, Dr. Birchfield asked us to consider how somewhere so foreign can feel like home so quickly. As I’ve reflected on it since, I begin to think about my first day in Brussels versus my final days. I was extremely overwhelmed on my first day. My host mom had me download the app that told what times the buses came at our stop and I recall scrolling through what seemed to be a never ending list thinking, “How will I remember this?” Not surprisingly, the first day that the program met up, I walked the 27 minutes. Upon realizing that I desperately needed to pull it together, I learned the metro, which happens not to be like Marta in the slightest, and the bus lines. It wasn’t that difficult and I’m glad that I did it early on.
As each of us on the program met every day and got closer, it made it easier to be away from home. We began realizing that a lot of us were in the same boat: new city, new friends, new experience. We figured it out together and got to know each other in the process. Each day was a new challenge until it wasn’t a challenge anymore; it was just normal. Every day it felt more and more like home. While it’s easy to sit back and think, “Yeah, it feels like home because I know what to do here”, that isn’t the entirety of it. It feels like home because of the people I’m surrounded with.
I think that if I were here on my own after this program, it wouldn’t quite feel the same. I would discover Brussels as my home in a new way, but it wouldn’t be the same as this summer. There’s something beautiful about being able to readjust your life in such a way that calling somewhere new “home” in a few short weeks feels okay.
Looking back, I realize that I’ve relied heavily on a lot of people during this trip to make Brussels “home” and they’ve become some of my best friends. Without those friends, I don’t know if I could call my parents from Stockholm and say “On my way home!” (meaning Brussels, but confusing them). Having people to lean on is what makes somewhere a home to me and it was easy to find that home in Brussels once I looked for it.
This is an incredible program that allows you to do unfathomable things, creating lasting relationships along the way and truly being an extraordinary experience.