When Alexis Sheranian went to Brussels during her study abroad to London, Paris, and Rome, she was just looking for a fun weekend trip and some good material for Instagram posts. While she found ideal Instagram opportunities, she also had the chance to see the dark side of an amazing city.
Guests: Alexis Sheranian
Brussels and Smoke Bombs
Last winter semester, I decided to go on a study abroad to London, Paris, and Rome through BYU’s study abroad program. I loved every minute of my trip and will never forget it. When I was in Paris, a group of us convinced our professor to let us go to Brussels, Belgium for “spring break.” It was a very last minute trip, so none of us did a lot of research about the city before going. But, I won’t lie, I wasn’t worried about anything but food: what we were going to be eating, how often, and how much. I also wanted to know what we would be seeing, but it never crossed my mind about how safe (or unsafe) Belgium would be. We packed up the next morning and took an early bus from Paris to Brussels. One thing I was shocked to see was how many people were using marijuana during our shortstops. This was only the beginning of the many things that I’d never seen before, but would soon see, on this trip.
We arrived in the city and wandered around the train station for a few hours, trying to decide where to go and what to do. We didn’t have a whole lot of time because BYU doesn’t exactly have a real spring break, just a three-day weekend, and we had to be back in Paris before the end of the weekend. The station was packed with immigrants and unemployed men, catcalling and staring as we walked past. We felt really uncomfortable and just wanted to get out of there. We quickly made a game plan for the rest of the day and went out and explored the city. We had a great time, seeing Gold Square, and the famous statue of the little boy peeing. I’m still not sure why that’s such a big deal but I still took a lot of pictures for my family… and for Instagram, of course.
After walking around the city for a while, we headed back to our Airbnb. As I mentioned, we didn’t do much research beforehand, and this included research about the Airbnb. To our surprise, the Airbnb we got was owned by a very odd woman who was lowkey playing horror film music in her less than clean kitchen when we arrived. She was basically renting out half of the house she was still living in. So I’m sure you can imagine our discomfort with the situation. Nevertheless, we went to our rooms and got ready for bed in preparation for the next day.
We left early the next morning and went back into the city. It was a cold day, so most of our time was spent in small shops and restaurants to escape the cold. We wandered around a bit until we found a place to eat. After getting lunch, we sat inside a church to warm up. We were admiring the beautiful cathedral and stained glass when, suddenly, we heard a loud explosion outside. At first, it was far away, but it soon got closer and closer until it was deafening and continuous. My first thought was, “Oh my gosh, we are going to die.” Then my thoughts went elsewhere. “My poor mom. My whole family is going to wonder what happened to me.” For a brief moment, I thought about our professor and how this would affect BYU and their future study abroad programs. My thoughts were interrupted when I began to look around at my friends and realized that my friend, Spencer, was missing. He had gone outside to see what was going on. We all began to panic as we looked for Spencer. When he didn’t come back after what seemed like an eternity, we went out to look for him. Once we got outside, we saw that what looked like thousands of people were in the streets for some kind of protest. They were all yelling and holding signs we couldn’t read because they were in a different language. Then we were able to see what the source of the loud noise was. The angry group of protestors were throwing smoke bombs. The bombs were being thrown from every direction, people were yelling and chanting, and police with full body armor surrounded the mob.
I was terrified; it felt like I was in a movie. I yelled for Spencer, but I was unable to find him. It was getting too chaotic so I grabbed onto the person who was closest to me and took cover in a souvenir shop. The person I’d grabbed happened to be my friend Savannah. We got into the shop, and we were both very upset and nervous. We stayed near the door in hopes that we would see Spencer, and, sure enough, we saw him slip back into the church just before they locked the door. My heart sank as I saw the doors close with Spencer inside. He was locked in. We were the only two who knew where he was, and we were worried for his safety so we chose to stay and wait for him until the doors opened again. At this point, Savannah and I were both crying. We were worried about Spencer, and we were worried for our own lives. We were so unsure of what was going to happen. I thought about my family again and how sad they were going to be, I thought about all the things that I wasn’t going to get to do in my life since it would be cut short. Savannah and I sat staring at the church not knowing what to do when I just started to pray out loud. I prayed for peace as we entered what I thought was going to be the end of our lives. As I prayed through the tears, Savannah grabbed my arm to motion for me to look up.
The doors had begun to open again, and we were reunited with Spencer. It seemed like hours had passed before the mob moved down the street and we felt safe to go back out to go back to our Airbnb.
While this was such a scary part of my time abroad, it did not take away from how much I loved the trip. I think it taught me a few valuable lessons. I learned that life is precious and so are those around you. In addition, I learned that prayer can make such a difference. Whether you believe in a God or not, thinking there is a higher being who cares about me and my well being was a blessing in that moment. I wouldn’t change that experience for the world. I’m sure I would think differently if the story had ended another way, but we were all safe and loved the time we spent in Europe.