It was 2009,12 years ago now. My husband, Josh, and I were celebrating our five year anniversary in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. We had nabbed a blissful spot at the pool bar, seated with dozens of people from all over the globe. It honestly had a bit of a Small World feel.

As we started to sip our cocktails, I noticed the couple seated to my left. What stood out initially is that they were speaking in a language I hadn’t heard before. So being the South Alabama gal that I am, I turned to the woman and offered up a classic, “Where y’all from?”

With her lyrical accent yet in flawless English, the woman replied, “We’re from Belgium.”

That’s how we met, “our Belgians.” Ineke and Tijl lived in Antwerp and it turned out they were staying literally right across the hall from our own room. We spent several days hanging out with them at the resort. When we left, we agreed to keep in touch on Facebook.

And boy, did we. I’ve talked to Ineke, nearly daily — definitely weekly — since we met. For my 30th birthday, we went to visit them in Belgium, with day trips to Paris and Amsterdam (because you know, trains). They hosted a party for me and their friends became our friends.

They came to visit us when we lived in Miami where we celebrated Thanksgiving. We even gave them a taste of the Black Friday shenanigans.

When they got engaged, we met them in New York City to shop for Ineke’s wedding dress and celebrated her birthday. We traveled back to Belgium for their wedding in 2016. They were married in the breathtaking Stadhuis (city hall) at the Grote Markt (great market square) in Antwerp. It was erected during the Renaissance — y’all! — between 1561 and 1565. And, it remains the coolest place I’ve ever been. At their wedding dinner, I attempted a speech in Dutch ( … thankfully the Belgians are a tolerant and forgiving people who overlooked my drawl and slip-ups).

Since then, there’s been meetings here and there, but constant companionship. Ineke and I have helped one another through some of our darkest days, sending both our love and worries across the ocean.

In February of 2020, Ineke and Tijl welcomed their sweet girl, Charlot, right before the world shut down for the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, we’ve continued to (virtually) hold one another’s hand as the world came to a standstill. We walked each other through the lockdowns and the close calls. I cannot wait to hug her again.

I think one of the many lessons of the pandemic is how precious travel is to all of us, and having it snatched away left a serious void in many of our lives.

It certainly did for the artists we are bringing to you for this year’s Arts Issue. We have featured some truly gifted individuals, most of whom are members of the Coastal Photographers’ Guild (CGP), who are sharing the stunning moments captured in exotic locales. We are so grateful to each of them — Tom, Phil, Ginny, Jim, Johnny and Hannah Warren— for sharing their work. And of course, I have to give a huge “thank you” to my longtime CPG contact, Richard Knight, for helping connect me with these brilliant folks.

So please … sit back, grab a glass of your favorite imported brew or vino and enjoy this earth-based eye candy … from the top of the world to the bottom of the sea.

As my Belgians say … Schol —