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Strangers on Trains

Updated: Jun 8, 2019

“Is there a train called an expresso here?,” the American 20-something shouted at the woman behind the ticket window at the Santa Lucia station. He sounded like something out of an I Love Lucy episode, just adding an “o” to the odd English word in hopes his Italian interlocutor would take it from there.

No, son. There’s no train here called an expresso. There’s not even a coffee called an expresso (though I’ve noticed that a smattering of touristy establishments have started to list “expresso” on the blackboard outside. Single tear zigzags slowly down the face).

I’d arrived at the station with plenty of time to kill, so killed some indulging my smug annoyance at things like “expresso.” It was a good distraction, too, because otherwise I would have felt compelled to go back outside to catch yet another last look at Venice, then probably would have gone out again to ponder whether I’d see it the same way if I knew I was going to die and would never see it again, etc. As I said, it’s a little compulsive.

All of the fabled confusion and threatened train strikes notwithstanding, I’ve had good luck riding the rails in Italy. I’ve only once hit a strike that actually detained me for any considerable length of time. A few times I’ve missed a connection, but in each case was promptly given a spot on the next train. I’ve only once been stranded altogether for an entire day because I’d failed to reserve in time. (These days, booking ahead in high season for popular routes is a wise thing to do.)

I find trains a pleasant way to travel. As telephone lines and brown and green farms and lone houses on hilltops scroll past, you can talk with or eavesdrop on or surreptitiously watch fellow travelers. Hung-over college kids mapping out their next moves. Italian women phoning their mothers and calling them “Mammina.” Trim entrepreneurs in trim sweaters and carefully tucked shirt collars pulling out the sandwiches they’ve carefully tucked into tin foil and into their messenger bags. —I like to see what’s in their sandwiches. Bickering couples. Italian foursomes playing cards.

Trains are full of interesting characters, or even dull characters made interesting by the very fact that they’re on a train. I like to listen in on what they’re talking about, hear where they’ve been and where they’re headed, see what they’re reading. If they’re tourists, are they visibly rattled by the conductor’s Italian? Are they jittery travelers who can’t leave their luggage alone? Are they boon companions or is Italy just the latest backdrop for their transactional marriage?

I’ve met some film-worthy characters on trains. Among my favorites was the very exuberant Israeli pugilist with the requisite swollen nose who insisted on high-fiving me after everything I said, which got a little tiring. (At least he didn’t insisting on punching me, though I suppose in that case I would have stopped talking a lot sooner.) Less a favorite but still memorable was the Middle Eastern guy from I don’t remember where who, after chatting me up for a bit, decided he’d up and put his head in my lap when I’d turned toward the window. It took me a minute to react, I was so nonplussed. There was the Venetian semi-newlywed who confided that now that he was married he had only one or two affairs per year; it wasn’t good to “esagerare.” And the retired school teacher from Pescara who, upon discovering I was learning the language, spent the rest of the trip making me repeat after him random sentences.

And then there are the American rail riders. I try not to get too judgy about other Americans abroad; we all have our way of getting on in a foreign country. But sometimes I can’t help myself. I’ve found that some of the more embarrassing or annoying compatriots make themselves known on trains, usually on the route between Venice and Rome. They’re embarrassing and annoying because they’re that New World brand of first-timer know-it-alls. I have to admit I love to hate them.

Along the route from Florence to Venice, for example, I sat across the aisle from four Californians —two forties-ish couples — who complained loudly about how pushy Italians were and seemed never to tire of calling Bologna “Baloney.” (Some comedic gold just never loses its luster.) One took to chinning himself on the bar of the luggage rack. “The Italians use a lot of olive oil,” he observed helpfully as he bobbed up and down and pointed out olive groves to his wife and their companions. (Yes, someone had married him.)

Then there was the guy from Kansas who, by his own admission, was in Italy for the first time but who was nonetheless pontificating about how inauthentic the lentil soup he was served at Trattoria alla Rivetta had been. He actually said, and I quote: “I know Italian lentil soup, and that ain’t it.” (Aaaagh! Hey, pal, some of us know people who have the dimmest idea of what they’re talking about, and you ain’t it!) "Authentic" is a tricky word because different regions have different takes on all kinds of legume-based soups, but I can say I've had that soup and remember it being excellent. Just my opinion, of course. And Alla Rivetta happens to be a favorite of Venetian locals. Just saying.

One that especially irked me was a guy I overheard advising a fresh acquaintance/victim to steer clear of Venice in summer because, in the hot weather, the whole place stank of stagnant lagoon water. What a slanderous load of bologna! I wanted to smack him. If ever you hear some puffed-up blowhard make a similar statement, please do it for me. (Where’s the pugilist when you need him?)

It still makes me fume every time I think about it. Small wonder we’re getting taxed to enter the city now. (I do think that’s a pretty good idea, though.)

But to finish on a positive note: The groups I love to love are the gaggles of gals of a certain age (now mine), often from Texas or the Cotswolds, usually at least one among them named Barb. They’re on a girls’ getaway and having a hootin’, harmlessly scandalous good time that makes me want to sidle up and park myself next to them. Maybe I could present myself with a deck of playing cards alla Italiana. And a flask. (They’re always drinking.)

Barring success in that gambit, I suppose I could play a little solitaire and keep my nose out of strangers’ business.

'Cause that’s gonna happen.

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