Monday, 23 November 2015

Brussels in 'lockdown'

Brussels is a lot tougher than people unfamiliar with the city might think.

I was in Brussels during the intense events of the last few days, and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel quite a bit of relief to be back in Berlin today. 

At the same time, I'd have to say that the situation in Brussels wasn't quite as terrifying as the international media has made it out to be. And Brusselers are far more used to this kind of thing than one might assume.

The reports have been full of the same tired clich├ęs that I often here about Brussels - that it's a quiet town "usually associated with the somnolent activity of the European Union", as the New York Times put it. In truth, the roar of helicopters, the whir of constant sirens and the sight of military personnel on the streets of Brussels is not an unusual sight. The city is, don't forget, the home of both the EU and NATO and therefor requires intense security for visiting leaders.

Nor is it unusual to have days in Brussels where the city feels like a unnerving ghost town, given that it is often paralyzed by crippling strikes. Strikes by transit workers often shut down the metro for days at a time. Sometimes the strikes are violent, like when the trash collectors burn garbage in the streets, or when the firemen attack the prime ministers residence with hoses, or when even the police attack the army while they are on strike. Brussels is no stranger to tension and it is anything but a sleepy, quiet city.

That being said, the situation of the past few days was very unusual, as it would be in any international city. Yes we have protests, but they protesters are not trying to indiscriminately kill us. 

But even with the threat, the streets were not 'deserted' - there were still people walking around and today a lot of people went to work (anecdotally it seems like about half my friends went to work today). But, the streets were quiet and nearly empty this weekend. I was in the city center on Friday night and Saturday and it was indeed very tense. I was at a restaurant with some friends on Saturday night at 7pm when suddenly we were told we had to leave because the owners had been told by the police to close.

I flew back to Berlin last night. I got to the airport fine (buses are still running) and everything went normally until my plane was halted on the tarmac before it took off. Authorities with machine guns boarded the plane and removed two people, interrogated them outside, and returned them about 40 minutes later. We finally took off, although much delayed. It was the first flight I've been on where people clapped after taking off rather than after landing.

The Belgian prime minister announced today that the metro and schools will remain closed until Wednesday, and the maximum terror alert (imminent threat) will remain in effect until at least next Monday. I received word that the authorities have recommended that all events and conferences be cancelled over the next two weeks (I've had a few moderating gigs cancelled).

So, it's not over yet. But I'm confident that Brusselers can handle it, as they've demonstrated with the much-reported cat meme on Twitter. Life in the EU capital isn't as innocent and quiet as the international media suggests.

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