Banter from Brabant

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Five Weeks in Brussels

So, I figure I should write something about the school I am attending in Brussels. The school is small with about 100 Master's students and a few PhD students. The faculty is compromised by four main professors and a couple adjuncts.

"The Dean" is the main professor for the dominant International Relations program. (My program is International Political Economy). He is very difficult to take seriously. He is about 45 and, as it is the very first thing posted on his public resume, his "Marital Status is Single.' He obtained his PhD from the University of Kent when he was 23 -- a fact that he has stated more than once. He has meticulously styled long hair that he continually brushes back in a deliberately dramatic fashion while giving lectures about the merits of Positivism in Social Science. If any of you have SS degrees, you will know that positivism is the use of natural science methodology in the social sciences and suffers from the severe shortcomings. Not only does it masquerade as objective truth when contradictory empirical evidence usually exists, it also fails to capture the 'unobservables' such as cultural distortions on reality perception. He of course used natural science examples in medicinal advancement as proof of the validity of Positivism in Social Science. Such is an invalid set of examples.

Another fact he oft reminds us of is his regular attendance at the 'gym' to pump some iron. However, this he does through obviously conscious body language rather than actual words. For instance, he will have a sport jacket on at the beginning of lecture but, sometime through the hour, when the attention is focused on him, he will casually take it off and drape it over the chair. Lo and behold, what does he wear under the jacket but a ridiculously tight muscle-shirt! And soon we have him flexing like Uncle Rico. The guy is an eye-roller I tell you. Of course the general consensus is that he is after the female students -- but nothing has thus far been confirmed.

However, with said personal opinions aside, some of his lectures are clear and useful. I would not however think him up to par with the faculty member responsible for the International Political Economy (IPE) program. She is originally from Bulgaria and was an active student during the 1989 revolution there. She obtained a PhD from the New School of Social Research which is a highly influential university for a particular strand of contemporary Social Science Theory -- along with Frankfurt in Germany (The Frankfurt School). A likeable strand of thought in my opinion. She is more of a 'teacher' than the Dean and is easily approachable with questions. I am taking a class with her called ‘States, Markets, and Society.’ Good stuff.

The other two main professors of the school are leaders of the Law and Migration Studies areas and therefore I have less contact with them. However, I am taking a law class entitled International Economic Regulation, which, I must say, is quite enlightening. This is taught by the main Law Professor – a Dutchman with a British English accent. The class mainly points out the lack of actual international economic regulation from a legal point of view. If one were to compare the amount of regulations for domestic commerce, the international scene is quite light. Because international commerce has been accelerating faster than legalities can be worked out between countries, private companies have been opting for arbitration of disputes by an ‘international arbitration tribunals’. These are also private. Therefore, the international commercial/legal field could be described as having two groups of lawyers (private corporate representation, and lawyers from arbitration tribunals) creating de facto laws of international commerce behind closed doors. From this critical point of view, the argument states that these groups are undermining democratic legitimacy in the creation of de facto laws without congressional debate. However, because the arbitration panels have no enforcement mechanism, the value of the judgement is based on the good-will of both parties. Therefore, these tribunals only erode democratic legitimacy if national governments enforce the arbitration results. Evidently, for the sake of free-markets, governments tend to do so. Perhaps a student of law could tell me how I am oversimplifying this? Hmm...

ANYWAY, we could say its all a bunch of biased academic BS spewed forth by 'liberal professors', and even worse, liberal European professors! I need some no-spin O'Reilly Factor over here to relieve some of this mind-pollution with dose of O’Reality! Har har. So, by the way, how is the media environment now that elections are almost upon us? I bet it is fun.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Fine Day

As I was walking home from class this morning, I took notice of the beautiful day – warm, sunny – I am talking mid-60’s, which I understand is unseasonably warm for Belgium. It has been fairly dry as well with little rain in the past 2 weeks. I think I have used my umbrella just twice since I arrived!

I decided to compare this fine weather with the states. Now I hate to gloat, but 35 – feels like 25? What? (I guess it is about 6am there…) It is sure to snow on Halloween – and I will be thinking about you poor mothers and fathers who will be walking around endlessly during Trick or Treat. I do hope for finer weather. In fact, I remember one such Halloween… a foot of snow, but Sam and I were bound and determined to get our candy, much, I am sure, to my mother and father’s dismay. Does anyone remember our costume that year? Were we snow people? ;)

Do not be too jealous… while it is a fine day and appears that it will be a fine weekend, I am not to enjoy it. First, we have been jolted from sleep nearly each day this week by an incessant jack-hammering. It seems that in Belgium, it is perfectly acceptable to begin such noisy work at 6:30AM! Unbelievable. Those of you who know me will understand… I am not a morning person. If they are work over the weekend, there may be war. In addition to being tired, I have an alarming amount of papers and presentations during the month of October, which will keep me chained to the library all day, every day. I will be heading there shortly after my lunch of tuna melt and chicken noodle soup (which is more like chicken broth, actually).

Despite being tired, I am enjoying the day for what it is. I had an early class, and I am starting to appreciate the early start to the day. (Perhaps the biological clock is ticking in? I don’t think so…) On my way home from class, I have the luxury of enjoying a street market. Many of you know how I loved the farmers market in Minneapolis… and this one is ten times better (albeit a bit more expensive. The produce is the same price as the grocery store – sometimes more). The market itself is quite large – it spans all over the city, and you can really get lost in it. Today, I found a few things that I have been looking for such as homemade rhubarb sauce, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, etc. These things are not found in the grocery store. There are endless clothing sellers, bakeries, delis, produce sellers, crafts, and the list goes on and on.

And so I am off to the library to study. Tonight, we will be visiting a new friend (from Poland). It is apparently her name day, which is similar to a birthday, only you celebrate on the day that your name is assigned. (I think they have a similar custom in Russia?) So two parties in one year to celebrate yourself;) I don’t know quite what to expect.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Initial Observations

We have been negligent, and we apologize. School is in full swing at this point, and while we are only in the second week, it is clear that we will be kept very busy. Let me also say that the lack of comments is discouraging… we love comments! Let your opinions be known! We can’t bite… we are too far away.

Many have inquired about the cultural differences we are experiencing in Leuven, and I will attempt to cover this topic in brief in this post.

One of the first observations that we shared is related to language. It is well known that most Europeans – especially the younger generation – know English very well. However, we always aim to be polite in our communication with other cultures. The best way that we know is to ask “Spreekt u Engels” in Dutch when beginning a conversation with someone in Leuven. The general reaction to this attempt to be polite is a condescending laugh, followed by “of course”. It is likely that they think it is funny that we are even bothering since this town is full of students who likely do not bother with politeness.

The other odd thing worth a brief mention is that Flemish students return to their mother/father every weekend instead of staying in the city. Granted, Belgium is rather small, and you can get nearly anywhere in about 2 hours or so. (Mind you, I speak of the Flemish side… the French side have their own University connected to the University that Beth attends in Leuven… a long story, but there are few, if any, students from the French side of Belgium in Leuven.) This means that the biggest party night in Leuven is Thursday since the whole city nearly clears out for the weekend. We beleive this is odd because we tended to prefer to stay at college when we were attending – you never know what you may miss if you leave.

Finally, people walk SLOW! We walk fast, so adjusting to this pace has been difficult. That’s all we have to say about that.

Although we have been noticing the cultural differences, we have not experienced culture shock. Rather the opposite… we both agree that we are beginning to feel agitated with daily life in some ways. The biggest agitator is walking around on the sidewalks. As I mentioned above, people walk SLOW. And if in groups, they tend to walk side-by-side – VERY SLOWLY. Two people walking side-by-side is one thing, but when you have three or four, it is a pain. It throws us off track; we stumble around, and finally get around them by moving onto the street. I know this happens most everywhere, but it never fails to agitate.

Do not think that we are not appreciating our experience – we still are. We are now conscience of what annoys, and find ways to change our attitude about them.