The love story of Cathryn and Rafael reads like the plot of a romantic comedy.
There's the requisite rom com "meet cute."
Then there's a madcap ski weekend eerily similar to the one in the second "Bridget Jones" movie.
Let's not forget the time Rafael smuggled her across the German border into the Czech Republic. And, most especially, the botched marriage proposal back in Chicago, foiled by his BlackBerry.
The story begins only hours after Cathryn Center arrived in charming Aix-en-Provence for the University of Michigan's study abroad program in the south of France in 2003.
After the orientation session, Cathryn and one of her best friends from school headed for Red Clover, a geographically incorrect Irish pub located far from Ireland.
"I literally saw him across a crowded room," says Cathryn, "and thought he was adorable." She's talking about the first time she spotted Rafael Smeyers. It was Jan. 14. She was 20 and he was three years older, a college graduate with a job that had sent him to France from his base in Luxembourg.
Cathryn asked her friend to walk past Rafael to try and get his attention. Then they both did. "We'd walk back and forth," she says, describing a scene you might find in a chick flick. "I don't think he noticed me."
Did too, says Rafael. "She's super cute, and I didn't think I had a chance."
After much to-and-fro, Cathryn and Rafael started talking — in French — with each trying to figure out what country the other is from and not making much headway. "My French is always better when I've had a few drinks," she says.
When they parted, she didn't have a phone yet but Rafael gave her his number "and he kissed me."
For an American college girl studying abroad, says Cathryn, "This is what you're supposed to do: Meet a European guy and kiss in a bar."
Rafael didn't think much about this encounter again until Cathryn called him five days later. "I had no idea who it was," says Rafael, confused by her French and not recognizing the phone number. Finally it clicks and he asks her out.
Eight days and several dates later, Rafael texted her: "I'm going skiing this weekend, why don't you come with?"
"Sure," she promptly texted back.
"I gave him the impression I could ski. … It's a hard thing to lie about," she says.
Since she didn't have any ski clothes she asked at her school if anyone had left some behind. "The only thing they had was a bright pink one-piece ski suit from the '70s. The crotch came down to my knees."
Here they were at Alpe d' Huez, one of the finest ski resorts in the French Alps, and "I could not have looked worse," she says. They hopped on the ski lift and she couldn't even get off it. "I grab her off … and she falls on me," says Rafael.
"Long story short, I literally spend the day rolling down the mountain," says Cathryn.
Day Two: Rafael skis, and Cathryn lounges at the lodge.
Rather than being horrified, Rafael says, "I thought she was an amazing sport about it. I guess she wanted to come skiing even though she didn't know how to."
But there's more slapstick: "When we checked out I was wearing heels for some reason and standing on this snow embankment. I said 'Can you help me down,'" Cathryn says.
But before he could get to her, "I just wiped out."
"Again," Rafael adds.
"My life sometimes is like a comedy of errors," says Cathryn. Rafael found her charming.
Just a few months later, on a boat ride in Cassis, France, she told him she loved him. He said "I love you" back.
And four months after they met, he took her to meet his family in Belgium.
Not surprisingly, her parents back in Highland Park were skeptical. But when they and her sister came over to visit and met Rafael, "He got thumbs up from everyone," she says.
After the semester ended, Cathryn traveled with Rafael to Germany but at the border with the Czech Republic — their destination was Prague — she realized she'd forgotten her passport.
He wanted to cover her with a blanket in the back seat and smuggle her across the border. She resisted. Then he came up with another plan. He conspired with the driver of a senior citizens' tour bus he had spotted near the border.
She'd hop the bus. The driver customarily collects all the passports in a stack for stamping at the border crossing. While the passports were being processed, she would ask to cross the border to go to the restroom. Bus passengers often did this. It worked. Rafael picked her up on the Czech side and they drove to Prague, no problem.
"It was a great weekend," says Rafael. And on Monday he dropped her off at the airport to return home.
Her senior year back at Ann Arbor, Rafael flew to see her every five weeks. (He became a huge Michigan football fan and was there when the Wolverines beat Ohio State to go to the Rose Bowl.)
In December 2003 — they had known each other less than a year — he surprised her with the news that he got a job in the U.S. and was moving to Chicago.
After she graduated, they bought a place in Lakeview. She got a master's degree and started teaching freshman English at Riverside Brookfield High School.
Fast forward to 2007. The couple booked a spring break vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in March. Rafael planned a surprise marriage proposal underwater on a scuba dive (a shared passion).
With meticulous planning everything was falling into place — until Rafael jumped in a cab.
On March 2, Cathryn was in their condo when her cellphone rang. It was Rafael on his BlackBerry.
It quickly became clear that he'd pocket-dialed Cathryn's number by accident. It happened all the time, especially since he lost the protective case.
She could hear him carrying on a conversation with the cabbie — he always did that — and she shouted his name to no avail. The phone, after all, was in his pocket.
As Cathryn listened from her living room, Rafael was telling his cabdriver all about the planned underwater proposal.
At first she thought it was intentional — his wacky way of proposing. "I expected him to bust into the apartment with the cabdriver and 'ta-dah!'"
But when the talk turned to other topics she knew she'd just learned about his secret plan to ask her to marry him.
When Rafael did get home, their miniature dachshund Owen nuzzled the groom-to-be's pocket and when Rafael pulled out his phone he saw he was connected to "Cath's cell."
"Oh s—! What did you hear?" he asked Cathryn. Cathryn told all.
By not instantly hanging up when she realized the call was an accident, "In true form, I figured I botched my proposal," says Cathryn.
Rafael locked himself in the bathroom to figure out his next move. Emerging with resolve and tears, he got down on one knee and said, "It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but will you marry me?"
Then they bought a bottle of Champagne at the corner store to celebrate. The wedding was one year later.
"A lot of things happen very randomly with us," says Rafael.
"In the end, I wouldn't change anything," says Cathryn. The botched proposal was "more us" than the one Rafael had planned so carefully. And besides, "It's a great story."
If it was meant to be, love can span continents and overcome obstacles as high as the French Alps. And even when things don't go according to plan, the romance can turn out perfectly in the end.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun