In 1995, I boarded a train in Brig, a small city in southern Switzerland. Before taking a particular seat in a compartment, I asked the woman who was sitting against the window if the seat was open. The courtesy of asking was something expected.
She looked up, her open smiling face framed by gray streaked hair.
“Of course.” She nodded.
I took the seat next to the compartment door. About five minutes outside of Brig, she opened her small bag and asked if I would like a sandwich. I gratefully accepted. We began to talk.
“I am returning from visiting a friend, from the war, who lives in Milan. She broke her leg and I wanted to visit to make sure she was getting the care she needed.”
“That was very kind of you. I am changing trains in Spiez before continuing to Interlaken.”
She looked wistfully out of the large window as scenes of central Switzerland flashed by.
“The war was difficult. Our family lost everything in the 1929 crash. My family was separated. I was in a camp for a time.”
“I cannot imagine.”
“I live in Belgium now, along the sea near Oostende. It is a lovely town. My apartment is on the top floor of a building and the terrace offers views of the ocean. My name is Rosalia.”
“I am Mark.”
Our conversation continued even as we came into Spiez. Within a few seconds of our train’s arrival, she reminded me that this was my stop. Without hesitation, we quickly exchanged addresses and phone numbers. I waved to her as the train departed for Zurich and countries north.
A few weeks after returning home, her first letter arrived. For the next ten years, we regularly exchanged letters. She would frequently correct my written French. I helped with her English. We often spoke by phone and kept in touch through my many corporate moves and life transitions.
She regularly mentioned that she had no family with whom to celebrate Christmas. I was able to travel during the holidays one year, and stayed with her in Oostende. She was overwhelmed by my gifts, I of hers. The sun faded early, as it does along the North Sea in winter, on that Christmas Day eve. After having delighted in the stack of torn Christmas paper, she turned on the radio and we danced to music from the time of her war.
That same year, we traveled to Paris for a few days. One evening, as we strolled back to her hotel, we passed a threadbare man who sat, hand in hand, on the steps of a small church near the Pompidou Center. She turned back, saying that she could not allow him to go hungry. She gave him some money and, in thanks, he unhesitatingly said, “You are my dear Saint Bernadette.”
What that man could not possibly have known was that Rosalia’s middle name was, indeed, Bernadette.
Over many years, we spent time together at her small villa along the Thunersee. Family visited a few times and stayed with her in Switzerland. My brother and I met her in Zermatt while we were climbing in the Alps. We spent time in Florida with friends. She visited my home a few times while I lived in Chicago.
I was able to return, after a long absence, for a visit. Time and age had taken its toll. She needed a full time assistant. Her attention span had shortened. She often confused me with a man, her lover, whom she had taken care of for many years before his cancer took him.
She stood, her assistant by her side, and waved as my train left the Oostende station.
She was a beloved soul, gone now. As one of millions from a generation of survivors, she understood the immeasurable loss of war and the horrific power of hate. She also understood the cryptic power of love.
Travels have often brought me back to traverse the stretch of track that borders the Thunersee. As the trains approach the Interlaken Ost station, I always imagine her standing along the lakefront of her villa in the distant shadow of the Beatenberg. Such memories.
She made me, and her many friends, laugh. From out of a soul who had experienced so much, she danced in the light of today, never far from her memories, yet never allowing them to overpower the gift of life. When I was able to return to visit her grave, I left a small pot of Geraniums, her favorite, on the grave. I wanted her to know that all who loved her still cared.
On a bookshelf next to me are binders with every letter she ever sent, a loving and constant reminder of our friendship.
I miss her.
As I write this, I am again reminded of the wonder of travel, of the mysteries of seeming coincidence in what might have appeared a passing encounter. Travel truly changes our lives. If there is any other lesson than these, in my experience with my beloved Rosalia, it is that were it not for a certain train, on a certain day, in a faraway country of alpine beauty, all of this would never have happened.
She will forever dance in Oostende, smile away the wounds, a constant reminder of joy.