She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (2024)

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Carter Leathers was sitting at a table on the terrace of a boutique hotel in the center of Florence, Italy – sipping a Negroni and trying to calm her nerves.

The courtyard was peaceful, open and airy, dotted with aperitivo-hour drinkers. Carter tried to soak up the Florentine vibes – and avoid checking her phone and reading the inevitable anxious messages from her mother.

Then through the stone arches into the courtyard, walked a tall, confident-looking guy in a blue suit.

This must be Max Ratzenböck, thought Carter.

The man was looking around the courtyard, and then his eyes met Carter’s. He started smiling, looking instantly pleased to see her.

This feeling was mutual. Carter smiled back.

“Wow, he looks good,” Carter thought to herself.

Carter and Max said their hellos. And soon Max was sitting opposite Carter, his own Negroni in hand.

“Once we started talking, we just kept smiling at each other,” Carter tells CNN Travel today. “We just hit it off.”

The decision to meet up in Florence no longer felt quite so crazy.

“Okay, yeah. This is going to work,” Carter recalls thinking.

An ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trip

It was late August 2022. Carter, a 35-year-old esthetician from Sacramento, California, was on what she calls an “Eat, Pray, Love-style” vacation in Europe.

Earlier that summer, Carter had dated a guy in California and she’d hoped their relationship might go somewhere. Instead, it unceremoniously ended.

In the wake of that disappointment, Carter made a conscious choice to shift her priorities.

“Okay, I’m just going to go do my own thing. I’m not waiting for anybody,’” she thought.

With that mindset, Carter booked a solo trip to Europe.

“I said, ‘I’m just going to go and explore and kind of see what happens, and see who I meet,’” recalls Carter.

Carter was excited for a change of scene, a change of pace. She loves art and imagined herself whiling away afternoons in galleries in picturesque European cities – without having to accommodate a partner’s needs or requirements.

While putting together her itinerary, Carter knew Florence and Rome were non-negotiable stop-offs. But she wasn’t sure about her third destination. She weighed up options and in the end, she got inspiration from an unlikely place: an episode of reality television show “The Bachelor,” filmed in Vienna, Austria.

The episode included sweeping shots of the historic buildings and green parks.

“The city looked so pretty,” recalls Carter.

Flights booked and hotel reservations made, Carter decided to switch her dating app location settings to Vienna.

Carter’s app of choice was Bumble, which prompts women to make the first move in hetrosexual pairings.

“I was like, ‘Okay, let’s see what the guys look like in Vienna,’” Carter recalls.

And that’s when Carter saw Max Ratzenböck for the first time.

“As I started swiping, he was the second guy that came up and I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope we match,’” Carter recalls.

A couple of hours later, Carter’s phone pinged: Max from Vienna had liked her back. It was a match.

A dating app match

In the summer of 2022 Max was a 31-year-old Austrian comedian finding his footing in his personal life and career in the wake of the pandemic.

“I’d just moved into the apartment I’d always wanted to have – it was in the middle of Vienna, it’s an old apartment, a bit of a bachelor pad,” Max tells CNN Travel today. “I was acting and I’m a comedian. But since Covid, I left the stage, basically, because at that time, the stage was not really an option.”

Like many comedians in the wake of the pandemic, Max turned to TikTok. He found some success posting comedic videos there, and became focused on growing his social media audience, while also juggling his day job at an advertising agency.

“Basically that’s what all I was doing – meeting with friends and working – and then I took a chance on Bumble too,” says Max.

Max vividly remembers the moment he opened the dating app and saw Carter for the first time.

“There’s this gorgeous-looking lady on my front page,” he recalls.

Max was so struck by Carter, he remembers questioning if she was “even real.”

“I would get that question a lot, if I was real,” says Carter today. “They’d be like, ‘Oh this is a fake profile.’”

Max swiped to the right “immediately.” Then he got the notification: Carter liked him too, it was a match. Max couldn’t believe it.

“That turned out to be a very good decision,” says Max, of his decision to swipe right on Carter’s profile. “The best I ever made.”

Max and Carter started messaging back and forth right away, with Carter explaining to Max she was based in the US, but would be visiting Europe in a few weeks time.

Their messages were light, flirty, and friendly. Carter suggested Max could maybe show her around Vienna.

“I was totally, totally doing that,” says Max. “I blocked all my stuff out of my calendar to have four to five days to show Carter around Vienna.”

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A spontaneous decision

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (4)

Carter and Max hit it off quickly when they connected on a dating app.

Carter and Max exchanged regular messages in the lead up to her arrival in Europe. Then, when Carter got to Italy, she and Max switched from chatting on Bumble to using messaging app WhatsApp.

And now they were in the same time zone, their back and forth became even more frequent.

“When I was in Rome, I started texting him more and more,” recalls Carter. “I was like, ‘Oh, he seems like a nice guy.’ But you never know who you’re talking to.”

Carter was excited, but also a little wary about the idea of meeting up with a total stranger in a foreign country.

“If I’m going to meet up with this guy, I should FaceTime him to make sure he’s real,” she thought.

So one evening, while she was relaxing on the balcony of her Rome hotel room, Carter spontaneously hit the call button on her cell phone.

Some 700 miles away in Vienna, Max was sitting at home, playing video games online with friends.

“It was a Saturday night. It was summer, it was really hot,” recalls Max. “I think I’d played basketball, had a nice shower, and now there was a nice summer breeze coming in. And then she called me for the first time.”

Max saw Carter’s name pop up on his phone and immediately dropped the video game controller.

“I told my friends to get off – ‘I’m not here for the next two or three games,’” recalls Max. “And then we had our first talk face to face. She was on her balcony having a glass of red wine in Rome.”

Carter thought it was “endearing” that, rather than being out partying on a Saturday night, Max was home playing video games. She felt it boded well for their potential connection.

“I’m more of a homebody too,” explains Carter.

And even though she’d called him out of the blue, Max looked thrilled to speak with her. The video chat quashed any worries Carter had about meeting Max in person.

“It just felt really easy talking to him,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is nice. I like this guy.’”

During the FaceTime call, Carter mentioned she was going to be going to Florence next. Max then spoke a bit about his memories of Florence – it was a city he’d visited multiple times, as he’d spent regular family vacations in Tuscany growing up.

As Max described his fondness for Florence, a thought crossed Carter’s mind.

“I’m just gonna be wandering around the city by myself,” she said. “Do you actually want to come meet me in Florence?”

Carter pretty much assumed Max would say no – she figured he’d be busy, unable to make it work, unwillingly to spontaneously travel to Italy.

But to her surprise, Max just smiled and said yes immediately.

“I couldn’t wait,” recalls Max. “I was completely stoked to meet her. We’d been talking for a couple of weeks and it intensified over time. So I got that flight to Florence.”

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An Italian rendez-vous

That’s how Carter came to be waiting for Max in the hotel courtyard on August 31, 2022 sipping her Negroni.

“I was thinking, ‘This is either going to go really good or really bad,’” Carter recalls. “I was trying not to be nervous.”

Max was nervous too. When he told a close friend about his plans, his friend was pretty blunt.

“Oh, wow,” the friend said. “Either this is going to become the biggest romance of all time, or it’s going to be the worst holiday of your life.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” said Max.

Carter’s mother, meanwhile, was “so worried.” In a series of frantic texts, she told Carter to hide her passport, and send updates as soon as she’d met Max in person.

Despite the nerves – and their loved ones’ apprehension – as soon as Carter and Max met in person on the Florence hotel terrace, they both felt certain they’d made the right decision. They spent the rest of the evening chatting, flirting and laughing over co*cktails. This evening set the tone for the rest of the four days, in which they were together pretty much 24/7.

“We just hit it off so well that I was like, ‘Just stay with me. I want you to stay with me,’” recalls Carter. “And so he ended up staying with me in my hotel the rest of the time in Florence. Pretty much from the moment we met, we were together.”

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (6)

This is Carter and Max's first ever photo together, taken on Florence's Ponte Vecchio.

In Florence, Carter and Max spent the days sightseeing around the city and evenings ducking into osterias to share bottles of wine and bowls of pasta. They took photos together – including their first-ever picture, posing on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio bridge – something that should have been awkward, but they both wanted to capture the moment.

Carter texted the pictures to her mother and sister.

“Wow, you look great together,” they replied.

Max also sent the Ponte Vecchio photo to his mother.

“I told her right away,” recalls Max. “I said: ‘Wow, look at that picture, isn’t she beautiful? We hit it off and it’s going great.’”

When their time in Florence came to an end, Carter and Max traveled on to Vienna, together.

“It was three, four days in Florence,” recalls Carter.

“And then another four days in Vienna,” adds Max.

“So our first date lasted a week,” says Carter, laughing.

Falling in love in Vienna

After the amazing time in Florence, Max was excited to show Carter around Vienna, the city he called home.

“I was pretty eager to give her the crème-de-la-crème tour,” he says. “I’m a very proud Austrian. I’m very happy with this capital city. We have this very beautiful city.”

Unlike Florence and Rome, Vienna is “never really on the list of places for Americans who do Europe,” says Max.

“That’s so weird to me,” he says. “Because it’s the center of culture. And it’s gorgeous.”

Max was determined Carter would fall in love with Vienna – especially given they were falling for one another too.

The first evening was spent at Vienna’s historic opera house watching Puccini’s romantic opera “La Bohème.” Max and Carter sat hand-in-hand in the theater, drank red wine in intermission and afterward Max introduced Carter to a Viennese tradition.

“There’s a very famous sausage stand, right next to the Opera House, where you would meet the president after the opera – because everybody goes there to get a sausage and a piece of bread with mustard, and eat it and have a last sip of beer before they go home after the opera,” says Max.

The two also toured the city’s numerous palaces, visited the Schönbrunn Zoo and rode the historic Ferris wheel.

For Carter and Max, the time in Vienna was both a whirlwind romantic haze and defined by a feeling of easy, surprising intimacy.

“I was really comfortable. When we were in Vienna, he was already ironing my clothes for me,” says Carter. “It went from zero to 100, really, really quick, in terms of comfort.

“He just took such good care of me and that’s what really impressed me. He watched out for me, he showed me around…”

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (7)

Here's Carter and Max enjoying the Viennese Opera.

Then, all of a sudden, the week was up and Carter had to fly back to California. Max took Carter to the airport and as they said their goodbyes in the departures area, he was firm that the farewell wasn’t forever:

“I’m going to come and see you in California,” he promised.

As they hugged goodbye, a feeling of certainty crossed Carter’s mind.

“This is it,” she thought. “And either I’m going to have to move here, or he’s going to have to move to America.”

Carter boarded her flight, and Max went home alone. Back in his apartment, Max called his mother to fill her in properly on his romantic adventure, enthusing about Carter and their time together.

“And then I put my phone away and I was sitting there, I was like ‘Oh, this is weird,’” he says.

Max suddenly felt lonely and sad – and simultaneously, he found himself marveling at that feeling.

“You met this person only a week before – three and a half weeks before online – and now she’s not here and it’s horrible,” he thought.

Max’s life in Vienna felt empty without Carter. And over the next few weeks, as he wandered around the city, Max realized every corner of the city reminded him of her – whether he was walking past the sausage stand outside the Opera House, or just spotting the Ferris wheel turning in the city skyline.

Back in Sacramento, Carter kept having to remind herself that her visit to Europe wasn’t a dream. It felt like a “fairy tale,” she says. And it was hard to wrap her head around everything that had happened in such a short space of time.

As soon as he could, Max booked a flight to visit Carter for later in the fall. Eventually, this visit rolled around.

“I went and picked him up from the airport. And I was like, ‘I cannot believe he’s here. I can’t believe it. Oh my gosh, this is real. He really came. He’s really here,’” recalls Carter.

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A California visit

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (9)

When Max came to California, Carter took him to San Francisco.

Carter wanted to introduce Max to the best of California in the same way he’d shown her Vienna. So first they stopped off in San Francisco, then the two went to Napa Valley and spent a few days in the wine country.

“I took him wine tasting and showed him all over there,” recalls Carter. “It was really fun.”

Carter also introduced Max to her whole family and they all traveled together to the coastal city of Monterey for a few days’ vacation.

“It was great. We just threw him into the fire,” says Carter.

“We had a lot of fun,” says Max. “Monterey is a little nice town on the coast on the way south – I totally fell in love with that place too.”

When Max and Carter said goodbye at the end of Max’s trip, they promised to meet again as soon as they could.

And so Carter booked a trip to Vienna for December, which happened to coincide with her birthday. Carter assumed they’d stay in Vienna, wander around the Christmas markets – but Max had a surprise up his sleeve:

“He said, ‘We’re going to Paris for your birthday,’” recalls Carter.

She couldn’t believe it.

“I had always wanted to see Paris,” says Carter.

After the Parisian getaway, Carter returned to the US for Christmas. Max joined her, and the two welcomed the New Year together, excited for all 2023 might bring.

But while Carter and Max were certain they wanted to be together, the shape of their future was still uncertain. They’d both spent way more money on international flights in 2022 than they’d ever anticipated. It just wasn’t sustainable to travel back and forth so regularly.

So Max and Carter waited it out for a few months, and while the nine-hour time difference was difficult to navigate, the couple remained committed to one another from across the Atlantic.

Making a decision

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (10)

Here's Max and Carter enjoying an Alex Katz art exhibition in Vienna.

After a few months apart, in spring 2023 Carter returned to Austria, joining Max on a family vacation to the south of the country.

“That was the first time she met my dad and my brother and his girlfriend and my mom,” says Max.

The trip was a bit of a baptism of fire, Max admits.

“We went on this unbelievably long biking trip,” he recalls. “She did so well, I couldn’t believe it, because it was, like, 55 kilometers – you know, really long – electric vehicles, up and down the hills – but with several wine breaks, so that made it a bit easier.”

It was during this trip that Carter and Max started talking more seriously about the future, and what it might look like.

“I want you here with me,” Max told Carter. “I want you here with me more than anything.”

But when the topic of marriage came up, Carter was surprised to realize they were on slightly different pages. All her friends in the US in committed relationships were married. But Max had friends in Austria who’d been with their partners for over a decade and shared several kids, but had no intention of ever signing marriage papers.

To Carter, this seemed to be something of a cultural gap – maybe there was a stronger commitment to the institution of marriage in the US than in Austria? Max even said he never planned to get married.

But when Carter explained that marriage was important to her, a crucial symbol of commitment in a relationship, Max understood. He wanted to be with Carter forever, that much was sure. And so Max and Carter confirmed marriage was in their future.

Also in their future? Carter leaving California and permanently moving to Vienna.

This was a big decision, but Carter had fallen in love with the Austrian capital, and was excited at the idea of a life there.

The couple did also consider Max moving to the US, but in the end, Vienna won out.

“It’s always ranked the most livable city in the world,” Carter says, referring to the recent Economist Intelligence Unit list of the world’s most livable cities, which ranked Vienna at number one for the third year in a row.“We just felt quality of life would be a lot better here in Vienna.”

As for Max, he suggests moving to the US at some point isn’t off the table.

“I’ve always had a very big affiliation with America,” he says. “And why should I not take the same thing on my back that Carter did for me, and move over to America? We’ll see. But I think that Vienna is just the perfect place to live, all in all.”

In May 2023, Carter moved out of her Sacramento apartment, sold her car and all her furniture, packed a couple of suitcases, and moved across the world to start a new life.

Sadly, just as Carter set off for the airport, Max’s grandmother unexpectedly passed away. Carter arrived in Vienna to a grieving Max and a few days later, accompanied him to the funeral.

It was a “rough start,” admits Max. But he was so pleased to see Carter. For both Max and Carter, being by each other’s side during this tough period reinforced their certainty that they’d made the right decision.

“You want to have your better half at your side when life gets a bit hard,” says Max. “And my grandma was really important to me, so I appreciated Carter being there.”

Carter didn’t bring much with her to Europe – she’d sold basically everything, after all.

But there was one non-negotiable: her dog, Waffles.

“I wasn’t going to come without her,” says Carter.

Max was almost as excited about Waffles moving in as he was finally living with Carter.

“I never had a dog, ever,” he says. “And I always wanted one. She’s awesome.”

Adjusting to life in Vienna was a big change – for both Waffles and Carter – but Carter felt supported by Max as she began to accilimatize to Austria.

“He made it very easy for me to come over and start my life here,” she says.

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A wedding and an anniversary

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (12)

Carter and Max flew to Florence, Italy to recreate their first meeting and celebrate their wedding.

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (13)

The couple had a great time enjoying the city together and retracing their steps from the year before. Carter even wore the same headband as a nod to that first meet-up.

In late August 2023, on the one year anniversary of their first meeting, Carter and Max got married in Austria, in a small city hall wedding attended by immediate family. Carter took Max’s name, becoming Carter Ratzenböck.

“We had a little brunch with our eight guests,” says Max. “And then we took off to go right back to Florence.”

In Florence, Max and Carter retraced the steps of their first trip together. The couple recreated their first ever photo together – taken a year previously, on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

And as a nod to that first date, Carter dug out the sparkly headband she’d worn that day, which serendipitously coordinated with her white wedding dress.

The couple also took photos in the Uffizi Gallery, kissing in front of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” And as they walked around Florence, passersby, spotting that they were newlyweds, started cheering and clapping.

Today Max and Carter are fast approaching their first wedding anniversary – and the two year anniversary of their first meeting. They plan to return to Florence once again to celebrate both occasions.

“We’re kind of making it a thing,” says Carter. “This will be year three in Florence.”

For Carter and Max it’s surreal to think how much their lives have changed since their first meeting just two years ago.

Today, Carter admits it was “kind of crazy” to arrange a date with a guy who lived on the other side of the world.

And Max appreciates it was “pretty crazy” to fly to Florence to see a woman he met on the internet.

The couple are grateful everything worked out – and appreciate their happy ending was perhaps against the odds.

But Carter’s also grateful for their mutual optimistic outlook, which defined their early decisions and still defines their relationship today.

“Be optimistic,” she says. “Take a chance – that’s what I was thinking at the time.”

After all, Carter says, if she hadn’t been optimistic about travel, about love, about Max – her life today would look very different.

Carter and Max suggest their story also disproves the notion that falling in love via a dating app is less romantic than stumbling across a stranger the old-fashioned way.

“Thank goodness for dating apps,” says Carter. “It allowed us to reach each other. Because I would never have met him otherwise. There’s no way we would have ever ran into each other. Because like we said, he likes to stay in and play video games… And how cool is it that you get to meet somebody through this app, on the other side of the world and see what those people are like? I just think online dating opens up so many more possibilities.”

“I think our story is the perfect example that the impossible is out there,” adds Max. “All those parts… with meeting online, one in the heart of Europe, one on the west coast in America, one completely involved in his life and one in her life traveling… All those puzzle pieces are perfect for a novel, but not for real life, at least that’s what most people think.

But that’s not true. We are the best example. And we’re very happy that it happened that way.”

She invited a stranger to join her on vacation in Italy. ‘It went from zero to 100, really, really quick’ | CNN (2024)

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