Brussels: Coffee Instead of a Career
Translation by:Kait Bolongaro
At Place Lux in Brussels, European youth hope to find their dream job. Today, it overflows with business cards. This plaza is hated by young graduates with dashed hopes and adored by young entrepreneurs who are now earning big money here. Welcome to the place where the dreams of a European career are crushed.
"Three cappuccinos with soy milk, one normal, two espressos and extra sugar, please." Flavia rolls her eyes on the inside. When such an order comes, she knows what it means. A trainee from the European Parliament has been sent to fetch coffee for his entire department. The young Greek nervously stares at his piece of paper, overwhelmed by the many special requests. Flavia smiles at him encouragingly. She too would have been charged with such tasks if she had been accepted for an internship at the European Parliament. But, she wasn't.
A year ago, the Italian came to Brussels — one of around 8000 young people from across Europe who flock to Belgium's capital each year. All share the hope of securing an internship to kickstart their career in one of the many EU institutions. Flavia was convinced that doors would open for her after studying Political Science in Rome. Pretty naive, she says today.
Too naive for Brussels?
"I handed out my CV everywhere, like flyers, but nobody took me. There is too much competition here." Steam from the dishwasher envelops the 23-year old. Now, Flavia is working behind the counter of a café, serving those whose ranks she desired to join. Always smelling of freshly brewed coffee, Karsmakers is located directly across from the gigantic EU Parliament building. At lunchtime, the queue of well-dressed parliamentarians snakes into the street. Here, you have to move quickly. Flavia ties her dark hair back in a ponytail, throws a cloth over her shoulder and grabs the tray of bagels. She serves customers with agile movements. Politics eats lunch here. The small Italian disappears among the black suits. Disappointed, she notes: "Hardly anyone knows that I also studied political science. For most of them, I am nothing more than the many other waitresses at Place Lux."
Politics takes its lunch break at flavia's café
Place Lux is the monicker used by insiders for Place du Luxembourg. One MEP affectionately called it the beating heart of Brussels. The 1,200 m² surface on the front steps of the European Parliament, with its many bars and cafés, has become one of the most popular meeting points of a generation of European politicians or those who want to become one.
Thomas walks around the plaza, concentrated. Only a few hundred metres from Karsmakers, the 27-year-old Belgian manages Coco, one of the trendiest bars in the city. Through an earpiece, he outlines the current situation to his employees. Today is Thursday. And Thursday means the dinging of the cash register for Thomas. Although there is still quiet in the warm afternoon sun, but young Europe will soon descend on this place. "As many as 3,000 people party here. It's a unique experience," the Brussels native explains enthusiastically. Parliamentarians make up 95% of his best customers. So it is not surprising that the tables are tightly clinging to the curb, dangerously close to the road, and signboards advertise their Happy Hour specials to attract well-paying customers.
Music Blares, loosen the ties
After work, all those who keep EU apparatus turning spill out onto the plaza. The sounds of Europe are everywhere — a wild babel of languages fills the place. Beer cups are filled every second, music blares from the speakers, ties are loosened. Trainees banter together on the small green area at the centre of the square. However, there is something more important than Aperol and beer. The eyes of those who are only in Brussels for a short time scan their surroundings restlessly back and forth. Here, one will see and be seen. Lobbyists looking for parliamentarians, interns for MEPs — all hunting for important contacts. Thomas smiles while looking at the industrious exchange of business cards. Networking is ultimately his business.
"On the weekend, however, there is hardly anything going on because nobody is working here. Except for the few lost toursits, it looks like the Grand Canyon. You can scream out loud, but the echo comes back. It's a strange place. Even those from Brussels do not come here." Even Thomas didn't know what to make of it at first. Until he smelled big money. Since then, he spends almost every day here and puts all his energy into this little bar. The businessman tolerates the dark circles under his eyes. It is the many young people who came looking for a career that enabled him to advance in his own career path.
Politics? Never again
Until recently, Flavia was still hoping that Brussels would be her springboard. For this petite woman with shining brown eyes, Place Lux means not only work, but above all, the end of a dream. "The world of politics frustrates me. Even if I only serve coffee here, I understand more than I would like. Ultimately, it is all talk with little action. Despite that there are really important issues."
For example, youth unemployment in her home country. In Italy, the rate was 42.4% in January. Flavia has decided to return to Rome to begin her master's degree, but she knows that she will have a hard time there as a young student. Part-time jobs are poorly paid and there is a low probability of finding a good job. "My father tried to convince me not to come back because it is even more difficult there," says Flavia. Therefore, she is now trying to save as much money as possible. But even if she did not achieve her dream, the ambitious young woman does not regret coming to Brussels. "At least I gained valuable insight into the 'EU bubble,' although not as I'd hoped. But now I am more certain about which direction I want to go. And it is certainly not into politics."
Shortly after eight o'clock. While networking is in full swing at Place Lux and Thomas orders new beer kegs, Flavia closes Karsmakers and hurries toward the subway. She is happy to be able to turn her back on the plaza. Nevertheless, Place Lux is unique, you have to give it that.
THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SPECIAL EDITION DEDICATED TO BRUSSELS as part of the PROJECT "EU-TOPIA TIME TO VOTE" INITIATED BY Cafébabel, IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE FOUNDATION Hippocrene, THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION, THE DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND THE FOUNDATION EVENtS.
Translated from Brüssel: Kaffee statt Karriere