Into the Heart of Chocolate

Christian Harlan Moen, an assistant editor at Smithsonian, humorously handles Last Page submissions and keeps writers honest with his fact-checking skills.

(Dale Mackenzie Brown)
smithsonian.com

The first time I set foot in Brussels it was with a broken heart...and my father. One or the other might have been fine, but both together made for a trying trip, punctuated by long silences. I was accompanying him on a work-related reconnaissance trip through Europe, not long after having ended my first significant relationship. In the weeks leading up to my departure, I had been checking in regularly—sensitively, I thought—with my ex-love to make sure that she was surviving without me. On the eve of my flight, I discovered that she was doing just fine—and had some company to boot. I heard a distinct crack coming from my chest as I put down the phone.

A few days later, my father and I checked into the Hotel Amigo, a faux 18th-century building constructed in the 1950s on the site of a former prison. The hotel's name sounded to me as out of place as I felt, but its central location was an asset; narrow cobblestoned streets snaked away in every direction from its entrance. At the end of one short block we could see into the Grand Place and its border of stunning Baroque guild houses and busy cafés.

Manneken Pis The romantic charm of the city only made my heart heavier, but I can hardly blame Brussels for that. My father, on the other hand, expressed his distrust of any city whose symbol is a urinating little boy. I sought out the Manneken Pis, as that symbol is known, and was surprised to discover that it is not much larger than a souvenir of itself. It stood on a corner not far from the Hotel Amigo, fenced off from a small crowd of curious onlookers. One theory claims that the statue commemorates the boy who saved the city by peeing on a fire. (It must have been some fire.) Another suggests that a wealthy man sought to remember the exact moment when he found his long-missing son and commissioned the whimsical statue.

I spent a lot of time in Brussels walking, sometimes with my father, but most often not. I explored every street around our hotel. Butter, Butcher and Chicken Market streets are lined with cafés or vendors—all a colorful and enduring tribute to gastronomy. I recall one vendor who had rigged a nearly invisible line to the head of a large fish laid out on ice. Whenever someone approached, he yanked the string and the fish's head snapped violently at the passerby. I am not sure how this helped his business, but as with other merchants in Brussels, he gave off the impression that he would be doing us a favor by taking our francs.

Grand'Place cafes Most of my memories of Brussels center on food, which proved to be quite distracting for a while. Pretty soon my heart was no longer the only thing getting heavier. Almost all of our outings revolved around eating. For a change of pace, we drove out of the city to Waterloo, and there we ate a delicious three-course lunch at a cozy little restaurant with a beautiful patio surrounded by trees. On the way home we may even have stopped off briefly to see the site of the decisive battle which, if I recall correctly, was not technically at Waterloo. We got back to the hotel in time to make plans for dinner.

At breakfast my father finally noticed my dark mood. He did not need to pry too much for me to reveal the source of my sorrow and my desire to make things right. "Well, you can't go home again," was all he said. I couldn't?! But I wanted to go home! Right away! All the mussels and french fries and profiterole were not going to last forever, and then all I would be left with was my aching heart. Realizing that the discussion was over, I reluctantly sought comfort in my whipped-cream-covered waffle and resigned myself to writing love letters late at night that ever so faintly echoed the lyrics of George Michael.

In my wanderings around Brussels I hit upon the idea of buying my way back into my beloved's heart—with my father's financial backing, of course. I suppose I was inspired by the famed chocolatiers surrounding our hotel who displayed their precious little gold ingots in temperature-controlled glass cases for all to admire. After much consideration, I bought an elegant tin filled with an assortment of chocolates, which I planned to deliver two weeks later upon my return to the United States. Were the chocolates made by Neuhaus, Leonidas, Wittamer? I don't recall. I do remember they were expensive.

I carried that precious tin with me all through Europe and down into Sicily, where my journey ended. I tried desperately to protect the tin from the heat of summer by refrigerating it whenever possible. I could not check on the welfare of the chocolates themselves for fear of ruining the beautiful wrapping. When I finally arrived at my uncle's house in Palermo, I immediately stored the package in his refrigerator for safekeeping. I checked the temperature controls to make sure the settings were ideal for chocolate, and then breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that everything would be fine until my departure a week later.

The next morning I came down for breakfast and discovered my beautiful tin unwrapped and sitting on the kitchen table. I peered with dread into the tin, which still lay on its fancy wrapping paper, remarkably empty save for a few squares of gold foil and perhaps a smudge of famed Belgian chocolate. My oldest cousin immediately blamed his sister, the smell of chocolate still on his breath.

In a week's time I would show up at my love's door with nothing but tales of the city of food and the gilded treasure I had valiantly smuggled out of it. I would tell of the legendary beast that consumed this very treasure on the eve of my return. I would offer my love the only thing I had left: my heart. And that, it turns out, is all I ever needed.

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