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Westouter, Belgium, is within easy walking and biking distance of the French border. In fact, the day of the Paris attack (November 13), I biked to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery and Visitor Centre, not more than 15 minutes away.
Well, in truth, my trip took a bit longer. I got a bit lost -- not hopelessly, mind you, as I eventually got my bearings -- a fact that was driven home by the occasional changing of the street signs from "straats" to "rues", as I crossed and re-crossed an international frontier that bisected French and Belgian farmers' fields.
That day, the day of the Paris attack, I turned in early. Even a France soccer match on TV and a beep that indicated a text message were not enough to convince me that staying up was more important than rest.
I remained, then, for a few hours at least, blissfully unaware of the happenings in Paris. At least, that is, until, after using the facilities in the middle of the night, I checked my phone. A text: "Paris attacked. Terror. 26 dead, at least." A Facebook message from my sister: "Hope everything is OK where you are…please stay safe…Love kim."
I returned to bed, after informing my sister I was okay, not because I was uninterested, but simply because it was the middle of the night and such attacks, whether in Paris, Baghdad, London, or even sleepy, provincial Ottawa, have become pretty regular irregular occurrences, sadly -- and usually far off.
(I'm reminded of Terry Gilliam's Brazil in which a bomb explodes in a restaurant: the patrons who aren't killed or injured simply continue to dine; the string trio plays on.)
Hey, I'm in the middle of the Belgian countryside, and my nearest neighbours are cows in the field next door.
For days afterwards, of course, the media is inundated with TV reports, online accounts, speeches, vigils, talking heads, and op-eds. The French declare a state of emergency. We are at war, says Hollande, a statement eerily similar to that uttered by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 and one that, it's clear, has played a role in getting us into this mess.
The connections of the Parisian murderers to Belgium are also made very clear. English friends in Amsterdam, who visited Brussels last winter, and my Flemish landlord, who's evinced genuine concerns about Belgian immigration policies, had both mentioned the disenfranchised Muslim ghetto Molenbeek. Many reports indicated that the area was a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, that residents seemed to live lives apart from the mainstream of Belgian society, and that, per capita, Belgium was the world's most fertile Daesh recruiting ground.
The only conclusion that I drew while spending a couple weeks in the EU's capital in '95 or '96 was that I enjoyed Hoegaarden, a Belgian wheat beer.
Times have changed.
Still, I felt safe. I felt doubly safe after digesting a tongue-in-cheek Atlantic article on "'Crimes' Jihadists will Sentence You to Death For" and calculating that, in fact, sitting in a delightful rural B&B, enjoying a beer, wasn't likely to earn me a death sentence. On the other hand, after I posted the piece to Facebook, a friend cast some doubt: "But you support free speech and reject the beliefs of nutters so don't get too complacent!" Which I "Liked."
The fallout from the attacks continues to be felt.
Initial reports indicate that Hollande is about to close French borders, a legitimate enough tactic at such times. Indeed, had they been closed somewhat earlier, one of the alleged masterminds of the attacks could not have fled to Belgium through French Tourcoing the night of the attacks.
I was also concerned about the French border, not more than a few-minutes bicycle ride away from where I'm writing this, but my concern had little to do with security and everything to do with my ability to get around.
Borders that a century ago were defended to the hilt are no longer even recognizable as such. Most have heard of the Schengen Area, which allows citizens of member states to cross borders freely? Would it change?
When I walked to nearby Zwartenberg (Flemish) or Mont Noir (French) last Saturday, the day after the attacks, I wasn't sure what to expect. As the Franco-Belgian frontier runs down the middle of the main street, I half expected the place to be overrun by Gendarmes and the French Army. (When I arrived at Lille train station in mid-October, a four-person patrol of French soldiers made regular sweeps of the platforms and waiting area, a fall out, no doubt, from the Charlie Hebdo murders.)
There was none. The tacky agglomeration of tobacco and alcohol shops, arcades, sex shops, and family restaurants -- yep -- seemed as bustling as when I'd visited on weekends past.
Christmas is, of course, on the horizon.
Armentieres, on my to-do-list horizon - anything to put off the hard work of starting a new book, ostensibly my reason for this sojourn to the former lands of the Western Front, 1914-1918 -- was my destination last Monday. So important to British Tommies ("Ma-dem-zel from Armenteers/Par-ley-voo") during the Great War, Armentieres was also on the other side of the border, a fact that led me to plot a bike route due south, taking quieter (and safer, I figured, from a biking standpoint) Belgian country highways. It worked well until, alas, a wrong turn took me to the French N933 highway, heading south.
Crossing the border? Nothing. A petrol station. Faded markers on the highway indicating where a border crossing had once been. The only indication that something terrible had happened was a flag flying at half mast beside a war memorial in Nieppe. Someone took a picture; I did the same.
Armentieres was a bit of a washout, literally, a steady drizzle falling throughout the afternoon. Less concerned about sightseeing, I was more concerned about my return leg to Westouter, about a 20 km trip. A police nationale car pulling away from the petrol station border crossing where I'd crossed into France earlier in the day was the only evidence of a bolstered official presence, if that's in fact what it was.
However, as I crossed the international frontier for the third (fourth?) time on the day, I somehow expected the police car to turn around, begin tailing me. At the same time, I was somehow convinced that, like American cops at state borders in the police shows I'd grown up on, national police forces could not pursue outside their jurisdictions. Besides, a middle-aged white man, on a Belgian rental bike, didn't appear like the most threatening of characters. With my Canuck passport at the ready, I was prepared for anything.
Meanwhile, talk of the Paris attacks were heating up back home -- of all places. In a North York where I grew up and resided til a few years ago, a niqab-wearing woman was assaulted and robbed; on the subway, two Muslim women, accused of being "terrorists," were verbally assaulted; and in Peterborough, an hour and a half northeast of Toronto, the only mosque was fire-bombed. Not the sort of Canada I like identifying with, and yet after a recent national election campaign when the flames of xenophobia were generously fanned by a Tory government clinging to power (and now thankfully out of power), not entirely unexpected.
By comparison, my rural idyll, complete with biking, walking, reading, and sipping strong Trappist ales continues unabated.
Come what may, I'm much safer, I've concluded, than the members of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions who swamped the area a hundred years ago, were. Even during quiet times on the Western Front, casualties were common, sometimes even expected.
The unexpected, however, has become the new normal, something of which I've become painfully aware. My plans to visit Greece and Turkey over the holidays, are up for reevaluation, as, for the first time in my life, I weigh the risks of international travel. Any flight I take will most likely leave and return via Brussels, and the Canadian government, as of last weekend, is urging its nationals on Belgian soil -- that's me -- "to exercise a high degree of caution because of the threat of terrorism."
My response to a friend's joke about the Canadian government's warning: "Yeah, I noticed that on FB. Since I'm not in Brussels or any other major urban city, it would seem I'm relatively safe. But who knows, maybe Daesh (?) is looking to make a foray into the countryside. They'll never take me without my Christmas tree."
Like many people, I genuinely admire the French, especially, based on the past ten days, their ability to keep laughing at themselves, to keep living. You may have the weapons, reads the most recent Charlie Hebdo headline, but we have the champagne.
I turn on the Christmas tree lights.
And hope for a Christmas truce.
Most recent: The Canadian Embassy in Brussels has been closed until further notice. Raids and arrests continue. Travel warnings are issued. Hostages are taken in Roubaix -- one was killed, the rest released. Cat pictures are making the rounds on Belgian twitter.
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Craig Gibson is an award-winning historian and writer and is currently walking and biking the battlefields and billeting areas of Flanders. His first book, Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-1918, was published in 2014.
Image: Flickr/Eddy Van 3000
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