The first time Anthony Sall saw Barbara Olle, he was “starstruck.”
It was the summer of 1969. Anthony was a 28-year-old American college graduate shirking familial expectations to explore the world.
Anthony had rejected his father’s offer of a job in their successful family business to spend the best part of five years traveling.
By 1969, Anthony was nearing the end of his traveling stint, unaware its most life-changing chapter was about to begin.
When Anthony first saw Barbara, she was standing in line at the ferry port in Athens, waiting to board a boat to the Greek island of Mykonos.
“She had a way about her that stood out all by itself, and it was mesmerizing and magnetizing to me immediately,” Anthony tells CNN Travel today.
Barbara grew up in communist East Germany, but escaped to West Germany with her family when she was 10. Later, she attended boarding school in Switzerland.
Barbara’s upbringing gave her an international outlook, and in her early adulthood she enjoyed stints living in Paris and London. In the summer of 1969, she’d just turned 24 and was working her dream job as a flight attendant for Air France.
Flying for a living suited Barbara to a tee.
“Meeting people, being in a different country every trip with my airline friends – on safari in Africa, walking the Champs Elysees in Paris, going to my favorite hairdresser in Frankfurt – I could go on and on,” Barbara tells CNN Travel.
That summer, Barbara and her flight attendant friend Evelyn were making the most of a week off.
“We decided to go to Greece which at the time was very affordable, sunny and warm,” Barbara recalls.
When Anthony spotted Barbara at the ferry port, he was holding a ticket to another island: Hydra. Barbara was clearly heading to Mykonos, so on a whim, Anthony exchanged his ticket to match.
Anthony hoped he could speak with Barbara on the ferry, but it turned out she was traveling in second class, and he was in third. Barriers separated each section.
Not only that, there was apparent competition for Anthony’s affections.
The previous day, Barbara had met a Greek man in Athens, near the Acropolis, and he’d invited her to dinner.
“In order to get away, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll meet you,’ But I never, of course, went,” recalls Barbara. “The next morning, I’m going with my girlfriend down to the harbor to catch the ship to Mykonos, and we’re standing in line and somebody taps me on the back. I turn around, and it’s this Greek gentleman.”
On the Mykonos ferry, the Greek man invited Barbara and Evelyn to join him in the first class section for a bite to eat. The two friends agreed – while Barbara wasn’t interested in him romantically, she enjoyed meeting people on her travels.
On the other side of the ship, Anthony watched this all unfurl, wondering how he could engineer an opportunity to meet Barbara. In the meantime, he chatted with a young American couple, Alan and Lili, who were seated with him in third class. He told them how he’d been instantly captivated by Barbara, and how he hoped to speak with her.
Anthony’s new friends encouraged his quest, and before long the three of them were sneakily jumping over the ropes that separated third, second and first class.
“All of sudden, Tony shows up – he had climbed over all the fences on the ship,” recalls Barbara.
She was amused by his tenacity. The long-awaited introduction finally took place, and the Greek man invited the three newcomers to sit down.
As the ferry traversed the turquoise Aegean sea to Mykonos, the travelers got to know each other, enjoying dining and chatting for the next few hours.
When the ship docked, Anthony asked if Barbara would be interested in having dinner later, just the two of them.
“I told him, ‘The island is very small and I am sure we will see each other,’” recalls Barbara.
Barbara could tell Anthony was interested in her, and she didn’t want to encourage his affections.
“I wasn’t interested in starting a relationship at that time,” says Barbara today. Not long before the Greek trip, she’d ended a relationship with a man who’d lived in the Netherlands, and she was still coming to terms with that breakup when she met Anthony.
“That’s why I was a little bit standoffish – because of that, I didn’t want to get involved,” she says today. “But little by little, I changed.”
Over the next several days, Barbara, Anthony, Barbara’s friend Evelyn and the other travelers they’d met on the ferry hung out in Mykonos together.
It turned out the Greek man owned a house on a beautiful spot on the beach. The group gathered on the sandy stretch outside his home, staying up chatting until long after the sun had dipped into the ocean, sharing travel tales.
“Once we started to hang out together more and more, I found Tony to be very interesting and enjoyed his company and stories,” says Barbara. “He has a great way about him.”
“Her girlfriend liked me as a person, and that was a definite positive for me in fighting for her interest and, eventually, her limited affection,” jokes Anthony.
The week came to an end, and the group dispersed.
“We never stayed in touch with any of the people from the ferry after it was over,” says Barbara.
Barbara’s friend Evelyn had to go back to work, the Greek man was staying in Mykonos and Lili and Alan were heading back home to the US.
But Barbara still had a few more days before her next shift.
“So Tony and I decided to go to Hydra together,” she recalls.
Things shifted further when it was just Tony and Barbara. As they wandered around the island’s cobbled streets, chatting, they opened up to one another in a way they hadn’t before.
“We got to know one another very well, hiding nothing from our past, and finding out that we not only had a lot in common, but she was beginning to care about me as I had cared about her from the first sighting,” says Anthony. “We truly began to connect.”
Barbara recalls the two of them whiling away days at the beach, and spending long evenings in restaurants chatting and “enjoying each other.”
They began, says Anthony, “to believe this was something very different, and starting to develop into something lasting.”
On their third day in Hydra, Anthony told Barbara he thought they would get married one day.
“I just laughed it off thinking Americans are completely crazy,” says Barbara, laughing again at the memory.
But looking back, she says she was falling in love, even if she didn’t know it yet.
“We both began to realize we could not just say ‘goodbye’ at the end of the Greece experience, and we had to begin to think of continuing a long term commitment,” says Anthony.
During his five years traveling the world, Anthony hadn’t returned to the US once. This was partly for financial reasons – he was funding his adventure through part time work and everything he earned went toward the next leg of the trip. Anthony was also convinced his father would try and persuade him to stay in the US if he did return, so he put off the return to “real” life for as long as possible.
As it happened, a long-awaited reunion with Anthony’s parents was taking place the week after he departed Hydra. Anthony’s parents were visiting Vienna, Austria, for business reasons and Anthony was planning to meet up with them while they were in town.
Anthony invited Barbara to join, and she agreed. The two said their farewells in Greece, and reunited in Austria a week later.
For Barbara, arriving in Vienna was a bit of a shock, as she suddenly realized Anthony came from wealth.
“The whole time we were together in Greece, we shared everything – he was on a budget,” she recalls. “I arrived in Vienna, he’s picking me up in a limousine with a chauffeur, we’re pulling up in front of the Imperial Hotel. His parents are having the Grand Suite, and I had no idea about that background at this time.”
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Anthony didn’t tell his parents Barbara was coming. For one, that would have involved a long distance phone call from Europe to the US, no mean feat in 1969. But also, while Anthony was sure his parents would love Barbara when they met her, he was uncertain how they’d react when they learned she was German. Anthony’s parents were Jewish, and since the Second World War they’d avoided German-made products and had not done business in Germany.
Anthony’s father met Barbara first – his mother was still in the suite, getting ready for dinner. His father immediately went back upstairs to debrief his wife.
“This woman, I am crazy about her,” he said.
When Anthony’s mother eventually met Barbara, she had a similar reaction. The two women became fast friends.
“We were very close,” says Barbara. “We liked each other right away and I felt very at home.”
“She adored Barbara,” says Anthony. “They were inseparable.”
Anthony, Barbara and Anthony’s parents spent a wonderful weekend in Vienna, and from there, Anthony and Barbara’s relationship “began to move very quickly,” as Anthony puts it.
He continued his travels for the next few months, making his way across Eastern Europe to tick more countries off his list. Meanwhile, Barbara went back her Frankfurt Air France base. The two met whenever they could.
“Whenever I had a stretch of days off, he would come to Frankfurt and spend it with me,” says Barbara.
On one of these trips, Barbara introduced Anthony to her parents, who lived in Germany’s mountainous Black Forest region. They loved Anthony, and enjoyed showing him the area’s beautiful scenery.
In November 1969, Anthony’s five year traveling adventure finally came to an end and he returned to the US. Barbara flew to visit him in Philadelphia that Thanksgiving and was welcomed wholeheartedly by Anthony’s extended family.
“And then, we decided, ‘Well, what now?’” recalls Barbara. “We can’t date across the Atlantic, because back then it was not as easy. You couldn’t make phone calls the way you do now. And so we thought, ‘Well, either we get married, or we have to break it off.’”
The couple decided to take the gamble.
“So I flew back to Germany, sold my car, got rid of my apartment, quit my job, returned December 31 of ’69,” says Barbara. “And two weeks later we were married.”
Barbara converted to Judaism before the wedding, which took place in a Philadelphia synagogue.
“I had never had a religion. I was never baptized – in East Germany, nobody had a religion,” she says.
It was a small but celebratory wedding and afterward Barbara and Anthony settled in Philadelphia.
For Barbara, who took Anthony’s name after the wedding, moving to the US was just another international adventure.
“I was away from home since I was 12 years old. And after school, like I said, I went to France and to England. So I was far away from my family for many, many years already. And they were used to me being very independent. So they weren’t surprised when I told them, ‘I’m going to America,’” says Barbara.
Anthony’s parents also made settling into the US easy.
“I was so lucky to have them in my life, they were always there for us, very supporting and loving in every imaginable way,” says Barbara.
A year later, in 1971, Anthony and Barbara boarded the newly launched Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) ocean liner for their honeymoon.
Tony started working for the Revlon cosmetics company, who relocated him to Chicago, where the couple gave birth to their first child. Anthony and Barbara went on to have three more children.
In the late 1970s, a summer vacation to France inspired Barbara to apply to be a flight attendant again. She started working for National Airlines and rediscovered her love of flying.
When National Airlines was bought by Pan American World Airways in 1980, Barbara switched her wings for Pan Am’s gold and blue insignia.
Later, when Pan Am went under in the 1990s, Barbara was hired by Delta. She still flies internationally with Delta today, and says her passion for the job hasn’t waned at 76 years old.
“Every trip is like a mini vacation,” says Barbara.
Anthony, who is now 81 and retired, says he still gets excited every time Barbara returns from a work trip.
“Oh my God, you would think I just met her. Here we are, 54 years together, 53 married. And I can’t wait for the day that she’s coming home from the trip – after just three lousy days.”
When Anthony and Barbara’s children were in their late teens, they followed in their parents’ footsteps and embarked on solo trips around Europe.
“They weren’t even out of high school and people would say to me, ‘Aren’t you nervous about them being alone in Europe?’” recalls Barbara.
Barbara always explained that no, she wasn’t nervous. She wanted her kids to see the world, to have independent adventures, to remain open to new experiences.
“To this day, they still travel a lot,” says Barbara. “Now they try to teach their children what’s out there in the world.”
Today, Anthony and Barbara live in California, close to their children. They’re very involved in the lives of their grandchildren, who range in age from 6 to 32.
Anthony says he’s become more of a homebody in recent years and these days he leaves the world traveling to Barbara.
But the couple, who recently celebrated 53 years of marriage, still have a lot in common, and love spending time together.
“Every Saturday we go out, have a nice dinner together, or with other couples,” says Barbara.
“We love to socialize,” says Anthony. “To have friends, relatives that are close.”
They also enjoy reminiscing about their adventures, especially how they met traveling in Greece in 1969.
“When people say, ‘How did you meet?’ and we tell our story, people always say, ‘Oh my God, you should write a book,’” says Barbara.
“Everybody!” echoes Anthony. “I always felt ‘Oh my God, this story is amazing.’ But I figured, well, I lived it, so of course for me it’s amazing, and of course for Barbara it’s amazing.”
While the couple didn’t stay in touch with the friends they made in Greece in 1969, Anthony recently tracked down Lili and Alan, the American couple who encouraged him to speak to Barbara on the ferry.
Anthony and Alan enjoyed a long phone call reminiscing, and the two couples hope to meet up in the near future.
“Truth is, when we split up after Mykonos, both he and Lili were betting we would end up together somehow,” says Anthony.
“We plan on getting together to catch up on our lives, and imagine we will pick up where we left off 54 years ago.”
Anthony and Barbara’s five decades of marriage have included some more trying chapters. For Anthony and Barbara, navigating these tougher moments is what it means to love long term.
“If you really care for the person, it’s definitely worth fighting for,” says Barbara.
“Being with someone that really means everything to you is about the most fortunate thing that can happen to a human being. I really believe that,” says Anthony.
“Stories like this are seldom lived and told, but ours is one we both cherish with all our hearts, as how many people can know each other such a short period of time, from opposite ends of the Atlantic Ocean, and manage to put together a lasting story like this one, that is still going strong today,” he says. “What a life.”