On Sept. 2, 2005, I excitedly took my seat next to my best friend Megan in that stuffy lecture hall at the Hogeschool van Utrecht for our international student orientation. We were coming off of an extreme high from spending a few months indulging in days hungover in magazine offices with Starbucks and cupcakes getting us through editorial meetings, late nights painting the West Village and Lower East Side (and come to think of it, every neighborhood that didn’t rhyme with Beat-Racking) red, followed by a long trip back to Scotland for the Fringe Festival and a visit with my old pals. We were giddy with anticipation for finally beginning our post-graduate program that we had first decided to enroll in nearly a year beforehand while (again) drunkenly bonding in Nashville at the Tennessee Press Association conference. Sure, our living situation in Holland wasn’t ideal–we were condemned to share a room with just a double bed and sink in the attic of a 72-year-old Surinamese witch’s palatial home, but that’s an entirely different story for another time–but we consider ourselves adaptable gals with an appetite for adventure.
Being the effervescent Americans that we were–and I guess still are–we turned around to greet those behind us. There was Natasha, with the long platinum-blonde hair that swung straight and stringy to her waist. She looked like a total snob, and I was certain she was from California. Turns out she was neither American (Canadian), nor stuck up (we ended up being friends), but first impressions are often deceiving. Beside her were two brooding Finns: One, a replica of MTV’s dismal Daria, combat boots, ensemble, bangs and all; the other, very Scandinavian looking with harsh features and a prominent nose (some might call it Roman, though it’s every bit Finnish).
Sandwiched between the mysterious girls was an unassuming boy, with brown curls that peeked out from beneath his Sound Tribe Sector 9 cap, that you might not remember upon first glance, simply because he seemed intent on blending in with the woodwork and managed to do that quite well. He was quiet and didn’t express any interest whatsoever in getting to know either of us. Upon further inspection, we deduced he must be American, too, and as we were but three Americans in a very heterogenous Dutch town, Megan and I were in agreement: We weren’t there to make friends from those who hailed from our same landmass. So he ignored us politely, and we followed suit.
It turns out the unobtrusive guy was in our program, a course which put 19 of us from eight different countries in the same classes and living situations for a full year. He didn’t speak up often, except during class when he had something important to say; when he did, you knew you should listen, as it was always intelligent well-developed and thought-provoking. Slowly, Megan and I began to tolerate this boy more and more–he wasn’t as bad as we first thought–and by Megan’s birthday on Sept. 11–just nine days after first meeting him, though it seemed like months–we had all become chummy (she even had a crush on him for a fleeting moment, but I’m not supposed to tell you that!). Much later he told me he initially wrote me off as a stereotypical, snobby, shallow, one-dimensional American girl (tell me how you really feel, buddy). That’s OK, though; personally, I thought him a bit dull.
A week or two after that, the three of us had all signed up for a weekend away in Northern Holland and Germany aboard a double-decker bus, courtesy of the university’s international center. The boy with the curly brown locks and ever-present STS9 cap sat behind us, beside the Finnish girl, Elina, who was clearly head over heels for him. By then, I’d begun to notice him, too. And I am not one for competition.
The entire time spent on the bus, my body was rotated at a 180-degree angle to talk to him. It turned out we had a lot in common, once each of us decided to put aside any inaccurate, inceptive opinions of the other. Although I hadn’t fully developed a crush on him just yet–he was American after all, just one of three on the trip of 80 students, and there were plenty of other foreign men around to occupy those such thoughts–I would manage to get him away from the masses and often. I never really broke through his barrier until we found ourselves alone. In a cemetery. In freakin’ Bergen Belsen (the concentration camp where Anne Frank went to rest). How’s that for romantic?
But something about that trip did cement our friendship. Maybe it was that we were in a place where we felt completely unguarded and were able to open up without hesitation. Maybe it was the poignancy of the site itself. Maybe it was dear ole Snoop Dogg (our chosen artist for the weekend; Drop It Like It’s Hott was the song at the time). I don’t know really, but it was that weekend that set the gears in motion.
We returned to Holland with a deeper connection. I immediately created an msn account so I could chat with him from my place in Utrecht to his in Zeist until the wee hours of the morning (international cell phone bills were far too expensive to talk for pleasure, and his flat was too many miles away to make that bike journey frequently). I found myself proposing “group” outings to just him, when no one else could hear (and also when I knew no one else was available, sneaky girl that I am), that involved just the two of us over a pitcher of sangria or a movie at the theater by the canal. Soon after our time together increased, we booked a three-week-long trip to Hungary, Romania and Austria for the holidays. When two rooms opened up in a flat in Aarhus, Denmark–where we would all relocate once the Holland portion of the program was through–we jumped on the opportunity. We still hadn’t even kissed. And I wanted to keep it that way (or at least, I convinced myself that’s what I wanted). There would be no weirdness between us if we were going to be roommates. The hanky-panky must be kept at bay.
Then, it happened (the kissing, that is; we’re still not much for hanky-panky). I won’t say it was pretty: Rather, it was the result of an emptied bottle of Johnny Walker Black; the aftermath was both of us finding a dark corner in the European Parliament to sleep off a hangover that lasted for two days. And then it happened again. In a hostel in Antwerp, Belgium. Johnny Walker played no such part this time around. I didn’t know what this all meant, and of course we didn’t talk about it. That would be too sensible.
The Eastern Europe trip over Christmas ended up being fun and a bit romantic (Romania, feet of snow, Christmas–you get the picture), and after relocating to Denmark, we found that we lived together quite well. We cooked and ate all of our meals together, went to class together, hit the town at night together, ran all of our errands together, traveled together on weekends, and yet, I never ever began to tire of him. This was quite odd, indeed. I even met and traveled around a bit with his parents, who I dare to say knew nothing about me prior to their arrival. We (read: HE) wanted to keep things casual so our relationship remained a secret from our friends and classmates (except Megan, of course, who was my sole confidante), which was pretty easy to do as we did live together. But eventually they found out, on my birthday, Feb. 23, when Meg and I had gone to London for a Kelly Clarkson concert (don’t judge). I still don’t know how it happened. We were flying back that afternoon, and Helle was throwing me a party that night. I arrived in Aarhus to a flood of text messages: “We know.” “Sneaky, aren’t we?” “When’s the wedding?” And I thought this would freak him out to the point of ending it completely. But it didn’t.
June 25, 2006 was the roughest day of my life to date. I bid farewell to him as he boarded the train in Copenhagen heading to the airport, the tears cascading down my cheeks as I tried to stay strong (not one of my shining attributes_. How do you say a casual “see ya later” to someone you don’t know if you will, in fact, be seeing later…or ever? I was leaving Denmark to spend a few more weeks bumming around Europe before officially becoming a grown-up with a real job; he was jetting back to San Francisco to resume his old life. Neither of us had ever talked about what would happen when we returned. I had offered to move to the West Coast; he politely declined my proposal. Looking back, I’m glad he did. We both needed time to develop as individuals and sort out our own lives before bringing someone else into the picture. I assumed I would never hear from him again. I cried for three days. Then, I went to Greece and Turkey with Jo to forget about him.
Except I didn’t. How could I? The ouzo was only a temporary mask for the pain. But the day after I flew back to my parents’ house in Tennessee, I received a surprise: a call from him. I was shocked; he really wasn’t one to keep in touch. After that, I returned to New York out of a lack of better ideas, and our e-mail, text and phone correspondence became quite regular. I sent him little packages and notes here and there, which he later said was the clincher. Then, an opportunity arose, a small pinprick in the otherwise dark hole of the unknown: His cousin was getting married in Hawaii. He and his married friends Danny and Jill were planning on making a vacation out of it. Initially, nothing was ever said about me going. But I found him some awesome ticket deals–I told you, planning other people’s vacation is my hobby!–and not long after, I received an e-mail, asking if perhaps I would like to join him, “just a rash idea thrown out into the ether,” he said (I’ve kept all of his e-mails). Did I? UM, DUH? (Apparently subtlety isn’t lost on the Y chromosome.)
There were quite a few pre-trip freak-outs–what if we’ve lost our chemistry? what if things go back to how they’ve been after it’s all over, stagnant with no hope in sight? what if he’s really inviting me as a friend date (the worst kind)?–but I had nothing to worry about: Hawaii trip swimmingly. And a couple months after that, on his first trip to see me in NYC, he invited me to move out to San Francisco and in with him. Nearly a year passed (I had to be sure first, ya know?), and I finally did. Of course, I’m skimming over all the hard months of that first year on opposite coasts; the periods of uncertainty where I didn’t know if I would ever see him again; the seven months straight where I cried nightly because I didn’t think I would. Because, in the end, every bit of it was worth it. The hard part’s behind us; now we have only good years to look forward to, in the same postal code.
I loved him all the way back then in Holland, although he’ll tell you now that he finds that hard to believe. But it’s true; sometimes, you just know. I’m only glad he gave me enough of a chance to realize he reciprocated those feelings.
We don’t really have an official anniversary; our relationship is more a timeline of milestones and firsts. But I’ll never forget that day, on Sept. 2, in Utrecht, Netherlands, when I first glimpsed the boy with the brown curly locks and smiling blue eyes who would change my life.