The first time I traveled abroad with a significant other was the summer of 2016. I had just finished up a 3-week study abroad program at King’s College in London and my girlfriend of two years (at the time), Catherine, flew out to meet me. We had long planned this trip and we saved money for an entire year so we could experience one week of European travel together before our semesters started up in the fall.
Originally, we didn’t have a specific country in mind, but we were acutely aware that as a couple of undergrads, neither of us were harboring a ton of spare travel cash for an expensive flight. In the end, Google Flights chose our destinations for us in the form of a $40 flight from London to Milan and an $80 flight 6 days later from Rome to Dublin. We booked those flights immediately which left us with the wonderful task of planning a 6 day budget itinerary from Milan to Rome.
As soon as we knew we were going to Italy, we wanted to try to get to Cinque Terre, the picturesque series of seaside villages that frequent the screensaver of every AppleTV. It just so happened that our friend Kevin had spent some unforgettable time there the year before, so we had a little help when it came to inspiration and strategizing.
Before I knew it, my study abroad was over, Catherine was with me, and we were abroad together for the first time. To say that we made the most of London on a budget might be an understatement. “Why take the tube for 2 and a half pounds when we can walk” became our mantra, which was a slippery slope to walking 18 miles in one day. Regardless, we saw a lot and woke up at 4am the next morning to catch a flight to Milan.
After less than 24 hours in Milan (including our first Italian pizza and liter of wine), we were on a train from Milan to Cinque Terre. We arrived on the Ligurian Sea coast around noon.
Cinque Terre quickly proved why it deserves every pixel on the millions of desktop backgrounds that feature its striking colors and dramatic coastlines. We only gave ourselves one day to enjoy it (rookie mistake), but we were intent on enjoying it to the fullest. We rented kayaks and paddled through jellyfish-rich waters and into costal caves. We took the train a couple of towns up to the only sand beach in Cinque Terre and we proceeded to sit on the rocks because we couldn’t justify paying for a beach chair on the sand.
On the way back to our modest accommodation, Catherine spotted something. Locals were flinging themselves with abandon from the top of a cliff jutting out into the water like a snaggle-tooth. With running starts, these people were flipping and diving 40-ish feet into the deep blue water below. “Whoa that looks cool,” I thought. “We should walk down and watch them,” I offered to Catherine. “Huh? No, we should jump,” she said. That two-sentence conversation tells you a lot about our relationship.
15 minutes later, we were standing on the snaggle-tooth cliff looking down at the water below — perfectly deep and crystal clear, not a stray rock in sight. Catherine found a flat ledge just a few feet below the broad surface of the cliff. She inched her way down backwards and slowly turned around to face her decision.
I grabbed a hold of the rock behind me and leaned down towards her. “Alright, you’ve got this!” She shifted her weight. Took a deep breath. She stood motionless for a few seconds and then looked back at me. I nodded. She looked down. Took another deep breath. And…
“Can you go first?”
That two-sentence conversation also tells you a lot about our relationship. It was an extremely fair question. Going first at anything in life is terrifying.
Long story long, we jumped. I went first, and Catherine quickly followed afterwards. And she was right. Jumping beats watching any day.
3 years later we found ourselves taking advantage of another seemingly wild opportunity. Quitting jobs, packing bags, and moving to South Korea. Instead of reaching the ledge with a quick climb, this cliff took a year of planning, a sizable chunk of money, and a whole lot of emotional energy to reach. And this time we were both standing on a ledge that looked over the next year or two of our lives. This wasn’t a cute little cliff jump. It felt like a leap of faith.
After a long year of preparation, we were finally prepared to jump together. We had both been accepted by the EPIK program and were simply waiting for two job contracts to arrive. The climb was over and all we had to do was jump. At least, that’s how we imagined it would go.
Long story short, to no fault of her own, Catherine was pulled back to solid ground. This situation left me leaning, a signed job contract in hand, a one-way flight booked, and neither Catherine or I able to stop my momentum from carrying me into the unknown lying just beyond the cliff’s edge.
In the last seconds before gravity completely took control, I found myself sitting alone in the airport, staring at the gate that every decision I had made in the past year was hurtling me towards. I had no idea if it would be two weeks, two months, or longer until I saw Catherine next. After a year of picturing sharing this moment with her, I realized I was terrified to make the jump alone. Yet, my flight was making a final boarding call. At that point I knew it was a little too late to do anything other than get on the plane. When I pulled out my passport, I found a little note tucked inside. It was short. But it was perfect.
You’re about to kick off the adventure of a lifetime for both of us. Thanks for being the brave one and going first. Travel safe. I love you so bad.
At that moment, I needed the reminder that going first is scary. Catherine knew me well enough to understand that in advance, well before I realized it myself. I had pushed any feelings of apprehension down for so long leading up to my departure that when they hit, they hit hard. But as I read and re-read that note in the final moments before my plane boarded, I knew that I had leaped from one cliff before. I found the courage to jump then because I knew that once I was airborne, Catherine would soon follow behind me. It was with that in mind that I looked down. Took a deep breath. And went for it.