But Franco was different. It was full-hearted and almost completely unconditonal.
Saying Goodbye at the Train Station in Salerno
The summer of my 16th year, I flew to Italy where I would live until the following summer. I remember getting on the airplane, my first of many trans-Atlantic flights, thinking, "what the fuck am I doing?" I didn't speak any Italian and knew nothing of my host family waiting for me in Naples. Thankfully, my first stop was to spend a month in the teeny-tiny town of Valva, in the mountains outside of Salerno. Here, I lived in an elementary school, sleeping in bunk beds, with the other exhange students in my program. In the day we would take language and culture lessons and in the evenings we would sit in the local cafe` and drink beers and orange flavored Fanta. I was there only a few days when Franco and I first met. Almost immediately we were joined at the hip... despite the fact that we could barely speak the same language. Thankfully, my spanish got me farther than I would have imagined and I was able to pick up Italian rather quickly.
Streets of Valva, Italy
Valva was an interesting town, and about as different from Potomac, Maryland as one could get. The above picture I took from a moving car, and was a common scene in this town that had more goats than people, and where things like telephones and televisions were available only to the most wealthy of inhabitants.
Looking back at these old photos, taken when we first met, cracks me up! I could not be any more American (in my Nike's and cut off jean shorts) and he could not be any more Italian (in his loafers and striped t-shirts). In the picture below we are with Noora and Luigi, who also had a bit of a love connection if I remember correctly. Noora is from Finland and is married now, we just got back in touch after a long absence. The car in the picture, an old Citroën 2CV, was the first car I ever drove.
After the month in Valva, I was moved to my host family in the heart of Neapolitan chaos. It was tough, I missed Franco terribly and could only see him on Sundays, the only day I didn't have to go to the local high school. But every Sunday, like clockwork, he would come up to Naples, a 2 hr trainride from Battibaglia and a 30 minute drive from Battibaglia to Valva, to spend the day with me. Every 2 months or so I would get permission to spend the weekend down in Valva with a girlfriend I had there, Maria Luisa.
After school was out we had a month to travel together. I was 17 and felt very grown up. We first went to Rome and stayed at the empty apartment of a friend of his just outside the city. To get into downtown Rome we had to hitchhike-- funny I would never do that now but thought nothing of it then. It felt like we were married, I would cook dinner each night, and then he would kick me out of the kitchen since I didn't know what I was doing. While sitting in Piazza Republica a passerby asked us if we were on our honeymoon.
We also went camping in Sicily together, along with some of the other exchange students. First we were in Agrigento on the Southern coast of the island, then we moved to a small town called Patti on the northern side (the picture above was taken there). I think we lived out of the tent for two or three weeks, each day becoming more stressful than the last as it became closer to the time to return back to the US.
I remember calling my dad from one of the campsites in a fit of anxiety about coming home and leaving Franco behind. He told me if it was meant to be, we would find a way to work out the distance. I believed him. Before I returned home, I promised I would come back to Italy and that I would marry Franco. He gave me a small gold ring.
For the next five years we called, wrote and I went over twice to visit him. I begged and begged him to come to the US to meet my family and see where I come from, but it was like asking him to go to the moon for this gentle man who spoke no english and had never been further than Sicily. In a stubborn fit, I issued an ultimatum to come to America or lose me, and as quickly as it began the relationship was over. He refused to speak to me ever again because he said it was just too painful.
I often wonder where he is now and what he is doing. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had followed my heart instead of running off to see the world in an attempt to satiate my incurable wanderlust, which to this day still requires a remedy. I wonder if I will ever fall as blindly and blissfully in love as I could when I was 16 years old.