There are few people on the cobblestone streets surrounding the ornate and gilded façades of Brussels' magnificent Grand-Place. Yet tourists continue to make their way into the city.
I met a mother and daughter from Hungary munching on waffles, a couple from Holland eager to taste Belgian beer and chocolate, and families from France, Spain and Britain who were going to buy Easter eggs to bring back home.
Most said they didn't hesitate to come here for the weekend. In fact, a few of them said they had been around European cities during terrorists attacks, and felt the need go on with their plans, even in the aftermath of catastrophic events.
Jayesh Viphuti is from India, but is visiting from Germany where he lives with his wife. "India has gone through terror," he says, mentioning the 2008 Mumbai attacks. "So I was not going to cancel my trip. I was eager to enjoy all Brussels had to offer, especially the chocolate and waffles."
Walking down the streets around the iconic statue of the Mannekenpis — the beloved fountain of a little peeing boy — you find yourself in the midst of a festival of bright greens and yellows, giant chocolate eggs wrapped with ribbons, hanging from wreaths, sitting on top of mountains of smaller eggs wrapped in shiny and colorful foil wrapping.
It is really a display of tradition here, in this chocolate nation, a very Belgian expression of spring.
In Brussels, the days leading to the Easter holiday should see crowds of visitors. In confectioners’ stores, fine chocolate Easter eggs should be flying off the shelves. For shops, this sales’ period is the second biggest after Christmas, but the stores around here look rather empty. And this Easter will take on a different meaning for many Belgians.
Blocks away from the chocolate stores, Belgians continue to mourn publicly on Place de la Bourse. There are more flowers, candles, flags and signs every day. Hundreds of people gather, sing, hug and hold hands all day long, and late into the night. A group of students is holding a sign that reads: “Not in the Name of Muslims.”
Brussels resident Carl Nauwelaert came to pay his respects here. He said this Easter promised to be an unusual kind of celebration. "I think we all need to think about what happened," he says. "I hope it’s the last time." He said he is lucky he has not lost family or friends in the attacks, but he is in shock. Nauwelaert said he was looking forward to his mother’s Easter meal and cracked up about the fact that even though he is 41, she still gives him Easter eggs every year. “It’s one of the few certainties I have in life,” he said with a smile.
Near the Grand-Place, I saw a man in conversation with his three young children. Ekoran Hajdinaj is from Brussels, and of Albanian descent. He said he and his family had a few rough days.
“The week was frightening and stressful, full of emotions for these victims who died for nothing,” he says. “It was very sad and nerve-wracking. We had a few sleepless nights. We are worried about our future, for us Belgians, and we worry about our children and people all around. Our deepest wish is that these barbaric killings never happen again, in Paris, Brussels or Ankara in Turkey.”
Hajdinaj is Muslim. Even though he will not be observing Easter as a religious holiday, he wants more than ever to share this time with loved ones, including eating chocolate Easter eggs, with Christians and non-Christians.
“For me the only meaning of any celebration is a gathering. It could be for Saint Nicolas, or Christmas. As Muslims we do not celebrate those, but we still share the traditional meals, and get together with friends and family.” And he adds, “right now it’s necessary, we can talk about what happened, and any celebration will soothe our pain.”
Coming out of the small Saint Nicolas church, Marie-Françoise Rigaux said she doesn’t see herself as a devout Catholic, but was motivated by the weeks’ events to attend a Good Friday service. “Today, Christians celebrate the passion of Christ and are asked to believe in resurrection. It’s a challenge to believe in resurrection after what happened,” she says. “But we are asked to resist, and stand up, and believe that life is stronger than death.”
Thoughts Rigaux says she will ponder this Easter weekend.