It’s inevitable to think back to where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news of that horrible day, 9/11. While other Americans watched news of the terrorist attacks unfolding live on their TVs at home, I was a world away in Brussels, on what was supposed to be a routine business trip – one that suddenly became an extended stay as air travel to the U.S. came to a halt for the next few days.
I have to admit, Brussels was never on my travel bucket list. To me, the city was the headquarters of NATO and the European Union. Brussels was full of bureaucrats and military personnel—not so exciting to a single guy in his early 30s. But during the three days I was stranded there, I grew to appreciate the quiet charm and beauty of this quintessential northern European city and the warmth of the Belgian people.
I also have to admit that until then, I was that type of traveler who aimed to blend in with the natives. But after 9/11, I never felt more proud to be an American and never before have I felt how much others appreciated the land of my birth.
I flew into Brussels on September 9, for a AAA travel conference. September 11, the second day of the conference, I went to my room at the Brussels Le Meridien Hotel, thinking I’d catch up on some work. I turned on CNN International as background noise and went about my business, until I absorbed what was on my screen. Like everyone else, my first reaction (after utter shock) was to try to phone family, but of course phone lines to the United States were jammed. I was comforted by the knowledge that my parents were in Florida – hopefully well out of harm’s way – but I really didn’t want to be alone. Not now. So I turned instead to cruise industry colleagues – people I knew from going to conferences and trade shows around the world.
I was in Brussels with Cindy Botelho, who also works for Princess Cruises. She’s a good friend and we still remain close. We gathered in her room with some other colleagues. Little did I know, we were all to become family over the surreal days that followed.
We watched the news, like the rest of the world, trying to figure out who had targeted the United States and why. We eventually moved to the hotel’s conference room, which AAA converted to a news and travel agency. Passing through the hotel lobby, I saw anxious Americans trying to get home and fearing to fly at the same time.
After six hours, I told my colleagues, “Look, this may sound insensitive, but I can’t watch this anymore. I’m going to take a shower, get dressed, and go out to dinner for a change of scenery. If you want to join me, please do.” Everyone took me up on it and I realized my colleagues were quickly becoming my friends through this unsettling experience. Leaving the hotel, we appreciated how lucky we were to breathe the fresh air outside and gratefully went to dinner.
We indulged in local Belgian fare and beer and the locals were very kind. We were obviously American and found open hearts and genuine concern directed our way. Not only did they provide us with warm gestures of comfort, they also gave us insight into the city’s must-see sights.
The next morning set the routine for the coming days. My colleagues and I would meet and spend an hour or so sizing up our travel options. Once we’d determined there were no flights out, we’d make the best of the rest of the day and discover the treasures of Brussels.
We headed straight for the heart of Brussels, the Grand Place or Grote Markt (Great Market), the city’s central meeting place literally for 1,000 years. The Grand Place was an open-air market in the 10th century. By the 13th century, indoor markets for the important guilds of the time were built. Over the years, these buildings were torn down by attackers and rebuilt numerous times, ultimately being restored in the 19th century to the majesty we see today.
It was clear that Brussels was an important city during the middle ages and Renaissance. The Grand Place is equally important to modern Brussels. We put aside the frightening news and people-watched and explored the shops, cafes and restaurants that fill these buildings today.
You can’t visit Brussels without seeing its most famous statue, Manneken Pis. That would translate to Little Man Pee. While Rome has Neptune presiding over the cascading rocks of the Trevi Fountain, Brussels has a little boy urinating into a basin. Sometimes he is au natural; other times he is dressed in gold-embroidered finery one day and slouchy pants, a T-shirt and knit cap the next. People are crazy about Manneken Pis. There are restaurants named in his honor, and a section of the King’s House museum displays his extensive wardrobe.
Some say Mannekin Pis commemorates the legend of a little boy who urinated on a burning fuse and thwarted an attacker’s plot. Others say it was erected by a grateful family whose lost boy was found relieving himself in a garden. Whatever the origin, if you’re in Brussels, you have to see this statue.
The next morning the news, once again, was that there were no flights home. So we decided to go to Brugge (or Bruges), which is just about an hour outside of Brussels by train. (Belgium is both French and Flemish speaking, so most places have two names.)
Bruges is filled with charm and beautiful architecture. Much of the city is laid out along canals and, like Amsterdam, it’s sometimes called the Venice of the North. The streets are lined with quaint houses with lace curtains and window boxes filled with vibrant flowers. But the city was an important one during medieval times and, like Brussels, has a market square that was influential in its time. Bruges’ skyline is dominated by the Church of Our Lady and the belfry’s tower, both built in the middle ages. It’s an immaculately preserved slice of history, with a modern pulse.
We enjoyed meeting some of the city’s inhabitants over a stop for mussels and Belgian fries—or moules frites—and were touched by their friendliness and warm concern for our welfare. More than one person approached to tell us they were sorry and that they stood with us.
By day three, some of my colleagues had been booked on flights home. I was setting out for another adventure with my one remaining traveling companion, when my phone rang with news that I had been booked on a flight out. As I left Brussels, I looked out the window down at the city I never thought I’d love so much. Because of the unusual circumstances, I not only remember the amazing sights, culture and people, but I have a fondness for the city that provided me such comfort and support.
With the 10th anniversary approaching, my life is very different. I’m married, a father, and living in Brooklyn, not that far from Ground Zero. This September 11 will be a solemn occasion. The anniversary is sure to cast a shadow over the city and the residents who were so deeply affected. I will mourn alongside them, but I will also think of my time in Belgium, when flights were frozen, and remind myself that time is a gift that should never be wasted.