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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

A Bridge Not Too Far At All

May 10, 2023

YPRES, BELGIUM— Friendships in the 21st Century carry a different dynamic. A constant connection throughout the World Wide Web has its share of positives and negatives. Many spend more time looking at small screens and stupid videos that make no sense to me. My 21-year old son finds them hilarious. There’s that, but I also have a world of information at my fingertips. As a child I had a set of World Book encyclopedias in our house. That was my sole source for information unless it was a library day.

I could spend my remaining column inches touting all the negative aspects of the internet and its undesirable effects on society. But there are plenty of other places where one can find such discourse. Today I will focus on friendships.

The World Wide Web has— at least in my case— made it easier to connect, and to stay connected, with people. I value the relational aspects of life and I am probably the primary one in my friend group who keeps in touch, from childhood friends through present day acquaintances.

At 10-years-old my mother sent me to a summer camp on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. Camp Hi-Lake was a great place to spend four weeks and I am sure she didn’t mind the break. I made friends with several other boys my age. My best friend there was Bobby Woldt from Waco, Texas. We hung out all month and were best pals.

Over the years I’ll think about that kid and try to search for him online, to no avail. There was also an associate pastor/youth director at my church who made a positive impact on my life in high school. I occasionally try to find Jim Darnell online, without any success.

Had Facebook and Instagram been around in the 1970s I am sure that we would still be connected, and I would know what each of them has been up to over the years. We may not have ever again been in each other’s presence, but the connection would be there. I feel connected to the friends I have made since the advent of the internet and social media. Last night’s dinner host is the perfect example.

In 2014, I co-hosted a European tour (my first) we called Battlefields and Baguettes. A friend and learned war historian, Andy Wiest, handled the day duties taking us to World War I and World War II battle sites and cemeteries, while I hosted the evening’s dinners in locals-only establishments. We arrived in Ypres home to some of the most brutal fighting ever recorded, and had a free night. I chose to take the opportunity to investigate the restaurant I booked for our group’s dinner the following night. It wasn’t good. I immediately cancelled the reservation and started looking for an alternative.

A restaurant that caught my eye was located a little out of the city center on a small island in a small lake. It was near closing time by the time we reached the restaurant Pacific Eiland, but I met the owner, Chef Robert Van Eygen— a tall Belgian with boundless enthusiasm, a passion for hosting, and a true hospitalitarian— and asked if he could accommodate a large group for the next evening, and he didn’t hesitate. Van Eygen offered some of his house-smoked salmon on the spot, which was, and still is, the best I have ever tasted. I made sure we added that to the menu of the next evening’s dinner, and my wife and I stayed and visited for a while.

The next evening, after a long day trudging through WWI trenches and cemeteries, we walked across the bridge to Pacific Eiland and had a meal that landed at number one of my top 10 meals for that year.

There is something magical that happens when a group gets together to share a meal, and everything goes as planned. That was one of those nights.

The conversation was lively, loud, and filled with energy. At the end of the meal, Van Eygen — in a very European moment — manned the stereo system, cranked up some 40-year-old British disco music, and our guests danced throughout the restaurant.

It was a fitting end to a memorable meal.

The only reason that dinner didn’t end up as the number one dinner on my 2014 list is that he invited us to his house for dinner the following evening and that was the most memorable dinner I enjoyed that year. Here are my journal notes from dinner at Van Eygen’s home.

The meal started with cured ham and hard cheeses, which were passed, followed by oysters, freshly shucked by our host. Next the chef served shrimp croquettes, followed by foie gras with fig compote, and his house-smoked salmon.

As the sun began to set, we moved to another table across the lawn under a quaint pergola and were seated next to a roaring fire where we ate king crab and rice. A very European cheese course was served after the entrees and the meal ended with homemade ice cream, brandied fruit, and an apple tart that I picked up from a baker earlier in the day.

The dinner was very good, the company was better, the conversation was lively, and the entire experience was one of those moments that tend to happen when all the stars align and people from two very different parts of the world come together over food. In that moment friendships are made, and lifelong memories are established.

Van Eygen and I follow each other on social media and have checked up on each other when newsworthy events have happened in our areas of the globe, but I knew I would return one day. Last night we did. It was great to see him again. He welcomed us on a new bridge he just built that incorporates the word “Peace” in 86 languages, which represent the languages spoken by all the countries that fought in this area during WWI.

When we arrived, he was on one side of the bridge, and I was on the other end. We met in the middle. It was truly a metaphoric moment.

His enthusiasm hasn’t waned. The quality of his food and service at his restaurant Pacific Eiland showed that he’s still a man at the top of his game. Though the house-smoked salmon has somehow gotten better.

The evening ended up with the stereo cranked and the lights down, but this time I— to settle a bet when the USA soccer team lost to The Netherlands— was the one singing. I chose “Sweet Caroline,” because I knew my group couldn’t resist joining in on the chorus. Van Eygen joined in, too. A great time was had by all.

The ball is in his court now and I look forward to his trip to the States so I can return the hospitality he has so graciously and enthusiastically shown to my guests and me.

Onward.

This week’s recipe: Smoked Salmon Spread

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