Finding Love in Italy: I Needed to Travel the World in Order to Come Home

Oct 13, 2020 | Travel Tips

I think of the day I met my husband as part of a valley between the two halves of my life: before Sam and after Sam. We met on a train in Italy in 2012, but really, we passed each other years before, in the streets of Nazareth. While we met by chance— the ordinary miracle of having been given tickets next to each other—I can’t help but think there were other hands pulling those fragile, gossamer threads that now bind us each together. This is part of the mystery of traveling. When you leave your country, you are doing more than opening your passport. You are also opening your heart to new possibilities.

Christine on the rooftop of her hotel, the Westin Excelsior, overlooking Florence, Italy

Before I met Sam, I had been working in advertising sales at a frenetic pace for the past six years at MTV. I loved my career. Even though I was barely in my early 30’s, I was old enough to know what a gift it was to adore my co-workers and be able to travel with them to Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Seattle on a regular basis.

At the end of May, 2012, I moved out of the Santa Monica beach cottage I had been renting and into a three-bedroom condo in West LA I recently purchased. When I signed the papers, my name was the only signature on the page, and I felt a sense of pride that I could rely on myself in that way, to put a roof over my own head without needing anyone’s assistance. That spring felt like the beginning of so many things. I had a home, enough money in the bank, and four weeks until I started a new job. Staring at a month of freedom before me, I did what I always did during a down time — I booked a ticket to another country.

Traveling is in my blood. My father was born in Nazareth in 1941. Now a part of Israel, Nazareth belonged to Palestine until 1948. As a Palestinian in Israel during one of the most monumental periods of history, my father left Nazareth in 1961 and lived in Germany for a year before settling in Arizona, where he met my mother. After a few years together, they moved to my mom’s hometown of Los Angeles, where I was born.

As a child, we traveled to visit my mother’s family in Denmark and my father’s in Israel. These carefree summer vacations took us through France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, where I often read maps and navigated from the back seat of our rented cars.

I traveled often across the U.S. when I worked at MTV and used my passport whenever possible. One of my favorite adventures was a trip to visit my cousin in Shanghai and then onwards to Hong Kong by myself the year before, in 2011. Traveling was always a perfect ritual — something about being in a foreign country connected me to the deepest part of myself. Removing myself from the busyness, the routines, and the daily assumptions of my own life was sometimes the biggest gift of traveling. Careening into a new culture — where I had to buy groceries, ask for directions, and navigate public transportation in another language — ignited a secret vulnerability I didn’t always welcome into my LA habits, where responsibilities were always waiting.

Faced with four weeks of freedom, I decided Italy would be the perfect destination. I spent my last night in LA dreaming about the sundrenched, cobblestone streets of the villages along the Mediterranean, tomatoes fresh off the vine and lazy evenings drinking wine in sidewalk cafes, practicing my Italian.

I decided to make a steady progression from Venice to Positano and was taking a train to Florence on a warm afternoon. I had a drink at Harry’s Bar and then boarded the mostly empty train. I was looking forward to sitting by myself and reading, and was putting my luggage away when I heard laughing behind me and the deep voices of men.

“Stop,” I heard the one they were teasing say, in Italian. “Fermati,” His friends pushed by him to the back of the train and the man looked at me with a sheepish smile. “They said I should help you with your luggage.”

“You should have,” I said, unable to resist laughing too. There is something so charming about a handsome man when he is embarrassed. He held out his ticket to me, showing that we had been assigned seats next to each other.

I smiled and said hello in Italian. Ciao.

“You’re Italian?” the man asked, and I was flattered that he couldn’t detect my accent. He was just a few years older than me, and I felt something flutter against my sternum when he spoke, like a small bird preparing to fly.

“Mi chiamo Christine,” I said.

“Mi chiamo Sam,” he said back. His eyelashes were as thick as whisk brooms. “You live here? In Venice?”

“Can’t you tell I’m American?” I asked. He was so handsome, I couldn’t resist flirting just a little.

He shook his head. “I’m not Italian either,” he said. “But I live in Florence now.”

“And before?” I asked in Italian.

“I am originally from Nazareth,” he said. “It’s part of Israel,” he added as if I didn’t know this.

“Nazareth?” I asked, shocked. “My family is from Nazareth.”

“No,” Sam said, his eyebrows lifting in surprise.

All I could do was nod vigorously back at this uncommon coincidence. Nazareth is tiny. As our train hurtled through the Italian countryside, the thought that we had shared the same tiny dot on a map seemed unfathomable.

“My father was born there before it was part of Israel,” I said, not to claim a religion, or a side, but to explain my place in the tangled tapestry of Nazareth’s history. I wanted to open my palm and show him the threads that belonged to me.

“My father too,” said Sam. “But we are Christian.” Sam paused. “It doesn’t matter. But, it can be complicated, yes?”

I nodded. It felt important to share our status of outsiders, as if our exodus had been essential to today’s 16:45 train ride, from Venice to Florence.

As our train continued towards Florence, I learned that like me, Sam lost his father at a young age, that his family was still in that tiny town of Nazareth and that he wanted to take me to dinner.

The train ride seemed impossibly short. As the doors opened and we disembarked, I felt Sam’s hand on the small of my back, and the delicate thing with feathers was beat frantically against my heart. I gave him my phone number, which he held in his palm as if it was a gift.

The idea that I had gone halfway around the world and met someone from my homeland tugged at me. I felt that my father was watching over me, pulling the strings. Listen, he seemed to be saying. Pay attention. At my hotel, I called my mother, who was just waking up in LA. We talked often as I traveled, and she always knew my itinerary.

“Mom!” I said. “Did Dad know anyone with the last name Shalloufeh?” My father had been dead for six years. I wondered once again about all the things I hadn’t asked him, about his history that might be buried forever. Traveling has always been about inhabiting a liminal space, where wonder and imagination have roots. Sometimes when I travel, I cover as much ground inside of myself as I do across the landscape of foreign countries..

“I’ll call your dad’s brother,” my mom told me. “Nazareth is so small. Perhaps your uncle knows the family?”

I quickly put my many sundresses into the hotel’s small closet and took a shower. As I stepped out, my phone was ringing. I looked at the caller ID. “Mom?” I asked.

“You won’t believe this,” my mother said. “I just talked to your uncle. If Sam’s father is who he says he is, he and your father were best friends in Nazareth.”

“Best friends?” I asked, amazed, and yet not at all surprised. I felt the hairs on my arms rise and a flood of goosebumps run over me. I had known this, had trusted something about Sam that felt familiar.

“They grew up together,” she said. “We probably met Sam on one of our trips back.”

I thought about my summers there, the Mediterranean sun warm on the ancient stone, how my cousins would call out to bring a crowd from the neighborhood to play with us. And then I thought of how it felt to spend time with Sam just that afternoon, how safe I felt riding next to him on the train. It was as if we had been talking about a book we each had been reading that had been written long ago.

Sam called me a short time later, telling me he had called his mother. Our shared history made us both excited to learn more as well as a bit shy. I felt as if I had known him for a long time, and yet, he was still brand new to me. “Can you even believe it?” we kept asking each other.

This time, when he asked me again to have dinner, I was breathless with my yes.

“We’ll go to the Piazzale Michelangelo,” he said shyly. “We’ll eat on the terrace and watch the sun set over the bridges.”

Sam & Christine on The Amalfi Coast, August 11, 2012

Watching him pull in front of my hotel on his Vespa was the most romantic gesture. I loved that I had to wrap my arms around his waist and lean with him as he twisted through the narrow streets. For the next three weeks, we were inseparable as we meandered through the streets of Florence, Rome, Positano and Capri. My trip was wildly different — and so much better — than I could have imagined. We learned the important and mundane details about each other’s lives, our families, and all the near misses we must have had through the years as we passed each other in Europe, the United States, and even Nazareth.

Helicopter Ride Around the Big Island in Hawaii, Right Before Sam Proposed, May 13, 2013

Six months later, in March 2013, it was Sam’s turn to get on an airplane and he joined me in LA. That May, he took me to Hawaii and booked a helicopter tour for me, despite the fact that he was prone to motion sickness. He had planned a romantic proposal mid-air, but what really happened was that he tossed the ring at me, choked out an “I love you,” and threw up spectacularly. By the time we were safely on the ground, everyone knew Sam had been sick, but our engagement was still our secret, as special to me now as all of our other shared connections.

Beverly Hills Courthouse Wedding, June 20, 2013

Getting Married (Again) at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, Israel, December 21, 2013

Did I mention I said yes? Was that even in doubt? The following month, we got married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse and in December of the 2013, we both flew to Nazareth, where we were married with both our families as witnesses, as well as 250 people I barely, or didn’t even know. Arabic weddings are huge events and this second wedding was a wild departure from our quiet courthouse nuptials. My father’s brothers — one from Texas and one who still lives in Nazareth — walked me down the aisle. My mother and three of her family members were there, as well as two of my best friends. The rest of the guests were like the most benevolent strangers, who decided to love Sam and I, despite that we were both brand new to them. To be the recipient of that faith and love, simply because we were family, was a wonderful gift.

Today, eight years later, Sam is my family. He is both my husband and the father of our son. With a two-year old, we don’t have a lot of time to sit and watch the sunsets. Like all of us, the pandemic has put many of our plans on hold. Some days, I can’t wait to plan another vacation, pack a bag, and open up my passport for another stamp.

“Where should we go, do you think?” I will ask Sam, and we will talk about dream vacations when the world reopens.

Other mornings, Sam will look at me from where I am stacking blocks for my son, making coffee, or unloading the dishwasher — and I realize that I have already arrived at my destination, and that I don’t want to be any place other than in these sacred and ordinary moments of everyday life.

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