Traineeships in Brussels for fighting intolerance

It’s a great temptation for journalists – and not the most dangerous one – to attend conferences. Before you even know it, suddenly here you are with a microphone in front of you – at this point you take a deep breath – it’s too late, there’s no going back. It happens, but some conferences do have a pleasant aftertaste. It always depends on the audience, sometimes on the place, and at other times on the atmosphere or an event. On Friday the audience was wonderful and the place fascinating; there was an excellent atmosphere and something very surprising happened. Brussels, the Charlemagne building, headquarters of the Council of the European Union. The Commission’s translators had asked me to talk about "how Italian is changing in the world of communications", and they proved to be very attentive listeners, not at all like those audiences you get, soporific, digesting their food after a long lunch and pretending to be interested. Even Romano Prodi was there for an hour, as part of his farewell tour. I explained to him how to write text messages to Berlusconi and he seemed very interested. I enjoyed going back, a quarter of a century later, to the place where I first started dreaming about my career. I remember taking timid steps alongside the Berlaymont building, which has been reopened recently. It was the autumn of 1979: I was a twenty-two-year-old trainee, not earning very much but very happy, with a doctoral thesis to write and hair which was a different colour; I had a miniscule apartment and a brown Fiat 127. Trainees continue to arrive at the Commission, so that they can leave home, discover Europe and learn a thing or two. A couple of them had gatecrashed the conference (nobody can gatecrash like a trainee) and at the end they came to talk to me. "Are you coming to our party tonight?" I gave them my mobile number. During the afternoon, a message arrived. "The place is called ‘La Bouche à L’Oreille’. Next to the Parc du Cinquantenaire. About 11p.m. See you there. It’ll be a blast." I went and I can tell you now – it was more of a blast in 1979. Trainees today are bigger, more qualified and – apparently – calmer. Italian boys and girls mingled with cultivated Germans, smiling Spanish, dark-skinned Greeks and fair-haired Dutch. Milan and Rome, Catania and Padova, Pescara and Pavia; in Italy they would be arguing with each other, but here they began to get along. Many were Erasmus students – a European programme introduced in 1987, which enables students to study in another country. They all seemed happy to be far away, free, with their house keys in their pocket, with Saturday morning to look forward to and work waiting for them on Monday. I understand them, but I can’t tell them that. I envy them, but it would be better if I kept that to myself. I admire them, to some extent – there is a certain brightness to their eyes, which outshines the dim lights of Brussels. They arrive here and they are Italian, Swedish, British, Polish – when they leave they will be European. I know that might sound like such a cliché, but it’s true. You can be sure that these young people won’t say ignorant things about other nations, and they show no national resentment. The will see the differences, whatever they are, but they appreciate them and play on them, knowing that they are taking a bite of what Europe has to offer. Traineeships at the Commission and the Erasmus programme are worth every penny the European Union spends on them. I said as much to Prodi too, who seemed to agree. They are a sensible investment and I wonder how many of those we make nowadays. They are a way of embracing new customs and meeting lots of people – 25 years later and the best friends I have in Europe are those I made during my evenings out in Brussels. The Erasmus programme and traineeships are an excellent way of fighting intolerance. I’m convinced that, when faced with certain xenophobic comments, protesting gets you nowhere. We need to put a suitcase and an airline ticket in the hands of the offender. Go on, get out. When they come back, they won’t make such stupid comments anymore. I’m saying all this for me and for you, of course. The people in Brussels know all this already, and they keep it to themselves.

(Corriere della Sera, 21 October 2004)

Beppe Severgnini
English translation by Giles Watson

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