30 Years from Gothenburg: An Unlikely Love Story
The typewritten itinerary for that one week in the summer of 1977 read simply: “We live in private homes, taking part in family life.”
The homestay was in the middle of a five-week Putney program in Scandinavia and Russia (then the USSR, as Putney pioneered the way in sending American students there). Janet and her group had just completed a five-day bicycle trip in Denmark “along the broad beaches and through the fishing villages and towns of North Jutland, staying at night in youth hostels” (again, as the itinerary succinctly describes).
“I don’t remember how we chose the Russia program specifically,” Janet says. “But I do remember my dad, who knew George [Putney’s founder] from their days at Antioch, said ‘George Shumlin has this program, anything he does will be fantastic.’”
She was paired with a Swedish family in Kungsbacka, Sweden, a half hour south of Gothenburg. Her host sister was named Maya, and for a week Janet became part of the family, exploring the town with Maya, her younger brother David, and Janet’s host mother as guide.
Maya’s older brother, Len, was busy working that summer, landscaping and caretaking the grass and gardens of a local cemetery, and doing judo (for which he placed nationally), so he didn’t join the daily excursions but was of course around home in the evenings.
“We were used to blue eyes and blond hair,” Len says now, “so when Janet came, she had just finished cycling in Denmark and got sun, and she was this tan, dark-haired, brown-eyed girl.”
“I had a teenage crush,” Janet readily admits, and laughs.
“Of course,” Len clarifies, “she was a guest of the house so it would not have been appropriate to flirt. I was too shy, anyway.”
Needless to say, nothing happened—no sidelong glances, no declarations of love, no stolen kisses in the Swedish moonlight (we’re preparing for the screenplay here, can you tell where this is going?).
Following the homestay, Janet rejoined her group and they continued on to Stockholm, then Moscow, Yalta, Leningrad, and Helsinki, before flying home to New York.
Eight years later, walking in Chelsea in 1985, having graduated from the University of Washington and moved to New York, Len heard his name.
“I recognized him instantly,” Janet recalls. “He passed right by me. So we chatted and agreed to get dinner. We had dinner in the village and exchanged numbers afterward, but—”
“And I forgot to call,” Len interrupts and makes a guilty face.
Several more years later, in 1989, Janet was starting the second year of her MBA at Columbia Business School, after a few years at Nielsen. Before the semester started she went to the computer lab (remember computer labs?) and there, again, was Len.
“Len,” she said, “WHAT are you doing here?”
“I go to school here,” he said innocently. He was just preparing to start his first year of his MBA. By that point, both Janet and Len were married (to other people), but would run into each other in the halls, as they were both specializing in marketing. The December before Janet graduated, Len and his wife hosted a large Christmas party at his student apartment on Riverside Drive, and Janet and her husband joined.
After earning her MBA, Janet moved to Connecticut for work. Len, still in the program, was taking a course on direct mail and the class took a field trip—to Janet’s company. They met in the lobby “and I was literally eight months pregnant,” Janet says, miming with her arms how large she was. They agreed they should get together and catch up. Len started work at Colgate on Park Avenue…and never called.
“I’m a bad person,” he laughs.
They reconnected online following the launch of LinkedIn in the early 2000s and exchanged a few emails. Len’s work had now taken him to Florida, and both Janet and he each had two boys of their own.
Several years later, in 2011, Len messaged Janet to say he was going to be in Westchester for a weekend visiting Addie, his friend from his cohort in the MBA program. Addie suggested Len invite Janet to a barbecue at her house that Saturday. Len messaged Janet to say come, bring your family.
“I was like, right, my family,” Janet recalls. She was recently divorced and her elder son was away at school, so it would just be her and her 15-year-old son. “I was picturing a big shindig in the backyard, with dozens of people. My son said ‘will there be internet there?’ and I said ‘it’s a party, you don’t need internet’ and he said ‘well I’m not going.’ I said, ‘Fine, don’t go.’” She laughs. “So I show up by myself and the door opens and it’s just Addie and her husband, another couple, and Len and me. I’m like, this is weird…”
They started talking and catching up and—did you see this coming?—it turned out Len had gotten divorced in the same year as Janet, and neither had known about the other.
“So we swapped our fabulous stories,” Janet says, “and talked for five hours.”
This time, too, 30 years after the homestay, nothing happened—no declaration of love, no stolen kisses in the Westchester moonlight.
Janet called Len the next day to say thanks for a nice evening, that it was nice to catch up. Then Janet got to thinking, and called her mother. “I remember asking her ‘did I miss something?’” And without hesitation, her mother, with all her motherly wisdom, said, “Five hours? Yes, Janet, yes you missed something.”
When Len’s flight landed back in Fort Lauderdale, he had a new message on his phone. They texted and emailed for a few days, and then began talking on the phone daily.
For five years they spoke daily and took turns flying back and forth from New York to Florida, until finally in 2016 Janet moved south and they got married. “I had been saying for years how I didn’t want to be married again, but I finally gave in,” she says, and then summarizes: “So, fireworks.”
Janet and Len both feel strongly that the world ultimately put them together at the right time: “We had to learn and make mistakes along the way so we were ready for each other,” Len says thoughtfully.
“So,” Janet concludes, “I’m grateful to Putney not only for a wonderful trip that summer, but also for introducing us to one another. It took over 30 years, but we ended up happily together.”
It’s often difficult, if not entirely impossible, to predict or appreciate the impact an experience or a person will have on us.
The experience, you’ll recall, was summarized on a single line of a one-page itinerary for a trip titled, quite unpoetically, “Plan IV.” Wonder and serendipity, connection and potential—the world is ready to surprise us and inspire us if we take leaps and open ourselves to it.