Some 15 years ago, Tampa bachelor Bob Courtney interviewed to open the first American medical clinic in Russia. He took the job on the condition he could commute from his home in Los Angeles.
"They only agreed because they knew I would fall in love with Russia," Courtney said.
That's not all he fell in love with.
To celebrate his 53rd birthday, in November 2008, Courtney invited some friends to dinner. One insisted her cousin, cosmetologist Vlada Varfolomeeva, come along. The attraction was instantaneous that night at the Grand Havana Club, he recalled, "but I was polite enough not to be obvious."
For months, he booked manicure appointments so he could get to know Varfolomeeva. Nearly a year passed, with only "triple dates" accompanied by her cousin, before the two were finally alone.
"Robert was the first American I knew,'' says Varfolomeeva, 36, who spoke no English at the time.
With patience, "and tulips and roses and candy,'' says Courtney, who speaks Russian fluently, he pursued her.
"She has the most sincere, genuine character . . . fun and funny, gentle and strong," he said. "Vlada is universally adored. Everyone loves her, not just me."
Varfolomeeva brought the balance missing from his life, said the entrepreneur, as he dealt with "absurd, cumbersome bureaucracy. Life is difficult in Russia for a lot of reasons. It's a challenging place to live and do business," he said.
The son of a Tampa surgeon father, Courtney graduated from Jesuit High, Vanderbilt University and Stetson College of Law. He bought a house in South Tampa, joined the Carlton Fields law firm, cheered the Tampa Bay Bucs and marched in Gasparilla parades.
If not for an international roster of clients, Courtney would have lived that comfortable status quo. Instead, he earned an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., and settled in Los Angeles, where he specialized in cross-border mergers and acquisitions.
Since he moved to Moscow in 1993, Courtney's business ventures have included dental clinics ("for expats and rich Russians with bad teeth"), Century 21 Real Estate franchises and, in 2007, kiosks. Courtney writes short-term leases for specialty retail carts in 25 shopping malls in 17 cities. "Something that didn't exist yet in Russia,'' he said.
Varfolomeeva admired his "intelligence and good manners," as translated by Courtney, though her English improves by the minute. She enjoyed his ease in making friends. (His nickname is "the mayor"; his iPhone has 3,000 numbers.) She wasn't surprised when he won the approval of her mother and friendship of her daughter, Anastasia, 14.
The couple discovered travel narrowed their own cultural gap. Courtney, who has visited 75 countries and, in addition to Russian, speaks Spanish, French and Chinese, took her to Israel, Dubai, the Caribbean and Paris. That's where he had planned to propose in March 2011.
"But the ring wasn't right,'' said Courtney, who admits to being a perfectionist. A friend who brought it from Chicago took it back, returning with the perfect design in time for Varfolomeeva's birthday, May 4.
Courtney popped Champagne in their room on the Riviera, in a town called Eze, near Monaco. He presented a watch, "to throw her off guard." She was stunned when he got down on one knee and opened another jewelry box. First in Russian, then in English, Courtney asked her to be his wife.
They returned to France — to a Russian Orthodox Church in Cannes — for a two-day wedding, joined by 65 guests. The betrothal was Sept. 17, the crowning and priestly blessing the next morning. Among the rituals: tossing their wine glasses into the air and biting into a loaf of bread. The biggest chomper is deemed the boss. (For the record, it was the groom.)
The honeymoon also had two parts: a week in Bordeaux and later, a trip to the Maldives and India for a tiger safari.
Last month, the newlyweds visited Tampa, the bride's first time in the United States. They celebrated their union with family and friends "from every chapter of my life,'' Courtney said. Between toasts, guests danced to Southtown Fever at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel.
After a few days in New York, Mr. and Mrs. Courtney boarded a plane to Moscow. "Vlada didn't want to leave,'' he said. "We're already planning to come back with Anastasia this summer."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.