It was March 1994, and I was a sophomore at Baumholder American High School in Germany. My school was taking part in an exchange program with a school in Russia, hosting several dozen students from Ivanovo for two weeks.
One of the students was staying with my family, so I took part in the multitude of the “all-American” activities to which our guests were exposed. As fate would have it, almost halfway into the second week I was paired with a girl my age while on a trip to the base bowling alley. Her name was Elena Ivanova, and though it may seem clichéd, it was love at first sight — for both of us.
That night, I took great pains to compose a love letter to her. In Russian, a language which I had only recently learned a handful of words. I’m certain my grammar was atrocious, but she was visibly touched by the gesture when I gave it to her the next day, particularly because her English was similarly limited. Fortunately, we had German as a common language, but only used it together for spoken communication.
The following day, after distracting one another from our classes with repeated, longing gazes, one of the other student hosts, a friend of mine named Emily, held a get-together at her house. My sister attended, but being the social butterfly that I was (and in many ways still am) I elected to sit it out. Much to my dismay, I learned upon my sister’s return that Elena was there, and she’d been looking for me.
Not long thereafter, our guests had to return to Russia. It was a bittersweet parting, as Elena and I had met only days before, but our sadness was tempered with the knowledge that my school would send its own delegation of students later that year. I quickly set to work to raise as much of the money to pay for the trip as I could.
Ultimately, in late November, after months of fund-raising and a crash course in Russian and Russian history, we departed. After three days in Moscow, we arrived for a three-day stop in Ivanovo. Though it wasn’t the stay I’d hoped for, I did manage to see Elena again on the second day.
My feelings for her were — and remain — the most intense I’ve ever felt in my life. I knew that we were meant for one another. Using a ring I’d bought in Moscow, I proposed in Russian. She didn’t say anything. At least, not with her voice. Her eyes lit up, and she kissed me. The kiss lasted nearly twenty minutes.
The next day, the eve of my birthday, we had to leave for St. Petersburg. Elena made it to the train station at the last minute to see me off. We shared one last, deep good-bye kiss, and the others in my group, naturally, pulled out their cameras. Elena and I posed for photos, and I, reluctantly, had to leave. That was the last time I saw her.
At the end of that school year, I had to move to Iowa while my mom worked on her Ph.D. at Iowa State University, and Elena and I lost touch with one another. Despite several attempts to regain contact, in eight years I haven’t heard from her again. I still think of her often, and my feelings for her remain strong to this day.