In honor of Valentine’s Day, I want to share with readers perhaps my favorite romantic story. It’s true, it’s a story of the middle ages (not to be confused with The Middle Ages), and by every standard of reason, should never have happened…yet it did. Marlena and Fernando lived half a world apart, spoke different languages, but found each other among all the people in the world. This is the story of their meeting and events leading to their marriage.
First, you should know a bit about each of them. Marlena was American, divorced with 2 grown children. She and Fernando were approaching or in their middle years. Marlena was creative in many different ways: she wrote books, was a chef, a journalist, and used her considerable creativity to beautify her surroundings wherever she lived. She had traveled to various parts of the world, lived in various areas of the U.S., met and knew many different people. It was a writing assignment for work that brought her on another trip to Venice, and therefore within range of Fernando.
Fernando was in many ways Marlena’s opposite when they met, at least at the beginning. He worked as a bank manager, lived in Venice all his life, never really travelled…in short, he lived a very circumscribed life. As far as we know, he’d never had a love relationship. He had lived in a condo on Lido for decades, yet it still looked as if he’d just moved in his things (as Marlena discovered when she returned to Venice to live with him). Whether or not he fully realized it then, he’d been waiting for his life to start. In the process, much of his life had been spent waiting.
Marlena spoke little Italian, and Fernando spoke little English.
On this trip to Venice, Marlena was lunching with friends at a restaurant near her hotel just after arriving. Eventually there was only one other table occupied, all men. Shortly after the men left, the waiter called her to a telephone. It was a man asking her to meet him the next day. She refused, having no idea who the man was.
This went on for 3 more days. She always refused the request, but later guessed it was one of the men at that table: the blue-eyed one with whom she’d briefly shared a glance. On the fifth day, she saw him at the window as she walked past the restaurant and went to talk to him. Despite the language barrier, she noted his sweet face (as she calls it), deep voice, beautiful hands, and eyes the color of blueberries.
While they had little time together in Venice before she had to leave, Marlena invited him to visit her in St. Louis after she returned home. He arrived 2 days later. The time they spent together then cemented the relationship. It was decided she would wrap up her business and life in the U.S. and move to Venice, where they would be married and live. And that’s what happened.
Just before the wedding, Fernando asked Marlena if she remembered when she knew she loved him. She answered that it was the first night he was visiting her in St. Louis and walked into her living room after his bath. “I think it was the knee socks and the slicked-back hair,” she answered. [p. 179] Go figure.
Fernando responded with his experience. He had seen her on the street in Venice the year before they met, but only in profile.
“After all those months of seeing your profile almost every time I closed my eyes, I couldn’t find you. I dialed that number [of the restaurant] and asked to speak to you, but I had no idea what I wanted to tell you. All I knew was that when I looked at you, I didn’t feel cold anymore.” [p. 179]
On an earlier occasion, he told her:
“I’ve missed you since I was fourteen. At least that’s when I began to notice that I missed you….Why did you wait so long to come to me?” [p. 64]
Love in one’s mature years is different in many ways. Fernando realized as he slowly emerged from his long period of dormancy that they didn’t know how many years they would have together; if they’d grow old together. That’s not a thought most young couples normally have, but it was a spur to Fernando to start acting, to decide what their life together would be.
Marlena was unusually sensitive to Fernando’s psyche. She knew he would eventually need to lead rather than just observe in the relationship. She was confident and mature enough to give him space and support to go through his process.
It was a difficult period for them during which she realized she needed to branch out into the community, start cooking again. She visited the abundant produce markets on Lido and in Venice proper, creating the relationships she needed outside while Fernando worked. That was exactly the right thing to do, to take pressure off Fernando and let him shed his passive waiting habit at his own pace.
Marlena eventually learned the root cause of Fernando’s passivity. As a child, he aspired to fly airplanes and play the saxophone. A toxic family situation [see pp. 144-145] led to his becoming “the next virtuous bearer of old miseries,” and like his father, “lurking about the spaces of his own life like a visitor.” Fernando said he was “unfrozen, unlocked” by Marlena.
Indeed he was. He discarded everything except his life with her. He resigned from the bank; they sold the Lido condo, and he wanted to leave Venice behind. Marlena says:
“The stranger who is now my husband decides he no longer wishes to live on the fringes of a little island in the Adriatic Sea nor work in a bank, and so now neither he nor I have a house or work and we are beginning at the beginning. Incredibly, I am at ease with all of this.” [p. 234]
After much searching, they found a home in Tuscany. That story is told in her following book: A Thousand Days in Tuscany.
It may seem that I’ve spoiled everything in this posting. I can assure you I have not! This book is beautifully written and a double joy to read: for the writing AND for the story that’s told. I’ve personally read it 3 times and surely will read it again. There’s also a bonus: RECIPES for mouthwatering Italian dishes from the multi-talented cook that is Marlena!
I love this book for another reason. Just the fact that any 2 people find each other amid the chaos and turmoil of this world renders me speechless (hard to imagine, I know). I always think of the timing involved; how if one of them had deviated from what they did & when, deviated by a single minute earlier or later, hit one more red light, they may not have met. If they had each taken one different path in life when confronted with a choice (as we all are), everything would have been different. It’s tempting to believe in Fate.
A Thousand Days in Venice will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.