When the guy she’d met on the plane asked her out, Cristina Farina said yes without hesitation.
Cristina had spent much of the flight to London from her Italian hometown Florence deep in conversation with this stranger. He seemed friendly, interesting, interested.
“Why don’t we meet tomorrow, go have a coffee, spend some time together?” he suggested. “Let’s meet at 11 on Trafalgar Square.”
Upon landing at Heathrow Airport, Cristina and her plane crush went their separate ways, vowing to meet the next day. It was August 26, 1984. They didn’t swap addresses or contact numbers. Texting wasn’t an option. They just had to hope they’d both keep their promise and be there the following day.
Cristina grabbed her bag from the luggage carousel and headed into central London, feeling invigorated and excited. She was 18 years old, set to spend three months in the UK studying English. It was Cristina’s first significant period away from home. Possibility stretched out before her.
“I loved London,” Cristina tells CNN Travel today. “It gave me a lot of energy. I felt free to do what I wanted.”
The next day, shortly before 11 a.m., Cristina climbed the steps out of Charing Cross tube station and arrived in Trafalgar Square – an open, pedestrianized spot home to fountains, the UK’s National Gallery and the imposing Nelson’s Column, guarded by four large bronze lions.
Trafalgar Square’s almost always busy, and that day in 1984 was no different. Crowds of tourists dodged low flying pigeons as they lined up for entry to the gallery. Outside the South African embassy, protestors were opposing apartheid. It was sunny, with a warm breeze, and there were plenty of sunbathers sitting on the gallery steps and dotted around the square.
Cristina searched for her airplane date among the throngs of people. There was no sign of him, but she was a bit early.
Time ticked on. He was still nowhere to be seen.
“The guy never showed up,” says Cristina today.
Getting stood up wasn’t exactly how Cristina had imagined beginning her London adventure. She was a bit disheartened. She had no way of contacting her plane crush.
But while waiting for him to show, she’d had plenty of time to scan the other people in Trafalgar Square that day. And one person in particular had caught her eye.
“I saw this guy sitting in between the lions,” Cristina recalls. “He caught my attention because he was good looking – long hair, kind of a hippyish look.”
He was leaning on the plinth between the bronze lions, reading a book. As Cristina got closer, she saw it was a copy of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The guy was also listening to a walkman. As Cristina approached, he took off his headphones, looked up and smiled.
“Hi,” Cristina said.
“Hi,” he replied.
Feeling bold, Cristina sat down next to the stranger. He looked a little surprised, but he put down his book and smiled at her again.
“Then we just started talking,” says Cristina today.
Two days in London
The guy leaning on the Trafalgar Square lions was 20-year-old Matt Reinecke, an American college student on vacation with his family, visiting from California.
It turned out Matt had spotted Cristina before she approached him.
“Why does this pretty girl keep looking at me?” he thought.
Then, when Cristina spoke to him, then sat down next to him, Matt was thrilled.
“I was traveling, and I knew that I was leaving in two days. And then a cute girl sat down next to me – that was enough for me,” he tells CNN Travel today.
Matt and Cristina introduced themselves, and Cristina gestured to Matt’s walkman, asking what he’d been listening to. Matt explained he was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead – he’d been to several of their tour dates in the US. Then, Matt asked Cristina what brought her to London, and she spoke about her excitement about her upcoming three months away from home.
There was a bit of a language barrier – Cristina couldn’t always understand Matt’s Americanisms – she was more used to British English. But the connection between them was palpable right away.
“I liked him immediately,” says Cristina.
For the next two hours, Matt and Cristina sat, side by side, in Trafalgar Square, talking. At some point, Matt got out his camera and took a photo of Cristina, leaning against the monument, looking at him.
Eventually, Matt had to leave to meet his parents.
“But what are you doing later today?” he asked Cristina. “Want to meet for a drink?”
Matt and Cristina made plans to meet a few hours later. Matt’s family was staying at Claridge’s, the historic, swanky five star hotel in Mayfair. He told Cristina he’d meet her outside Bond Street Station. Unlike Cristina’s would-be airplane date, Matt showed up.
Matt’s parents knew he was going on a spontaneous date. They were also having a drink at a different spot on Bond Street, and asked Matt if he’d walk by with Cristina, so they could take a peek and wave hello. Matt and Cristina obliged, giggling as they walked by and saw Matt’s parents’ curious but friendly faces.
Then, sitting in a pub together, Matt and Cristina picked up where they’d left off. They shared their first kiss.
Cristina left the pub in a daze. She and Matt had made plans to meet again. He only had one more day left in London, but wanted to spend it with Cristina.
“I couldn’t wait,” Cristina recalls. “I was really looking forward to seeing him the next day.”
The next day, the sun was also shining. Cristina and Matt headed to Hyde Park.
“We really just kissed and talked all day in the park,” recalls Matt.
This time, Cristina took a photo of Matt, on her camera. In the picture he’s smiling, looking away from the camera, wearing his Grateful Dead t-shirt.
Matt’s flight wasn’t until the evening, so he put off leaving for as long as possible. When he finally said goodbye, Matt passed Cristina a note.
“Don’t open it until you get home,” he told her.
Cristina obliged. She was staying with a host family organized by the language school. She waited until she got back to her room and unfurled the paper.
“The note said, ‘I can’t bear the thought of never seeing you again,’” recalls Cristina today. She remembers welling up.
“I knew I was going to see him again. And I knew I was going to spend time with him somewhere, somehow.”
Despite that feeling of certainty, Cristina still felt heartbroken. And she felt lonely. She wished her girlfriends from Italy were close by so she could talk through her emotions. Instead, dug out some paper from her bag and wrote a long letter to her best friend back home, telling her about Matt, about their whirlwind romance.
“I was completely wrapped up in these two days I spent with him,” says Cristina.
The next day, the woman Cristina was staying with noticed her bloodshot eyes and asked Cristina what was wrong. In the absence of anyone else to speak to, Cristina confided in her.
“Don’t worry, you’ll see him again,” said Cristina’s host. “Do you have his address?”
Cristina did have – scrawled on a piece of paper – Matt’s college address. He was still traveling around Europe with his parents, and wouldn’t be back there for a while. But Cristina wrote him a letter anyway.
And while she didn’t receive a reply right away, Cristina settled into her London life. The feeling of heartbreak faded a little, and she made friends.
“I had a wonderful time,” she recalls.
Matt was still in the back of her mind. Weeks passed, and she didn’t hear from him. She sent another letter. Still nothing.
Surely he was back at school by now? Maybe she had the wrong address?
“So I tried to find out his parents’ address instead,” recalls Cristina. “I knew they’d been staying at Claridge’s, so I contacted Claridge’s, asking for the address.
Of course, they couldn’t give me the address of the parents. But they told me, ‘Send the letter to us, and we’ll forward it to them.’ So that’s what happened.”
It turned out Matt hadn’t received Cristina’s first letters.
“I was a university student, so I was changing apartments every year,” he explains today. “And then they would never forward the mail.”
Cristina’s idea of writing to Matt’s parents’ address was a good one.
“Finally, he got all my letters,” says Cristina.
And eventually, when Cristina was back in Italy, Matt’s reply arrived: “Four pages folded into one small envelope that had me very emotional and excited,” as Cristina recalls.
“I locked myself in my room and read it slowly over and over again.”
Even with correct addresses established, Cristina remained the driving force behind their keeping in touch. It wasn’t that Matt wasn’t interested – he thought about Cristina often, daydreaming about those magical two days in London. But letter writing didn’t come naturally to him in the same way it did her.
Still, over the next two years, Cristina and Matt kept up a epistolery correspondence. A couple of times, they spoke on the phone but “very rarely,” because of the steep transatlantic phone costs.
And even as months, then years passed without them seeing one another, Cristina and Matt believed they would one day reunite, just as Matt promised in the note he’d given Cristina when he left London.
“I knew I was going to come back,” says Matt.
“I had the certainty that I was going to see him again,” says Cristina.
As time went on, their letters became more detailed. Matt would send Cristina his sociology college essays and Cristina loved this, getting to see how Matt’s brain worked, getting a glimpse into his political views, his perspective on the world.
And while Cristina’s early letters were “mainly about my daily life, my friends, my family, my travels,” as time went on, she “wrote about my feelings, my dreams.”
“The letters became more important as our relationship grew, as we got to know each other over time,” says Matt.
Reuniting in Florence
1986 rolled around. In a letter, Matt told Cristina he was planning to visit Europe that summer. His goal was to get to Greece, but – if it was okay with Cristina and her family – he’d plan a stop off in Florence, where Cristina lived with her parents.
“I was super excited,” says Cristina. “A bit nervous because he had to meet my family, but overall I was the happiest girl on Earth.”
Cristina’s parents knew about her London romance. They saw the way she reacted to the arrival of Matt’s letters. They were still a little skeptical about the whole thing. And when Matt arrived at their home – in clothes crumpled from traveling and with long hair – they were even more skeptical.
“But eventually they started to like him,” says Cristina. “He was a good influence in my family – he was fun, he made people laugh. He didn’t speak a word of Italian. But he started to speak slowly, by learning slowly, by listening to my parents and my brother, who was a couple years younger than I was.”
In the end, Matt never made it to Greece. Instead, he spent three months with Cristina in Italy.
Matt says their reunion was an exciting, romantic “blur.”
“It was a dream,” says Cristina. “It was a movie type of thing.”
At the end of the summer, Matt returned to the US to finish college. Later that year, Cristina visited him in California.
In summer 1987, Matt graduated college and headed straight to Italy to see Cristina. He got a job as an English teacher in Florence, found an apartment in the city and ended up living there for the next 18 months.
After years of long distance, Matt and Cristina were finally in the same country. They weren’t just pen pals, they were finally dating.
“That’s when we decided, we’re going to live together forever,” says Matt.
“I was still only 21, I was very young,” says Cristina. “But I was very convinced that he was for me.”
Still, the future was still a bit uncertain. Matt felt like his teaching job was more of a stop gap than a permanent career. And Cristina had loved California when she’d visited Matt the year before. Living there became a goal for them both.
So Matt returned to the US in early 1989 and went back to college, getting another degree in sociology and economics. And in 1990, Cristina followed him to California.
A California chapter
Cristina’s parents had grown to love Matt, but they were a bit worried about their daughter relocating across the world.
“But they understood that it was time to try and see if things would work out,” says Cristina.
Meanwhile, Matt’s parents were supportive, but they were from wealthy Californian society, and Matt reckons they’d always imagined him meeting a girl at a San Francisco debutante ball.
“My parents were more wanting me to be a part of upper class San Francisco life, and not running off to Italy,” says Matt.
“We were from different backgrounds,” says Cristina. “My family was a normal middle class Italian family.”
Despite their differences, Matt and Cristina’s time together in California felt like a turning point. They got their own apartment and for the first time, it felt like they were “free of outside, external things like parents, family, different things.”
They could be “just Matt and Cristina as a couple,” as Matt puts it.
Matt worked long hours at an investment bank, but even though his job was full-on, the couple made the most of their time together. Their apartment was always full of friends. They went out in San Francisco regularly. They grew closer and more sure of their future together.
“The relationship had already been building, but really it just blossomed in San Francisco,” says Matt. “It was a wonderful time of our lives, you’re in your mid to late 20s, we’re living on Union Street, one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of San Francisco. We had so many friends.”
Matt and Cristina were committed to a future together, but the decision to get married came about rather suddenly. In 1991, Cristina received a letter from US immigration giving her two weeks to leave the country. And so on April 12, 1991 Matt and Cristina got married in San Francisco’s City Hall with only Matt’s mother and a few friends present.
But they planned a big wedding celebration for later that year in Italy, at the 13th century Sant’Angostino Church in Prato, Tuscany.
“Our wedding day was a lot of fun,” recalls Cristina.
The service was entirely in Italian. By then, Matt was pretty proficient in the language, but some of his relatives were a bit confused. Despite the language barrier, they couldn’t fail to interpret the happiness on Matt and Cristina’s faces, and the joy that emanated through the day.
“It was a beautiful wedding,” says Matt.
In the summer of 1993, Matt and Cristina embarked on a new adventure together. They quit their jobs in the US and spent half a year traveling – visiting Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.
Then, at the end of that traveling period, the couple left California behind and moved to Italy.
“We decided to try to move back to Europe, to see if Italy works for us,” says Cristina. “We said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ without thinking too much.”
In Italy, Matt and Cristina settled first in Milan, where they welcomed their first child, Davide, in 1997.
Later, Matt’s investment banking work later took them to Turin, where their daughter Francesca was born in 2003.
In the mid-noughties, Matt and Cristina moved to Tuscany. They liked the idea of being closer to Cristina’s parents. And after decades spent living in big cities, the Tuscan countryside was a welcome change of pace. The couple bought a run down 1600s farmhouse and focused on restructuring the house and making it into a family home.
They were also kept busy by work. From 2008 until 2019, Matt and Cristina ran an American bakery in Florence, called Mama’s Bakery.
“I think I’ve made somewhere between 400,000 to 500,000 bagels,” says Matt. “I was the bagel king of Italy for a while.”
Running the business together was hard work, but rewarding.
“We were a good team, we complemented each other,” says Matt. “It is really difficult on family time, but we often had fun together at work. I am happy we had the experience, but I am happier that we sold the business.”
Matt and Cristina left Mama’s Bakery behind in 2019. Now, they’re retired, and their focus is on traveling, spending time with their kids and enjoying their home in Tuscany.
“We do exactly what we want to do,” says Cristina.
“We’re fortunate we can do that,” says Matt.
After years of working and living in Italy, Matt’s fluent in Italian. Matt and Cristina’s children are bilingual.
“Our conversation in the house switches back and forth between English and Italian mid-sentence,” says Matt.
“Who would have ever thought that I’d live half my life in Italy? It’s weird how just a brief second can change things in a wonderful way.”
For Matt and Cristina, it’s surreal but special to reflect on their first meeting in Trafalgar Square, 40 years ago this year. They’ve since returned to London with their kids, taking them to the spot by the lions where they first started talking.
“I was emotional when we were there together,” says Cristina.
It was a random meeting, spurred on by another random meeting – who knows what would have happened if Cristina’s original airplane date had turned up that day.
Although Cristina and Matt think fate played a role, looking back they’re also proud that they worked to stay in touch, Cristina’s proud of her spontaneity and determination, and Matt’s proud of his willingness to take risks.
“Life is amazing,” says Matt. “It is crazy just how absurd things can be. Be careful out there. You might find happiness in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
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