Reflections from Belgium

Some have said that this is difficult, dangerous time to be living in Europe. Honestly, I think it’s a difficult, dangerous time to be living in the world. Violence knows no boundaries, and safety cannot always be ensured. My Dutch friends and colleagues feel this acutely as attacks inch closer to Amsterdam. As an American living in a post-9/11 world, I’ve developed some level of resignation about random violence. Public shootings, gun violence, and mass-casualty attacks have, sadly, become woven into the fabric of American culture.

The recent attacks in Belgium definitely set everyone here on edge. Unrelated to the bombing in Brussels, there was police activity in Amsterdam that same day – a car chase and warning shots fired and an eventual arrest. The evening commute was marked by  sirens and the sound of a helicopter circling. My bike was parked in its usual spot near the Grand Hotel Amrath, but I found the whole block cordoned off by police, so the bike had to spend a night outside and I took the tram home.


From a peace rally in Ghent


There was a bit of additional tension for us, since about 3 weeks before the attacks we had planned a long Easter weekend holiday. In Belgium. Including Brussels. We didn’t want to cancel the whole trip, which included a night each in Bruges and Ghent. I wasn’t concerned about additional attacks. But heading into Brussels 4 days after the bombing didn’t seem like the best idea. We assumed the city would be tense, shut down in areas, and just generally volatile. As it turns out, we were right.

We changed our train ticket and spent an extra night in Ghent, which was a great decision. It is a beautiful city, often compared to Bruges. There seems to be a bit of competition between them, though I found them both charming. Bruges is a bit quainter, though very crowded, even in the early spring. Ghent felt open, more expansive, but equally lovely.


Ghent, from St. Michael’s Bridge



As part of my ongoing effort not to over-schedule our holidays, we didn’t plan too much. Instead, in both cities, we strolled and ate and took boat rides and climbed towers and took lots of pictures. We visited a castle and a church or two and drank some great Belgian beer. We celebrated my husband’s birthday and Easter, just the two of us, without any of the traditions we’re used to. (If nothing else, it was an improvement over last Easter, which was spent in the emergency room in Maastricht…long story.)

The entire trip was peaceful and relaxing, but the ongoing violence in Brussels wasn’t far from my mind. Maybe this is what our lives are now. We enjoy ourselves as fully as we can, because we must. As one of my favorite poems (Jack Gilbert’s A Brief for the Defense) reminds me:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I’ll raise a beer to that.


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