My love affair with Brussels was immediate and true. For some reason, we just clicked. It’s like the old adage goes, “love always comes to you when you least expect it.” Well, that’s how I felt about Brussels. I never expected to fall in love with Brussels, in fact I didn’t know much about Brussels beyond the fact that it was famous for beer and chocolate (which was like hearing a prospective date is both funny and handsome). Beyond that, I didn’t expect us to click as much as we did and I never expected to find true love with Brussels, but I did.
When I arrived in Brussels to a do a three-month internship with the State Department, I found myself traveling on my own for the first time in my life. I had never traveled alone before, especially abroad no less, so it was intimidating at first. I still remember how full of anxiety I was before I left. I was worried I would miss my flight, I was worried about getting a taxi at the airport when I arrived, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find the apartment I was going to stay in for the next three months. Luckily, I didn’t miss my flight, I had no trouble getting a taxi from the airport and I found my apartment and met my two roommates with no problem.
My internship with the State Department was so worth leaving my job for. I was a clerk with the Court when I accepted the internship to work as an intern in the Public Affairs Division of the US Mission to NATO. The internship seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity, even if it was unpaid, so I couldn’t pass it up. Working for the State Department has always been on my radar, yet I always had fear of applying to be a Foreign Service Officer because I was scared of living abroad. However, the experience of working as an intern completely killed that fear and opened me up to so many new experiences.
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a bit of a mystery to people in the States, and hell even to people in Europe. When I told my coworkers I was quitting to go work as an intern for NATO most were confused. “I heard you are going to be an intern with the CIA?” a coworker asked me.
Even when I told my new Belgian roommates the reason for my stay, they were confused. “What is NATO?” they asked.
As an intern with NATO, one of the first things I did was learn as much as I could about NATO. NATO is an inter-governmental military alliance created as a result of the North Atlantic Treaty. There are 28 members in NATO (the U.S. being among them) and the focus is on collective defense – an attack on one is an attack on all.
I also learned that NATO has one of the most impressive cafeterias I have ever seen. Working as an intern at NATO one of my favorites times was lunch time as the cafeteria was huge and had incredibly good food for cafeteria food. It was also quite a sight to see military personnel, civilians, and diplomats from all over milling around the cafeteria. Sometimes it felt completely surreal.
When I wasn’t working as an intern, I was exploring Belgium and deepening our love. Belgium has such an extensive and inexpensive train system that every weekend I would jet off to explore more of Belgium.
During my explorations of Belgium, I met a cute Irishman in Antwerp, got lost in Ghent, went on a tour of the Stella brewery in Leuven, and fell in love with someone special in Bruges after we missed the last train back to Brussels and found ourselves stranded in Bruges for the night. We roamed around Bruges, searching for an open bar to have a drink and bide our time as we waited for the earliest train back.
Getting stranded in a romantic, medieval town isn’t exactly the worst thing to ever happen. We spent that night strolling the cobblestone streets, taking pictures of the large belfry and we even found ourselves sharing a smoke with some high school kids from Switzerland who were with us at the only bar that was open till four in the morning. That is also the moment where we both finally admitted to ourselves we were in love after having spent the previous eight months in a nebulous, “are we a couple or not?” relationship.
By the time the summer had ended and fall had begun, it was time for me to say goodbye to Brussels. Over the past three months Brussels had impressed me with its charm and character. I fell in love with the Grand Place every time I passed through. I fell in love with eating mussels and frites with mayonnaise. I fell in love with Speculoos (delicious shortbread cookies!). I even fell in love with the grittier side of Brussels near Gare du Nore where I lived. And I loved all the people I met during my time in Brussels – from my roommates, to those I worked with at NATO, and to some great ex-pats I met that made me feel at home. And of course I fell in love with my best friend.
Ultimately, Belgium stole my heart. When Brussels was struck by terrorist attacks in 2016, my heart was broken. Even though our time was short, I left a big piece of my heart in Belgium. Like many stories of true love, I just know we will meet again.