I spent this weekend in Brussels, against the advice of the Daily Mail and several of my friends. My cousin lives in the city and it was our chosen location for the annual family meet-up; we are scattered across Europe, and we weren’t going to miss a chance to get drunk and laugh/row hysterically.
The impact of last week’s attacks were obvious before even arriving in Belgium: an intense queue and security check to get onto the Thalys at Paris Nord, bags being scanned and grumpy businessmen being patted down by grumpier station staff. On arrival at Brussels-Midi half the station was closed, police tape wrapped around the building and army trucks and machine guns out the front in the rain. It felt like stepping into a city under siege. My mother was already there for a public health gala dinner, for which 50 of the 200 attendees had cancelled – “of course all the Americans pulled out straight away – the wets”. On my first night we went to a gig in the old town, and walked past La Bourse, with its forest of flags and attendant fireman checking the sea of candles don’t cause a catastrophe. The mood in the immediate vicinity was subdued and quiet, but on returning in daylight hours there were crowds lining the steps, musical performances, and a whole lot of police. I saw one Belgian old lady stop a group of them and tell them how reassured she was by their presence – though I’m not sure I felt the same way.
My cousin Alice works at the European Commission and on Friday we went to their end of week press briefing. Bar signs proclaiming “yellow level alert” there was very little changed since my last visit eight months ago. Security hasn’t visibly increased, despite the mountain of flowers and scribbled cards a 2 minute walk south outside Maelbeek metro. Alice heard the explosion – one of her colleagues was cycling past as the first victims began flooding out of the station, and at the beginning of the press briefing the spokesperson announced the funeral date for the EU commissioner who died. That was it though – the journalists’ questions were mainly focussed on the migrant legislation coming into force on Monday, there was a lot of sparring between spokespeople and journalists, and there was no mention of the attacks.
At brunch in a packed second floor restaurant Alice’s boyfriend was discussing a proposed right-wing march this weekend for which the police were already out in full force on Saturday. Hooligans from rural Belgium travelling in to “clean up Molenbeek”, Brussels’ alleged “hotbed of terrorism” to which several of the Paris and Brussels attackers had connections. “They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no idea about Brussels. There are 10 guns stashed away in Molenbeek for every one of those idiots.” On my journey to the station earlier today we paused in a traffic jam and my Uber driver pointed out a group of armed policemen in balaclavas assembling outside a flat, battering rams, machine guns and all. Twenty of them. “It’s terrible isn’t it?” he remarked, before changing the radio station and revving through an amber light.
It is this paradoxical combination of “business and usual” and simmering fear that struck me most about a city still reeling from violence. How soldiers armed to the teeth are around every corner, but we all still crammed into an unprotected hall on Thursday night to listen to Låpsley play some music. How half the metro system is closed and the whole thing shuts down at 7pm, but restaurants and bars are buzzing every evening. I remember very little about the 7/7 bombings in London, except the sense of it being a horrific and isolated attack – how we all got straight back on the tubes and the buses and everyone continued with their way of life, unashamed and unabashed. On the surface that is the way things are in Brussels, but I’m not so sure. The message across the media is one of defiance and not giving in to fear: we cannot change our behaviour in light of the perceived threat of possible death at the bistro, or on the commute, because then the terrorists win! We must go on with it all unchanged, as if death may not lurk in in every oversized rucksack on the metro.
Alice summarised it the most succinctly, I think:
“After Paris everyone said “we are not afraid”, and everyone is saying it now. But it’s just not true. Everyone is shit-scared.”