An Erasmus stay is always rich in many discoveries: you are likely to experience new ways of life, new habits and new customs even if you only move from two hundreds kilometres. My Erasmus life in Brussels is not an exception to the rule and I would like to point out one of the most typical student folklores I have encountered here: the “Saint-Verhaegen”, better know as “St-Vé” in the popular jargon.
Every year on the 20th of November, all students from the different universities and higher schools of Brussels and the academic authorities of the town commemorate the foundation of the VUB and the ULB by Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. He was a lawyer born in Brussels in 1796 and, in many respects, he was a perfect representative of the high bourgeois and catholic lifestyle of the 19th century. Nevertheless he became a strong supporter of the anticlerical movement and an active member of the freemasons, the liberal party, and the Belgian parliament.
Verhaegen conceived the idea of a free university that would be totally independent from the church and the state. His dream came true in 1834 with the foundation of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). Some courses at the ULB have been taught in Dutch from 1935 onwards but it was not until 1963 that almost all the faculties offered programs in Dutch. The Vrije Universiteit van Brussel (VUB) was finally split off from its French-speaking sister in 1969, thereby becoming a separate legal entity.
Since the launching of the ULB, the 20 November has been a day off but the real celebration of the “Saint-Verhaegen” only started in 1888. In this year two hundreds students gathered in front of Verhaegen’s statue before going to the cemetery of Evere to lay a wreath on his memorial tomb. The less official student parties could then begin until the far end of the night. From then on, the event has gone through the ages, yet with a lesser accent op the commemorational aspect.
Nowadays this crucial day in the history of the university is marked by a carnivalesque parade through the streets of the capital. This parade starts at midday at the “Place de Grand Sablon” to end around 18 pm in front of the Bourse. Students are invited to wear warm clothes and to get an empty glass in order to fill it (no need to add that it is not with water...) at the trucks chartered by the different students associations. Just try to imagine: thousands students drinking, singing and having fun in a town free from any cars. The themes have followed one another but they have always reflect the students’ reactions when facing big contemporary problems such as fascism during WWII, racism, environmentalism, anticlericalism and many others. This very year 2006 were celebrated the 150 years of fraternity between the ULB and the VUB with a specific subtitle: “vive les gueux” (“viva the gueus”)!
This festive commemoration is a real opportunity to immerse you into the Brussels student life and to meet many new students. Moreover, it strengthens the ties of friendship between the ULB and the VUB. For those of you who plan to go to Brussels next year, you now have a little idea of what a day in a Brussels student life looks like!