Both cities start with a B. And both are universally disliked, if not hated, by the English—although for different reasons.

I came into Belfast from Derry—it’s a difficult journey, not least because of the weather. I’ve driven it in tough conditions, when a snowstorm of blizzard proportions almost blocked the road, and you couldn’t touch the brake down the long grades.

But this time all we got was rain, rain, rain.

Belfast was deep in the Christmas spirit, and when I say spirit(s), I choose the word advisedly—this side of Norway, no one drinks like the Irish. For a city that’s seen more than its fair share of violence, and occasionally still does, people are fun and happy, and the music is as good as anywhere in Ireland.

Of course you could go down into the Shankill or the Falls Road, Protestant and Catholic enclaves separated by an eighteen foot ‘peace’ wall, where matters are quite different—but everyone knows about West Belfast, and all cities have similar areas, from South Central LA to the Cape Flats.

An army truck in the city center. Echoes of a different Belfast.

An army truck parked in the city center. Echoes of a different time.

You might be excused for thinking the trucks hark back to an earlier time in Northern Ireland—but wait… that billboard? It’s in Dutch! Unless William of Orange has returned to his old stomping ground, we must be somewhere else.

And we are: this is the heart of Brussels, a city under siege.

By the time I got there, the week was beginning to get long, and my suitcase had accumulated bottles of whiskey. In the airport, I’d unintentionally added a bottle of Green Spot to my collection, along with some excellent Irish cheeses.

I’d heard about the Green Spot  in Derry, and when I presented it at the till, yer man said “I like your taste in whiskey.”

“It’s not for me—it’s a surprise for a friend.” I pointed over at the bar. “Birthday.”

“Oh, this is far too good to give away.”

I gave it a thought. Triple distilled. “OK, ring up two.”

Where the Emerald Isle had been festive and free-flowing, Brussels was battened down. Army everywhere, camouflage and semi-automatic weapons. Deployed in groups of three—I recalled the old joke about Brazilian cops: one can read, one can write, and one likes to hang out with intellectuals.

At the airport, the train stations, in the metro—even inside the swank Metropole hotel. Scary shit. I had some time in the early evening, so I thought I’d see what it was all about.

The news said that Molenbeek, or Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, was a stone’s throw, or perhaps a Molotov cocktail away, from the center of Brussels. I took the metro west toward Beekkant.

A quarter of an hour is enough to arrive at a different Belgium, where the hijab is everywhere in evidence, although I didn’t see anything more draconian.

I set off in the darkness down Rue des Quatres Vents, the street of the four winds. It was a lonesome walk down a drab and empty street. Young men stood around here and there, one with a car hood up, tinkering under the faint glow of a street light, others simply milling—after all, Molenbeek means millbrook.

Four winds street, heading toward the mosque.

Four Winds Street, heading past Vanderkindere on the way to the mosque.

On the next block, a woman walked toward Rue Delaunoy, her headscarf tight against the cold. Round that corner is the mosque, I was getting the odd look, and suddenly I felt like all the windows hid some sinister observer.

These streets are no different from places where I lived in England, bits of Birmingham and Manchester look worse—what’s absent is any form of commerce, in sharp contrast to Hamburg’s Steindamm, where Mohammed Atta and his cronies planned the 9-11 attacks.

Rundown cars, bleak buildings, and that unnerving feeling that I stuck out like a sore thumb—neighborhoods like this have a collective police antenna.

Delaunoy was raided last month following the Paris attacks, and immediately put Molenbeek on the map—but the neighborhood has been part of almost every terror attack since 2001—the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting in 2014, the Thalys train attack last August, and the Paris tragedy in November.

The great cathedral, an enduring symbol of the Judaico-Christian way of life, illuminated for a Christmas concert.

The great cathedral, an enduring symbol of the Judaico-Christian way of life, illuminated for a Christmas concert.

Contrast that with the Grande Place, and you see two different cities.

I was in town for a meeting to do with a particular form of growing fish, called IMTA. By cultivating other species, you improve the sustainability and environmental footprint of fish like salmon and bass.

I often mention the acronym has many other meanings, such as the Irish Massage Therapists Association, or the International Models Talent Agency—it’s nice when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The gap between the end of my meeting and the departure of my plane narrowed, and in the end I had to run for the hills. No cabs in rainy Brussels on a Friday evening.

And run I did, hefting my whiskey-laden luggage onto the moving walkway of the metro. A girl a few feet in front of me jumped in fright at the noise—yep, the locals are jittery.

As I settled down on the empty train to the airport, I came up with yet another meaning for IMTA: Islamic Molenbeek Terror Associates.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.




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