On ‘boring’ Brussels and close calls

Six months ago — to the day, actually — I moved from California to Brussels. In talking to many people during a months-long recruitment process to join POLITICO’s European edition, the common refrain went something like this: Brussels is fine. Brussels is kind of boring. It’s not a real European city — but it’s close to lots of those!

I stayed in a cookie-cutter hotel room for a month, but then I found a place to live in one of the best locations in the city. It’s a small apartment but it looks out onto a beautiful square and is surrounded by great restaurants, good bars and more than a few uppity boutiques that fall well outside my budget.

(Here’s a map, if you want a sense of place or distance here.)

I settled in at work; got used to new people and a new city and a new publication (not just to me, but to us all — POLITICO only launched here in April of last year); I have explored a bit. Mostly in this city (it still feels a little odd to call it “my city,” but I suppose that is true), but a bit further afield in Belgium as well. (For the record, Antwerp feels much more like a real city than Brussels.)

Then on the evening of November 13, things changed a little. Multiple explosions rocked the streets of Paris and that unsettled the continent. Then it started to emerge that some of the attackers used the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek — less than a mile from me, just across the canal — as their home base. That unsettled the city.

Then the threat of an “imminent” attack on Brussels changed things a bit more. We were “locked down,” depending on your definition of that term. The whole country seemed, in my eyes, to be alternately panicking and shrugging its shoulders. Schools and public transportation closed; but the giant Christmas market right outside my window was to open as scheduled the next week. Panic, but don’t. Or don’t panic, but maybe do a little bit. Or maybe only when you’re in a large group of people. Go out, live your lives. But maybe don’t go out so much and maybe don’t go near any monuments or train stations. (Go to the Christmas market, though.)

Even for a newcomer, it became apparent that this is Belgium in a nutshell. Tim King wrote for us that “Belgium is a failed state,” and most found it hard to argue with his declaration. (That was our most-read story of 2015.)

That’s a long preamble to this: November was unsettling. Today was frightening. November felt like it hit pretty close to home. Today did hit home.

I awoke a bit earlier than usual this morning and right as I was about to jump in the shower, that’s when the emails started flooding in, and Slack started lighting up. Multiple explosions at the Brussels airport.

I fielded a quick phone call and shot off a few emails, jumped in the shower and literally ran out the door and down the stairs to the Metro station across the street. It’s an easy commute for me: four stops, no transfers. (For all the bellyaching about bureaucracy here, I’ll give Brussels this: I’ve never had to wait more than five minutes for a subway train. Ever.) Get on at St Catherine; get off at Arts-Loi. Walk five minutes to the office.

As I ran down the steps to my station, I did have one fleeting thought: Might riding the subway not be a great idea today? On the other hand, I needed to be at my desk in our office as quickly as possible; and it seemed likely the city would shut down the subway even without any further incidents.

So I hopped on the train, took a seat and tried desperately to keep up with the quickening pace of updates from coworkers on Slack.

At 9:09 a.m., just as I was getting off the train at Arts-Loi, one coworker checked in to say he was on and available; where should he go? An editor directed those heading for the airport to divert (it was impossible to reach at this point) and instead go to area hospitals.

I walked up the stairs from the lower platform at the station, and at 9:10 a.m., as I reached the middle of the station, there was a muffled but pronounced “boom.” Everyone was already shaken; this sounded like it came from underground, and it surely sounded like a bomb. Because suddenly we all know what bombs sound like now? I glanced quickly at four heavily-armed soldiers standing guard; they glanced quickly at each other and then held guns at the ready as they sprinted up the stairs to ground level.

It doesn’t take much more than that to make everyone follow suit. I reached the street a few seconds later (after chiming in with the boom on Slack), where people were an equal mix of panicked and non-chalant. For every person with wide eyes running for their lives, there was another standing still, sipping a coffee or smoking a cigarette. I snapped a couple (terrible) photos with my iPhone, lit a cigarette and speed-walked to the office. There seemed to be a bit of smoke in the air further down Rue de la Loi (the street on which we work; and where many of the EU institutions are situated). But Brussels is also gray and gloomy (in addition to being quiet and kind of boring, remember?) and so I didn’t think much of it.

A few minutes after I got situated at my desk, we got word of an explosion at the Maalbeek metro station. One stop beyond Arts-Loi. It had happened several minutes prior. What I’d heard at Arts-Loi — what had made all of us jump and made all of our hearts race, if just for a moment — now seems pretty clearly to have been the echo of a train car exploding one stop down the line.

It wasn’t a near-death experience. I got off the train where I always get off the train. I wouldn’t have had any reason to continue to Maalbeek. The train car with a bomb in it was heading the opposite direction — into the city center, rather than away from it. But that crossed way over the line from unsettling.

Journalism is journalism, no matter where you practice it. Today, our newsroom buzzed and people yelled and a live blog was constantly updated, and HEY WE NEED A PHOTO FOR THIS, and we put out a print edition of the newspaper, and writers wrote great stories on tight deadlines, and editors made bold decisions and steered comprehensive coverage. And I’m proud of the work we did — and the work that we’ll continue to do this week.

But I think I was scared enough today that I might think twice about some things that are instinctual for any seasoned journalist. Maybe next time this happens (because of course there will be a next time), I’ll take the extra 15 minutes in the morning and walk to work. Maybe next time we’re in the office and someone says they heard there was an explosion at the Arts-Loi station, I won’t throw down my pen and literally sprint downstairs and out the door toward the station.

Because now that the adrenaline has worn off, all I can think about is how lucky I am that I’m able to sit here at home and write this.

Update: The print edition of our front page, on Brussels streets in the morning, is below; and you can read the chilling account of a colleague’s even closer call here.

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