Last week I found myself making a rather difficult decision: do I buy a pack of cigarettes or do I instead invest it on a new scarf. It really was a ‘one or the other’ situation. My debit card had run dry and I had, for around twenty-four hours, just €7 to my name. I rationalised the situation in my head. Brussels is cold, and I scarf would alleviate that. But so do cigarettes, plus they give me the nicotine my body needs. It was a no-brainer.
Needless to say, my life in Brussels is far from glamorous. After work I return to a crowded house with a maggot-infested kitchen and tepid heating. I have moved from Sainsbury’s to Lidl and meticulously count pennies to pay for laundry. Much like university, everything is an investment, but without the student deals and ability to head home when you need a decent meal.
But Brussels is, for obvious reasons, an interns city, something which makes the feeling of relative poverty somewhat more bearable. You might not be able to afford that new pair of shoes you wanted, but there will always be someone else with even less than you.
You very quickly learn that ‘intern’ is a little more than just title, but an entire umbrella term which covers everything from the Twitter-savvy communications intern working at an NGO to the assistant of an MEP or Permanent Representative.
My house bears evidence of this. The dilapidated town house manages to squeeze in thirteen people. In the mix I find myself living with James, my British compatriot who works at Concord, an umbrella organisation of NGOs with whom my office works closely with, and Ana, a Portuguese girl whose agricultural lobbying group actively endorses biofuels, the product Oxfam spends a large amount of time campaigning against.
Naturally, the diversity of nationalities (my house alone has eight different ones) and range of jobs creates a very active intern culture which culminates every Thursday night for happy hour by the European Parliament.
Naturally, the event is a key opportunity for ‘networking’, one of the Brussels Bubble’s favourite words.
Upon first glance you can make key assertions as to what business people intern for. Suits with ties is emblematic of the private sector intern (almost always paid at least 800 euros a month), whilst slightly worse-fitting suits might represent the Brussels institutions. Then there are the NGO, think-tanks and small business interns, a significant minority within the city, wearing their shirts and jeans.
Rumours about the levels of debauchery these gatherings of interns can reach are far and wide, but I am yet to see it myself. Another intern in my office tells me the stories, but notes that – given the ambitious, dog-eat-dog world of interns – those who work in NGOs rarely find conversation with the expert networkers. “We stick to our own kind”, he said.
And so, come Thursday night, I find myself again with only loose change as I attempt to buy my half-priced beer. I watch as the private-sector lobbyists pull fifty-euro notes out of their wallets, laughing with glee as they had out another business card. As you sip your beer, you might even frown a little and wonder why, as a development intern working for an NGO which makes a considerable impact on the world, you feel like the bottom of the heap.