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Twelve years ago, a homeless man in Amsterdam sat on a bench next to Emmy Abrahamson and asked her for the time. This is the unlikely romance that followed.
If someone had told me 12 years ago that I was going to end up marrying a homeless alcoholic, I would have presumed they were mad. But that’s what happened. I was 30 years old, happily single, with a successful career as a writer, when I fell in love with a man who lived in a bush. A man with no income. Or career prospects. Or shoes.
I come from an academic family: my father was a foreign correspondent and I grew up in Sweden, the former Soviet Union, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK. Conversations over dinner were about politics, literature and recent world events. I loved school and I have a master’s from London’s Rada in text and performance studies. By 2006 I was living in Vienna, in my own flat, with my beloved cat Whiskey. A four-year relationship had ended badly and, although I wasn’t averse to meeting a man if he happened to fall into my lap, I was enjoying life on my own. I had lots of friends, a fun social life and a busy freelance career.
Then, in September that year, I went to work in Amsterdam for a few weeks. One Sunday evening, I was sitting on a bench on Leidseplein, a busy square in the city centre, waiting for a friend, when a man sat down next to me.
‘Do you have the time?’ he asked.
‘Ten to seven,’ I replied, as there was a massive clock right in front of us. I glanced sideways – he looked like a vagrant. His clothes were dirty, his hair and beard dusty and, rather incongruously, he was holding a worn briefcase (I later found out that he kept his sweater, sleeping bag and beer in it). We started chatting and, to my surprise, he made me laugh several times. I couldn’t help but notice that, despite his appearance, he was handsome, tall and had the biggest brown eyes I had ever seen.
Ten minutes later my friend arrived. ‘I have to go,’ I said, a bit reluctantly. Before I could say anything further he stood up, pointed to the bench and said, ‘Saturday, three o’clock, same bench.’ Then he walked away. My friend and I stared at each other, unable to believe what had happened. Had a man who appeared to be destitute ordered me to come back on Saturday? How could he be so confident? It didn’t make any sense.
I found myself thinking about him a lot during the next week. On the one hand I was put off by his dishevelled appearance, but on the other there was something about him that was so intriguing that I wanted to meet him again. Finally Saturday arrived and with a thumping heart I sat on the same bench at three o’clock. And waited. And waited. And waited. After 20 minutes I was about to give up when he turned up. On a kid’s bike.
‘You’re late!’ I said crossly.
‘I didn’t think you would come. I came to check just in case. And you’re here!’ he said with a smile. I smiled back and my anger melted away – perhaps because he was better looking than I remembered.
We spent the next six hours together, walking around Amsterdam, having a picnic and getting to know each other. I found out that his name was Vic, that he was born in Poland but grew up in Canada, was 25 (the beard made him look much older) and that he was currently living in Vondelpark. After working as a tow-trucker and in other various low-income jobs in Canada, he decided to travel around Europe. When his money ran out he saw no other option than to live on the streets while hitchhiking from country to country. If the weather was good he slept under the stars and if it rained he found a bridge to sleep under. At that time he was living in a bush that had a cardboard floor and a tarpaulin roof.
During our time together I realised that Vic was simply the funniest, happiest and most optimistic person I had ever met. He had a lust for life that was both mesmerising and contagious. I had never met anyone like him before – someone who found everything a huge adventure.
Vic and I met three more times before I had to go back to Vienna. As my return approached I had to face it: I had fallen in love with him. I tried to fight my feelings as there were so many things wrong with him according to my world-view: he had no education, no career prospects, drank way too much (as well as using other substances), was five years younger than me and was living in a bush! There was no way we could be together. Despite this I gave him my mobile phone number – even though he didn’t have a phone. I am not sure that the Dutch postal service would have accepted letters addressed to ‘the good-looking guy living in the bush in Vondelpark, Amsterdam’, so I had no way of keeping in touch with him.
I returned to Vienna and wondered if I would ever see him again. Then, three weeks later, on a Monday morning as I was getting ready to go to work, my mobile phone rang. ‘I’m here,’ the voice said. It was Vic. Having earned enough money doing odd jobs he had bought a train ticket to Vienna…and we have been together ever since. Two years after we met, we married at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna in the presence of both our families, and two years after that our beautiful twins Til and Desta were born. Vic is now a mechanical engineer and we live in my old family house in Sweden. Not only have I ended up with the funniest and most wonderful husband, but the twins couldn’t have a better or more loving dad.
But the road to here wasn’t easy. Vic was a severe alcoholic when we met. Living on the streets had turned him to booze as a way of keeping warm and as a survival mechanism. I wanted him to stop drinking (he usually started the day with a can of beer), but at the same time I knew that giving him an ultimatum wouldn’t work. Thankfully Vic decided by himself that he needed to curb his drinking, and he did.
Vic and I both had our prejudices to overcome. In my family education is everything and I soon realised Vic’s family had the opposite view. Vic’s dad was a bricklayer, his was mum a cleaner, and no one in his family had gone to university. Vic was raised on the mantra that ‘real men don’t study’ and he spent most of his high-school years getting high and skipping classes. Coming from a family of book lovers, I nearly fainted when I found out that Vic had never read a book in his life. And yet I believed in him and could see how intelligent he was and what a waste it would be if he didn’t push himself. After a lot of convincing and encouragement he agreed to study mechanical engineering as he had always had an interest in machines.
I didn’t tell my parents the full extent of Vic’s background – they only found out when they read my new novel, How to Fall in Love With a Man Who Lives in a Bush, based on how we met – but it bothered them that he didn’t have an education. Before they met him my dad was also afraid that Vic was going to give me some terrible disease and my mum was worried that he was going to steal from me. But when they met they absolutely adored him. ‘He’s the first real man you’ve ever dated,’ my dad said. And once they saw what an amazing cook he is (his steaks are always a big hit) and how he helps them around the house, he soon became an indispensable part of our family.
But sadly not everyone feels the same about Vic. When I married him I lost two of my oldest friends as they refused to accept him. Vic tries to comfort me by saying it just shows how narrow-minded and shallow they are – and he is right – but there are moments when I miss them and feel miserable about their decision. I also feel angry that they never took the time to get to know him properly and judged him on his background.
The first six years of our relationship were very hard financially as Vic was studying full-time and I was the sole breadwinner. I was working as a writer and although my second book had been nominated for an award, I wasn’t earning a lot of money. Then the twins were born and our situation became even more strained. But we knew that we had to get through those rough years in order to make a better future for ourselves.
Some people see me as having ‘saved’ Vic, but I think it’s the other way around. He showed me that you don’t need much to be content and he makes me laugh every day. In the almost 12 years we have been together I have become calmer, more easygoing and have a better sense of humour. And that is all down to him.
He has also taught me valuable skills, such as how to break into a car (in case I locked myself out!), and opened my eyes to the lives of homeless people – a world I had always chosen to ignore and one most of us want to forget about. They’re people who make us feel uncomfortable, and we try to get away from them as fast as possible.
I used to have so many preconceptions about homeless people, chiefly that they somehow deserved where they had ended up. Now I know that becoming homeless is a fate that could befall any one of us. Shelter estimates that there are more than 300,000 people who are homeless in the UK, and that the main cause is relationship breakdown. I have also learnt that homelessness can sometimes be a lifestyle that people choose – as in Vic’s case – to get away from a less than satisfactory existence. Vic said he would rather live on the streets of Europe than have a ‘crappy job’ (his words) in Canada. The world Vic has described to me couldn’t be further from my own safe, middle-class one: the everyday struggle to find food, the rampant drug and alcohol abuse, but also the camaraderie and friendship.
We have been on an amazing journey together, and still are. Vic is a doting father and husband, working in a job he never dreamt of. I write full-time and have lots of exciting projects on the go, including a feature film, and will soon be publishing my seventh book. But we feel truly blessed and never take anything for granted.
Vic once told me that I was the first person who believed in him. And that’s all it takes. Just saying ‘I believe in you’ can change someone’s world. Sometimes even just making eye contact, smiling and saying ‘hi’ to someone you wouldn’t usually talk to can change their life. Or yours. You might even end up meeting your Prince Charming.