We saw a real guillotine on this year’s summer travels, with the original blade and bag to catch the head still attached. It was a gruesome reminder of Terror past as we visited three countries living in the shadow of Terror present.
Some friends and acquaintances questioned our decision to make this trip at this time, especially as we would be travelling with family members including three children. We started planning it at Thanksgiving last year in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on a nightclub and restaurants in Paris. By the time of the attacks on Brussels airport and Metro in March we had purchased non-refundable airline tickets. Our plans involved passing through Brussels’ main train station twice. “Are you still going?” concerned friends asked.
It turned out we had all made the same calculation. Statistically we would be at greater risk staying home in the U.S.A. where mass shootings occur almost daily and traffic deaths due to texting drivers are rising at an alarming rate. Going to a shopping mall at home seemed just about as dangerous as visiting a tourist site in London or Paris. Emotions might foretell a different story but we put our faith in statistics. The attack in Nice on Bastille Day underscored the randomness of the threat. Just a week later we flew to Heathrow for the first stop on our three city tour of Europe.
London is my hometown and I have often spoken with nostalgia of the good old British Bobby with his truncheon, such a contrast to the gun toting American police. But times have changed and now I saw the London streets, at least around Westminster and the popular tourist destinations, patrolled by police armed as ostentatiously as their American counterparts. At Horse Guards Parade heavily armed police kept watchful eyes on the tourists. At one point an officer approached a hijab-wearing woman with children standing close to us. He seemed to check on something by her feet before moving away satisfied. The change was especially noteworthy at Downing Street. Police brandishing Uzis guarded the heavily fortified entrance to the street of the Prime Minister’s residence. Their body armor bristled with all manner of other weapons. But the officers outside the gates were quite friendly. They cheerfully posed for photos with the Asian tourists brandishing selfie sticks, the most dangerous weapon wielded by non-police that we encountered in London.
A few days later we left London by Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel to Brussels. At St. Pancras International train station in London the security is just the same as for boarding a plane. Luggage is scanned and passports checked by solemn French border officials (the train travels through French territory en route to Belgium). I felt completely safe on the train but I wanted to limit our time spent at the Brussels train station as news stories consistently portray Belgian security forces as woefully unprepared. Indeed we saw no sign of security at the station. But we were in luck. As we left the Eurostar arrivals area I checked the departure board and saw that the next nonstop train to Ghent, where I have family, was leaving in just five minutes from a close by platform. I think we spent no more than 15 minutes total in Brussels.
Ghent was a relaxing respite after the crowds in London. No wait to enter any of the historic buildings, even to see the famous Jan Van Eyck painting The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in the Cathedral. No sense of heightened alert. No roaming armed police. The outdoor seating of the cafes along the river were full of people enjoying good food and lovely weather. We spent time with my family and felt far away from any threat of danger. But perhaps we were a “soft target.” As we sat at dinner the news came in that two brothers suspected of planning terror attacks had been arrested after raids in the Belgian cities of Mons and Liege.
The third stop on our European adventure was Paris. We would travel on the high-speed Thalys train from Brussels. This was the part of the journey I expected to feel the most vulnerable. After all it was on a Thalys train to Brussels last summer that three American servicemen overpowered a would-be terrorist. Once more there was no sign of security at the Brussels train station. A half-hearted effort appeared to have been made to limit access to the Thalys departure area with temporary makeshift screens. But where we expected to have our luggage scanned and papers checked there was nothing. All that changed once we were on the train and underway. A group of heavily armed police officers patrolled through the carriage, Uzis slung over their shoulders. A few minutes later another pair of armed officers came through checking passports. They were serious and purposeful, no smiles or friendly greetings like the ticket inspector who soon followed. I felt perfectly safe.
In Paris we entered a world completely different from Belgium and even London. Except that the soldiers and police were themselves French, it gave the impression of an occupied city. Certainly a city under siege. It began at the Gare du Nord train station where disembarking passengers were met by a phalanx of soldiers and police lining the platform and closely observing everyone who got off the train. On the other side of a barrier we could see what didn’t happen in Brussels: passengers about to board a train passing their luggage through screening machines.
Over the next few days in Paris we saw police and soldiers everywhere. Patrolling the Eiffel Tower area, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Versailles, and even the streets of Montmartre. They moved in groups, not by individuals or pairs as we saw in London, and often gathered by police vans parked at strategic corners, presumably full of more anti-terror personnel and weapons. I had an image of French police, probably garnered from French cinema, as leaning lackadaisically on their vehicles smoking Gauloises. Not these Frenchmen and women, who looked all business. From time to time sirens screamed and police vehicles sped past, perhaps responding to an ordinary accident or crime, yet nevertheless adding to the atmosphere of heightened vigilance.
As we wandered the charming streets of Montmartre on our last afternoon in Paris, accompanied as usual by the patrolling police, we heard news of the stabbing death of an American woman in London just a few days after we left the city. Random, impossible to predict, statistically improbable. Like me, this woman travelled to London playing the odds that lightening, if it struck, would strike elsewhere. It could have been me. It wasn’t.
I put away my phone with its intrusive messages from a dangerous world and turned my attention to buying macaroons. Perhaps it was as illusory as the power of the king projected in the excesses of Versailles, but in Paris in the new Age of Terror I felt perfectly safe.