Brussels Blues: Eleven
Months in Lockdown
BY DEBORAH BERNSTEIN -- Like cities all across Europe, Brussels is in the midst of a seemingly endless lockdown. Guess what? It's not much fun. It's like someone pushed a giant pause button on our lives.

Brussels is the world's second most cosmopolitan city after Dubai. Kind of surprising, right? Wander about the city and you'll hear dozens of languages. It's home to many EU institutions and the European Parliament and that makes it the unofficial capital of Europe. It is an amazing place to live. It's usually a bustling metropolis. During rush hour, roads often resemble a parking lot, my one complaint about the city.

Brussels life--and mine--began to move in slow motion on March 13, 2020, the night restaurants, cafes and bars were shuttered. But everything changed after the government lockdown began on March 17.

The usually frenetic E-40 motorway seemed abandoned as people hunkered down at home. Traffic jams seemed to magically disappear. So did tourists. Shops, museums, offices and schools closed. Sporting events and festivals were cancelled. And we said goodbye to all the fabulous Christmas markets. Gatherings were limited.

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes told us all to stay at home, and we did. We don't mess around with the pandemic in Belgium.

No more gathering for meals or a beer. We were only permitted to go out for medical reasons or for a trip to the supermarket. Luckily, you could still find Belgian beer there. But it was incredibly frustrating if you needed anything that wasn't edible. Shops that sold non-food items could keep them on display, but could only sell food.

Still, a trip to the grocery store seemed like an adventure--and an escape from our four walls. Only a limited number of people were allowed in at a time. We waited in lines outside, socially distanced, of course, and picked up freshly disinfected shopping carts for our one-way walk through the aisles. Like many Americans during the early days of the lockdown, we found shelves cleared of toilet paper and disinfecting products. We just had to wait, or discover, the of the Low Countries.

Eleven months later, very little has changed. Walk down almost any Brussels side street and you'll see overturned chairs resting on tables outside closed restaurants. It's sad, especially for the restaurant owners and staff. Luckily, there is still takeout so you can pick up some famous Brussels frites served with mayonnaise, a combination that still puzzles me, but delights the locals.

Not too long after the lockdown began, our borders closed for non-essential travel. Brussels Airlines cancelled all commercial flights--and it still runs a skeletal network. Penalties were introduced for those who failed to comply with the regulations. No more hopping over to Aachen, Germany, for shopping or to the Netherlands for the colorful display of tulips at Keukenhof. Our lives seemed stripped of color.

April and May are usually amazing months in Brussels with breathtaking floral displays. It's when the Royal Conservatory Gardens in Laeken opens to the public for a few weeks. And there is the fabulous floral display at the castle at Groot Bijgaarden. Both were cancelled last year. Who knows for sure what will happen this spring?

"Social bubble" sizes were set. At first, you were permitted to meet and socialize with 10 people. Then it was decreased to five people, then to just one person. Talk about feeling isolated!

We were allowed outdoors for exercise. In fact, we were encouraged to do so, but there was no stopping along the way. We had to keep moving. Only the elderly or pregnant women were allowed to pause and sit on a park bench.

Our world moved online. Everyone was encouraged to telework. Students learned from home. We tried to find new ways to hide our lockdown locks. Ah, what I would give for a visit to the hairdresser! Beauty salons and massage parlors are still verboden and, like so many of my fellow Belgians, I've discovered the joy of wearing hats to hide the hair disaster! A few people crossed the border into the Netherlands for visits to the barber or hairdresser. Police now do spot checks and the fines are heavy.

On May 11, some shops were permitted to reopen. Garden centers, do-it-yourself stores and fabric shops reopened. But there were still rules: Shop alone, get it done in 30 minutes or less, wear a mask and sanitize your hands.

Then came June and the short-lived excitement when cafes and restaurants reopened. But the next wave of the Coronavirus put a damper on that. Non-essential shops closed again on November 2. When they reopened just before Christmas, the strict rules for social distancing, masks and hand sanitizing remained, of course

We don't whine about it as much as many Americans do, though. In fact, there's a different mindset here. In Flanders, you'll see signs everywhere that say Altijd Samen--or always together. People here realize that we have to work as a community--although I admit I giggled when I saw the sign in a town square that flashed from Always Together to Shop Alone.

Now? We're just waiting for our vaccinations, which have started, first with senior care facilities. Curfews are still in place: from 10pm to 6am in Brussels and Wallonia, from midnight to 5am in Flanders.

After more than 10 months of lockdown, I long for Friday afternoons in the cafe with friends and weekends jaunting across the continent with fellow expats. But what I miss the most is the amazing outdoor life of Brussels: music festivals that bring Brussels to life during the summer and Christmas markets that make the long, wintry days feel warm and bright.

Those now seem like faraway dreams. But maybe we'll appreciate them even more when they return. (Published on February 4, 2021)

Deborah Bernstein started her career as a journalist in upstate New York. After decades in public relations, she now focuses on her three passions: travel, writing and photography. She has lived in London, New York, Minnesota and Ohio, but now calls Belgium home.