American student Nicole Erickson was about to embark on an epic round the world trip. Ahead of her lay two years of adventure that could change her life forever.
But fate had different ideas. The life-changing event happened before she’d even departed: she encountered a total stranger on a ship, and something unexpectedly clicked.
It was the summer of 1999 and 24-year-old Erickson, having just finished a two-year Fulbright scholarship in Germany, was in no hurry to head home.
“I wanted to travel around the world,” she tells CNN Travel today. “So, I took all my savings and packed the backpack and bought a ticket.”
While planning her journey and counting down the days to departure, she took the opportunity for a smaller trip – a week’s sailing vacation organized by the Fulbright Alumni Association on board a tall ship in the Baltic Sea.
Which is how, in September that year, she found herself boarding the wooden schooner Albatros in the Baltic port of Kiel, the only American among a group of around 25 mostly German former Fulbright scholars.
Among the group was Jürgen Guldner, a 29-year-old engineer who’d spent his Fulbright year at the University of California at Berkeley.
“In California I sailed a lot there, on all sort of ships,” recalls Guldner. “So, I thought that was a very interesting nice little adventure to go on a sailing trip on the Baltic Sea.”
Guldner knew a few friends from his time in the United States who were also on board. In fact, a lot of the travelers knew one another.
Realizing she was the odd one out, Erickson immediately introduced herself to everyone, including Guldner. She shook his hand and grinned at him.
“I liked her smile,” Guldner recalls now. He was also impressed, and intrigued by, Nicole’s extroverted, friendly nature – introducing herself to everyone right away seemed very American.
The ship weighed anchor and left the orange roofs of Kiel behind. The travelers got the rundown of the ship, and a reminder from the handful of crew present that they’d all be embracing the spirit of the adventure and helping with the ship’s upkeep.
For now though, the group could relax and gain their sea legs. There was luminous sunshine that first day and Guldner set himself up on deck.
He had just begun reading the book he’d brought with him – “Sophie’s World” by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder – when Erickson, wandering the deck, stopped to chat to him. Coincidentally, she’d brought the same novel for the trip.
It was the perfect ice breaker and they soon moved away from talking about books to his time in the United States and hers in Germany – and what they were doing next. Erickson spoke excitedly about her round-the-world trip.
It wasn’t love at first sight, says Erickson. But something clicked for them both, and they realized how well they got on.
“Neither of us ever finished the book,” says Guldner, laughing.
Life on board
Life on board the Albatros was sociable and relaxing, although somewhat at the mercy of the elements. Each traveler took turns to do a night watch, and the group shared the cooking and cleaning.
Evenings were spent drinking beer and hanging out on deck, the sunshine taking the edge off the cool Baltic air.
The ship made a couple of stops, with travelers disembarking to take hikes and explore the Danish coast. A few, including Erickson and Guldner, dived off the boat and enjoyed a bracing dip in the sea.
“I had to do it just so I could say I swam in the Baltic Sea, that was my only intention, but it was freezing,” recalls Erickson.
Erickson and Guldner were soon spending most of their time together; they’d bonded quickly, especially after the German came to her aid during a bout of seasickness.
“He actually took my night shift one night, that was one of the most romantic things I think he did for me on the boat,” she recalls.
“He didn’t wake me up. He was supposed to wake me up to take it over. But he took my whole shift.”
The kind gesture stuck with her.
“It was one of the things that I remembered as him being a really sweet man,” she says.
As the boat made its final port of call in the Danish city of Aarhus, the overwhelming feeling – for Erickson especially – was bittersweet.
She really liked Guldner, and it was obvious the feeling was mutual. It wasn’t just a casual connection. But she was about to start a two-year-long world trip. The timing was not great.
“It was more than just a little enjoyable. It was something that was there,” adds Erickson. “But I wanted to finish my world trip, and not really deal with it or think about it.”
A bus took the sailors from Aarhus back to Kiel. From there, Erickson and Guldner departed together. She had to get to Frankfurt to begin the first leg of her journey, while Guldner was going home to Munich. Guldner took a couple extra days off work, and they spent some time together in Frankfurt.
On the day of her departure, Guldner drove Erickson to the airport where they said their goodbyes. Email was in its infancy, but she promised to keep in touch.
During the first leg of her travels, exploring Egypt and Kenya, Erickson would hunt out an Internet café every week or so.
“I’d write a big letter for everybody,” she recalls.
“And a small one for me,” jokes Guldner.
Even while she was touring new places, seeing incredible sights for the first time, Erickson often thought of the man she’d met on the ship.
In December, a few months into her adventure, Erickson’s itinerary returned her briefly to Frankfurt en route to India for Christmas, allowing her a fleeting reunion with Guldner.
He took the opportunity to show Erickson around his home city of Munich. The two visited Nymphenburg Palace, the snow shrouding the baroque building. They recall exploring the grounds and playing around in the snow.
But before long, Erickson had departed again, and the two were back to once a week emails and daydreams.
“I used to anxiously check my emails in the morning before going to work to see whether she had written,” says Guldner. “And I was quite disappointed if she hadn’t had a chance to write.”
But more often that not, she had, and Guldner would eagerly read her dispatches.
“She always wrote long exciting reports about her adventures and let me participate through her stories,” he says. “That was fascinating, and I wished I could join her, but I had to work. I just had started my job and career.”
Still, somewhere along the way, the two managed to meet up in Australia. Guldner had been invited to a wedding in Taiwan, and he figured flying from there to Australia for an extended vacation was doable.
For Erickson, the Australia visit was already significant – she’d spent part of her childhood and teenage years there and was excited to return.
“It was, for me, the place that meant the most,” she says.
Guldner and Erickson spent three weeks exploring the country. There were both highlights and lowlights, they say, recalling a failed trip to Uluru which ended up with them staying the night in a deserted B&B.
They also enjoyed spectacular hikes in the Grampians National Park, and nights spent camping under the stars. They went rock climbing and mountain biking, and enjoyed getting to know one another better.
“We didn’t talk about our status,” says Erickson. “We never spoke to each other about what it was.”
They purposefully didn’t ask each other questions about what they got up to when they were apart.
But Erickson recalls visiting her cousin in Thailand as part of the world trip, and telling her all about Guldner.
“He was always on my mind,” she says.
During her travels, she would listen to cassettes on her Walkman and think about him.
“We actually had a song together,” explains Guldner – the John Denver hit, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
At that time, the lyrics seemed to characterize their relationship. They’d also managed to reunite in New Zealand during this two-year period, but Guldner, as ever, had to return to Germany.
“It always felt like what that was all we were doing, he and I were going to airports, waving at each other,” says Erickson.
Occasionally, Guldner recalls, the two would happen to be online at the same time – Erickson in an Internet café, and he at home in Germany – and they’d exchange messages with an immediacy more familiar to us today.
“That was very exciting, almost felt like talking to each other,” he says now. “A really big deal.”
When Erickson’s round-the-world trip came to an end in 2001, she decided to tack on an extra six months in New Zealand, finding work giving safety briefings to sky divers.
She loved it, but knew it wasn’t her permanent plan.
Now 25, Erickson tried to figure out what she wanted to do next.
She’d never felt like she fit in in the United States. Instead, she found herself thinking about Europe, and Germany in particular.
The country had been important to her even before she met Guldner. She was fluent in the language after her two years living there as a student.
She phoned Guldner and explained the situation. She had a friend in Frankfurt she could move in with. Or she could come and live with him.
“I took her in,” says Guldner.
And so Erickson moved into the compact one-bedroom Munich apartment where Guldner had lived for the past four years.
They were both excited for this new step, but it was also a big change from their “leaving on a jet plane” years.
“The German engineer who’s lived alone for quite a while in a very neat apartment, and a backpacker who is used to being spontaneous and dirty – that didn’t always go well at the beginning,” says Erickson.
It was a period of adjustment for them both. They often had disagreements, and sometimes full-blown arguments.
“I knew I had an out, and I didn’t need to stay for any reason. I didn’t feel any obligation, nor did he,” says Erickson.
“But every time it came to, ‘We’re fighting and I need to leave.’ Neither of us could do it.”
Their differing personalities led to clashes, but they never considered giving up.
“There’s something that always kept us together,” says Erickson. “It must have been whatever was there right at the beginning to keep us together.”
One day in September 2002, about a year and a half since Erickson had moved to Germany, Guldner turned to her and pointed out they hadn’t fought for a really long time.
“Maybe we should get married,” he said.
The wedding – attended by friends and family from Germany, the United States and across the world – took place a year later, in August 2003, at Schloss Hohenstein, a fairy-tale castle near Coburg in central Germany.
“We spent at least half a year going to castles every weekend to find the perfect one,” recalls Guldner.
“I thought if I’m going to get married in Germany, then I want to get married in a castle,” says Erickson.
In the lead up to the wedding, they also designed and created each other’s rings at a workshop.
Printed on both are the words: “Two lives, one journey.”
“He said his vows in German, and I said them in English, but they were the exact same thing basically repeated to each other so that people could understand,” says Erickson.
“We had a lady officiate it who could speak both languages fluently, and so she repeated everything in both languages so that everyone could participate.”
The wedding was also memorable because Guldner’s family, who he describes as quite “proper” met Erickson’s for the first time.
“I come from the total opposite,” she laughs. “We used to toss bread rolls across the table, and we talk all [over] one another.”
Despite their differences, the two families were delighted for Erickson and Guldner, and when the couple’s daughter was born a year later, the two sets of grandparents spent Christmas together with the new family.
Erickson and Guldner considered naming their daughter Sophie, after “Sophie’s World,” the book that had brought them together on the ship. Eventually they chose to call her Lucia.
Settled as a family in Germany and planning to stay there for the foreseeable future, their plans were turned on their head when Guldner unexpectedly got a job offer in Michigan.
“My first instinct was: ‘Of all the states in America, why Michigan?’” Recalls Erickson. “And my second thought was, ‘No, I don’t want to go I just got used to Germany and I want to live here, and I want to build a life here.’”
Never able to pass up an adventure, she soon came around – and the couple moved to the United States with 18-month-old Lucia.
It was an interesting cultural experience because while Erickson was American, she’d never really lived in the United States as an adult, whereas Guldner, the German, had spent a significant period of his early twenties studying there.
They soon acclimatized and enjoyed exploring America and spending time with Erickson’s family. They also had another child during this time, a son, Oliver.
“Life’s a journey”
After Michigan, Guldner’s job took him to South Carolina for a while, before the family eventually relocated back to Germany.
In more recent years, the family have enjoyed traveling the world together. Erickson, who now works as an oncology dietician, and Guldner, who is still an engineer, have visited everywhere from Morocco to Turkmenistan with their two children, who are now teenagers, in tow.
They’ve never returned to the Baltics, despite the role the region played in their romance.
“We rarely go back to a place that we’ve been to,” explains Guldner.
“We’re too busy exploring the rest of the world,” says Erickson.
They’ve also largely avoided sailing trips – Guldner still loves to sail, but despite a stint on a ship leading her to the happiness she enjoys today, Erickson never really took to seafaring life.
“He’s always held that against me, but in a playful way, it’s not mean – that he met me on a boat and yet I don’t want to go sailing,” says Erickson, laughing.
This past year, grounded in Germany due to Covid-19, the couple have made the most of local hikes on their doorstep in Alpine Bavaria.
They’re still in touch with many of the people who were on board the Albatros schooner in the summer of 1999. Another couple actually also got together on that trip, and also got married, but have since separated.
It’s incredible, say Erickson and Guldner, to think they’ve been together for over 20 years.
“Back then, we both didn’t think long term and it was more an exciting adventure,” says Guldner.
“Retrospectively, it is quite a miracle we stayed together; it wouldn’t have been possible without email and the visits.”
Both of them still live by their shared mantra that life’s a journey – and one they’re committed to taking together.
“You need to be open to small and big things that may change your path along the way,” says Erickson.
“I think we still both embrace this and have tried to pass it on to our children. Most importantly we still are doing it together and helping each other through.”