There is something both satisfying and unsettling about meeting friends from back home when travelling. The day I was to leave to join Th in Rimini, where he was teaching, we met a few friends from Guelph. There was happiness at the reunion but also my sense of displacement intensified.A few days before, Deepam and I had discovered via Facebook that we were in the same city. She and I met only once, at the Canadian Author’s Association conference a few years before, but I follow her blog and we ‘like’ postings on each other’s wall, so when we met at the fountain of Neptune on the Piazza Navona, we fell into step like old friends. However, by the time we reached the Trevi Fountain, the lace on one of my shoes snapped.
Such an ordinary thing to happen when walking with a friend. And such a simple thing to rectify, one would think, but not for an agoraphobiac in a country where things are seldom simple. I was happy to limp along in order to avoid having to talk to strangers but Deepam, a much braver woman than I, suggested we try the shoe store nearby. It’s not that I was reluctant to approach a stranger in his role as shopkeeper, it’s just that such things never flow easily for me.After I pointed to my shoe and then to the broken lace in my hand, the clerk called over the proprietor and both looked at me. Then they shrugged their shoulders, hands helplessly raised, eyes weary. How could I bother them with such a pedestrian issue?
I walked away with a familiar feeling of dejection—I had once unsuccessfully scoured Firenze for a book of matches—but Deepam had gleaned the Italian words. Lacci per scarpi. Armed with this new phrase we set off walking in and out of stores, hopeful that the right words would get us the needed things.
It wasn’t until I got home and Emiliano told me to try the Chinese store around the corner that I found what I was looking for. A store with every item a household might need for its smooth functioning. Whatever did the Italians do before the arrival of the Chinese? I’m sure lacci per scarpi were rather easy to obtain before a slew of regulations dictated what could be sold where. That and the more recent, gradual disappearance of the useful Tabacchi, where you could not only get your fix of coffee, booze and cigarettes but where you could also find useful items. When I lived in Firenze those were the only places allowed to sell matches. I found out the hard way because I’m the kind of person who never reads handy guides for first-time visitors.
The same at Termini. I was halfway to the airport before I realized maybe I should go back to that arrow and find the starting point, the place where passengers buy tickets and trains dock. I had some time but not that much, so I didn’t want to get too far away from where my train might leave but it wasn’t until about 500 metres further I finally got up the courage to ask a stranger. With the few English words she knew, she kindly pointed me back in the direction from whence I came. Eventually, my senses adjusted themselves and flashes of the station as I had known it twenty-five years ago directed me upstairs.
Progress. I found the place where they sell tickets. It was barely discernible between giant H&M posters with young women guilelessly pointing their crotches at passersby. The board that had the direction, name and number of my train, didn’t specify a quay. I had a print-out of my online ticket but I wasn’t sure if I needed to convert this into a ticket.
Since I was here last, Italy’s train system has partly been privatized so it all appeared rather confusing to me. The sense before was that there was some concern passengers would end up in the places they chose to go to; the sense now was that you should be waylaid and spend all kinds of money you never intended to spend at the myriad of stores that lined the halls. None of them, I am sure of it, selling lacci per scarpi.
At the entrance of what appeared to be the customer service desk a tall handsome man, if not an immigrant himself clearly the child of an immigrant, kindly offered to see what it was I needed. He took my ticket. The hairs on my neck bristled but when he walked me to a small machine mounted on some wall and validated my ticket for me, I calmed down. He wore a blue uniform. There was a badge of some kind on his arm. His English was wonderful and I started to become impressed with Italian officialdom. How kindly they took care of confused travellers.
Next he took me to the large billboards specifying the departure and arrivals of trains. White ones are for arrivals and here, you see, the yellow ones for departures. He was a benevolent teacher. I now will never have to consult anyone again in order to find my way through the maze of Italian train stations. This kind man put my mind at ease like a dutiful son, so when he put out his hand, in the end, I looked at him with a sense of betrayal when it dawned on me that I had been had.
Still, he’d helped me so I handed him a fiver. He looked at me with velvet eyes. “After all I did for you,” he said. “Fifteen, please.”
I put away my five and gave him ten and then gave him the look that said: clearly. I didn’t regret the money, I regretted the fact that I had trusted him to be someone he wasn’t. I was like a hurt lover, mistaken by her lover’s intentions. He, knowing how to prey on white-haired women who look lost, walked away with a sulk, but certainly he must have been happy that his five minutes of work yielded him ten euros.
On the train, I saw everyone hand the conductors their print-outs. One woman even showed her ticket on the screen of her iPad. I was to learn later that when travelling, courtesy of the private rail system, which I was that day, one doesn’t need to validate one’s ticket.
I went to the City Museum where I was the only visitors that evening. I was watched over by a group of female guards, who took turns making sure I hadn’t got lost in the vaults of this large building. I tried to explain to them in my best Italian, that like the beautiful tapestries they had, I too was from Flanders. They looked at me with indulgence before they went back to whatever it was they were doing.
Ah, to sound like an idiot in yet another language.
We were also treated to the best food Italy has to offer by Elettra and her sister. Scholars both, they take great pride in this city where they spent the summers of their childhood. They still alternate between Bologna and Rimini, courtesy of their positions at the University of Bologna. According to Th, Rimini has the best restaurants in the country and the medieval fishing village, Borgo di San Guiliani, now a district of the city, is the place to eat fish. We ate more than we could and, topping off the meal with three deserts drowned in liqueur convinced me he was right.After, we went through the tiny cobblestone streets, with its small houses, to look for murals in homage to Fellini’s films.
Then I spent a day in Pisa, where the tower indeed leans but is so much more innocent and picturesque than the images adorning the plates every household seemed to own at one point. I could hardly find it. In Pisa, like in Rome, arrows only point you once and then you’re on your own as you get lost in winding streets. I don’t know what I had expected but some kind of throng of visitors making their way there was certainly one thing. I finally found them around the massive cathedral that dwarfs the tower. They were standing in various poses, indicating they were either trying to hold up the tower or push it down further. Most photographers moved their bodies in order to find the right shot. One Dutch guy kept ordering his wife to move her body. He soon gave up in disgust because she couldn’t get it right.
After one more day in Rome, where Th and I went on the trail of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, Gramci, and one last espresso, we flew back to Istanbul. There the country was mourning its victims with people taking to the street, demanding justice for the poor miners and their families.
At the arrival hall, we got sucked into the longest and thickest line up for customs I was ever part of. We shuffled ten abreast toward a bottleneck where we were squeezed into a zigzag of barriers. There we continued on, two by two, back and forth. Asians with surgical masks; women in black niqab with only their eyes showing, and sometimes not even that; parents with small children, mostly with mothers wearing some kind of covering. The children looked bewildered at this soup of shuffling humanity. Whenever I wanted to complain, I remembered the miners and I reminded myself how insignificant my problems were.
Please, no stampede, I kept thinking. A couple of women tried to cheat by crawling under a barrier and so move ahead by about ten minutes. It threatened to get ugly but perhaps something about being a part of this warm pudding of bodies mellowed everyone sufficiently and we continued submissively for another hour and a half.
Two young women wrapped in colourful cloth, head to toe, kept poking me in the back. One of them tried to get ahead of me a few times and I gently but firmly wagged a finger at her. When they poked me again, I turned and they started to giggle uncontrollably. I had to laugh right along and lifted my hand in mock gesture. What I wanted was to pinch their cheeks.They looked like the spring flowers I had seen in Rimini, peaking out from a blanket of cottonwood seeds. They brightened a place where everyone was out of sorts and sweating.