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Chance EncountersThey were strangers in Bolivia. Six months later they fell in love in Paris

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On her first date with Augustin Pasquet, Michelle Young found herself weaving through the streets of Paris on the back of his moped.

As they headed down the Champs-Élysées, Michelle snapped a photograph with her digital camera. In the distance, she captured the striking Arc de Triomphe. In the forefront, Augustin lifted his fingers in the peace symbol. In the moment, Michelle felt exuberantly happy. She didn’t know where the evening would go, but she knew she’d treasure that feeling.

“A lot of that footage was just taken along the Seine, with the lights of Paris. And so even if he was unintentionally on a date, it was still a magical introduction to France.”

“I didn’t know the word ‘date’,” he says today, laughing. “A date is a very Anglo-Saxon idea. For me, I’d met someone, there was a good connection and I was meeting her again in Paris.”

A meeting in Bolivia

Michelle and Augustin’s story had begun six months previously, thousands of miles away from the streets of Paris, in Bolivia, in South America.

It was 2009. Michelle was 26 and at a crossroads. She’d abandoned an unsatisfying job to play cello in a Brooklyn-based indie rock band and wasn’t sure where life was heading.

“I grew up in a pretty classic Taiwanese American household. Excellence in everything you do is expected and I had fulfilled my cultural destiny already by then by going to Harvard and going to the Juilliard School for Music,” Michelle says.

“But I had never done anything that was not planned out or pre-ordained for me. When I quit the only industry I had ever worked in, I was pretty lost.”

Amid that uncertainty, travel became Michelle’s escape. She went backpacking around Southeast Asia. Then, in summer 2009, she embarked on a trip through South America with her bandmates.

“I love everything about backpacking. There’s an openness that comes with traveling with no plan, with only your essentials, spending as little money as possible, and in a lot of cases, traveling alone. The people you meet have a similar openness,” says Michelle. “I wasn’t looking for love, but I was looking for adventure.”

Michelle and her friends traveled through Peru first, and then onto La Paz, Bolivia. From there, they explored the foothills of the Amazon and admired the Bolivian salt flats before arriving in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Traveling through Bolivia was an amazing experience, but plans went a little haywire when one of the group had her passport stolen. An impending move on to Brazil was put on hold as Michelle’s friend attempted to resolve the situation.

At this impasse, some of the group flew back to the United States, some headed to Argentina. As for Michelle, she booked a couple of beds in a Santa Cruz de la Sierra hostel for herself and her passport-less friend, happy to wait out the uncertainty.

While her friend sorted out her passport issues, Michelle killed time in the hostel. She’d picked it – one of just two options – because her Lonely Planet guidebook said there was a “tropical outdoor courtyard with hammocks and two toucans.” Sure enough, it felt like a green haven, and as an extra plus, it was filled with friendly backpackers.

Among them was a 24-year-old French traveler by the name of Augustin Pasquet.

That summer, Augustin was also making his way through South America with a gang of close friends. They’d started in Argentina, then traveled to Chile and onto Bolivia.

“We had spent like three days in the desert, in SUVs covered in dust and everything and suddenly we were in this beautiful hostel with hammocks, luxurious, lush plants. And then next thing, this charming, charming woman walks by,” recalls Augustin.

When he first spotted Michelle, Augustin was sitting with his friends in a communal area of the hostel.

“I thought she was cute, she walked by and she clearly wanted to engage,” Augustin recalls. “I’m less the engagey-type, so I asked my friend to ask her something, to start the conversation.”

Augustin’s friend obliged, and – somewhat out of nowhere – turned to Michelle and asked in English, “Do you know where the market is?”

Michelle was a little surprised.

“I remember noting that it was really kind of random if that’s the one thing he really wanted to ask me,” she recalls.

But coincidentally she had been to a great market that day, so she obligingly launched into a long explanation of what it was like, and how to get there.

“I realize his question was just a way to start conversation,” says Michelle today. “I guess in a way it did break the ice because I did my usual rambling with far too much detail and color for any answer, displaying a kind of classic American friendliness which some French people find fun.”

Soon Michelle had grabbed a seat at the table and was swapping travel anecdotes with the French boys. They were easy, fun company.

“One guy did catch my eye,” says Michelle. “But he was quieter than the rest.”

This was Augustin, happy to sit back and let his friends do most of the talking, even if he’d been the one to encourage the connection with Michelle in the first place.

The conversation continued into the evening. Michelle, Augustin and Augustin’s friends – later joined by Michelle’s friend after she’d resolved her passport troubles – went out for dinner and then drinks at a nearby bar and restaurant.

Over the course of the evening, Michelle and Augustin realized they were both carrying the same Nikon DSLR camera.

“We both loved our camera and taking photos in general,” says Augustin. Over drinks, they compared photographs and techniques.

“It was fun,” says Augustin.

“We bonded about photography and found that we shared a similar sense of humor,” says Michelle.

They were both intrigued by one another. But neither acted on their feelings.

“It was honestly a very PG experience,” says Michelle.

The next day, Michelle and her friend prepared to leave Bolivia. Michelle’s friends’ passport issues were resolved, and they could finally head on to Brazil.

Michelle and Augustin said goodbye and exchanged Facebook details, just in case there was a chance to reunite at another point on their respective South American adventures.

Plus, Michelle had decided to go to graduate school back in New York, and with that came an opportunity to study abroad in Paris. Now she had a potential friend in France.

A Paris reunion

Michelle and Augustin finished their South American travels without crossing paths again.

Back home in the US, Michelle says she “thought about Augustin from time to time.”

She showed her best friend in New York some photographs of the night out in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Her friend pointed out one of the other guys, suggesting he was the one Michelle should have gone for.

“But I thought, nah, Augustin is the one if it somehow all works out,” recalls Michelle. “I thought he was really cute. I thought we shared a sense of humor – and then the camera thing. So there seemed to be a lot of interests that were aligned. And I liked his energy.”

Back in Paris, Augustin also found himself describing that evening – and Michelle – to a friend. He especially liked how Michelle had been journaling that night, almost in real time, jotting down funny moments in a notebook to remember for later.

Augustin’s friend listened to all of this, and raised an eyebrow.

“He pointed out that I was really into her – he put it in words for me,” says Augustin. He remembers denying it, but it was true Michelle was often on his mind.

Six months passed. Michelle started her graduate school program and began planning her semester in Paris.

She decided to send Augustin a Facebook message asking if he had any tips on the best neighborhood to find an apartment. But Augustin didn’t respond right away, and in the meantime, Michelle sorted her accommodation without his help.

Augustin did eventually reply with a long, detailed explanation of Paris’ arrondissements, or neighborhoods, and where might be best for Michelle to base herself.

When he realized the information had come too late, he encouraged Michelle to get in touch again once she arrived.

When she touched down in Paris, Michelle dropped Augustin a message. She had no expectations, but he invited her to meet for drinks, and suggested they could then head to a dinner party hosted by one of his friends.

“I was definitely really excited to see him again,” recalls Michelle. “And then also really excited to be shown Paris by a Parisian. I think that’s sort of everyone’s dream when they go study abroad.”

“I was very excited to see her again too,” says Augustin. He suggested the two of them meet by a church in the 17th arrondissement. The church was, coincidentally, the place where Augustin’s grandparents had got married.

“It was convenient, beautiful and easy – and not too far from where she was and where we wanted to go afterwards. It was very nice. And we reconnected right away, same energy, we spent the whole time laughing as well,” says Augustin.

“I remember thinking: ‘There could be something here.”

Michelle and Augustin had drinks that night at Parisian institution Chez Georges.

“It captures an idea of Paris,” says Augustin. “It’s a bar and the downstairs has a cellar with arched stones, you just buy red wine or whatever, it’s loud and there’s music – it feels very timeless Parisian in a way.”

From there, the two went to Augustin’s friend’s dinner party. That’s when Michelle ended up on the back of Augustin’s moped, speeding through the streets of Paris.

“I did sense that it was pretty special to be invited to a friend’s dinner on a first date. So that didn’t go unnoticed,” says Michelle.

Augustin’s friends welcomed Michelle into the fray right away. They drank wine, and grazed on oozy raclette cheese into the early hours of the morning. Michelle didn’t speak French at the time, but she enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere.

“I guess nowadays we have the ‘Emily in Paris’ comparison,” she says, joking about her bad French.

For most of the evening, she struggled to work out which of Augustin’s friends were dating.

“I kind of just assumed that if two people were sitting next to each other, and often they were talking quite closely, or were much more tactile than American culture or British culture, I was like, ‘Oh, they must be dating. Those two must be together, you know?””

The fact that they were more often actually dating someone at the other end of the table was “mind-blowing,” says Michelle.

It was one of the first cultural differences she observed between US and French culture.

“I’ve always appreciated cultural differences. My family’s from Taiwan, I grew up in the US and was born there, but was always part of two cultures,” says Michelle. “And so I remember just taking a lot of it in, trying to figure out the codes of conduct.”

It was a great evening, Michelle says she remembers “laughing a lot, and his friends seemed really fun and very welcoming.”

Augustin echoes this.

“I just felt she was really fun,” he says of Michelle.

Michelle invited Augustin for drinks to repay the favor. This time he was the one to be confused by cultural differences. Michelle didn’t mention she’d also invited a bunch of American and French people she knew, whereas Augustin thought it was going to be just the two of them. He was a bit baffled.

But after that, Augustin invited Michelle for dinner at his place.

“He said, ‘Bring your friends.’ So I did, but not 15 of them. I brought like four. I think from that dinner on that was – that was it,” says Michelle.

“Official dating time,” says Augustin.

Over the next eight months, Michelle and Augustin fell in love in Paris. They spent long days wandering the streets hand-in-hand, and long evenings sharing wine and food and introducing one another to their friends.

They also traveled around France together, to Bordeaux, to Brittany and to the south of France, to Provence.

People always assumed Michelle and Augustin had just met – in France. Friends were always surprised when the couple explained they’d actually met the year before, in Bolivia.

“I always thought our story was a lot more fun than meeting at a bar during a study abroad in Paris,” says Michelle. “Even though that’s a great story, too.”

During her time in France, Michelle got to spend time with Augustin’s family in the French Basque Country.

“They were super welcoming,” she says.

Augustin also met Michelle’s mom when she came to visit her daughter in Paris. The group had lunch in a restaurant near the Louvre art museum.

“She was also very, very kind,” says Augustin. “I felt a stamp of approval.”

Michelle slowly started to pick up some French and settled into her Parisian lifestyle.

But by September, her student visa was up and Michelle had to return to New York.

Transatlantic long distance

“From there, there were definitely a lot of discussions to figure out, how are we going to be able to make this work long distance?” says Michelle.

Michelle’s grad school schedule gave her a bit more flexibility than a nine-to-five, allowing for calls whenever she had a spare moment.

“The flexibility in her schedule really allowed us to maintain this relationship over the phone and Skype, and so that was really great,” says Augustin.

“Then every four weeks, one of us would take the plane to go see each other.”

The couple settled into a routine of sorts, but as time went on, the long distance got more draining. There was no obvious end in sight.

“It was a lot more time not together than together,” says Augustin. “If we wanted this relationship to continue, one of us would have to make a move and go live in someone else’s country.”

At the time, Augustin worked for cosmetics company L’Oréal in Paris. After some months, he started exploring the possibility of transferring to the New York office.

“I definitely liked the energy in New York,” says Augustin. “I had over 15 interviews in the US to get a job there. And finally, on Christmas Eve 2011, I was approved.”

Augustin’s family were very supportive of the move. His parents had lived abroad and instilled an international mindset into their kids. Augustin had also spent a period in Singapore in his early twenties, and had traveled a lot.

And by coincidence, his sister had also recently moved to New York City.

“If anything, I’m assuming they were kind of excited – ‘Okay, cool. We can go see you in New York,’” says Augustin of his parents.

“I do think on my end, my parents were very excited that I had met someone, maybe also a sense of relief, after many dramatic relationships I had in New York. And you know, they come from an immigrant family, where family is really important,” says Michelle. “They really liked Augustin, they were very welcoming when he arrived here.”

Moving in together after almost two years of long distance was “easy,” says Michelle.

“We have great memories of that time,” agrees Augustin.

“It was really nice to close that chapter of the kind of sadness that would come when a long weekend ended when one of us was visiting whichever country,” says Michelle. “It felt like a real stroke of luck that he was able to move here through L’Oréal. It’s not something that everyone can get to do.”

Michelle and Augustin got married in the US in 2014, a celebration that brought together their different cultural influences, sometimes to amusing effect. The Americans, informed that French weddings go on into the next morning, tried their best to keep up with the French guests, who were more used to the copious quantities of champagne.

Michelle and Augustin’s wedding also celebrated their Bolivian meet-cute, and the twists and turns that led them to put down roots in New York.

“The speeches captured our optimism in life,” says Augustin. “We decided to meet again and just see if it works, then do long distance and see if it works, and then I decided to move to New York and see if it works. We gave it a shot at every step of the way, because we’re optimistic and up for adventure, and the speeches definitely captured that.”

Looking back and looking forward

A decade of marriage later, Michelle and Augustin are still based in New York, where they now run a company together, Untapped New York, an online magazine and tour company about discovering the secrets of your own city. They also still love photography, traveling and comparing images they’ve taken.

Meanwhile, Michelle is also working on a book, based on the true life story of a French female spy in the Second World War.

“I likely would not have come across her story at all had I not met and married someone French,” says Michelle, who is now fluent in French.

Michelle and Augustin have two children, who they’re bringing up as bilingual. The couple spend extended summers in France, while back in New York, Michelle’s parents teach their grandkids Tawianese traditions.

Michelle and Augustin love returning to Paris and retracing the steps of their early courtship. They dream about renting a Parisian apartment and embracing the nostalgia of those first dates and those moped rides along the Seine.

But they’d also love to return to Bolivia with their kids. The hostel where they first crossed paths almost fifteen years ago is now a government building, but the bar and restaurant where Michelle and Augustin first bonded over photography and their shared sense of humor is still going strong.

“We are going back there, we are going back to that place, and we’re taking them with us – that’s 100% in the cards,” says Augustin.

Today ,Michelle and Augustin see optimism, adventure and excitement as the cornerstones of their relationship.

“I would say that it has been a constant adventure being with Augustin,” says Michelle. “I think we’ve approached life like that, whether it was planning our wedding, and figuring out how to make it the biggest party possible with all our friends from different cultures and how to mix that. Then having kids, that’s been a real adventure, as well. We’re trying to make that fun and bring them up in a really global way.”

“At the core of who we are together, there’s this idea of excitement, so we say yes to everything usually,” agrees Augustin. “We’re excited about chapters in life, you know, there was a chapter where we weren’t together and now there’s many, many chapters in life and and we try to always approach the new one with excitement and positivity and a sense of adventure that we’re also trying to pass along to our two daughters.”

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