I spent 29 hours at the airport in Brussels, Belgium, exactly one year ago. It was not the same airport that the ISIS attacks took place last Tuesday, March 22, but the news of the bombs still shattered my heart. That beautiful city, full of art, creativity, happiness and warm, Nutella-covered waffles, does not deserve that much damage, destruction or heartbreak. I’ve only spent a small amount of time in the city, but I think that in the wake of tragic events, it’s important to tell stories of the city in a different time.
Before I explain how I found myself in the Brussels South Charleroi Airport for 29 hours, I should backtrack. I studied abroad at York St. John University in York, England, for my spring semester junior year. The university allows students an almost three-week Easter break to relax, regroup or, in my case, run around Europe for a couple weeks.
My friend Sara and I planned a backpacking trip to Brussels, Barcelona; Rome, Florence; and Corfu, Greece. We had been to London and Amsterdam before this backpacking trip, so we considered ourselves expert travelers. The whole thing seemed foolproof. Turns out it wasn’t.
Belgium was absolutely beautiful, and the city of Brussels had this warm, lively feeling. If I had been a better traveler at the time, I probably could’ve taken advantage of more. However, after four days of extreme language barriers, a lost wallet, getting on the wrong train, getting lost, getting on the wrong train again and one hospital visit in Brussels, we were finally set to leave the city and head to sunny Barcelona.
Our flight to Barcelona was at 8 a.m., and the last bus to the Brussels South Charleroi Airport was at 3 a.m. That airport is a little further outside the city, so we figured we’d take the bus in, get there around 4 a.m. and wait just four hours for our flight. No problem.
We got dropped off at the airport and immediately found a spot in the corner by the vending machines to sit and try to sleep for the remaining time. Sara and I occupied our time swiping left and right to Belgian men on Tinder. Have you ever tried European Tinder? Oh man, it’s the most eclectic pallet of genuinely suave guys and then just some creepy, gross messages from men in broken-English. It’s awesome.
Before we knew it, it was around 7 a.m. and we decided to check our plane’s status. Walking up to the departures/arrivals screen, there was no sign of a Barcelona flight anywhere. How could it be? Our plane was about to leave in one hour.
We ran around the airport utilizing all of the French words we knew trying to find help. “Bonjour, uh. Fly to Barcelona?” I asked one woman, disgracing both French and English speakers all together. Sara and I found it odd that no one knew about a flight to Barcelona coming out of that airport that day.
We look down at our printed RyanAir tickets.
“Oh my god, Steph,” Sara said, “The flight is at 8 tomorrow morning. Not today.”
We both stared at each other in shock. There was no way this was happening. Oh, but it was. We had 25 hours left before our plane was schedued to take off.
Sara and I decided that we’d better get a taxi and find a cheap hostel to stay in the for the night. I went over to the ATM machine.
“It’s not working,” I half screamed half cried to Sara. She tried her debit card. The machine wouldn’t accept it either. With only five euros to our name, we were stranded. So we decided to walk to the closest hotel.
The concierge at the airport told us, “Oh, it’s just down the street.” Yeah, okay. He’s a liar. What happened next is just a blur of Sara and myself trudging through a Belgian rainstorm alongside the highway through mud, carrying all of our clothes and things for our 30-day trip. I decided to put on all my sweaters and scarves to keep myself warm on the almost half-hour walk.
Finally, we were at the hotel. Soaking wet, tears in eyes and moneyless, we begged for a room. The man at the front desk told us very sternly that check-in was at 11 a.m., and there were no excuses. He called us a taxi and, before we knew it, we were on our way back to Brussels South Charleroi Airport. It happened so fast, we didn’t entirely understand.
When we got to the airport, the taxi driver took our last five euros, and we found ourselves in the same place yet again.
Sara told me we should just try to wait it out in the airport, so we found our spots next to the vending machines again and tried to lie down. This time, soaking wet and bitter cold, my lips started to turn blue.
I tried to close my eyes and fall asleep, but not even European Tinder could help this situation. We spent an upward of eight hours on the airport floor before we decided to get proactive about this situation.
I watched the people ordering food at the bakery from across where we were seated. I was almost sure my debit card would work there. I had an idea.
Still damp, unshowered and looking like an extra from “The Walking Dead,” I walked over to a petite French woman in line and tried to ask if I could pay for her meal using my debit card and then she could give me the cash.
“Payer! Payer!” I said, waving my debit card in her face. She looked confused, but after a few minutes she seemed to understand. She ordered two coffees and a scone, I paid with my card, and she handed me the cash. We had enough money for a taxi and two minutes on the computer.
Sara and I sprinted over to the airport’s pay-per-minute computer. By this point, her lips had turned blue too. Excitedly, we booked one night in that same hotel that had just turned us down hours before.
We rode in a taxi down the freeway we had just walked across. I smiled looking at the fields of mud that my shoes had dug into that morning.
The next thing we knew, we were in the hotel lobby yet again, but this time with two room keys in our hands. So, okay, we didn’t actually spend the entire 29 hours at the airport, but we did show up 29 hours early to our flight.
Sara and I made a pact that we would make up for our loss of sleep by sleeping the entire time we were in the hotel. That night just feels like a blur of drowsiness, delirium and a little bit of anxiety over the entire situation. We thought we had traveling all figured out, but this was a tough wake up call.
We did finally leave Belgium the next day and we did make it to Barcelona for six days of beach and sun, but, looking back, I don’t regret a single thing about our Brussels trip.
When I think of Brussels, I think about learning to grow. I think about perseverance, problem-solving and strength. That city tested me in ways I needed to become an adequate traveler and an efficient human overall.
Having not had the experiences I had in Brussels, I don’t think I ever would’ve learned what I did that day. Brussels was tested last Tuesday, March 22, but they’ll get through. They’re strong and willing to survive. I wish for solidarity for that transcendent test of a city.
Stephanie McCann can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org