Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 2 - Part 3.

Day 2 - September 4, 2007; Part 3

The Bologna Aerobus is a 24 hour bus system that takes airport passengers to the train station every 15 minutes round the clock. I handed the bus driver 5 euros each for the two of us. He took it without a word and we settled into a hard plastic seat. In the back of the bus were two other passengers. Each one of the gentlemen bore a resemblance to a wanted poster and my police instincts noted that neither man carried luggage of any sort. Maybe the airlines lost their luggage too?

Various dilapidated buildings passed the open bus windows on what was an unusually chilly night. I knew it was chilly beyond the norm only because I had been told so by an English speaking fellow as we waited for the bus back at the airport.

As advertised the Aerobus pulled up to the train station about 30 minutes later and dumped us and the ‘wanted poster’ boys at the curb. The Bologna Centrale train station is a central rail hub in northern Italy and it is big and imposing on first sight. (see photo) It is also somewhat dingy and gives off a strong aura of urban life. I would learn later in the trip that it is a beehive of activity in the daytime. However at half past midnight it is more or less abandoned. We walked into the main ticketing area in total bewilderment as to how to board a train to Riccione. I assumed there would be someone there to help us sort it out. For example, someone at a window selling tickets. Someone that could tell us what it cost and from which track the train would leave. There are 16 tracks running through the station, each flanked by a loading platform. There were plenty of ticket windows and information kiosks. No one was present in any of them. We glanced around the area. There was not a single sign in English. All signs and instructions were in Italian.

I don’t happen to speak or read Italian which presented considerable complexity as far as getting to Riccione. There were zero trains in the station. We stared around blankly feeling overwhelmed by our ignorance of the language and our general fatigue and mental stupor. An assortment of drunken homeless lay against the walls, regarding us with zombie like stares. A handful of experienced train travelers busied themselves at the self-service ticket kiosks. I sifted a clue from this and walked up to one of the self service ticketing machines. Simultaneously we were approached by a man that BEG would later refer to as the ‘man with three teeth’. He appeared to be late 60ish, and in fact had a mere three teeth in his head so far as casual observation could glean. He smiled broadly and spoke to us in Italian, removing his grungy fedora from his head in the process. In a friendly sort of manner he managed to communicate that he knew very little English. Using two word phrases such as ‘where go?’ he discerned we wanted to go to Riccione. He took command of the ticket machine. He punched up several screens, all in Italian. He asked for 20 euros. Reluctantly I handed the 20 euro bill to him. With dramatic flair he fed it into the machine. In a couple of seconds a single train ticket emerged. He pulled it clear of the vending slot and happily pointed to the words Riccione and the time of 1:06 am stamped in the upper right hand corner. He bowed at the waist with his fedora sweeping below as if he had performed a veritable feat of magic. In my eyes, he had done just such a thing. I of course realized he was working for tips and gave him 5 euro from the change that returned from the machine. He smiled broadly again showing all three teeth and replaced the fedora atop his head. He then glanced around for new customers. We asked him where to catch the train. He pointed outside toward the tracks as if it was all we needed to know. When we exited the building is the time we realized there were 16 tracks. The individual tracks are referred to as ‘bins’ in Italian. We had no clue where to catch our train or even which direction it was to run. We decided to go down stairs below the tracks and have a look at the information screens. Going below the tracks was the only way to make ones way to the individual tracks so it seemed a natural progression, not to mention that the wind was picking up and combined with the cold night it was becoming unpleasantly cold. Though a little warmer, it got scarier down below. The drunken and addicted homeless had staked out a haven down in the warm corridors below the tracks. They gave us defiant looks as though we were trespassers on their property. A man passed out against the wall had issued a fresh stream of urine running from where he lay to across the corridor. We hustled back upstairs into the cold to look for any English speakers. As we were befriended by the man with three teeth, we were similarly guided by a young man from India. No older than our son he explained in precise English that we needed to board the train at Bin 6. He was riding the same train, but taking a longer journey, some 300 more miles beyond our stop. We decided to trust him in the same blind and helpless way we had trusted the ‘3 toothed man’ of ticket machine magic. We were cold now. The wind was whipping through the station as we waited. BEG stood behind me using me as a shield. At the appointed time a train made its way up to Bin 6 where we waited with 10 to 15 others for the train headed to Riccione. It stopped and we got on board, our full trust invested in the word of a young man from India, the only person we could find in our thirty minute search of the station that spoke a word of English.

The train car is best described as the type you might imagine from a 1930’s movie scene with Humphrey Bogart. Maybe the imaginary movie would be titled “The Something or Other Express’. It contained a corridor on one side of the train car which gave entrance to individual riding cars of 6 seats each. It was old and dilapidated, reeking of a long history and thousands of miles. We sat down in one of the compartments alone, a fateful minor luxury since the train was practically deserted. In a few minutes it began to roll down the tracks, a distinctive clikety clakety sound emanating from below the steel wheels. The cold wind rushed into the open window above our heads. I got up and tried to close the window. It was broken in place, the victim of too many miles and too many tugs. I sat back down, mired deep in a pool of fatigue. BEG stared back from the seat opposite mine, a look of odd ‘nothingness’ in her expression. I wanted to lie down on the seat and go to sleep for the1.5 hours it would take to reach Riccione. I didn’t. I wasn’t fully convinced we were even on the correct train. I was destined to watch for depot signs with equal doses of vigilance and anxiety at each stop. Still, I imagined our long nightmarish journey would soon be over. My sleepless string had reached 36 hours. I hoped and even prayed Riccione truly existed an hour and a half in front of us. I concentrated on a soft bed located at Via Petrarca 11, the apartment address which was still riding in my pocket. The cold wind knifed through the car. BEG huddled below her airline blanket. She had moved to my side of the car and propped herself against my shoulder. I closed my eyes and prayed again. The clickety clack of the steel wheels sang counterpoint to my prayers.


kathi said...

Geeze, I'd so buy anything you wrote in book form.

Lynilu said...

I was tired last night, and I couldn't read it on the screen, s I printed it out and read in in the comfort of my bed. (1) I actually felt guilty being warm and comfortable and (2) I felt guilty whining about how tired I was. Could you possibly write the next chapter "softer" so I won't feel bad?

Seriously, reading this makes my body just ache for both of you!

Seven said...

And I would so hug you if I could.

There is a underlying thread at work here. I actually do intend to turn this adventure into book form though it will be vastly different in approach than the shortened journal version here. When I write it I intend to weave the central theme of 'choice' throughout the words. Much of the misery we faced (perhaps all) was based on choices made by yours truly. My years in police work often cause me to feel bullet proof. So I tend to make choices that a bullet proof man might make. Of course I am no such thing! Choices matter, do they not? You are safe and warm for a reason. Celebrate, don't feel guilty. Warm hugs.

Lynilu said...

Oh, Seven, that theme in a book sounds very intriguing! You know that I place much weight in "choices" through the life process. When you find time to complete this project, I'll be your very first customer!!

Seven said...

Holy Wow,
Now I've pre-sold TWO books!

Jenn said...

You better get to writing them...for real. This is goooood stuff.

Travel is such

Seven said...

Love ya and so nice to see you again.