An Improbable Decision

A trip to Italy proves to be a turning point for a failing marriage

In 2003, Susan and Tim Pohlman's marriage was on the brink of collapse. They'd tried and failed at marital counseling, and their life had become a battle zone of hellacious fights and wounded feelings. Susan was secretly consulting a divorce attorney.

In May of that year, however, they found themselves putting up a brave but disingenuous front on a business trip to Italy. One day, while they strolled through a picturesque town on the Italian Riviera, Tim suddenly blurted out, "I could live here." Susan, charmed by the romantic ambience, quickly—but not very seriously—concurred.

It soon became apparent that Tim was quite serious, and following two days of intense debate, the Pohlmans made a most improbable decision. As soon as they returned home to Los Angeles, Tim quit his high-paying job as a radio executive; they sold their house; and by summer's end, they and their two frequently eye-rolling children were ensconced in a high-rise apartment in Genoa with a stunning view of the Ligurian Sea.

That the family relocated, together, to a different continent in the middle of a relationship meltdown might lead some to conclude that they had both blown a fuse. Indeed, in her new book, Halfway to Each Other, Susan Pohlman writes that as their plans to move gathered momentum, she became more and more convinced that she was having a nervous breakdown. However, Pohlman, who now lives in Scottsdale with her family, tells us that, in spite of her fears, she went with the idea because—almost from the moment of Tim's epiphany—she began experiencing a steadily growing urge that seemed to be pulling her from the grip of logic and common sense.

Logic, however, had quite a hold on Pohlman, and her struggle between reason and intuition is the thematic axis of this collection of engaging vignettes which comes down solidly on the side of intuition. The family's year-long sojourn in Italy ended up jump-starting the couple's marriage, and Pohlman's spirited account of their adventures testifies to the value of following one's heart.

Pohlman's keen eye for detail makes this volume as much a travel book as it is a spiritual memoir. When the family is not dealing with bus strikes and serving American-style barbeque to bemused neighbors, they're gallivanting from sun-drenched beaches to quaint, cobblestoned towns. As they decompress from their frenetic, image-conscious American lifestyle, the Pohlmans come increasingly to think of laid-back, "unpretentious" Italy as home.

However, the family's transformation into temporary and contented Italians was not without challenges. Pohlman depicts a host of difficulties, from ordering food in restaurants and communicating with cab drivers to bouts of acute homesickness and intense feelings of isolation.

"Though the train car was crowded," she writes of their rail journey from Paris to Genoa, "the four of us seemed strangely alone. A family on an island ... unfamiliar languages drifted around me ... fear and doubt filled the train compartment like poison gas."

It was, though, this sometimes overwhelming sense of being strangers in an unfamiliar land that contained the keys to change, opening up new ways of experiencing the world, bringing the family closer together and recharging the Pohlman's marriage.

"Stepping outside the protective bubble of ingrained culture," Pohlman says, "had left me vulnerable and invigorated, an unlikely combination that opened me up and drew me toward Tim rather than away."

This is Pohlman's first book, but she has a natural feel for language and storytelling. The only false notes occur when, during times of agitation, the Pohlmans resort to such vile imprecations as "heck" and "for goodness' sake." Does anyone really talk like that?

Pohlman's lively style, however, pulls readers into her story, and I began to feel like part of the family (even doing a bit of eye-rolling myself at certain points). As the book drew to a close, I actually put it aside for several days—with the last chapters unread—because I didn't want the experience to end.

The Pohlmans are a devoutly Catholic family, but Susan Pohlman isn't preachy about her faith. She does believe, however, that persistent urges that seem to defy logic are often worth considering.

"God sends us messages ... every day, but we only hear him in fits and starts, and we listen even less," she contends. "... I did not (listen) until I was an emotional train wreck and then I was all ears, listening like a child with a cup to the wall."

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