I’m looking at a photo of soldiers on patrol during the Brussels lockdown, and I keep thinking "This is not the Brussels I saw."
In mid-October, I spent five days staying in the now-infamous Sint-Jans-Molenbeek neighborhood with my wife and 10-month-old daughter. It was part of a trip that, over two weeks, took us to Germany to visit family, to the UK to visit friends and to Belgium just because. We stayed at HÃ´tel BELVUE, which was our favorite hotel on this trip by a long shot. We took day trips to Ghent and Bruges.
It’s really shocking to compare the Brussels lockdown images in the news to what we found in Belgium. Most of our wandering took us south of the canal that separated Sint-Jans-Molenbeek from the city center. If I had to sum Brussels up to another traveler, I’d say things like "Stylish but easy-going. Great food, coffee and beer. Good public transit, very cool architecture, lots to do."
I always try hard not to fall into the trap of over-estimating a city’s good side when I travel. When you’re traveling, the view is always rosier than living and working somewhere. But still, Brussels seemed to have this vibe of a healthy attitude toward balancing work and life. The streets and restaurants all seemed busy and upbeat. It was just an unbelievably pleasant place even if you’re not a fan of the secondhand smoke (which I’m not). The population was diverse, and people of all backgrounds seemed to intermingle. Only one small spray of graffiti that I couldn’t even translate but clearly mentioned Islam seemed to be the only sign of tension.
Thinking of Brussels braced for a "serious and imminent attack" is sobering and sad. Recognizing places in the news photos makes this situation hit closer to home. Maybe it shouldn’t – we should, I suppose, feel the same regardless of whether we’ve been there before. But I can easily imagine some of the same people who smiled at my daughter or sat next to us at a cafe now wondering what the hell is happening in their city. And that definitely makes this personal.
I don’t have any answers about what Belgium should do. I don’t want to offer any platitudes to Brussels and the people who live and work there. I just want to offer a different view of what you’re seeing in Brussels right now for those who have never been there. And I want Belgium to do its best to keep people safe without trampling on the rights of decent people who have nothing to do with the current threat, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Read about my recent encounter with the TSA to see what happens when “security” runs amok.