I believe everyone has those moments in life were they can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at that time when something profound or catastrophic takes place. On the morning of the 22nd March 2016, I was lying in bed with the other half talking about my flight the next day to go home for Easter to surprise the family whilst he was on his phone scrolling through Facebook. He then urgently turns to me and says “Emma, there’s been a bomb in Brussels airport” and in true Northern Irish fashion, I replied “A bomb or a bomb, bomb?”
When he began to read out the facts to me, that it was indeed a terror attack that had caused so much devastation, everything began to dawn on me…I had originally planned on flying out that day but decided to fly a day later as I wanted to spend that extra day with him before I went home for Easter. Then I began to have heart palpitations realising that if the attackers had of waited a day later to the exact same hour they had struck, I would have been there. Safe to say it was an emotional day on social media and skyping with the family – I was thoroughly forbidden from ever thinking of travelling without telling my mum again.
My friends and wider circle of people here in Brussels were also deeply worried that day as the metro stop ‘Maelbeek’ which was one of the two locations attacked, is a stop that many of the people we know would use on a daily basis to get to work as it’s right in the heart of the EU quarter. Thankfully, no one we knew got hurt but the pain of losing 32 people and having over 300 injured in our beloved Brussels was deeply felt by all regardless of whether we knew them or not. So many people and families had been affected that day. I can only imagine how they must be feeling.
Amidst the tragedy of that day last year, there was a sense of defiance and solidarity amongst residents of the city from all backgrounds. People gathered on Anspach, they brought flowers, candles and wrote messages of hope on the ground with chalk. You can still see remnants of that chalk today. They also sang songs in all languages, said prayers from all religions, united in their grief, stronger together – the terrorists would not win. It was one of the most moving things I had ever seen.
I managed to get a redirected flight in another part of Belgium to Dublin to go home for Easter, the atmosphere amongst the passengers was tense and I remember locking eyes with another young woman as we both had tears in our eyes, we shared a small reassuring smile – no one was going to keep us from seeing our loved ones. At home that Easter, I was often met with phrases like ‘you should come home’ or ‘is it scary over there’? I always responded with the same answer “I’m from Belfast, the one time ‘terrorist’ capital of Europe, why should I be afraid? Why would I want to leave Brussels? It’s a beautiful, vibrant city – what happened there could have happened anywhere.”
It’s been one year since the Brussels terror attack and whilst the city has marked the anniversary of that sad day and paid tributes to the victims – I wanted to pay tribute in my own way. The media coverage of the city has been somewhat negative over the past year, it has affected businesses and engendered stereotypes. What is portrayed is not the Brussels I know, it’s not the people I see everyday, Brussels defies those images, it refuses to be put down, it continues to still be the heart of Europe with all Brusseleirs at its center.
Diversity continues to still thrive in this city. Pluralism and all the madness that comes with it can be intimidating sometimes but if you can be brave enough to immerse yourself, it is truly thrilling. You can meet people from all walks of life here, from Eurocrats with impressive CVs, young Belgian hipsters oozing with creativity, to the misunderstood Moroccans who are some of the most friendliest people you could ever meet. The array of people of which Brussels attracts has allowed me to make friends with people from all backgrounds and from all sorts of places – something I could never put a price on. Brussels neighbourhoods reflects this diversity. I live in an area between the EU quarter of Place Luxembourg and the African quarter of Matonge. I absolutely love my neighbourhood for all it’s cultural chaos. In one minute I can hear someone speak french and then hear another speak an African dialect. This is what makes Brussels – her people, and no matter what our background or where we come from, we’re all Brusseleirs.
Brussels is still one of the most quirkiest places there is. It continues to have an undying affection for Tintin and the Smurfs which can be found in various depictions of street art around the city. Some of its museums are just weird, such as the Clockarium, Sewer Museum, Toy Museum and the International Puppet Museum. Mannekin Pis, a small statue of a little boy peeing, is the epitome of what Brussels is. There is also an abundance of quirky bars in Brussels and some of them are not like anything you’ve ever seen before. The Goupil Le Fol, once an ex-brothel that is a labyrinth of small rooms on multiple floors filled with bric-a-brac is something for the imagination to behold. Brussels residents have not lost their quirky touch – I continue to meet people who can make me laugh or gasp with their characterful stories or unusual mannerisms. The world would indeed be a boring place if we were all the same. This time last year, people were spamming their newsfeeds and twitter accounts with images of cats with the #BrusselsLockDown in order to confuse ISIS and to help the police – where else would you get this wonderfully weird sense of humour?!
People still go out and be social. I once described to someone back home in Belfast that it is very difficult to be bored in Brussels. There is something always going on whether it’s with your own social circle at a pub, a foodie/drinks festival, networking events or social clubs such as toastmasters, photography walks, celtic dancing clubs, chess tournaments, language clubs, the list is endless. Your social life knows no bounds in Brussels and people have not let fear get in the way of having fun. What I love the most is the café culture during the summer and how everyone makes the effort to be outside. The squares come to life with people meeting for a chat, children playing, and there will always that one group of hipsters with guitars and other instruments sitting cross-legged in a circle enjoying the music they are making. It’s that atmosphere that makes Brussels special and it has not changed.
Sunday’s continue to be a religious day for some, but I’m not talking about prayer – it is brunch, markets and strolls through the parks. Brussels natives along with many expats, who somehow don’t find themselves too hungover on a Sunday will usually find themselves in one of the multiple markets shopping for fresh produce, flowers, antiques or grabbing a small bite to eat whilst sipping on cava. Brunch in one of the many cafés and brassieres can always be found with the assortment of eggs, breads, cheese , hams, etc. Afternoons in parks is always on the cards and Brussels has so many of them – La Cambre Abbey, Jardin du Petit Sablon, Mont des Arts Garden, Parc du Cinquantenaire and Bois de la Chambre to name a few. Brusseleir’s love for Sundays has not changed, they continue to be a social event in their own right and long may they do so.
Brussels is still beautiful. From Flemish architecture dating from medieval times to the famous Art Nouveu period of Victor Horta, Brussels is in a class of its own when it comes to beautiful buildings. Charming cobbled neighbourhoods such as Saint-Catherine/Saint-Géry, along with Place Jourdan, Saint-Boniface, Flagey and Chatelian make Brussels a joy to walk around. Grand Place, one of the most ornate and beautiful squares in Europe, is a feast for the eyes. People, tourists and locals alike, are not afraid to assemble there to awe at its beauty. The Atomium, the national monument of Belgium, which was way ahead of its time in terms of design when it was built-in 1958 for the World Fair. The Natural History Museum has a serious collection of dinosaurs whilst the Musical Instrument Museum is a wonderful experience. There a numerous art museums both classical and modern, but my favourite is the little known Wiertz Museum which houses some impressive but seriously sinister paintings. The small act of absorbing culture, history and art is an act of defiance against the terrorist agenda – so do it as much as you can.
Nothing quite unites all people like the love of food and drink, and Brusseleirs are no exception to this. Belgium in general is the home of waffles, chocolate, beer and fries, but in Brussels, these things become a specialty. When I have people over visiting, I always bring them to the waffle stands around Grand Place and they always delight in having the unique ‘Leige’ style sugar waffle with nutella, fresh cream and strawberries. Fries you can get anywhere, but there are only a hand few of kiosks that serve them the traditional way with mayonnaise such as Maison Antoine in Place Jourdan. Some of my favourite dishes in Brussels are distinctively Belgian, such as stoemp with sausages or mussels steamed in white wine and garlic served with fries. However, due to the ethnic diversity of the city, it is possible to find eateries with exotic cuisines from almost anywhere. In my own neighbourhood, the Soleil d’Afrique serves a ridiculously affordable dish of roasted goat with fried banana plantain and red rice. Let’s not forget the wonderful range of beer which is on offer in many pubs in Brussels. The beer scene has always been strong with trappist beers but more recently innovative craft breweries have been springing up around the city. You can find from Thursday evening right through to Saturday night people enjoying a beer with friends, mingling in crowds and forgetting about their worries for the week.
I’ve lived in Belgium for over 5 years and Brussels has been of big part of my time here. It’s a special place with a distinct character of its own. It’s home to over 1.1 million people, of which 33% have foreign nationality and over 100 different official languages are spoken on our streets. Living here during my 20-somthings has made me grow into a better person. The city has carved a small corner for itself in my heart and it will always be there no matter where I end up.
This day last year a small minority of people had tried to darken Brussels through violence and carnage. They had not succeeded – our values and spirit of unity are stronger more than ever. I believe we remember the victims of that day best by defying fear and celebrating our wonderful city and all those who reside in it. As the old Flemish proverb goes “…united we stand, divided we fall; union is strength.”