Monday, October 6, 2008

Lago di Como

Valy picked us up at half past ten, us being myself and Javier, a friend from Spain whom I met in California. She drives us to the train station in Rho. We check the bus schedule for busses returning to Mazzo (my neighborhood) that evening, and there are several, even on a Sunday. So far so good.

Javier lives in Varese. Well, so far he stays in Varese in a Bed and Breakfast while looking for an apartment for himself and fellow students from Spain. But assuming he can find a suitable apartment, he will be living in Varese for the next ten months. Thus he needs the train for that city.

Valentina misunderstands and thinks that I too want to go to Varese, so she asks the ticket vendor, who sells me a ticket and a return (E7,20). The train is pulling into the station at that moment, so we run to meet it and there is no time to ask questions about how to actually get to my intended destination, Como.

No matter. I can visit with Javier longer while we ride to Varese. I look out the window at the Italian scenery, but I can’t say much about it; I won’t fault the country for not being picturesque along the train line. Javier is worried about missing the stop. It doesn’t matter to me, because I don’t care about going to Varese anyway. If we miss the stop, we can wait for a return train. If we make it to Varese, I will try to transfer to Como. If there is no route to Como, I will visit Varese with Javier and be satisfied.

At the end of the day I don’t care where I go so long as I go somewhere. It’s all new to me. It’s all Italy. If I insist on being happy, then I will be happy. I refuse to be anxious. Especially when I am with a friend. So maybe neither of us speaks Italian, but with his few words and my few words, and of course our English, we can make ourselves understood and, more importantly, understand what we need to understand. I hope.

Eventually we are in Varese. Javier is proud to tell me about his little city. I know the feeling. I want visitors to Rho very badly, not because I am lonely, but because I want to show off my little town. “My” little town that I have inhabited all of one week.

The ticket vendor gets the point across to us that we must go to the other train station in order to go to Como. Javier knows where it is, so he walks me there. The ticket vendor there says to take the bus instead of the train; it’s cheaper and is already at the station.

Ok, one bus ticket to Como (E2,80). Javier and I part ways outside the bus. We make plans to travel together. I will visit him in Varese once he has an apartment. We will go skiing with Concetta and Federica once it snows. We will go to Como together another time when he is not on the apartment hunt. Etc etc. He says that if I take this bus back to Varese that day to call him, but my plan is to go from Cono directly to Rho. Or at least, more directly.

I guess the bus will take an hour. It would be easy to be nervous on a bus through tiny Italian villas getting further and further away from the one landmark I know (the station), but along the way are frequent signs pointing to Como (30 km, 23 km, etc) and the bus always turns to follow the signs. Along the way are also perfect little Italian towns. I am happy to see them, and happy to watch the change in landscape and flora as we move North. Finally, the mountains! I can glimpse their snowy caps in the distance. I can feel my heart beating with their rhythm, even from this distance and through the cloudy bus window.

I count four or more languages, plus Italian, on the bus. This also puts my mind at ease. It sure is convenient to speak English, the language of common currency.

Eventually we arrive in Como, the last stop. It took and hour and twenty minutes. My first order of business is to secure the way home. Especially since it is a Sunday, and the schedules are limited, I want to make sure I don’t miss my only chance to get home. But I’m not worried, because if there isn’t a way this afternoon, I have the address of the Hostel for E14,50 a night and I can return to Milan tomorrow. Or maybe there is another bus today back to Varese and I can stay with Javier. Or catch a train from Varese to Rho.

The bus stop is at the train station. I try to decipher the posted schedule, but it’s quite complicated with strange codes and whatnot I don’t understand.

I want to ask the ticket vendor for the best route. I piece together the question in my mind. “Per andare a Rho?” I can only imagine that the grammar is atrocious, but it gets my point across. Although I can see the vendor through the curtain over the window, he does not come to help me. Obviously they want me to use the automatic ticket selling machine, but this requires that I already know where I am going. I don’t. That is, I know the “a Rho” (‘to Rho’) part, but I have no clue as to the “Per andare” (‘for going’) part. How do I get there???

An African woman starts speaking to me but soon enough it becomes evident that I have no idea what she’s saying and that I need help.

“Di dove sei?” she asks me. ‘Where are you from?’

“A Rho,” (‘To Rho’) I say, misunderstanding at first. Ah, no, I have made this mistake before. “Sono di America.”

She pauses. “You are American?” There is her beautiful African accent, like sweetened condensed milk.

“Yes,” I say, relieved. I don’t feel guilty speaking English, because Italian is also a second language for her.

“Where are you going?”

“To Rho.”

“Ah to Rho. I think that there is not a line from here to Rho. You must go to the other train station.”

That is what I suspected. “Thank you so much,” I say, using the Italian hand gestures for gratitude.

“It is nothing.”

Ok, across town to the other train station, which is the main station (or so my guidebook tells me). I tore out the three pages about Como and folded them into my purse. Now I retrieve them and use the tiny map to direct my feet to the other station.

On the way I breathe in the warm autumn sunshine. The town seems targeted for tourists, which is fine by me, because the lake is just as beautiful, the trees just as yellow, the buildings just as old, no matter how many other pairs of eyes have seem them. I’m dressed for the cooler part of the day, so in the afternoon sunshine a gelato seems like a perfect idea.

One small cone, please, half green apple and half strawberry. Oh, how perfect. There are real strawberry seeds and real bits of apple skin and real Italian flavor bursting into my mouth. Yummmmm.

Follow the map and the signs to the station. Ask again: “Per andare a Rho?” Try to make sense of the answer. I must go first to Milano Garibaldi and then change. Ok, fine. There are numbers, repeated slowly: “due, zero.”

Repeat them, just to make sure. “Due, zero?”

“Si, due, zero, otto.”

“Ah, okei – due, zero, otto. Dove sono l’orari?” ‘Ok, 2-0-8. Where are the hours (Where is the timetable)?”

For the life of me I cannot find a line “208” listed. I go back to the window.

“Non trovo la linea due-zero-otto. Per andare a Rho??”

Yes, I must go to Milano Garibaldi. But when are the hours of the train? Ahhhh, at 14:08 (Two-oh-eight). And after? 15:08. And then 16:08 and so on? Yes, yes, of course. Now I understand. And will this ticket work? Ok, thank you.

Some mental math and I think that if I take the five-oh-eight train, I will arrive in Milan with plenty of time to make the connection to Rho and arrive in time for the bus from the station to Mazzo.

Now! To exploring Como!

The city is beautiful in true Italian fashion. Meandering narrow streets, cobblestoned and lined with antique buildings. Piazzas filled with café tables and diners. Expensive shops with intriguing window displays, mostly closed (for Sunday, I assume). An impressive cathedral with only a tiny piazza before its façade, unlike the massive Piazza del Duomo in Milano. The old stone city gates and walls, outside of which stand tables with trinkets – glass jewelry, wooden cups, leather satchels, and so on. And finally, the Lake.

Everyone in the world is walking along the lake’s promenade. The Americans pretend to be European (I heard one boy comment in an absurdly Midwestern accent: “I love how the Europeans all have, like, a fashion. Americans always wear the same thing – jeans and a tee shirt.” Ugh). The Chinese teens speak Italian (As Valy tells me, all the pizzerias in Italy are now run by Chinese people). Italian children feed the ducks and swans.

My stomach is starting to twist, so out comes the crackers and jam and nutella I packed into my bag. A bench, a snack, some sunshine. I am all smiles. I feel warm and stylish (enough) in my San Fransisco jeans, my pink Benetton sweater, my dusky blue scarf.

What time is it? Four o’clock. Maybe I should have taken the four-oh-eight train instead. Oh well, too late now. Maybe I should go back the way I cam afterall, since I know that route works, at least. But no, there must be a more efficient route, even if it is via Milan. And if there is no train, I can call Federica when I arrive in Milan and stay there until the next day.

Back in the city, the evening strollers are out. It seems even on Sundays the shops open in the evening, and the streets are filling with people. The Italian sport of choice (for those who prefer crocodile to kangaroo leather, at least): window shopping. Como is a famous center of Italian silk manufacturing, but the historic silk store I want to visit is closed despite the shopping multitude.

A parade winds through town. A procession, with a section ‘Africa’ and ‘Latin America’ and I don’t know what else. Banners and robes and singing, each group in their own language. They made their way directly into the duomo. Evening mass, I suppose. The tourists took pictures. The Italians processed in a different way – only a street away, but the sound of the holy singing was drowned – to their religious house of choice. Today in Italy, the center of the Catholic world, worship is left to the foreigners and the locals shop.

As the hour comes to an end, my feet feel like I have worn holes right through them. I’ll head to the station for the train.

The train to Milano lulls me right to sleep (0 Euros; I can use the return ticket I bought that morning). If I caught it going the other way, it would take me right to Zurich. Maybe next time!

Awaken at Milano Garibaldi. Exit. Here is the train schedule. Rho, rho, rho – here it is. Ha, it’s the same train that continues to Varese. The one in the six o’clock hour doesn’t say it stops in Rho, though. What do I do now? Plus, it came on the hour, so I’ve already missed it. Is there one next hour? 17.25. No, that’s five o’clock. 19.25, here it is. Arrives Rho at 19.44. I can just make the last bus to Mazzo. No, wait, the last bus is at 18.55. Darn this twenty-four hour clock! I’m always messing it up.

I can wait over an hour for a train that goes to Rho, but then I would have to walk, unless by some stroke of bizarre fortune there is a later bus afterall. I don’t know the way, and I don’t have a map, and I don’t even know how to ask that in Italian. Following verbal directions? I would be totally lost. Maybe I should call Federica and stay in Milan. Here is a store, maybe it will sell a map.

Do you have maps? On this stand? I don’t see them. On the other side, okay. Maps maps maps. Milan, Rho. But it’s too small! I could never use this map to find my way, even if I did pay, what, 14,90 Euro! No way.

I decide to take the Metro (1 Euro). There is a bus from the stop I used before, but I will have already missed the last run, if it’s the same on Sundays as weekdays. I could risk it. I could walk from there, but I certainly don’t know the way, and I think it’s far.

Finally, here is a useable map – the map for the metro. I can actually see the roads in Rho on this one. Here is Via Amendola. If I take the Metro to the very last stop, that’s a much closer walk back to Rho. I draw the map into my little notebook, and then take a picture of it (my big brilliant idea). I can make it! I can walk.

Of course when I arrive at the stop, it’s a complete construction zone and it’s impossible to orient myself. But there was a bus stop and – thank goodness, a stroke of luck! – there is a bus coming in fifteen minutes that will take me right to my neighborhood.

When the bus comes I board it right away. The driver wants to know why I’m waiting inside the bus for the ten minutes before it departs.

I’m tired, I say. He starts talking to me more, and I must tell him I’m not Italian.

“Oh! No speak-a English,” he says to me. He shows me how to punch the ticket (0 Euro; I already had the ticket from another day when I bought one for the wrong bus). He wants to make conversation, however broken. Another passenger boards who speaks English, so we start a strange three-way conversation. The bus departs, and the English speaker wants to know more about my stay in Italy. He is a photographer, lives in Rho but has a vacation house on Lake Como. He gives me his telephone number because he wants to take me touring. (Suspicious?)

I don’t know if I should be suspect of such friendliness. If I were Kerouac, such a meeting would be the start to a complex adventure. But the bane of female existence is the necessary suspicion of all other people, especially of all males.

“Via Amendola!” the bus driver announces, stopping at the crossroads nearest my street even though there is not a bus stand there.

“Qui?” ‘Here?’


I descend, shouting Grazie! to both the driver and the friendly photographer, and walk the last little way back to my apartment. My feet are especially grateful for the bus. By the time I arrive home, I am ready to drop. Leftovers and a night in front of the TV. What a day!

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