(CNN) — When American traveler Marty Kovalsky walked into the Brussels chocolate shop in the summer of 1986, he fell in love with Belgian chocolate.
American chocolate, he quickly realized, was no match for the silky goodness on offer in Brussels. It was flavorful and moreish. He was quickly obsessed.
The store he’d stumbled upon was beautiful too, on the edge of Brussels’ Grand Place with its imposing baroque buildings, spired 15th-century city hall centerpiece and surrounding picturesque cobbled streets. Inside, the shop had floor-to-ceiling delicious chocolate offerings.
Over the next two days, Marty went back to the Grand Place chocolate shop a grand total of five times. Each time, he became more and more enamored.
But it wasn’t just the allure of the chocolate calling him back – it was Myriam Van Zeebroeck.
Myriam was a skilled linguist and part time model who’d taken the job at the chocolate shop after she’d failed to secure a longed-for teaching role.
“I was disappointed that I had not landed my first teaching position, and wanted to work,” Myriam tells CNN Travel. “I liked the job because I was able to use my foreign language skills talking to customers and the place was beautiful and the coworkers were nice.”
Myriam and Marty’s first interaction was, on the surface, simply about chocolate. But there was immediately, obviously, something else bubbling under the surface. When Marty walked out the door, 100 grams of chocolate in hand, he was smiling ear to ear.
“I kept going back to the same chocolate shop and talking to her and flirting,” he tells CNN Travel today.
Myriam’s coworkers were convinced the American tourists was going to ask her out. Myriam brushed their comments off, but still spent each shift wondering if and when Marty might walk through the store door.
On Marty’s fifth visit to the store, Myriam and Marty talked a little less about chocolate and a little more about themselves. Myriam was 21 and had lived in Brussels her whole life, she’d grown up in a Dutch-speaking household and was fluent in multiple languages. Marty was 23, a recent college graduate on his first ever trip outside the United States. He told Myriam he was loving Brussels so far, but knew he’d only skimmed the service of the city.
“Then I got up the nerve and I said, ‘How would you like to show me around Brussels?’” recalls Marty.
Myriam suggested Marty come back at 6 p.m., and meet her around the back of the store. The two of them walked through the Grand Place together and then ducked into a local bar.
The chemistry they’d felt in the chocolate shop was even more acute when they were sitting across from one another.
“She kissed me in the tavern,” recalls Marty. “There were butterflies for both of us.”
Before they went their separate ways, Marty dug out an American dollar bill from his rucksack and scribbled down his home address back in Los Angeles, handing it to Myriam who examined the note, bemused.
“I thought that was so distasteful – a dollar bill? Can’t you write your address on something else, like a beer card, or something?” she recalls.
Still, despite herself, Myriam found the gesture – and Marty – charming.
Marty and Myriam saw one another again two more times. On their third meeting, Myriam told Marty she was also seeing someone else, a guy from Brussels.
In response, Marty bought Myriam two bouquets of flowers – one set of yellow roses, one bunch of scarlet red.
“I said, ‘The yellow represents friendship, and the red represents love. And you need to choose,’” recalls Marty.
“Can’t I have both?” asked Myriam.
“So that’s how we became more romantically involved,” recalls Marty.
For the next few weeks, the two wrote letters back and forth in between their meet-ups. Marty sent his letters to Myriam’s home address, while Myriam wrote to Marty at the American Express mailbox he was using for the summer.
It was over a letter that Myriam broke up with Marty. He was in Poland at the time and due back in Belgium shortly after.
And as much as she liked Marty, Myriam felt their connection couldn’t go anywhere – he lived in the US, she lived in Belgium. All it could be was a summer romance, a brief infatuation. Meanwhile the guy she’d met in Brussels was local. Picking him felt like the more stable, less spontaneous option. Myriam suggested she and Marty could still be friends.
“I was a bit heartbroken, but we stayed in touch,” says Marty.
In a subsequent letter, Myriam suggested Marty could come to her family home and meet her parents – just as a friend. But on the day of the meet-up, she canceled the arrangement, sending him a telegram explaining her boyfriend didn’t like the idea.
“I still have that telegram,” says Marty. “It says, ‘Invitation canceled. boyfriend disagrees.’ So I didn’t get to meet her family in 1986.”
Not long afterwards, Marty had to return to the US. He and Myriam parted ways, seemingly for good, and they both tried to move on. Marty got back together with his college girlfriend. Myriam became more serious with the Brussels-based guy.
But somewhere along the line the writing tradition they’d started when they were both in the city became a cross-continental pen pal friendship.
These letters were platonic. More often than not, they were updating one another on their careers – Marty was working in sales and considering training to be a lawyer, while Myriam had left the chocolate shop and wanted to rise up the ranks in the fashion industry. But underneath the niceties and polite tone, each dispatch suggested a depth of feeling that hadn’t really faded.
“Thinking of you,” Myriam would write on the back of postcards, while Marty sent back photographs from the 1986 summer they’d spent together.
Months turned into years and Marty and Myriam stayed on the periphery of each other’s lives via their letters.
They still thought about one another from time to time. Marty remembered Myriam as “the most romantic, beautiful girl I ever went out with.” Myriam daydreamed about Marty, then reminded herself that it would have been “too difficult to allow such a relationship to grow.”
A couple of years later, in 1988, Marty visited Belgium on vacation with his girlfriend. He told her about his old friend Myriam, and suggested the two of them could grab a drink with Myriam and her boyfriend. So the two old flames and their current partners all went out together, while Myriam’s younger sister – who was curious to meet Marty and observe this unusual situation – also tagged along.
Another two years passed, punctuated by letters and postcards. Marty and Myriam thought of one another fondly, but became more committed to their respective lives and relationships on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Marty was sitting the bar exam. Myriam was working as a sales manager for a major European fashion company. They’d both moved in with their partners.
Then, two years later, in November 1992, Marty and his brother organized a trip to Europe to celebrate Marty qualifying as a lawyer. Marty wrote to Myriam to share the news, mentioning he’d be passing through Brussels and suggesting a potential catch-up with Myriam and her boyfriend.
But the boyfriend couldn’t make it, so in the end Myriam came solo. And she and Marty found themselves alone for the first time in six years.
“During the other years, we kind of just kept track of each other’s lives,” says Marty.
But on this occasion, Marty and Myriam, now in their late 20s, were more candid with one another, opening up in a way that surprised them both.
“We started talking about what we wanted in life, the kids we wanted and what we wanted to do and what was important to us,” says Marty.
And as the evening went on, they started talking about 1986.
“We reminisced that our romance was the most romantic of our lives,” says Marty.
Then they went their separate ways. They were both in relationships with other people, and wanted to respect those boundaries. But both Marty and Myriam left feeling something had shifted between them.
A Californian connection
After that November 1992 meet-up, Marty and Myriam’s letters became longer and more personal. They found themselves excitedly waiting for each other’s latest update.
And then Marty started mailing Myriam dictaphone tapes – he’d just bought one for work – to her home.
“He had such a sexy voice,” recalls Myriam.
One evening, as she sat replaying the tapes, laughing at Marty’s jokes and reveling in his stories, Myriam had a realization.
“I’ve fallen in love,” she thought. “Again.”
Myriam couldn’t believe it.
“I realized I had to leave my situation with my boyfriend,” she says today.
So, Myriam moved out of the apartment she’d shared with her ex, and back in with her parents. Then, she phoned Marty in California. This was a conversation that couldn’t take place via letters. She needed an immediate answer.
“We never really had a real relationship,” said Myriam on the phone. “We don’t know what it would be like, really. What do you think? Would it work? Should we try?”
On the other end of the line, Marty was silent. Myriam took the silence as uncertainty. But in fact, Marty just couldn’t believe the dream was about to become a reality.
“For seven years, she was my fantasy girl,” he says. “I compared everyone I met to her.”
The two decided Myriam would come to California to visit Marty. She booked her flights and started counting down the days. In the lead-up to the trip, Marty and Myriam spoke on the phone multiple times a week, racking up big international phone bills. They sent faxes. They planned out their reunion, and imagined what it would actually be like to reunite.
But all their imaginings couldn’t prepare them for the reality when, in September 1993, Myriam arrived in California.
When Myriam saw Marty again, the depth of feeling they’d first felt in the Belgium chocolate shop came rushing back.
“I was so in love with him, even though he had changed – he’d lost his hair, he had hair when I met him,” she says. “But for some reason it was not that important. It was still very strong. Those fantasies just rekindled. They just were there from before. It came all back.”
After a dreamlike, wonderful couple of weeks, Marty and Myriam decided they were going to try and make their relationship work.
“You have to really take a chance, if you’re that much in love and you know that this could work, you have to really try,” says Myriam.
“And if it didn’t work out, we still would have been better for it,” adds Marty.
So after the Californian reunion, Marty traveled to Belgium to meet Myriam’s family. A couple of months later, he proposed and Myriam packed her bags and moved to the US. Within months, they were married.
To some of their loved ones, it seemed like a whirlwind. But for Marty and Myriam, their romance was also a long time coming. On their wedding day, the overwhelming feeling the two felt was gratitude.
“It took a long time to have that courage to say, ‘That’s something I can do.’ And to be independent,” says Myriam. “I just realized that, ‘Gosh, I’ve never met anybody so compatible with me.’”
Thirty years later
In the 30 years since Marty and Myriam decided to be together, the couple have never looked back.
It wasn’t always easy for Myriam to adjust to life in a new country – all the connections she had in the fashion industry seemed to be meaningless in the US.
But eventually Myriam returned to her first career aspiration – teaching. Today she works at a Los Angeles performing arts high school, teaching French, which she absolutely loves.
Marty and Myriam also have a daughter, Laura, who was brought up in a multicultural, multilingual household that celebrated Myriam’s Belgian and Dutch culture, and Marty’s American and Jewish heritage.
Marty says he sees the “secret” to marriage, and to being happy more generally, is the feeling that defined their wedding day: “gratitude.”
He says he’s so grateful that Myriam came into his life in the first place, that they stayed in touch, that they eventually took a chance on each other, that they’re a united front, and they’re as much friends as they are spouses, a “tremendously strong bond” they see as forged by their years of letter writing.
“As long as that pilot light of love is still on, it can come back as strong later,” she says. “I did not have the courage to choose Marty as a possible serious relationship in 1986 but I am glad we still had a chance later in life to make that choice to go for our relationship. We were lucky that both of us were able to make that choice in 1993.”
The couple also still have all the letters they sent one another – aside from a few early ones from 1986, which 21-year-old Myriam was worried would fall into the hands of her nosy younger sister.
“I discarded some of them because they were too risqué,” she says, laughing.
Marty and Myriam recently spent a month traveling through Europe, which naturally included a stop off at Brussels’ Grand Place to see the chocolate shop, which is still going strong.
This pilgrimage was, partly, because Marty still can’t resist Belgium chocolate. But it was also an opportunity for the couple to reflect on how they met and where they are today, against the odds, 37 years later.
“I find it amazing and lucky that our meeting at the chocolate shop led to our dates and romance and later relationship,” says Myriam. “You never know where you might meet the love of your life.”