Exactly one year ago, I traveled to Uganda via Brussels airport. I arrived at the terminal the same second three suicide bombers, at the other terminal, pulled their triggers. Killing fourteen innocent people and leaving eighty-one injured. I was stuck in nearby Leuven for four days where I wrote this following text. Then I continued my travels via Paris CDG, arriving in Uganda on Easter Sunday.
3/22/2016 Brussels Airport
I was at Brussels Airport when the bombs exploded. I didn’t hear nor see it. But I saw hundreds of people running in my direction. My first thought was „how can so many people be late for their flight?“. How little did I know.
We then assumed that there was some sort of attack. One Swede threw up his hands „seriously, this is my fifth terrorist attack“, as if he had a collecting album. We stood at the A Terminals and waited for news. The sudden, eery silence was only interrupted by a school class playing fussball. They didn’t worry. Each of their loud cheers was answered by other people’s yelp. The mood was tangled and tensed.
Fifteen minutes later the airport announced evacuation. Most travelers didn’t follow the instructions at first and thought it was a fire drill. One officers pulled me gently off the restrooms. People had to leave all their luggage. One woman said „back home I announced I wanted to be less controlling, less attached to material things and have a blast. I didn’t mean it this way“. It was sad to find out later it was real and people died.
While walking outside the terminal, I overheard a couple saying „ah evacuation, thank God we wear functional clothing“. One person rejoiced „finally, I can also mark myself safe on facebook“. Some ordinary tourists discovered their inner journalist and metamorphosed into realtime reporters with selfie sticks. They got this ambitious look on their face like they’re part of something bigger. Now anything was suspicious, the floor, the planes, the weather. Me, I was just cold. I wore summer cloths and a rain coat.
Back in Hamburg, I was worried „will this raincoat warm me for five minutes between the bus station and airport? And protect me from the warm African highland monsoon?“ Little did I know that I was about to stand outside the airport for 5 hours. There I was freezing and thus started dancing, imagining minimalism music. Some people complimented my sweet moves. I was thankful I didn’t start a sad flashmob. In fact, I felt horrible. I also hadn’t slept or eaten in two days. I started crying and put on sunglasses. I was cool crying. I ate all the chocolate that I initially bought for my hosts in Uganda. Me, dancing and crying with sunglasses, raincoat and eating chocolate. This image will stay with me for a while. Still, I had no idea what really happened.
Hours later me and all the other hundreds of people were escorted out of the airport area, followed by journalists and cameras. No one really knew what was going on. I was hoping planes would leave soon. My first stop was at a gym hall where I rested on the floor. We then were advised to go to Leuven, a small town outside of Brussels that was not affected by the attacks. We were told to look for hotels and return to the airport the next day. At the train station, I became friends with two young American women on their way to Delhi. On top of everything, one of them had food poisoning. All hotels were booked. We became friends with despair.
Eventually, we got the last beds at Leuven City Hostel. It was packed only with people who were there involuntarily. There were Turkish guys interrupted on their way to Berlin, two Czech couples trying to get to Havana, and two girls from Bielefeld because they wanted to go to Louvain-la Neuve but confused it with Leuven (Leuven in French is called Louvain).
We still don’t know how to go on. First, we were so happy to be able to sleep. This morning, I woke up at seven from the construction on the other side of our hostel wall. They started working to The Final Countdown. I didn’t care. So far it seems there will be no flights until further notice. The airport is still marked a crime scene. The airlines seem to be as uninformed as us. I’ve been waiting in their phone line for about five coffees. It seems like I will stay for even more coffees in Leuven. Me and my new friends spend time together. For example, we go into stores just to be warm. The hostel life feels a little bit like an involuntarily Erasmus experience but without luggage. I made so many friends, also because I’m the only one with an iPhone charger.
Leuven is a cute Flemish university town. Our first encounter was a blessing. Three Belgian guys gave us free food. An entire cake, a baguette and oranges! Everyone here is dressed nicely. Us not so. Rather three girls in oversized bulky raincoats. We felt so foreign. We weren’t underdressed enough to look like we dressed up like that. We three just stuck out like accidentally stranded backpackers. It’s small details like that, a silly rain coat, which made one feel foreign. What must bigger differences feel like?
My thoughts are with everyone affected by the attacks.
3/24/2016 Leuven at night
It’s astonishing how fast I can get used to a standard. Even though it’s involuntarily, I’m enjoying the hostel life. On Tuesday, I was plain grateful that I’m alive and that I could sleep in a crowded gym hall. On Wednesday, I didn’t mind my sleep being interrupted by The Final Countdown constructions workers. Because any time is the time for The Final Countdown. But today I’m already complaining about the cold shower and other people having fun: Last night my sleep was ruined by a huge party.
National mourning does not apply to university students. It’s semester end party in Leuven, a city whose main essence is the university. Fifty thousand students celebrated before their exam period. And the main party seemed to be outside my window. I looked out and was greeted by young, innocent faces, not yet corrupted by the many dirty years of university.
They partied it up right in front of us while we tried to sleep. Someone peed against our window, thinking it was a wall(?). Then I did something I haven’t done since the military. Not shooting! Geez! I rolled in my ear plugs so hard that I could only hear my own heartbeat. My desperate hostel mates, for the first time since food poisoning able to sleep, went outside to complain like we were forty years older. Hey can you party quieter? Was I angry because I was still recovering from the shock of terror while they were partying? Or because I wasn’t partying but they were? DJ Ingrid needs some rest.
Now my bed was as quiet as a shooting range. I googled „how do deaf people know when to get up in the morning“. I was worried that I wouldn’t hear my alarm clock. Because I have a train to catch. Also, as a suspicious German tourist, I slept on my traveller checks. I hoped no one would mug me. Or if they did mug me, at least wake me up afterwards. Thanks mugger. I woke up again in the middle of the night because I lost my one ear plug. I looked for it closely as if it was a spider or gold. It was 6.30 and the party was still going on. Now they really got my DJ Ingrid street cred.
I got up. That one old dude still blasted youtube videos in the lobby. (The last two days – and nights – he has been playing the same video of people doing the time warp again and again and again. And again. Btw, he’s not stranded here but apparently lives at the hostel those past ten years. Maybe he doesn’t know who he is. And the time warp is the only thing that connects him to his past self). At 7.00, The Final Countdown began as usual. My hostel mate asked politely how I slept and we just burst out in hysterical laughter. Like cocaine addicts asking each other how they liked their mediation.
Today my voyage continues. I said farewell to all my wonderful hostel friends, all departing in different directions. Frankfurt, Amsterdam, blablacar. Only that one old dude stays. He’s having the time warp again for breakfast. In a few hours, I will try to get to Brussels main station. I bought the last available train ticket to Paris Charles de Gaulles. For the first time I will have a big birthday party with hundreds of guests – I will celebrate it on the airplane to Addis Abeba. My flight has been rescheduled for the fourth time now.
I got safely to Brussels main station. Boarded the TGV to Paris CDG. Met up with my Indian friend from Stockholm, who happened to be there. Boarded the airplane and continued trip, that would shape my view of terrorism, of Africa, politics, and western beauty standard forever.