To this day, soldiers patrol every town in Belgium. Shopping malls, railway stations and large public gatherings (such as Christmas markets) are guarded by the military and local police force. As per Korean government advice, I assume this will continue into the new year, at least until February.
Even the small city of Liège has patrols at Guillemins station as well as the Mediacité, Place Saint-Lambert and Belle-Ile shopping complexes (where I do my groceries). Christmas festivities and any gatherings are particularly well surrounded.
I was in Brussels on the night of the Paris attacks. Scheduled to take the Toefl exam at Selor on the morning of the 14th, I was rudely awakened at the hostel around midnight. A group of French-speaking Belgian students had stormed in, taken their mobiles out and started to listen to the news on full volume. Most of the other guests being non-French speakers or asleep, their hushed talks about “Paris”and “mon dieu, I cannot believe this” had me thinking there was probably some protest going on in the French capital.
The next morning, a Saturday, was quiet. Nobody was out on the streets near the business district, normal behaviour for a weekend. When I came back to the hostel, the receptionist, a Czech lady, was busy talking to a concerned American parent. No, we are very safe. We are far from the city centre. No, it is not near the place with the EU buildings. She abruptly hung up when a group of new guests walked up to the desk, and said that several American parents had called.
I had planned to combine the Toefl exam with concerts on Saturday and Sunday nights, one at Ancienne Belgique, and another at the larger Vorst Nationaal / Forest National. I went out at night, and the city centre was lined with people as usual. I did hesitate a bit, but since there was no news from the event’s organisers, and we thought Brussels had nothing to do with the Paris terror back then.
However, I did have a friend living not far away from the Paris city centre – who soon confirmed herself as “safe”on Facebook. She would later write a post about how people in Paris were really terrified, but were playing calm since they were determined to not give in to the terrorists’ will. Her thoughts come from an event that took place at a cafe three days after the attacks, when Parisians had started to “fight back”by living life as normal. As she sat in a cafe, someone rushed in, yelling “They’re here again! They’re shooting again!”, and everybody screamed and duck under the tables in a panic. It turns out, some idiots had thought the 3-day national mourning ought to be celebrated with a round of pétards (firecrackers).
Another Korean friend of mine who works at the Seoul office of a US multinational received an e-mail banning all employees from travelling to Brussels or anywhere in Belgium until the end of November. She was worried- was everything okay in that small town where I live?
As I followed the news regarding Paris and Brussels, it became very clear that a few political issues would be torn to shreds – the Shengen Agreement and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), two key factors of the EU. The idea that there are no borders, and therefore no security checks whatsoever within the European Union also means that there is no authority controlling trafficking within the member states.
Unsettling news was never far away – Brussels, Liège, Aachen, being within a 1-hour radius. Geographically, the EU is a well-connected hotspot. South Korea, on the other hand is an island, since North Korea blocks the inland passageway to China and Russia.
Europeans consider any kind of identity check within the Union a rude infringement on their rights. A week after Bataclan, my roommate’s parents drove from France to visit her. They passed through Geneva, got cheap gas in Luxembourg, then went to Germany to do some grocery shopping before they arrived in Belgium – and yes, they did complain. Being stopped for ID check was really just an emergency formality though, as they and several other ‘white’ Europeans who passed borders at this time were allowed to pass through as soon as the police or military saw their faces.
As Hungary stands strong by the fence it’s put up against illegal immigrants on the Serbian and Croatian borders, the EU debate continues (albeit at a slow pace), are we really happy with the EU? Being the outsider, I wonder, how is it possible for vastly different nations of multiple cultures, languages and identities to be clumped under a single umbrella? And why do nations who seem like they would do so well without the union stick to it? Could such a system ever be dreamt of in Asia?