By Sonja Lee | The Foodie World contributing blogger
Brussels Airport is in rebuild and lockdown after the March attacks, there is tight security and it’s not exactly easy to get in. Give yourself an extra hour to check in on both domestic and international flights, it’s a process.
For passengers entering via taxi or car, there is a checkpoint which reminds me of pre-Schengen zone customs. Police have a good look at passengers, ask some questions; none for me, they wave me through. Soldiers stand on both sides of the checkpoint, machine guns by their side, with the appearance of being ready to jump into attack mode if necessary. Just a little further along there are three massive army transporters. Two soldiers sit inside one, smoking with the windows rolled right up on the cool spring day, laughing.
My taxi follows an unorthodox route, it appears I’m being dropped off near the DHL building on the outskirts of the airport. It’s for taxis only; we go through a boom gate into a car park watched by two “observers” (men in yellow safety vests). I’m unsettled. There aren’t many people around. The taxi driver tells me in French to follow the other passengers and the terminal entrance is opposite.
I start following the signs and passengers to Terminal 1 thinking that it is only a few minutes away. But when I start walking up the spiral driveway of the car park I start thinking this is weird. Other passengers slowly join me and we proceed up one level, then another and another inside the snail-like shell. Luckily I only have one small carry-on and backpack, others have large suitcases, there are little blonde boys, all of us pressing upwards, not quite sure where we’re going and wondering how much longer it will take to get to our check-in counters. At some point we see more “observers”.
Upon arriving at what is finally opposite the terminal entrance, you see it is very difficult to access via car. There are two police vans and highly confusing signs to Terminal 1 and 2 – and a woman heading to Terminal 1 like myself has to ask an observer for help in French. I end up following her and we shake our heads, appalled by the signage. We pass through another police checkpoint that reminds me of a makeshift morgue; the centre section is screened off, and I wonder what it contains. We keep marching onwards, and directions on terminal signs start to make sense.
I look for a One World computer to check in, and think it strange there isn’t one because I’m sure I’ve used one here in the past. At the counter, I ask the British Airways assistant where the check-in computers are. She says solemnly: they were over there and that area is… She hovers mid-sentence. Ah oui, je comprends.
People swarm in queues to check-in, I try to find my gate and notice a wall with tributes to the fallen, flowers on the floor. I continue but am stressed at having to figure out how to get in, pass check points, feeling like things are a mess, and believe this is yet another knee-jerk government reaction. My bags are only screened once I’m actually inside the terminal.
Finally I see something familiar. EXKI! A fabulous Brussels version of Pret a manger but much healthier and tastier and I stroll through it to admire the food, to try to normalise myself. I travel frequently and globally and usually not one to shop. I wander the duty free and think about buying champagne.
Over a cup of cheap black tea, I figure out how much extra time it’s taken me to check-in – maybe 30 minutes? More? I am lucky, I can read and speak some French, what about those that don’t know French or Flemish? Or even English? What if you’re disabled or travelling with someone who is, or simply gets stressed out travelling?Luckily I had given myself an extra hour thanks to a family heads up; the airport website wasn’t terribly helpful.
My guess is the rebuild work will take quite some time – six months to a year, perhaps more. Like the central train station, there are armed soldiers on arrival in Brussels Airport and they continue to wander the city streets. The city remains on high alert.