On Tuesday morning, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, I arrived to an empty Charleroi. Five-six persons on the bus to Brussels. Surreal.
As I walked to the metro, I felt too aware of my surroundings, catching myself giving short suspicious looks to the people around, especially if they were holding rucksacks or bigger bags. The tram on my way home, after work, was almost empty. This could normally be experienced only in August and over national holidays in nice weather.
In the following days life continued seemingly unchanged. Yet it was not the same. My connection to the city and its inhabitants has changed. And, as I felt, not only mine. Our eyes were asking questions: “Are you one of them? Do you want to hurt me? Do you want to kill me?”. At times, an exchange of comprehensive looks and half-smiles, realising that we were possessed by these same fears.
On Friday Renaissance Hotel, Grand Place and four school in Antwerp were evacuated after a signal for bombs or suspicious vehicle in the area. In the evening, after quite some hesitation, I went to my painting class. I entered the Academy and found myself in a world of normality. Everyone focused on their work, the model diligently posing. Familiar, warm and safe.
Later on I was sitting in a bar at Chatelaine with a couple of friends. As the evening was advancing, the bar got full which was again reassuring – we could continue living “as if…”
Walking home later, there were armed policemen in the street. They had stopped a tram with an SOS plate instead of a number and were checking the documents of the driver. People were getting out.
Early next morning I read that during the night the level of the threat of terrorist attack had been raised to the maximum four. All metro stations were closed, events were being cancelled, the mayor of Brussels ordered all the restaurants to be closed at 18:00, people were strongly advised not to go to public places, shopping centres, major pedestrian areas etc. etc.
Brussels became a ghost city. Deserted. Naked.
Arm forces with heavy weapons everywhere, Grand Place blocked, a tank at Sablon.
I stayed in for four days. I only went to the corner supermarket on Saturday and to my French lesson on Monday morning, again behind the corner.
Fortunately, I had been tired from my recent travel and needed some recovery time at home. Luckily, most of the time the weather was cold, gloomy and not inviting to go out. Mostly I felt calm and focused on what I was doing. I painted, read, cleaned the flat, cooked. I chatted or talked with friends who were reaching out. I was skyping at least a couple of times per day with my family. And checking the news every half an hour.
On Sunday afternoon, when the sun appeared, the emotion finally hit me. I cried over the threatening reality we were urged to be facing. I cried from not fully grasping why, the hell, some people would want to kill other people, just like this. I cried over all those people who went out for an ordinary Friday evening in Paris and never went back to their homes.
In the evening a couple of friends passed by shortly to see me. Face to face human contact felt great.
Once the working week started, it all became a lot easier. Usually, I work from home on Mondays, so there was no difference. Tuesday also passed fast.
On Wednesday morning my colleague and I decided to go to the office. If children were back to schools and the metro was functioning, we could also return to the outer world.
Staying in was unbearable only in those moments when I was thinking that in effect I was a prisoner in my home, a prisoner of the imminent threat and my fear. But I was managing to overall avoid these thoughts.
I transformed the situation and my feelings related to it into literature. It gave a framework to my Brussels novel and I commenced it.
On Thursday the threat level was decreased to three. Even though most of us realise this is only a number and still quite high, it was a relieve. The tram was full of people again. The restaurants and bars gradually got back their crowd.
But beneath the surface, I believe, we are all traumatised by the experience. Wounded by Paris. By Beirut, Bangkok, Mali…Comprehending that this could and probably will happen again. That it could be any of us. We need to learn to live with this idea, while trying to stick as much as possible to our routines. Being in a constant personal lockdown is not an option. Being grateful for every moment, we are given, and living it to the fullest, while treating ourselves and the others with understanding and gentleness, is.