It was just before daylight when I stood, somewhat bleary-eyed and struggling to haul a backpack along with me, in the check-in at Gatwick Airport. It was September 2003. I was meant to be on a flight to Toulouse for two weeks walking a central section of the GR10, one of France’s long-distance walking paths that runs along the border with Spain. Although I had a family, friends and work, I was in my mid-thirties and had just about given up on finding a long-term partner after various heart aches. But as I stood there, I became aware of a tall man stood ahead of me in the line. Hard to be sure, but I thought he was maybe looking at me. I mean, lookingat me. Although interested in him, I assumed nothing would come of it, that he was almost certainly going somewhere else, somewhere thousands of miles away from where I was going. I’ve never been happier to be wrong.
When I got to the gate, to my surprise the same tall man was there again. He was sitting on his own, so it didn’t look like he had a girlfriend. But just because we were on the same flight, it didn’t mean we were on the same holiday. And there might be a girlfriend or wife back home. In any case, he was probably going somewhere completely different to me. I didn’t want to get disappointed or hurt. I’d already been through a couple of long-term relationships and had even tried dating agencies in an attempt to find a new partner. I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to be disappointed again.
We were sat near each other on the plane. “You look like an Exodus sort of person,” he said, after the cabin crew had come round with some breakfast for us all. He held out his hand to me from his seat across the aisle. “Yes, I am,” I replied a little uncertainly and we shook on it.
It was to turn out we were going to the same destination – in more ways than one.
Once arrived in France, we were walking for six or seven hours a day, come rain or shine. He was one of the stronger walkers on the trip, which I confess was something I liked. What I liked even more was that whenever I stumbled or took longer than the rest of the group to finish a particular walk, he’d wait for me. Without impatience. Just determined to make sure I was okay. He turned out to have a playful sense of humour too, doing some ace imitations of a long-winged vulture seen occasionally in the Pyrenees that’s known as a lammergeyer. So there was a lot of messing around with Mark swooping and holding both his arms out wide as we walked across the mountains together with the rest of the group.
Walking out together on the GR10, we started to find out more about each other. We both loved books (still do). Had both studied the same subject at university. Both loved the freedom of a trek. Both spoke French – and both loved France. Both of us – though I blush to say it – were, and, to some extent, even after all these years, still are, incurable romantics; dreamers, really. But I could see he did his share of the washing up, same as I did too. And he was honest and kind. He didn’t mind when I wanted to have a second pancake at a café where we’d all stopped for a break. We felt relaxed enough in each other’s company to sing together as we walked – the first time I’ve ever felt safe enough to do that with anyone except close family.
At the end of the trip we all swapped numbers and email addresses. I thought maybe we’d drop each other the odd line from time to time. But for me and Mark it turned out our connection went deeper. We started to meet up in London, where I lived back then, talking and laughing with the same freedom we’d found in the Pyrenees. I remember thinking that I really liked him. I made up my mind I wanted things to be permanent, though I didn’t dare say too much in case he didn’t feel the same way.
A few months later we went back to the Pyrenees, on another Exodus holiday, this one snow-shoeing and sledging. Gradually, over the next twelve months or so, our lives moved closer and closer together. Then, in September of the following year, almost exactly twelve months after we first met, Mark asked me to marry him. I remember weeping with joy. We were married in Oxford, where I’d studied, in April 2005. Naturally, our honeymoon involved a) walking b) France.
Today we live in Scotland, where I was born and grew up, and we have two young daughters, aged nine and eleven. We’ve started them on Exodus already whenever we can afford it – they love it too. We took them to Malta on one of the Exodus family holidays. Later this year, we’re off to Italy. We’re hoping to experience there the same kind of adventure, community and fun that brought me and Mark together in the first place.