Before dawn this morning, Catherine Duwez received a brief and cryptic message on WhatsApp from her sister, in Brussels: “I’m O.K.” It was welcome news, but confusing all the same. Duwez—proprietor of Houston’s sole Belgian restaurant, Cafe Brussels, and a Belgian native—hadn’t yet seen the grim news streaming in from the European Union capital. “It took me until 5 or 6 a.m,” she says, “then I really knew it.”
Duwez moved to Houston two decades ago, at first running beloved Belgian restaurant Cafe Montrose, which closed in 2008, and today operating the colorful First Ward cafe she opened in 2012. Aside from her son, her entire family is still across the Atlantic. Once she’d pieced together the broad details of the attack, which killed at least 34 people, calling home proved impossible; phone lines were jammed or cut altogether. Instead, she turned to the internet, and was slowly able to confirm everyone’s (relative) safety. Then she took a breath, threw a Belgian sash around her white sweater, and came into work.
For average Belgians, Duwez says, these spasms of violence are difficult to square with the historic image of their country. “Belgium is peaceful!” she says. “It’s not an everyday problem. It’s not like in America, where people kill people for nothing. It’s probably a big shock.” She has no immediate plans to cancel a flight she’d booked for May, but she isn’t ruling out the option yet, either: “[My sister’s family] could have been in the Metro. I could have been in the airport. It affects everybody.”
After a long morning, the waitstaff is readying the room for its afternoon patrons. Café Brussels is a warm and welcoming space, befitting its owner. Photos of Brussels monuments line the walls, while signs for Belgian beers (Chimay, Duvel) illuminate the long bar. Belgian expats scattered throughout Houston seek out Duwez, both for conversation and connection.
The special today is a hot pot of braised pork shank, which already smells a little bit like home.