How we met: ‘We planned to swap books – but we both brought The Old Man and the Sea’

When New Zealander Willy Kosovich came across Sarah Buggle’s profile on the Couchsurfing website in August 2014, he was impressed. “I was working for New Zealand’s state broadcaster and wanted to travel across Europe,” he says. “Sarah seemed like the kind of person I’d want to go for a beer with.” Sarah was living in east London working for a startup company. “I was in a flatshare and we had a spare sofa that people could stay on,” she says.

She had originally used the website a few years before to find accommodation during an unpaid internship in Sweden and wanted to return the favour. “You could sign up for free, complete a profile and then stay on different people’s sofas,” she says. “I became amazing friends with the people I stayed with and wanted to offer that opportunity to someone else.”

Sarah describes Willy’s message as the “nicest” she had ever received. “He seemed really interested in me as a person.” They made plans for him to come and stay, but interventions at the British border meant he was sent home. “I was stopped when I tried to enter the UK as I didn’t have a return ticket,” he says. “I think they thought I was trying to sneak into the UK to work. The border police sent me straight back.”

Despite the mishap, the pair continued to send each other messages every day online. “Some of the messages were pages long,” Sarah says. By December that year, Willy was able to travel to Europe, although the UK was still off limits. “I went to the Christmas markets in Dusseldorf with a friend,” says Sarah. “It turned out that Willy was just across the border, in the Netherlands.” The pair arranged to meet for a few hours. “It was great to see that we were exactly who we expected each other to be. We’d had a few voice calls, but we hadn’t even video-called by that point,” she says.

They continued to talk over Christmas, before arranging a longer trip to Istanbul in January 2015, which would give them the chance to get to know each other better. “Willy was book-swapping at the time and asked me to bring one with me to trade with his,” says Sarah with a laugh. “When I arrived, it turned out we had both brought copies of the same book: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.”

Willy says their relationship “became romantic” on the holiday. “We knew we really liked each other,” he says. Although there was a strong connection, he was reluctant to start a long-term relationship during his travels. They continued to message each other, but made no plans for the future.

Sarah visited Derry in Northern Ireland the following March with a friend. Her holiday coincided with a trip Willy was taking to Ireland to see family who lived there. They met up again and the relationship continued to develop. “We saw each other in Ireland again in June and that summer we started talking about the future,” says Sarah. “By that point, we knew we wanted to be together. We weighed up the pros and cons of living in different cities and eventually chose Berlin.”

She found a job in advertising, while Willy is now a comedian who also works in media. “I lost my job when the pandemic hit,” he says. “We were socialising a lot before, but now our social life has switched to picnics in the park.” The couple have also bought an old van, which they plan to turn into a campervan for their travels. In October 2019, they got married in London, near where Sarah is from originally.

She loves that her husband makes life more fun, and how comfortable they feel together. “He’s so charismatic. I joke that he is like social lubricant. He makes everyone feel welcome and he’s really kind.” Willy calls Sarah his “queen”. “She is the driving force and I am the chillout force,” he laughs. “We balance each other out. She is always generous and thinks about both of us. I would do anything for her.”