The love everyone said was doomedShe was a highly paid executive. He was a penniless Romanian pianist she met in a holiday bar. Her friends were aghast when she gave up everything to be with him. So how DID it turn out
21:40 GMT, 6 June 2012
A spring evening in Venice and music drifts across St Mark’s Square. It is the love songs — sentimental, weepy — that lure me to Cafe Florian where I sit alone at a table, sip my drink and reflect.
The music acts like a balm. I’ve escaped alone to Italy for a weekend break and finally begin to let go of the stresses of my life in London: the pressure of holding down a job that demands all my time and energy, the unremitting tedium of my daily commute and the growing sense that — despite everything I have materially — my life, at its core, is empty.
I listen, rapt, to the six-piece band playing Neapolitan love songs, empty my mind and start to enjoy a new sense of freedom.
La dolce vita: Julie and Cornel set up home in Venice after falling in love
Before long, an English couple at the next table start to chat to me. The man is gregarious and calls out requests to the musical ensemble. They oblige. We applaud, and when the cafe is ready to close, the clarinettist and pianist join us.
I’m dubious about the pianist. He wears a tuxedo and walks with a cocky swagger, ripping off his bow-tie and lighting a cigarette, which dangles from his lips in the manner of James Dean. What’s more, he has a ridiculous goatee beard. ‘Uh oh,’ I think. ‘Here comes trouble.’
Yet somehow, I find myself agreeing to go for a late-night drink. There are five of us — the married couple, the two musicians and me — and as we meander through the moonlit alleys to a little bar by the Rialto, I wonder why I have abandoned my usual caution and am walking through the darkness of a foreign city with a group of strangers.
I chat to the pianist. He tells me his name — Cornel — and I find he is witty, charming and speaks with an irresistible accent.
Before long, I’m spilling out details of my life to him. I tell him I’ve recently separated from my husband, though we’re not yet divorced, and that my work as a journalist, though well-paid, feels like a form of drudgery and leaves me totally drained.
'He has a wicked sense of humour, instantly gets my sarcasm, and I find myself rocking with laughter at his anecdotes'
More than that, my job as acting editor of a newly launched women’s magazine has consumed so much of my time that it has caused the breakdown of my marriage. My husband is blameless: it’s just that, after two years as husband and wife, we’ve barely shared a moment together.
Cornel is attentive. He listens. I notice he has blue eyes and decide he’s actually self-confident rather than arrogant.
He tells me about himself. He is not — as I’d thought — Italian, but Romanian. He is 25 — three years younger than me — and has studied music from the age of seven. I am awed by his knowledge of classical composers.
He also has a wicked sense of humour, instantly gets my sarcasm, and I find myself rocking with laughter at his anecdotes. It’s like meeting a long-lost twin. And there is something about the magic of Venice that makes me feel I’ve entered the make-believe world of a film set. This wouldn’t have happened in London: I would have been too fearful; too sensible.
Here, I feel bold enough to let Cornel walk me back to my hotel through the labyrinthine streets. But when we reach the door and he leans in, I proffer my cheek.
I’d only ever had a couple of boyfriends; I’d certainly never countenanced a one-night stand. So Cornel and I say a chaste goodnight, exchange emails and promise to keep in touch.
A day later I fly home. My thoughts are full of Cornel. My head tells me our worlds are poles apart: my heart says differently.
Poles apart: When they first met, Cornel was a penniless pianist while Julie was a highly paid magazine exec
Cornel is, after all, a penniless Romanian pianist. How can I, an editor on 60,000 a year, countenance a relationship with a musician earning 25 a day who sends most of his pay home to his mother
But, still, back at home, I feel compelled to contact him. I wonder whether the death of my father — who had succumbed a year earlier to a particularly cruel and aggressive form of cancer aged just 59 — was influencing me. Certainly I’d decided to live more for the day.
So I wrote to Cornel, inviting him to London. He emailed back. It was a light-hearted message, but he said he couldn’t come to England. It was 2005 and Romania was still outside the EU. He would need a visa. It would be virtually impossible to get one.
And his eight-month contract in Venice was ending. He was going home to Romania. A sudden impulse seized me and I wrote: ‘I’ll come and see you there.’
Looking back, I realise how reckless I was being, but I booked a flight and hotel in his home town of Cluj Napoca, Transylvania, in north Romania.
'I yearned to be with Cornel: he had so little, yet his life seemed so rich'
Nerves seized me as I arrived at the chaotic airport. I was bewildered and fearful that Cornel would not turn up and I would be stranded, alone in a grim and unfamiliar city.
Then I spotted him. Without his tuxedo and in a Eastern European uniform of jeans and leather jacket, his face unshaven, he looked diminished. For a second my heart sank.
But then he locked me in an embrace and whisked me away from the grimy disorder into a waiting taxi. At once I felt cossetted and adored, like a fairytale princess.
Suddenly we were drawing up outside my hotel. Grand and ornate, it pre-dated the Communist era. Cornel led me into a reception hall, then up to a huge suite with a balcony.
There was no awkwardness — just laughter and animated conversation. Any anxiety melted away.
That night we made love for the first time and, though the old me — sensible and wary — would never have countenanced such rashness, my instinct was telling me it was absolutely right.
The next day, buoyed up on a cloud of bliss, we went to meet Cornel’s mother and step father. But as we travelled through bleak suburbs over pot-holed roads, past homeless people, to grim, grey tower blocks, reality intruded again.
I’d grown up with my younger sister in a pretty village on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire. I’d had a normal, uneventful childhood — Dad was an electronics engineer; Mum, a secretary — and I’d progressed seamlessly from university into journalism and a lucrative career.
Cornel, an only child, was raised in Communist austerity under a regime of government rationing.
Life for his mother Cornelia, a dental nurse, and stepfather Gyuri, a construction worker, was, as for most Romanians, a struggle.
Wedded bliss: The couple married in 2009 and have a three-year-old son
As I ascended the nine floors to their apartment in a rickety lift, I had to subdue my apprehension at entering an alien world.
But once again, my worries were dissipated as I was welcomed by his family. As they produced course after course of traditional food, their generosity was humbling.
There was much frivolity as we drank copious amounts of home-made brandy. His stepfather even pretended to do a striptease as his mother roared with laughter. Then Cornel played to me on his boyhood piano. When he began to sing Elvis’s I Can’t Help Falling In Love with You, I knew I was falling in love with him.
As we said goodbye the next day, I suppressed tears. Back at work on Monday I felt depressed, deflated.
The old pressures crowded in and I began to wonder why I was working such long hours. I had no time to spend my salary and nobody to enjoy it with. My brain told me I was blessed, yet I felt utterly desolate.
I yearned to be with Cornel: he had so little, yet his life seemed so rich.
About three weeks later, I flew out for another weekend and my conviction that he was genuine and kind grew. He refused to let me pay for anything — not even a coffee.
'I gloried in simple pleasures, going to
the fish market, buying vegetables from a boat moored on the canal and
taking an Italian course'
Then he told me casually ‘You know I love you, don’t you’ as if nothing could be more natural.
So an outrageous plan took shape in my mind. I would resign, sell my house, put my possessions into storage and go to live with Cornel. He had renewed his contract at the Cafe Florian: I could be with him in Venice.
He was thrilled, but apprehensive — was I sure about giving up my salary and career Would I cope with the slow pace of life in a city surrounded by water
Friends concluded I was insane. ‘You’re mad, Julie!’ cried the wealthy banker husband of a friend. ‘You’ve got a glittering career and you’re giving it all up for a penniless Romanian pianist you’ve met three times!’
The nickname ‘Mad Julie’ stuck. Some friends worried that Cornel was after a British visa. Others were certain I’d become unhinged by grief since the death of my father. I was polite but defiant. ‘I’ll only find out if he’s genuine if I live with him,’ I reasoned.
Even my mum’s entreaties did not deter me. She was worried it was all too soon and that I was foolish to give up everything for a man I didn’t know properly.
Though I often wrote in my magazine about deluded women who fell in love with impecunious foreign waiters and made fools of themselves, I did not consider my own situation parallel to theirs.
On the day in June 2006 when I handed in my resignation, I felt a huge burden lift. I put my house on the market and arrived in Venice with 2,000 in savings, then found a six-month let on a tiny studio flat.
It was no more than a shoebox, but the view over the Giudecca Canal to the onion domes of the Salute Church was breathtaking. Those early days passed in a blur of happiness. Cornel came to live with me. We had a crash course in familiarisation — and while he worked, I wandered along the canals, losing myself in wonderment whenever I discovered a hidden church crammed with Renaissance treasures.
No regrets: Julie loves her new life in Venice
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I soon learned there were huge cultural differences. I’d been brought up to believe it totally normal to speak to members of the opposite sex; Cornel found this difficult.
If he met me and my friends after finishing work late, he would query conversations I’d had with other men, which led to jealous, heated rows.
Even for me, our passionate relationship ignited a jealousy I hadn’t felt before — were there other romantics like me who were drawn to my mysterious pianist We even argued over mundane things such as how to wash up properly. There’d be angry tirades and I’d be left in tears.
Miles from friends and family, I often asked myself what on earth I had done.
But over time, things changed. We adapted, each bending to the others’ customs and norms.
Cornel mellowed, understanding there was no threat to him. I learned to bite my lip about silly, domestic things. For example, Cornel refused to throw anything away as, under Communism, so many foods were hard to come by. We compromised.
The heated rows became minor spats. Soon, they were defused by a laugh or silly comment.
It helped when Cornel’s career took off. He started to earn more at another cafe in St Mark’s square; he even played on the Orient Express. He was happier and that rubbed off on me.
One in four men believes in love at first sight
Meanwhile, I gloried in simple pleasures, going to the fish market, buying vegetables from a boat moored on the canal and taking an Italian course with two new English girlfriends.
In the evenings I’d walk to the cafe to hear Cornel play. He’d glance over and smile. In the interval we’d chat, then I’d amble home, across moon- dappled cobbles feeling dizzy with the joy of being in love.
Six years have passed since those heady days and at 34 I’m married to Cornel and mother to our beloved three-year-old Alex, the image of his daddy.
In November 2009, Cornel proposed from the top of the Campanile, the belltower of a cathedral and one of the most recognisable landmarks in the city. Our wedding took place at the Town Hall on the edge of the Grand Canal. A small group of just 17 close friends and family came to wish us well, and concede that their fears had been totally unjustified.
We ate a five-course Venetian banquet and our first dance was to the Elvis song that has become ours.
Happy family: The couple with son Alex
Today. we live on the Venetian island of Giudecca in a slightly bigger flat, and from the window I look down five storeys onto boats bobbing on our stretch of canal. On a clear day, from our window we can see the distant snow-capped Dolomites.
We live frugally and my erratic earnings are from freelance journalism. I write from home while Cornel, who still plays the piano throughout the tourist season, shares the childcare.
We don’t have a car — there’s no point in Venice — and we trundle our grocery shopping over cobbled streets in a granny trolley. Alex — who speaks to me in English, to Cornel in Romanian and learns Italian at his play school — is a perpetual source of pride and delight.
Cornel, 31, is just as much a gentleman as ever. He still opens doors for me, he still holds my coat. And because we have relatively little money, our pleasures are simple ones.
I have only to walk by the canal — especially on a silent winter day when it is shrouded in mist — to feel happy.
Our story shows that love at first sight can exist. True, it comes at a price — I remember our heated rows, jealous exchanges and the shock of getting to know someone at high speed — but I wouldn’t change a second of it.
And when I go to the Cafe Quadri where Cornel now works, he’ll play our tune for me and my heart never fails to do a little leap of joy.