Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Passing Through - Italy -1

Train trips in India have always been rather uneventful for me. Not boring, there's plenty to amuse yourself with, not the least being the yummy food that's on offer at the platforms the train passes through. But there's hardly anything exciting going on, and quite frankly my family would usually wish there wouldn't be too much excitement and the journey would be mostly uneventful and hassle-free. A cousin of mine almost went out with a guy she met on a train. That didn't work out so well, but that's pretty much the closest any kin of mine has come to finding adventure and romance on a train.

The point is, I'm primed for a certain kind of train journey. You buy a ticket, board the train, find your seat, settle down, check fellow passengers, get disappointed at the unclejis and auntyjis (make that meshos and mashimas for Bengal-bound trains) and their brats wolfing down gobhi parantha and luchi-alur dom, and just coast along till its time to disembark. End of story.

So it is with this scenario in mind that I said goodbye to my friend Giuseppe and boarded the train from the Napoli station to Rome, where I would be changing trains to travel to my ultimate destination - Nice, France. I expected to share seats with the Italian equivalent of unclejis and auntyjis, the portly signore and signora, pacifying their brats with hot arancine bought from some station cafe. I walk up to the ticket counter, and after much hand gesturing and two words of rudimentary Italian (which I have since forgotten), I managed to get a ticket for Rome.

Behind me was a very pretty Italian girl wearing the most colour-coordinated outfit I've ever seen anyone wearing. Pink top, pink pants, pink shoes, pink bag, pink nailpolish, pink lipstick, well.....umm.....you get the picture. After I got the ticket, I just stood near the counter for a minute, trying to figure out the direction I should be moving to find my train. Suddenly, I felt that someone was trying to talk to me. I looked up, and it was Ms. Pink speaking in rapid-fire Italian, completely oblivious to my incomprehension of her, as I stood transfixed, staring blankly at her face. Suddenly she stopped, realized that I hadn't understood a word, took my hand and started dragging me along with her.

Stunned by this sudden move, I complied and walked with her, with absolutely no idea where she was taking me. Finally, we approached a train compartment and she gestured towards the board affixed to it. Ahhhh.......Roma was one of the stops listed. So she was going to Rome as well! I guess she had heard me struggle at the counter, and decided to take charge of me. We went inside and found a coupe with two empty seats. The rest of the seats were occupied by a lady with two kids, an older lady, and a young man.

The train started almost immediately after. I was the obvious odd one out, I didn't look Italian, and didn't seem to understand the language either. The others were curious as to where I was from, and it turned out that the young man knew some English, so he took on the role of the interpreter. So I duly answered all questions - where was I from, what do I do, what am I doing in Italy. When Mario (the young man) found out that I was travelling alone, he said:

Mario: You don't have a boyfriend?

TM: Yes I do.

Mario: Where is he from?

TM: He's from Greece.

Mario: Oh, that's why. If he was Italian, he would never let you travel alone like this.

I laughed and assured Mario that I actually enjoyed travelling by myself sometimes. Besides, my boyfriend was working and had no vacations.

After the question-answer session, the others started chatting in Italian, with such bonhomie as if they had known each other for ages. The older signora started telling the others (as Mario briefly explained) about her trip to America to see her brother's family. They then talked about the new Italian films to be released this year, and lamented the decline of Italian films and the rise of vulgar comedies at the box-office (again explained by Mario).

At some point, someone produced a packet of tarallini, and passed them around, and I got several rounds of the yummy and totally addictive bread sticks. Then I asked Mario what his destination was, and he said he was going till the last stop of the train, which was Genoa. A few minutes later, I got up to use the bathroom. On the way, I saw a map of Italy affixed inside the compartment. And realized (to give you an idea of the scatterbrained way I travel) that Genoa was right next to Nice. So basically I could take the train all the way to Genoa and then be just an hour away from Nice. Sounds like a plan.

I went back and told Mario that since my final destination is Nice, I would like to extend my ticket to Genoa, but had no idea how to do it. At this point, to my utter bemusement, a crisis buzz started in the compartment. Mario became agitated, started explaining the situation to the others who all started talking very excitedly. Mario went out of the coupe, walked first from our compartment to the one behind and then the one in front, and then finally came back and explained -

Mario: You will have to wait for [Italian term for train superintendent which I've since forgotten] to come by. He'll issue you a new ticket.

TM: Ok, that's good.

Mario: Don't worry, everything will be fine.

TM: Thank you, but I'm not worried at all.

This was followed by Mario repeatedly reassuring me that everything would be fine, that I shouldn't worry, and my ticket would be extended, and everyone else in the compartment saying essentially the same thing in Italian.

Finally after half an hour, the superintendent appeared, and the look of relief on Mario's face was definitely greater than on mine. Everyone in the coupe had broad smiles on their faces at this crisis resolution, and I managed to extend my ticket to Genoa.

After a while, the train reached Rome, and everyone in the coupe left except me and Mario. I said goodbye to Ms. Pink, the elderly signora, the lady with the adorable kids and continued on to Genoa.

The train rushed on and Mario and I chatted about things. Can't remember, perhaps we spoke about my trip to Napoli, how I liked his city, which I assured him I absolutely loved. We then talked about our lives, me as a student in America, him as a programmer in Napoli. At some point, he mentioned his girlfriend, saying that he planned to marry her soon.

Anyone who's travelled by train from Rome to Genoa would know that almost half the journey is traversed underneath what seem like limitless tunnels. At times it seems as if most of the journey is carried out in pitch darkness brought on by the tunnels. So from time to time, our coupe was plunged in darkness. After the first two times this happened, every time the train went into a tunnel, Mario switched on his cellphone as a light source, emitting this strange faint blue light. Like this we went, yellowish-white light from outside, and then blue light barely enough to light our faces and fingers, and then the light outside. And every time he turned on the cellphone, Mario smiled a sheepish smile, embarassed at his meagre means to alleviate my discomfort.

Mario: It is nice I get to practice my English with you.

TM: Ha ha, I'm sorry, I wish I spoke Italian. Perhaps I'll learn if I stay more.

pause...........the train enters another tunnel, the cellphone lights up our faces, Mario smiled, I smiled back, reassuring him that I understood. That I was comfortable. And secure.

Then we passed what looked like Cinque Terre, five villages along Italy's northern coastline, a place of amazing beauty apparent even at night.

Mario: Que bella!

TM: You know, I'd love to go there some day, it's so beautiful.

pause...................

Mario: You know................

TM: What?

Mario: I've been with my girlfriend for six years....................

Mario: I don't know..................................

TM: What don't you know Mario?

Mario: It is not love, you know..................................it's.....it's.......(and he struggled to find a word, or perhaps say something else)

silence...................we both turned to admire Cinque Terre........

The train was approaching Genoa. Mario had to get off at the first station at Genoa, I was travelling till the main station. It was almost midnight. He looked worried.

Mario: Are you sure you're going to be ok by yourself at the station? It's so late at night.

TM: Yeah, trust me, I'll be fine.

Mario: Here, take my cellphone number, call me if you have a problem.

TM: Thanks. You know I will.

Mario: .............and, here, take my email, write to me, if you feel like it.

TM: You take care Mario.

Mario: You too. Ciao.

There it was, my last image of Mario, waving to me from the station, pointing to his cellphone, call me if you need help, ok? I spent the night at the Genoa station, travelling on to Nice the next morning. As for Napoli - Napoli knows that I'll return, it enchanted me enough to extract a promise to return, and perhaps I'd run into Mario at the seaside promenade there, munching tarallini, accompanied by his wife, formerly his girlfriend of six years.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

lovely story. thanks.

7:49 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Hoom. Bheri Bangali types only, thij Saootharn Eetaleeansh. Mins, bheri oo-arm, bheri emosunel.

And you've told the story nicely too.
More?

(Now the Milanese are NOT this way, no sir. They're ... Northern. At least with me they were.)

J.A.P.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Swathi said...

i remember my journey from Rome to Naples, there were four guys who had occupied our seats and when we showed them our seat numbers on the ticket, only then did they check their tickets and removed their luggage.but from the look on their faces we could make out that they did have any tickets.We were just thinking how similar Italy is to India, when I noticed clothes on the clothesline of all houses :)

12:56 AM  
Blogger Holden Caulfield said...

Nice-e ekbar suye chhilam park-e, train dhorte char gonta baki. ratre nike-r sling bag-ta niye palalo du jon.link

porer din marseilles-e chateau d'if dekhlam (duma-r count of monte christo-r setting).

7:40 PM  
Blogger Gammafunction said...

great story...

7:02 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

nice post! AND it brought back so many memories of train travel in Italy...made me want to write about it as well :P
And Im with Swathi - Italians and Indians are SO similar.

6:18 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Tabula Rasa, you're welcome. And I'm so glad I wrote this down - more years down the line I'd forget more details.

JAPda, yes, yes this is so true. Which is why I feel so at home in southern Italy and Greece. And Southern and Northern Italy are so different, they might as well be different countries. There is more to come, perhaps the next post.

Swathi, welcome namesake! And yes, my friend and I went to neighbourhoods in Napoli where in little local markets street vendors sold snacks, there were beauty salons run from home, and women chatting outside the doors of each others' homes. They really are a lot like us.

Holden, ja ki kando! You know, one of my wallets got stolen in Rome, but thankfully not the one with all my cards and most of my cash. Actually, almost everyone I know who's been to Rome has a pickpocket story. And what do you know, despite this all of us agreed that we adored the city.

Ish, amaar Marseilles dekha holo na, porer baar nishchoi jaabo.

Gamma, thanks.

Szerelem, I knew you'd have memories too! All right then, out with them, I demand a post

8:47 AM  
Blogger hedonistic hobo said...

nice story. indian train rides aren't always uneventful. especially if you're traversing mighty distances because the cultural and the culinary landscape change pretty dramatically too. and there's always an auntyji or an uncleji who want to know more about you and ask ludicrously personal questions. name? surname? where are you from? half-kashmiri half-punjabi? how odd! what do your parents do? bhaiyya? shaadi? naukri? kamaiee? :) you get the drift.

10:14 PM  
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12:36 PM  
Blogger Soliloquy said...

reminds me of the movie "before sunrise" and "before sunset"... i guess there is something about traveling by train in Europe...

2:03 PM  
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