Brussels: Coffee Instead of a Career

Article published on June 30, 2014
Article published on June 30, 2014

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.