Cheryl Hurst checked into the luxurious St. George Lycabettus Hotel in Athens, Greece, in summer 2017. Upon her arrival, she headed straight to the elevator, eager to freshen up in her room.
The doors were gliding closed, and Cheryl nipped in just in time, apologizing to the people already inside – oblivious that her future fiancé was among them.
“He was already in the elevator,” Cheryl tells CNN Travel.
“He” was Preet Banerjee, a Canadian entrepreneur in his 30s visiting Athens for a conference.
“I remember Preet was wearing a yellow watch – and he had a white shirt on that had the sleeves rolled up, which is just, I don’t know, instantly hot on any guy,” says Cheryl.
Even the elevator of the five-star hotel was sleek and opulent. Cheryl – a Canadian-born PhD student in her 20s who’d flown in from the UK – felt slightly out of place dressed in shorts and a crop top, weighed down by her traveling backpack.
Cheryl says she was “instantly attracted” to Preet. Preet says he didn’t pay Cheryl much attention at first.
“My first impression when she came into the elevator was ‘Oh, a girl with a backpack,’” he tells CNN Travel.
Preet was in the elevator with two friends.
“We all live in Toronto,” he explains. “They happened to be vacationing at the same time as this conference, and so we agreed to meet up in Athens.”
Cheryl was heading to the seventh floor of the hotel, and, coincidentally, so were Preet and his party. This became clear when the group realized their elevator only went as far as floor six.
It turned out there were two elevators in the hotel, and only one went higher up the building.
As the hotel guests decamped on floor six and waited for the other elevator, they recognized each other’s accents and realized they were all Canadians in Greece.
“Where are you from?” Preet asked Cheryl.
Cheryl grew up in Niagara Falls, Canada, but she’s lived in the UK for most of her adult life. Brits are always asking her where she’s from, and she always says “Toronto” because “if you say Niagara Falls, people then start up a conversation about, ‘I didn’t know Niagara Falls was a real town.’”
So, on autopilot, Cheryl told Preet she was from Toronto.
“What part of Toronto?” asked Torontonian Preet, as they entered the second elevator.
“Oh no, I’m not actually from Toronto, I’m from Niagara Falls,” backtracked Cheryl, reddening.
“What a weird thing to lie about,” Preet teased.
The elevator carried them to floor seven and Preet and Cheryl continued talking. They realized they were both working on doctoral theses, and both attending the same conference in the hotel, which was aimed at doctoral candidates of all disciplines.
Lectures and classes were set to start the following day, but there was a cocktail reception that evening.
Preet asked if Cheryl wanted to join him and his friends for dinner beforehand, but she turned him down.
“I thought it was a bit weird to go to dinner with a man I didn’t know,” she says now.
Still, she told Preet she’d catch him at the reception and found herself looking forward to it. The two exited the elevator and went their separate ways down the corridor.
When Cheryl and Preet spotted one another again at the reception, they were both pleased.
“Cheryl stands out from a crowd for sure – very talkative, very outgoing,” says Preet. “When we went to the pre-conference cocktail reception, I immediately sought her out because I didn’t know anyone else there.”
Cheryl and Preet started chatting, and then the conference organizers made an announcement.
“They said, ‘So tomorrow, we’re going to start with a twinning exercise. So pick someone, and you each have to present three facts about the other person, and that’ll be the nice icebreaker for the beginning of the conference,’” recalls Preet.
“So I turned to Cheryl – because I had met her in the elevator a few hours prior – and I just rattled off three things, and I said, ‘You tell me three things.’ And then I left – and I don’t think that went over well.”
Preet’s facts included that he hosted a show on the Oprah Network and that he’d trained to be a racing car driver.
Cheryl insists he also mentioned that Barack Obama follows him on Twitter. Preet denies this – even though the former US President is one of his many followers.
“I never said that,” Preet insists. “I will die on this hill.”
“Mine was literally like, ‘I have a dog, I tried to cut a bunch of jeans into shorts for this trip and ruined, like, seven pairs of jeans,’” adds Cheryl. “I had literally no interesting facts, and Preet was just spilling off these really interesting things.”
But while Cheryl was impressed by Preet’s facts, she was less than impressed when he disappeared straight after relaying them.
“What an arrogant guy,” she remembers thinking.
Still, the following day, Cheryl and Preet ended up sitting next to one another in the first conference seminar.
“I was doodling on my notepad, and I was just drawing a house – and I remember Preet looking and making fun of me for doodling,” says Cheryl.
Preet scribbled Cheryl a note: “Bored?” he wrote.
Cheryl smiled despite herself, and they started writing notes back and forth. Later, they got talking properly.
“We just kind of gravitated towards each other during breaks and whatnot,” adds Preet. “It was just natural, because we had sort of similar perspectives and things to talk about.”
Cheryl and Preet had an easy chemistry and repartee. Their obvious comfort around each other led one conference attendee to ask how long they’d been a couple.
“We literally just met in the elevator,” said Cheryl.
One evening, the conference attendees headed into Athens for drinks.
“I wanted Preet to come, so I went to his hotel room,” recalls Cheryl.
She knocked on the door. Preet opened it and handed her a bag of dirty laundry.
“Oh, thanks so much,” he said, without looking her way.
Cheryl was confused, left holding a bag of dirty underwear. Preet looked up and realized his error.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I just called the front desk to have them come and do some laundry,” he explained, embarrassed.
Despite this awkward encounter, Preet agreed to come for drinks. After a few rounds, most of the group decided they were going to go to a nightclub.
“Preet and I were both like, ‘We have no interest in clubbing.’ So we just hung out and had dinner,” says Cheryl. “We talked for seven or eight hours, ages. We just chatted.”
Preet and Cheryl enjoyed one another’s company. But neither expected anything romantic would come of their connection – they lived in different countries, there was an age gap and they barely knew one another.
But when Cheryl called her mother to catch her up on the conference, she mentioned Preet, just in passing. She wondered whether her mom would know him from his Canadian TV appearances.
Cheryl’s mother immediately suspected her daughter was interested in Preet, even if Cheryl vehemently denied it.
On the last day of the conference, Preet announced he was going to do a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of Athens before heading home.
He opened up the invite to all the conference attendees, and while everyone seemed enthusiastic, in the end, only Cheryl turned up at 9 a.m. the next day. The two boarded the bus together.
“Preet and I just spent like the entire day, touring around Athens and just talking,” says Cheryl. “We had really in-depth conversations.”
“We covered a lot of ground,” says Preet. “We spent so much time, touring around and whatnot. A little bit was our dissertations that we were working on, a little bit was personal, a little bit was travel and whatnot. It was all over the place.”
“There were no stakes, because again, our thinking – at least my thinking – was I’ll never see this person ever again. So I can open up and get an honest third-party opinion on a whole bunch of different things, which I think led to deeper conversations.”
It was a very hot day, and Cheryl says she remembers the feeling of the heat beating down, mixed with the adrenaline of forging an unexpected connection with a stranger abroad.
While she was comfortable around Preet, Cheryl was also a bit nervous about being on her own in a foreign country with a man she didn’t know.
“I’m really always very hesitant about that kind of thing,” Cheryl says.
She also worried Preet, who was older and more established in his career, would suggest an expensive restaurant for lunch. She decided to be upfront about her budget.
Preet said he understood, it would be no problem to find somewhere relaxed – or else he’d happily buy her lunch.
“It was just a very easy conversation about money and where we were in life, and he was just really respectful,” says Cheryl.
“He wasn’t creepy or weird about it in any way. There’s your headline, ‘Not creepy or weird,’” she adds, laughing.
At one point during the tour, Preet realized how glad he was that Cheryl was the only other conference attendee who’d turned up for the tour.
“In my mind, I just wanted to do the tour, and if no one comes, I don’t care, I’ll go by myself – so whether she was the only one there or not, in my mind didn’t matter,” he says.
“Later on, as we were on the tour together and chatting, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m glad it’s just the two of us and not a big group’ – because we would have had different conversations or not the opportunity to have conversations.”
After a full day of sightseeing – from marveling at the Acropolis to fruitlessly hunting for a plaque dedicated to Plato to watching the boats coming and going in the port of Piraeus – Cheryl and Preet went back to the St. George Lycabattus together, to the hotel’s rooftop bar.
“It’s got the best view of the Acropolis from a distance and all of Athens,” says Preet.
The two sat in a comfortable silence, drinking red wine and watching the sky blaze scarlet and copper over the historic city. Cheryl says it was a “gorgeous” evening.
“And then we were like, ‘OK, well, you go to your hotel room, and I’ll see you in the morning.’”
The following morning, Cheryl waved Preet off as he headed to the airport.
“Goodbye forever,” said Cheryl as Preet got into a taxi. She was trying to joke to mask a creeping feeling of sadness.
“I remember seeing his taxi drive off, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, there’s no way that’s the last time I’m going to see that guy. I just knew that I was going to see him again,’” she says now.
Still, in the moment, the reality of crossing paths again “felt so impossible.”
The two didn’t exchange phone numbers or contact details.
“We thought we’d let it be a perfect few days as good friends, and not try to maintain it through any other medium,” says Cheryl.
A Canadian reunion
A couple of months later, Cheryl traveled to Canada to visit her family. While there, she planned to attend a conference in Toronto, and she expected Preet might be attending, too.
On a whim, she decided to follow Preet on Twitter and drop him a message to say she was in town.
It turned out she was right – Preet was attending the conference. The two picked up where they left off, and once again, spent hours chatting.
“That’s when we started to sort of think, ‘Oh, maybe there’s more here than just someone you met at a conference,’” says Preet.
“We kept spending more and more time together and finding excuses to talk.”
When Cheryl was back home in the UK, she received a Twitter message from Preet.
He had feelings for her, he wrote, and wanted to know if she felt the same way.
Cheryl had liked Preet from day one in the elevator. But she didn’t think it could work – the age gap and the distance felt like too big a barrier. She also worried what her loved ones would think if she told them she’d started a relationship with a man she’d met only twice.
Preet was disappointed, but respected her boundaries.
“I just thought, ‘All right, well, that’s it,’” he recalls. “In my mind, I was resigned to the fact that we’ll probably never be in contact ever again.”
But three days later, Cheryl sent another message.
“Never mind,” she wrote. “I want to be with you.”
Cheryl says she decided it was worth taking a chance. She knew she’d always regret it otherwise.
From there, Preet and Cheryl started a long-distance relationship. They FaceTimed whenever they could, and it helped that Cheryl, who was still studying for her PhD, would go back to Canada to visit her family for long stretches.
Preet was also able to travel to the UK every so often, and the two also met up in other destinations across the globe – often places Preet was traveling for business.
“I think we consciously made an effort to make the most of the limited time that we had together, which I think probably helped and probably accelerated the emotional journey,” says Preet.
Six months in – on one of their long video calls – Cheryl told Preet she loved him.
Preet didn’t say the words back. Instead, he was a bit awkward. When the call ended, Cheryl replayed the moment over and over again in her head, worrying he didn’t reciprocate her feelings.
“Then, the next day, there was a knock on my door, and he’d already booked flights to surprise me in England, because he didn’t want to say ‘I love you’ on FaceTime. He wanted to tell me in person.”
Cheryl’s fears about what her loved ones would think of the relationship were quickly eradicated when her friends and family met Preet. Her parents quickly fell for him – after all, Cheryl’s mother had suspected Cheryl liked him from the outset.
Preet’s friends who’d been there that first day in the elevator also insisted they’d picked up on the connection on day one. And Cheryl also clicked quickly with Preet’s mom.
Preet’s family is of Indian heritage, but the couple say they haven’t had any particular cultural differences to navigate.
Preet jokes that their main cultural differences come from Cheryl’s years in the UK and his Canadian perspective.
And there’s their different interests. Cheryl’s been dragged to a few Formula One events since they got together, while Preet attended a Taylor Swift concert for the first time.
The two have plenty in common, though – their dedication to work and study, as well as a love of travel, watching movies and attending live comedy. But they still reckon a mutual love of deep conversation is their biggest connector.
“It was always, just even from first being in the elevator, it was just very flowy conversation,” says Cheryl.
Looking to the future
After three years of long distance, Preet and Cheryl ended up living together in Toronto in 2020. It was by coincidence – Cheryl landed in Canada just as the country closed its borders at the outset of the pandemic.
“I was in the air when Canada announced lockdowns,” she says.
During that year of isolation, the couple had plenty of opportunities to discuss their future. They decided that long-term they’d settle in London – Cheryl feels strongly that the UK is her home, while Preet is excited for a new experience.
“I see it as an adventure, as well as, you know, being with the person that I love. So that was a pretty easy decision at the end of the day,” he says.
Preet’s UK visa was recently approved, and the couple are now enjoying life together in the UK – and planning an upcoming wedding.
“We had officially gotten engaged sitting on the couch during the pandemic in Toronto. But it was a very unromantic and unceremonious proposal,” says Preet, who organized a second proposal earlier this year, while the couple were on vacation in the south of France.
The two were on a rooftop overlooking Monaco, enjoying Champagne on a private balcony. It was a spectacular evening, although Preet admits it would have been more appropriate to propose in the elevator on the way up.
“That would have been very poetic,” he says, laughing. “I’m just not that creative.”
Cheryl and Preet have ridden many elevators together since that first one in the St. George Lycabettus, so naturally they don’t think about how their elevator meet-cute every time they step inside one.
Still, every so often, the two replay the moment in their minds, especially in recent months, as they plan their wedding and reflect on the fortuitous chances that brought them together.
“For me, the takeaway that I have is – you just don’t know what can happen,” says Cheryl.
“Everything just feels like this is the way it should be, and very natural and perfect, and all that stuff, and so looking back on how it all unfolded feels kind of surreal,” says Preet.
“It’s all these little forks in the road that, had the situation just been a little bit different, none of this would have happened, which is crazy, because I think that we’re soulmates.”