Francesca Mereu was born on August 8, 1965, in Irgòli, a picturesque town on the eastern side of the Italian island of Sardinia, in the heart of the Mediterranean. She died on June 24, 2022, in Tijuana, Mexico. Francesca lived joyously and fully and brought happiness to everyone who knew her. She was in love with life and made every moment count.
Francesca’s childhood was idyllic. The unconditional love and acceptance she received from her family gave her the confidence to venture into the wider world. Most people who are born in Irgòli stay in Irgòli. Francesca wanted adventure. During high school, she fell in love with Russian literature, and she chose to major in Russian and English at the University of Florence so that she could read her favorite works in their original language.
While working on her master’s degree in the mid-1990s, Francesca won a scholarship to study Russian at Moscow University. Communism had collapsed, and so had the economy. The future of the country was uncertain, but young people were excited about a new Russia, and Moscow was filled with international students. Francesca fell in love with Moscow, and then she and Sergey Vasilyev fell in love with each other. Sergey was about to graduate with a degree in physics when they were introduced on a bus on the way to university. Their attraction was immediate, and they became inseparable. Francesca and Sergey were married in 1997 in Russia and honeymooned in Irgòli, where her parents arranged a traditional Sardinian marriage ceremony.
After graduation, Francesca realized she did not want to be a university professor. She wanted to be a reporter. She accepted a job as a teacher at Italo Calvino, the school at the Italian Embassy in Moscow, and she pursued freelance journalism. After a few years teaching, Francesca took a position writing news stories for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and then spent six years as an investigative journalist for The Moscow Times, the first privately owned English language newspaper in Russia. She covered Russian internal politics and security services, and the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and numerous Italian newspapers published her stories. Her ability to report objectively and honestly while immersed in challenging situations gained her the esteem of her colleagues and her sources. Her focus, always, was on serving her community.
Francesca began to practice yoga while she was in Moscow as an antidote to the stress of journalism, and it became an essential part of her spiritual life. She studied with B. K. S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar Yoga, and with his daughter, Geeta Iyengar, at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune and with Saraswathi Rangaswamy, the daughter of Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore. Francesca loved India – its people, food, and culture – and traveled all over, but she especially enjoyed Mumbai, where she found an energy similar to that of her two other favorite big cities, Moscow and New York.
Francesca and Sergey lived in Moscow until 2006, when the political climate was changing, and they, too, were ready for a change. Sergey found a research assistant position at the University of Dusseldorf, in Germany, and Francesca began working for the German radio broadcaster WDR while freelancing for Russian, Italian, and American media. She also began to focus on her own writing. Her first book, published in 2011, was L’amico Putin: L’invenzione della dittatura democratica (Putin: The Invention of a Democratic Dictatorship), which grew out of her stories for The Moscow Times.
In November of 2011, Sergey accepted a job with IPG Photonics, a fiber laser company based in the United States, and the couple moved to Birmingham, Alabama. They quickly fell in love with the culture of America’s Deep South, and, after wandering into an old-school juke joint in Memphis, Tennessee, Francesca was hooked on the blues. She and Sergey became regulars on Birmingham’s music scene and frequented the Red Wolf, Jazzy’s on 1st, Lit on 8th, Carmichael’s, Gip’s Place, and other local venues. In 2013, when Henry “Gip” Gipson’s home-based juke joint was in danger of being closed down, Francesca helped persuade the local city council to keep it open, and she and Sergey were regulars there until Gip died, at age 99. They also traveled regularly to Mississippi for music, and Francesca’s many articles on Southern blues musicians were published in the Italian magazines Il Blues and Il Giornale della Musica, among others. In 2015, she joined Birmingham’s Magic City Blues Society, and she later served on the MCBS board as secretary. Francesca and Sergey hosted BlueStages concerts at their home on Birmingham’s Southside, featuring such artists as Robert Kimbrough, Sr., Jesse Cotton Stone, Bruce Andrews and George Dudley, Lightnin’ Malcolm, R.L. Boyce, Nikki and Matt Hill, Earl Williams, Sassy Brown, Misty Blues, Seth Walker, Little Lee, the late Mark Selby, and Shy Perry and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry. Her articles, interviews, and podcasts with blues artists, as well as her travel blog, are available here on her website.
While she was following the blues, traversing the globe, and enjoying life in Birmingham, Francesca continued to write. She published two plays under the title Profondo Sud (Deep South) and two more books, Quando mi chiameranno uomo? (When Will They Call Me a Man?) and Il Grande Saccheggio (The Great Looting). During the COVID-19 pandemic, Francesca signed with one of the top five literary agents in Italy, and, at the time of her death, she was writing a play about Black Americans, the blues, and the civil rights struggle.
In early 2022, in response to the war in Ukraine, Francesca updated her 2011 book on Putin. Putin. Dentro i segreti dell’uomo venuto dal buio Dan San Peitroburgo all’Ucraina (Putin. Inside the Secrets of the Man Who Came from the Dark. From St. Petersburg to Ukraine) was published by Campagnia Editorial Aliberti in March, and her proceeds from the book, which was a top seller in Italy, will go to support Ukraine. Francesca and Sergey had friends and family in Kyiv, whom they visited often when she worked for The Moscow Times. During her last months, she communicated regularly with officials in Kyiv and wrote powerful stories about real people dealing with the daily atrocities of war.
Though she spent her last 11 years living in the United States, Francesca was a legal citizen of Russia and Italy and was truly a citizen of the world. She loved to travel and people watch in small towns everywhere and especially enjoyed visiting south Asian countries, including India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Francesca chose to become vegetarian so that she would inflict less harm. She was good and kind and never met a stranger. The word that best describes Francesca is love. She loved everything and was loving to everyone. She was beloved – by Sergey, by her family, by her many friends in the Blues community, the international community, the journalism community, and her book club, and by her cat, Vlad. She was always smiling, and her smile was infectious. She will be dearly missed.
Francesca is survived by her husband of 25 years, Sergey, her mother, Maria Antonia Traccis, and her uncles and aunts. Friends who wish to remember Francesca are encouraged to support the causes she loved, including Ukraine and organizations that fight injustice around the globe. Another wonderful way to honor Francesca is to go hear local music – and tip your musicians. Francesca would love that.
Photo by Roger Stephenson.