Monday, May 19, 2014

Travels with David: A Venetian Adventure

The month was May.  We were spending the whole of it in Italy.  When our friends Camille and Sharon came from Washington for a stay, we took them on their first visit to Venice.

Sharon and Camille on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

 It is an easy trip by rail from Florence.  If you take an early train from Santa Maria Novella Station, you can be on a vaporetto on the Grand Canal by midmorning.  La Serenissima did not disappoint. Unsurprisingly, Sharon and Camille found Venice stupefyingly gorgeous.

David on the Academy Bridge in Venice

After two glorious days, we left, according to plan, on the eight PM direct train, expecting to get back to Florence at eleven and in our beds by eleven-thirty.  That’s the way it ordinarily happens.  But not that evening.  For the next five hours absolutely nothing went according to plan.

We boarded, carrying sandwiches, juice drinks, and a box of lovely little pastries.  The train pulled out of Venice Station right on time.  As we crossed the causeway from Venice to Mestre, we saw storm clouds over the mainland.   We thought nothing of them.  Storms don’t stop trains, do they?

Lightning was flashing when we unwrapped our sandwiches.  And by the first bites of those yummy pastries, the train had stopped.  We finished our snacks and chatted and read and chatted some more and after half an hour with no movement and no news, I (being the group’s Italian speaker) went off in search of a conductor and an explanation.  The conductor was nice; the explanation was not.  The train we were on was electric, run by overhead wires, but in this case, not run by overhead wires since they had been hit by a thunder bolt.

My companions had barely left off groaning over the news, when the conductor took everyone off the train and (ahem) conducted us along the tracks for about half a kilometer to the nearest station, where he said there was a train to take us to Bologna, where we could then change for Florence.

It was dark by the time we got to the station.  Fortunately the rain had stopped.  A huge, sleek, black intercity train that looked as if it belonged to Darth Vader stood at the platform—upon which a band was playing and a chorus about thirty men strong was singing.  Quite beautifully.  They wore hats with feathers.  We joked that they were there to welcome us.  It would be another hour before we learned from fellow passengers what that fuss was really about.

We boarded.  The train was packed, seats impossible to find.  David, Sharon, and Camille looked at me, shouting “help” with the desperation in their eyes.  This train’s conductor looked no less forlorn than my companions.  When I approached him to ask about seats, he promised to find us some, but begged my help first.  He had heard me speaking English to my friends, and he had a difficult passenger to get settled before the train could move.  I agreed to be his interpreter.

He escorted me to a first class compartment, where a dark-haired and pale young woman sat weeping.  Towering over her was her husband, who, the conductor had told me, spoke no Italian, only German and English.  Blond and arrogant, he still had his baby fat—exactly the type central casting would have sent to play the cruel Nazi lieutenant.  I glanced down at his trouser legs to see if they carried a red stripe.

At issue: These newlyweds were on their way to Greece for their honeymoon.  He had booked them second-class tickets from Frankfurt to Bari (at the heel of the boot), where they were to take a ferry to their final destination.  Hubby was in the process of trying to bribe the conductor to let them sit in a first-class compartment.  Those were pre-Euro days.  His offer was ten Marks.  He had no Italian lire.  He had refused to change his valuable German money into the garbage currency of this country of thieves.  He actually wrinkled his chubby nose when he told me this.   He insisted that the conductor was merely holding him up for a bigger bribe.  Everyone knew that you could bribe anyone in Italy.  And that the Italians would steal whatever you would not give them willingly.

With apologies, I gave his message to the conductor.  Hubby took out his billfold and tried to press a ten Mark note on the poor man.  Wifey sobbed.  By now I was sure her grief was, not as her husband claimed, over having to share a second-class compartment with all those noisy Italian men but remorse at having married this blustering bigot.

The conductor told me he felt very sorry for the young woman, but that he could not risk his job by accepting the bribe.  He needed to collect the extra fare before he could allow them to stay in this compartment.  In deference to the lady and the rest of the passengers, who were being held up by this interchange, he agreed to take the German’s cash, and when we got to Bologna, go to the money changers and bring the German whatever was leftover from a fifty Marks bill.  Hubby fumed that he would then be in possession of distained Italian currency, but he took the deal.  He offered to shake my hand.  I demurred.

The excessively grateful conductor then found four seats for my companions and me—two in each of two compartments in the same carriage.  The band on the platform struck up one final farewell tune.  And we were off.

Along the way to Bologna, we learned that this train was taking a large group of Alpini, members of the Italian Army’s elite mountain warfare corps to their annual reunion, that year in Bari.  In battle, gli Alpini are known for their bravery and brilliant feats of rescue.  In peace, they are known for their lovely singing and masterful wine drinking.  The music on the platform had been performed by their comrades-in-arms to see them off.

The men in the compartment with David and me plied us with homemade wine, taught us to sing their anthem, and expressed their delight at meeting real “newyorkesi.”  Time sped, like the train through the darkness.  Nearby, Sharon and Camille were getting similar treatment.

We reached Bologna at 12:05 AM.

The conductor got off with us in search of change for the German.  With an additional expression of gratitude, he told us that the next train to Florence would depart at 12:30, but he didn’t know what platform it would be on.  The station was deserted and dark.   I went in search of information and found no one until I saw a door ajar.  Inside the dim room, a man hunched over a computer terminal.  When I asked about the 12:30 to Florence, he looked at his screen and began to answer.  Then, he shouted, “Ah.  No, signora.  There is an unscheduled train.  Go fast.  Right now, to platform one.  You can leave right now for Firenze.”

I ran to my friends and we hurried to meet the train, just making it.  We boarded, a bit breathless and took seats in an otherwise empty carriage.  We had just sat down, when I looked around and saw where we were.  There in the little trash receptacle under the window was the refuse from our little supper—the sandwich wrappers, the juice cartons, the discarded box from the little pastries.

“I love Italy,” Sharon declared.  “Where else could a train SNAFU be this amusing?”

See the singing Alpini here:

Viva Italia!

Annamaria - Monday


  1. I think the phrase is "same face, same race." Welcome to Greece...though I'm not sure the conductor would have been as "obstinate" toward accepting German money here. :)

  2. Jeff, I believed the conductor. I don't think "obstinate" is a word I would have used to describe him. Why would he risk a really good job--hard to find in Italy then and now--to accept any amount from a one-time "donor?" He told me that if it weren't for the weeping lady, he would have put the man off the train and left him in that small town in the Veneto. His courtesy to that smug fool was monumental. Would a Greek really have taken ten marks? Would he have lost his job if he had been caught?

    1. Considering what I'm seeing over here, the answer to your final question is a definite "Yes." He most certainly would lose his job...for accepting so little and ruining it for everyone else.

    2. Well, good. I see that as progress. Our "same face, same race" confreres on both sides of the Aegean need to rise above what they have been called for decades. Even as our USA Supreme court makes sure that our pols raise "on the take" to stratospheric levels.


    If you can't see the video and want to, here is where to find it. It is a hoot!

  4. Charming story. T.J. Straw in Manhattan

    1. Thanks, Thelma. The whole thing was gleeful!

  5. An electrifying tale of a desperate moonlight escape from Venice whilst pursued by a soul-sucking Nazi SS officer! Read the book! See the movie! Live the excitement! Thanks for sharing!

    1. EvKa, I knew you would see this for the silly business it really was. Italians especially love this story, because fate cast the Alpini into the midst of what could have been just annoying. Putting them in proved that chance is the most creative force on the planet, if you let it in.

  6. What a lovely story. Pity that woman to have married such a Buffon. I don't know if this is still the case, but the "ugly German" used to be a sad phenomenon of tourism in Southern Europe. Fortunately, not all or even most were like that.