(CNN) — It was Christmas 2018, and Aleksei Kolodkin had just arrived in the US from his home in Russia.
It was Kolodkin's first time in the States. He eschewed the more typical tourist spots like New York City or Washington DC. Instead, he headed to Charleston, South Carolina. He'd read about the city when he was a kid and had always wanted to visit.
He arrived on December 12 and spent the next couple weeks enjoying Charleston's food and bar scene, and befriending Russian expats.
But when December 25 rolled around, Kolodkin, then 33, found himself without plans. In Russia, festive celebrations generally take place in January, and it hadn't occurred to him that he'd feel a bit isolated in the US, being solo on Christmas Day.
"I felt very alone," he tells CNN Travel today. "It's a family holiday, and I'm alone that day."
To pass the time, Kolodkin scrolled absentmindedly through Tinder.
It was late afternoon. He swiped left and right on the dating app, before landing upon a guy called Michael Roessler.
Roessler, then 41 and recently divorced, was in Charleston visiting family for the holidays.
"I suppose, as often happens, the time with family became a bit much and so I excused myself at one point to go back to my hotel for a little while, just to take a little bit of a break," Roessler tells CNN Travel today.
"I was killing some time on a dating app -- again, not really intending to do anything but kill time."
Kolodkin and Roessler matched, and started sending messages back and forth. Kolodkin explained that he didn't really know anyone in the US.
"I thought, 'That's a shame, you can't be alone on Christmas,'" recalls Roessler.
He suggested that he could meet Kolodkin in downtown Charleston and they could grab dinner together.
"I thought I would do a good deed and get together with him, spend a little time with him, have dinner with him, and that would be it," Roessler explains. "That was the extent of what I thought going into it -- pass a little time, hopefully have some good conversation."
The two men arranged to meet on King Street. Kolodkin arrived first, waiting by a Louis Vuitton store.
"I'll be in brown pants and a dark blue sweatshirt," Roessler had told him. Kolodkin kept an eye out, and before long, he spotted a man dressed in this way, walking toward him.
"He seems like a bit of a nerd," thought Kolodkin, when he saw Roessler. This feeling was cemented when, as soon as they started walking along King Street together, Roessler launched into conversation about Russian and US politics.
Roessler's first impression of Kolodkin was more positive.
"When we greeted each other and said, 'Hello,' he just had this big smile on his face," Roessler recalls.
"My first thought was that he just immediately struck me as somebody who was kind and friendly. And then I think I promptly bored him by spending an hour asking him all sorts of questions about Russian politics."
A lot of the restaurants and bars on King Street were closed for the holidays, but after a bit of wandering, the two found a Chinese restaurant with open doors.
Sitting at their table, Kolodkin told Roessler about his career in Russia. He'd worked as a TV presenter there, and he pulled out his phone to show Roessler a clip of him in action.
Most of the conversation, however, revolved around US and Russian politics. Kolodkin thought this was a little heavy for a first date. Plus, he'd started to feel a bit self-conscious.
"I had a stupid haircut," he says now. "I looked silly, it was so short. I was so embarrassed for myself."
When they finished up at the restaurant, Kolodkin and Roessler went their separate ways.
"We just parted with a 'nice to meet you,'" says Roessler. "We had a nice evening, we had a nice chat, we had a nice walk, a nice dinner. But, you know, like I said, I wasn't really looking for anything more than that."
Kolodkin, meanwhile, thought Roessler was a nice guy, but wasn't sure they had much in common. There was also a bit of a language barrier -- Kolodkin wasn't fluent in English at that point, and at times they had struggled to communicate.
A parcel through the mail
Kolodkin and Roessler photographed outside the Chinese restaurant in Charleston where they first met.
A couple of days later, Kolodkin got a text from Roessler asking for his address.
Confused, Kolodkin texted back his email address. Roessler replied and explained he'd meant his mailbox.
"That's a bit weird," thought Kolodkin. At that point he was staying with some of the Russian expats he'd befriended.
He paused for a moment, and then decided -- why not?
About a week later, a book arrived in the mail: "English for Russians."
Kolodkin was touched. It was a sweet gesture, and he texted Roessler to say thanks. But somehow, a text didn't feel quite sufficient, so he asked Roessler for his physical address.
By then Roessler had left his family in Charleston and was back at his home in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, some three hours away.
Kolodkin mailed a postcard to Roessler, thanking the American stranger for the book. In return, Roessler texted a thank you note.
"That's how we started texting more often," says Kolodkin now.
Kolodkin's new friends watched these messages increase from the occasional back and forth to more regular correspondence.
Intrigued, they asked Kolodkin about this man he'd met on Christmas Day.
"I don't know, he's boring," Kolodkin recalls saying. "He's not my type, he looks like a bookworm."
His friends weren't convinced. They suggested Kolodkin should meet up with Roessler again.
But that wasn't so easy. Roessler was now some 200 miles away in Charlotte. Plus, Kolodkin was booked on a plane back to Russia, some 5,000 miles away, on January 14.
But he was considering staying in the US for longer. One of the people he'd befriended in Charleston had offered him a job.
He decided to stay put. And he decided to continue his correspondence with Roessler.
He picked out postcards, printed with Russian landmarks, to send to the American. Roessler responded with sweet handwritten notes.
Roessler says that when he sent Kolodkin the book, he was "trying to be friendly, not romantic."
But as time passed and their interactions increased, both men found themselves more and more excited whenever they returned home to a letter from one another.
"I supposed it was a bit old-fashioned," says Roessler of their snail mail exchange.
Roessler was set to be back in town visiting family in late January. The two met up and went to a hockey game together.
It was a fun outing, but Kolodkin and Roessler were still just friends, nothing more.
But when the two met again, about a month later, something of a shift had occurred. Kolodkin vividly remembers how he felt when he saw Roessler again that February.
"At this moment, there was some idea in my head like, 'This is a person I've known for 100 years,'" he recalls.
The two decided to take a spontaneous trip together from Charleston to Roessler's home city of Charlotte. The journey took almost four hours, and they talked the whole way.
"Something turned," says Kolodkin, adding he didn't see Roessler as a "nerd" anymore.
"He's a very good, kind guy," he says. "He's very wise and he's just so smart."
As for Roessler, he says that, for him, there wasn't one "burning bush moment."
"It was more of an evolution toward that," he says. "At some point in the Spring of 2019, it was almost like without, realizing it, 'Oh, wait a minute, this has become something.'"
They'd started regularly traveling between Charleston and Charlotte to visit one another and in May 2019, they planned a road trip across the country from South Carolina to Arizona, to see the Grand Canyon.
A romantic road trip
A trip through canyon country saw the couple make a big decision about their relationship.
As they headed west through the changing American countryside, Roessler turned to Kolodkin and asked if he wanted to get married.
"It was incredible, it was just in the middle of nowhere, on the road to Las Vegas. It was empty. You can see the canyons. It was so romantic," says Kolodkin, who says his answer -- yes -- was "simple."
As for Roessler, he surprised himself by his desire to get married again.
"But it just felt right. Almost immediately, I felt this comfort, this connection, this sense of ease with him and around him. It just felt right," he says.
"And don't get me wrong, I'm the type of guy that can question and doubt myself into inaction very quickly. And for whatever reason, when it came to this, that character defect that I often display in other affairs didn't rear its head. It felt right, and it felt good. And I went with it."
It was, says Roessler, "one of the best decisions I've ever made."
Deciding to get married wasn't without its complications. Kolodkin had overstayed his tourist visa. The two had to sort out his documents, ensuring he could legally stay in the country.
But by October 2019, Kolodkin and Roessler were living together in Charlotte and preparing for their wedding day.
For Roessler, marriage was important, but the relationship, he says, "felt eternal" and marriage didn't change that.
But for Kolodkin, marrying the man he loved was monumental on many levels.
He recalls crying with happiness when he saw Roessler in the courtroom.
"For me who was born in a small, small town -- it looks like a village -- in Russia, with a lot of homophobic people [...] It was like a dream," he says.
A Christmas anniversary
The couple have been making the most of the US during the pandemic.
Christmas 2019 rolled around and Kolodkin and Roessler traveled together to Charleston to celebrate with Roessler's family.
Once again, Roessler found himself at the Chinese restaurant on King Street. And again, he was with Kolodkin.
But this time, they weren't strangers, but a married couple.
The two took a photo together outside the restaurant to commemorate their anniversary.
It's now been three years since Roessler and Kolodkin met.
In that time, Kolodkin says he's learned how to compromise -- a concept that he says is more commonplace in the US than Russia.
Meanwhile, Roessler has learned to appreciate Russian cooking, especially Kolodkin's borscht -- a type of beetroot soup. He's also embraced their other cultural differences.
"He turns into a hysterical Russian babushka if I don't take my shoes off when I walk in the house," says Roessler, laughing.
And Roessler's dog has slowly but steadily adapted to sharing Roessler's affections.
Roessler and Kolodkin embrace and celebrate their cultural differences.
Kolodkin also loves spending time with Roessler's family -- they went on a trip to Niagara Falls together earlier this year. He's also happy Roessler's family have embraced him wholeheartedly, as his relationship with his family back home is complex.
But Kolodkin still has close friends back home in Russia, and he'd love to take Roessler there one day. So far, the pandemic has halted these plans, so instead the two have been entertaining themselves by traveling to the US National Parks.
Kolodkin loves to explore and travel, and he's encouraged Roessler to get outside more, but the two also enjoy quieter moments together, reading or relaxing at home.
"This idea of taking time together to be deliberately calm, sort of at peace with each other, it's very fulfilling," says Roessler.
For Kolodkin and Roessler, Christmas is always a special period.
On December 23, 2021, Roessler and Kolodkin traveled to Charleston for the holiday period. The Chinese restaurant had sadly closed down during the pandemic, but the couple still enjoyed reminiscing about their first date, and celebrating with family.
"We just get a chance to share the day with each other, and share it with other people that we care about -- that's the celebration," Roessler says.
Kolodkin says he loves visiting Roessler's family at Christmas. He enjoys his mother-in-law's festive food, playing party games he doesn't quite understand, and the moment when Roessler's mom fishes out family photo albums of past Christmases and they look at photos of his husband as a kid.
Today, when Roessler and Kolodkin tell people they met on Christmas Day, Roessler says people always react in awe, calling it a "real-life Hallmark movie" or a "fairytale."
"It's sort of ridiculously trite," says Roessler wryly.
Neither man expected that their spontaneous Christmas Day date would lead to love, and transform their lives so completely.
"I wasn't looking for anything in particular. And it sort of happened," says Roessler. "Good things can pop up, good things can happen, when you're not looking for them."