(CNN) — It was a summer’s day in Byron Bay, Australia in early 2003. The sun was shining and Gianna Mazzeo, who’d been basking in its rays for most of the day, decided to freshen up with a swim.
As she was coming out of the ocean, Gianna noticed a group of men playing soccer further up the beach, calling to one another as they kicked a ball back and forth on the sand.
Gianna, then 27, is Australian but her parents are from Italy, so she’d spent a lot of time traveling around the EU. She figured the group were from somewhere in Europe, but she couldn’t place the language.
As she made her way back to her beach towel, Gianna found herself staring at one of the guys, who was engrossed in the soccer game and unaware of her gaze.
“I thought he was extremely good-looking,” she recalls now.
Gianna was vacationing in Byron Bay with two friends. One of them, Alessandra, was visiting from Italy, and it was because of her that Gianna, who lived some 1,600 kilometers away in Melbourne, was in Byron Bay to begin with.
“Thinking of ways to get his attention”
The beachside town in New South Wales is a picturesque idyll, known for its surfing scene, burnt orange sunsets, laid-back ambiance, good food and vibrant beach bars. Alessandra and Gianna were also vacationing with another friend who was turning 30, so plenty of partying opportunities were a must.
Sitting back on the sand that January day, Gianna nudged her friends and pointed out the group of soccer players, including the one who’d caught her eye.
“Alessandra and I just sat there on the beach watching these boys playing, and I remember thinking of ways to get his attention,” says Gianna. “But I was too nervous to do it.”
As the day drew to a close, Gianna had an idea.
“We have this thing in Australia where we find a spot on the beach and we always say to each other: ‘Okay, we’ll meet at the same spot.’ You never sort of move around,” she says. “And I thought perhaps he did the same with his friends.”
With that in mind, Gianna and her friends headed to the beach early the next morning, purposefully setting themselves up in pretty much the same spot where the guys had been playing football the previous day.
“I wanted it to look coincidental,” says Gianna. “But it wasn’t.”
Basking in the early morning sun and listening to the lapping waves, Gianna felt her eyes start to droop. Before long she’d fallen into a snooze.
A little while later, Gianna awoke to the sound of laughter and shouting.
Shading her face from the sun, she looked up. Her plan had worked, the group of soccer players were only a couple meters away, exclaiming in that language she couldn’t place.
Gianna spotted the guy she’d noticed the day before. In an instant, the two of them locked eyes.
“We smiled at each other,” recalls Gianna. “And he came over to speak to me.”
Byron Bay is known for its surfing scene and laidback ambiance.
Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
She soon learned his name — Sebastian Guggenberger, a 28-year-old German engineering student who was working in Sydney for a semester as part of his college course.
Some of Sebastian’s German friends had flown out to visit him a few days before, and the group had made the eight-hour drive from Sydney for a weekend of bar hopping and surfing in Byron Bay.
Chatting up a girl on a beach wasn’t something Sebastian had ever done before, he tells CNN Travel.
“But it felt right,” Sebastian recalls today. “She looked up and smiled. I thought, ‘I really have to go over there.'”
After a while, Sebastian’s friends paused their soccer game and joined in the conversation and the two groups of friends arranged to meet at a local bar — a Byron Bay mainstay called The Beach Hotel — later that day.
That evening, Gianna and her friends discussed the German guys as they waited for them to arrive.
Gianna said she was interested in Sebastian, but her friend who was about to turn 30 admitted she was interested in him too.
“This is pretty silly,” says Gianna now, laughing. “But I said to her, ‘Okay, look, as a birthday present. I won’t do anything. This is my gift to you, basically. I’ll stand back.”
When the Germans arrived and greeted the three women, Sebastian immediately started chatting to Gianna’s friend.
Gianna recalls her heart sinking. “I thought, ‘Well maybe he really is more interested in her than me.'”
But then Sebastian turned to Gianna and offered to buy her a drink.
“We walked to the bar together,” she says. “And it was clear we liked each other.”
Gianna says her friend was fine with this turn of events — Gianna’s promise to back off had been more of a joke than anything else. After all, none of them thought the night out was going to spark anything serious.
At the end of an evening spent chatting, drinking and dancing, Gianna and Sebastian exchanged numbers.
Sebastian was actually supposed to be heading back to Sydney a couple of days later, but he realized he wasn’t ready for the trip to end.
He decided to extend his time in Byron Bay, calling work and booking some extra time off.
Again, it wasn’t something he usually would do, but it just felt right.
“I thought, ‘Why not?'” he recalls today.
Sebastian and Gianna with Gianna’s friend Alessandra, on the night they met in Byron Bay.
Courtesy Gianna Guggenberger
It was easy to get swept up in romance in Byron Bay, says Gianna.
She and Sebastian spent their days walking Byron’s spectacular coastal paths, and their evenings getting to know one another at bars with ocean views.
“I realized he was intelligent, witty, easy-going and well-traveled,” says Gianna.
A highlight was the day the two trekked to the Cape Byron lighthouse, a beaming white light station on the most easterly point of the Australia mainland.
“The lighthouse, we went there together — the whole romantic thing, it was really nice,” says Sebastian.
“We really did get along,” says Gianna.
Saying goodbye after this idyllic week was hard for them both.
“But he had already extended his stay in Byron for me, so I was really grateful that we had had the extra time,” Gianna says.
As they said their farewells, the two discussed the possibility of Sebastian coming to visit Gianna before his Australian sojourn came to an end.
But back home in Melbourne, Gianna reconnected with a guy she’d met right before the Byron Bay trip.
When Sebastian called her one day and suggested he come for a weekend visit, Gianna had to let him down.
“I said, ‘You can come, but I have to be honest with you, I have met someone, but it’s not serious.’ It was also at the beginning stages. I didn’t want to lie to him. I think he was a little disappointed,” says Gianna.
For Sebastian, this phone call sparked a greater realization.
“Normally I would have thought, ‘Okay, I had a good time, whatever.’ But that really did strike me weirdly and I discovered I had stronger feelings,” he recalls.
“I thought, ‘I really should not give that up.’ It’s hard to describe — but more like some other, not force, but there’s something inside that tells you, you should really follow that.”
Still, Sebastian didn’t want to fall further if Gianna was happy with someone else, so he decided not to come.
Meanwhile, chatting to her mother one day, Gianna found herself comparing the two men and how she felt about them.
“I said, ‘The guy from Melbourne, he’s the typical guy I always sort of attract, he’s the type of guy who’s going to string me along or so forth,” Gianna recalls saying.
“And I said to Mum, ‘And I’ve met this guy who’s quite different. This is the kind of guy that probably won’t break my heart.'”
About a month or so later, Gianna called Sebastian up out of the blue to reconnect. He asked her about the other guy.
It fizzled out, Gianna explained.
Relieved, Sebastian agreed to come see her.
The 2003 Formula One competition was taking place in Melbourne that weekend, and Gianna had tickets.
“It was great, he met my family, and they all liked him. I showed him around, it was nice,” says Gianna.
Over the course of the weekend, the two also talked about the possibility of Gianna coming to visit Sebastian in Germany that summer.
“Not as girlfriend/boyfriend, just friends seeing each other again,” says Gianna. “We were both pretty relaxed and neither one of us expected much.”
But something about meeting Sebastian had ignited in Gianna an already burgeoning desire to make a decisive change.
“My life had always been quite structured,” she says. “I finished high school, went on to uni. As soon as I finished, a week later, I had a job. I was working as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.
“I just tried to do everything right, and I needed to do something different.”
Within a few months, Gianna had quit her job and sold her Melbourne apartment — and decided to head to Germany not on a week’s vacation, but as part of a longer, more open-ended European trip.
This decision wasn’t just about Sebastian, she says. It was an opportunity to travel around the continent, see family in Italy and explore new destinations.
And before leaving, Gianna took a TEFL course to teach English as a foreign language, thinking she could teach in Spain, or maybe head on to Japan after Europe and teach there.
But first, she traveled to Upper Bavaria in Rosenheim, where Sebastian lived.
Taking a chance
“I picked her up from Munich airport,” Sebastian recalls. “I was living in a student apartment still, with other students, and she moved in. It was a tiny room, basically, but it was fun.”
Sebastian’s roommates couldn’t believe a girl had flown all the way from Australia to see him, but they liked Gianna right away.
“Everyone loves her,” says Sebastian. “She can speak to everyone.”
Over the course of the next few months, Gianna traveled around Europe, enjoying time in Germany, Scotland, Italy, Ireland and Vienna, and Sebastian joined whenever his studies allowed it.
But by October Gianna was increasingly conscious her summer of adventure had an expiration date.
“I have to go back,” she told Sebastian. “Or I’ve got to find a job.”
“Maybe you should stay,” he said.
So she did. Within two weeks, Gianna got a job at Inlingua Language school in Regensburg, teaching English as a foreign language.
Gianna’s parents — who’d always viewed her as the sensible middle daughter — were surprised when her summer in Europe became more of a permanent relocation to Germany. But they trusted Gianna’s decisions and wanted her to be happy.
Alessandra, Gianna’s friend from Italy who was there when it all began in Byron Bay, was pleased to have her friend on the same continent, but she confided in Gianna years later that she thought the whole thing was a risk.
“She thought, how crazy to be living with this guy that I hardly knew. She thought it would never work out,” says Gianna.
But Gianna was confident it was the right choice.
“I never wanted anyone’s opinion,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I know I’m doing the right thing. I’ve never really done anything like this.’ And I kind of trusted myself. I just trusted the situation, and I trusted him I guess — the way he was, the way he thought. I just knew it was right. And it just felt right, it really did.”
By Christmas 2003, Gianna and Sebastian had settled into a routine together in Germany. She’d met and instantly gelled with his family, and the two were committed to making the relationship work long-term.
Sebastian finished up his degree and started working in a job that often took him abroad.
And the two continued to travel extensively together when they could, a love of exploring the globe being one of the many things that had first bonded them.
In 2005, Gianna and Sebastian spent a long vacation in Australia, returning to the shores of Byron Bay once more.
“It was just as amazing,” says Gianna.
And when they got back to Germany, Gianna fell pregnant.
They were both delighted to start a family together, but while Gianna had always dreamed of a wedding, Sebastian says he’d never planned to get married.
“I don’t know why,” he says now. He was committed to Gianna, but weddings had never been his thing.
But a few months before the birth, Sebastian proposed a hiking trip.
“I’m pregnant, I don’t want to go,” Gianna protested, but Sebastian insisted, so she relented, and they headed to Tegensee, Bavaria, in the south of Germany.
“And when we got to the top, he asked me to marry him. I managed it to the top. And I think my first words were like, ‘No way.’ That’s how shocked I was.”
Sebastian asked Gianna to marry him while they were hiking in Tegensee, Bavaria in Germany.
Courtesy Gianna Guggenberger
Sebastian says his change of heart came about because he’d once again felt overcome with certainty. It was “the same feeling I had when I met her, or when I tried to visit her in Melbourne,” he says.
And Sebastian figured hiking was a way of making a proposal “interesting and not cheesy.”
Gianna said yes, and the couple were married at a civil service not long before Gianna gave birth to their first child.
A year later they celebrated their marriage with family in the beautiful surrounds of Bali, with guests attending from Australia, Germany and Italy.
One day at a time
In the intervening years, the couple have had two more children and Gianna, who arrived in Germany without speaking a word of German, is now fluent in the language.
Via their dual cultures Sebastian and Gianna have instilled open-mindedness and a love of travel in their kids.
A few years ago, the family temporarily relocated to China for Sebastian’s job.
The couple dove into this new adventure with enthusiasm and passion. The fact they’re both willing to take a risk is key to making their relationship work, says Sebastian.
“We think sometimes so alike it’s scary,” he says. “But of course there are differences.”
“I embraced them all,” says Gianna. “I have never had problems or a bad experience. I really love my life here. But not one day goes by where I don’t ring Mum, read the Australian news online or miss the ocean breeze.”
It’s hard, agrees Sebastian, that Gianna’s family lives so far away, especially during the pandemic.
Gianna does wonder if a return to Australia could be in their future, especially when their kids are older — they’re dual citizens, and they might express an interest in studying or working there.
But both Gianna and Sebastian are of the view that it’s best not to overthink or overplan for the years ahead.
That’s always been the couple’s policy, ever since Gianna first flew to Germany. And it’s worked pretty well for them so far.
“We really just took one day at a time,” says Gianna. “That’s how our relationship kind of worked out.”
And wherever they end up, they know it’ll be together.
“We are far from joined at the hip, I have tried to always give him the freedom to find his success and happiness,” says Gianna. “But at the end of day we both like the idea of saying good night to each other.”