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Postcard From Brussels


The victims of last week's terrorist attacks in Brussels reflect the international character of that city. There was a retired Belgian diplomat and an Indian software engineer, a Swedish illustrator and a gym teacher at a local Muslim school whose co-founder says that she represented the true values of Islam with generosity and caring. NPR's Melissa Block is just home from Brussels, and she brings back this reporter's notebook with sounds and voices of the city.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The Belgian national anthem rings out over a makeshift shrine in the heart of Brussels, ending with the chorus the king, law, liberty.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in French).

BLOCK: I watch as a young immigrant from Algeria crouches down over a piece of orange paper and in large Arabic script writes the words, I love you, Belgium. He adds it to the hundreds of messages that have piled up among the tulips and votive candles. I notice a young woman in a fluorescent yellow vest walking gingerly through the vast stretch of offerings. She's taking photos and we start to chat.

VIRGINIE COUMANS: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: Her name is Virginie Coumans. And it turns out she's an archivist for the city of Brussels.

COUMANS: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: "We are collecting what people leave," she says. "It's been raining, so we're saving the messages and drying them out."

COUMANS: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: "This is the history of tomorrow," Coumans tells me. "Just like in World War I and World War II, people made drawings, left messages. The French dropped little words of encouragement from airplanes." And she goes on, "all those little papers that we kept, that's history. It's the human reaction."

COUMANS: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: The reaction I heard from Belgians throughout the past week was not one of panic, even with a strong military presence around the city. There was grief, of course, but also a strong feeling that life must go on as normally as possible.

VERONIQUE LAMBRECHTS: I'm living like before. I'm just paying more attention I think.

BLOCK: I find Veronique Lambrechts sitting on a bench outside the national cathedral in Brussels. And she surprises me by taking a global view of what happened, putting it in international context.

LAMBRECHTS: In fact, we are living what other countries are living for years and years and years. You know, it was on Wednesday, I think, there was another terrorist attack in Iraq. Nobody speaks about it. You know, it was just a small information in the paper.

BLOCK: Around Brussels this week, I saw people literally wrapping themselves in the black, gold and red Belgian flag. I even spotted a guide dog named Elfie sporting the Belgian colors in a feathered ruff around her neck.

KATIA WALTENDER: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: Her owner, Katia Waltender, says through her, we are paying homage to the victims. There is, to be sure, a solid layer of incrimination and ethnic tension in the wake of the Brussels attacks, strong views from nationalists who want to close Belgium's borders. But there is also this - a Belgian mother holding her young daughter who tells me love is much bigger than war, a recent immigrant from Syria lighting candles at the memorial who tells me he fled the fighting in Aleppo, that he loves Belgium and is learning French and a busker who stands in the wind and sings a love song of Belgium's native son, Jacques Brel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in French).

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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