My once-in-a-lifetime travels from “Berlin to Brussels” are coming to an end. Too bad, my body is starting to give out! In order to be ready for the flight from Prague to Brussels, I didn’t make our visit to the German Embassy in Prague. The site is historic. Almost 25 years ago, more than 4,000 East Germans camped out on the embassy grounds until they were finally taken by train to West Germany! It marked the end of the “East German regime.”
The “Berlin Wall” fell November 9, 1989, later that month, a peaceful demonstration commemorating International Students Day, grew and grew. By December 1989, the Czech’s non-violence, up against riot police, rolled in the “Velvet Revolution” – ending communism in that country.
Wednesday, when we arrived in Brussels, I could feel a different kind of energy. The airy, beautiful airport was modern and packed. My head was turning left and right and left! I managed to snap a photo of a man pedaling a stationary bike, at a long desk. He was from Denmark. There was a row of people pedaling. That’s how they were charging their cell phones! Cool!
A bus took this group of RIAS German/American Exchange Journalists to our hotel. It’s right off “Grand Place,” a cobbled courtyard and downtown full of small hotels, restaurants, and chocolate shops! The day was getting long and we were hungry, so our leader – Rainer Hasters – took us quickly to one of his favorite places – “Chez Leon” – 1893. The popular meal of the day, and everyday – Mussels in white wine sauce (and other stuff), and french fries on the side. My daddy told me when you travel a lot, stick to meat (well-done steak) and potatoes, not seafood. I tried to play it safe. I ordered “fried” Mussels, because I’m from the “south” and I wanted to make sure the heat killed anything growing in them Mussels! But then I ate my friend Graham’s Mussels in the wine sauce! Delicious!
The stress on my body, again, is too much to handle Thursday morning. I am unable to attend the EC, all day meeting, at the European Union. I wanted to rest, to make sure I was able to make Friday’s visit to NATO. I actually never left the hotel, barely making it downstairs for breakfast. Our hotel – “Ibis Brussels off Grand Place” is one of those new “sleep-only-type” hotels. There is a small bathroom, half a tub, no pretty soaps and lotions, an open cube to hang two shirts, tiny desk and a big, comfortable bed! No frills, no pictures, no frig! (And no complimentary bottle of water!) There is nice, big open space for breakfast. There are breads, fruit, yogurt and hot water – so you can boil your own egg! I sorta feel like I’m living in an IKEA catalogue! That can be good and bad! SMILE! “Ibis” is mostly in Europe, they’re supposedly cheap and in city centers.
Friday morning, I was moving slow, but I managed to put on my least favorite outfit on this trip – my old grey suit – and make the trip to NATO. When you pull up to NATO, you see the flags from 28 member countries flying high. When you look across the street, you see the new NATO building, that’s still not complete yet. I would have taken a picture, but they confiscated our camers and cell phones at security in the parking lot!
I also can’t really tell you what anybody said, or else I would have to kill you! That’s not totally true! Allison Hart, Special Advisor – Public Diplomacy Division – was our host. She made it very clear, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a political, military organization, founded in 1949. And its purpose is to “safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.” The 28 NATO countires are of course, the US and Canada, and Europe. Russia was hoping for entry, but that doesn’t look like it will happen this generation! There was talk that maybe NATO should go away after the fall of the “Berlin Wall.” But then came September 11, 2001. That was the only time NATO invoked “Article 5 of the Washington Treaty” – which means, NATO members will always assist each other against attack.
But in case something happens in Europe, are the troops “here” to get the job done? At the end of the Cold War, the US had 300,000 troops in Europe, now it’s about 30,000. NATO makes it clear, they are NOT the UN, they are NOT the EU and they’re NOT the AU. Interesting.
It’s time to leave Brussels and all this good Belgian Chocolate! Too much to see and do, too little time. I like its cosmopolitan feel, the good food and art. I also like its diversity. Unlike the other cities I have visited, I have bumped into many people of color – from business-types in the airport to the African-European woman working at the from desk at “Ibis.” And I have seen several people who look African-American having fun, eating in restaurants, enjoying Brussels. A black Brazillian woman and her French husband helped me choose some chocolate to take home to North Carolina. We hugged! It was special. They say people spend as much time selecting the “right” piece of chocolate as they do choosing an engagement ring!
Oh! And I found my name-sake chocolate store – “Leonidas” Belgian Chocolate! Must sleep – leave by train Saturday morning, headed back to Berlin!