Signs of Spring and Social Distancing

The highlight of the week around here continues to be the fantastic spring-like weather that arrived in Belgium at the absolute best possible time. I know better than to expect that these sunny days will stick around long term, but I’m going to savor this while I can during this time of confinement. With the extra time spent looking out of the windows of our apartment instead of the windows of planes, Airbnb rentals and hotels, one of the biggest questions I have is how well our social distancing and quarantining is working. When will the coronavirus curve begin to plateau and bring us some assurance that our efforts are paying off and the virus is spreading at a slower and then decreasing rate, a progression that is vital for inundated healthcare systems. The “flattening” is a day I look forward to celebrating amid so much uncertainty – no reason not to cheer for the small victories while we get through this together, but at a safe distance.

The downside of the beautiful weather is that it emboldens the residents of Brussels to test the limits of the social distancing and shut down measures that were implemented over a week ago.  During the first week of school and business closures, it was all too common to see groups of people lounging in the park together or kids playing pickup hockey and soccer. I understand the temptation – who doesn’t relish sunny days after winter grays – but I also know it’s going to take a collective and resolute effort by everyone to employ extensive social distancing in order to slow down the spread. Wider reaching business shut down measures have since been implemented and we’re seeing much stricter enforcement of the rules by police who have issued tickets to those not in compliance.

Presently, residents of Belgium are still allowed to exercise and move around in public spaces as long as they are doing so solo, with their family, or one friend (at an appropriate distance). Park benches are roped off and playgrounds are closed to prevent people from coming into contact with each other unnecessarily. Police have been asked to patrol parks on foot and by bike to hand out tickets to those who continue to congregate in groups. Police vehicles also circulate parks while broadcasting a message in French, Dutch, and English that tells citizens of the need for following the measures and consequences if there is not adherence. Perhaps most surprising yet, over the weekend I saw a police check point in our neighborhood where they were stopping cars to talk to drivers in an effort to curb unnecessary travel. This full shut down of nonessential businesses was inevitable, just as the distribution of fines for noncompliance is needed, so I am truly hoping that the stricter enforcement deters further group congregating so that the government isn’t forced to respond by implementing a full lockdown.

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Playgrounds are closed but kids are finding other means of entertainment thanks to chalk, bikes, and Frisbee

Another recent development for the stores that remain open is that they are limited to a capacity of one customer per 10m² of retail space. I was initially deterred by the 30-minute wait outside the grocery store but once I made it in and claimed a freshly sanitized shopping trolley, the less chaotic atmosphere made for a calmer shopping experience. Meat, cheese and paper products were picked over, and bananas and eggs were nonexistent, but overall, it was a less stressful experience than I anticipated.

Our neighborhood has rallied together to offer help and spread positivity despite the lack of face to face contact. Our apartment co-residents posted signs next to the front door with offers of assistance to anyone who needs it, such as for shopping. Perhaps my favorite display of generosity is the new ritual that takes place each evening. As 8 PM rolls around, we open our windows to join our neighbors in a rousing couple minutes of clapping and cheering directed at front-line medical staff who are called to work during this time. I always cross my fingers that an Uber Eats or Deliveroo biker will pass by at that moment so we can cheer extra boisterously.

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The notes left by our neighbors in the apartment who are offering their assistance

Seeing as solo outdoor workouts are still permitted and exercise has both physical and mental benefits, I’ve been running, walking and biking while appropriately distancing myself from individuals. This means I try to frequent less busy areas or go when there are likely to be less people out at the same time. Speaking of workouts, we were supposed to be traveling to Prague this weekend for our half marathon. While we’ll be missing the festive race atmosphere and the chance to explore another city, our new plan is to map out a 13.1-mile route in the forest closer to home. We’re planning to distance ourselves from congested areas and go early in the morning to avoid others. Wish us luck and let me know if you think of any replacement gift ideas since this was actually my Christmas gift to Dan. We’ll be celebrating crossing the finish line in “Prague” with a Czech themed date night complete with savory pork loin with vegetables and sweet berry filled potato dumplings, followed by a movie pertaining to the Czech Republic. Will share photos in my next recap!

Having refrained from traveling for over a month, our longest stretch in quite a while, I’m looking for different means of appreciating our neighborhood while also connecting with those residing elsewhere. Over the weekend I got my exercise in by going for a long walk in the park while listening to an audiobook. I’ve had fun video calls with friends and family and reached out to locals we met in our previous travels. Since so many people and businesses are currently impacted by the coronavirus, my hope is that I can still share locals’ perspectives of their neighborhood to facilitate a deeper understanding of, and connection with, a place and its culture even if from afar. My most recent Get to Know a Local post features Paola, who we met when we partook in her delicious cooking class while staying on Lake Como. She also shared her perspective on Italy’s nationwide quarantine in response to the coronavirus, with specific reference to the current situation in Como and how this has impacted her daily life. I’m appreciative of the ways we’re staying connected to one another even from a distance.

I’ll wrap this recap up by expressing gratitude for our essential workforce. Healthcare personnel, public safety, and food producers are some that come to mind, but I know there are so many more with essential jobs behind the scenes. I’m grateful for the grocery store workers who kindly help me locate obscure items and explain to me – in English – that they aren’t currently accepting coupons (wow, that makes me sound old); all persons out delivering food and parcels (special shout-out to Deliveroo for including a coloring book with our order), the Brussels park employees who look after the public spaces so we can still get out for exercise; and the sanitation crew who collect our garbage and keep the streets clean with their Glutton vacuum cleaners (I’ll try to get a picture of these awesome machines). Thank you from your unusually stationary neighbor who sees you hard at work and appreciates your effort to keep Brussels going so we can all dream about better and safer days to come.

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