How we met: ‘He was wearing a horrible old jacket – and mistook me for someone else’

Lizzie Cernik

After 10 years working as a merchant seaman in the US, Bruce James left his job in 1997 to move to San Jose, Costa Rica. He held a party the year after in October to celebrate his newfound freedom. “I met a beautiful Dutch woman called Julia,” he says. “I had a girlfriend at the time, but she stood out.” Several weeks later, he and his girlfriend attended a concert. “I spotted the girl from the party again, so I went over to say hello.” He soon found out it was a case of mistaken identity.

Julia Piedra Gutierrez, who was from Costa Rica, was waiting for her date and had no idea who Bruce was. “I saw this American guy looking at me. He was wearing this horrible old leather jacket,” she laughs. “He called me by my name and I had to explain that he was mistaken. Then his girlfriend came over and also thought I was the Dutch Julia.” They laughed about the misunderstanding. “I was a single mum with a busy career, and I’d planned my first date in ages. When my date turned up, he brought his wife. Apparently, they were separating, but still friends. It was an absolute nightmare.” She admits she wishes she could have spent the night with the “badly dressed” American instead.

In December that year, Julia and Bruce bumped into each other again. “We were in this smoky bar, and I went up to him to say hello,” she says. He didn’t recognise her at first. “I gave her the most horrible look. I think I’d had one too many beers.” Incensed by the idea that he thought she was flirting with him, Julia angrily explained who she was. “He realised and jumped up with such surprise that he accidentally pushed me over.” They spent the rest of the evening talking and laughing.

Bruce, who had split up with his girlfriend, asked for her number. “My teenage son [from a previous marriage] answered the phone and told me this man wanted to take me out,” Julia recalls. “On Christmas Eve, I took her to a hotel with live music,” says Bruce. “We had a photo taken, and it somehow survived all these years.”

Julia was impressed that he had driven all the way to her mountain home to pick her up. “None of my dates had ever done that before. He turned up in this old, noisy car, though, and I thought: ‘What the heck is that?’” But his old-fashioned charm worked. “He wasn’t like the usual men I went out with. But my friends kept telling me to give him a chance, and I found myself falling for him.”

After several months of dating, Julia was shocked to find she was pregnant. Bruce moved into her home in San Jose so they could give their relationship a real chance. “There was a big learning curve when I became a stepdad to her teenage son,” says Bruce. Despite the challenges, the couple grew stronger. They married in July 1999 and their daughter was born in February 2000. In November 2002, they welcomed another son to the family.

“We set up a business together building houses to sell, but it was hit by the financial crisis,” says Bruce. In 2009, he found a job towing oil barges in Honolulu, and they moved to Hawaii. “We didn’t want to stay for ever,” adds Julia, “so I started a women’s shoes business in Costa Rica so that we could retire there.” She is currently based there because of the lockdown, but plans to return to Honolulu in July. “I miss them, but I am so proud of how they are taking care of each other,” she says.

Bruce adores his wife’s energy and her ability to make him laugh. “She always has a funny story to tell, and I love listening to her. I feel as if I won the lottery.” Although Julia never planned to marry again or have more children, it’s the best decision she ever made. “He is so calming and always sees the bigger picture. We’ve had so much fun, and I believe we are just better human beings together.”

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