Gabriella Vagnoli never forgot that trip to Scotland.
She tried not to think about it, to “remove that chapter completely.” She’d known Dan Watling for only a few days. He lived in the US. She figured she’d never see him again.
But as her long-term relationship in Italy started to dwindle, Gabriella’s mind returned to how it felt walking around Loch Ness with Dan in the spring of 2002. She thought about his eyes, “very blue, beautiful, striking.” She remembered the way they’d sat together, on the mountainous Old Man of Storr, looking out over the Isle of Skye, sharing stories about their lives.
It was mid-2006 when Gabriella finally typed Dan’s name into Google. Social media was pretty new at the time. She wasn’t sure anything would come up. She’d convinced herself Dan would have long moved on. They weren’t 22 anymore.
“I was just like, ‘Oh I’m just going to see – because by now he’s probably married – Americans marry early. Who knows what he’s doing,” Gabriella recalls to CNN Travel.
To her surprise, Dan popped up right away. Photos of him on a three-month trip around Europe a couple of years earlier.
“He looked different, more rugged, more experienced,” says Gabriella.
He still had the same kind eyes. To Gabriella, he looked “more handsome.”
Gabriella decided to send Dan a message.
“Remember me?” she wrote.
A Scottish adventure
Gabriella and Dan first connected on the banks of Loch Ness, the large body of water in the northerly Scottish Highlands, known as the home of the mythical Loch Ness monster.
At the time, Gabriella was midway through her college degree in Italy, finishing up a year spent studying in the UK.
“Me and a bunch of friends from Italy, Germany and Portugal decided to do this trip to Scotland together,” recalls Gabriella.
The group headed to Edinburgh to join a tour bus traveling further north. It was a three-day trip, with several stops to take in the Highland highlights.
Dan was on the same tour. Dan says his brother Bill “kind of forced” him to join the trip to Scotland. Dan was very committed to his job as a software developer in Chicago. He’d never traveled much.
“He bought my ticket and helped me get the passport and everything else. So essentially, I had no choice but to go,” Dan tells CNN Travel today.
Bill did all the planning too. He picked the backpackers tour. He made sure they got on the bus.
The whole thing was a bit outside of 22-year-old Dan’s comfort zone, but Dan was excited to be there.
There were around 15 people on the tour, including Gabriella and her gang of college friends. When the group boarded the bus, the tour guide suggested the travelers take it in turns to introduce themselves.
Gabriella was one of the first up. She told the group she was from Pisa, in Italy. She talked about her love of music.
“I remember being ‘struck’ when Gabi introduced herself,” Dan recalls. “I thought she was very pretty and interesting.”
When Dan stood up front and nervously introduced himself, Gabriella was struck by him too.
“I noticed Dan because of his eyes,” she recalls. He seemed shy, a bit embarrassed to be talking in front of a group of strangers. Gabriella found she couldn’t stop looking at him.
The first stop on the tour was Loch Ness. The tour guide and most of the group went down to the shore of the Loch, but Gabriella and Dan didn’t join them right away.
“Instead, we hung back and started talking,” says Dan.
Their first conversation was a little awkward – in his nervousness, Dan asked Gabriella what it was like living in Rome. She assumed he hadn’t been listening when she’d introduced herself as sharing a home with the famous Leaning Tower.
After that, things warmed up. Gabriella and Dan carried on chatting as they admired the sweeping expanse of Loch Ness, the imposing ruins of Urquhart Castle in the distance.
Connecting in Skye
Back on the bus, Gabriella and her friends sat with Dan and his brother Bill. The group started playing the card game Uno to pass the time. As the bus headed northwest, the roads got narrower, the scenery glimpsed from the bus window more staggering. Eventually, the bus crossed the bridge to Skye, the famous Scottish island known for its spectacular scenery – think dramatic mountains, picturesque glens and ancient castles.
Gabriella couldn’t believe the vastness of the landscape. It felt worlds away from the city living she was used to.
“It really struck me and it was beautiful,” she says.
But while Dan remembers being immediately enamored with “the rocks, and the hills, the waterfalls, and the clouds and everything,” his main memory of Skye is falling for Gabriella.
“I just remember being with her most of all,” he says.
Skye was a “key moment,” agrees Gabriella.
Their tour guide took them to the Old Man of Storr, a rock formation offering incredible views of Skye’s misty hills and crags, the sea stretching out ahead. The group set out to hike to the pinnacle.
Dan’s brother and Gabriella’s friends strode ahead. But Gabriella and Dan took it slow, more focused on each other than the views.
“We were just walking a lot and asking a lot of questions to each other,” says Gabriella.
In the end, Gabriella and Dan stopped before they reached the top of the ridge, sitting on one of the lower crags together, completely caught up in one another.
“Going up to the Old Man of Storr, that, for me, that’s when I really felt a connection,” says Dan.
He barely knew Gabriella, but felt like he could be himself with her. He’d never really experienced anything like it.
Gabriella really liked Dan.
“We talked a lot,” says Gabriella. “He was very sweet.”
But for Gabriella, the situation was more complicated. She was dating someone back in Italy. And while Dan was a romantic, Gabriella was more pragmatic. She didn’t think their connection would outlast their time in Scotland.
“We had this trip that was very romantic. There was this big connection, but it was a short trip,” says Gabriella. “It wasn’t going to lead anywhere.”
When the tour came to an end and the group returned to Edinburgh, Gabriella and Dan said goodbye, not sure exactly where they stood. They swapped email addresses.
“I remember emailing her almost as soon as I arrived back home,” Dan says.
Dan and Gabriella “kept in touch for a little bit,” says Gabriella.
But before long, she cut things off.
“I shortly after decided it was better not to keep in touch,” she says. “I wanted to focus on my life in Italy.
“I had no desire to move to America. I had a different life and I was like, ‘You know this is not going anywhere. It’s better that we don’t keep this thing going.’”
To Gabriella, her life in Italy felt real, and the time with Dan in Scotland felt like a dream. She tried to draw a line and move on. To make it final, she blocked Dan’s email address.
When Dan received Gabriella’s goodbye email, he was “a little distraught.”
He tried to move on too, but it wasn’t easy.
“I was always thinking about her,” he says.
The trip to Scotland had also opened up Dan’s world and given him a bit of wanderlust. The following year, in 2003, he returned to Europe, backpacking through various European cities for three months.
Dan incorporated Gabriella’s hometown of Pisa into the itinerary – partly to see the Leaning Tower, but mostly because he hoped, against the odds, that he might bump into the girl he’d met the summer before in Scotland.
When his train pulled into Pisa station, Dan couldn’t help but glance around, hopefully, for Gabriella.
“She had told me that she had worked at the Pisa train station as a barista,” he says. “But of course, she wasn’t there.”
Back in the US, Dan dated a couple of other people, but it never got serious.
“There wasn’t that connection. It definitely was not the same. And not what I felt with her.”
He created a website, adding the photos from his three-month European trip.
And then, in 2006, Gabriella’s surprise email landed in his inbox.
When Dan read Gabriella’s email, he was in disbelief.
“She was always in the back of my mind,” he says. “I always hoped that we could reconnect somehow. And so of course, when I got the email, I was overjoyed.”
He replied right away. Gabriella wrote back. The two started emailing regularly, “chatting a lot,” as Gabriella puts it.
“It’s just so crazy that he hadn’t forgotten about me, because as I said, it was a short trip. But he’d been thinking about me,” she says.
They tried video calling – a relatively new concept in 2006. It was hard to get much detail from the grainy, webcam images. But hearing each other’s voices again was special.
“We literally talked about everything,” says Dan.
By coincidence, when Gabriella re-entered Dan’s life, he was in the middle of planning a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
“I had no plans to go to Italy when I started planning it. But then when I got the email from her, I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to make my way down to Italy, for sure,’” says Dan.
Dan and Gabriella agreed to meet in the Tuscan hilltop town of Siena, not far from her home city of Pisa, in September 2006.
On the bus to Siena, Gabriella told herself, “We’re just going to meet and I’ll show him around.” While Gabriella had enjoyed speaking with Dan online, she was “still very much in denial” about what might happen next.
The moment Gabriella and Dan saw one another again was charged.
“When I saw her get off the bus, I cried,” says Dan. “I was just incredibly happy to see her again.”
“I didn’t expect it to be so emotional when I actually saw him and I didn’t expect to be so struck by him,” says Gabriella. “I was struck by his eyes again. It was just romantic. I didn’t think it would be so striking, but it was. There was just something between us.”
“A connection,” says Dan.
“Something very, very unique,” agrees Gabriella. “From the moment we saw each other. It’s hard to explain.”
Gabriella and Dan spent the day wandering around Siena together. They couldn’t stop looking at each other and smiling, almost giddy with excitement.
“I remember walking around Piazza del Campo and how happy I was to be there with her,” says Dan.
When they said goodbye, things were still “open-ended,” says Dan. But unlike when they parted ways in Scotland, there seemed to be a promise of a future.
“I believe Siena was the moment that the wheels started turning for the both of us, as far as beginning to actually think about what it would mean to pursue a real relationship with one another,” Dan says.
For Gabriella, the years apart, the unexpected reunion, and the fact the connection was still there gave her the confidence to embrace her feelings for Dan.
“I do think we both needed those few more years of growth to truly find each other,” she says.
A couple of months later, Gabriella planned a trip to the US to visit Dan in Chicago. She intended to stay for almost a month.
“Three, four weeks, something like that – which was a pretty crazy thing to do for a guy that I didn’t know that well,” says Gabriella.
On Gabriella’s first evening, Dan took her out for dinner with his brother Bill and his wife, and his mother.
“It was a bit overwhelming to meet his mom the first night I got there,” says Gabriella.
But despite being tired from the flight, Gabriella felt immediately welcomed by Dan’s family. It was great to see Bill again. It was exciting to be in the US. And Dan held her hand all evening.
The only hiccup during the four-week trip was Gabriella discovering Dan’s cooking ability – or lack thereof.
“I always say that I saved him because he was so deprived, he ate so bad,” says Gabriella, laughing. “He told me, ‘I’m going to take you to have the best breakfast ever.’ And he took me to McDonald’s.”
As an Italian foodie, Gabriella was slightly horrified. But part of her also found it endearing. And over the course of her trip, she taught Dan to cook pasta.
The following year, in 2007, Gabriella returned to the US, taking some time off work to stay with Dan for three months. While she was there, Gabriella studied for a qualification to teach Italian as a foreign language.
By then, Gabriella and Dan were talking about their future and what being together long-term might look like. They didn’t want to date across continents for too long. They talked about Dan moving to Italy, or Gabriella moving to the US.
“It was pretty fast, but at the same time, we knew that it was serious,” says Gabriella.
As Dan was more settled in his job, and owned a house, Gabiella moving to the US felt like the obvious choice.
“He had the more stable life,” says Gabriella.
So she made plans to move, getting a job as an Italian teacher at a language school in the Chicago area. And in November 2007, Dan proposed. The couple were on vacation in the historic town of Galena, Illinois.
“We had a nice, romantic evening at the house that we’re staying at,” recalls Dan. “I felt that was the time and so I proposed to her in Italian. And she said yes.”
Dan and Gabriella had a small wedding ceremony in the US in 2008 and then a big wedding party in 2009 in Italy, at “a beautiful Renaissance villa in the countryside with wonderful frescoes,” called Villa di Corliano, in the Tuscan town of San Giuliano.
Gabriella’s college friends who’d been there when she first met Dan in Scotland came along to celebrate.
“It was a fun reunion,” says Gabriella.
Gabriella and Dan’s wedding celebration was characterized by happy tears.
“When I walked in, we were both crying,” says Gabriella. “Dan cried when he saw me. I was crying the moment I walked in anyway. So it was just really sweet.”
Dan didn’t know much Italian – despite his best efforts to learn. He’d started calling Gabriella “mi amore” – which, as Gabriella pointed out to him, is “grammatically wrong.” But she found it adorable.
“I had that engraved inside my wedding ring,” she says. “And then I call him ‘sweetie.’ So he has ‘sweetie’ inside his ring.”
While Dan struggled with Italian, he wanted Gabriella to hear wedding vows in her first language.
So he wrote down what he wanted to say, translated the phrases into Italian and memorized them.
“It was just very, very sweet,” says Gabriella.
At the wedding, Gabriella and Dan also shared with their guests some additional happy news – Gabriella was pregnant.
“It was cute for us to announce it at the wedding,” says Gabriella.
A big step
Newly married, Gabriella and Dan started a new chapter together in the US. They were excited to be together, and thrilled about the upcoming birth of their child.
But for Gabriella, moving abroad was tough.
“I know a lot of people dream of moving to the States, but it wasn’t one of my dreams,” she says. “It was pretty tough because Chicago is a super-duper cold place.”
Gabriella was aware, before she moved, that relocating across the world was a big step. She wanted to be with Dan, but she knew she’d miss Italy and her family and friends.
Before making the decision, Gabriella spoke with her mother, who she figured would be able to empathize with her mixed emotions.
Gabriella’s mother was from Brazil, and her father is from Italy. In the mid-1970s, Gabriella’s mother moved across the globe from Brazil to Italy to be with him. The couple met a few years earlier, when Gabriella’s dad was visiting Rio de Janeiro.
“She showed him around Rio and he said he would come back in two years and marry her,” says Gabriella. “Two years later they were in fact married. I of course don’t know all the details, as a kid I thought it was the most romantic story ever.”
Her parents’ love story meant Gabriella grew up thinking “the idea of someone moving away to be with someone” wasn’t “completely implausible.” But it also meant Gabriella knew some of the challenges of leaving one’s own country behind.
Gabriella’s mother cautioned Gabriella to consider the decision carefully.
“She did say that I had to think about it, because it was a big choice to move.”
But Gabriella’s mother also told her daughter to follow her heart. Her dad agreed.
“They both saw that Dan was special and very committed – the love was showing,” says Gabriella. “They liked him right away.”
As Gabriella and Dan established their family in the US – welcoming their first child in 2009 and their second a few years later – they made regular trips back to Italy to visit whenever they could. Gabriella taught her children Italian, and educated them on their Brazilian heritage.
And while adjusting to cold Chicago was tough, Gabriella credits moving to the US with discovering an unexpected new career.
She’d always loved drawing and doodling, but until she lived in the US, she never considered turning that hobby into a job. Living in Italy, she associated art with “Michelangelo.”
“For good or bad, there’s the weight of Italian history and all the art that came before,” says Gabriella.
Calling herself an artist in Italy felt wrong. But in the US, she found a “different mentality.” To Gabriella, American art and design felt “a lot more innovative.”
So when her kids were little, Gabriella went back to school to study children’s book illustration. Now she draws for a living.
Today, Gabriella and Dan live in Seattle with their two teenage kids. They moved to Seattle a couple of years ago, and realized the landscape reminded them a bit of Scotland, the place where they’d first met and fell in love.
“We were both so drawn to it, because there’s a similarity – not only the weather, it’s kind of rainy, gray – but also the ocean, the rocks, the wilderness,” says Gabriella.
While Gabriella and Dan haven’t returned to Scotland together, they would love to. They want to go to Skye and make it to the top of the Old Man of Storr this time round.
In the meantime, they’ve been focusing on exploring new places together.
“We have that in common that we like to travel a lot, explore new things, new places,” says Gabriella.
While a love of adventure unites them, Gabriella and Dan insist they’re quite different in many other ways. He’s a self-described computer programming “nerd.” She’s passionate about art and music. He’s a romantic. She’s more pragmatic.
But there’s “something deeper that we have in common,” as Gabriella puts it.
“Maybe just our perspective on what is important in life,” says Gabriella. “We both think that our family is the first thing – our kids are the first thing – and not work.”
They support each other through the tough times too, such as when Gabriella’s mother passed away in 2022.
Today, after 15 years of marriage, Gabriella likes to say her relationship with Dan is a “vacation fling gone wrong.”
“Because a vacation fling, it’s supposed to end on vacation,” she says, laughing. “How crazy that is that he’s the guy that I met in Scotland on that trip and we’re married and have kids and we’re happy.”
Dan says if you told 22-year-old him, sitting on the Old Man of Storr next to Gabriella, that he’d end up married to this Italian stranger, he’d have absolutely believed you. He never got over that first meeting.
“I immediately felt that connection,” he says, adding that reuniting with Gabriella and building a life with her feels like “winning the lottery.”
“I feel incredibly lucky to have met Gabi back in 2002 and incredibly lucky that we reconnected again years later,” says Dan. “I would not be who I am today without having had her by my side.”
“I also feel like we were incredibly lucky,” says Gabriella. “I look at my kids and think about all the incredible coincidences that had to happen just for them to be here now and it blows my mind.
“I can’t believe how lucky we have been, but also I think that when you know you know. I’m glad I followed my heart.”
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