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It started about three months ago. I (Dan) was changing jobs, it was approaching our three-year anniversary, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the woman of my dreams, Leslie. We started the process of buying a new house.
Unbeknownst to her, I also set the wheels in motion for our engagement plan. My first problem was what exactly I should give her to propose with. First I considered buying a ring to surprise her with. Unfortunately, I didn’t trust my taste in jewelry.
The next possibility was to have her tell me what kind of ring she wanted, and then surprise her with the ring at a later time. I felt like this wasn’t romantic enough–I wanted to surprise her. Not with the proposal, of course; we talked about marriage and she knew it was coming some time. All the more reason to surprise her somehow when I did pop the question.
So I thought, "What are the things that really define us as a couple?" One of the answers that came to mind was our love of traveling together. And then it clicked: Tickets. I’d surprise her with airplane tickets. But to where?
After a lot of internet research, I found that Antwerp was the world’s capital for diamonds in the 1-ct range. I hashed out the details and called to book tickets to Brussels, a mere 25 minute train ride from Antwerp, on Oct 19 – Oct 28. The booking agent mentioned that the layover was in Chicago. And then another idea was born.
I knew that the first thing Leslie would want to do after I proposed was share the news with her family. Chicago was awfully close to Madison, WI, where they all live. What if I could get them all to Chicago to surprise her? I decided to talk to my parents about it and get their opinion. To my surprise, they were planning on being in Chicago up until that weekend themselves! Then everything started coming together.
I made an appointment with a local gem shop, who was unbelievably helpful. I stared at diamonds through a loupe for almost five hours, learning all the ins and outs so we could buy with confidence in Antwerp.
Fast forward three months of intense planning. I told Leslie that we were going to visit my hometown, Portland, for the weekend, just to relax and spend some quality time together. It was just a three hour drive, and she already knew my parents were out of town. The day before we left, I told her we had a problem. My mom had just been called by the Portland airport, and she left her car illegally parked. She had to move her car or it would be towed. My mom had asked me to move it for her, so what if we just flew down to Portland?
Leslie agreed, thajnk goodness! So that morning, we grabbed our bags and headed to the airport. I said the night before that we should overpack, since we could stay a few extra days if we needed to. Fortunately, she listened to my suggestion!
We arrived at the airport around 8 AM. We walked in the door and up to the checkin counter. I asked Leslie to set her bags down for a moment, since there was something I needed to tell her.
"Leslie, I have a confession. I don’t have tickets for Portland. I do, however, have tickets for Antwerp. I’d like to buy you a ring there, if you’ll have me." I got down on one knee. "Leslie, will you marry me?" I’m happy to report that she said "Yes!", without a moment’s hesitation.
We hugged and kissed, euphoric. Then we went to the checkin counter. We told the clerk why we were so giggly, and he confided, "We know–everyone at the counter was watching. We thought it was the sweetest thing ever. We wanted to pull you out of line, but our boss wouldn’t let us!" A minute later he said, "It was so sweet, I even saw some tourist snapping pictures of you." That tourist, of course, was a dear friend of Leslie’s in disguise, snapping away with a telephoto lens from across the concourse. But Leslie wouldn’t find that our for a while, and mentioned repeatedly on the trip how she only wished she’d thought to track down that tourist and get their contact information.
We headed off to the gate for our flight. Getting on the plane, we realized that we’d been bumped to first class by the kindly desk clerk. We settled in for the trip to Chicago, and Leslie insisted on a full breakdown of the plans. I told her that we had an overnight layover and I booked a nice restaurant for dinner at 5:30, and afterwards we’d visit my Grandma Sylvia in Chicago. I told her that both our parents were arranging to be by the phone at 7:30 so we could call them all after dinner, but in the mean time, we could have a few hours to enjoy the moment for ourselves. We read about Antwerp (I’d packed several travel books, as well as a mystery for her to read), and I told her about my research in shopping for diamonds.
We arrived in Chicago and checked in to our hotel. Leslie was famished, and we arrived at Basilico at 5:30 sharp. Raphael, the Maitre D’, told us that he had our reservation in the private dining area in the rear. As he lead us there, Leslie noticed the huge tables set out, and commented that someone must be having a big party. Raphael then led us around the corner to a chorus of "CONGRATULATIONS!" We were greeted by all our family and two of Leslie’s closest friends since grade school.
After making a full round of twenty four tearful hellos and embraces, Leslie turned to me and said, "This was the most wonderful day you could have possibly planned. Now, please tell me if you have any other surprises. My heart can’t take any more." We finished dinner, talked to everyone, and crashed for the night. The next morning we were on the plane and off to Brussels.
We arrived at the Brussels Sheraton to find, to our delight, that it was located just a few minutes from the train station. They gave us a complimentary upgrade to the club level, and the room was fantastic. The next morning we set out for Antwerp.The train ride was short, and Antwerp was amazing. The first day we started on Pelikanstrasse, somewhat clueless, and looked at the "gold boxes" along the street. These were cheap, one-room diamond shops, that had mostly inferior goods, and were (we later found out) known for forged certificates and,
worse, fake diamonds. On the plus side, we got to see lots of big diamonds (large, highly-flawed stones were what they used to lure in the passersby) and get ourselves acquainted with the scene. We had a spectacular lunch at a local restaurant, and finished the day looking at diamonds in much better, more reputable shops along the main shopping street. It was here that Leslie uttered the sweetest words I was to hear the entire trip: "Diamonds that big are just overdoing it, don’t you think?"
We went back to the hotel, and I prepared for our assault the next day. I had the concierge make an appointment at a highly regarded local shop, and faxed ahead a list of the diamonds we were inteterested in. We headed back to Antwerp, where we checked out a few more diamond shops and had fantastically elaborate tea and chocolates at Del Ray, arguably the finest chocolate purveyors in the world. Then it came time for the real business: looking at the rocks.
Ludo de Clyr, the owner of Joillerie du Centre, was wonderful to us. He brought out fifteen paper packets, each with a different diamond for us to look at, that he’d borrowed from the cutters that morning. Each was close to our requirements; it was only a matter of picking out The One. We spent hours staring through the loupe, balancing stones on empty rings, and scrutinizing certificates.
Then Leslie picked the one.
It was a spectacular, thin-cut marquis. It complimented her hand perfectly. We had it set temporarily in a classic white gold setting. Leslie is going to design her own setting this week, which a local jewelry store will cast in platinum. It will incorporate two small diamonds from my great-grandmother Anna’s ring.
We came back the next day to pick up the stone, picked up a surprisingly inexpensive bottle of 1959 Cognac to serve at the wedding, had the best dinner of our trip (helped along by free drinks from the delighted owner of the restaurant), and got ready for the next part of our trip.
Friday, we left Belgium for Paris. Unfortunately, we arrived in the pouring rain. Even more unfortunately, the advice we got–"don’t bother with reservations, such-and-such delightful hotel doesn’t take them, and they always have rooms" was doubly incorrect. We wandered the streets, loaded with luggage, in the pouring rain, for a good hour before we found a hotel. We took a quick shower, though, and were good as new.
We spent Friday night and Saturday afternoon with family friends who were in Paris, unwinding and gorging on the local cuisine. Saturday afternoon was sightseeing. Saturday night, we went to see the Eiffel tower, and ran into some wonderful people our age. The took us around the tower, and we wound up drinking wine in a cafe until early in the morning.
The next day was our last day there. Leslie dressed like a million bucks in her new Parisian outfit, we visited the Louvre, and went out for a spectacular dinner. We returned the next day, and Leslie got to discover the photos of our proposal in the mailbox.
No date on our wedding yet, as we promised not to discuss it until we returned. We only know that we’ll be having it at our new home, and that it will be the start of many decades of happiness!