All aboard the love express
True romance as photographer Colm and future Russian wife kissed for first time on a train to St Petersburg
IT wasn't quite love on the Orient Express, but romance blossomed between Russian film-maker Marina Levitina and Irish photographer Colm Hogan on the overnight train between Moscow to St Petersburg in 2003.
"It was very romantic travelling overnight on a steam train, and then arriving in St Petersburg as the sun was rising at 7am," says Colm, who adds that their first kiss occurred on board the train. "The national anthem was playing on tannoys as we arrived, and women wearing headscarves were waiting, and it was all very cinematic and beautiful."
Colm and Marina first met a year previously, when he picked her up after she flew in from Moscow at 3am to Shannon Airport. She went home with him to the house he was sharing with his then girlfriend on Inismacnaughton Island in the Shannon Estuary, and slept on the sofa until the following morning. Then they headed to Ballyvaughan to begin filming work on the documentary John O'Donohue: Anam Cara, which Marina co-produced with documentary-maker Betsy Scarborough. They had engaged Colm to work as a stills photographer on the film.
Colm and Marina kept in touch by email after filming wrapped on the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)/TG4 project, and she headed home to Moscow.
A year later, his previous relationship having finsihed, he decided to accept her invitation to visit. Romance bloomed in that warm Russian sunshine – and on the train! – with Colm falling for Marina's exotic charms. He also fell for Moscow, and thought that while some of the buildings were austere, the people were so warm and welcoming.
"I thought Marina was beautiful and radiant, and there's a grounded sincerity about her," he says, explaining his initial attraction. "She was kind and compassionate and intelligent – what more could you want?"
"And I thought that Colm had a lovely voice the first time I heard him on the phone, even before I met him," recalls Marina. "He was exceptionally articulate and so honest and kind. We had amazing conversations, right from the beginning."
Marina and Colm met several times over the next year and a half, and then she was accepted to Harvard, Boston, to do a two-year Master's in Russian culture and cinema. Colm was working in the UK on the film Asylum, with Ian McKellen and Natasha Richardson, so they met in Paris while she was en route to Boston. And then, to add to the cinematic theme of their relationship, Colm proposed over dinner in Montmartre.
Over the next two years, he visited Marina for weeks at a time in Boston, and they were married in the summer half-way through that period. Having dispensed with the legalities that morning, the spiritual ceremony took place in 2004 in Ballybeg House, Co Wicklow, and was presided over by none other than the late poet, priest and philosopher John O'Donohue.
It was attended by Marina's family from Moscow, including her dad Leonid, a civil space engineer, and mum Ekaterina, a doctor, and her older brother. Colm's dad John, a research forester, and his mother Vera and siblings also attended.
He is the second eldest of seven children, and while he was born in Waterford, his family lived all over the country because of his dad's work. He boarded at the Salesian College in Co Laois. Colm played music for a few years as a drummer, and then got into photography, which led to him working as a stills photographer and cameraman for film, TV and theatre.
After the honeymoon in Prague, Marina was due to fly back to Boston to embark on the second year of her master's, but the besotted newlyweds found the parting too hard to bear. So Colm impulsively bought a ticket at the airport, and flew off with his new bride to spend the next two months with her. And on the very day of her commencement (graduation) ceremony, Marina boarded the plane to leave the US and join Colm in Galway for good.
"No relationship is ever easy, especially when you are spanning two cultures and three continents," says Colm. "It took a lot of time to adjust, but we love each other very deeply. I'm head down, raging forward and getting on with life the whole time, whereas Marina is calmer and more relaxed."
Marina did a PhD in Trinity in 2005 and taught at Trinity and NUI, Galway. It was while studying art history at university in Moscow that she first met Betsy Scarborough, when her family was featured in a documentary Betsy was making for PBS about the Russian people during the collapse of the Soviet Union, called Spirit of a People: A New Portrait of Russia. She became fascinated by film-making, and went on to do her first Master's in video production and mass communications in Boston.
Two years ago, she and Colm set up Counterpoint Films, and their current four-part series on the Russian-Irish connection is currently running on TG4. Radharc na Ruise, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and TG4, is a fascinating series that examines the similarities between Russian and Irish culture, including an exploration of the links between the two countries. And no better people to understand and give a true insight into that particular area than Marina and Colm.
Apart from the film work, for which they have lots of exciting plans, Marina is still teaching at Trinity, and is involved in environmental issues back at Galway.
"I feel really blessed with having Colm as my husband, and always thank God for having met him," she says. "To meet someone who becomes your soulmate is amazing."
The third and fourth parts of 'Radharc na Ruise' will be aired on TG4 on Thursday March 14 and 21 at 9.30pm (with repeats the following days at 11.30pm).