“Punch him with your bag!” Sandra hissed menacingly at me.
“I can’t hit him,” I responded immediately, huffing and out of breath, my gentlemanly instincts tend to prevail in all incidents, even catastrophes like this one. I looked imploringly at Elaura, but there was only steely determination in her eyes, Sandra was serious.
And so, as one hundred and fifty angry Italians, one Finn, and I made a mad dash to the road from a crumbling train station, I smacked a man out of my way with my leather Nike bag. He seemed to expect it, and he wasn’t the only person getting hit. I was hit in the thigh with an umbrella by en elderly woman. Sandra shoved a child out of her way with her bare hands, and the mysterious third girl in our party who rarely spoke clutched a silk bag to her chest and glared at everybody, daring them to touch her.
How did I, a peaceful student of Egyptology on a nice little trip, find myself in this most unlikely situation, running through the Italian countryside for my life? I’m still not entirely sure, but we must start from the beginning, back when I was rising gracefully from my bed like an actual angel, greeting the Turin sun with a smile toying at my recently turned twenty-six-year-old cheeks.
As I look back on my notes for this day, I smile at how innocent they begin. I wrote euphorically about how good espresso from a flip-top espresso maker was and my delight at these salty chocolate cookies I found. I was going to tell you all about my lunch at the automat down the road and all the focaccia I ate. I was going to write rapturously about my endless love for the city of Turin, which is no less now than it was that day, but I have more important things to tell you about.
[But it is important that I mention that there are boxes of delicious wine for €1 at the grocery store down the road.]
Tipsy and delighted with life and the world around me, I made my way to the Porta Nuova train station to catch the first leg of my journey back to Nice. I was confident. I was feeling great. I had an hour to make the connection in Savona, so nothing could possibly go wrong.
NOTHING COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG…
NOTHING COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG!!!!!!!!!!
Oh, how those words came back to haunt me. I should have known something was fishy from the start. If only a television somewhere would have turned on and shown me this:
That would have been hella helpful.
I found the train with ease and made myself comfortable in a seat where I could glare at everybody coming in so that they wouldn’t dare sit beside or in front of me. The resting bitch face is a gift, reader. There was air conditioning, and I was having the time of my life giving the stink eye to children. But then a member of the staff came in to tell me that all the passengers going to Savona were supposed to be in a different car. The train wasn’t going anywhere but Savona, so why this was, I don’t know. But, even though I look like I bitch, I’m a kindly old man, so I scurried to the next car and proceeded to glare anew at all the people I had glared at before.
The train took off and my head was full of thoughts. Should I take a few days and hurry to Milan to see the Universal Exposition, the modern version of the World’s Fair? I have long had an obsession with the World’s Fair. I think it has to do with watching a lot of Meet Me In St. Louis as a child.
There is something mesmerizing about the concept of countries making pavilions to share with their neighbors, showcasing the best of their culture. It’d be like EPCOT but on a grander scale, and few people love EPCOT more than me. I have a small collection of World Fair memorabilia, a bunch of plates and ashtrays from the 1964 fair in New York — there’s always something in a garage sale. But I really couldn’t justify turning around and heading to Milan.
Then I smiled out the window at all the cornfields rushing by. There was an extraordinary amount, and I wondered about what the Italian diet looked like before the discovery of the Americas? They wouldn’t have tomatoes or corn before then. So no polenta or pizza. I’ll have to look into that some more later.
I was sweating like mad. This car that I had been forced into against my will was not air conditioned and the windows were locked shut with some odd hexagonal key. I gasped, fanned myself with my iPhone Six Plus, and then blessed a man who had a Swiss Army Knife and managed to get the windows in the car open. We all loved him.
The wind was whipping through my hair, the scenery was delightful, the passengers were quiet, the book I was reading was getting good, and then it happened. There was a horrible metallic scraping sound from far ahead, and then the train came to a quick halt. I didn’t think anything of it at first. Trains stop and start all the time. It’ll get going…
The train sat on the tracks for awhile and then I looked up from my book to see a row of workers outside the train looking apprehensively at the tracks. “Shit,” I murmured, poking my head out the window with everybody else. We were shouted at a bunch in Italian, but nobody listened. This was us to them:
I couldn’t have listened even if I wanted. I don’t speak Italian.
More time passed and more worried workers passed by. I assumed that we had come off the track somehow and were about to be smashed by an oncoming train. I really was in no mood to die. And I was in no mood to be stranded in the middle of Italy. What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to go? At that point, I assumed the train would start moving again, we’d arrive late in Savona, and I’d just check into a Hilton for the night and worry about the consequences later. Somewhat looking forward to a hotel, I settled back in and read some more of my book.
Then it struck me just how bad off we were. The train had been sitting on the tracks for an hour and the Italians were getting angry. Eventually one of them opened the door they started hopping onto the tracks. “Sweet Beyoncé, please help us.” I muttered, rising to my feet.
A wonderful sound could be heard behind me, ENGLISH.
“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked, watching more and more passengers leap from the train.
“A man jumped in front of the train!” one girl said to me, Sandra, I learned later.
“I saw a picture,” Elaura said, slightly pale.
“Really?” I asked, curious. I’ve never seen what a body looks like smashed by a train. It’d be good for a future book, I decided. “On your phone…?”
“No, somebody showed me.”
“Ah,” I muttered, disappointed.
“Yes, he killed himself.”
We were silent for a few moments. Then this group of strangers told me to follow them, and I was soon behind them, balancing on loose stones between a set of live tracks. The train officials were screaming at everybody, but they weren’t going to stop a hundred and fifty angry Italians.
Turns out we were quite near to a village that is basically a ghost town. There’s a station, but it’s abandoned, crumbling, boarded up. Shit, I thought again, this is just like House of Wax.
We all stood for ages chatting in the weed covered yard of the station trying to figure out what the hell was going on. The train had stopped moving two hours ago and there wasn’t much longer before my connecting train was scheduled to depart. Resigned to die, I looked around for the best spot to camp. Maura was sure that it wouldn’t be that serious and that TrenItalia would send us some help. Sandra, a Finnish student, wasn’t quite so sure.
So we sat and smoked cheap cigarettes — I was trying to fit in, reader — and talked about who we are. Sandra is a student of nuclear energy, Elaura was a barista, and the other girl didn’t say much of anything, and nobody mentioned this, she just sat there taking long drags on her cigarette and clutching her bag like it was full of gold. I don’t think I ever knew her name.
More time passed without any official word from the train company, even though one of them, a harassed looking elderly woman, finally joined us to confirm that there was a dead man in front of the train, and that no, we couldn’t go look at him, and that she was sure that we would be getting alternative transportation soon. She didn’t sound convinced, and I was certainly glad to have met Elaura who spoke flawless English and tried to turn me into a Italian. You have to talk loud, be a little crazy (her words, reader), be quick, and never think twice about anything. You have to forget your manners when you want something and go get it. This didn’t sound much like me, but I doubted I’d ever have to be Italian. If only I had known…
We had become quite hungry, and people had begun to harass the poor woman who worked on the train about diabetes and the elderly starving to death. The third girl spoke suddenly in heavily accented English, still clutching her bag, “We…go smoke…” her eyes darted to a heavily wooded space by the station, “over there.” Then without saying anything more she scurried around the front of the station and into the trees.
Sandra shrugged and followed suit, Maura and I close on her heels.
Me at this point:
“Dear God, dearest Beyoncé, Allah, baby Jesus, and Osiris,” I said in my head, “I don’t know what’s going on, but don’t let this turn into an Amanda Knox situation. I don’t want to rot in an Italian prison. I’m too young to die!”
We found her sitting on a fallen tree, grinning to herself, and then she finally opened the bag and started pulling out what appeared to be a feast. There were cheese danishes, cold pizza, cookies, an entire sausage, and a wedge of bread. We all looked at her like she was a saint, and in a way, she was. It’s a bit odd sitting in the middle of an Italian forest nibbling at a stranger’s pizza and chatting about the prospects of nuclear fission, but I’ve stopped being surprised at my life. After meeting the most wonderfully eccentric people, I just go with the flow and learn to appreciate how absurd the world is.
Footsteps were heard crunching behind us, so we gasped in unison and hid our food instinctively like we were cavemen. It was insane. It was rather like this. Almost exactly like this:
(Start at 15:17 if the link doesn’t post correct.)
It was just a guy peeing. He didn’t notice us.
Once our meal was finished, we went back to the station and were just in time for an announcement. Buses were coming! Trenitalia had sent three coaches to pick us up. Sandra looked worried. “Remember what I told you. Get what you want. We all go together.”
I nodded and then one of the most insane moments of my life took place. When the woman said that the buses were waiting for us, the crowd leapt to its feet as one and started running down a gravel pathway. They pushed and they shoved and they screamed. It was like being on the deck of the Titanic as it was going down.
“Punch him with your bag!” Sandra hissed, as she did in the beginning of the story, and I’m quite pleased to tell you that my little group of lunatics was the first on the bus.
We beamed euphorically at each other as we were told what was going to happen next. The bus would take us to Ceva. A train would take us from Ceva to San Giuseppe. From San Giuseppe, there would be a train that would take us finally to Savona. I grimaced, watching the charming village of Ceva come into view.
My party split up before the end of my journey, and it had been rather wonderful meeting them. Transportation can make you the oddest friends. I wish that I had thought quick enough to add them on Facebook or Twitter, but I didn’t, so they’re as lost to me now as I would have been in the Italian countryside if I had never found them.
By some act of god, I assume it was my relentless prayers to Beyoncé, who truly does listen as I’ve told you before, the connecting train from Savona to Ventimiglia had been shockingly delayed. It was still there waiting for me. “The hell?” I muttered taking my seat as the train jerked to life and started speeding down the coast. “Thank you, Beyoncé,” I said, looking out the window at the pitch black night.
Things were going to be all right, I thought. What else could go wrong?
WHAT ELSE COULD GO WRONG?
WHAT ELSE COULD GO WRONG?
Hadn’t I learned my lesson?
The train finally chugged into Ventimiglia. As I entered the station I discovered that I had missed the last train to Nice by ten minutes. TEN, reader! The station was closed. There was nobody at the counter. There was no bus. There was no taxi that was under a hundred euros. There was nothing to do but wait it out.
I thought I would just get a hotel, drink a glass of wine, and pass out. In the morning, everything would be better. I’d get an afternoon train back to Nice and put this whole miserable affair behind me. So, I began my search for a hotel. There was one next to the station, but it was completely booked. They pointed me to another one. It was completely booked.
I panicked a bit now. I followed the sea, stopping at every hotel, but every single one was completely booked and nobody seemed very concerned with helping me find a place to rest my weary feet. There was no wifi anywhere in that damn town, and I wanted to go back in time and stop that man who jumped in front of the train so that I COULD MURDER HIM.
Seriously! I wonder if he had any awareness of how irritating he had become by his suicide? He ruined people’s lives. I could have been lost for ages. I could be mugged, murdered, raped, any number of horrifying occurrences that played through my mind in this horrible little town — I’ve been reading a lot of detective fiction, lately — and I cursed that dead man’s soul.
By the time one o’clock rolled around, I realized that I was not going to be staying anywhere. There were too many suspicious characters near the train station, so I headed for the hills where the old town was located and I mounted the steep stairs and slowly walked along the medieval passageways. It would have been beautiful at any other time, but now when I only wanted to be back in Nice, telling people that I hadn’t died, I found it distasteful in the extreme.
An ancient church bell counted out the hours as I sat in an abandoned piazza feeling utterly miserable. I was endlessly glad that Jessica wasn’t along with me. She would probably have jumped into the sea and drowned herself to get rid of the stress. She would have lit herself on fire or somehow found her way into an Italian jail cell. I didn’t need that, so I was happy she was securely back in Iowa, thousands of miles away from my ridiculous situation.
After sitting on a rough stone bench for a few hours, I got up to do a bit more walking. Eventually I found a renovated piazza that had some decent lighting and a couple feral cats. This seemed like the best possible place to spend the remaining hours until I could return to the train station and get the hell out of this dumb village.
The cats refused to be nice to me.
After hours had passed, it was finally time to go back to the station. In the darkness, as the little village of Ventimiglia came to life, I retraced my steps and angrily stormed the train station. The train to Nice would be leaving in about a half hour. The ticket counter was closed and the automatic ticket machines refused to sell tickets to France. So, here I was. once again stranded in Italy through no fault of my own.
I said a considerable number of curse words in languages varying from Arabic to German, which alarmed the alarming number of homeless people living in the station — seriously, it was strange — and sat my ass down on the train. I would just thrust money at a ticket agent if one asked for my ticket.
The time ticked away slowly, my anger and irritation on the rapid uptick, and finally the train took off. I feigned sleep, but I never once saw a SNCF crew member. As the sun rose, we chugged into the Nice Ville train station and I faced another challenge, a bunch of guards outside the exits. I muttered a few more expletives, and just walked as casually as I could between a bunch of people. They didn’t pay me any mind, and I was finally on a bus back to the apartment.
I sat on my bed for some time fuming, but eventually I couldn’t fight the sleep I so desperately needed and the irritations of the day soon became a thing of the past. I will probably not ever ride an Italian train again. Can you blame me?
Sorry it was such an awful day, but your retelling of this adventure was pretty priceless. I loved when you said you were ready to murder the guy who committed suicide! At this point, no one would have blamed you! Happy belated birthday from San Francisco!
Thank you. It was quite a day!