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How Italy Saved Their Marriage

After 20 years our marriage felt stale. No, worse—empty. We were headed for divorce until we headed for Italy.

A trip to Italy saved Susan and Tim Pohlman's marraige.

It was the last week in May 2003.

My husband, Tim—a highly successful radio executive—and I were hosting a six-day business junket in Italy for the clients of an L.A. radio station.

Ever the dutiful wife, I helped Tim ensure that approximately 40 clients had the time of their lives in Florence and Portofino.

We were here to do a job, not to search for romance under the Tuscan sun. I was convinced those days were long over for us.

As we explored Italy, my lawyer back home was exploring my strategies to exit a marriage that in reality had ended years earlier.

We had landed at our emotional ground zero after a series of spectacular fights about who was working harder, who was ignoring the other person, who was the more invested parent, who was spending what and who didn’t care about being married anymore. We were tired of each other, tired of wondering what was missing, tired of pretend­ing we were happy and tired of trying to work through our differences in therapy.

After over 20 years as a couple, we had become stock characters in our own drama. And our two children, 14-year-old Katie and 11-year-old Matt, were suffering the consequences of living in an environment of silent rage.

I could remember how hopeful I’d been when I chose the Bible passage I wanted read at our wedding, the one that urges us to “look at the birds of the air” and “consider the lilies of the field” and ends with the admonition, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

Our pastor wondered about my choice—after all, there are plenty of verses about love—but I wanted our priorities set right from the beginning. We would grow like the lilies, trusting in God.

Now in Florence, that seemed hopelessly idealistic. We had mortgages and bills to pay, children to raise and careers to manage. Who had time for lilies and birds?

For the sake of developing relationships with people who could positively affect future radio budgets, I was helping Tim arrange a perfect tour of the city, printing up maps so our charges could easily navigate its narrow cobblestoned streets.

But there was no love in what I did. Tim and I were a team in name only.

One afternoon I wandered off alone. I was not prepared for the unexpected tears that sprang to my eyes in the Duomo, the cathedral of Florence, overwhelmed by its huge scale and Godly beauty.

I didn’t expect to be charmed by the medieval alleyways, palaces and churches. I was struck dumb when I entered the fourteenth century Basilica of Santa Croce and saw the tombs and monuments of famous Florentines like Galileo and Michelangelo.

What was it about these courageous and innovative men who didn’t shrink back in fear when the odds were stacked against them? All of a sudden, Florence wasn’t just about artwork anymore.

I awoke on day four of the trip in a hotel called The Miramare in the town of Santa Margherita Ligure on the Italian Riviera. While Tim slept, I sat up in bed and gazed out the narrow window, the white curtains billowing in the sea breeze.

I watched a lone sailboat turn from gray to orange to white as it cut its way across the expansive harbor, bathed in the light of the rising sun. I felt strangely calm, peaceful even. “Hey, you,” I whispered to Tim. “Wake up.”

Tim slowly opened one eye and peered at his travel alarm clock perched on the bedside table. “But we just went to bed,” he groaned.

“The mountains and the sea look like a painting. C’mon.” We put on our matching white robes from the tiny closet and had coffee delivered to our room. We carried the tray outside and sat on our balcony in the crisp spring air.

“Close your eyes for a minute. Just listen.” Silence, birds, wind through the trees.

Consider the lilies of the field…

He opened his eyes and we both laughed.

“Florence was…” Tim began.

“I know,” I said.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“Overwhelming, unsettling, amazing, life-changing?”

“All of the above,” he said. “Wanna do something?”

The day was free, nothing on the agenda until evening. “Okay,” I said.

After breakfast we walked down the palm-lined beach promenade through town. This once-small fishing village had blossomed into a charming tourist town with boutiques and galleries, markets and bakeries.

We ambled along the coast road and drank in the details, the brightly colored buildings painted with trompe l’oeil façades. Flowers cascaded from windows, walkways and archways. The sun glinted off the sea in sprays of glitter.

Tim reached for my hand and it felt right to hold his. This was not the type of scenery that a soul could handle alone, even souls who were trying to ignore each other.

And then the conversation, the one we had on practically every vacation. “I could live here,” Tim said.

“Me too.”

“I’m serious. I really could live here,” Tim said with a fateful change of inflection. We walked the rest of the way back to the hotel in silence. Could we really make this charmed life here ours?

No, I thought. I’m leaving you. I’d invested too much time and pain in that decision. There were too many reasons our marriage had failed. I was not going to be derailed by some romantic stroll along the beach.

But something was happening to us that rattled our priorities and our assumptions. Maybe there was hope that the Bible passage I’d chosen for our wedding could still be true and we could trust something more than our arguments about who was working harder, who gave more.

Twenty minutes later Tim and I were side by side on two blue-striped lounge chairs facing the sea at the hotel pool. We were the only ones there except for the pool cleaner. “I really meant what I said before,” Tim said. “I could quit my job and we could live for a year off the profit of our house.”

“Are you crazy?”

“I don’t know. These past few days I’ve been thinking…I’m not happy in my job. I haven’t been happy for a long time. It just hit me like a ton of bricks yesterday while we were crossing the Ponte Vecchio. Other people do crazy things. Why can’t we?”

“Because we don’t know how to work as a team…” I said. “Because we don’t even like each other that much anymore, remember?”

“Just think about it. That’s all I’m asking.”

I sat back and closed my eyes. I felt the hot sun wash over me. A heartbeat later an inner voice boomed, Do this.

It was so unexpected I sat up and peered around. Tim’s eyes were closed so I lay back down. But I couldn’t stop the questions from coming. Why stay anchored to a life that had brought me nothing but distance from the man I used to love and was teaching skewed values to my children?

I could continue divorce proceedings, take half of everything we owned, make a new life for myself and ask Katie and Matt to live with hearts forever broken. Or Tim and I could find a way, even if it seemed like a foolish way, and try again.

To do so would mean that we had to set sail for the unknown, a journey of faith. In a voice I barely recognized as my own, I said out loud, “If there’s an American International School in the area, I’ll consider it.”

We looked at each other, and I felt our souls connect at the thought of the impossible. Consider the lilies of the field…

We sat up in our chairs and I called to the pool guy. “Is there an American International School nearby?” He thought a while and then nodded slowly. Yes, there was, and not far away.

We went home and broke the news to our two stunned children: We were moving to Italy. Tim resigned from his job. We sold our house and some of our belongings and threw the rest in storage.

Our marital therapist called it “an elaborate scheme of avoidance at best,” but she was proven wrong. We never would have found each other—or found our faith again—if we’d stayed where we were, trapped by a lifestyle that was pulling us apart.

We had to take that risk and live as trusting as the birds of the air. I had chosen that passage from Matthew years before, and all at once I found myself learning to live it in the least likely place of all, halfway across the globe in a journey of the soul.

See photos of Susan and Tim's year in Italy!

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