How we met: ‘It was love at first sight – for me’

When Frances finished school, she took a college course in cartography, the study of maps. By May 1972, she had found a job as a cartographer with the civil service. As part of her work, she went to Delft in the Netherlands to visit the Dutch equivalent of Ordnance Survey. At the time, Kingston upon Thames (where she had studied) was twinned with Delft, a city in South Holland, and residents of the two regions were encouraged to do exchange visits, where they would stay with local families to get to know the area. Frances agreed to go, even thought she was terrified. “I was 20 and it was my first time out of the country. I didn’t speak a word of Dutch,” she says.

Frances soon discovered she would be staying with Rien, who lived with his parents and siblings. When she arrived at the town hall, he was there to pick her up. They were introduced by the mayor of Kingston and the burgemeester of Delft. “My instant reaction was that she was beautiful and I needed to get to know her. It was love at first sight for me,” he says. She was grateful that he was able to speak English and over the course of the next week a friendship blossomed. “He was friendly and handsome, but it was just friendship for me at first,” she says. “I’m more pragmatic than romantic.”

They kept in touch via letter until Rien was able to visit England in July on the same exchange programme. “I turned up with two bunches of flowers, but her mum and grandmother were there, so I gave the flowers to them.” Frances says they were “really pleased” with the gifts. As they got to know each other better, Frances wondered if there could be more between them than friendship. “It was hard staying in touch via letters,” she says. “In August 1973, I decided to go to the Netherlands and live nearby, to see if things would develop further.” It quickly became clear that they would. At the end of that year, the couple got engaged.

They married in 1974 and Rien left to do compulsory national service, but he was discharged on medical grounds after four months, due to allergies. “We were living in this tiny attic room in Voorburg,” remembers Frances. They soon decided it would be better to move to the UK, so that Frances could return to her job. By 1976, they had moved to Chessington, in Kingston, where Rien found work as a translator. “I also lost my hearing that year, but thanks to the NHS I was given one of the first hearing aids that fits behind the ear,” he says. Their children were born in 1979 and 1981. They moved to Essex two years later, where Rien started a career in IT.

As a couple, they love travelling and sports, regularly going to cricket and rugby matches. When their grandson was born, in 2012, they moved to Leicestershire, where they stayed happily until the Brexit referendum. “I had hoped pragmatism would prevail on both sides, but it didn’t. I started feeling insecure and I told Frances I didn’t want to live in the UK for the rest of my life,” says Rien. Frances agreed to try living in mainland Europe and, after a brief stint in the Netherlands, they found a beautiful home in the Dordogne region of France in 2019. “There’s lots of expats from all over Europe living in this area,” says Frances. “We weren’t able to do much in lockdown, but now I’m starting my French classes again.”

Rien appreciates the fact that Frances left England for him. “We’re such great friends and I don’t think we’d still be together now if we weren’t,” he says. “We’ve built this connection over many years and we have the ability to talk to each other about anything.” Frances also believes their partnership and close friendship is what makes their relationship successful.

“We still laugh together, too, and that’s really important,” she adds.