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The new abnormal: Beer as catharsis in Europe

With Brussels under lockdown, some drink beer as a type of quiet resistance.
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shutterstock_286243190Whatever else they were targeting—our way of life? the illusion of security?—the Paris attacks that killed 130 people on November 13 hit places where people gather to enjoy their precious free time.

After the initial shock, Parisians soon began to resurface and tweet #jesuisenterrace—in place of “I am Charlie,” it’s “I’m out on the café terrace.” A Guardian headline proclaimed that “Parisians rally to cafés and bars to defy Isis after terror attacks.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as a futile gesture, or mock it as the French getting credit for doing what comes as naturally as breathing to them. But what would you do, in their place?

As I write this, Brussels has been under security lockdown for three days. Authorities are conducting raids, closing the underground trains and canceling major events based on “specific intelligence.”

Partially I wish I were there, to go out and show solidarity. After all, everyone has a specialty. If going out to bars is a symbolic act of defiance in these troubled times, well, sign me up.

But I’m not there, so I don’t have to choose.

My friend Cedric Jamar, who leads beer-themed walking tours in Brussels, was in a café on Sunday evening when police arrived to close it down. The clientele included people drinking coffee or beer, using the wifi, and families with children playing board games. They all had to leave. The police did the same in other parts of town, apparently shutting popular cafés that had drawn crowds despite the lockdown.

“Better safe than sorry,” Cedric told me. “On the other hand, we can say ‘Mission completed!’ for terrorists who wanted to spread fear.”

As of Monday, nobody had closed the celebrated beer bar Moeder Lambic, which—I think we can all agree—would be a fine place to demonstrate our defiance. “Yes, we are open,” said co-owner Andy Mengal. “The ambiance is not fun for the moment! A little bit paranoiac. But we resist with good beers!”

Have there been many customers?

“It’s empty for the moment,” Mengal said. “Bad moment for freedom and business.”

Notably, business was pretty good at one of the city’s better bottle shops. The Malt Attacks shop just south of the city center was closed (as usual) on Sunday and Monday, but “I actually had a lot of customers and it was a very good Saturday,” said owner Antoine Pierson. “We’re all feeling a bit uneasy and it’s a bit weird but we’ll make it through this,” he said.

When asked if people were stocking up on beer to drink at home during the lockdown, Pierson agreed that might be the case.

“It’s hard to describe the feelings though,” Pierson added. “A lot of events were also cancelled. … So disappointment, strange unease, people probably staying home because they felt safer that way, or just because they had nothing else to do. So yes, probably a reason why the shop did well.”

There was a sense of camaraderie among those who did go out, according to Brasserie de la Senne co-founder Bernard Leboucq.

“You can tell that going in a bar today is a little bit like in the Prohibition times,” said Leboucq, who also runs a cafe northeast of the center. “There is a kind of solidarity and friendship between people who still dare going out and having fun.”

A report out Monday said that the Paris attacks slowed the French economy, with people less willing to go out and spend money. The lockdown will no doubt affect Brussels too, and its bars and breweries, even if it’s just temporary.

Meanwhile the Belgian taste for surreal humor appeared to be coming in useful. Asked by the police not to tweet any information about their activities, the populace responded:

One of the tweeted photos in response to the Belgian lockdown

One of the tweeted photos in response to the Brussels lockdown

So there are different ways to show solidarity, even if it’s just tweeting cat photos to break the tension. Likewise, popping a bottle of gueuze will not stop terrorists…but there is something to be said for continuing the way of life that they seek to end.

So. Belgian beer, anyone?

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