Having been selected for the NATO Practicum almost a year ago, I can finally say that I am in Belgium! I am spending the semester working at the NATO Supreme Allied Command Transformation Staff Element Europe Legal Advisors office (or SACT SEE LEGAD for short) just outside the city of Mons. The office is located at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (or SHAPE), which is essentially a military base. While SHAPE has everything you would ever need, I have rented an apartment in the center of Mons, which makes it easy to shop and sample the wonderful Belgian food and beers.
I studied abroad in Australia during my undergraduate studies, but this is my first experience in Europe. I can happily report that it has exceeded expectations already in the few days I have been here. Mons is a beautiful city with stone streets, historic churches, and friendly people. Even though we are well into 2013, the city was still decorated for Christmas and New Years celebrations until January 6. There was even a skating rink and shops in La Grand Place (the center square) that are similar to those at Bryant Park at home in NYC.
SHAPE is a short walk and a quick bus ride from my apartment. The days are short here, with the sun only being up from about 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM, but the mornings are relatively quiet since none of the cars seem to have horns and all the drivers yield to pedestrians. This quite different than the busy NYC I have called home for the last two years. I learned early on (actually my first day trying to get to work) that the busses don’t always run on time, but this is generally understood. Since SHAPE is a military base, I had to be escorted everywhere for the first two days until my paperwork could be processed and I could receive my IDs.
My first few weeks will be spent orienting myself to the office and doing background reading about how NATO and the legal office function. I will be attending trainings and briefings on the various projects and services available within our office and the base. One morning last week I was lucky enough to sit in on the morning update briefing where the generals from all of the departments give a report on the status of forces and developments in deployments and exercises. This experience really helped to give me a clearer picture of how all of the pieces of NATO work together. The list of acronyms, as you can maybe already tell, quickly becomes overwhelming and this helped put them in context.
French is the primary language spoken in Mons and it is also used frequently at SHAPE for pleasantries and informal conversation. My French is slowly returning from three years of repressed high school lessons. One of my goals while here is to greatly improve my French skills. SHAPE even offers language classes that I may take with one of my colleagues who relocated from the Czech Republic.