The room where I now work and sleep has two wooden doors with stiff brass handles that open out onto a balcony looking down on a central Brussels street. On a sunny evening like today, our side of the street is cast in shadow; and the buildings opposite are bathed in precious sunlight. I spend a lot of time these days looking at the windows of these buildings and wondering at the lives that live within.
This is a street of narrow tall four-storey buildings, most early twentieth century art-nouveaux inspired houses, maisons de maître as they are called here, some occupied by one family, others divided into many apartments. These are majestic pale-bricked creatures with large windows and elaborate iron-work balconies and red tiled roofs. Most, like ours, are narrow, only two windows wide but three rooms deep, a legacy of a tax system of old. And in-between, there are the occasional more functional red-bricked apartment blocks, just as tall and large as their neighbours, but of an architecture that is blander and less inspired.
Now these huge houses are occupied as never before, this city is in its third week of lock-down and my neighbours and I are sitting at home. All the cafés and restaurants closed three weeks ago, and we were all instructed to work from home. Like me, my neighbours wake up at home, have breakfast at home, take a few strides to computers where they sit all day at home, log onto calls via a myriad of video conferencing apps few of us had heard of mere weeks ago, have lunch and dinner at home, and spend evening after evening at home.
As I open and close the blinds of my room, I watch these neighbours as they must watch me. A young woman soothes a tiny baby as she walks up and down by a window, her baby straddled across one shoulder. A couple spend hours sitting on their couch; she reading and he with a laptop perpetually on his knee. There is a young American man who spends sunny evenings sitting among the flowers and plants of his small balcony, sometimes working on his computer, but often having endless conversations that seem only vaguely work related and waft their way up to me. A neighbour below me has set up two screens in front of his window, and I see a figure sitting there most hours of the day. There is another woman, who stretches and twists her body daily into her yoga asanas. Or maybe that is me.
And daily I dream of escaping these walls. It is spring now. The trees are all in blossom. The daffodils and tulips are in full bloom. After months of grey darkness, where we have scuttled home from work, timing bicycle-ride commutes to dodge heavy rain showers, now the evenings are longer and the weather is getting nicer, the sky is bluer and it is becoming warmer. It is weather where you want to stretch your legs and go for long walks in the countryside, in the park and to feel the warmth of the sun on your face and on your cheeks, your neck, your back.
My whole body yearns to go for these walks, and to shake off the mantle of the annual winter confinement. And sometimes I do go out. I escape, a shopping bag in my hand, and I take the long route to the supermarket, trying to make my walk last as long as possible, trying to convince myself that life is normal. Other days, I leave the house very early before anyone else is up and I go for a long walk through the streets and to the park, an audio book in my ears as I lose myself in the stories of other imagined normal lives. I enjoy this rare fresh air, this sunlight, and most of all I enjoy the distance that each step represents between the house and my destination. I relish this escape from my temporary captivity.
But I also feel guilty on these illicit walks. My ears are ringing with the warnings I read all day about keeping social distance, staying at home, avoiding other people. There are few other walkers out and when our paths cross, we avoid each other’s eyes and as if by mutual agreement we stay as far away from each other as we can, one of us straying out onto the road, the other remaining on the pavement, eyes averted. I am relieved to make my way back home again and to find myself inside the house I was so eager to escape such a short time earlier.
We are mere blow-ins in this city-centre street and we know nobody here, bar a few colleagues who happen to live nearby. We have never met our immediate neighbours, although we hear them every evening through the party walls. To our right there are young people who used to party late into the night, although now they are much quieter, and there is a family of children who run around and scream. And to the left, there is a couple with a baby. Before, we would sometimes meet the child’s babysitter pushing the pram and walking their noisy dog. We have never met the baby’s parents, they like us caught up in the bustle of their city working lives. But now, when we have our back door open, we can hear the woman coughing, constantly coughing.
And now during this time of confinement, when we can no longer wander this street as of old, we are coming to know our neighbours too, if not by name, at least by sight. Each evening at 8pm we open our windows wide to these neighbours. We clap loudly. We bang saucepans with metal spoons. We play tambourines and accordions. We play djembe drums. We play bongos. We shout. We cheer. Our street comes to life in a cacophony of brief noise. We celebrate the fact of being, of living, and the work the medics are doing for us in hospitals nearby. And afterwards we wish our neighbours a good evening. Until tomorrow we say to our neighbours, looking them in their eyes.
Victoria Bruce has lived and worked in Brussels for the past year. She works in communications and is an avid writer.