Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Italian Way

This is out of order, but it's a continuation of my adventure, trying to get from France to Italy...:

July 10, 2009

MILANO CENTRALE STATION—Through the southern portal of the Milan station, a purple-blue crayon of dawn light illuminates the interior. It’s just about 5:35 a.m., and I make my way to the TrenItalia counter. Getting to Perugia means a train from Milan to Firenze (Florence) and then boarding a local train or two to the Perugia station, which is about 35 minutes from Collemincio, or Almost Officially Nowhere (Pop. 12), which is where my friend Caris lives, high in the hills between the historic towns of Perugia and Assissi.
The total traveling time from Paris, France to Perugia, Italy, is about 15 hours, and a distance of about 604 miles, to those of you in the only country that doesn’t understand the Metric system. (It’s okay. No one in Europe seems to understand miles and feet and yards and gallons. Maybe it’s better that way.) Miraculously, there is a train leaving Milano Centrale to Bologna, and then Firenze, where I will catch a local train to Terontola and onward to Perugia. Six trains in 24 hours, so far.
Things seem to be proceeding apace, sort of. We pull out of Milano Centrale continuing south.
I’m bleary and fuzzy, after waiting all night for the early train, but relieved that I’ve been able to make sense of the train system and actually get from A to D, all in Italian.
As we jet out of the Milano station, I find myself in the cool and dramatic luxury of the “Red Arrow,” the high-speed pride of the TrenIitalia fleet. Free coffee and an Italian pastry is served by a uniformed attendant. A high-backed deep plush seat envelops me, as I carefully sleep in fits. I’ve learned to live in quiet fear of missing trains, and question fellow passengers more than once, as to the next station. Because the Italian train system holds one more terror—approaching stations are not announced. Ever, it seems.
I have two more trains to meet to get to Perugia, and no assurance that I won’t sleep through them. With a heavy wheeled bag, my laptop in a briefcase, and my guitar in a case that’s threatening to pop its zipper any second, it’s not like I can just dash in and out of every station.
Add to that the fact that there are very few escalators in the Italian train stations. Instead, there are towering concrete staircases looming over me at every location.
Arriving at a connecting station means quickly gathering my luggage (I think my bag probably weighs about 70 pounds. Before you say anything, I’m traveling for five months, through summer and fall. What would you bring?), then descending about 60 steps to the connecting passageway underneath the platform, finding the location of the connecting train, either by name or number, or continuing on into the main station for the main information board, and then back into the passageway to find the corresponding platform and the 60 steps leading up to the platform. I don’t pull my bag up the long flights of stairs, for fear that the banging against the steps will eventually break its wheels. I lift the bag and carry it up (and down) the stairs. Multiply that task by the dozen or so train stations I have by now visited.
Now, the train won’t have a name on it, and the number on the side of the coach may or may not be correct. There may or may not be a conductor to direct anyone.
Are you feeling me?
My first-class Eurail Pass, provided by France Tourism, has so far afforded me the ability to board numerous trains at will. It’s for four days in one month, in any European country. This is where it gets interesting.
Seated in a sleeper section in the Red Arrow—where I can charge my computer—I am approached by a TrenItalia agent who asks to see my ticket and Eurail Pass.
“Sir, you have not validated this ticket.”
“Excuse me?”
Now it rushes back to me. A week ago, we’re gathered in the Gere du Nord Station in Paris, with Katherine, our media liaison. She is distributing our tickets and explaining how they work.
“We have reservations from Lyon to Paris. You need a separate reservation and ticket for every destination, in addition to your Eurail Pass. Once we have our reservations, we take our tickets to those yellow machines over there,” she explains, patiently. “Put your ticket in there, and the machine validates them to make sure that each use of your ticket is accounted for.” If you don’t do this, she warns, it’s trouble.
Now trouble is standing over me, wearing a fetching red and gray cap.
“You have not validated your ticket, sir. That will be 35 Euros.”
That would be 35 Euros in cash that I don’t have on me, and she will only take cash, which seems odd.
She asks for my passport and begins to fill out an official-looking form.
“And, if you want to sit here in this section, that will be 10 Euros more.”
“Um, no, that’s OK, but thank you.”
She hands me the form, and says, “You can pay this at the next station, when you arrive.”
I consider this and examine my ticket and pass. If I’m not mistaken, neither ticket no pass has accounted for this day. I have inadvertently bought myself one more day.
And I’m going to need it.

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