August 3, 2009

Tren Italia

I spent a lot of time on trains in Italy. Australia lacks the intricate network of intercity railways that make Europe reasonably accessible, and has no underground systems either. Granted, travel between Perth and Sydney is slightly more than you’d want to spend in a carriage but you get more room than a plane, you arrive right in the centre of town and the rhythmic hum of wheels on tracks is easier to sleep with than the roar of jet engines.

You see more on trains. My notebook is filled with observations – made either gazing out the window or within the carriage itself. Arriving in Milan from the sky, I left for Venice across the land and watched as the city quickly faded to housing and then fields, dotted with industrial blemishes and linked by power lines. On the horizon, darker patches of grey-blue became green as we approached the mountains. Yellow and pink housing blocks were topped with terracotta tiles, and peach-framed windows where enclosed in shutters of burnt sienna. Crumbling bell towers rested on the churches of Rovato, Brescia and Verona while vast lakes became ponds in the past as I approached Venezia St Lucia.

The people on trains are more interesting. Boarding the train in Pisa, I helped a woman get a suitcase on board and was thanked in a thick American accent. Her companions - a group of middle-aged women who smelt incredibly motherly but bore no physical resemblance to my own, got me thinking about my Mum and her sisters to the point where I could imagine one of them licking a hanky and wiping the basil pesto off my chin as I finished my pasta.

Local carabinieri on the train from Florence to Rome gave me no end of entertaining imaginings. Appearing from nowhere, they gave me little time to whip my feet off the seat and appear innocent. But I must have set off their guilty radar as they came back through the carriage and sat in the seats facing mine, rather like an official escort. They sat silent in their blue uniforms, even as I imagined them wearing gladiator costumes, golden helmets with red brooms atop and leather sandals on their feet.

The most senior-looking sat directly across from me. He looked kind - the corners of his mouth were turned up in a little wink of happiness, his eyes mirroring an honest contentment. They darted left to right as he looked out of the window and fell to the floor when we reached each station. His brows narrowed when his colleagues addressed him, more wrinkles forming as he rested his chin on his hand, pushing his cheek up under the weight of his head. His hair was all but gone, keeping only the skin above his ears warm as his day-old beard did for his jaw. His shirt was clean but faded, no doubt carefully pressed and starched a thousand times by housebound wife. He stared out at the vineyards, probably longing for a glass of wine at the end of a day's work. As his head came to his hand again, his eyes closed and he relaxed in the seat, perhaps concluding that I wasn't the trouble-maker he had imagined and he could go back to thinking about tonight's dinner.

I'd heard train travel could be unreliable but had been blessed with an almost perfect departure each journey. That was until my final trip - the night train from Rome to Bari, necessary for a budget flight to Athens. It was scheduled for departure at midnight but that changed to 12.30am and was further delayed until 1am. A friendly American from my hostel kept me safe in the station during those wee hours and despite my worst fears of sharing a booth with the homeless-looking Italian and his German Shepard, I was seated with only one quiet young man who slept the entire journey. We made up time overnight and I rushed from the train to the bus stop and on to the airport, with 20 minutes left to check in.

And so began the next phase in my adventure... Greece.
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