I was 20 when I left home for my first adventure abroad, and brought with me a backpack containing only one change of clothes, a poncho for rain, sandals for sun, a journal to write in, and my flute. With a scholarship to study Medieval Art History awaiting me in France, I had three whole months to wander before the school term started, so I was free to take to the road and have my adventures before I had to settle down and study the Middle Ages.
As it happened, I found I was good at getting lost. I would start out for one place but find myself, either by mistake or last minute whim, somewhere else—like when I bought a bus ticket for Chartres and ended up in the tiny village of Chars, near Reims, where I had a memorable overnight adventure with the good people of Chars. Mostly, I made it a game, for this was my maiden voyage and the world was, as they say, my oyster and if I had been less ditsy I would never have met Franco on a train in Italy, headed for the coast. I had bought a ticket for Florence but had boarded on the wrong platform and taken the train going to Ravenna instead. In the opposite direction. Ooops…
Oh well, all was not lost as Ravenna has many 12th century churches—with mosaics!—so I looked in my guidebook, noted there was a youth hostel in Ravenna, and settled down for my first real adventure in Europe.

At Bologna, a group of musicians came on and noisily scrambled for seats—except for one fellow with a cello case who stepped onto the train, stood his cello beside him and reached for a hanging strap. He was neither tall nor strikingly handsome, but still I could hardly take my eyes off him. He had the unusual quality of simply belonging where he was, at ease in his body, and I tried not to stare as the train picked up speed. He seemed to ride its jagged rhythms like a surfer riding a wave, the way a dancer might move easily across a stage, and when he smiled to one of his friends and I heard the velvety timbre of his voice, I paid attention.

I casually let my flute case poke out of my backpack to signal to him, should he look, that I was also a musician.
One by one, the others left the train as we crossed the countryside of Emilia until he and I were the only ones left in the car. Moving to one of the vacated seats, he sat down onto one facing me and smiled from across the aisle. I smiled back, then lowered my head and paged again through the guide book, memorizing the address of the youth hostel—or pretended to, suddenly feeling very shy. When we both got off at the last stop he approached me on the platform, hoisting his cello into one arm.
“I saw you looking for the youth hostel on your map of Ravenna,” he commented in careful Italian. I replied, in an awkward patois of mostly French with some Italian words and he shifted to his own patois of mostly Italian with some French words. From the very beginning, we spoke our own private language.

“I live right across from the Ostello, so we can go together,” he said, pointing to a waiting tram outside the station, which we boarded and as the tram clattered through the streets of Ravenna I learned that he played with the Bologna Opera Orchestra and was practicing to audition for the Maggio Musicale in the Fall, and he learned that I was American, would be going to school in France for the year and was learning to play the flute. It was easy to talk to him—even in a made-up language—and we both smiled a lot as we exchanged bits of information about ourselves, though I doubt that any of this would have become the story it became, if the youth hostel had not already been full when we got there.
“I forgot to mention that it is always filled by this time of day,” he told me with a grin. “So I guess you have no choice but to stay with me.” When I felt myself blushing crimson, he corrected himself, “no, no with my family, mi madre e papa e mes deux soeurs...” he quickly assured me.
“But I am just a stranger that you met on a train!” I insisted.
“And are we not les compagnions de la musica? So we are not strangers,” he insisted back.

With my heart in my throat, I nodded and took a deep breath, following him through the door and up the two flights of stairs to their apartment, wondering if I were at last starting to live my true life and if this was how magic actually happened in the real world when nobody was watching you.
“For just this night,” I said cautiously. He just smiled.

A week later I was still there with his excitable, welcoming family, almost like a third sister to the girls, who were already planning my wedding with their brother in San Vitale—by next year, they told me—and designing my elaborate wedding veil.
By day, while he practiced at home for his auditions, I found my way to the mosaic-filled churches around the city, astonished by their brilliance, one after another. He would only practice when I was out of the house, and when I asked when I might hear him play he smiled mysteriously and said that claro, I could not leave them until I had heard him play, so he was in no a hurry to play for me. What could I say?
In fact, it took another week before I heard him play his cello because he left for a short tour with the Orchestra while Mama and I got onto a bus for their tiny village in the hills the family had come from, and I got to meet his excitable extended family, unable to understand a word of their dialect! But they patted me and we smiled a lot, and Mama told them all about how Franco had brought me home with him, nary a word of which I could follow.

Finally, when Mama and I and Franco all arrived home in Ravenna, Mama and I laden with mushrooms from the hills, eggs from the hens, and marinated cherries in jars, he offered to play for us after supper.
In the center of his bedroom he set up his chair, music stand and cello. Mama stood by the door in her apron, flushed with excitement and a wooden spoon in her flour-smeared hand. Papa took his chair by the window, hands tucked into his armpits, and the girls were downstairs visiting the neighbors. I was invited to make myself comfortable on his bed and sat down carefully, my legs tucked under me. Then he sat, picked up bow and cello and closed his eyes.
The first notes were like breaths of air, felt more than heard. He was stroking the cello into life with a quiet melody line and every vibration of the strings seemed to enter my body like light-tipped arrows. I could barely breathe. When the music rose into rich melody I felt the whole room shake, as if I were a resonating chamber for the sounds. I wanted to sing along with it, to cry out loud. I felt like fainting into his pillow. I had never heard music like this before!
By the end of the piece Babbo and I were both in tears. Franco, head down, just sat there, his bow lifted until the sounds had quieted from the air of the room and then Mama thwacked the doorpost with her wooden spoon, shouting Bravo!
I was speechless.
“Ti piache?” Franco asked me quietly. Did you like it?…All I could do was nod and stare. And breathe in the fragrance of him on his pillow. “Molto…” I finally whispered, trembling.
I had no idea the cello could sound so emotional, so passionate, so like a human voice.
Who was this quiet fellow, intense and…foreign? How had we managed to find one another out there in the whole wide world—on a train? How had I been led here, to these gentle people with their brilliant son—what made me take that ‘wrong’ train?
I wonder if we had to meet—sometime in this life—to know love with one another. Franco had my heart—probably from the moment I watched him board the train in Bologna—although perhaps not to marry, as his sisters wished to believe.
If we had, however, I believe we would have chosen to have the wedding at Sant Appolinare-in-Classe, the 5th century Basilica now several kilometers inland from the coast, and not at San Vitale. Classe was where we had first declared our love, and the miracle of our meeting, and it is where we performed together the next Christmas Eve at the Midnight Mass, when I returned to Ravenna from France—taking the correct train, this time—to share the holidays with the family.

Actually, we played there twice, both surprise gifts from Franco who told me that the Padre was his friend, and we had gotten permission to play in the Basilica the day before Christmas. It was his gift to me, he told me, but then he secretly had my flute brought to the Mass with the family the next night and, with an impish smile he handed it to me saying,
“That was a rehearsal, mia cara, this is the performance…”
If I may say so myself, that may have been the most sensual musical celebration of the Mass ever heard at that altar in centuries—if ever!
It was also where we came to understand, finally, that we could not marry. Our lives were too different. I probably could never be happy as an Italian housewife of that era, my entire focus on husband and children. I was a questioner, always wondering about spirit and consciousness and fascinated by subjects like Medieval Church history! (My fiancé back home—yes, I had one and yes, he was a scholar—called me and himself “eggheads.”)
Franco and I finally had our hard conversation that night, well past midnight on Christmas Eve after the others all had returned to Ravenna, beneath the mosaic cupola where we had just played like angels up into its resonant spaces celebrating, with his community, the birth of a savior God on the Winter Solstice. We declared our love and we cried. Then we laughed and both shook our heads, No.
Chokingly he confessed that he was already engaged to be married and I, relieved, confessed that I was too, and there in the darkened sanctuary we burst into teary laughter and embraced hard, weeping in one another’s arms.
We parted on the first day of the New Year in Venice, after spending our last few days together there, and through the years we have never lost touch.
We each married our promised partners—in the same year on different sides of the ocean—sending wedding gifts and photos of the children at regular intervals. In one of my books, I wrote our story, but since he did not read English, I doubt that he ever saw it.
His son followed him in the cello section of the Maggio Musicale, and last week it was through this son—who has the same name as my oldest son—that I learned of Franco’s death.
This story is my way of remembering and honoring him. Loving him again.
It is the end of an era, although not the end of a love affair. I expect we shall meet again as the deep friends the world meant us to be, by putting me on the right platform this time so that we find one another again as we travel on through the ethers.
Ciao Franco!
I am now also approaching my own platform, my own life track headed to the next stop which, I believe, is not a stop at all, but an opening to an infinite place that I will recognize as Home.
We will meet there, Franco and I. I wonder if he and Herb have met up there yet? I wonder if they ever think of me…?
Death happens, and it is okay. Just as birth happens and the cycle makes its circuits—so does death happen
to Herb
to Franco
to you
to me…