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“Love is like the wild rose-briar; Friendship like the holly-tree. The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms, but which will bloom most constantly?”

Emily Bronte

“O Reader! hast thou ever stood to see
  The Holly-tree?
    The eye that contemplates it well perceives
      Its glossy leaves
        Ordered by an Intelligence so wise
          As might confound the Atheist’s sophistries.”

Robert Southey

The “stage”, pronounced in the French way, is the colloquial name for a period of work-based training for young graduates at the European Commission in Brussels.  Twice a year a cohort of graduates from all around the world, but principally from EU countries, start a programme aimed at producing good ambassadors for Europe.  Nowadays there are 600 stagiaires in each session, three times the number when we were stagiaires twenty years ago. 

I had the time of my life in Brussels.  I had a fantastic flat to live in, interesting work, fascinating colleagues from Spain, Greece, Uraguay and Japan, and hundreds more fellow stagiaires to get to know.  We were guests of the West German government for a week in Berlin, flying there through the special air corridor over East Germany.  So exciting. We had lunch at the Reichstag, and went to the opera in East Berlin and stood under the Television Tower drinking weak lemon squash and eating revolting sausages.  We spent three days at NATO being taught the dangers of unilateral nuclear disarmament and how to defend ourselves against Gaddafi, and numerous ambassadors came to tell us how things were in their country.  We visited the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and the European Parliament and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.  We travelled to France, explored the First World War Battlefields, ate lots of mussels, and along the way discovered how Europe worked so that it became something we were part of rather than something we were wary of.    

My husband had the most prestigious posting of any of the twenty British stagiaires – working in the cabinet of the British Commissioner, Lord Cockfield, at a time when the internal market was first being constructed.  Despite his glamorous posting, his memories of Brussels are not as happy as mine.  He had toothache.  Perpetually.  He also had an incompetent dentist who had not progressed to understanding “transferred” pain, so he went to the dentist SEVENTEEN times while we were there.  He even had to go to the dentist while we were all in Berlin, and so missed lunch at the Reichstag.  He remembers Brussels as a building site, and the pavements being covered in dog dirt.  I somehow overlooked this – though both were true – and remember happy walks in the Foret des Soignes, sherry in the English church on Sundays, and pretentious parties I arranged to read French plays aloud.

Last weekend in Brussels about thirty of us met up again.  We had not seen most of the others at all in twenty years.  Several had been to our engagement party, for we were a couple who met on the stage, and there is always one or two on every stage.  A staggeringly large number of the men women in this picture have never married or do not have children.  Since they are attractive, educated, lively, intelligent people, I wonder if this was not a choice, at some level, rather than the misfortune that most of them insisted on.  My children are the oldest children by several years.  It was strange that although we had all spoken French during the stage, we now all spoke English together. 

I don’t think you could have predicted, when we were all in our early twenties, how our lives would have turned out.  It was, against our expectations, a really enjoyable evening even if we had to walk miles to get there, in the pouring rain, and (in my case) with completely unsuitable footwear.

I think it is a great thing for any young graduate to do.  It isn’t easy to get a place, especially from the UK, because the government fills more than half the UK’s allocation with young high-flying civil servants, but it is worth the effort.  I was lucky, and owe a great deal to another UK lawyer who had been a stagiaire previously (and had met his wife there), who told me how to make the most of the application process.  We learnt a new French word – pistonner – which is used to describe the attempts to advance some candidates over others, a practice which is more prevalent among nationals of some countries than others.  I was delighted a few years ago to be able to tell a Greek student at the University where I was teaching about the stage, that she got a place, and that she had a wonderful time too, and that it launched her on a European career.