Sunday, February 1, 2009

Train To Nowhere

Train to Nowhere
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, November 2008)

Anyone that knows me, is well aware of the fact that I am completely enamored with that magnificent conglomeration of chaos and noise otherwise known as Rome. When the narcotic tranquility of small town life leaves me feeling as if I’m slipping into a comatose state, all I have to do is run down to Rome and recharge my mental battery-pack. My occasional escape is made possible by one of the many marvels of Italian life, that being, the Italian train system. Not only is it a relaxing and enjoyable way to get from one place to another, it’s economic and ecological. When I see a train full of people, I can’t help but think how many cars are not being driven in that moment! It is a cheap and reliable form of transportation that I take advantage of whenever I can.

The word “reliable” however, should be noted above, as a mutable one. Train schedules are fixed, though there is a random event known as the “sciopero,” or “strike,” that can leave the unsuspecting voyager in a bit of trouble. Train strikes are listed in the newspaper days in advance, and clearly noted on the railway’s website on the Internet. But if the traveler happens to miss that information for some reason, they may find themselves stranded.

And it happens even to the best of us.

A few weeks ago I journeyed down to Rome to visit my dear friend and co-Fra Noi correspondent, Judith Testa, as she was making her annual pilgrimage to the Eternal City. As always, her company was extraordinary, time passed too quickly, and unfortunately my visit had come to an end. I was cutting it close, as I was expected to be at work that afternoon at three o’clock, but I had double checked the railway’s website, and was confident that I would arrive with plenty of time to spare. After all, it was less than a two hour train ride, and I had given myself six hours to do it in. What could go wrong?

Judy had graciously accompanied me that morning, and we walked around, gleefully window shopping amongst the numerous little stores that excite the train station with color and light. It was getting close to the time for me to leave, so we checked the departure board to see what track I needed to get to. But in lieu of a track number next to my train listing, there was the ominous word “soppresso.” I looked at Judy and asked her what in the world that meant. She considered the word for a moment, and then cautiously said, “I think it means that the train’s not coming.”

After finding a nice man in a railway uniform, we were indeed able to confirm that the train I was expecting to take, was in fact not arriving. When I asked him why, he vanished, uttering only one word, “sciopero.”

But that was impossible! I checked the website!

As it turned out, my first mistake was to have looked for information on a national strike. It never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a “regional” one. And that day, Tuscany was on strike. No trains were stopping anywhere in the province I needed to get to, but I’ve lived in Italy for nearly eight years now. I know that there is always some way to get around whatever inconvenience faces you. There are always options.

The first step in our search for an alternative plan to get me home, was to stop by the Customer Service office. As most strikes only last a few hours, we merely wanted to find out when this particular nuisance was to conclude. After a lengthy wait in line, I was finally able to talk to someone that was extremely helpful by hastily telling me they had no idea when the strike would end, and waving me away as if I were a pesky mosquito, yelled “NEXT!” to the person standing in line behind me.

Thinking quickly, Judy and I decided that perhaps there might be a bus going to Tuscany. So we hopped a train over to where the bus station was located. After a prolonged attempt at trying to decipher the hieroglyphics that made up the various schedules, I finally spotted a bus driver on his break and decided to just ask him. He told me I had to go to window “C” for information about getting to Tuscany. Luckily, I chose the correct window “C” (yes, there were more than one windows marked with the letter C!), and got the information I needed. I discovered that I would first have to take a bus to Siena, then another to Florence, then another to Arezzo, and finally from Arezzo I would be able to find a bus to take me home. I gazed at the unsmiling man behind the window and asked him, “Um…just how long is all of that going to take?” With a very weighty sigh, he looked over the schedules laid out before him, and after some serious calculations said, “Eight or nine hours. NEXT!”

By nature, I am an extremely relaxed individual, usually able to handle any amount of challenge, but that afternoon I found my limit. I was feeling a great deal of guilt for having made Judy waste an entire day of her vacation watching me run from one information desk to another, and was also feeling an overwhelming sense of dread regarding my employment situation. Not showing up for work is usually a good motive for dismissal. And back at the train station, after the umpteenth dead-end in my search for an answer to this dilemma, I snapped. With tears of frustration burning in my eyes, I threw my bags on the floor, my hands in the air, and yelled, “I just wanna go home!!!”

It was an embarrassing spectacle. But thankfully, I was not alone. Judy, my friend, mentor and patient witness to all this, fluidly recovered my bags with her right hand, took my arm in her left, and with a voice that resonated nothing but kindness and understanding said, “I think you need a break. Let’s go.” Judy led me out of the station and back to the haven that is the neighborhood of Trastevere. She wisely prescribed a stress-remedy of food and a glass of wine, and almost immediately, I actually started to feel better. And thanks to her, I began to think that there were certainly worse things than being trapped in Rome for another day.

As for my job, oddly enough, I am still employed. When I had phoned my co-worker to inform her that I was not coming, she was, needless to say, very angry. But much to my surprise, not at me! Having been in such situations herself over the years, she let loose with some of the colorful expletives of which the Italian language is so abundantly rich, regarding the incompetence and ridiculousness of the railway system. Then she told me to relax and not to worry about it.

So, in good company, and with all the beauty that is Rome surrounding me as comfort, I was somehow able to do just that.

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