Elisabeth Kramer knew Gabriel Santiago was trying to impress her.
The medical student picked her up in his old Porsche Boxster and drove through Manhattan with the top down, taking the long way home through Times Square.
He extended half a dozen other invitations, to dinners and sporting events. But Kramer, who grew up in a small town in Northern Germany, would be leaving New York soon and had no intention of falling for somebody who lived half a world away.
She had come to New York in the summer of 2008 for a two-month fellowship at Mt. Sinai Medical School and was assigned to the same neurology team as Santiago. Every day they ate lunch on a bench in Central Park. He was entranced by the petite blonde’s lilting accent and constant smile.
German medical students often spend their third year abroad, and when Santiago found out Kramer’s next stop was Paris, he told her he’d find a way to meet her there. She laughed. But the night before she left, she agreed to let him take her to dinner. The final goodbye was a half hug that disappointed them both. “It was less than a friend hug,” she says. “I didn’t know how much he really was into me.”
Santiago, a graduate of Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington County and a Navy lieutenant, didn’t speak French, so he had a friend from Montreal draft a letter to the head of surgery at the Paris hospital where Kramer would be working, asking if he could do a month-long rotation in January. The response was yes.
For two hours a day, he studied French. When he arrived, he sent Kramer a message on Facebook. “He really came,” she remembers thinking. “I couldn’t believe it.”
She promised to show him the city, and they met one day at Notre Dame. After touring, the pair went to an early dinner. They were the first patrons to arrive and the last to leave.
“I thought, ‘Oh I can talk to him for so long that I don’t realize how fast time has gone by,’ ” Kramer says. She was sure that Santiago had gone to Europe mostly to play around. “I still told myself not to fall in love, and it somehow worked. At that point I really liked him, but I blocked it completely because I didn’t see a future at all and I didn’t want to be sad.”
They saw each other every day, but Santiago could never tell whether his affection was returned. He was captivated by her thoughtfulness, her knowledge of music and art, and her “total love of everything beautiful in life.” Three days before he was scheduled to go home, he’d had enough. At the end of a night at an underground dance club, he kissed her.
Finally, she dropped her guard. “After that, we had a really romantic and very wonderful time,” she says. “I was totally into enjoying the time. I didn’t think about the future.”
He told her he’d visit her in Italy, where she’d be spending the spring. But when he missed her birthday that February, she figured she must not mean much to him. In truth, he was in the middle of an intense surgical rotation. That May, frustrated that she hadn’t heard about his visit, she sent a note asking, “So are you coming?”
Santiago, now 28, booked a ticket that day. In June he arrived in Padua, stepped off a bus and saw her waiting in a black dress on an old-fashioned bicycle. “I just kissed her right away,” he says.
“I knew then he was there as my boyfriend,” she remembers. “It was wonderful.”
They spent a magical week touring the country. He made her laugh and always carried her bag, and before he got on the plane to go home, he told her he loved her. “I answered him the same, and I had never said that before,” says Kramer, now 29. “We don’t use those words very easily in German. But I just knew.”
It would be at least six months before they could see each other again, as they finished their final year of medical school. They wrote every day, and in January 2010, they met for a 10-day trip in Scandinavia. For her birthday the next month, he flew her back to New York.
By then, she’d decided to find a job in the States after graduating in May. She was hired as a researcher by Mt. Sinai in New York. But just as she arrived in September, he got stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. They began a frequent bus commute and never missed a weekend together. Every Sunday was marked with a teary goodbye.
That New Year’s Eve, after dinner in a hotel room in New York, Santiago proposed. He was scheduled for a tour in Afghanistan in the coming year; knowing Kramer would have no benefits as Santiago’s fiancee, they legally wed 12 days later.
Just before the deployment, his placement officer said a physician was needed at Andrews Air Force Base. So the New York-D.C. bus trips continued.
On Dec. 29, the pair exchanged vows at Saint Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in Bethesda and celebrated with a reception at Congressional Country Club. Kramer’s whole family came from Germany.
Next month, Kramer will move to the District. The bus trips will end, and so will the sad goodbyes.