L’ho fatto! I did it! I took the train from Modena to Milan, was rescued by a gorgeous Italian, and have learned the secret of the fall of the Roman Empire. But I still have to get back to Modena. Or will I end up on an ice floe?
I do not take travel lightly. I am logistically challenged and have no sense of direction. Although I am afraid of many things, including sandwich-stealing emus, my biggest travel-related fear involves Italian trains, specifically taking the train from Modena to Milan and back. I usually travel with my husband Andy, who believes that train schedules and departure boards can be used to control one’s destiny, or at least one’s destination. He has tried to explain how it all works….
La la la la….
But this trip I’m flying solo and will have to figure it out for myself; in order to visit my friend Melanie, who lives in Milan, I’ll have to laugh in the face of my fear. Or at least smirk at it as I tremble uncontrollably.
My Train-to-Milan fear has many sub-parts. I am afraid to buy the ticket, either from a ticket seller, or from a machine. I’m afraid of getting on the wrong train. And I’m terrified of the Milan train station.
I am as terrified of the Milan train station as I am of emus.
Emus are as big as ostriches, only uglier. I once had lunch in a wildlife park in Australia where emus roamed freely. While tourists lunched at a picnic area, emus stalked the tables. Their fist-sized heads darted between the diners, seizing food off the plates in their vise-like beaks. Emu noggins are hideously joined, by a long muscular neck, to linebacker-sized bodies, which attach to leathery legs, which end in rapier-sharp claws. Emus are extremely stupid and may not draw a distinction between a picnicker and her entree’. So if an emu wants a sandwich, it’s best to fork it over.
Although emus frighten me, I can generally avoid them. But I couldn’t go all the way to Italy without visiting my fashionista friend Mel, so I had to steel myself for a trip into the very aorta of my neuroses: Milano Centrale.
Milan’s central station is a menacing mini-metropolis of heroin addicts, gypsies, and non-denominational pickpockets. Like emus at a picnic, they feast on the naivete’ of tourists who don’t realize they’re on the menu.
There are three ways to buy an Italian train ticket: online, from a ticket machine, or from a Trenitalia clerk. The fastest way to buy an Italian train ticket is from a ticket machine. It is theoretically possible to push the right buttons, put in money, and end up with a ticket to the destination of your choosing.
Except that while you’re trying to figure out how to work the machine, a gypsy is reaching past your face and pressing random buttons. Gypsy women expect to be paid for this assistance, which may or may not result in a ticket you can use, but the distraction often leads to the loss of your wallet to her pickpocket companion who is standing right behind you. Heroin addicts perform the same ticket-confusion service, but louder and more erratically. If you refuse their assistance, they get enraged. Think of the zombie dancers in Thriller, add tuberculosis, and you’re there.
The first time Andy and I visited the Milan station, I was so disgusted by the Oliver-esque main terminal that I fled with the kids to the relatively sedate international ticket area. There was no place to sit, but as we leaned against the wall next to a bank of ticket machines, I watched well-heeled travelers attempt to use them. They wore the same perplexed expressions as the people in the main terminal, but better shoes.
The international terminal was crowded, the ticket lines were barely moving. A well-dressed and harried passenger, obviously a businesswoman who didn’t want to miss her train, attempted to speed up the machine ticket line by assisting the woman in front of her. How civilized. Until I noticed that a man behind the grateful tourist was helping himself to her wallet. AIIIIEEE!!!!
Train ticket machines are the platter on which tourists are served to petty thieves.
There is another option; stand in a Trenitalia ticket line and attempt to wrest a ticket from a train clerk. My fear of Trenitalia clerks is almost rational. When we first moved to Italy, I used my elementary Italian to ask a ticket agent for a round-trip ticket. He sneered at my accent and sold me a one-way ticket at three times the normal price.
Trenitalia clerks are tied in malevolence with Italian postal employees: when Satan needs evil minions for a big job, he calls the train station.
It’s not just the train station inhabitants, I find the Milan station frightening in itself. The Milan train station is connected to the Milan Metro. If I get on a Metro train by mistake, I could be hopelessly lost in a city where the local population is as well-dressed and friendly as Heidi Klum.
Milano Centrale is also connected to a million trains. If I get on the wrong train, I could not only end up in the wrong city in Italy, I could end up in the wrong country.
Europe includes many odd nations with indecipherable languages, and is small enough that I could get hopelessly off-track. My fear-based-worst-case scenario is that I could somehow end up on a train platform in Iceland. I hate to be cold and am wearing only ballerina flats, so besides the language barrier, Iceland would present daunting logistical issues.
I’m proud to announce that I got myself from Modena to Milan on the train, with only a few emotional scars and a fabulous rescue anecdote:
In Modena, I bought a ticket to Milan, from a machine. When I checked the Departures board, I learned that the ticket I had purchased was for a train that had been cancelled - cancellato. So I stood in line, and actually convinced a Trenitalia clerk to change my ticket to one I could use. Yesss!!!! I just had to call Melanie from the train to tell her my new arrival time.
Once on the train, I turned on my cell phone. Of course it was dead. (I think they call them cell phones because I always end up talking to myself.)
Time to panic: It would be crazy to wander around the Milan train station, asking for directions to the pay phone. (The Thriller video is instructive here.) I would have to ask for help before I got to Milan.
Snoozing across from me, slumped and rumpled, was a man of uncertain age. While we rode to Milan he made a few calls on his cell phone in a voice made up of grunts, growls and random consonants. How could I ask this man for help? But as the train neared Milano Centrale, my desperation gave me courage to ask him about phones. I spoke in Italian, “My phone is dead. Are there public phones in the train station?”
He sat up, removed his sunglasses, and I was looking directly into the heart-melting eyes of a young, very Italian version of George Clooney. Heavens. And I mean that; I saw stars. He spoke English, and said he’d help me. He carried my luggage off the train, showed me the pay phones, and explained how to use them. He was so kind, and I was so relieved, I called him my angel.
As we walked, we talked about his girlfriend and his perspective on relationships. He was devastatingly charming, adorably handsome, and irresistibly charismatic. What an opportunity to examine the heart of a gorgeous Italian male; let’s just say fidelity is not a priority. It’s working for him, but I told him my angel had gray wings. We laughed.
In the delightful way of Italy, a dead cell phone led to animated conversation. How can you not love this country?
We found Melanie, who gave me a local’s view of Fashion Week in Milan. Now it’s a week later, and I’m on my way back to Modena.
But in order to avoid ending up in Iceland, I have to buy the appropriate train ticket in the dreaded Milan station; I opt for the ticket machine/gypsy/pickpocket/challenge, and hope to avoid the enraged-addict option.
I choose a bank of machines in a well-lit area with no lines, and no helpful gypsies. I.can.do.this. The machine asks a series of questions, which you answer until a gypsy comes up and starts pushing random buttons and steals all your stuff.
Okey dokey, let’s get started. For the language I would like to be confused in, I choose English. Where do I want to go? Modena isn’t on the destination list, so I chose “Other Destinations,” use the on-screen keyboard to spell out “Modena,” ….Va bene….
A list of trains to Modena appears. I want the 9:50 a.m. train, arriving at 11:36. Before I left for the train station, I checked the online train schedule, which said I should take train #2275. I seared this information into my memory along with my Italian shoe size. But now that I’m in the station they’ve switched trains on me, to train #615. What happened to #2275? I picture God picking up #2275, placing it neatly on an unused track, and substituting #615 in its place. If that is God’s will, I will take the other train.
Let’s pretend that I handled the rest of the transaction like a pro. Let’s pretend that the machine didn’t repeatedly insist that my credit card was inserted incorrectly, so that a frustrated Italian man didn’t have to tell me to leave my card in the machine long enough for my order to process. Let’s pretend that I didn’t get so flustered even the heroin addicts were embarrassed for me.
The machine wanted my card to stay in the slot long enough to ensure I had time to rescue the Aussie couple at the next machine from helpful gypsies. In gratitude, the Aussies offered to help me find my train. Sadly, there wasn’t time to discuss my fear of emus.
Eventually, the ticket machine spat out a ticket, I found my new train number on the departures board, and my new train, that God personally placed on Track Number 9, was waiting for me.
I board the train, pull out my notebook, and….
I have discovered the secret to the collapse of the Roman Empire. While I write, an Italian man passes in the corridor. My gaze locks onto his crisp cotton shirt in an inescapable shade of cobalt. Why look away? His cheekbones and jawline are so chiseled, I’ll bet he tastes metal. Aviator sunglasses framed in gold glint against his perfectly tanned skin, echoing highlights in his carelessly flawless hair. I have to look at all of him, and discover all of the ways he is magnificent.
So instead of thinking and writing about my travels, my brain has veered off track and is running its lips over a perfect, and I mean that, stranger’s cheekbones.
This is why Italy doesn’t care whether anything ever gets done here: Because it is impossible to think strategically, or even rationally, when your thoughts are continuously interrupted by piercingly perfect beauty. Italian beauty is so distracting that your brain has to stop what it’s doing to process the details: tendrils of lace linger over cleavage that rivals the Grand Canyon, a flash of crystals sparkle like snowflakes with every flutter of tapered fingers. A bronze silk mini- skirt is an open invitation in fabric, men’s shirts caress contours and dare you to hug them back, men’s suits seduce; how does well-cut wool make one wobbly?? These people are utterly, charmingly, disarmingly gorgeous.
Why did Rome Fall? Gibbon, Schmibbon, the decline of the Roman Empire began when Italians exchanged ill-fitting togas for curve-hugging togs. Romans abandoned world conquest once they discovered the new worlds of fashion, food, and flirting and founded an inimitable sense of style. Geopolitically and economically, this may have been a bad career move for Italy. But on a personal level, the transition from Roman to romantic has made all the difference. Just ask my Angel With Gray Wings.
I have just boarded this train, and yet I have already arrived. I am thrilled to be here in a carriage with five lovely Italians. As in all Italian journeys, getting onboard is key. Italy’s timeless legacy lies in Latin beauty, Italian charisma and in learning to appreciate the possibilities in every moment.
Having faced my fears, I am smiling even more maniacally than usual.
I’m sure we will all have a great time in Iceland.