The town hall in Hoeilaart, Belgium is a castle — and not long ago — a real-life fairy tale unfolded there.
This story doesn’t begin in some fanciful once upon a time.
It began Nov. 30, 1977.
That was the day 15-year-old Diane Jones from the Humber Heights area of Corner Brook wrote to another one of the pen pals she had selected from the International Youth Service, an organization that helped arrange contact between youth from around the world via letter writing.
She already had a pen pal not too far away in St. John’s and had been writing to another pen friend down under in Australia.
This new letter was addressed to a boy her age named Jean-Marie Deknop, who lived in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, Belgium.
Their first correspondence to one another was fairly basic. They told one another about themselves, their families, where they lived and what their interests were.
In the years that followed, Jones and Deknop got to know one another much better. Together, they exchanged around 150 letters back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean that divided them.
They also sometimes exchanged gifts. In fact, Jones still has a teddy bear he sent her.
They continued corresponding well into adulthood. The last one was in 1990.
By that time, they both had gotten married and the correspondence just seemed to fizzle out naturally as they went about their lives as grownups.
Jones, who doesn’t have any children, later divorced. After the advent of Facebook, she tried to see if she could use the wonder of social media to find Deknop.
She didn’t have any luck at first. Then, in February 2016, she logged into her Facebook account and tried again.
This time, she did find his profile.
“I said ‘oh my god, it’s him, but he’s older,’” she recalled saying to herself at the time.
The next morning, there was an excited reply from Deknop, who had been divorced for three years at that point.Jones left Deknop a message, but held out little hope for a quick reply as it seemed like it had been a long time since he had been active on Facebook.
Nearly four decades after they began conversing and 26 years since their last letter, the two reunited as Facebook friends.
After two days of writing chat messages to one another, Deknop discovered the free phone call application on Facebook and they were finally able to hear one another’s voices.
On the fifth day, Jones saw a computer alert for a live video chat with Deknop. Scrambling to make sure her hair was OK, the two were able to see and speak to one another for the first time ever.
In the early 1980s, Deknop had asked Jones to come visit him in Belgium. The logistics of the visit never worked out.
So, he asked her again to come for a visit. In early March 2016, Jones had her plane tickets bought and in June, flew to meet Deknop in person.
Shortly before she went to Belgium, Deknop asked Jones to marry him and told Jones that he was going to buy her a ring when she got there.
Anyone who knows Jones would know she is someone who is rarely stuck for words. When he mentioned the ring to her, she was caught totally off-guard.
“I was actually quiet for a minute, believe it or not,” she said with a hearty laugh.
“I knew we were getting close and saying ‘I love you’ on the vid chats, but that was absolutely a surprise.”
By the time she landed in Belgium, there was no awkward unfamiliarity between Jones and Deknop. They embraced with a hug and a kiss — not just like any old friends would do — but as an engaged couple would.
“When we saw each other for the first time in real, it was just so natural,” said Deknop.
On the fourth day of her first visit to Belgium, they went to a jewelry store and picked out the engagement ring.
“It was surreal,” Jones said. “I still had no clue when I was coming back to Belgium or how this was all going to work out.”
She never told anyone about the engagement until returning from Europe. She knew she had to tell her mother first.
“If Mom didn’t kill me, then I knew we’d be all right,” she said with another of her hearty laughs.
The next step was for Deknop to visit Newfoundland and Labrador. That happened in September 2016 when he spent 10 days on the island and met other members of the Jones family.
“It was like Mom and Dad knew him all their lives anyway because there were always these air mail letters coming from Belgium for all those years,” said Jones. “It was like he wasn’t a stranger to anyone.”
With Jones having no children of her own and Deknop having a son and an established professional career as a chemist for 31 years, it soon became obvious to them that she would move to Belgium if they were going to be a married couple.
Besides, Deknop said he doesn’t think he could survive a cold Newfoundland winter, even though he thoroughly enjoyed his visit during the warmer months.
By October 2016, her apartment was cleared out and what belongings Jones didn’t sell off, give away or throw out, were packed up. She left her job as an esthetician at Silver Scissors and The Emerald Spa in Corner Brook and she and her pet cat Molly were off to start life a new in Europe.
“I didn’t want to leave the crowd, but I knew a better life awaited me,” Jones said of leaving her family, friends and fellow workers.
She said the decision actually didn’t require a whole lot of soul-searching. When they were writing one another decades ago, she knew they had a special connection, but she had later passed it off as a juvenile crush.
“Now, knowing the difference, I think I did fall in love with him back then, but it just all went away,” she said. “Then, when we reconnected again, it was like, ‘boom!’”
On Feb. 4, 2017, Jones and Deknop exchanged their vows in the castle that houses the town hall of Hoeilaart, the village where they now reside as husband and wife.
Jones has started learning Dutch, the language spoken by most in Belgium. The friendly people and the walking trails through the nearby forest remind her of home.
In the middle of Hoeilaart, there is a pond that is home to a flock of Canadian geese and two swans. Whenever she walks by there, Jones thinks of her home in Corner Brook, well known for the swans kept in the Glynmill Inn Pond.
“Maybe I was meant to come here,” she said.
Deknop said he never thought in a million years that answering that first letter 40 years ago would lead to them developing such a bond that not even a lengthy separation could break.
“I can tell you I am the happiest man in the world,” he said. “The only thing I regret is that we lost so many years. If I knew then what I know now, it would have been very different. We probably would have been married for 25 years or more by now.”
His other disappointment is that they never met early enough to have children together.
The Deknops tried to keep every letter they wrote one another. They believe a couple of them may have been lost, but they still have nearly all of them.
In their home, every one of those letters are now all together in one binder.
What matters even more to them is they are now together and have a chance to live out the rest of their lives happily ever after.
Here are their first letters: