“We always say that our story is the kind that our children and grandchildren will pass down as the ultimate love story.”
Sheila was 24 years old and down on her luck when she met Gerard. She had finished a program in classical piano performance and was living alone in a small flat in Rome with only her beloved grand piano, a dog, and a camping kitchen – can you imagine walking into a tiny apartment and running into a huge piano? It might seem odd, but she was holding tight to dreams of a career playing piano, even as she struggled through crazy restaurant shifts in order to play the bills. Sheila was doing what she could to make her future what she wanted; she planned on moving to Seville to study in the conservatory there the following September.
And romance? Well, after getting out of a relationship with a narcissist who treated her “like a rug,” it really wasn’t on her radar.
After weeks spent working a job she disliked and feeling down, Sheila leapt at a chance to take a weekend off and visit an old friend in Venice. She threw on her favorite green pants and grabbed the early train, never expecting that the decision to have a girls’ trip would be the one that changed her life forever.
Her exhaustion and the movement of the train quickly lulled her into a peaceful sleep – until, that is, the train came to a sudden stop and a voice over the loudspeaker woke her with a start. It was the conductor, and he had some pretty interesting, if inconvenient, information: a WWII bomb had been found near the rails. All passengers were forced to deboard the train and get onto a bus for safety’s sake.
It was in the transfer that a handsome Englishman caught her eye, though it would have been hard to miss the poor, confused man holding a giant map and struggling to understand the unexpected bus stop!
He didn’t speak Italian and obviously had no idea what was going on. Sheila didn’t speak English, but she did recall U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” so she used the lyrics to try to communicate what was going on. She remembers thinking that she couldn’t believe her broken ‘they dismantle a bomb…bus…out’ got her point across, but it did – they disembarked the train together and grabbed a coffee while waiting for the bus.
Gerard was handsome, a bit older, and a real gentleman (from what Sheila could understand!). They struggled to bridge the language gap over coffee, and also when he sat next to her on the bus, but she did manage to learn that he was an engineer traveling alone. The two exchanged numbers and then parted ways in Venice. After that, Sheila honestly never expected to see or hear from him again.
But the next night, her phone rang.
She and her friend were out at a club and the music was loud. The voice on the phone spoke English, so Sheila had no clue what was said or who was calling. It wasn’t until a different voice came through the phone, this time speaking Italian, that she understood that the English guy she had met the day before wanted to meet her at Venice Lido that night at 10. Sheila was as surprised as anyone to hear herself agree.
Photo Credit: Sheila Salvatore
When she and her friend arrived, they found the English guy was wearing a straw tourist hat with I Love Venice written on it, drinking a beer and eating peanuts, “as happy as a kid.” Her friend cracked up at the sight of him, and Sheila remembers thinking the meeting was not going to end well. And she was mostly right, as he and her friend, who spoke some English, spent the evening talking (and maybe flirting) while Sheila sat there awkwardly, wondering how anyone could eat pineapple on a pizza.
Once again, when the two parted ways, she figured she would never see him again.
Once again, Gerard had other ideas.
This time he called when he came to Rome, and his visit provided Sheila a welcome respite from her crappy job and broken dreams. After three days, Gerard left for Greece, but something was different. After days strolling on the beach and getting to know each other, Shelia couldn’t get him out of her head. It makes her smile to remember how, at that point, they were “texting nonstop,” and she was sleeping with the English dictionary by the side of the bed.
Even so, when he wanted to meet again, Sheila hesitated once more. She and Gerard were complete opposites – black and white, chocolate and chips, as she describes it – and she struggled to make sense of the attraction.
But one more time, she told him yes without knowing why.
It was August when she picked him up from the airport. She remembers his white shirt and how he looked more handsome than ever. This time, Gerard had a big surprise – he had quit his job and planned to stay with her in Italy for awhile.
They spent blissful weeks getting to know each other. He met her family and attended her dad’s wedding. Gerard would ride his rusty bike to the horrible restaurant where she worked and sit on the beach where Sheila could see him just because he knew it made her happy. He spent his evenings ironing her hideous restaurant uniform while she slept off the late shifts.
In short, the two of them were falling in love, a fact that hit Sheila like a truck when she came home from work late one night to find him asleep on the couch.
“It hit me all at once that he fit into my life as if he was meant to be there drooling on my sofa all along. His soul is gentle, generous, and caring – he made me feel safe, for the first time in my life.”
For Gerard, it was some combination of Sheila’s green pants, her hand-cropped hair, how she slept with her head on his shoulder, and her broken English that first day on the train. That was all it took for him to know Sheila was the one he wanted – that “[they] had to be together, no matter what.”
A month after Gerard arrived in Italy, the two left as a couple for Aberdeen, Scotland. Since then, they have lived in England and the South of France, always together. They’re both thriving professionally – Sheila achieved her dreams of being a performing pianist and teaching at a conservatory, and Gerard still works as an engineer. The two have a precious, trilingual daughter and nearly 10 years of loving each other under their belts.
When Sheila hopped on that train to Venice, she figured that when she fell in love again, it would be with a brooding Italian musician. Instead, she opened her heart to an upbeat and open English engineer. Gerard was at loose ends, traveling and searching for a woman who could teach him about the world, for someone to inspire him.
Sheila admits, “I guess I do, but the funny thing is, he’s done the same for me.”
And for some parting advice, try this on for size:
“I didn’t know what I truly wanted until I found it on that train – so don’t be afraid to take the trip, talk to the stranger, and maybe even learn a new language. It could change your life.”