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How we stay together: 'It’s within those storms that you aim for the sun'

Alexandra Spring
·8-min read

Names: Valentino and Carly Giannoni
Years together: 20
Occupations: Self-employed

Carly and Valentino Giannoni’s relationship had a picture book start. In 2000, Carly, a twenty-something Australian, went backpacking around Europe. While she was in Italy, she wanted to visit Cinque Terre, the picturesque fishing villages on the Italian Riveria, overlooking the Mediterranean. She found herself in the pretty hamlet of Vernazza and rented a room from Luciano, a local who would turn out to be a fairy godfather of sorts.

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At the time, Valentino, also in his 20s, was working in his family’s gelato shop. Luciano was a family friend and he quickly decided that Valentino and Carly were destined to be together. “[He would say] ‘You should meet this person. She’s very nice. I think you guys will marry. You should marry each other,’” says Valentino.

Valentino had already noticed her in the village, and one afternoon he spotted her at the local pizzeria. “Something got into me and I had to say ciao to her.” Carly smiled back and that afternoon she went into the gelato shop. After giving her a scoop, Valentino asked her out. They spent the evening at a local bar, drinking wine and talking. “We both really fell for each other straight away,” says Carly. “It was like we couldn’t stop talking.”

For Valentino, Carly was a breath of fresh air. He’d grown up feeling like he didn’t quite belong in his small village, but Carly got him. “I was, for the first time, feeling that she was receiving or understanding me,” he says, “even if I have spiritual ideas about life or even my crazy inventions sometimes. I felt comfortable and welcomed.”

In fact, those “crazy inventions” piqued Carly’s interest. “I was attracted to [his] quirkiness. Maybe we just fell in love with the whole irregular thing of meeting someone from a different culture. We had so much to talk about all the time … an energetic connection.”

They spent much of the next few weeks together, then Carly left to travel through south-east Asia. He joined her in Thailand and they travelled to Cambodia together. Then he decided to follow her back to Australia: “When I told [my mother] about Australia, she was very supportive and she told me, ‘Just follow your heart. Go. Otherwise, you’re never going to do something like that again.’”

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The couple spent the next few years alternating between Italy and Australia. Eventually they decided to settle in Australia – which meant Valentino needed a visa and to find work. It was a bit of culture shock, they agree. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to go through in a relationship,” says Carly. “Two different cultures. It was definitely not perfect in those early days in Australia. We still loved each other but there were definitely some bumps.”

Some of their greatest difficulties have come from a clash of cultures. “I would go, ‘But you’re yelling’ and he goes ‘No I’m not. It’s normal in Italy’. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you’re yelling’,” says Carly with a smile.

They were still unsure where to settle when fate stepped in and Carly fell pregnant. They were married in Byron Bay, then moved back to Italy for the birth of their daughter, then returned to Australia to open their own gelato shop. They found the perfect location on the Tweed Coast in NSW and were soon up and running. “[It was] very exciting to open a shop and bring my culture into my area. The gelato is in Australia, but I felt like I was representing my hometown,” says Valentino.

Like all seasonal businesses, the shop was busy during the holidays but tough during the quiet times, and after five years, they switched to wholesaling gelato out of the Byron Shire region. Unfortunately things didn’t go to plan. “We went through a very challenging period between 2009 and 2011 financially, but more emotionally, because there were a lot of challenges that we had to overcome,” says Valentino. Eventually they sold up and returned once more to Italy, so that Valentino’s family could spend time with their growing family.

However, tragedy struck just three weeks after they arrived, when they were caught in the flooding of Cinque Terra in 2011. Valentino, Carly and their young son were in the family gelato store, with his father and business partner, when the waters started to rise. The three men struggled to secure the doors to stop the water coming in, but when Valentino left his father’s side for a few moments to help his wife and son to safety, the doors blew open. His father was taken by the surging water.

For the next terrifying half hour, the trapped family prayed for a miracle. Eventually the water receded. But his father and two other men from the village were swept out to sea and drowned. It took 11 days before their bodies were recovered, in France, to be returned to the village for burial.

The entire family was devastated, and that moment of terror made a lasting impact on the couple: “[It] really brought us further together,” says Valentino. “It was a moment in our life where I don’t think we’ll ever forget that feeling of precarity, of [knowing] everything can just go in a second.”

The village was destroyed and everyone was involved in the clean-up. But it soon became clear that they had to leave. “[We’d decided] we’d move to Italy, so we were going to push through,” says Carly “but the kids were so traumatised and every single day they were asking to come back here to school.”

After four months, they returned to Australia, and once again they had to start afresh. “That was awful, a year of post-traumatic stress,” says Carly. Slowly they rebuilt. Valentino took a sales job with a gelato company for a few years, then they decided to try running their own shop once more. They moved to Tyalgum in NSW, bought their first home and set up the Tyalgum Gelato Shop.

The tragedy in Vernazza had changed everything for the couple. “There was a lot of grounding from knowing the importance of the real values of family,” says Valentino. “[We] shed away what’s not important and concentrated on making the family happy, [having] good food and [creating a] healthy atmosphere in the house.”

Carly says it’s their friendship that got them through. “We talk … and work everything out. Most people say, ‘You’re so resilient’, because we’ve had so many bumps along the way [and] we just keep pushing. But we have plenty of times where I go, ‘Oh my God, I’m exhausted, I can’t do this anymore’ – and then we just keep going and we’re good again.” She adds: “Through everything, we still love each other.”

Over the years, they’ve gotten better at navigating clashes. “We detect now when something’s about to start,” says Valentino. “There is a deep understanding of each other’s character.” He adds: “She knows where I’m going to lead after one minute and I know where she’s going to go after that minute, so we balance each other out.”

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And despite everything, they’ve always felt they’re meant to be together. “There was [always] something that was good in our relationship,” Valentino explains. “There was something precious and to cherish. Not that we thought about it, but I always got that feeling … ‘Just keep on going because it’s all right. It’s going to be OK’.”

Carly nods, remembering all the cards and notes he’s written to her over the years. “They always come back to that point: ‘Everything we’ve been through, we’ve still got [each other]. Great things are coming and through all of this we are stronger together’.”

Both believe in working on themselves and their relationship, improving both as much as possible. “It’s called growing up,” says Carly. “We met in our 20s. Now we’re in our 40s, so this is different.” Valentino agree, “We come from a place where we struggle together and we understand each other and … where we are in life.”

When things were difficult, whether financially, emotionally or culturally, sometimes laughter was the only way through. Says Carly: “We just laugh hysterically. Because you can’t get any worse, so you make the biggest joke out of it. Laugh and cry and just push through with humour, because it’s so disastrous. Not the flood, that wasn’t laughable, but all the other stuff, we ended up laughing.”

Valentino agrees: “So, yes, life challenged us like it challenges many people, but it’s within those storms that you aim for the sun, [you learn] to appreciate the sun.”

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