BRUSSELS, Belgium — The recent terrorist attack in Brussels has done little to dampen the spirits of an Elkin High School alumna who now calls the city home. In the wake of the attacks, Lilly Woodward, EHS Class of 2009, is weighing in on the situation and her overall experiences living abroad. On Tuesday, explosions occurred at the Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek Metro station killing an estimated 30 people and injuring dozens more.
Woodward has lived there for the better part of a year. She and her boyfriend, Jason Stamm, live eight miles away from the airport and 1.8 miles away from the Maelbeek Metro station. Although they were not close enough to hear the explosions, they did hear sirens going off nonstop.
“It’s definitely more tense after the attacks yesterday, but it’s honestly something that I think most people here have been anticipating since the Paris attacks, and since finding out that those were largely planned in Brussels,” Woodward said Wednesday. “So I think that the heightened tension is somewhat comparable to what is was the days following Paris. Certainly higher for those more directly impacted by the explosions.”
Woodward said she and Stamm feel more tension, especially when they travel to more populated areas in the city and around the airport.
“We aren’t located in the center of the city, so we’re a bit removed from all of the noise. I know there are a ton of guards situated around major squares and metro stations, as they were after the Paris attacks, but we’re keeping away from those areas for the time being,” she said. “We do find ourselves at the airport quite a bit — either because my boyfriend is traveling for work or because we’ve found really cheap flights to a nearby country — so I’m sure we’ll be feeling a bit tense the next time we’re headed to the airport, but it’s definitely not something we can avoid forever.”
With the city of Brussels being put on the highest threat level for a terrorist attack, Woodward said they were taking the appropriate precautions.
“It’s a similar protocol to the one we followed after the Paris attacks,” she said. “Luckily, neither of us work downtown, so we only use the Metro to visit downtown or for embassy appointments – things like that. It’s impossible here to avoid public transportation completely, but we’ll likely try to avoid using the Metro while the terror alert is still at its highest level.
“And there are municipalities on the opposite side of the city where the police have been conducting raids since the Paris attacks, so we tend to avoid those areas. But other than that, it’s just a matter of paying attention to what the government is telling people, and being mindful of the terror alert level, which is currently at a four (the highest level) — but was previously at a three,” Woodward added.
Though Woodward was just a child during the 9/11 terrorist attack in the U.S., she did say that since that time the overall threat of terrorism has greatly increased nationally and globally. She said that she couldn’t really compare the feeling now in Brussels to her experience in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think mostly because I was too young at the time to really understand the fear and anger that 9/11 struck,” she said.
“I also think that, given the recent attacks elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S., there’s just a different baseline with regards to overall tension and fear. I think people worldwide are probably more alert in general, whereas I don’t think people considered terrorism as such a huge threat before 9/11.”
Woodward and Stamm moved to Brussels nine months ago, where they both work for internationally-based global industries.
Despite the recent tragedy, Woodward enjoys living in Brussels and has had many wonderful experiences in Europe.
“Brussels is a great place to live,” she said “It’s referred to as the capital of Europe because it houses a number of European institutions and the result is this densely populated city that’s more diverse than any place I’ve lived. And because there are so many expatriates working at the institutions, people tend to be relatively more welcoming of outsiders than in some other parts of Europe. And, like most European cities, there’s some amazing architecture throughout the city which is unlike anything you’d see in the U.S., just because the buildings are so much older here.”
The strong regional identity of Belgium natives is a cultural difference that Woodward said she has found interesting.
“I think there are a few unique things about Belgium which distinguish it quite a bit from the U.S.,” she said. “Belgium is largely split into distinct regions. The Flemish region speaks Flemish (Dutch), the Walloon region speaks French, and Brussels officially speaks both.”
Woodward explained, “In addition to speaking different languages, each region has its own government which is responsive to its local, regional needs. So you get the sense that people are tied more to their regional identities and cultures. Whereas in the U.S., even though it’s much bigger in size and population, you have a strong central government, one national language, and a tendency to see a very strong national identity regardless of where you are in the country.”
She said that despite the language differences, she’s been able to communicate well with others since her arrival there.
“Luckily, most people I’ve encountered in Belgium speak English, so I’ve been able to get by pretty easily regardless of which region I’m in.”
Travel to other areas of Europe is something Woodward said she has greatly enjoyed since moving overseas.
“Brussels is located in the center of Europe which makes it so easy to travel to a number of beautiful European cities. As an example, we can drive two hours north and be in Amsterdam, or two hours east and we’re in Cologne, Germany, and three hours south puts us in Paris. I’d have to say the proximity to these other countries — and ease of traveling between them — has been one of the best parts of living here. It also explains why so many Europeans grow up speaking multiple languages — which is always humbling, as someone who (currently) can only speak English fluently.”
While Woodward said she was disheartened over the recent terrorist attack, she said she and Stamm find themselves more dedicated to living life to the fullest and embracing the beauty that is still in the world despite these turbulent times.
“Even though events like these are terrible, we fully intend to continue on with our lives as usual,” Woodward said. “I think it’s really unfortunate that these kind of events tend to bolster fear mongering and polarization by politicians and the media. If I was someone who gave into that, it would be very difficult for me to appreciate and enjoy the diversity that Brussels, and Europe overall, has to offer.”
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.