Brussels: the outside world
The trip was enlightening in a several ways. It was my first "business trip" and thus first taste of the bountiful glory of all-expenses-paid. It also gave me a behind the scenes glimpse at diplomacy, revealing how much of it really involves trying to find a dignified way to beg for money. Incidentally, in the end, we received only about 30% of the funds we asked for. There was some initial disappointment, and I got the feeling that the international community is often willing to invest in a project in order to get it off the ground (and on CNN), but unwilling to follow through with the long-term commitment the country needs. But, I think, in the end, the money will come. There will just have to be a good deal more begging (probably less dignified).
In general, the trip was also my very first time outside of the ex-Yugoslavia in almost 6 months. I hadn't realized that in that relatively short time span, already I had become accustomed to the absence of things that are routine in Western Europe. Tall buildings, and with no bullet holes! Traffic! Brand name clothing! Oh my! Another surprise was ethnic diversity. Somehow it had slipped my mind that I had been living in a city that is almost 99% white.
The traveling itself revealed more of my naivete. For the average Bosnian, venturing outside the Balkans is a huge ordeal. One must first obtain a visa, a very difficult process in and of itself, and, along the way, continually assure border officials that you are not trying to illegally immigrate, nor are you a Muslim terrorist. I had completely taken for granted the freedom of travel that I enjoy as a Canadian, when for most Bosnians taking a simple trip to western Europe is nearly impossible. I overheard more than one nostalgic comment about the old days of the widely-respected Yugoslav passport. As one official at the conference put it, "Many Bosnians today feel as if they're living in a glorified minimum-security prison."
Finally, the most noteable part of the trip was the fact that little old me, a 23-year old Canadian in Sarajevo for only 6 months, somehow ended up wearing a nametag identifying myself as a representative of Bosnia at the European Commission! I also spent a lot of time with the higher-ups in the Bosnian government -- the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Finance were all there, to name a few. To be more accurate, I spent a lot of time in close proximity to them, since none of them spoke much English and my Bosnian still barely extends beyond ordering another beer. But they seemed a jolly lot. I noticed that they had basically none of the trappings that we expect of Western governmental officals -- almost no security personnel, no enormous entourage, no diplomatic passports, no first-class tickets.
The oddest moment of the entire trip has to have been the post-conference dinner, where I found myself at a table with the Minister of Finance, the Chief Prosecutor, the Bosnian Ambassador to the Europe Union and some others -- and not a single native English speaker amongst them. I learned a lot of new words that night by osmosis, such as "More booze!" I also got the impression that the Minister of Finance, a gregarious old lady who was constantly telling the Prime Minister to shut up, was winking at me. I admit to being mildly terrified.
All in all, a great and fascinating trip. Now I'm back in Sarajevo for a few more weeks, with my final departure scheduled for April 19. I am already sad to leave after such an amazing and diverse experience, but at the same time looking forward to new horizons. There's still a couple weeks left though, so it's too early to get sentimental.
You can see some more pics from the trip here.