It’s another Guardian Blind date wedding! How a lockdown love story ended in ‘I do’ – The Guardian

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That Saturday morning began chaotically. Naomi Clark had been out running and fallen over, miles from home. She limped back and arrived, flustered and sweaty, just in time to log on to Zoom for her blind date.

She was ravenous, but in the rush had run out of time to order the takeaway Vietnamese summer rolls she had planned to eat in front of this stranger.

She clicked open the call and there was Deej Phillips, her date, beaming back at her. He held up the meal he was about to tuck into, and guess what? He had gone for the same – summer rolls.

“I think we’re soulmates!” Naomi said, laughing.

A nervous pause.

“Is it too soon to say?” she continued.

Deej: “It was quite forward.”

This may seem a strange way to go on a date, until you learn that this was April 2020, a time when everything was happening via a screen. Plus, this wasn’t just a regular blind date, but a Guardian Blind date – and every awkward moment was being recorded for a special edition of the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast.

Naomi was in her flat in east London and Deej was 4,500 miles away, holed up in a hotel in Nepal, where he’d been making a documentary. The two of them, locked down so far from each other, gazed at each other’s pixelated faces on computer screens.

In Kathmandu, a heavy thunderstorm was brewing and soon the rain was pelting on the roof of Deej’s hotel – a converted former palace, where he was now the sole resident, staying in the honeymoon suite.

“You’re so damn privileged,” she teased him.

Their conversation flowed, from jokes about her favourite vegetable (aubergine) to sharing heartfelt reflections about their families and past relationships.

“In the last six months or so I’ve really started to think it would be nice to be in a relationship and the things that come along with it, like getting a dog and having kids,” said Deej. “Honestly, I probably want a kid more than I want a girlfriend or a wife right now.”

Naomi: “I have never ever had any man say that before. It’s very refreshing.”

That first date would turn into a deep love, taking them on joint adventures they couldn’t possibly have imagined when they opened their laptops that day – cycling thousands of miles together, travelling the world and starting a new life abroad.

“It honestly feels like we’ve lived a million lifetimes together,” says Deej, now 34. “These four years have been so rich in experiences and special moments. We are incredibly lucky.”

And, as the person who set them up on that first date, I feel lucky to have played a part in their story. Today, I will be the MC at their wedding, and I will tell the crowd how it all began.

In those early days of lockdown, it seemed impossible to imagine how any of us could form new relationships. For single people, opportunities for serial swiping, Tuesday night dates at the pub and magical in-person chance encounters were suddenly extinguished.

I work as a producer on the Guardian’s daily news podcast, and though dating is far from our normal remit, I thought it important to understand how this societal shift was affecting people. My editors let me conduct an experiment: I’d matchmake our listeners and record them having their first dates over Zoom. We would provide them with a food budget, so that they could share a meal virtually, and after the date ask them a series of questions about how they thought it had gone.

I took inspiration, of course, from the Guardian’s long-running Blind date column, which has been matchmaking readers since 2009 and has led to at least five marriages (and several Blind date babies). During the pandemic, it also pivoted from in-person meals to being online only, which Sarah Hooper, the column’s matchmaker at the time, says allowed her greater freedom to create unlikely pairings – though not necessarily ones that would last.

“Mentally, where people were at, there was such a weird disconnect from real life,” she says. “So these dates felt more isolated and perhaps less like there was the potential for it to be something more. But that was what made it interesting. We were able to set up our first international date, in Paris, because everyone was online. In that one, she was keen and he was treating it as like a therapy session with her.”

Being online gave people intimate access to each other’s home lives – sometimes uncomfortably so. Hooper says: “I remember one where they ended up meeting the entire family because she was locked down back home. So it became this super-sped-up date.”

I didn’t know what to expect when we put out the call for listeners to take part in our experiment. But, as it turned out, we weren’t short of applicants – about 50 people wrote in from across the world, from twentysomethings who, pre-pandemic, had considered dating something of a daily hobby, to a 68-year-old who had been single for decades. Some were simply lured by the promise of a free takeaway. Many, sweetly, said they hoped we would find them “the one”.

I had long phone conversations with many of them to get a sense of who they were looking for and, crucially, how entertaining they would be on air. By mid-April, I had selected our five pairs.

I remember telling colleagues about Deej and Naomi – how both had radiated energy and a relentless determination to make a positive impact on the world. She had just lost her job in the tourism industry – a casualty of the pandemic – and turned that drive into an exhausting schedule of volunteering, cycling miles around London every day delivering food parcels for the charity Made in Hackney, and coordinating her local Covid Mutual Aid group, alongside studying for her master’s degree and training for a marathon. Meanwhile, Deej was in Kathmandu to direct and shoot a documentary about how communities were surviving amid a catastrophic cycle of flooding and drought caused by the climate crisis. I thought they would be a great match.

But first we had four other dates to eavesdrop on, beginning with Jayson, a journalist in Hong Kong, and Harry, a TV producer in London, who opted to spend his £30 food budget on takeaway cocktails. By the time the date started (4pm in the UK, 11pm in Hong Kong), Harry was gloriously sloshed and the next hour or two proceeded in a joyful mess of flirty jokes, a one-man Sonny and Cher rendition and a special showing of Jayson’s homemade lemon meringue pie.

Another pair, Len and Titus, were dazzled by each other’s looks and sporting prowess – her muay thai boxing and his climbing – and agreed to meet up for a board games night once lockdown was over. “He’s cute, funny and smart,” she said. “A hot secret nerd, which is exactly my type.”

Sadly, Sam and Jennifer’s date was seriously glitchy by comparison – and not just in terms of the Zoom connection between their homes in Los Angeles and London. “The proverbial butterflies stayed firmly in their cocoons,” she said afterwards.

Last, Butho and Mally, our couple in Scotland, bonded over their love of music, even though her playlist consisted only of horror soundtracks, and they seemed so relaxed in each other’s company that it didn’t matter when her housemate interrupted the date by “swinging a ladder around” the room. They gave each other a solid eight out of 10, which regular Blind date readers know means “we had a nice time, but we’re never likely to see each other again”.

And then it was Deej and Naomi’s turn.

‘I had no expectations,” says Deej, adding that the date “was just something interesting to do, because it was a very sad time, quite lonely”.Both had been happily single for several years, after coming out of long-term relationships and insist they applied for the date on a whim. When Naomi found out Deej was so far away she was pleased, realising that slimmed their chances of ever meeting in person.

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“I thought: well that will be perfect, because I’ll never have to worry about having to stay in touch, any feelings developing, having my heart broken,” says Naomi, now 36.

And Deej, who thought his “type” was women with darker hair, hadn’t expected to find himself physically attracted to Naomi – a fact she now ribs him about.

“I have to be honest and say she didn’t look like the typical girl I would go for at that time,” he says. “After getting to know Naomi, I quickly realised how silly this ‘type’ preference was.”

He scored her eight out of 10. She gave him full marks.

Over the next couple of months they kept in touch via WhatsApp, their conversations veering from wholesome to flirtatious by the sentence:

Naomi: “Stepping up my home grooming regime and attempted my first waxing. Painful but surprisingly effective. I feel like I could handle anything now.”

Deej: “I’m very glad I don’t have to do it! Would be interested to see how much it hurts though 🙈.”

Naomi: “OK so we will give you a little summer wax. Then you will know 😋.”

Deej: “How was your weekend?”

Naomi: “Woke up to my seedlings having hatched, very exciting! Took a little old lady called Hilda for a very brief trip to the bottom of her block for a tiny walk and some air. She gave me a KitKat for my troubles.”

For his birthday that May, she bought him foods he had mentioned he liked – a particular brand of peanut butter, fancy chocolate – and they talked for ages on the phone.

When restrictions lifted in Nepal that June, Deej booked a flight to London. The next day, he and Naomi met for their first in-person date, in Regent’s Park. When a thunderstorm broke out, it was the perfect excuse to find shelter, and they headed home together.

“I cooked us dal and rice, and she ended up staying the night,” he says. “From there, we spent a lot of time together. We were in a Covid bubble and would alternate between her place by Old Street and my place in Bow. Very weird circumstances to start a relationship, during a pandemic.”

But Deej wasn’t planning to stay in London for long – he aimed to move to India as soon as restrictions would allow, to connect with his mother’s side of the family there and continue making documentaries.

“So, I thought, I guess I’ll just enjoy this for however long it lasts,” says Naomi.

As the months went by, their lives became intertwined. They spent their days together, out on their bikes, or working side by side on their laptops; they met each other’s parents and built a large group of joint friends.

In 2022, they moved to Kerala, south India. The first few months weren’t easy – the flat they rented was dilapidated and needed repairs; both were working long hours, and missing their friends and family – but seeing how calmly Naomi navigated everything new made Deej fall even more deeply in love with her.

“She was up for adventures and happy to rough it while we went to unusual places. I was looking for someone who was up for these kinds of experiences and I found someone I’m now struggling to keep up with.”

On Christmas Day in 2022, Deej proposed near his mum’s house in southern Spain, with a family heirloom ring passed down by his maternal grandmother.

“She said no about 20 times in disbelief, before she finally said yes. We then walked to my mum’s place, where my nan and auntie were getting ready for Christmas Day, and Naomi showed her ring hand to my then 90-year-old nan and she almost collapsed to the floor crying. That set me off.”

Their wedding is going to be a festival in Devon, with a humanist ceremony, outdoor games, a picnic, bake-off, yoga and forest bathing. Guests are encouraged to dress flamboyantly, and there will be dancing in the forest glade until late in the evening.

“We are pretty inseparable now,” says Deej, “and although things aren’t always perfect, we know how to have a magical time together. We love the same things about the world and exploring it together. I love the way we move through time together by foot, bike, running or swimming.”

This spring, they relocated back to London, but everyone knows that will not be the end of their adventures. Deej is continuing his film-making, highlighting climate issues across the world, and Naomi works for a responsible travel company based in India. Wherever they end up, they will find fun.

“Her curiosity and excitement for the small things is endearing. She’s beautiful inside and out,” says Deej.

And if they ever want to reminisce about that first date, they’ve got the podcast to listen back to, he says. “Pretty much everybody says that is the best meeting story they’ve ever heard.”

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