Brussels is more accustomed to the toing and froing of European diplomats than to truckloads of soldiers patrolling the streets. Its stores and markets should be bustling in the runup to Christmas.
But three days of the highest terror alert and unprecedented measures that have closed down the city’s subways, schools and main stores, has created a very different atmosphere as the Belgian capital tries to avoid attacks similar to the ones that caused devastating carnage in Paris.
“It’s fitting since Belgium is the birthplace of surrealism but there is an otherworldly feeling here,” said Jan Van Gent, a retired pharmaceutical manager. “This is like a Magritte painting, to see these soldiers in a nice town where they don’t belong.”
Others weren’t convinced the government’s actions were anything more than a PR move.
“They have a lot of attention on them now so they have to prove they’re doing something, but I don’t know how much difference this will make,” said Maxime Legena, an IT technician. “We don’t really know how big this threat is because the government hasn’t said very much.”
But he did appreciate one unintended side-effect of the attempts to shutter the city: “My drive to work was much faster today because there’s nobody on the streets.”
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Charles Michel announced Brussels would remain at the highest alert level for another week unless there are any major developments. He said that schools and subways would start to reopen on Wednesday.
Michel said that decision was “a clear signal that we want to gradually return to normal life” and thanked the Belgian population for their understanding, noting that the country was facing an extremely difficult situation.
Brussels native Jacqueline Vander-Poelen, who lives near the city’s Medieval Grand Place square, said the noise of police operations and reporters scurrying to cover them made for an annoying weekend.
“What’s making me scared is the alarmist journalists saying there’s going to be another attack,” Vander-Poelen complained. While she couldn’t remember any other instance where the city shut down so completely, she said residents would likely accept whatever measures were necessary to defeat extremists.
Some Belgians have developed their own style of acceptance, however. When Belgian authorities asked people to stop commenting on ongoing police raids on Sunday, social media users responded by flooding Twitter with pictures of cats, including some snaps of kitties holding up their paws like captured suspects.
Nishith Mehta, a tourist from Mumbai, was taking sunrise photos of the Christmas tree inside Grand Place and said the military presence was reassuring.
“It is better to be cautious than (to) see what happened in Paris,” she said.
While high school student Michel Evangeline appreciated the day off and was busy taking photos of soldiers downtown, he was convinced his terror-prompted holiday wouldn’t last long.
“They cannot shut down everything like this,” he said. “Even the McDonald’s is closed and that is very strange.”