Francesca Street, CNN
Katy Vernon and Randy Vanderwood first spotted one another on a crowded station platform. It was the summer of 1991. The two strangers were waiting to board a sleeper train from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, to the newly unified Berlin in Germany.
It was Randy’s bright blue coat, with its contrasting neon green lapels, that first caught Katy’s eye amid the crowds.
Then she noticed Randy’s neatly combed hair. This clean cut, brightly-dressed man looked different from anyone Katy knew back home in London.
“I was in drama school at the time, so everyone I knew was very scruffy,” Katy tells CNN Travel today. “I just remember thinking, ‘He looks very clean and American.'”
Randy’s first impressions of Katy were less favorable.
“I noticed her and her friends leaned over on this curb, smoking cigarettes, and I wasn’t very impressed,” Randy tells CNN Travel today.
Katy was right, Randy was an American. And his clean cut appearance was partially explained by his job — he was serving in the US Air Force. At the time, Randy was stationed in England and was spending his summer leave traveling across Europe with his brother, who was visiting from the US.
As for Katy, she was British and in the middle of a drama degree in London. When three of her girlfriends had proposed the summer rail trip across Europe, Katy had jumped at the chance. Two years prior, her father had passed away, and her mother died when Katy was 12. In the summer of 1991, 19-year-old Katy was still processing going through so much loss at such a young age.
“I was very emotionally just kind of unstable in many ways,” says Katy. “I decided, ‘I’m going to just have fun, not thinking about boys, and just have a girls getaway.’ So that was how I went into this experience.”
The Amsterdam to Berlin train was late, and as time went on, more and more people filled up the platform.
When the train eventually arrived, passengers poured on. It was quickly clear there were way more travelers than there were seats. Katy and her three friends had reserved a sleeper cabin, but another group had already taken it.
When Randy and Katy saw one another again, Katy was in the middle of trying to persuade the other passengers to give up the cabin.
Randy thought Katy and her friends were being a bit “obnoxious and loud” about what seemed like a misunderstanding.
Today, Katy agrees they were “very loud,” but counters that they had their reasons.
“We were advocating for ourselves as young women to travel safely and get the seats we had paid for,” she says.
Randy’s brother started chatting to Katy and her friends as they fought their case. While this was all going down, Randy spotted a spare seat in the cabin next door, so he nabbed it.
Eventually, Katy and her friends successfully hunkered down in their reclaimed compartment, where Randy’s brother joined them.
As the train made its way east, Katy, her three friends and Randy’s brother chatted into the night.
“His brother told us about himself, he was at university at the time. He mentioned they were there because Randy was in the military,” recalls Katy.
“Really, my only takeaway was that I thought it was hilarious that someone was called Randy, and that it wasn’t short for anything. It was just his name. Being a young British person, I just thought that was quite funny.”
Over the course of the conversation, it became clear Randy and his brother were winging their trip, deciding on the day what to see and where to go next. Meanwhile, Katy’s group “had a very definite itinerary.”
When morning broke, and the train arrived in Berlin, Randy peaked his head out of his cabin. Randy’s brother explained they were going to spend the day in Berlin with the British girls.
It was then that Randy introduced himself to Katy properly. And in doing so, he revoked his initial negative impression.
“They were very nice to say, ‘Hey, just hang out with us if you guys want,'” he says today. “That’s when I really actually got to know them, because we basically followed them around Berlin, from museum to museum.”
The group wandered around the city together, posing for photographs at the Brandenburg Gate and in front of a remnant of the Berlin Wall.
Katy and her friends planned to spend two days in Berlin, and then travel on to Prague. Randy and his brother decided to tag along.
“We thought that sounded fun, to go to Prague,” he says. “And so we got on the train with them as well, heading that way.”
But on board, plans went awry. Randy was traveling Europe with a US military ID, rather than a passport. His out-of-date paperwork didn’t state that the Czech Republic, then still called Czechoslovakia, was one of the countries he could visit.
When custom officials checked the documents midway through the train journey, Randy was instructed to get off the train right away, and head back in the opposite direction. He and his brother hastily grabbed their backpacks and prepared to disembark.
“As we were basically getting kicked off the train, we walked by Katy and her friends and said, ‘Hey, guys, sorry, we can’t go to Prague with you guys. I’m getting kicked off the train,'” says Randy.
Randy’s brother had to head back to the US shortly after, but Randy had more leave to use up. As he got off the Prague train, he made vague promises to reunite with Katy and her friends in Munich, Germany later that week.
Then Randy and his brother traveled back to Paris, where Randy’s brother flew back home.
“I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do now. But I guess I’ll just go to Munich and see if I can meet up with them,'” recalls Randy. “But I wasn’t 100% sure if they said they’d be in Munich in two days or three days.”
It was 1991, none of the travelers had cell phones or email addresses. Randy had no way of contacting Katy and her friends to confirm.
“Well, what the heck, I have nothing to lose,” Randy recalls thinking. He decided to take a chance, and travel to Munich in the hope of finding them.
“I found when the next train was coming in from Prague, I went down to the train platform and just sat there til the train arrived.”
As luck would have it, Katy and her friends were on that train.
Katy couldn’t believe it.
“I liked Randy, I thought he was really likable and fun,” recalls Katy. “I just remember walking around this beautiful garden somewhere in Prague thinking, ‘I guess I’ll never see him again.”
“And then when we got off the train, I was the first one to spot his bright jacket, I shouted, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Randy!’
“To me, that was kind of even more amazing than meeting someone on a train platform. It was meeting again, and the fact that he took that chance, not even knowing if it would be the right day.”
The group spent a couple of days together exploring Munich, and then traveled down to Venice, Italy. From there, they headed to the Greek islands.
Katy’s friends had visited Greece before, and just wanted to sunbathe and relax. But it was Katy and Randy’s first time in the country, so they spent the days sightseeing as a pair.
“So we really spent a lot of time together and really just kind of built up a friendship,” says Katy.
“We were out swimming together and going and getting food together,” recalls Randy.
On one of the boat trips between the Greek islands, the group traveled overnight. Katy and her friends had sleeping bags, and rolled them out on the top deck to keep warm. Randy didn’t have anything to sleep on other than his bright blue coat, so Katy suggested he could share hers.
“Literally just to stay warm,” says Randy. “It was still very platonic.”
By then, both Katy and Randy thought their friendship could be something more. But they didn’t want to cross a line while they were traveling together. They figured it could make things awkward — and Katy and her friends had made a pact of sorts that they wouldn’t let any vacation romances change their plans.
Randy liked Katy’s friends too, and didn’t want to upset their equilibrium.
“They were fun, and they were very nice to me,” he says.
Still, as time went on, Katy and Randy grew closer. She opened up to him about the death of her parents. He was a good listener, and recognized she needed someone who would allow her to vent without judgment.
“I’d been through a lot in my life up until then, and lots of kind of heartache with losing my parents at a young age. So I just never wanted to be with someone that would bring me drama and kind of add to that stress,” says Katy. “And I was very, very immediately just attracted to just what a nice, calm, funny person he was.”
Starting a relationship
The trip wound to a close, Randy had to get back to his post at a UK Royal Air Force (RAF) base, and Katy and her friends were due to start their university term in London. The group parted ways, promising to stay in touch.
Only a week or so after they were all back in the UK, Katy and one of her other friends from the trip traveled to visit Randy at his RAF base.
Katy stayed overnight, but her friend left in the evening, recognizing something was brewing between Katy and Randy. She was right. When Katy and Randy said their farewells the following day, they did so as girlfriend and boyfriend.
Katy says seeing Randy in the “real world,” without the rose-tinted glasses of a European vacation, confirmed her feelings.
“I wanted to get back and make sure it was something more real,” she says. “And I’m really glad we did that, because we really had some shared experiences and the beginnings of an actual friendship, instead of just being some hot fling, you know, in a European nightclub. It felt more grounded.”
Randy says he felt the same way. They tried to see one another every couple of weeks.
Over several months the two enjoyed dates in London and getting to know one another. It was great, but there was a kind of enddate in sight. When he met Katy, Randy had less than a year of service before he was set to return to the US to start his undergraduate college degree.
When Randy returned to the US in May 1992, he and Katy — sort of — broke up. The long distance was daunting for them both, but especially for Randy, who felt he was starting a new chapter in his life, and wasn’t sure how to juggle a girlfriend in England.
Still, Katy and Randy parted as friends, and wrote letters back and forth over the next few months, with the occasional transatlantic phone call.
One day, Katy phoned Randy and suggested she come and visit for a few weeks during her college summer vacation. He invited her to stay with him at his parents’ home in Iowa. Katy spent the days lounging at the local pool, where Randy was working a summer job as a lifeguard. They spent every minute of Katy’s trip together. Randy’s parents welcomed Katy wholeheartedly into their family.
“When she went back to England, that’s when it hit me, ‘Oh my gosh, I really like this girl. She is great. I really miss her,'” says Randy.
He traveled to London to visit Katy that Christmas, and while he was there, decided to propose.
“I never thought I would get married at 21. It just wasn’t on my radar. I never thought I would leave the UK,” says Katy.
“But for us, I really felt like we had to get married or break up. In my experience and being that young, I couldn’t see how to sustain a long distance relationship in two different countries.”
Katy had just finished college. She felt like if she was going to make a drastic life change, now was the time to do it.
“So I just jumped fully in. And as sad as it was in my life not to have parents, it did free me up to make this huge decision without, kind of, the checks and balances that I might have had,” says Katy.
“When I met Randy and decided to get married, I felt like it was such a reset button and a chance to just choose a happy family and build my own happy family. So much sadness had happened in my life that was out of my control, it felt like, ‘Okay, this is under my control.'”
Katy and Randy got married in Minneapolis in 1993, and started to build a life there. It was exciting, but Katy says the first year was hard — she was homesick, and had to acclimatize to life in a new country.
“But I’d say really, the first year was the hardest and then it’s just gotten better and better,” she says today.
“I really do feel solid in the fact that I was just lucky to meet such a nice, solid, good person. And you know, that’s never changed, though we’ve changed and grown a lot.”
Thirty years later
Almost three decades later, Katy and Randy still live in Minneapolis together. Today, Katy’s a musician — “one of my favorite things in the world to do is to go and watch her sing,” says Randy. She’s written a few songs about her love story with Randy, including “Better For You”, which is about her certainty that they were meant to be. As for Randy, he works as a photographer, and has run his own photography business since the late ’90s.
The couple have two adult kids, Lily and Daisy, who are also artistically minded, and enjoy the fact that their parents’ love story resembles a romantic movie.
Katy and Randy often return to the UK with their family, but they’ve not visited their 1991 European destinations since that first summer. Returning to the rails in Europe is on their bucket list.
“We definitely daydream about doing that,” says Katy.
Today, Katy views their chance train meeting as “just a happy, happy little piece of luck.”
“Good things can happen,” she adds. “Just be open to experiences, you can’t plan your life.”
“You just never know what’s going to happen,” agrees Randy. “You need to kind of live your life and do what you think is best.”
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