I avoided talking to people, mostly because I couldn’t say much more than hello. I wanted to talk, but the fear of not being understood, or mixing up four years of French with two weeks of Italian, stopped me.
I sat down on a bench next to two girls to wait for my train. I relieved my back of its large travelers pack. The monitor above my head displayed the upcoming departures. Craning my neck I triple-checked that I was on the correct platform and let out a small sigh of resignation. I was surprised when the blond girl next to me asked if I was backpacking around Europe. I should have known they weren’t Italian, since blonds were a novelty to most Italians. The blond girls from my college had learned this our first day – when they were propositioned by different men while walking down the street.
“I know it’s a ridiculously big bag but I like to be prepared,” I explained. “I do get sweaty when I wear it, but it works well enough.”
“Where are you headed?” the girl close to me asked.
“Bagni di Lucca, but according to that monitor my first train is taking me to La Spetzia,” I said. “What about you guys?”
“Just the next town over, Vernazza I think it is,” said the other.
I told them about my trip from America to Milan with my college; that this was a weekend excursion with my roommates and I had decided to extend the adventure while they went back to Milan. They were impressed I was traveling alone.
It was nice to talk without worrying about being too culturally sensitive. Even though Cinque Terre was a major tourist destination, and I could expect to easily communicate with anyone, I still worried whether I would offend people if I didn’t attempt to speak Italian.
Our conversation started to die and I hoped my train would come soon. My palms were sweaty and I started to stand at every train that passed through. I looked down at my ticket again; there were a few abbreviated words in a box where the train number should go. I wondered how I was going to know which trains to take when none of them were listed on my ticket. When I called Doug to say I had bought my ticket, I hadn’t processed any of his instructions about the connecting trains. I looked at my scribbled notes on the back of my tourist handbook and accepted this was going to be an interesting trip.
My train arrived and I stepped in after checking the destination was La Spetiza. I waded through the aisles peering into each Harry Potter-style compartment. Seeing they were all full I settled on standing at the end of the car. It felt a little comforting standing and trying to keep my balance like I would on the subway back in Boston.
Milan had been somewhat of a disappointment. It was culturally different, shops were open at odd hours of the day, open air markets were common, and of course the grocery stores didn’t refrigerate eggs or whipped cream. However, Milan had also felt as familiar and comfortable as Boston. The Duomo, the famous white marble cathedral, was the highlight of the city, but I also wanted to see the “authentic” Italy.
My boyfriend of six years, Willie, is half Italian on his mother’s side, and his mother Lucille was thrilled when I told her I was going to Milan.
“Here are a few scarves. You’ll need those for covering your shoulders in the cathedrals, and my purse, it has a secret compartment for your passport.”
“Thank you so much.”
“We went to Italy about nine years ago when Will and the boys were young. We went with my uncle Enzo, my aunt Wilma, and her husband Doug. You remember them all from our trips to the camp, right?”
“Of course I do. I loved meeting them. They were great.”
We talked about avoiding the gypsies and what restaurants I should try if I ever made it to visit Rome. Before I left with my stack of travel books, scarves, and handbags, Lucille remembered the emails she had been getting from Wilma and Doug. Their family still owned their childhood home in Monti di Villa, a small village in the mountains of Tuscany, and Wilma and Doug would be there while I was studying abroad. She forwarded their emails to me and promised to let them know I would be in Italy.
The train pulled in to La Spetzia station and taking a deep breath, I disembarked. I found a departure poster and stood determined to find my next train. I was missing crucial information, or at least I thought I was. I couldn’t use the train numbers Doug gave me because after looking at them I couldn’t read what I wrote. Some of the train numbers looked like times and vice versa. I had taken the notes after I bought my ticket. At the time I didn’t know why Doug was throwing so much information at me. Now I know.
The poster told me the destination, and the departure time to that destination.
Did they organize it into a nice grid? No.
Did they keep it in order of departure time? Yes and no.
Popular destinations were singled out at the top regardless of the departure time. Besides the fact I had to strain my ignorant American brain to read the 24-hour clock times, I didn’t exactly know my next destination. I looked at my ticket and had the “eureka” moment I desperately needed. I was in La Spetzia station. The first abbreviated word on my ticket in the mysterious box was LA SPET. Yes! The second one was VIAREG. I looked for a destination that looked similar. Via Reggio! Platform 3. Ok I think I have this now. Apparently the only information I needed was my next destination, which I could roughly figure out from the abbreviations on my ticket. Four abbreviations. Four trains. At least now I know how many connections I need to make. I had a system: check my clock, scour the random assortment of departure times, and find my next destinations platform.
I realized I was starving and stopped off at the only “restaurant” in the train station. McDonalds. McNuggets and French fries in hand, I found a table to sit. I couldn’t get away from the modern side of Italy, it seemed.
When I arrived in Milan, I checked my email constantly. Not only for emails from my mom and sister, but also for my updates from Wilma and Doug. It turned out they would only be at their home in Monti di Villa for one week in June. Before then they were spending time traveling around Italy. If only I were old enough to have money to burn on a vacation across Italy. Wilma teased me with “national geographic” quality photos of the Dolomites and the picturesque towns they visited. The week Wilma would be in Monti di Villa my study abroad group had planned a trip to Cinque Terre, which coincidentally was half way between Milan and Monti di Villa. It was my chance to see “real” and I had to take it. I emailed Wilma and Doug the Friday before we left for Cinque Terre to see if I could visit for a day or two. I was worried I had asked them with too short of notice. I was leaving at six am and I wouldn’t be able to check my email until I was at the hotel.
After I finished my McDonalds feast, I waited a short while on the platform for my train. It came, I stepped aboard and luckily found a row of empty seats, but the train was much more dilapidated then the other one. I was on my way to Via Reggio, and next to Lucca. Easy enough. The scenery had changed from oceanside to countryside. I tried to take pictures of what looked to me like bamboo which was growing on either side of the tracks, but it only turned out to be a green blur. I sat back and admired the bald mountains, the horses grazing, and the grape vine gardens. I kept track of the signs at each stop, keeping an eye out for the blue sign that would read Via Reggio.
The train pulled into Via Reggio station and the passengers were crowding the doors. Not so unusual, it was probably the equivalent of rush hour anyway. The other passengers were shoving to get out of the doors which had just opened. I was a little freaked out by this. The platform is mostly empty, what is the rush? I saw some people start to run, for what I could only assume was their connecting train. I realized didn’t know the departure time of my train to Lucca.
Maybe I should run too? I think I will. What if it is the train I need to get to?
I started to run with the herd, not bothering to look at a departure schedule yet. The train was a few platforms away and I could see the doors trying to close on the people stuffed inside. I reached the train and the doors finally cleared long enough for me to hop on. I turned to the people around me and asked if this train went to Lucca.
“Lucca? Lucca? Does this train go to Lucca?”
“Si,” the man next to me said.
“No,” I heard a woman say.
The doors were constantly trying to shut, but somewhere along the length of the train someone was standing in the way. I looked down the platform hoping to see my friendly yellow departure schedule. I saw one about a hundred feet away and decided to go for it. I stood searching the board for any sign of the word Lucca. Thankfully in bold it said Lucca, platform 6, departure time… now. I turned around and scrambled into the train as the doors shut one final time behind me.
From: Wilma Lange [doug88@----]
Sent: Saturday, June 23, 2012 11:03 AM
To: Hannah M. Lane
Subject: Re: Possible Visit?
Glad to hear from you. Yes! Come to Monti di Villa! Take the train to Bagni di Lucca. Let us know when you will arrive & we will pick you up. Call Doug’s phone. There is a sleeper sofa & you can sleep there so it will be no problem!
A presto, Abbracci, Wilma
I typed a quick response and returned my laptop to the safe in our hotel armoire. Tomorrow was our second day in Cinque Terre and I was anxious about the journey to Bagni di Lucca. I’m finally going on a real Italian adventure!
I went directly to the departure sign. I did not want to have a repeat of the last shenanigans. Platform 7. I went into the tunnels beneath the station and jogged up the stairs. I was out of breath as I checked the time for departure and the time on my cell phone.
Oh great, the train leaves in two minutes.
Normally I wouldn’t have any difficulty getting to my train as I was already on the platform. The problem was there wasn’t one train, but three. Stupid regional trains! I attempted to figure out which one I needed by watching the other passengers. Unfortunately they didn’t seem to be favoring one over another.
I turned at the sound of English being spoken. I ran up to the group of people.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. I must have looked desperate because the woman responded quickly.
“Yes, what is the matter?” she said with an English accent.
“Do you know which of these trains is going to Bagni di Lucca? They are leaving in one minute!” I managed to say.
“I believe that one,” she said pointing to the far right of the platform.
“Thank you so much!” I jogged off in that direction. I really don’t want to mess up on my last connection. What if that lady is wrong?
I noticed that people were leaving the train on the right, and that made me sure it wasn’t the train I needed. A man who looked like a conductor was getting off and I asked him which train I needed.
“Ahhh… that train. There,” he pointed in the opposite direction at the train to the far left of the platform.
“Gratzie!” I said as I started in that direction.
“Buon Viaggio!” the man said.
Suddenly the woman I had asked for directions earlier was running at me.
“I found out I told you the wrong train! I’m so sorry, it’s actually that one,” she said pointing at the same train the conductor had.
“I just found out myself.”
“Alright, run with me,” she said. “We can still make it!”
I ran as fast as my bulky bag would let me.
“Come on, you’re younger than me, don’t let that bag slow you down!” she laughed.
We were no more than thirty feet away when the train’s whistle blew, signaling its departure. The woman ran ahead of me and waved her hands in the air like a madwoman.
She made it to the doors and held one hand over the door to prevent it from closing, and ushered me into the train with the other.
“Ok, you’re all set! Have a great day!”
The doors closed and I didn’t have time to respond. I was blown away she wasn’t taking this train as well, though she went through so much trouble for me. I was so grateful she helped me, but I must have looked like a total mess to warrant that much help from someone.
I settled into my seat on the little train. The cushions were worn and graying but they were comfortable. Some teenagers were sitting across the aisle from me and I tried to pick up on what they were saying. I couldn’t understand most of their words but their expressions were enough. I laughed to myself when one of them must have insulted the other, because she threw the ball on her lap at his head. He deflected it, bouncing the ball in my direction. I rolled it back to them with my foot. I wondered where they lived.
The stops became more and more rural, the stations becoming just small awnings over cement slabs. Bagni di Lucca was the end of the line and I got off with the kids. They went to a small mint green car and piled in. I watched as they drove off down a narrow dirt road.
The station was completely run down, but it still attempted to look put-together. Two statues of topless women wrapped in robes flanked the building, but someone had drawn moustaches on them.
I was here. I did it.
I took out my phone and called Wilma.
“I’m here! I made it alive.”
“Great, you’re right on time. How was the trip? Everything go as planned?”
“Well, it was definitely an… adventure.”
“Alright, honey, we’ll be right down. Doug has to drive because I can’t stomach the hairpin turns up to Monti di Villa.”
I hung up and stood waiting for them.
After a few minutes the little black Fiat came down the narrow paved street and I wondered how I was going to fit inside.
Wilma hopped out of the car and gave me a strong hug.
“I can’t believe I’m here. It’s surreal to see you, here, in another country,” I said.
I said hello to Doug and he tried to hurry us along. He wanted to make it up the mountain before dark. Surprisingly the Fiat had a hatchback and my bag fit in nicely, taking up most of the trunk space.
“So how were your train rides?” Wilma asked. “You didn’t have too much trouble, did you?”
“Well, actually I was pretty frantic,” I admitted. “I didn’t understand how the whole regional train thing worked. But I worked it out in the end.”
“I thought you knew what I was talking about,” said Doug later. “If you didn’t understand you could have called us back.” I realized then I could have called Doug again at any point on my trip. I had a cell phone. If being clueless about where to go next was not the best time to use it, then when was?
“I know… I guess I never really saw it as an option for some reason,” I said. “I actually feel really accomplished I managed to get here.”
Maybe what I had wanted out of this trip was not purely to see the Italian countryside. I wanted to do what I couldn’t do back home. A trip across Italy on my own left to my own devices. It was exactly what I was craving out of my study abroad experience, even if I didn’t realize it. Willie’s family just gave me the excuse and the chance to test myself.