Trip to Italy: The Letter
Gimmie a ticket for an airplane…
The people at the office said "No one flies to Milan!" when I said I didn’t want to rent a car and drive there from Paris. When we landed in Milan and the flight to Pescara was cancelled, I understood why no one flies to Milan: the fog.
I couldn't understand what was being said on the public address, so I found the Alitalia window and tried to find out. "Why was the flight cancelled?" I asked, and the woman there put her palm down and made a gesture like a plane flying, first climbing up and then tumbling rapidly down to crash. Then she somehow got the notion of fog to me, which if you think for a second, is not easy to convey without words. We found someone who spoke French or English, and then came the killer: "This ticket is expired, I can't help you." The "Not valid before..." was being understood as not valid after. Anyway, after a long argument and getting three or four other people to come and look, I was issued a train ticket and somehow got the bus to go to the train station and then somehow found the train. What ensued was Twilight Zone material.
Ain't got time to take a fast train
The train: very crowded in spite of the fact that we were leaving late at night. Although it wasn't chickens and goats in the cars, that is the image that I had then and that I retrieve now, total chaos, it looked like the 1920's with ethnic costumes the likes of which I'd never seen, someplace totally out of my time. Only one person spoke anything close to English or French. I had expected to find French speakers, since we aren't that far from France, but I never did in Italy. The English speaker and I exchanged a few words from time to time but he was tired and I didn't want to bother him. There were a lot of workers getting off at tiny hamlets here and there, and large women in all black. This was the Adriatic coast.
Lonely days are gone
I had to make a connection and the stop was at 3AM. I tripled checked and asked my guy and a conductor, yes: I was to sit in an empty station (I think this was Pescara) from 3AM to about 5:45 when my train came. I sat on my suitcase in the dark station. The lounge was closed and no one was around, there was almost no light. I needed to go to the restroom and saw two doors, but there were only words, no symbols to make the sexes clear. "What the hell, it's 4AM!" but I lucked out and got the one with urinals. While I was relieving myself, I heard a dull, rhythmic thumping. When I went outside, I couldn't hear anything. Since I had hours with nothing to do, at about 4:30, I went back near the rest rooms and heard the thumping. I followed my ears around the corner and way down at the other end of the platform, there was a window all lit up, invisible from where I'd been sitting on my suitcase. I went over towards the light. "I'll be damned!" It was a café with probably 50 people in it, huge counters of pastries, meats, sandwiches, and everyone having a great time with their drinks, wine, beer, coffee and a jukebox playing "The Letter" by Joe Cocker, which I played years before in many bars, far, far away from here. I stepped in, grabbed some food and went to the register to pay and order coffee. Not a single person looked at me or in my direction even. Now we're going from Rod Serling to Stephen King. I was given coffee, but for some reason, they wouldn't let me pay anything, and went over to lean on a post (no seats available) and look around.
By the Beautiful C
Warmed by the out-of-this-world café and feeling like a seasoned world traveler now, it was easy to get on the right train since it was the first (and only) one in the station, a little before 6AM. How could it be that this train was the same train I was on a few hours ago. The guy who spoke English wasn't there (there was a young woman who replaced him, very nice, smiling) but who can tell the difference between a dozen ladies in all black? And the extras, they all looked the same, too. Again, men were getting off at the little coastal towns. In about an hour, the conductor came and punched my ticket and asked me a question which I couldn't understand. After a few minutes, he lost patience and left. Puzzled, I turned to my sympathetica neighbor. The girl smiled and said,
"Oh, he just wanted to know why you are riding in third class when you have a first class ticket."
A final smile and she left, getting off at the next stop.
By the C (program)
The trip was to install and test a program my company had sold to a huge glass factory that made windshields. My destination was a town near Vasto or it was Vasto, I'm not sure. What I recall though is that there were two stations with the name "Vasto" in them.
Photo: Ra Boe / Wikipedia
There was only one thing to do, ask the nearest lady in black, pointing first to the ticket, then to the name on the map in the train car. They had to assemble a committe of five ladies in black, but they assured me it was the second stop, not the first. Then they all got off. It was getting light, and the train was going along the coast, it was really beautiful and I was as high as a kite, drunk on the fatigue and the adventure of my first solo trip to Italy. The previous one was on a 1974 blues-rock tour. What you experience alone and what you see and do on a tour with 8-10 people are two very different universes.
Taxi Driver: You Talkin' to Me?
Getting off at the destination, there was a one free taxi waiting and I let the driver take my bag and throw it in the trunk. Again the fellow didn't speak a single word of either language I knew. Of course he said "where to?", I got that and I reached in my pocket for the scribbled note with the hotel name on it. It was then I realized that I had changed jackets before I left and the name of my hotel was in the other jacket pocket. I don't know how the next part happened, but somehow, with only gestures, the driver said: "I take you past the hotels, you remember maybe the name?".
Ok, Vasto or wherever it is, isn't Manhattan I grant you, but there was a whole long street of little hotels, at least 15, so it wouldn't be far from trivial to visit or call each one. The man's idea worked, I recognized the name and he took my bag in and up to the desk. The driver and the hotel clerk (or owner for all I knew) shook hands, and exchanged a few sentences. The man at reception greeted me in English and handed me a key with a large number carved on the wooden part. The driver then launched into rapid fire Italian that, if you went only by the sound of the accents, sounded like an operatic lyric "Death, why cometh you now, please let it not be so, show kindness and mercy in this time of need!" and the clerk still smiling nodded and took my key back and handed me a different one. I looked back at the taxi driver and he smiled and was about to leave, so I shook his hand and gave him what I hoped was a generous tip. The hotel man saw me puzzled again and explained: "He scolded me for not giving you a room with nice view, so I gave you a better one."
And so to work. I was scheduled for a test of the software that morning at the factory and before I was able to go up to my upgraded room, Luc showed up. Luc was a very cool guy, Belgian (francophone), living in this town with his wife who'd even agreed to have me for dinner a couple of times, and she was a great cook, by the way. I asked Luc if I could have an hour to get cleaned up before we go to the factory. He laughs and says,
"Why? We installed and tested the software yesterday without you, it works fine. Go to the beach when you're ready. I'll be back at noon to take you to lunch. Tonight we'll go out for drinks and dinner. By the way, how did you manage to get the room with a view?"