He was a high school teacher from Boston. She was an Italian insurance worker. They met by chance, some 30,000 feet in the sky.
Flash back to summer 2015. Sean Kavanagh, then 29, was travelling to the Middle East to teach for the summer, stopping off in Portugal’s Azores archipelago to see the bull-running festivities.
Kavanagh fell in love with these stunning Portuguese islands and their incredible culture and cuisine, not to mention the steep gorges, craggy cliffs and crystal-clear seas that characterise the landscapes.
Meanwhile, 27-year-old Anna Gorga was taking a break from the city grind to go horse-riding on this Portuguese archipelago.
“I was running from bulls and she’s riding horses,” Kavanagh tells CNN Travel. “We didn’t run into each other, but we’re on the same flight to Lisbon afterwards.”
In fact, Gorga was supposed to be on an earlier, cancelled plane.
Boarding her later flight, Gorga couldn’t have known that this mundane moment of travel plans gone awry would spark an airplane-borne, continent-spanning romance.
“When I think back on how we met, it seems impossible,” she says.
“It was pure coincidence, just a fortunate meeting,” says Kavanagh.
Gorga was already seated by the window when Kavanagh boarded the plane. They didn’t speak; they barely even noticed one another because of another passenger seated in between them.
“But after takeoff, the woman next to me asked if we’d switch, because she really wanted to look out the window,” says Kavanagh.
He agreed and found himself sat next to Gorga.
He was struck by her infectious smile. She immediately noticed his charisma and charm.
“I just remember immediately, obviously, thinking he was very cute and very sweet,” she says.
The two strangers started to chat. They surprised themselves by settling into an easy repartee. It started with their mutual love of the Azores and moved into more intimate territory: jobs, families, ambitions, desires.
When the flight landed in Lisbon, the conversation continued over airport coffee: It was apparent neither party wanted it to end.
But they had to say goodbye — Bostonian Kavanagh was boarding a connecting flight to Israel to continue his travels. Italian-born Gorga was heading to Zurich, Switzerland, where she was living at the time.
They departed as friends — but Gorga, who says she’s an adamant realist, thought she’d never see this man again. They lived on different continents, after all.
“I thought: ‘Yeah, he’s really nice, but I’m much more down to earth, so this is not going to go anywhere.'”
Plus, there were other complications.
She wasn’t looking to fall in love, she says. She was actually dating someone else at the time.
Still, the travellers left the possibility of continuing the connection hanging in the air.
“I almost jokingly said: ‘Yeah, if you pass by Zurich, just let me know, we can have a coffee,’ recalls Gorga. “And then he actually took it quite seriously.”
Before the summer was out, Kavanagh had landed in Zurich and knocked on Gorga’s door.
After a whirlwind weekend in Switzerland, it was clear the couple weren’t just acquaintances who’d met on an airplane. There was something tangible between them. They had to see one another again.
They arranged a long weekend together, wandering through orange groves in Valencia, Spain.
But as their summer drew to a close, they questioned whether it was just a summer romance? What about when fall came, and Kavanagh was back in the US?
They grappled with wanting to carry on seeing one another, and knowing how difficult it would be.
“You never know how willing someone is and how flexible they are to move around,” says Gorga.
Still, the fact they’d met on an airplane indicated they both were enthusiastic about travelling — and had the means to make it happen.
At first, their loved ones weren’t convinced the connection would last.
“Of course, all your friends and family are rooting for you,” says Kavanagh.
“But I think they were kind of doubtful.”
Gorga kept the budding relationship on the down low, not telling her family until she was certain it was going somewhere. She confided in friends, though, who couldn’t believe Gorga had met a potential boyfriend on an airplane.
“They were joking that usually they sit next to really boring or annoying people,” she laughs.
Fate or good planning?
Cut to September and fate stepped in again — Gorga’s employer offered her a job working in Miami, Florida, for a couple of months.
“I said yes immediately,” says Gorga — not only was it an exciting work opportunity, it meant she and Kavanagh would be in the same country, in the same time zone.
“We could basically see each other almost every weekend when I was there,” she says.
There were weekend adventures in DC and travels across Mexico, a first Christmas together and introductions to friends and family. The couple began to cautiously, carefully, eagerly imagine a future together — the only question was, how could they get there?
When Gorga’s rotation in Miami concluded and she was back in Zurich, the uncertainty returned.
“I wouldn’t, at that point, have left all my things just to be with him,” she says. “I’m still very pragmatic.”
Kavanagh was also conscious the future was an unknown: “We’d kind of reached this impasse,” he recalls.
For six months, the couple’s future lay in the balance; that is, until Gorga had another work opportunity in the US. She was offered a job with her company’s outpost in Boston.
A whole year since they’d first sat next to one another on the plane, the transatlantic couple were finally in the same city, the same country.
The couple say the transition from long-distance to living together was actually fairly straightforward.
In fact, it just solidified what they already felt: They’d found the one.
“Things were so nice and we just got along in a way that I’d never experienced,” says Kavanagh. “So at that point, we kind of just knew.”
So is it really possible to translate a holiday romance into “real life?”
The duo admit it hasn’t always been easy — sometimes even they’re surprised by the outcome.
“You meet each other on holiday and you wonder how’s it going to be when it’s real life,” says Gorga.
“It was not easy, to be honest,” she admits.
“Sometimes I wonder, why did I want to complicate my life so much?”
She puts their relationship’s success down not only to their love and compatibility, but a mutual enthusiasm and determination to make it work against the odds.
Certainly, there’s also a degree of privilege at play. Getting a job and visa to live in the US isn’t exactly easy — and it’s certainly not guaranteed.
And how likely is it to meet someone on an airplane anyway?
Well, an August 2018 study by HSBC made the bold claim that you’ve a 1 in 50 chance of meeting a future partner on a plane.
Kavanagh and Gorga tied the knot in spring 2018 in a small civil ceremony in the US. But in July 2019, they returned to the Azores for a big, “official” wedding celebration, with all their friends and family in tow.
The region has an irrevocable hold over their hearts; not only is it where they first met — or at least, below where they first met — it’s also got symbolic significance.
“It’s between America and Europe. So it’s really also where the two continents meet, because it’s a volcanic-origin archipelago,” says Gorga.
“That’s where we met and we love that place. It’s really very symbolic for us, it’s very meaningful.”