Our first trip to Brussels was a memorable experience. We arrived via the Eurostar from London, and after a quick 15 minute walk, met up with our Airbnb host who promptly showed us around his magnificent apartment. A place so quaint that I would later write in my online review, “it was the kind of flat my wife and I dream about when we are picturing ourselves living in a European apartment.” And the apartment was only the beginning. After our host left, and after freshening up a bit, we headed out to explore the city, with the central square, better known as the Grand Place, our target.
Now, we’d seen many photos and videos and read plenty of reviews of the square. But similar to other epic sights, like the Grand Canyon perhaps, photos and videos are a poor substitute for the real item. And this was most definitely the case. We approached roughly from the west, turned left down one of the six narrow entry points, and then — “gasp” it opened up to us, inviting us in, daring us to try and comprehend the immensity in front of us, and we fell silent.
To say the Grand Place is breathtaking is an understatement. Magnificent certainly. Majestic no question. In its current configuration, the square, referenced in documents as early as the 12th century, dates back to the late 17th century. In the aftermath of almost total destruction inflicted by Louis XIV’s army in 1695, the Grand Place was the result of a massive rebuilding campaign under the combined effort of private and public interests. Opposite each other, and faithful to the Gothic style, the City Hall and the King’s House — long the City Museum, stand as symbols of public authority. And surrounding these monumental structures, the houses of powerful corporations constructed in the ornate baroque architecture of the period, testify to the prosperity of the time. And while the weather was gloomy, it couldn’t come close to dampening the beauty of the place. The Guildhalls gleamed. The square bustled with activity.
And yet, as I think back to our time there, I find myself struggling to come to grips with how one begins to marry the beauty and majesty of the Grand Place, the narrow, oh so quaint French streets radiating out from the square, the decadent and tempting chocolate shops, and the frites shops packed with locals and tourists engorging themselves with fried, salty goodness, with the horrors of terrorism that brought the city to a standstill only two short weeks after our visit.
Sure, there was an edge, a grittiness we didn’t notice in our other stops on this trip. Now that might not be a fair statement given our time in each city was so brief and hardly long enough to really get to know a place. But we noticed it all the same. Walking through Molenbeek, while still within the “tourist ring” as it’s sometimes called, felt different. Only a 15 minute walk from the formal architecture of the Upper Town and its palaces, this working class neighborhood looked a little worn. It had a more noticeable immigrant presence, more graffiti — not the Banksy kind that now sells for outrageous sums. It was even a tad gloomy and there were certainly few if any tourists.
Nonetheless, there were people of all persuasions going about their business. I didn’t feel afraid, just more alert and aware we were walking away from the “safety” of the tourist zone. I did at times think we might want to turn around, and as I came to find out later, there were better recommended areas to see. But we went here. And I’m glad for it because Molenbeek, or at least the few streets we walked down, seemed real to me, no pretensions, and not dressed up for the tourist crowds. Writing this, I want to go back, just as I found myself wanting to go back and be with the people of Brussels when the news broke of the terror attacks. I wanted to be there. Is that weird? Maybe it was more personal. It mattered more, and I mourned for the people of this great city.
On the same day of the attacks, sometime after they occurred, I contacted our Airbnb hosts to see how they were doing. And their reaction was amazing — “while the events are of course tragic, we will continue to go on living our lives, indulging in our incredible beer, delicious chocolate, and savory frites.” I admired them. I wanted to join them. I wanted to stand with them and show the terrorists that they cannot frighten us. Because we can’t let terrorism win. If my life has to be sacrificed, then so be it. While it’s normal for our governments to react by flooding the streets with security forces and close down our cities, I wish they wouldn’t. I wish we could figure out a better way to limit our reactions, to show these extremists that we do not fear them.
However, we also need to figure out why these people, already living in Europe, want to do this. What motivates them? Are they all hardliners who have come straight from terror training camps in the Middle East with the express goal of blowing up the West? Or are they disillusioned local residents who have been marginalized by a society they can’t fit into, and the only way for them to make their mark is to radicalize? I wonder.
I don’t believe as individuals they are a lost cause. I struggle to understand how anyone could become so consumed by hatred that they wouldn’t be moved, as we were, when we first walked into the Grand Place. Perhaps I’m naive. And perhaps it’s pointless to try and understand their motivation; that the only response is to return the hate with hatred of my own. But, I would love the chance to reach out and suggest we meet up to enjoy some frites with dipping sauces and perhaps a beer or two and discuss our differences a block off the most magnificent square in Europe.