In the first six months of 2013, Nicole's six-year relationship ended, she lost her job, and her car was totaled.
"There was nothing holding me back from taking a chance on a dream," Nicole said. She bought a plane ticket to Sydney, Australia, sold all her belongings in sidewalk sales, and connected with many recruiters on LinkedIn.
It was Nicole's second shot at this dream. Six years earlier, deeply saddened by the death of her uncle Sal Candelaria and determined to follow the last advice he gave her about seeing the world and living life without regret, the South Philadelphia native backpacked around Europe. Befriending many Australians led her to visit their country, and the more she learned about this place with friendly people, no snow, and a healthy commitment to work/life balance, the more determined she was to live there. The migration consultant and attorney she worked with informed her of the realities involving a company sponsor and a work visa. After an unsuccessful year of pursuing those, Nicole tried to give up, but never truly did.
In 2013, she found an apartment five days after arriving in Sydney. Two months of interviews landed her a state manager position with Guess, where she's now regional manager, and a four-year work visa.
Nicole signed up on a website marketed as a means of making friends, realized it was pretty much a dating site, and went with it anyway. She filled in her non-negotiables and preferences: no kids, never married, wants kids, dark hair, over 6 feet tall. "Just like that, there he was," she said, remembering the first time she saw Reuben's profile.
She winked at him. He winked back. They talked through the website, then through Facebook, then text. A month later, they met for a walk around Sydney Harbor.
"I thought he was gorgeous and was very attracted to him, but he was quiet, and being from South Philly, I am the opposite," Nicole said.
That was no problem for Reuben, who loved her outgoing and inquisitive nature. Reuben, a mechanical electrician, is from Whangarei, New Zealand, but he had moved to Australia for economic opportunity and to explore another country. He is 50 percent Maori, and Nicole had many questions about his culture, and he about hers. Eagles fan Nicole told him all about Philly football and tailgating. He spoke of the customs and traditions of his background - the Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. He also explained the rules of rugby.
"As we walked through the park, there were a bunch of abstract statues, and she would ask as we walked past, 'What do you think that looks like?' and would say what she thought," Reuben remembered. "She had a good imagination."
As they walked and talked, a noisy miner bird flew up to Reuben, and Nicole's delighted response made it clear that she loved animals.
A year after they met, Nicole traveled to Whangarei to visit Reuben's family, including his mom, Hilary, his step-dad, Ian, and his dad, Alan. The lifestyle built around beaches, fishing, and farms reminded her both of her family jaunts to the Jersey Shore and time she spent in Puerto Rico with her grandfather, coincidentally named Ruben, who died in November.
Nicole appreciated how her boyfriend's calmness balanced her out. "He wasn't like anyone I had ever met before," she said. "He's almost old-fashioned in a sense. He's quite loyal. He was like a sweet surprise."
The more Reuben learned about Nicole, the more he admired, then loved, her strength, loyalty, and determination. "I would just think to myself how she would be the best wife, mother, and role model you could ask for. And she just happens to be beautiful and can cook, as well!"
How does forever sound?
The couple, who now live in Sydney, spent Thanksgiving 2015 with Nicole's family in Hatillo, Puerto Rico.
Nicole's Pop-Pop gave Reuben his blessing. Reuben waited for the right opportunity, and it was soon their last day on the island.
It was hot, so they headed for the rooftop pool of their San Juan hotel. Nicole, 38, went for a swim. Reuben, 37, moved poolside, so Nicole swam over to him. Reuben told her that he loves how she can be childlike or full of courage, the way she looks at him, and the way she talks to the birds on their balcony. He told her that he wanted to start a family with her one day, and asked if she would marry him.
She said yes. He joyously jumped into the pool.
It was so them
The couple wed at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the church Nicole grew up in. She walked down the aisle with her mom, Rita, and grandmother Dolores. A small, silver memory locket with a photo of her uncle hung from her bouquet.
Their 85 guests included her family from Puerto Rico and his from New Zealand. At the reception at the Waterfall Room, Reuben said a Maori prayer welcoming their guests and honoring the land. He and his groomsmen performed a haka, a traditional Maori dance. The story of the haka they performed goes back to Maori Chief Te Rauparaha, who performed it to thank people who saved his life by hiding him from his enemies. "These days, this haka and other hakas are used as a way of paying respect and acknowledging others," Reuben said. "The purpose of my haka . . . was to praise everyone that had come to the wedding and thank them for their presence."
Nicole grew up in a family of Mummers and was herself a member of the Golden Crown New Years Brigade. The Whoa Phat Brass Band performed at the wedding.
Nicole's walk down the aisle was beautiful and poignant for both bride and groom. Sharing the moment with her mom and grandmother felt wonderful, Nicole said, but "I kept thinking about having my uncle there, giving me away to Reuben, and how much they would have loved each other."
Reuben knew that Sal, whom Nicole called Uncle Sammy, was on her mind and was saddened that she was missing her father figure. But he simultaneously felt "very proud and emotional - happy! - that this beautiful woman was about to marry me," he said.
The budget crunch
A bargain: The Waterfall Room's price per person included everything from food to open bar to linens and cake, Nicole said. The same size wedding in New Zealand would have been double the price, Reuben said.
The splurge: The couple could have walked from Nicole's grandma's house to the church in two minutes but got a limo. "You only get married once!" Reuben said.
Two weeks in Italy and Greece, including a trip to Santa Caterina, where Nicole's great-grandfather was born.