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In post-attack Brussels, chocolate provides comfort

In post-attack Brussels, chocolate provides comfort
A staffer at the chocolatier Benoit Nihant, where patrons were undeterred by the attacks in Brussels. One woman said a trip to the shop seemed part of a natural response after the attacks. (Claude Lee Sadik)

Cuba. Madagascar. Venezuela. Ecuador. I was being taken on a tour du monde without leaving Brussels. The staffers at the chocolatier at the corner of Chaussee de Waterloo and Rue de Tenbosch were inventorying their bars made with cacao beans cultivated on plantations in exotic climes.

What boulangeries are to France, neighborhood chocolate shops are to Belgium. I was there as a caring husband, buying some chocolates for my wife, Elena, who had been among the terrified passengers trapped for hours at Brussels Airport when a suicide bombing ripped through a departure hall.

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But I was also there to see another woman.

Except Sara was not in today. Two years back, shorty after we moved from Lisbon to this tree-lined neighborhood of tony, four-story "master houses" known as Petite Paris, we'd met Sara Hamdaoui, who'd started working at the Benoit Nihant chocolate shop when it opened a few months before. Hamdaoui was a ray of sunshine in ever-cloudy Brussels.

Her family members were third-generation Belgians of Moroccan descent; Hamdaoui is a devout Muslim. Benoit Nihant soon was widely considered the best chocolatier in Brussels. I came in often for conversations with Sara. Even as we talked about issues such as the lack of integration of Muslims in Brussels, and the November terrorist attacks in nearby Paris that had prompted a lockdown here in Brussels, Sara always somehow had me coming away thinking and hopeful.

But not on this day. The shop is one of the cheeriest places in Brussels: well lighted, with brightly colored boxes and sculptures of chocolate fashioned for the weekend holiday. Cuban music was playing in the background. Chocolate is said to be a magical mood elevator and a comfort food. Could it be a refuge in this doleful time in Brussels?

Salesclerk Marie-Lea Lavail, a sommelier by training who'd moved to Brussels from France seven months earlier, told me that business was brisk despite the suddenly somber mood of the city, and a peculiar thing was happening at the shop. "People like chocolate, and they like to talk," she said.

"People asked if I am OK? Normally in the shop they just say, "Bonjour." Today, they say, "Comment ca va?" — How are you?

The same thing had been happening on the tram, she said. "Oh my God, the [gray] weather is like the Belgians. They are sad. They are sad. In the tram, there is always a lot of noise, but this morning, there was no noise. Nobody was talking."

Ordinarily on public transportation, she said, Belgians never look directly into one another's eyes. "You don't even look directly at people," she said. "But today we looked at everybody. We smiled.

"There was sadness, yes, and also it was very comforting."

It had been different in France after the attacks in November, she said. "Really nothing to say, so don't say it," she said.

"The strength of the Belgians is they know that life is certainly sad at times, but it is also absurd," she said. "There are smiles. But I have an impression, in a way, we've lost our naivete."

Some of the initial shock had worn off by Wednesday, she said. "The hysteria left," she said. "I noticed that the people came in to buy, and that people were no longer saddened.

"Life continues," she said. "In the afternoon, there was much less, "Comment ca va?' Something finished, and people went on to other things. Life."

Lise Mernier, browsing that day through the neatly stacked confections, said that making the trip to the shop seemed part of a natural response. "Chocolate is kind of like being in love. I guess it helps," she said. "I hope it does."

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Another customer, Florence, piped in, "A day without sunshine is a day without chocolate."

I tried to ponder that.

"You have to continue to have quality time, the simple pleasures," offered another patron, Gilles Dolon, who thought about why he was buying chocolate for his wife and came up with a word he thought described it best: "Recomfort."

Elena showed up because I had taken both sets of keys. She was disappointed that Sara wasn't there; she'd hoped her canceled flight, bad as it was, would mean she was going to have a chance to bid farewell to the shop manager, an opportunity she hadn't had in her rush to leave Belgium — permanently — for a new job.

The salesclerks offered no explanation and didn't seem to want to talk about Sara's absence. I got home and decided to call Sara. How could she stay away at a time when Brussels needed her, I demanded gently. I worried that she was so distraught over what happened Tuesday. "When you are in the store, the sun shines," I told her.

"It is very kind to hear this at this time. It is very kind for me," said Sara. "The last day I worked, it was Monday. I was in shock. And after I didn't come — yesterday and today. I didn't work."

I told her I felt for her. I imagined she'd been afraid of being blamed for the actions of other Muslims.

But I was wrong.

"I had complications. I had to go to the hospital," she said.

"What?" For a second I didn't understand what she was saying. I never imagined she'd be affected so deeply. But it was something else entirely.

"I am pregnant and very happy," she told me. "I didn't know it before, it is a girl. It is very new and it will be a girl."

"Alhamdulillah," I told her, in the language of the Koran. Praise be to God.

"I thank you very much," she said.

Chad is a special correspondent.

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