By the medieval Old Town of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, I sat in the sun, sipping a beer on a cafe’s terrace. Behind me, a young woman sat at a small, round, white-marble table, the kind you see in European cafes, except this one was inlaid with a brown marble chessboard. She pushed around a few left-behind pieces, and then looked up. She had extraordinary blue eyes like polished gems, long jet-black hair falling in waves. I started silently figuring out how to say in French, “Would you like to play a game of chess?”
View image of Bill and Marie-France met in a café in the medieval Old Town of Neuchâtel, Switzerland (Credit: Credit: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy)
The time was June 1975, and I was hitchhiking around Switzerland and France the summer before grad school in Chicago. I had ended up in Neuchâtel that day by chance; the ride I caught was going there. The youth hostel was somewhere up the hill, but I was hot and thirsty, so I plopped down on the terrace of Café Pam-Pam.
Finally I spoke to her, asking as best I could in French if she’d like to play, pointing at the chessboard. She responded in French, “Pardon?” I tried to carefully repeat my question. She responded in English, “Perhaps we should speak English.”
Maïf, short for Marie-France, was 19 and had lived in Neuchâtel all her life. She was at the cafe, her regular after-school hangout, for a coffee, cigarette and game of pinball. She’d just finished a day of Baccalaureate exams to graduate from high school.
Over the next two days, Maïf showed me her town. We walked along cobblestone streets up to the 12th-Century castle where she’d played as a young girl with her German shepherd, Kathy. We sprawled on the grass by the lake, the white Alps in the distance. We stayed out until dawn at a low-key club where she gave me a coin for the jukebox and asked me to punch in G5 for her favourite song by George Benson. We were joined for a while by a suave older guy she knew. He clearly disliked that she was with me.
View image of Harby: ‘She had extraordinary blue eyes like polished gems, long jet-black hair falling in waves’ (Credit: Philippe Robert)
During those two days together, we never even kissed. I was smitten, but she had a boyfriend in Canada, and would soon be joining him at university to study English. I was too shy to tell her how I felt.
So I left. I stuck out my thumb again and caught rides to… somewhere that I’ve completely forgotten. Then, after a few days, I gave in and went back to Neuchâtel, back to Café Pam-Pam. Before long, here came Maïf on her little black scooter, putt-putting up the hill. After a coffee, she took me to her house around the corner, where her grandmother made us an omelette for lunch. I’d never had an omelette for lunch. We ate in the kitchen at a table that’s still there.
I stayed one more night in Neuchâtel. I still had more exploring to do before flying back to the US, and it was too painful to stay longer. We said goodbye in front of her house, and there we finally kissed, but just on each cheek as Europeans do with friends. As I turned and walked away, Maïf let out a low groaning sound. Any idiot would have turned around and gone back to her forever.
View image of After spending a few days away, Harby returned to Neuchâtel to see Maïf again (Credit: Agata Panas/Alamy)
By September, I was living in Chicago, going to grad school, and Maïf was in Ontario at university. We wrote each other once. Her boyfriend had gotten otherwise involved. I called her and she said maybe she could come to Chicago soon. But when I called again a couple of weeks later, she told me she’d met someone. We lost contact. For 32 years.
After grad school, I bounced around New Zealand and Australia for a year and a half, and then moved back to Hawaii where my family had lived for three years in the ’60s.
Sometimes I would think of Maïf.
View image of After 32 years, Bill and Maïf found each other again on LinkedIn (Credit: Bill Harby)
Enter the Internet and the first of a few small miracles. We found each other again only because, at about the same time, she in Geneva and I in Hawaii had both given in to persistent colleagues and reluctantly signed up for LinkedIn. When I googled her in 2007, only her LinkedIn address showed up. I sent her a message through my LinkedIn account and voilà, there we were, suddenly in touch again.
Maïf wrote me that several weeks earlier, she’d had a dream: A mysterious hooded woman was walking down a road away from her. Maïf asked where she was going. “I’m going back to Akron,” said the woman. Maïf asked, “What’s in Akron?” The woman didn’t answer.
In real life, I’d been living in Akron, Ohio, when Maïf and I met in 1975.
We learned that we were both long since divorced; that we both loved Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Vic Chesnutt; that we must see each other again
We began emailing daily, and soon Skyping. We learned that we were both long since divorced; that she had three grown children – I none; that she was in the end-stage of an eight-year relationship; that we both loved Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Vic Chesnutt; that we both liked to be teased; that we must see each other again.
She came to Hawaii for a couple of weeks. The next year I went to Geneva for three months, living with Maïf and her grown son Daniel. By then, she and I were astonished to find that not only had we found each other again after 32 years, but that we still really liked each other, liked who we had become and liked falling in love now. We agreed we’d probably have screwed it up if we’d got together when we were young. But we worried whether we might be partly falling in love with our story, and that we might be swept away by it, only to end in grey regret.
Eventually we forced ourselves to confront the truth.
We’ve been married for seven years. About six years ago, at our cottage in farmland above Neuchâtel, we received a parcel in the mail from some dear old friends of mine in Ohio. Inside was a postcard framed in glass so you could see both sides – a touristy photo of Montreux on the front and my note to them on the back.
View image of Harby had written about Maïf in a postcard he sent to his friends years earlier (Credit: Credit: Bill Harby)
I’d sent the card to Larry and Sandy after Neuchâtel, so maybe Montreux was where I had gone right after leaving Maïf. Thirty-four years later, Sandy had spied the card when she’d been throwing out old papers. She saw my scribbled note about my travels so far. It included this:
If I hadn’t left when I did, there would have been very difficult problems of love to solve
… Marie-France, a 19 yr. old beauty with whom I spent three easy wonderful days in Neuchâtel – she’s lived in that town all her life, speaks very good English – and if I hadn’t left when I did, there would have been very difficult problems of love to solve. I know I could have fallen in love with her for a long, long time.
Of course, Maïf and I have been back to Café Pam-Pam. The first time, we saw a marble table inlaid with a chessboard. The owner said it’s the only one that’s been there. The table now sits on our terrace outside Neuchâtel, as do we, in utter amazement.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called «If You Only Read 6 Things This Week». A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.