It is now a week on from the atrocities in Brussels so I feel able to actually put something down. As some will know I was in the city at the time and I would like to thank everyone who sent me good wishes over various platforms – I really, really appreciate it.
Travel to Brussels is a regular thing for me, a standard routine of train, hotel and meetings. While it is not the greatest thing of all time to be away from home and the Lovely Wife up until last week it was hardly a stressful exercise.
On Tuesday I had the second of three back to back Trade Association meetings. The offices are at the terminus of one of the Metro lines, so it is very convenient to stay downtown and take the Metro to the offices and the service is pretty reliable.
The hotel I was staying at is relatively small and about fifteen minutes brisk walk from the nearest Metro station. As I switched off my telephone which had been streaming BBC Radio I half heard Moira Stuart saying something about explosions but I did not really register it, my brain was thinking about the meeting later rather than anything to do with the journey or what might be happening on the news.
I left the hotel and walked as normal to the station. There did seem to be a lot of people coming out of the station, but it took a Metro worker making it clear the station was closed for the penny to drop that something was wrong. At this point I thought that maybe there was an issue with the network and thought it would be easier to get a taxi from the hotel, so I walked back.
Of course by the time I was back the hotel had locked its doors and a security man had arrived. And I found out what had happened at the airport and at Maalbeek station.
I have to say I was pretty shaken, particularly at the attack on the Metro. This was a station I would have been going through if I had left thirty minutes earlier.
Some weeks before, feeling particularly morbid perhaps, I had wondered what would happen if someone had wanted to attack the EU institutions, and I must admit as I was going through Schumann – the next stop from Maalbeek and where the Commission buildings are – I had felt extremely nervous. While I was sitting in my hotel room watching the horrific scenes unfolding on the BBC World News feed the memory of thinking about this just kept going around in my head.
Thankfully I was able to call home before the mobile network was shut down, so the Lovely Wife knew I was safe. Then I had to come to a decision on what to do. I know that some travellers proceeded to get out of Brussels straight away; hiring cars and driving to airports in nearby cities where they could catch a flight home. In the end I just sat tight and hoped that things would calm down and I was more concerned about the many friends and colleagues I had in Brussels and whether they had been caught up in the events. To date, as far as I know, thank God, no one I know has been hurt – it does not make events any less shocking, but makes it personally easier to handle.
The main reason for putting this down in words though is to pay tribute to some people who are often overlooked. When people look for good in a situation like this – or, if you are religious like me, God – it is not in the dark events but in the response to them by normal people. In this case for me, this was the hotel staff.
Shops can close and send staff home, but hotels have guests that need looking after. Most of the men and women at the hotel I prefer are pretty young, and it were clear to me that they were as scared and upset as anyone else would be. But they held it together, were calm, professional and did everything they could to make me (and I presume the other guests) feel as safe as possible.
There is a point where you exchange a look with a stranger that communicates a straightforward message that, while we do not know each other, we are in this together. I felt that on Wednesday from hotel staff, the young policeman who went through my bag as I queued to get into Gare du Midi and again from the Eurostar staff that brought me home.
I only pray that this kind of connection can become more of a binding force between us rather than the divisions that terror attacks and sometimes knee jerk reactions to them can cause.