Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Last Train Ride from Italy

It has been several days since I left Italy. After writing for as long as I was able in the hotel in Napoli, I finally went to the station to catch my train. I found the departures board where the trains were listed and noticed that my train was in the list, but no platform number was given. I figured this was an error or that the train was late and that all would be well soon. About half an hour passed and still no indicator flipped up despite the fact that all the other characters on the board flopped around the 26 letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0-9 and any punctuation marks that were included in the character set of those flip-boards. The time for our departure came and went, and the small crowd of people that was waiting around watching that board with me started to exhale loudly and point at the board each time that it would run through its character set update

Eventually, about 15 minutes late, an old, dirty train chugged into the station, prompting the departures board to cycle through once more until it showed that we would be leaving from platform six. Everyone rushed as if the train would pull out of the station immediately, but it stayed in place for a good 15 more minutes and we all had plenty of time to find our seats or couchettes and to be thoroughly disappointed with the accomodations.

Initially, due to the heat, we stood outside our cabin and held our heads out the windows despite the standard warning that "it is dangerous to hang out of the windows," that is posted on nearly every Italian train window sill. With the heat inside the train, I think it was dangerous to hang out inside the train too, but we had to do so and we had not pulled out of the station yet to cause the circulation of any air to start.

A few minutes passed and the train suddenly lurched backwards out of the station. We slowly began to pick up speed as we moved away from platform six and into the train yard ahead. At that point, we cleared the station building and the nocturnal skyline of Napoli came into view, climbing its way up the slopes of Mount Vesuvio and promising a beauty in Napoli that I had difficulty finding there during the day. A bright half-moon lit up the nighttime sky and the city lights all cheered as I thought of leaving Napoli and Italy for a passage through Switzerland the next day to Heidelberg.

It felt so good to watch the beauty of the mountain, the moon and the lights of the city that I lingered there in the corridor for about half an hour, staring at the darker darkness of the mountain against the black sky and the lights that outlined villages and streets. Eventually, I needed to turn my attention again to my sleeping quarters. I found that I was on the top bunk in a six bunk suite and that I was sharing the room with a married couple and another man, although the rest of the cabins seemed empty. I took off my shoes and shirt and rolled my pants up as far as possible since I was sharing my cabin with a young couple and couldn't actually go to bed in just my shorts. I then took my nightly medication and settled in for a good night of rest.

What I got in the process was hardly what I had envisioned. I heard noises down the hall and stuck my head out to notice that a cross-eyed Italian man had removed most of his clothing and was going from one cabin to the next to steal a ladder for climbing into his bunk while wearing nothing but his underwear. His protruding beergut preceding him, he was moving with great purpose, while screaming in Italian and gesturing with one hand or the other at a cabin full of women who seemed to be his wife, his daughters and his mother-in-law. His gaze crossed mine somewhere a few feet before it met my eyes and he turned into his cabin, banging the ladder against both sides of the door and judging from the clamor, into the shins of one of the women he loved so questionably

Afterwards, when things had settled down a bit, I fell into slumber. I awakened about every fifteen minutes and realized that I was still on a train from Napoli to Milano and that we had simply taken a curve a bit sharply or the conductor had hit the brakes too hard. The heat was still pretty bad and the noises of the train were quite loud, although I have learned to sleep through the squeeling of brakes, the grinding of metal on metal and the beating sound that is made when the train is coasting into a station. Eventually, I slept through most of the night and awoke to find us nearing Milano and that the couple with whom I shared the cabin had begun to stir and to gather their things.

When we had organized ourselves for departure, I explained my film to the couple and was able to work out two interviews from what turned out to be a very sweet Italian couple. They very kindly answered my questions and then we talked about whether or not I would be able to make the ten minute connection from our train to the one I would be taking from Milano to Basel, Switzerland.

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When we pulled into Milano, our car was quite a good distance down the platform. I had to walk quickly to get to the departures board to find out where my next train would be berthed. When I reached the front of the station, I found a vendor selling substantial ham and cheese sandwiches for about $8 and I bought one for breakfast after learning that I was at platform seven and my departing train was only at platform two.

A few seconds after I had paid for my expensive sandwich and a small bottle of water, I was carrying one bag while pulling another and while clutching the sandwich and bottle of water to my side when I realized that platform two was actually rather substantially recessed from all the other platforms and that I had to now basically run while pulling my bag and carrying my bulky cargo in order to reach the first car of the train before it left the station.

I made it to the train and then realized that I had forgotten which car I needed to board. I put my bags down just long enough to pull out my ticket, confirm my car and seat number and to reach to pick up my sandwich and handbag, only to find that I no longer had a sandwich. I only had a small bottle of water and my bags. In the few seconds that I was distracted with my ticket, my breakfast and lunch disappeared into the quick hands of a thief. I briefly cursed Italy and then climbed aboard my train and took my window seat.

By the time I looked up, I saw a young teen-aged boy dressed in typical white gauze from head to toe, standing on the platform, tearing into my breakfast. He was not in the least bit concerned that anyone might confront him. He stood with one elbow leaned against a column and rolled back the plastic wrap from around my sandwich and took a large bite, My first impression was to wish he would break a tooth on it or that a worse fate might occur to him while the song "California Dreamin'" ran through his mind, but then I decided that he will have his karma and I will have mine or just did, one or the other. I decided to fight my true instinct to wish a curse on him and to try to visualize him as a starving young man to whom I had just given my breakfast. I finally settled on seeing him as a kind of two-legged vermin dressed in gauze that has stolen my lunch and decided just to be indifferent to him rather than to hate him.

When the conductor came around, I asked her if there would be food on board. She looked at me with disdain and a kind of smirk before saying "Not in Italy!". By this time, we had stopped at Lake Como and had subsequently entered a tunnel, crossing into Switzerland and leaving Italy forever more behind me, along with what had promised to be a good ham and cheese sandwich and the rat that was eating it.

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All day long, I rode the train through Switzerland's mountains, through her tunnels and along her lakes. It is one of the most beautiful countrysides I have ever seen, especially when there is still snow on the tops of some peaks in August. Entering one tunnel, we left behind dry weather on one side to emerge into a rainy environment where the mountain peaks were obscured by dark clouds and misty fogs. It was such a relief from the dry desert and heat of Italy. The landscape here was green as could be.

Around 4 PM, we pulled into Basel and I left the train to find one to Karlsruhe in Germany. I had about an hour of layover in Switzerland, so wandered through the shops in the train station, forcing myself to eat chocolate croissants and to drink cappucino that I really didn't want. When I went to pay, I was given the total in Swiss Francs and rememebered then that Switzerland is not part of the European community. Luckily at that restaurant, they simply recalculated with an exchange rate that favored them and they took my Euros.

When I got really bored, I bought a International Herald Tribune and asked if they took Euros. The woman answered in German that they only took bills, no shiners. I obviously looked confused as I handed her two Euros and the woman behind her screamed out "NO COINS". When the emotions settled, I had a crappy newspaper and about $16 in change in Swiss Francs and I was on the next train into Germany where those francs would be useless to me.

º º º

I arrived in Karlsruhe and took an earlier train than scheduled to Heidelberg, arriving just about at the time that I had told Susan that my train would arrive. She soon strode into the station and we met for the first time. While walking to her apartment, she told me that her roommate Konstanza was celebrating her birthday that day, and that we would be joining them for dinner and drinks at a club downtown. When we arrived at the apartment, Konstanza and her friend Varina were having a visit. We were greeted warmly on arrival and soon Konstanza was serving up her mom's homemade apple tiramisu before they left to meet other friends at the bar. Susan then waited kindly while I gathered a load of clothes for the washer and took a shower to wash away two days of train rides.

We joined the party later at Billy Blues and opened the menu to find that one of the choices was a "Gatemouth" Potato...a baked potato with cheeses and chives. I asked the waitress if it was named after Clarence Gatemouth Brown, but she was too young to know. Later in the evening, Susan and I found a photo on the wall that could have been Gate having a big draw off his pipe, but the shot was taken from behind, so we were not really sure if it was him. What a "leap" that would be as I just met him in January as part of my visit with the 1 Giant Leap crew.

In the meantime, I was introduced to about 10 friends who came to celebrate with Konstanza...I know I will forget names, but from my left around the table clockwise, there was Susan, Katya, Anna, Thomas, then two guys who were friends of some of the girls, and a lady with Multiple Sclerosis whose name I no longer recall, then Annetta, a lady with "glass bone disease" who is quite an activist for people living with disability in Heidelberg and then Konstanza. At about 11, Sebastian arrived to relieve Thomas who both work as caretakers for Annetta in 14 hour and 10 hour shifts, respectively.

I was lost when the conversation switched into German, but out of kindness to me, most everyone spoke English most of the night. I connected particularly with Katya who had lived in Tallahassee and Savannah for a while, and then as Anna drank more Merry Berries (cocktail), she began to chat more and started to sound more and more Australian in the process! We laughed at her accent in English and even tried to record her on Susan's camera, but the noise in the background was too great. Katya described a program called Angelique that they had all become attached to watching and described their nights of watching the old tapes, drinking beer and eating cheesecake...which they are probably doing as I type this now.

Eventually we finished up the evening and returned to Susan's and Konstanza's appartment. When we arrived, we planned the next day, and realized that it would actually be my last day in Heidelberg and so decided to visit the landmark castle as well as the Thingstätte all in one day.

I would like to take a moment to thank Susan, Konstanza and all their friends in Heidelberg for their wonderful hospitality.


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1 Comments:

Anonymous susan said...

ron, you're awesome and it was a pleasure to have you here :D

8/18/2005 04:59:00 AM  

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