Belgium is at the crossroads of Europe
As a political entity, it is relatively young, existing as an independent state only since 1830. However, as a geographic entity, it is ancient and it has occupied a prominent place throughout European history. Indeed, it is said that Belgium has provided the stage and the actors for the greatest dramas in European history.
It was here that Julius Caesar encountered “the most fierce of the Gauls.” It was here that William I of Orange launched the rebellion against Spain that would lead to the independence of the Netherlands. It was here that Louis XIV battled the Spanish and the English. It was here that Napoleon met his Waterloo. It was here that the Britain Empire lost a generation of her finest young men in the trenches surrounding Ypres. It was here that the American army drove back the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, to this day the largest battle in American military history.
These days, Belgium’s place in history is far less violent, but it remains the meeting point of every European culture. The presence of the European Union and NATO gives Brussels a distinctly European atmosphere. Almost every country in the world is diplomatically represented in Brussels, and many countries have as many as three embassies: one to the Kingdom of Belgium, one to the European Union, and one to NATO. As a result, Brussels has both the largest press corps and the largest collection of lobbyists in the world outside of Washington, DC. Brussels is truly an international political capital.
One can hear just about every European language spoken in Brussels, plus languages from around the world. In the north of Belgium, called Flanders, the official language is Dutch. In the south of the country, called Wallonia, the official language is French. The city of Brussels is officially bilingual, with French and Dutch used for all contacts with the government. At night, Brussels is predominately French-speaking, as more than eighty percent of the residents of the Brussels Region are francophone. However, by day the city is much more bilingual as people in the Flemish periphery come to work in Brussels. Almost everyone speaks at least some English, and American students are often dazzled by the linguistic skills of the Belgians and other Europeans that they encounter. So, if students want to practice their French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, etc., they have the opportunity in Brussels. However, students should not worry if they do not know another language. Everyone in Brussels likes to practice their English.
Beneath the hustle and bustle of European affairs lies the treasure one would expect in a European city with a one thousand year history. Elaborate guildhalls line the Grand Place of Brussels, the most beautiful city square in Europe. Every European architectural trend since the tenth century is represented in the city’s streets. The city’s museums feature paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from all over the world. Brussels maintains a style of life that is distinctly European.