The bombs next door – Brussels 22/03/2016

I knew it from the non-stop flood of sirens, the shrill cries of officers, and sounds of trucks and whistles on the street. The neighbourhood was much louder and urgent-sounding than usual. I struggled to turn on my phone, and then the messages came flooding in. Something wasn’t right.

March 22nd, 10:30 AM

“Cass, are you awake? I…I have something to tell you.”

My friend, visiting me for a few days is lying on the floor in a sleeping bag. She sits up and looks at me wide-eyed – unprepared for what comes next.

“There have been attacks on Brussels this morning. Three explosions. Terrorists. The airport, and the Metro near the EU quarter. “

“Sh**. Oh my god. Okay.”

“The country is in a level 4 terror threat. I don’t know how many people…you know. But we should let people know we’re okay.”

On March 22nd, there were ISIS-funded, coordinated suicide bombings in the Belgian capital city of Brussels, where I am living.

This is my account of that day, and the days that frame it. 

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This past December, my family and I sat down to talk about our fears about my term abroad. They were concerned  about the potential danger of living in the “capital of Europe” after the recent terror attacks in Paris. We talked about how my chances were likely slim, and though I knew Brussels was very much a potential target since many of the suspects came from Belgium, we decided that the experience of living in the hub of Europe outweighed the risks. I tried to set a good example for my brother, telling him that I couldn’t chart my life according to the fear of “what if’s”, and I chose risk over potential regret. I promised him I would do my best to stay safe, but that life offers no guarantees.

I arrived in Brussels in January, with my obscenely bright suitcases in tow. I was giggly with exhaustion, but sobered up a bit when I watched two soldiers walk by with large machine guns, the lengths of which stretched from their shoulders to their toes. My friend who collected me at the arrivals gate leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder,

“Don’t worry. It’s normal, we’re still in level 3.”

I soon moved into my new apartment. Sandwiched between two military base buildings and a police station, I did see a lot of official action. I was lucky to grow up next to train tracks, because the wail of sirens might’ve have otherwise kept me up at night.

A few weeks after living there, a new friend of mine came to visit my apartment, and we talked about how we were getting used to an increased military and police presence – even on our trips to IKEA. We joked about how we watched them carry their weapons with the barrels pointing down. Surely many had accidentally shot themselves in the foot by now?! Afterwards, my friend warned me to still remain on my guard – sadly, she had heard of many women being assaulted or harassed by the very people that I thought were supposed to protect me.

I heeded her advice when a police car stopped me one night in February as I was coming home, unaccustomed to walking in heels on cobblestone at 3 am after a student gala. They asked if I had somewhere to be, and when I pointed out my apartment that was visible a block away, I was offered assistance getting there, which I politely declined.

One day, I decided to go on a student trip to Switzerland with a friend of mine. I was taking the tram to a train station which was to be the meeting point for our tour group. The tram driver stopped just short of our final destination, and made his way through the tram, explaining that we had to evacuate onto the tracks safely as this tram would be turning back. There was a bomb threat at the station, and they were closing the entrances.

I hopped off the tramcar unsure of what to do, deciding to head towards the station anyways. My group was to meet outside the entrance, maybe they were still there? I certainly didn’t want to worry my friend who was waiting, nor did I want to miss my group’s departure. I walked briskly towards the station, met by swarms of people hurrying away. I felt like a fish swimming upstream, my heart pounding and my head foggy. I felt so foolish, walking towards the danger, what with my long-held fear of dying young and tragically. It made me want to cry as I noticed many Muslim women hanging out of their doorways, looking for family members and pulling them inside. It was almost as if they were hoping to shelter them from what could be a bomb, but also from the waves of blame that might come their way as so many acts of violence had triggered before.

When I reached my friend and the group, we joked nervously as watched the station be evacuated. Police and military rushed around or stood guard at the yellow tape, and we tried not to let our imaginations get the better of us when we heard several loud explosions and smaller ones that sounded like gunshots.

Our witness to this event seemed significant, but when we returned to Belgium 2 days later, we were stunned to find few traces of the happenings in local news. The city had moved on, gone about their lives. This was their new normal.

Last week, my group of friends here tried to get a hold of each other as the police raids in Forest escalated, with shootouts endangering both police officers and civilians. “Stay away from such and such” was our line of choice that week. We didn’t know if our densely-packed student neighbourhoods would be next. When a prime suspect in the Paris attacks was arrested two days later, the world seemed to be sharing some relief, what looked and felt like celebration.

Not me. It was close to home. He’d been hiding here for months, undetected. What did that say about the efficiency of the forces? Furthermore, what would that mean about the discovery of other suspects that were surely still here?

When discussing the arrest with those close to me (many of whom are political science students like myself), I revealed that I believed there would be a strike-back, a retaliation of some kind. Just like the gangs I had studied in sociology, I had a feeling that this terrorist group would fight back against the forces that took hold of one of their own.

Little did I know how soon it would happen.

March 22nd, 8:15 AM

I couldn’t sleep anymore, though I’d come in late and considered myself a professional sloth on mornings like this. The sirens were really loud, their volume seemed to escalate as the minutes ticked on. I grabbed my phone out of it’s charger and found a flood of messages. My friends in the Netherlands had heard, and urged me to stay inside. Other international students were using our WhatsApp to check on each other’s whereabouts. We didn’t know much yet, only that the airport had experienced 2 explosions at the departures gate.

My stomach dropped. My mother had been at that gate at precisely this time, two days earlier. That was too close for comfort.

I logged onto my computer, and since most of my social media and browser settings were tailored to Canadian time, I turned to Twitter. Most of the people in my world were fast asleep, and I was now watching the third explosion at a nearby metro station unfold in 140 character pieces.

I take that subway all the time. I was going to take it later that day.

The rest of the morning was spent alternating between news outlets and platforms, and preparing for what was to come. I tracked down everyone I knew in Brussels, counting each one and cross-checking my texts, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, emails…I prayed that 3 times was the charm, and that the violence would be capped for the day. I registered as a Canadian living abroad. I watched borders and stations and schools and transit close. I read updates by the Federal Crisis Centre as if they were the Holy Gospel.

I waited for my parents, siblings, boyfriend, and friends to wake up on the other side of the world. I braced myself for the worry they would have, and the answers that I couldn’t give them. I had to stay calm, if only for them. It was a numbness – like walking on eggshells, waiting for the hammer to drop and shatter a composure that I knew was only temporary.

I kept the window in my loft room open, even though that made the panic below a little louder. As the messages of concern and support flooded in, I noticed that the weather outside was the most gorgeous day I had seen so far since the move. The contrast was stark: a climate so beautiful, yet a day so horrific. I was beyond overwhelmed, numb and unable to process or react.

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My city in Canada showing support for my city in Belgium

When I did leave the house in the coming days, there was a paranoia I felt walking the streets – my heart leaping into my throat anytime a person appeared around a corner when I wasn’t expecting it. I found myself making snap judgements about a man looking grumpy, or a car idling too long in front of a building. I talked myself down over and over, and allowed myself to breathe when hidden in my room with the door locked.

It all finally hit me, every emotion and rushing over me with an urgency I couldn’t filter or control. I embraced the fear and let my mind run wild with awful possibilities.

There is no pattern. There is no way of knowing when or where. We are in a gambling game.

If death is to come for me, I can’t escape it by not walking home alone at night, or by carrying keys between my knuckles – strategies I sadly learned growing up female.

People close to me said they would have known instinctively if I had been hurt. My heart now ached for the loved ones of people who had been lost; whether they knew instinctively or not, they would struggle with grief and endless days of questions, most of which would go unanswered. 

In the last few days, I have certainly felt timid and fearful, but there is anger that is coming forward.

Anger for giving my family another reason to worry about me when I’m an ocean away from their arms. Anger for making my days in a new city that much more difficult when things are closed down. Anger for prodding my anxious mind into a tailspin every time I hear a siren, or think about being a target on campus, transit, or in crowds. Anger for the people that will unfairly carry a burden of blame. Anger against governments who fail to recognize their contributions to this violent climate and fail to prevent it from happening again. Anger for the grief of so many innocent people, the grief of the nation, the grief of the world. Anger for the fact that these types of attacks have happened worldwide, yet the media notes only the ones that feature the people most privileged as victims. 

But I’m also starting to feel little glimmers of hope.

Hope because I’ve never felt unity or spirit in this city until I glimpse the chalk drawings in the streets, or the people gathering in defiance with flags draped around them. Hope because I see love in the eyes of parents clutching their children closer, grateful for their safety and hoping to create a better situation for them. Hope because people are sharing hugs, giving blood, and putting pressure on the powers that are supposed to ensure our safety.

We, the people of Brussels, will not live by principles of fear. We will not allow violence to divide us. We will heal together in our own ways, and we will learn from each other in the days to come.  A city of huge diversity and confusion will find itself at last united, walking forward.

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Thank you to all those who reached out to me over the last few days. I’ll keep you posted. I wish everyone safety and healing at this time.

-K

 

 

 

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Dear ex-boyfriend – or whatever it is we’re calling you

I was enjoying myself with family and friends at a wedding this past weekend, when it occurred to me that more and more people in my life are getting hitched, or at the very least coupling up for the long haul.

Well, I’m sitting over here giving them mega props, because I can’t even commit to what I want to eat for dinner, let alone the foreseeable eternity!

All joking aside, I’m happy for my friends and family who’ve found the people that make them happy. But if you’re like me and have people who badger you about the possibility of a significant other, you know the disappointment in their faces when you admit to the lack of such a person. Lately, however, I’ve dropped the guilt…I’m surely not in the same boat as my committed friends, but I’m not the least bit sorry about it. I’m having a grand old time getting there…

I mean, I can’t be the only one who feels that dating can be a hell of a lot of fun. You meet new people, try new things, and learn how to present yourself and ask good questions. Sometimes the person across from you intrigues you, excites you, or straight up bores you – it’s luck of the draw, really. Eventually, through each experience and interaction, you grow to know more about yourself and what it is that stands as the most important for you in a relationship.

I’ve learned that romance, affection, and attraction all present themselves in different ways: sometimes these people are crushes or boyfriends or guys-you-dated-for-a-month or first/second/third dates gone terribly wrong. Sometimes, chemistry and timing don’t see eye to eye and possibilities fall through the cracks.

I’m certainly not a romantic, and quotes about past romance have a tendency to activate my gag reflex…but I’m proud of person I’ve become due to and in spite of my love life, and I’m glad to have met these men along the way. As I reminisce, these are a collection of plain and simple things I’ve previously left unsaid that I’d like to get off my chest…

Dear ex-whatever-you-are,

  • Thanks for giving me my first kiss in an all-time recordly-hilarious fashion. The 100 people who saw it happen can recount it as vividly as I can, and I gained an incredible friend in the process.

  • You brightened my spirits by saying I looked bad-ass in a hospital gown, and that never got old – three times a week for 4 months, and I still waited for your pep-talk texts in the doctor’s office.

  • Showing up at a train station with cupcakes to see me off is maybe the most thoughtful and sweet thing anyone has ever done for me. I’m only sorry that I forgot to tell you I was taking the bus home instead! My bad…

  • For the longest time, I used to think we were made for each other. Now I read your Twitter feed and realize I don’t really know you, nor do I find the person you’ve become substantially interesting. Thanks, social media, for being the cure to a long-time crush!

  • Making remarks about my weight and physique while I have you suspended in mid-air was not the wisest move you’ve ever made. There’s a very good reason why your harness hurt you as you repelled down!

  • I am both excited and nervous to see how our relationship plays out when oceans no longer separate us – I hope we can remain friends.

  • I’m seriously bummed we never became more serious because I really wanted to meet your mum – she sounded like the most rad of matriarchs/ my future best friend.

  • Thanks for complimenting me on things besides my appearance, and recognizing that your appreciation of my smarts/drive/talents/compassion was way more important to me. Not only did it make me feel respected and valued, but I remember vividly every time you told me that I was beautiful. Those four instances were so special to me.

  • I’m sorry that 15 year old me didn’t realize we were on a date. I’m also sorry that by the time I did, my reaction was to high-five you goodbye! I wish I could say that I’m no longer that painfully awkward…

  • After our first (and subsequently last) date, I had such a good time I almost told the cab driver to turn around and take me back to you.

  • I’m quite concerned that you only keep spinach, a boiled egg, and vegetable shortening in your fridge. Did you not eat when I wasn’t around?!

  • I’m sorry that I was chicken and avoided you for a month before I broke things off – it hurt me to hurt you, because I wanted you for the all the wrong reasons and you deserved more than that.
  • I saw a picture of you and your fiancé, and my first reaction was “They are going to have the most beautiful blue-eyed babies this world has ever seen!” Congrats, future spawn – you won the genetic lottery!

  • The last time I saw you I tried to tell you that I loved you. While I’m glad that I didn’t (hey, I needed to keep a little bit of dignity), I do wonder if it would have changed things.

  • Your Drake-themed birthday card is still in my desk drawer. Though I never got to give it to you, the bottle of red wine it was attached to is how my roommate and I toasted our split!

  • To the best and worst kissers I’ve ever had: I want do-overs to see if my judgment still stands true.

  • While I’m not angry that we broke up over text, I’m disappointed that after such a long time, all you could muster was a feeble statement and months of silence. It made me sad to not say goodbye, and I hope one day you will own your feelings enough to not hide behind your iPhone 5.

  • Tell yourself whatever you need to, you’re still an inch shorter than me…I checked your license after you showed the bartender!

  • The next time you take a girl to her first Tarantino flick, you might want to warn her what she’s getting herself into, because not all girls find bloodbaths to be cozy atmospheres. Just a tip!

  • I know you think you’re smarter than me, and truthfully, you probably are. But I once had a dream that we were each the leader of opposing parties in a federal election. This Prime Minister won by a landslide and woke up with the biggest smile on her face.
  • Thanks for being a total riot. We were so wrong for each other, but we had so much fun…that’s probably why I forgave you for showing up more than 2 hours late for dinner.

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With dating, there is the inevitable fact that you and the person you are seeing will eventually a) part ways OR b) spend a long-a$$ time together.

DESPITE THAT TERRIFYING REALITY, we still soldier on – because human affection and romantic interaction top many of our lists’ of needs.

I’m sure I’ve still got a lot of experiences ahead of me – these surely aren’t the last stories I’ll tell. Besides, I really try not to take the dating game too seriously, otherwise I could get wrapped up in self-pity and overindulge in my emotions (I feel a lot of things, okay?). I’m not going to focus on finding Mr. Right – Mr. Right Now will do just fine.

However, I DO want to say thank you to anyone I’ve ever been involved with.

At the age of twenty-one, I’ve had some cool characters pass through my life, and I’m grateful for each one of them. They are all kind and interesting people in their own ways, and they have left a lot of memories – and lessons – in their wake. I wish you all nothing but the best!

…And for those poor suckers who might end up with me in the future? I look forward to making your acquaintance 😉

DFTBA,

– K