Thursday, February 15, 2007

travel writing (3)

i'd hate to find matt's brains splattered across my blog (see the comments from the previous post), so here's the third installment of my adventures in the boot:

(if you're thinking, 'hey, wait, what do you mean
third post? i've only seen two!' then you're kind of right--i posted three paragraphs on the appendix. so this link will take you to the first two installments in one bigger chunk.)

...I could probably write a darn good travel essay from a dank prison cell in Timbuktu, Italy.

The train is rumbling now, but still no onboard announcements or any sign of a conductor (or a rail pass). Groaning, the train flexes its tired mechanical muscles and jettisons forth from the station. Saying a quick prayer, I realize that if necessary I can probably purchase a ticket onboard. Besides, the other passengers, pretending to ignore my antics, have no tickets in hand ready for collection. I sit back and concentrate on the movement of the train, but its faded caramel seats, jarring motion, and cranky grinding of gears conjure unpleasant images of rickety old roller-coasters. Unconsciously, I reach for a lap bar and wonder uneasily if trains cave to the same barometric conditions as humans. Might our car suffer heat stroke and leave me stranded in Genoa?

But the train keeps going. And stopping. And going. And stopping, stopping at every little space in the tracks wide enough to accommodate a few benches of worn commuters. There! Beyond the benches and stucco high-rise apartments I can see thin strands of beach. With any luck, that’s the Mediterranean. But as each fresh likeness of tropical paradise rolls slowly by, the city names elicit no sense of familiarity. Still, these towns look nice. I could cut loose from my itinerary, barrel blindly from the seasoned advice of other travelers, and land myself in some obscure Italian village no one’s ever heard of, besides the Italians, of course. Some ordinary coastal community sifting wages from the sea rather than the wallets of tourists. Rent a raft and float away into the Mediterranean sunset…but seriously, maybe this is the wrong train. I ask a few passengers.

“To Vernazza?” I ask. “Vernazza?” And point to the train.

Someone says the word for floor. Others shake their heads. One woman, obliging this strange foreigner, takes the lead, and offers me a helpful bundle of insight. Unfortunately, the rushing wind carries her words far away to the opposite end of our car. While Italy seems privileged to have experienced parts of the industrial revolution, like this train putting deliberately down the sun-soaked coast, other modern conveniences apparently have bypassed Europe’s boot. Despite the pressing humidity, Italians on the West Coast lack the crucial life support system we know as air conditioning. Thankfully, my train utilizes the predecessor to AC: wide-open windows. But in the context of conversations, Italian AC makes communication nearly impossible. Oh, well, her insight amounted to nothing more than Italian gibberish anyway.

“Prego?” I ask. I’ve often been told that when in Rome, do as the Romans do; in this case that means speak Italian. Earlier, as I crossed the border from Switzerland, a benevolent tour guide explained that the word “prego” serves at least a million functions, ranging from “may I take this,” “you’re welcome,” and “excuse me,” to a brand of spaghetti sauce. Thus, if lost for something to say in Italy, like now, “prego” might work. It does. She repeats her explanation. Great. I muster one last try, putting careful emphasis on each of the syllables. “Verrrr nahhhzzzzz uhhh?”

“Si, si.” So much for blending in. After a few “graci’s,” my bag and I ride the remainder of the trip in self-conscious silence. Cover blown, I discard any pretense of acting indigenous and pull dog-eared pages from a used copy of Rick Steves’s Best of Europe 2001. Staring at the map, I note how close Vernazza should be to Genoa. Barely a centimeter! Oh, well. I stash the map in the front pocket of my shorts with a camera, some German receipts, and a rail pass. A rail pass?! Hallelujah! I nearly jump out of my seat. My Italian train-mates must think I’m loony, or perhaps I’m behaving like a typical American. No wonder we have such a poor reputation abroad. After daring a last glance at my fellow passengers, I turn my gaze to the window and stare at the passing towns—in part to avoid further eye contact with the locals but more importantly to somehow verify that, yes, I am on the right train.
continued at this link (sorry matt--we're at about the half way point now).

unknown traveler. "the 40 pound pack and i" somewhere in switzerland (before i ventured to italy).