It was eerily tense when friends Kate Farlinger and Bianca Barry arrived at their hostel in Brussels Monday night.
The St. Albert and Sturgeon County natives were looking forward to a few days of catching up, as they took some time off from their respective business programs at the University of Alberta.
Normally la Grande Place is buzzing with activity – tourists indulging waffles, admiring the glow of the UNESCO world heritage buildings; groups of young people sitting in circles on the cobblestone, sharing wine and laughter; couples enjoying a meal or un petit chocolat.
That night was different. There were soldiers shouldering fully loaded assault rifles patrolling street corners and a van full of police officers keeping a watchful eye on the public square. It was 8 p.m. and many shops had shut down early. The tourists? They were nowhere to be seen.
It was quite unlike the last trip Kate had taken in February. On exchange in Lille, a French city located 20 kilometres from the Belgian border, Kate’s classmates often travelled to bustling Brussels, which is closer than Paris and just as worldly.
“It felt quite safe,” said Kate, about her previous weekend excursion.
So when her friend Bianca, who was in Spain to compete in a business case competition, decided to stay a few extra days to visit, they decided to meet there. Not only was it easier to catch a flight to Brussels, but there was more to do in the metropolitan city than in Lille.
Bianca expressed some reservations about travelling to the country where Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the Paris attacks last November, was thought to be hiding – a country known to have ties to the extremist Islamic State.
“I remember talking to Kate about being so close to the Belgian border and whether she was going to be safe before she went (on her exchange),” said Bianca.
But given Kate’s recent trip, both girls and their parents didn’t dwell on it.
“For attacks to happen in a place at a time when your kids are there, the odds of that are extremely low,” said Kate’s father, John Farlinger, former owner of Farlie Travel in St. Albert.
After a late dinner Monday night, the girls went to bed.
They woke to find that Brussels had become the most recent target of ISIS militants.
In the height of Tuesday’s morning commute, three men staged three attacks in two of the Belgian capital’s busiest hubs.
Just before 8 a.m. two explosions in the departure area of the Zaventem airport killed at least 11 people and left another 81 injured, with one bomb letting loose a deadly spray of nails on unsuspecting travellers checking in for morning flights.
An hour later another bomb struck the Maelbeek metro station in central Brussels – a station that serves the European Union, European Commission and Belgian government buildings. The bomb killed at least 20 passengers and passersby and injured more than 100.
ISIS was quick to claim responsibility for the attacks.
“It was a total shock to wake up to this,” said Kate.
“We were at home when the Paris attacks happened,” she added. “We saw all of it on the news, but to be in the city while this was happening was quite surreal. It was hard to grasp the idea that we were here…”
The metro bombing took place two kilometres, or a 30-minute walk, from where the girls were staying. The national terror alert was raised to level four, meaning a “serious and imminent attack” is likely. Both worried that the Grande Place, given its popularity with tourists, could be next.
But it wasn’t until the next day (Wednesday, March 23) that it really hit them.
That’s when the Gazette reached them on Skype, about an hour before they were scheduled to leave Brussels.
Earlier that day the pair had been among the thousands gathered at Place de la Bourse to mourn the 34 strangers lost in the attacks and show solidarity and defiance in the face of terrorism.
“That’s really when it sunk in for us,” said Bianca. “To see a whole country and all their people come together – you could just feel the emotion and the loss.”
The square was filled with flowers and tea light candles. Messages of peace were scrawled in chalk across the square. The makeshift memorial was a “moving experience” said Kate.
“There was a lot of hope and a lot of energy brought by the Belgian people to that ceremony. Everybody left with a little more energy than they came in with,” she said. “It’s still solemn, still quieter, but it was nice to see a little bit of a shift compared to yesterday.”
Kate’s parents, John and Terry Farlinger, said they were proud of the way the girls handled themselves in Brussels.
“The experience, as rattling as it was, I think was probably a very meaningful one,” said Terry. “Obviously we all considered ourselves extremely fortunate they came in the night before and not that morning.”
A retired travel agent, Terry worked tirelessly for two days making travel arrangements for the two young women.
Bianca was supposed to fly out of Zaventem airport on Thursday to catch her flight home from Lisbon, but the bombing forced the closure of the airport. Being Easter weekend it was impossible to find any flights at surrounding airports that weren’t completely booked, said Terry.
With the co-operation of the University of Alberta, the ticketing agency and Vision Travel in St. Albert, where Terry and John used to work after selling Farlie Travel, she was able to reroute Bianca’s flights through Paris. She also arranged ground transportation for the pair using connections she made throughout her career.
Mag Barry, who was awakened by a 4 a.m. Facebook message from her daughter Bianca, called the experience “unsettling” for both the families and their daughters.
“Thank God for the Internet and messaging,” said Mag. “If we hadn’t been connected, it would have been the worst.”
Both Bianca and Kate were happy to be leaving Brussels late Wednesday evening. Though their experience – one of strange lingering silence pierced only by the sound of distant sirens, of shuttered shops and cloistered quarters – was quite different than that of the Belgian commuters and the travelers inadvertently caught in an act of terrible violence, the two were clearly marked by it.
“It’s very surreal to be so close to something that you only hear about in the news,” said Bianca.
“Even though it’s been a tough few days, I think the experience of seeing all these people come together has been amazing,” she added.