Winter, Webcam Wonderland
Brussels’ Christmas Tree in the stunning Grand Place. The annual spectacle draws thousands to the ancient square for the tree, Nativity scenes, and light show. This weekend, the city put this year’s tree, a real beauty, on display. But the throngs of ogling spectators didn’t come. Instead, dire warnings of an imminent terrorist attack put Brussels on lockdown. While the rest of Belgium remains at Threat Level 3, over the weekend, authorities elevated the city of Brussels to Level 4, “A Serious and Imminent Threat” one week after the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris.
A Surreal Scene!
Images of Brussels are surreal, a scene from a Dystopian future. On Saturday, November 20, military carriers rolled into Brussels. Machine gun-toting soldiers patrolled the city alongside the city’s familiar men and women in blue. The Metro was shut down, entrances blocked with police tape. Cinemas and stores closed. Brussels, a world capital of 1.2 million people was on lockdown. Emails started to pour in with warnings from the US Embassy advising citizens to stay indoors. The US Department of Defense issued a 72-hour embargo on its employees and contractors on travel to Brussels. Those DoD personnel already in Brussels were told to stay inside. Jim and I couldn’t go out if we wanted to. The Mayor of Brussels called upon all bars and restaurants in the city center to close at 6pm. Our reservations were cancelled. People who count on customers to earn a living were hit hard.
On Sunday it was the same story. Our local market at the Parvis Saint-Gilles, usually packed with vendors and customers, was cancelled. This hub of economic and social activity is a cornerstone of Brussels’ life.
Other popular markets at Flagey, and the Gare de Midi which usually hosts up to 50,000 people, were also cancelled. At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, the Prime Minister announced that Brussels would be shutdown again on Monday. Three days of an unprecedented lockdown. Twitter filled with reports and photos under the hashtags, #BrusselsAlert and #Brusselslockdown. As Expats, those twitter feeds became Jim’s and my lifeline for information.
Loose Tweets Compromise Streets!
On Sunday night, in anticipation of police activity, authorities asked for residents’ cooperation to refrain from using Twitter to telegraph Police activity. In a show of humor, one of the pillars of civilized society, Brussels residents flooded Twitter with pictures of cats. Brussels’ feline population pounced into action. If you want a smile in these troubling times, check out Twitter’s #Brusselscats. Below is our Puhi. No, he’s not laying down on the job. Puhi is enforcing the Tweet blackout by blocking access to the keyboard.
We awoke this morning to news that overnight raids in Brussels and the depressed southern Belgian city of Charleroi netted the arrest of sixteen people. But news accounts report that no guns or explosives were found. A prime subject of the manhunt, a man wanted for the Paris attacks, remains at large. But even if he’s caught, then what. Authorities have repeatedly stated that the Level 4 Threat goes beyond this fugitive.
Is This Our Future?
Is this our future? A civilized world held hostage, forced indoors by terrorist threat, If this siege can happen in Brussels, a world capital that headquarters NATO and the European Union, could terrorist threat not shutdown other cities? Such an action has ramifications for commerce, education, transportation, etc… every segment of our modern world. On a nearly empty street this afternoon, I overheard one young woman complain to her friend. “I’d like to tell the Prime Minister to pay my rent. I have to work.” That’s the reality of the situation.
As of Monday afternoon, we’re still not sure what tomorrow will bring. All we can do is trust that the authorities are doing what’s necessary to keep us safe. Kudos go out to the soldiers and police for putting themselves in potential danger to keep the city secure.
Can a Webcam be a Surrogate for Life?
Hunkered down in our Brussels home, I scanned local news looking for updates. I happened upon the Brussels City website. There I found a link to three webcams. At last a real-time window into my besieged city. One of the webcams is at the Place de Brouckere, one of the city’s busiest squares. Another is situated in the Grand Place with view of the Christmas tree and Starbucks. I’ve attached a link so you too can see the Brussels Grand Place and Christmas tree.
It’s both ironic and sad that the Christmas tree, a peaceful symbol of joy and hope stands practically alone. Staring at the tree from the safety of a webcam feels a bit unseemly, like a peeping tom or worse, an Orwellian Big Brother. As a matter of fact, it’s unsatisfying–window shopping on life. No, let me stand below the mighty balsam’s branches and gaze upon the dazzling lights and sparkling ornaments. Let me feel the nip of crisp air on my face, hear the wonderment in children’s voices and inhale the comforting scent of pine, spruce, or fir.
I shudder to think of a world experienced solely from a webcam.
So let me leave you with a video I shot last year in the Grand Place. Isn’t this merely a variant of the sterile webcam you may ask? Well, music and light are added sensory treats. And perhaps, the feeling of magic and wonder that filled me as I gazed upon the tree to take the video will channel through me to you.
I’m hoping that Jim and I will be able to visit the Christmas tree in the Grand Place soon. Like Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree, our Grand Place tree must feel forlorn—all dressed up with no one to awe with magic and wonderment.
Christmas trees, like life, are best experienced up close with every one of our senses.