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 Athe