She broke up with her boyfriend and moved in with a man she’d known for 3 weeks. Here’s what happened next

Liesbet Collaert was about to blow up her life.

She’d arrived in San Francisco, California just three weeks earlier, part of an overland journey across North America with her long-term boyfriend, Karl.

Now, Liesbet was about to abandon her travels (unthinkable), abandon the plan (out of character), and abandon Karl (unbelievable).

Why? Because Liesbet had fallen in love with someone else, and she couldn’t shake the thought that she was meant to be with him.

It was 2004 and Liesbet was 28. She’d met her American boyfriend Karl a couple of years earlier, on a trip to Australia. Back in her home country of Belgium, Liesbet was a trained teacher, but while she enjoyed her job, her thirst for adventure superseded everything else. Liesbet was always working out ways she could work from the road, always figuring out her next trip.

When Liesbet and Karl pulled up in San Francisco, they planned to only stay for a week. They were crashing with a friend of Karl’s – a guy called Nik who owned a San Francisco townhouse he’d converted into three apartments. Nik lived in one of the studios, and he rented out the others.

That first day, after greeting Nik and dumping her bag in his apartment, Liesbet headed back downstairs to grab a CD from the campervan.

“As I come into the yard, I get greeted by two beautiful, amazing, fluffy dogs wagging their tails,” recalls Liesbet. “And of course, I was totally enamored with them, hanging out with them…”

When Liesbet looked up, she noticed a man standing in the doorway of the ground floor apartment, smiling at her.

“Hi, I’m Mark,” he said. “Mark Kilty.” He was the dogs’ owner, and one of Nik’s tenants – the occupant of the downstairs apartment.

Liesbet introduced herself, explaining she and her boyfriend were staying with Nik for a few days.

“We talked a little bit – and a little bit turned into an hour,” recalls Liesbet.

Liesbet’s first impression of Mark was that he was “a very attractive, tall, dark-haired man” (“I was attracted to his looks more than anything else,” she admits.)

But after their extended conversation, Liesbet decided Mark was also “very well-spoken and intelligent.”

Mark was 33 and recently divorced. He’d grown up on the East Coast of the US, but moved to California in the late 1990s – he was a software engineer and had arrived just in time for the dot-com boom.

Mark was pretty happy with his life – separating from his wife hadn’t been easy, but he loved his work, his dogs and his life in the Bay Area.

But when Liesbet talked about her myriad travels and her nomadic lifestyle, Mark was immediately fascinated. It was like she’d opened up a window to a life he’d never even considered, but was immediately enthralled by.

“I was very intrigued with her lifestyle, and what she was able to accomplish with relatively little financially – and how much she had been able to see places and go places and experience things.”

Liesbet crossed paths with Mark multiple times over the course of the next few days. It turned out Mark was good friends with his landlord Nik, and so Mark, Nik, Liesbet and Karl often hung out together.

“We went out for drinks,” recalls Liesbet, “Mark was a sailor and took us all out sailing. The group grew a little closer.”

Mark liked Liesbet, but he was conscious of not crossing any lines – she and Karl seemed pretty committed. But as the days rolled on and the week in San Francisco turned into three, Mark’s feelings began to spill over, and he started to suspect they were reciprocated.

As for Liesbet, the time in San Francisco just felt surreal. She knew she was falling for Mark. And she didn’t know what to do about it.

“Karl was really looking forward to the next step of our trip – we were going to meet my parents at some point in California, and then we’re going to go to Mexico,” recalls Liesbet. “And every time he brought that up, I was… I was quiet.”

The more time progressed, it was more and more emotionally laden, like my heart would beat harder as we sat next to each other on the couch, talking

Liesbet Collaert

Karl encouraged Liesbet and Mark to spend time together – it’d be just him and Liesbet for the next several months, so he figured it was nice for them both to enjoy other social interactions while they could.

“The more time progressed, it was more and more emotionally laden, like my heart would beat harder as we sat next to each other on the couch, talking,” recalls Liesbet.

The night before Liesbet was due to leave, she and Mark found themselves alone in his apartment. Mark was showing her photo albums from his college years, and the two of them were sharing stories about their lives before they’d met.

“At some point, he put his arm around me, and I just remember my heart going faster. And I think I turned. And I think that’s how it happened,” says Liesbet.

“We kissed,” says Mark. “We were both glad about it, but we felt bad about it also. Because obviously, she was in a relationship. And I’m pretty sure she was leaving the next day.”

When Liesbet left that evening, the only acknowledgment of what happened was Mark’s parting words:

“If you ever break it off with Karl, just let me know where you are, and no matter where you are, I’ll come pick you up,” he said.

A spontaneous decision

The next day, Liesbet and Karl prepared to say goodbye to San Francisco. Mark went to work, knowing they’d be gone by the time he got back.

As she helped Karl pack the camper, Liesbet battled a mounting feeling of dread.

She didn’t know what the future held. But she knew she couldn’t carry on with Karl, pretending her feelings for Mark meant nothing.

She decided she had to tell Karl the truth.

“I have feelings for Mark,” she said. “I think I’ll end up coming back here.”

She tried to sound confident and determined, masking the fear, sadness and confusion she felt. Karl seemed shocked, but didn’t try to persuade her to stay with him.

“He was very heartbroken,” recalls Liesbet. “He simply said, ‘If you think you’re going to come back, you’d better just stay.’”

So instead of getting into the RV together and driving on, Liesbet and Karl went to the bank and split up their finances. Then she took all her belongings out of the campervan and said goodbye to her boyfriend of three years.

“That was a very, very hard emotional time for both of us,” says Liesbet.

She watched Karl drive off in the RV, wiping away tears. Then she headed back into the apartment block, let herself into Mark’s apartment and dumped her stuff in the corner. Feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, she climbed onto Mark’s bed, comforted by his two dogs.

“Then for the rest of the day, I cried,” says Liesbet. “It was not an easy decision.”

Several hours later, when Mark came home from work, the first thing he noticed was that the campervan was gone. His heart sank.

“I’ll probably never hear from her again,” he thought.

Shaking off the thought, he parked his car and headed into the building.

“I go up to the apartment door and the door was unlocked, which was a little bit odd,” recalls Mark.

He stepped inside, expecting to be greeted by his dogs, who usually waited for him at the door. Instead, they came out of the bedroom.

“They were wagging and happy to see me and I sort of got down on the ground with them – as I do with dogs – and hung out with them and petted them.”

Mark comforted himself with the dogs’ affections, pushing thoughts of Liesbet out of his mind.

“And then, I don’t know, four seconds later, five seconds later – Liesbet steps out from the bedroom door.”

Mark jumped, looking at her in disbelief, then swore loudly.

“My jaw hit the ground,” he says. “I was just in shock.”

Liesbet interpreted Mark’s reaction as an indication she’d made a “massive mistake.”

“Maybe this was not such a good idea,” she thought. The tears which had been falling freely all day threatened to start up again.

But then Mark got up and embraced her, giving her a long hug.

They stood, arms around each other, for a long while. Then, softly, Mark asked why she was there.

“I decided to stay,” said Liesbet.

New chapter

That’s how Liesbet moved in with Mark after knowing him for just a few weeks. After Mark got over the initial shock, he was thrilled and the two spent the next few weeks in a happy daze.

“There were a lot of emotions and a lot of excitement,” says Mark.

“There was the romance of being together, and actually being able to express our emotions for each other,” adds Liesbet.

It wasn’t all perfect – Liesbet still “felt guilty and bad about Karl.”

She also questioned her decision to abandon the overland adventure.

“In the past, I had left boyfriends for my travels,” she says. “With Mark, it was the opposite – I was abandoning my travels for a man, so I struggled with that.”

Plus, there were logistical issues at play – Liesbet’s tourist visa only allowed her to stay in the US for another month. She couldn’t just live, jobless and visaless, in Mark’s apartment for the foreseeable future, nor did she want to. But neither she nor Mark felt able to make any long-term plans just yet. In the end, Liesbet applied for a visa extension, which was granted, and the two put thoughts of the long term to one side and decided to just enjoy the moment.

About a month after she’d moved in with Mark, Liesbet flew with him to the East Coast to meet his family. A few months after that, Liesbet’s parents came to visit. Their respective families took the sudden change in circumstances pretty well, and everyone got on.

As time went on, Liesbet and Mark started talking about potential adventures they could go on together when Liesbet’s US visa ran out. As a keen sailer, Mark had always dreamed of spending an extended period on the water. Liesbet was prone to seasickness, but she was willing to give life on the ocean a try. She was excited that Mark seemed up for an adventure, and as much as she was enjoying San Francisco, she had itchy feet.

So, in 2005, Mark quit his job and the couple bought a sailboat, planning to sail around the California coast towards South America.

“It was definitely a big leap of faith,” says Mark.

Unfortunately the adventure got off to a bumpy start. Liesbet badly struggled with her seasickness, while Mark’s dogs hated being on the water.

After just two days at sea, the couple made the decision to abandon the boat, put it up for sale and purchase a campervan instead.

“Ironically, I was ‘back on plan’ but with a different boyfriend and two dogs,” says Liesbet.

A bump in the road

Liesbet and Mark spent the next year driving through Central America, traveling to Panama, and then back up to Texas.

The beginning, says Mark, was a “honeymoon period.”

“You’re just enjoying the company and the relationship growing and those kinds of things,” he says. “But we definitely hit a bump.”

Liesbet could feel Mark pulling away. “He wasn’t really holding my hand,” she recalls. “There was something about him that felt a little off.”

The situation worsened. And then, when they reached Honduras, Mark said he wanted to end things.

Liesbet could have left there and then, and flown back to Belgium. But something made her stay. And so for the last few months of the trip, she and Mark lived together, broken up, in the tight confines of the campervan.

Both of them were lonely, and both of them struggled.

They reached Texas, where they’d arranged to stay with Karl – yes, Liesbet’s ex-boyfriend Karl. It was now over a year since Liesbet ended things with him, and he was now dating someone else, living happily in Austin.

When they’d made the arrangement, Liesbet and Mark were in love. Now it was just awkward.

“Mark stayed in the campervan in Karl’s drive, and I was staying in Karl’s spare bedroom,” says Liesbet, adding it was “all very ironic.”

Things got worse before they got better – one day Mark drove off, without telling Liesbet, and she had no idea if he would ever come back. Three days passed, and then she got a call from him, out of the blue.

“I really regret my decision,” Mark said. “I want us to start over.”

Today, Mark thinks the break-up was the result of him feeling overwhelmed – his life had changed so quickly and so drastically, and spending 24 hours a day with someone in a tight space isn’t easy.

But when he drove off, alone, in Austin, he had “a lot of time to think about what I want to do and who I would like to do it with.”

“Everything sort of pointed back to her,” he says.

Liesbet and Mark reunited, but this time they thought long and hard before diving in.

“When we got back together, we had some very long conversations about what we could improve in our relationship, about things that we each needed, personally, to make this work for both of us so that we can have a good relationship, but also so we can both, as individuals, be in a better place,” says Mark.

From there, Liesbet and Mark continued traveling together and both started working freelance on the road. They decided to give the sailing dream another shot – this time buying a bigger boat, a catamaran, which was more stable and comfortable for both Liesbet and the dogs.

The couple sailed to the Bahamas, then towards the Dominican Republic. Later, they sailed down the Panama Canal and on the Galapagos Islands to French Polynesia.

Throughout this experience, Liesbet and Mark operated as “a team,” says Liesbet.

In 2007, Liesbet and Mark got married.

Their first celebration was a small, simple legal ceremony, with just a couple of friends as witnesses. Three years later, they had a larger wedding party with all their loved ones in St. Maarten. During the ceremony, Mark belatedly proposed – he’d never officially done so in 2007, and it felt only fitting to do so now, in front of Liesbet’s friends and family.

It was, says Liesbet, both “funny and romantic.”

Difficult times

One day in 2014, Mark was alone on the catamaran when he noticed a lump on his chest, just above his right nipple.

Earlier that week, Mark had also tripped and bumped his right chest.

“It hurt a lot more than I thought it should hurt,” he recalls.

This, combined with the lump, set off alarm bells in Mark’s mind. The year before, his sister had passed away from brain cancer. What were the chances of him also having cancer? And what were the chances of him having what looked like male breast cancer?

He pushed the thoughts out of his mind, mentioning the lump to Liesbet briefly, in passing, when she got home.

But a month later, Mark and Liesbet decided the lump “wasn’t really noticeably getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better.”

A biopsy in a hospital in Tahiti confirmed Mark had a type of breast cancer.

“Your whole world shatters when you hear those words, ‘You have cancer,’” says Mark.

“You don’t believe it at first,” says Liesbet.

The two also struggled with the relative rarity of a male breast cancer diagnosis.

“It was a big emotional rollercoaster the first few weeks,” says Mark.

Mark returned to the US for treatment. He didn’t struggle too much physically, but he found the emotional side tough, “especially just after losing my sister a year ago, having that fresh in my mind of what cancer does, intimately, in a family relationship.”

He felt “elation” when he was eventually given the all-clear.

“But there’s definitely a lot of elements of depression that go with that kind of diagnosis in that kind of situation, because it haunts you for the rest of your life,” he says.

Today, Mark manages his fears and uncertainties as best he can.

“I’m very fortunate that it turned out the way that it did. I don’t know if lucky is the right word. But you might say that,” he says.

Mark and Liesbet supported each other through Mark’s illness. Then, when Mark was finished with treatment, they started wondering what to do next. They still wanted adventure, but felt the need for a new chapter.

They left behind sailing and started traveling North America house-sitting and pet-sitting. Later, they bought another campervan and got back on the road again, traveling further afield once more.

On the road

Fast forward to today, and nearly twenty years after they first met, Mark and Liesbet are still traveling the world together. They document their travels on their blog, Roaming About, and Liesbet also published a travel memoir called “Plunge – One Woman’s Pursuit of a Life Less Ordinary.”

The couple don’t see themselves settling in one place any time soon, but they have a mental list of places they’ve visited and loved that they could see themselves perhaps returning to one day.

Liesbet and Mark still see themselves as a strong team. Traveling the world and navigating difficulties along the way, especially Mark’s illness, has only forged them closer together over the decades.

I can’t imagine anyone else that I would have ever gone on the last 20 years of my life with, and this adventure we’ve been on

Mark Kilty

“These are big, life-changing emotional things that happened to us,” says Liesbet. “I think because of the downs that we’ve had, we did grow closer and we can face pretty much everything right now, to be honest, and I know that sounds grand or whatever – but I think we can handle a lot as a couple right now.”

Looking back on their life together, Mark says he simply feels “joy and happiness, and contentment.”

“I can’t imagine anyone else that I would have ever gone on the last 20 years of my life with, and this adventure we’ve been on,” he says.

For Liesbet, their story illustrates the importance of living life with no regrets. She’s never regretted her spontaneous decision to stay behind with Mark in San Francisco – even if it hadn’t worked out, she knew she had to give life with Mark a go.

“I feel like you shouldn’t regret things that you could have tried,” she says. “I feel things are worth a try.”

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