The weather should be better than in Brussels. Hopefully. My colleague compares the weather in both European Union official cities as I talk to him about European Commission trainees’ two-day trip to Strasbourg organised by the Politics and International Relations subcommittee.
Around 50 of us board the bus on the early, bright morning of May 19th from Brussels to Strasbourg. During the journey, I overhear some trainees discussing the previous night’s Eurovision song contest, some others are already planning what to do when in Strasbourg. There are some who just take a nap or read a book and perhaps there are others like me who naïvely hope these are going to be two warm days in Strasbourg.
No such luck! As we arrive at Strasbourg Gare Centrale, we are immediately embraced by rain or perhaps we just brought it with us from Brussels to ensure we have it for the next two days. Thus, the Alsatian city close to the border with Germany doesn’t gift us with long walks admiring its gorgeous architecture. Instead, we move “from seat to seat” as my South African friend precisely describes, trying to avoid unwelcome showers over our shoulders.
Seat No. 1: Cathedral
We split into different groups as the rest of the day and the next day’s morning is free. I am sticking to my Romanian friend, and I am happy she has an umbrella. The first place that gives us a “seat” is Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. This outstanding building of gothic architecture rises high in the rainy sky and becomes a perfect meeting point throughout the entire trip beating the famous local meeting spot, Place Kleber. No wonder the cathedral and its surroundings wins over audiences. As the tallest and most majestic amongst surrounding buildings, it gathers vendors who sell postcards, puppets, bags and mugs. A man plays an accordion, his companion blows a trumpet, the oldest restaurant in Strasbourg sits peacefully just in front of the cathedral; tourists smile and take photos, and the beautifully-dressed dolls in the windows from buildings opposite never stop gazing at the Strasbourg’s grace and glory, and never stop listening to its melodious bells.
Seat No. 2: Bakery
We can hardly find aanywhere to have a coffee next morning when we have to wait some time before entering Tomi Ungerer’s museum. But as we walk through the streets and see a man passing by with a pastry in his hands, we are relieved. There should be a bakery nearby. This is the time to notice that waiters and waitresses here rather speak German than English. If you are a foreigner who doesn’t speak any of those – French or German – some places might be troublesome. Here, I remember my desperate endeavors to use my hands to communicate at a pizzeria the day before. I was trying to explain that I wanted to exchange my espresso for a larger cup of coffee but in vain. Luckily, there was a trainee who spoke some French and was able to help me. This morning, I am doubly delighted. The waitress speaks a little English. And I get quite a large cup of cappuccino, unusual to the petite French-style cups.
Seat No. 3: The Museum of Tomi Ungerer
It’s 12 o’clock and we are ready for Tomi Ungerer’s museum. The famous Strasbourg-born cartoonist and caricaturist addresses different topics in his drawings. He uses satire to deliver meaningful messages about racism, integration, the Vietnam War and other social issues. There are also his beloved children’s illustrations. These all live in the two-storey house that exhibits Tomi Ungerer’s works of drawings and videos. The museum also reveals how this award winning illustrator and story-teller started his career and left for New York with 60 dollars in his pocket.
Seats No. 4 + 5: Canteen and Cafe
It’s still raining outside, and we quickly exchange the white couches at Tomi Ungerer’s museum for red ones at the first canteen we see to stop for lunch. This lasts for some time until we dare to venture out in the rain again to find another café. We find it hiding somewhere near Place Kleber. It looks rather dark inside, but the couches are soft and comfy. A man in the corner is peeling a load of oranges. They don’t have many customers, and we manage to capture the attention of a charming waiter who is patient with our various requests. He surprises us with creamy hot chocolate drinks. The man in the corner is still peeling oranges. A fruity fragrance spreads across the café, and the radio plays a song of the French band Phoenix.
Seat No. 6: The plenary
We leave the café humming the sweet melody of the song Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men (the last one we heard on the radio) and try to be as quick as possible to get to the tram stop. By the time we reach it, my fabric shoes are completely soaked. “I hope you have waterproof socks,” my South African friend cracks a joke. I catch myself thinking that I would rather be sitting in a bus now, but then the awaited parliament appears grand and mighty in front of us with colorful slogan “Your Peace, Your Prize” in all the EU languages. After security check, which was less painful than we had anticipated we immediately run to the plenary where important people are discussing the topic of renewable energy. I listen to all the different translations as everyone speaks in their mother tongue. My feet are wet and cold, but happy to lie on the warm ground.
Seat No. 7: The meeting with MEPs
New parliament seats are waiting for us as we leave the plenary for our arranged meeting with MEPs. We arrive 3 minutes late as noticed by Finnish MEP Nils Torvalds (ALDE). He speaks about over-optimism that politicians often have. Because of that we don’t always see the problems the way they are, he says. From North we move to South, as the Finnish speaker is followed by Cypriot MEP Ms Antigoni Papadopoulou (S&D) who stresses that sometimes Scandinavian cultures are more progressive than the Southern ones - more traditional and conservative. She is short of time however she gladly opens the floor to our questions. We learn about just how busy MEPs are and right after this visit, my friend who is familiar with their work adds that a day in the life of an MEP could start at 7.45am and end at 9pm.
Our last day in Strasbourg ends at 10pm. We leave the Parliament. We leave the city. We leave these beautiful buildings decorated with lush green and plants and leaves that we would probably appreciate more on a hot summer day. Now we are happy to be on a bus that, according to the programme note prepared by organisers, “will wait for no one”. It doesn’t have to. We request leaving the cold and rainy Strasbourg half an hour earlier than planned.
Agnija Kazusa is a trainee at the European Commission DG Connect
All photos by Agnija Kazusa