A gap year: discover who you are, want to be
The Independent - 18 August 2006
By Sarah Hajibagheri
It’s fashionable for gappers to teach English in Ethiopia, backpack round Brazil, climb Kilimanjaro, protect baboons in Borneo and exploit their English accents in America. Their main aim is to explore and save the world, and to do it with a tenner to spare.
As my gap year draws to a close, I have yet to meet a tropical beast or don a backpack, but have nevertheless worked on behalf of an endangered species – the Tory party.
Combine working for the Conservative party with living in Brussels – famed for its grey Sixties architecture, fat cat Eurocrats and superfluous institutions – and maybe you’ll understand the unenthusiastic reaction of my liberal, baboon-loving, friends. Well, it turns out I am not a conventional girl: the seven months I spent in Brussels were the best of my life; igniting a passion for politics, Belgian beer and living abroad.
I’m starting a degree in politics, philosophy and economics in October, and I wanted to pursue these fields on my gap year, so I sent a flood of emails to politicians requesting work experience.
After an interview, I secured a six-month stagiaire (training internship) with Dr Charles Tannock, the Conservative MEP for London at the European Parliament.
Most MEPs reserve stagiaire positions for graduates; even then places are limited and highly sought after. Many stagiaire are unpaid; others gain a meagre allowance or anything up to €1 500 (about R14 000)a month.
Fortunately, Dr Tannock was generous, giving me a comfortable salary and expenses including Eurostar travel, language lessons and a contribution to my rent.
I was a tad intimidated when I first stepped off the Eurostar. I came clutching my A-Level grades, but no textbook could prepare me for six months working for a top politician, or a debate with Chinese government representatives on my first day! Alone in a foreign country with no friends, having just turned 18 and living independently for the first time, I had the added misfortune of GCSE German (why didn’t I choose French?). Ok, I was very intimidated.
I had so many preconceptions about Brussels – not to mention the Tories – coloured mostly by the tabloid press. I half expected to be working alongside tweed wearing, hunt-enthusiast Etonians with double-barrelled surnames and five-figure bank accounts. No such thing. Brussels is a melting pot of nationalities; a fluid mix of people centred primarily around politics or business. I became friends with South African air hostesses, Texan oil merchants, Scottish competition lawyers, Latvian investment bankers, Belgian poets and an awful lot of Tories. The parts of Brussels yet to be tarnished by EU buildings are beautiful and full of history. Furthermore, Ghent and Bruges are just a cheap train fare away, as are Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam. The quality of life is superb – jump on a train and you can go skiing for the weekend, or just explore another beer festival.
The European Parliament is a huge glass building in an otherwise unsightly part of town. Inside I met a team of friendly, passionate and dedicated politicians with only an occasional splash of tweed. They weren’t chasing fame or engaging in political gimmicks involving chameleons or iPods. You probably have no idea who your local MEP, is let alone what they do; but, like it or not, more laws come from the Continent than Westminster nowadays. MEPs work hard for your interests, supported by a strong backbone of bright young things, yet few gain recognition back in Blighty.
My work varied from day to day. If you do apply, ensure you research the specialities of your MEP thoroughly as you could be following their committees, which range from fisheries to foreign affairs. Fish don’t really do it for me, so I was pleased that Dr Tannock, the Conservative Foreign Affairs spokesperson, took me on, as I have always been intrigued by international relations.
I frequently wrote parliamentary questions. Dr Tannock was a vocal representative and I dealt with constituent correspondence as well as preparing research for speeches. I gained a comprehensive understanding of European issues, which are often depicted in black and white terms back home. I was particularly interested in the relationship between the press and politics, so I would orchestrate interviews, attend press conferences, and evaluate coverage. That led to me being offered a placement with Reuters in Brussels.
My most abiding memories are of the contentious parliament in Strasbourg. Debates and preparation for reports happen in Brussels, but once a month the whole building commutes to France to yet another parliament just to vote.
Strasbourg sessions are always more compact and as a result more stimulating than Brussels. You share a small office, desk and PC with your MEP, and a host of resolutions and votes that have taken months to prepare go through in just a few days. The close proximity was a privilege for me and I learnt a great deal. Dr Tannock regularly quizzes ambassadors over humanitarian violations in their countries, and my personal favourite was watching him tackle representatives from across the political spectrum over the wording of influential foreign affairs resolutions on the Middle East. It was a real education.
It is also customary for MEPs and staff to mix more in the evenings, often dining together. I would wind up in one tavern or another with some of the young MEPs. Neil Parish, the Conservative Agricultural spokesperson, would drive me and a few other staff up to Strasbourg, and taught me a lot about cattle (farms abound on that five hour drive). It’s easy to put on weight living it up in Belgium. You start the day with a morning waffle, and follow that with a brunch debate over newspapers, croissant and coffee. Then comes lunch, the Belgian national dish of “frites avec mayo”. Belgian chocolates combat mid-afternoon munchies. Every night you drink lashings of beer (all in the name of networking), and then there is the occasional 4am kebab.
Away from the diet of excess, you can eat very well and affordably in Brussels.
So I find myself a Conservative convert, with a wealth of knowledge ranging from parliamentary protocol to how to change a fuse. The young woman who disembarked from the train at Waterloo seven months later had grown up a lot from the nervous 18-year-old of last September. She’d worked in a graduate job, paid bills to her French landlady, thrown dinner parties without a microwave. So I would encourage anyone to take a gap year, and to spend that time pursuing their passions. In my case it was politics, for others it’s baboons – but don’t be intimidated.
I always feel it’s wishy-washy of people to say they took a gap year to find out who they were, but in Brussels I found out who I wanted to be. I worked alongside them every day, admiring their commitment, passion and drive. That’s right: a politician.