The first time Krystina Burton met Gabriel Solberg, she rolled her eyes.
Burton, a then 30-year-old dancer living and working in Los Angeles, was waiting at JFK to fly home following an audition in New York. It was early in the morning. The terminal was mostly empty, so she had a row of seats to herself.
When a man plonked his bag on the floor and sat right next to her, Burton was irritated.
This was Solberg, then 34 and on his way back from visiting family in Europe. Bleary-eyed from an airport overnight layover, he was paying little attention to his surroundings.
“This guy doesn’t have spatial awareness,” Burton recalls thinking. The two strangers were sitting so close that Burton could see the seat number printed on Solberg’s plane ticket. She realized he had the plane seat next to her, and internally groaned. She wasn’t in the mood to spend six hours sat with someone who didn’t understand the concept of personal space.
This was July 2018. Reflecting on the moment now, Solberg is quick to defend himself, and remembers things slightly differently.
“That’s her perspective,” he tells CNN Travel, laughing. “When I went to that terminal, it was packed, it was full of people, and I just grabbed a chair that was empty. I only sat there for like five minutes.”
Burton says Solberg only sat down briefly because he jumped up the minute boarding was announced, only confirming her suspicions about his arrogant nature.
“I know that since we’re sitting next to each other, we must be in the same boarding group. But he’s already escaped, and he boarded the flight with a random group,” Burton tells CNN Travel.
When Burton eventually boarded the Alaska Airlines flight and saw Solberg already settled in their row, she tried to put her headphones in quickly, to avoid any conversation.
“But I’m not fast enough, so he immediately engages me.”
Solberg hadn’t really noticed Burton in the terminal, but he spotted her as soon as she boarded the flight, walked up the aisle and approached his row.
He says he was blown away by her smile, and then something twigged.
“Hey, weren’t you sitting next to me in the terminal?” he said, grinning.
“You were sitting next to me,” responded Burton, still smiling.
Burton’s first impression of Solberg as arrogant and self-centered melted away, and the two started chatting.
“I feel like the banter was immediate,” Burton recalls now. “As soon as I got on the plane and was getting to my seat, I feel like it just changed – there was no annoyance.”
The captain announced over the speaker that the plane was delayed and likely wouldn’t depart for another couple of hours. Burton and Solberg were in the middle seat and the aisle. The passenger by the window fell asleep almost instantaneously, so it soon felt like they had the row to themselves.
As the aircraft remained on the ground, Solberg and Burton made conversation, segueing from small talk to bigger topics.
“We talked about everything,” recalls Solberg.
They recall discussing their jobs, where they were living, why they were traveling to Los Angeles. They also bonded over a love of travel – Solberg is half-French, half-American and grew up in Germany, so spent his life jetsetting. Burton’s job as a dancer took her across the world, from stints performing on cruise ships to tours across the US.
When the flight eventually took off, it felt like Solberg and Burton had known one another for years. They watched a couple of movies in tandem, but chatted and laughed the whole way through them.
“I told her how terrible her movie choices were,” says Solberg.
“We’re trying to watch ‘Planet of the Apes,’ which I think is a good movie,” says Burton. “But he was like, ‘This is the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.’”
Burton was charmed by Solberg’s directness and sense of humor. It was obvious he was kind, underneath the jokes.
Over the six-hour flight, there was room for more serious conversation too. Burton and Solberg talked about spirituality and religion, and their respective outlooks on life.
It was, says Solberg, “just a really organic conversation.”
When the flight landed, their seat neighbor woke up to a surprise.
“Clearly, when we all first boarded, nobody knew each other. And then the guy fell asleep for the entire flight. And at the end of the flight, we were basically sitting on top of each other and this guy wakes up at the end of the flight, like ‘What’s going on here?’” recalls Solberg, laughing.
The connection wasn’t just clear to the man in the window seat. It was obvious to Solberg and Burton too.
Still, they were wary, each for different reasons. Solberg had broken up with a long-term partner about five months prior. He had been spending the summer visiting loved ones in Europe, and when he met Burton was on his way to Seattle to visit family. He says romance was far from his mind.
“My stance on relationships was, they’re not for me. Basically, I was like, ‘I’m not looking, not interested,’” he recalls.
Burton says she wasn’t searching for anything either.
“I’d never dated anybody before,” she says. “I was fine living my single life with my best friend in LA.”
Burton and Solberg’s eight-hour airplane “date” was a surprise to them both. It wasn’t, they say, an instant infatuation. It just felt natural and easy to be in one another’s company.
“It was more of this calm, like it just kind of made sense, kind of feeling, which is very different than I’ve ever experienced in the past,” says Solberg.
When the flight landed and the passengers disembarked at LAX, Solberg and Burton prepared to go their separate ways.
“I told her, ‘Hey, there’s something going on here. So I’m coming back in a week and then we’re going to see what this is about,’” recalls Solberg.
“I personally didn’t think it was gonna happen,” says Burton. “I knew we had some kind of connection because I could just feel it, but I was like, ‘Oh, sure, you’re going to just come back to LA and hang out with me? That’s going to happen.’ I just was not convinced.”
As Burton’s ride pulled up, Solberg gave her a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek goodbye. And even though Burton figured she might never see Solberg again, she immediately texted her sister and her friends to fill them in.
“This is a meet-cute,” she remembers thinking.
“I knew I was coming back,” says Solberg. He texted his brother as he walked away.
“I met the girl of my dreams,” he wrote.
Cabin in the woods
A week passed, and Solberg did come back to Los Angeles. In the intervening days, he called Burton to make plans.
“We spent like two or three hours on that phone call,” he says.
Solberg remembers thinking how strange the situation was – he had just talked on the phone to someone who was still essentially a stranger with the ease of someone he had known for years.
And now he was about to fly across the country to visit her.
“It’s very strange, it’s like we had just known each other forever,” he recalls.
“I usually don’t like to talk on the phone. But it was just so comfortable,” agrees Burton.
On the call, they mulled over what they could do when Solberg was back in town.
Burton suggested dinner and a movie. Solberg said they should do something more exciting, especially if he was flying all the way across the country. He suggested they rent a cabin in Topanga Canyon, in California’s Santa Monica mountains.
“I was like ‘Oh, this is nice. We can just hang out here and it’s not a long drive to the beach, and it’s not too long to get to LA.’”
Burton, meanwhile, says she wasn’t convinced by the idea of a “murder cabin.” She was excited to see Solberg again, but her friends and family were genuinely concerned at the idea of her traveling to an isolated spot with a man she had just met.
Before traveling, a friend gave her a set of brass knuckles to take with her, in case Solberg had ill intent.
Despite the accommodation being more rustic than Solberg anticipated, the two had a wonderful time in Topanga. They easily picked up where they left on the plane, enjoying drives along the coast, eating out and deep conversations.
On the day Solberg was supposed to fly back to New York, the two went out to brunch and discussed where things would go from there. The prospect of parting ways again was tough to swallow.
“We both were feeling down,” recalls Solberg. The two decided that rather than saying goodbye, Burton would fly out with Solberg to New York to continue the adventure there.
“There was one empty seat left next to me, on a flight I’d already booked, and so she just booked it and came back to New York with me for a couple of weeks,” says Solberg.
In the rush of excitement and romance, Burton completely forgot about the brass knuckles in her bag.
“It all truly felt like a fairy tale but as we all know every story needs a little drama,” she says now.
While going through airport security, her bag set the alarm off. The TSA agent pulled out the brass knuckles and immediately took Burton aside.
“It was so terrible and embarrassing. And I’m not or I wasn’t a very emotional person – and especially just meeting him – I was just so mortified,” says Burton.
The police were called and Burton was threatened with a potential court appearance.
Solberg could see Burton closing off to him.
“I broke her out of it, I got her to share that with me, where she was at,” he says now.
“I’m not going to just let you close up,” he recalls saying. “That’s not how you communicate, it doesn’t work.”
He encouraged Burton to be open with him about how upset she was. The situation was resolved, and Burton and Solberg were permitted to leave security, board their flight, and she never had to go to court.
Burton says even without this additional stress, the whirlwind romance was both exciting and a little overwhelming.
“I was just so anxious because I am a very even-keeled person, I am very logical with my decisions and anything that I do, and this was very sporadic and out of character, so that was giving me anxiety because I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? Like, it feels right, but I don’t have a plan for this,’” she recalls.
As for Solberg, he admits that while he was saying his burgeoning connection with Burton was just casual, his actions “weren’t really reflecting those words.”
Burton says she could see through that facade.
“I’m like, ‘Okay, you flew back to see me. Now we both flew to New York. But it’s not anything serious.’ Okay, let’s pretend,” says Burton.
Still, Burton made it clear that her career as a dancer came first. When her agent contacted her about an exciting audition opportunity, she cut the trip to New York short and flew back to Los Angeles early.
Still, Burton and Solberg discussed how her career gave her the flexibility to potentially live anywhere. In the end, the two spent only a couple of months flying back and forth to see one another before Burton decided to move in with Solberg in New York.
It was a big step, but Burton says it just felt right. She knew she and Solberg were on the same page.
And her career still took priority – right after she moved to New York, she went on tour for three months.
“By the second time he came to LA, we were already talking about how we were going to raise our kids and stuff like that. But we both love to travel. So we knew traveling would be a thing. And also because of my career, it’s just so in flux. So I think the constant was just that we were going to be together and be married at some point,” says Burton.
An airport photoshoot
In October 2019, around a year after they first met on the airplane, Burton and Solberg got engaged on vacation on the Italian coast.
Solberg almost forgot to take the ring with him, and Burton’s mother had to meet him at the airport to sneakily hand it over without Burton noticing.
The proposal took place on a rooftop, with jaw-dropping views of the coast below.
When the two decided to book an engagement photoshoot with photographer Tyler Petit, the location was obvious: an airport.
More specifically: Terminal A at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington DC, a transport hub with a historic, vast terminal that made for the perfect backdrop.
Their meet-cute was also reflected in the wedding invites, which were designed to resemble airplane tickets. Burton and Solberg planned a glamorous destination wedding in St Lucia.
Unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic halted plans, but in recent months, the two have started wedding planning again. Preparations are made more complicated by the fact Burton’s currently working in Germany, starring in a production of “Aladdin.”
Long distance isn’t easy, says Burton and Solberg, but they both enjoy watching one another thrive in their careers. And they know they’re on the same page about their long-term goals and ambitions.
“In the next few years, we definitely want to do a lot of traveling. And we’ll see where her career takes her, because we can live in different countries, I’d love to live in different cities,” says Solberg. “And then we do want to find at one point the home city, we do want to have a home base, we just don’t know where that is.”
“We really like being nomadic,” says Burton.
While Burton and Solberg say there has been an ease inherent in their relationship from the outset, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
They have a lot in common, but they are also different personalities – Burton says she’s more logical, while Solberg is driven by emotion. They also have different backgrounds: Solberg grew up in Europe, while Burton grew up in the US. Solberg comes from a Jewish Orthodox background and Burton is Catholic. And Burton is Black and Solberg is White.
From the outset, the couple say they had candid conversations about being in an interracial relationship.
“We’ve had incidents where I’ve seen them as a White person, and she experienced it as a Black person, and I have to understand what she’s going through,” says Solberg. “I wish I could say I could pick up on that without having for us to have the conversation, but I wasn’t there. And so there’s been a lot of conversations around that, which have been good.”
“I think only in the beginning, was it a challenge, because I always say you don’t know what you don’t know, if it’s not your experience, you’re not aware of these things,” says Burton. “And I feel like it’s more in your face – because if something is happening to me, we’re together all the time. So it makes a difference when you’re seeing it happen in real time versus hearing about it or like, reading about it. It’s not the same feeling because you don’t – you’re too far removed from it.”
Solberg and Burton share their travel adventures on their couple’s Instagram account @swirlthroughtheworld. They’ve also got a YouTube channel and blog, where they talk candidly about how they met, and how they navigate the world together.
Solberg and Burton think the openness and communication in the relationship stems from the fact they were both content in themselves when they happened to cross paths.
“It’s like the cliche thing – stop looking for it, stop trying to be somebody you’re not, and just be okay with yourself, find yourself first, and just be okay with being by yourself and who you are,” says Solberg.
“I was just like, ‘I’m content. I like what I’m doing. I’m living my dream. And I think that is what let me be open,” says Burton.
“People are going to roll their eyes at that,” she adds, laughing. “But that’s what happened.”
And for Burton and Solberg, an extended first date on the airplane from New York to Los Angeles was the perfect stepping stone to where they are today.
“Because of the foundation that we had on the plane – talking about so many things, and especially all the things we talked about early on – I think that’s what kind of paved the way or the groundwork for what the expectations are, or who we are as people and how we match that,” says Burton.