Francesca Street, CNN
Updated: Fri, 26 Nov 2021 10:20:59 GMT
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in November 2021 and was updated for Thanksgiving 2022.
It was November 1997 and Dina Honour was hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. The then 27-year-old invited a group of New York City friends who, like her, had decided to stay in the city over the holidays.
It had been a tough year for Dina. She'd been suffering from depression after a bad relationship.
"I had slowly found my way back to a sense of normal, and was not looking for love," Dina tells CNN Travel today.
Instead, Dina was focusing on hosting her friends for the holiday. She'd set up a dining table in the two-bed apartment she shared with a roommate in Brooklyn. Her sister had traveled over from Boston. She'd busied herself all morning mashing potato and roasting turkey.
She'd asked each guest to bring along something to contribute to the spread. Soon her friends started to trickle in, bearing holiday tidings, holding cornbread, pies and cranberry sauce.
Then Dina opened the door to one friend, only to realize he had two mystery guests in tow.
It wasn't the kind of gathering where surprise plus-ones were welcome.
"I was not happy," recalls Dina. "But then I got a look at him. And I said 'Okay.'"
"Him" was Richard Steggall, a 25-year-old Brit on vacation in New York for the first time. He'd traveled to the US with a good friend who had a brother living in NYC. This brother was a friend of Dina's and had been invited to her party.
"I didn't know what Thanksgiving was at the time, to be honest, I had no idea," says Richard today. "Growing up in the UK, I was vaguely aware, but I had no idea of the significance of the holiday whatsoever."
Richard and his friends had spent their vacation soaking up New York, going out clubbing in the evenings and exploring the sights in the daytime.
The morning of November 27, they'd woken up late, having been out the night before. They were looking for somewhere to get a bite to eat.
The American in their group explained it was a national holiday, and most restaurants would be closed.
"But I know of a party going on where they might have some food," he'd said.
"That's how he pitched it to us," recalls Richard. "We had no idea it was going be a semi-formal Thanksgiving dinner, much like Christmas would be in the UK."
Richard had his first inkling that turning up uninvited was a bit of a faux pas when he saw Dina's expression when she opened her apartment door.
But he was also instantly captivated.
"From the start, I was entranced by Dina," he says today.
The feeling was mutual. Dina's frustration at the unexpected guests was quickly tempered by her instant attraction to Richard.
"I thought he was very, very handsome," she says. "You can't make it up, right? The tall dark stranger who comes to your door on Thanksgiving."
She led the interlopers into the apartment. Richard and his fellow Brit, feeling awkward, tried to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible.
"The other uninvited guest and myself sort of hid in the corner for a little bit, just trying to keep a low profile," says Richard.
From his spot in the corner, Richard watched Dina circulating the room.
"I thought she was beautiful. To me, coming from London, she was this New York woman," he says. "She was strong, confident, sort of loud, but funny -- just exuding life. And I was just smitten from the start."
Richard asked a few of the guests about Dina, but he didn't speak to her directly -- he didn't want to disturb the hostess he'd already offended by turning up in the first place.
Bonding over pumpkin pie
As dessert rolled around, Dina approached Richard with a slice of pumpkin pie and whipped cream -- a quintessential Thanksgiving dessert that's far from common in the UK.
Richard had never tried it before, and readily accepted.
The two started talking. Dina, who loves literature, dropped a reference to Shakespeare's Ophelia into the conversation. Richard picked up on it -- he knew "Hamlet," he said.
"It was like a little light came on," says Dina. "Not many guys you meet at a party -- in between beer and pumpkin pie -- are going to be happy to have a conversation about 'Hamlet.'"
The two spent the rest of the night talking, striking up a quick bond.
"I think we had so much in common in our outlook on life, and the things that were important to us as people and human beings, and the way that we view the world, and the things that we wanted from life," says Richard.
After they'd finished up dinner, the group went out to a bar. There, Dina and Richard were so focused on one another that Dina recalls her sister, who'd traveled all the way from Boston for the gathering, being a bit annoyed.
"We sat at the bar on bar stools facing one another, and kind of ignored everybody else," she says. "We spent all night talking, all day the next day."
Friday afternoon Richard was due to fly back to London.
Dina accompanied him to the subway station and they said goodbye on the platform.
As the doors closed on the train, Dina recalls feeling a sense of certainty.
"It was really something intuitive and instinctive," she says now.
Back at her apartment, Dina confided in her sister:
"That's the man I'm going to marry."
Falling in love over the phone
When he'd traveled to New York, Richard had been seeing someone back in London. The first thing he did when he landed back in the UK was call that off.
"I didn't quite know what was going to happen," he says, "But I felt it was the right thing to do."
The next day, Dina called him from New York.
And so began a month of daily, long-distance phone conversations, and the occasional letter sent across the Atlantic.
"We had a sort of old-fashioned courtship over the phone," says Dina.
She was working as a substitute teacher at the time, and would phone Richard from the school break room.
Richard was working as a flower and Christmas tree seller in Chelsea, London, occasionally DJing in the evening. He'd speak to Dina when he got back from a long work-day, or before heading out to a club.
It was mid-December when Richard suggested it.
"Listen," he said. "Why don't you come over to London for Christmas?"
"I don't know. It's a lot. It's Christmas. I didn't spend Thanksgiving with my family. I should spend Christmas with them," Dina recalls thinking.
She was also hesitant to put her heart on her line. She'd had that difficult break up earlier in the year and had just got herself back to a place of contentment.
But ringing around her head was the thought that she should seize this moment.
"I don't want to regret not doing this," she remembers thinking. "If this is the chance, I don't want to miss out on it."
One cold December day, she went to a travel agent and walked out holding a plane ticket to London in her hands.
"It was a commitment, a tangible thing," she says. "I think I was willing to take a chance, hoping that it went well, but also knowing that if it didn't, it wasn't going to be the end of my world."
Dina says that feeling that she'd be okay whatever happened came from the sense of self that she'd worked hard to cultivate after her tough year. She was confident in the connection with Richard, but also confident in herself.
Her friends and family were "cautiously optimistic" she says. They supported her decision, and hoped her faith in Richard would prove well founded.
A Christmas reunion
Dina flew from New York to London on Christmas Day. At Heathrow Airport arrivals, Richard was waiting for her. It was 9 p.m. at night, and he was holding a bouquet of his Chelsea flowers.
Richard had told his friends and family that he'd met someone while on vacation in New York. But he hadn't had much time to share many details about this burgeoning connection.
"It all happened so quickly between November and December -- and with working selling flowers and selling Christmas trees, the whole of the end of November, and the whole of December, it's full-on, it's sort of 20-hour days."
In the UK, December 26 is known as Boxing Day and is also a national holiday. On Boxing Day morning, Richard and Dina traveled together to his parents' house.
"It's a tradition in our family to have a sort of a Champagne brunch with smoked salmon, and so all of the family's sitting around the table having a drink of Champagne and in comes Dina and I," recalls Richard.
He introduced Dina to his family, then excused himself momentarily. When he returned, Dina was "holding court," drinking and chatting with his family.
"I left her in the room with my mum and dad and my uncle and aunt and my sister and they got on famously," says Richard.
"They were all incredibly nice," says Dina.
"My parents were so happy that I had met someone, and it was clearly love from the start -- and I think they will tell you that they could completely see a change in me, and see how happy I was," says Richard.
Later that day, Richard surprised Dina with a plane ticket. The two were going to fly to the island of Majorca in Spain with some of Richard's friends for New Year's Eve.
It was a great trip, says Dina, even if she had to negotiate a bit of curious grilling from her new boyfriend's friends.
When the festive period was over, she had to return to the US. But Richard booked a spontaneous New York weekend towards the end of January 1998, while Dina flew to London for Valentine's Day.
For that holiday, the couple hired a sports car and stayed in a swanky hotel in Richmond, west London.
"This was all out of our comfort zone at the time, but we tried to sort of recreate this romantic weekend," says Richard.
He'd bought a suit and pair of smart shoes for the first time, and recalls nearly falling down the stairs at the hotel because the shoes weren't worn in properly.
Moving to New York
Then in spring 1998, Richard packed up his job at the flower market and traveled to New York for three months, intending to spend the summer with Dina.
It wasn't supposed to be permanent, but looking back, he reckons his friends and family knew better.
"The goodbyes that we had, and some of the parties that were thrown, had a more air of finality about it than it's just a three-month thing -- it was really a sending off for a new life."
Still, Richard arrived with only a green duffel bag of clothes. He moved into Dina's apartment, the same one he'd turned up at, uninvited, the previous Thanksgiving.
They spent the hot days of summer together, exploring the city, wandering around Central Park and the East Village, cementing their certainty that they wanted to be together long term.
While they felt marriage could be in their future, the couple say they didn't want to get married at that point, even if it could have been a way to ensure Richard could stay in the US.
"I think we were both really clear that, 'Yes, we want you to say, and we'll figure out a way to do that, and yes, maybe down the road, there will be marriage.' But those two things were very separate, I think for both of us," says Dina.
So Richard started looking for jobs that came with a visa, and ended up with a role at the United Nations.
"When you tell the story to people, and they can't quite believe that it's true -- they think you're some spy working for the UN or something," jokes Richard.
It was an amazing opportunity career-wise. Richard and Dina started to settle down together properly in New York.
A New Year's Eve proposal
The couple's story had started on Thanksgiving and continued at Christmas. And on New Year's Eve 1999, the two began a new chapter together when Richard proposed at the advent of the new millennium.
The couple recall watching the fireworks explode over Sydney Harbour on CNN that morning. Dina was marveling at the display, but Richard was quiet with nerves.
"I was sitting there, really nervous and grumpy. And Dina's like, 'What's the matter with you, it's New Year's Eve, and it's the millennium?'" says Richard, laughing.
That evening, they headed to a friend's party in a high-rise apartment looking out over the city. By this point, Richard's nerves were even worse.
"I was struggling to hold it together a little bit, I had started telling people," he says. "I shared it with a couple of people, who were so excited."
More friends found out when Richard failed to open a bottle of Champagne because his hands were shaking so much.
He handed it to someone else and pushed through the crowd to find Dina. As the clock struck midnight, he asked her to marry him.
"I believe I accidentally kicked him in the shin in excitement," she says.
The couple were married in April 2001 in New York, at a venue called the Manhattan Penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Their British friends and family stayed in the glamorous hotels surrounding Union Square.
"We wanted to give our friends and family who were coming in -- especially from London, but also from where I grew up, near Boston -- a real New York experience, so we chose a place on the top floor, windows on all sides," says Dina.
Guests admired views of the Empire State Building as they toasted the couple's future.
Afterwards, Dina and Richard hired limos to send guests on their way. Some went to bars on Union Square, or enjoyed nightcaps at their hotels.
"There are all sorts of stories of where people ended up," says Richard. "My father was last seen in a limousine -- I'm not sure if this is real, but it's become real -- standing up out of the sunroof, pointing up town, as the limo went up Broadway. I think it's probably an urban myth, but it's become part of our family legend."
A new chapter in Europe
Following an "amazing" honeymoon in Australia, Richard and Dina continued to enjoy life in New York, later welcoming two sons.
And in 2008, their life took a new turn when the family moved to Nicosia, Cyprus, for Steggall's UN work.
When the opportunity arose to relocate, the couple were starting to feel they'd outgrown their New York apartment. Richard, who'd always had a bit of wanderlust, was itching for a new adventure.
Still, the decision to up sticks to Cyprus wasn't an easy one. Their youngest son was only six months old at the time. Plus, Dina says she's the more risk-averse of the two, and she wasn't sure at first. But after a long conversation, the couple decided to go for it.
"We decided that the pros outweighed the cons," says Dina.
In Nicosia, the couple struggled with a bit of culture shock at first, but eventually made good friends, embracing the Mediterranean lifestyle, pleased their kids were growing up among beautiful scenery and sunshine.
"I think it changed our mindset a lot about what kind of life we could have," says Richard.
So much so, that instead of returning to New York City as they'd always assumed they would, the family later relocated to Copenhagen.
Fast forward to 2022 and Dina and Richard are now based in Berlin. Their kids are 18 and 14, and might be New Yorkers by birth, but they've been brought up across Europe, and love to travel.
Richard still works for the UN, while Dina is an author and editor. She published a book "There's Some Place Like Home: Lessons From a Decade Abroad" in 2018.
It's over 10 years since Richard and Dina last lived in the US, but Thanksgiving remains an important date for the couple -- the holiday brought them together, after all.
"The kids know the story, it's become part of our family lore," says Dina.
"It's always a date in the calendar where we start to reflect on our lives and what's happened and everything, the whole story from start to finish," says Richard.
Richard adds that during his first few years of living in the US, Thanksgiving quickly became his favorite American holiday.
"It was magical because you would go and you would have this fantastic meal, you'd spend time with family and then the next day you would just sit in your sweatpants watching TV, everybody just together relaxing," he recalls.
When Richard and Dina first moved to Cyprus, they tried to recreate traditional US Thanksgiving traditions. But as they've settled into life in Europe, they've started celebrating the holiday in different ways.
Last year, in Copenhagen, they went out for dinner as a family and reflected on what they're grateful for.
And something Richard and Dina will be forever grateful for is their chance meeting, connection and years of conversations.
"We still spend hours and hours and hours talking," says Dina.
"Dina offering me that pumpkin pie was the start of that conversation, which has now been going on for 25 years," says Richard.