More tales from the Italian tracks
Milan- Florence – 3hrs 10 mins (Don’t lean and don’t jump)
The first time I took a train in Italy it was from Milan to Florence and I was just 17. It was my first time in the country and I had come to spend the six weeks between lower and upper sixth form as an au-pair.
Back then there was no commercial airport close to Florence and you had to train it for over three hours from Milan or else do the same from Rome. It was July, there was no air-con and the train, one of those old carriage and corridor types, was rammed. I hadn’t been prepared for the Italian summer and in tights and a thin wool skirt (English summer attire) I knew I was ridiculously overdressed from the moment I stepped off the plane into a wall of heat.
There was no chance of a seat on the train and standing in the corridor we were shoulder to shoulder with every window wide open. We all leaned towards the windows where the stagnant heat gave us little relief. Whenever the train picked up speed it was like the hot blast from a hair dryer full in your face. I remember there were a lot of Italian soldiers on board all travelling south to Rome and Naples and I was disturbed at first, then embarrassed by the way they all stared at me and seemed to be openly discussing me. Thank God I knew almost no Italian at this stage and I had no idea of what a mythical beast, a lone black girl in Italy was at that time; no idea that I was considered a prize catch simply because I was black. It was my first exposure to the rampant attentions of Italian men and in that sweaty train corridor I felt as panicked as a trapped animal. Hot and miserably bothered, I guarded my suitcase and tried to concentrate on the sign on the train window, my first lesson in Italian:
“E’ pericoloso sporgersi dal finestrino” It’s dangerous to lean out of the window.
What with the heat and all those wolves in khaki sizing me up for the kill, it felt damn dangerous just standing in the corridor. There were moments when I had the terrible urge not to lean out, but to jump out of the window.
Foligno – Ancona 2hrs 20 (lunchus interruptus)
The high-speed inter-city trains in Italy are a very different travel experience than the regional trains that rattle and wheeze into every little station along the track. These trains arrive and depart in a great sighing breath and when you get on board if feels like you are about to embark on a journey not just a train ride.
I was on my way to Bari, the furthest south I had ever been in Italy. I had booked my ticket from Foligno to change at Ancona on the coast. It was almost midday when I found my reserved seat on the train; no 29 in carriage C. It was a table seat and three passengers were already seated. In the seat next to mine a middle-aged man was setting out his lunch with formal precision. His knife, fork and a plastic tumbler of wine were already in place; a cloth napkin was tucked into his shirt collar as he began to reverently unwrap small parcels of bread, cheese and salami.
Meanwhile his hat was occupying my reserved seat.
I showed him the number on my ticket and in my politest Italian I asked him to remove his hat so that I could sit down. The man looked at me appalled. You would have thought I had just asked if I could take a pee in his hat. Was I mad? Couldn’t I see that he was eating? He looked at his hat, then at me and then at his lunchtime repast. None of it was making any sense. With another plaintive look he appealed to the two passengers opposite who shrugged their support. Yes it was very wrong to get between a man and his food that was clear, said their shrug; but you can see she’s foreign she doesn’t have our Italian respect for food; and she has got a ticket for that seat. So what can you do?
I stood patiently in the aisle of the train, as the man gave a monumental sigh and reluctantly shuffled out of his seat to place his hat in the overhead compartment. Before sliding back into place he gave me one last pitying look. What could you expect? His fellow passengers were right. I didn’t know any better. The missionaries probably had never reached the darkest depths of Africa where I came from.
I thanked him, sat down at last, and I immediately got out a book and started to read (this much the missionaries had taught me at least) but it was more out of embarrassment than anything. I simply had to find something to do after that deeply resentful exchange during which my travel companions had not uttered one syllable. A whole conversation had been implied with shrugs and meaningful looks. Certainly I was more to be pitied than censured.
My lunchmate had removed his napkin and was carefully rolling his knife and fork up in it when the ticket inspector came around and we all began to fumble for our tickets. The inspector was about to clip mine, then he hesitated a moment.
‘You realise that you’re in the wrong seat, Signorina?’
‘No. No look it’s number 29’ I said frantic with indignation and twisting to check the seat number again.
‘Yes it’s the right seat but you’re in the wrong carriage. Your ticket is for Carriage G, Signorina. That’s, back there’
I tried to summon up every last fibre of my dignity as I rose from my seat, gathered my backpack from the overhead compartment and began the walk of shame to carriage G.