July 14, 2024

Banos Online

Traveling Around the World

Missed flight leads to chance encounter love story

Missed flight leads to chance encounter love story

Bianca Gignac was swimming under the stars, against a backdrop of colourful, cliffside houses, with a complete stranger, her clothes left in a pile on a rock.

Bianca was in the harbour of Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five picturesque fishing villages that make up the Italian Cinque Terre region. Built into the rocks overlooking the Ligurian Sea, it’s spectacularly scenic.

“The Cinque Terre is unlike anything you’ve experienced,” Bianca tells CNN Travel today. “It’s like a dream. Something you’ll never comprehend until you’re there. It’s truly a must-see place.”

Bianca had arrived in Riomaggiore, fallen for its beauty and now – somehow – she’d found herself swimming – sans clothes – with a guy she’d just met. The two strangers laughed, splashed each other, soaked up the moment.

“We were swimming in the phosphorescence, under the stars,” Bianca recalls. “It was a perfect July 26 evening.”

It was July 26, 2003, to be precise. Bianca was a Canadian college student in her mid-20s, spending the summer in Italy. She was studying fine arts, and a scholarship from the Italian Cultural Institute of Vancouver led her to Florence – the fulfilment of a lifelong dream of visiting Europe.

When Bianca arrived in Florence, she was grieving a failed relationship. Slowly and surely, Italy had won her over, helped her rebuild her sense of self.

“I went on to have the most incredible summer, I was really finding my footing,” says Bianca.

“Then, three days before I was leaving to go home, my friend said, ‘Let’s go to the Cinque Terre. It’s the most romantic place I’ve ever been to. And so we went there for the weekend. And within hours, I met him.’”

“Him” was Bianca’s night-time swimming companion – Alessandro Morelli, a twentysomething from La Spezia, the nearest city to the Cinque Terre, a 10-minute train journey from Riomaggiore.

“I had a steady job with the local shipyard,” Alessandro tells CNN Travel. It was a job everyone assumed he’d do all his life – in general, his life was “steady” and “routine.”

Alessandro was in Riomaggiore on July 26 for a friend’s birthday party. The plan was to gather on the beach to celebrate and enjoy the long summer night. Alessandro was walking through the village with a friend when they decided to detour via one of the outdoor bars built into the cliffs.

It was at this bar that Alessandro and Bianca’s eyes first met.

The connection was “plain and simple,” says Alessandro. He couldn’t stop looking at Bianca.

“The red hair – she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen,” Alessandro recalls.

He told his friend he was going to go and speak to her. Then, Alessandro got up, walked over to Bianca’s table and asked if he could buy Bianca and her friend a drink.

The moment Alessandro approached her table, Bianca felt an “instant connection.”

“What struck me was he was very kind. He wasn’t cocky,” she says. “He was a kind person and I could feel that.”

Alessandro and Bianca

Bianca asked Alessandro if he wanted to sit with them. Then, his friend pulled up a chair too.

“We just started talking,” says Bianca – they spoke in English, as Bianca’s Italian wasn’t great back then.

“So it was the four of us. And we literally talked into the night,” she recalls. “We were in this little bar, it still exists today, 20 years later – it overlooks the little bobbing boats in the harbour. It’s super picturesque.”

The group stayed until closing. Then they walked down to the harbour and greeted the birthday party revellers.

That’s when Alessandro suggested the night-time dip: “Let’s go swimming,” he said to Bianca.

“I’m not going swimming in those waters,” said Bianca, skeptically. It was pitch black out, the sea dark and the water and rocks illuminated only by starlight.

But Alessandro won Bianca over – in his presence, she felt safe, free, happy.

“So we went out skinny dipping,” Bianca recalls.

It was a joyful end to the evening. Later, in the early hours of the morning, Bianca and her friend returned to their rented room, tired, but happy.

Then, mere hours later, the sun was streaming through the window, and there was a knock on the door.

“I was like, ‘What is going on? Who is that?’” recalls Bianca.

She tentatively opened the door, and there was Alessandro and his friend from the night before, grinning.

“These guys were there, with their speedos on, their bags, their sunscreen and they were like, ‘Girls, let’s go on a boat trip.’”

It was July 27 – Bianca’s birthday. She’d mentioned the significance of the date the night before, and Alessandro figured a boat trip was the perfect way to celebrate.

Alessandro’s friend was from Riomaggiore and he had a boat – “one of the fishing boats bobbing in the marina.” So the group spent the day floating around the Cinque Terre villages, admiring the green hills, the houses dotted among the cliffs, sunbathing and exploring. It was a magical birthday.

Bianca and Alessandro were inseparable for the rest of the weekend.

“We were simply living the typical Italian summer. Going to the beach, going out for pizza — going on walks,” says Bianca. “The guys just kept knocking on our door every day and taking us out. And we just kept saying yes.”

The four of them – Bianca and her friend and Alessandro and his friend – all got on well.

“It seemed incredibly normal and comfortable and we just all were having a great time and it was very relaxed — almost like we had been friends for a long time,” says Bianca.

A decision to stay

Bianca and her friend were only in Riomaggiore for a long weekend. The next week, she had a midnight train booked to Rome, which would take her to the airport and back to Canada, bringing her Italian summer to an end.

After three days with Alessandro, Bianca didn’t want to leave, but she figured she had no choice.

“I packed up my bag. I was leaving Italy for good,” she says.

Cinque Terre

Before heading to the train station, Bianca went out for a last dinner with Alessandro, “three steps away from where we met, while waiting for the train to arrive at the station.”

Bianca’s bag was at her feet. She’d checked out of her accommodation. All the signs pointed to her leaving. But neither Bianca nor Alessandro could accept that this was goodbye.

“Bianca, don’t go,” Alessandro said, as the time came for her to make her way to the station.

“I have to,” Bianca said. “I have a job, I have college.”

But Bianca made no signs of moving. Something inside her knew – she wasn’t going.

So Bianca missed her train. She missed the flight. It was out of character, but it was exciting. It felt like the right decision.

With Alessandro in tow, Bianca returned to her vacation rental and asked the owner if she could extend the trip – back then Cinque Terre wasn’t as busy as it is today, so that was a potentially doable request. The owner, who knew Alessandro, just looked at the pair of them and “laughed and laughed.”

“It’s a small village,” says Bianca. “He slapped Alessandro on the back and gave him the keys.”

Over the next 10 days, Bianca and Alessandro grew even closer.

“We didn’t try hard or force anything. It was just completely natural and we were just spending every minute together for a week,” says Bianca. “He even brought me to meet his mother, Paola, almost right away. I just sat in their kitchen and she was so sweet. She fed me, of course.”

Alessandro also took Bianca on the back of his scooter for hilltop rides around the Cinque Terre. They spent long days together, exploring, chatting.

“​​And then I really did go,” says Bianca. “When we said goodbye at the train station, I was crying. I was like, ‘I’m never going to see you again.’ And I really believed that there was no concept that I would ever see him again.”

Back in Canada

Back in Canada, Bianca focused on her degree. She was going into her final year of college and her goal was graduating. She tried to put Alessandro out of her mind. But before she’d left Italy, they’d exchanged contact details.

And while Bianca assumed they’d never see each other again, Alessandro was sure it was meant to be. He made an effort to stay in touch.

“I started calling her, and we’d talk over the phone,” he says.

These conversations became more and more regular.

And then, when Christmas rolled around, Alessandro suggested Bianca should come back to Italy, stay with him for the holidays.

“I have school,” Bianca said. “And I don’t have any money to go to Italy”

“I’ve got a solid job,” said Alessandro. “I’ll buy your plane ticket.”

The idea of seeing Alessandro again, of being back in Italy, was almost overwhelming to Bianca. During their months apart, she’d daydreamed about night swimming in Riomaggiore, about their long days exploring together, the evenings at cliffside restaurants. She decided to go for it.

“Okay, I’m coming,” Bianca told Alessandro on the phone.

When Bianca told her college friends her plans, they were in disbelief. Some didn’t believe it could last.

But one friend was adamant. “He bought you a plane ticket? You’re going to marry him and have babies.”

“I don’t think so,” said Bianca. “But let’s see.”

Bianca spent the holidays with Alessandro and his extended family in La Spezia. The trip lasted just over a week, but by the time Bianca was heading back to Canada in early 2004, she and Alessandro had a goal: when Bianca graduated from college, she’d come back to Italy.

“So that was our plan. So then it was just about me going home, wrapping up, graduating,” says Bianca.

That summer, Alessandro came to Canada to celebrate Bianca’s graduation and meet her family. Then, right after graduating, Bianca moved to Italy. It was exciting, but a little surreal. And for Bianca – who still didn’t speak much Italian – it was a big step.

One of Alessandro’s friends told him he thought Bianca would last “two weeks.” But he was quickly proven wrong. Bianca stayed for one month, then two and then…

“Within three months of us living together, we were married,” says Bianca.

It was a somewhat spontaneous decision. “We were young and dumb,” says Bianca today, laughing.

But it also felt like the absolute right decision. Bianca and Alessandro were in love, and wanted to spend their lives together.

Bianca phoned her parents in Canada to break the news.

“I called my family and I said, ‘I’m getting married. In three weeks. I am so sorry to do this to you. I know that’s hard to hear that I’m getting married in three weeks. But I’m doing it,’” Bianca recalls.

Her loved ones were a little surprised, but supportive.

“Even if we had this long-distance thing for a while, we had been together enough for people to understand that it was super serious,” she says.

Bianca Gignac kisses Alessandro Morelli

“We just ran off to city hall. We got married on a Friday, got the day off work, and showed up in clothes we already owned. I went to the florist across the street and got a baby’s breath, and put it behind my hair.”

Alessandro’s friend – the one who’d been there the night the couple met in Riomaggiore – translated the wedding service from Italian to English for Bianca. Alessandro’s family also attended and toasted their future.

Life in Italy

Bianca and Alessandro lived and worked in Italy for the next two years, including a period of living with Alessandro’s mother in her home. Bianca had been hesitant about moving in there, but everyone being under one roof allowed her to really bond with Alessandro’s loved ones.

“All of his family lived there. His aunt lived upstairs. His uncle used to live downstairs, it was the family home that the grandfather built. So it was just this incredible experience for somebody like me, coming into this whole culture and becoming part of his life,” says Bianca.

Bianca and Alessandro also spent a period living in an apartment, just the two of them. During this time, they lived in the moment “just enjoying the now,” as Alessandro puts it.

But they also learned a lesson that became essential to their relationship, as they navigated cultural differences and the first months of married life.

“When you’re in a relationship, you need to exercise the deepest patience,” says Alessandro. “Even more so when someone is from a different culture.”

“Patience and understanding, you have to have that as a couple anyway,” agrees Bianca. “When you are in an international relationship, it takes a lot more compassion and understanding.”

Bianca worked in a gelateria, which she says was “very stressful,” but which she credits as the reason why she finally perfected Italian. In time, she could speak the language fluently, and she was acclimatized to life in La Spezia.

But after two years, Bianca and Alessandro were ready for a change. They relocated to Canada, to Vancouver Island, where Bianca’s family lived.

This marked a shift into a new chapter of their lives.

“We bought a house and I was pregnant within a month,” says Bianca. “We ended up totally building a life in Canada, and having our daughter.”

A new chapter

While she was busy reacquainting herself with Canada, looking after a newborn, and then a toddler, an idea started percolating in Bianca’s head.

In time, this idea became a business: Italian Fix – a Canada-based tour company running specialized Italian small group tours, aiming to give visitors a taste of Italy as the locals live it.

The company was inspired by Bianca’s “knowledge from living in Italy and the lifestyle that I had grown to love and be a part of,” as she explains it.

Her company’s first trip was – of course – to the Cinque Terre.

“I got my first group of nine guests and I completely introduced them to all the people I had met there, all of my connections that I’ve built over the two years, and I just was like ‘Welcome to my world, and here’s a week of living in the Cinque Terre,’” recalls Bianca.

“That was the start and the seed of the company now I’ve been running for 12 years.”

As for Alessandro, he was “happy and enthusiastic” to put down roots in Canada. He got a good job working in engineering and focused on co-parenting with Bianca.

While Alessandro found there were “many differences” between Italy and Canada, he felt they were “mostly positive.”

Plus, he often joined Bianca on her Italian trips. The couple would take their daughter along too, and spend time with their Italian family.

Bianca and Alessandro’s shared commitment to prioritizing work, family and travel became the cornerstone of their family life.

“Even if we grew up in different countries, we have the same worldview. And the same worldview is, work hard, say yes to opportunities, don’t give up on yourself and your own dreams and see what incredible life you can build together,” says Bianca.

“That’s one of the values that we do say to our daughter – we’re like, ‘Don’t miss out on opportunities. If somebody gives you an opportunity, say yes.’ Because that’s very much how we’ve lived our life.”

The family has lived in Canada ever since, aside from a year spent living in Costa Rica.

“Everything really does open up after you move to one country – moving to others doesn’t seem so daunting,” says Bianca. “We had a fabulous year living on a white sand beach, and it was one of the best experiences.”

Bianca and Alessandro’s daughter is now in her teens. Bianca and Alessandro still take her to Italy whenever they can.

“She’s been to most corners of Italy, she speaks Italian,” says Bianca. “We have so much affection for Italy, we have so many friends there. Half of our friends and half of our amazing family memories are in Italy – they’re half in Canada, and they’re half in Italy, because we really have lived this international family life, living in two places.”

The Cinque Terre, of course, will always have a special place in Bianca and Alessandro’s hearts.

“It’s not a magical place where we go and relive our initial connection,” says Alessandro. “It’s just home. It’s home number two.”

Alessandro Morelli and Bianca Gignac

Catching or missing a train

Looking back on their 20 years together, Alessandro and Bianca say they feel “grateful and proud.”

Over the two decades, “the relationship has evolved in a million ways,” says Alessandro.

“But the very core of who we were – which is two young people who wanted a great life for themselves, and were brave enough to say, ‘yes’ – we’re actually the same kind of people,” he says.

The couple is always looking to the future and potential exciting opportunities – work-related, travel-related, and family-related. They pride themselves on trusting their instincts, diving head first into what feels right, just as they did with their romance back in July 2003.

“All the things we built, that we have, are thanks to us jumping on that train that was running by,” says Alessandro. “Over 20 years of us being together, that to me was actually a lesson – don’t ever miss a train, because it might not go by again.”

“Or do miss the train,” says Bianca, laughing. “Because then you get to stay, like I did.”