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Transformed by a boring Brussels Mass

  • 25 January 2013

In Brussels it's snowing and the cold drives everyone indoors, to bars, offices and warm apartments, but inside the talk goes on.

Brussels is a talking city. In the bars outside the European parliament the young bureaucrats and staffers gather and 'network' over two euro pints of Belgian beer. Leaning back on their heels and stroking their cashmere scarves they will tell you with a glow of satisfaction that they 'simply adore the policy process', that they could talk all day about wheat subsidies and clean energy technology. They read fact books rather than mere novels and they keep up to date with the details of Canadian politics as an exotic hobby.

These fearsomely focused Eurocrats seem to have the same ruthless attitude as my Russian teacher in Yaroslavl some years ago — a terrifying woman who once sat me down and pronounced 'Bwen, you are a man and philosophy is for dreamers.'

But on the other hand Brussels is full of dreams — encapsulated in schemes, political movements, party politics and the ambitions of those hordes of interns who flood the city. The European project is of course the great dream and the young people who come here to work are animated by it — in one way or another.

The life of a young expat in Brussels is full of people, parties, work and daily drama — an endless stream of events, news and new faces. Life is as fast paced as Byron described:

Here was a sound of revelry by night,And Belgium's capital had gathered thenHer beauty and her chivalry, and brightThe lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.

The other night a group of us were having dinner in a noisy restaurant. The conversation turned from football to politics and then, as the dishes crowded the table and the wine flowed, to spirituality. We came to talking about being young and Catholic in Brussels, and our conversation made apparent a common experience: we're all swept up in the fast stream of life here while at the same time trying to make space for 'the world of the spirit'.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has a phrase for it: religious faith, he writes, points us towards 'a deeper transformation' in our lives, an uncovering of buried intuitions. What we're