I took the overnight train to Rome. It was the cheapest, and also afforded me the most time in the city. I left after my last class Thursday night and caught the 11:20 train.
The train originates from Milan, so it was sitting in the station well in advance of departure time. I bought my ticket, said goodbye to Valentina, and climbed aboard. This time I knew to look for my reserved seat. When I went to Bologna, I didn’t have a reserved (prenotato) spot, so I had settled in to an empty spot only to skitter out of it one stop later to let the person holding the correct ticket sit. I spent that ride on a jump seat in the corridor, which was acceptable for two hours, but not for eight to Rome!
Another woman boarded the same carriage as me, and we made our way in the dark to the same box. She said something to me that I didn’t catch, so I just smiled and settled into seat number 63. She pulled out a massive camera and started taking pictures of the platform out the window. I wanted to talk to her, ask her about photography, reveal that I was a kindred soul, but nervousness about speaking Italian kept me silent. I had that internal battle: Get over yourself! Who cares if you aren’t fluent; just speak! For all I knew, she spoke excellent English. That wasn’t uncommon, and her mannerism suggested education.
She put her camera away.
It was very cold on the train, and dark. I hoped that once the time for departure came, some heat would come on. I settled into my winter layers and watched the steam swirl out of my mouth into the box. The only light was from the platform outside.
Finally something fell into place and it was the right time to talk.
“Dove vai?” I asked. “A Roma?”
-Yes, to Rome.
-I usually don’t take this train. I usually take a faster one. I don’t like this one because it’s dodgy. The people are more “schifo.” There are “giapese.”
“Giapese?” I repeated, not understanding the word.
She looked at me differently then. “Non sei italiana?”
She attempted her English. “Bad person. Persons. Bad Persons.”
“Ho capito.” -I understand.
It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment to worry about taking the cheapest train, one that went overnight and took twice as long as the faster Eurostar trains. Of course anyone who had the money would avoid it. The difference to the faster train was only about 20, 25 euros. I looked out the box at watched the people passing. It was either indicative of the night gloom or the class of people, but everyone who passed had dark skin.
Italians are racist. Even my friends will explain very carefully the problems of people from Morocco, Egypt, Africa, Turkey, and so on. Some think the Africans are the worst. Others the Egyptians. There are a lot of legal and illegal immigrants here seeking profitable work or asylum from a hostile government. One coworker explained to me that since the numbers of immigrants have increased in the past years, safety has decreased. She has put iron bars over her windows for fear of robbery. Over and over I hear the words, “Be careful.” In the business English course I teach we discussed the merits versus problems of immigration. The more xenophobic of the group said that immigration was bad, caused problems, and should be more restricted. The middle road said that people should be able to come work for only a brief time before taking the ideas they’ve learned back to their own countries. The most liberal said that immigrants were acceptable because they filled the job gap, taking the jobs that educated Italians didn’t want. The opening topic had asked, “Does immigration help Italy learn new things that will help the country in a more global world?” Not one in the class caught the idea that immigrants might actually bring something of value, something unattainable in any other way, to the country. Immigrants are either to be tolerated or restricted, never embraced.
The scary thing is, I find myself adopting their attitude a little bit. Not much—I am not reverting to a more primitive mindset—but as I learned in Romania, sometimes these stereotypes are based in merit. (How sad I was to discover that the large majority of gypsies actually are thieves, beggars, and terrible trespassers of human rights.) And if the darker skinned people are generally of lower class and ostracized by broader society, are not those the very people who turn to less respectable behavior, either to get what they lack or as a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s a sad fact of life that our natural instinct is to stereotype, a vestigial reflex from the days when the world was significantly more dangerous than it is today and such generalization saved lives. For example, when one lion has an appetite, it’s best to assume that all that race are voracious man-eaters. If one man of ------- nationality heckles me so much that I have to run away in fear, isn’t the safest thing to assume that anyone from the same culture may feel the same prerogative? Oh, this is a huge topic that I cannot enter into too deeply here… On the other hand, I love the chance to listen to all the African languages that one can hear on the metro, or Italian spoken with that chocolate-song African accent.
Back to the narrative. The hour grew closer to departure and people started to enter the train. The Italian girl and I talked about her photography; that is, she talked and I listened, with a few halting questions. She is trying to break into the Milanese art world, though I didn’t have the language to ask about her success so far or how she went about it. The conversation turned to art and the respective benefits of Renaissance versus Modern art. Soon our box was full, and it turned out that she didn’t have the prenotazione, so the ticket-holder booted her from the seat and she left to find a different location. She looked at me wistfully as she left.
“Ciao.” Her voice carried a tone in that one word that said: “Well, it was a nice idea while it lasted. Now we both have to brave the schifos on this train without the tiny safe friendship we have found in each other.”
“Ciao.” I wished it had occurred to me to say, “Mi dispiace,” which translates as “I’m sorry” but really means “It displeases me.” English speakers tend to overuse the phrase in cases where an Italian would say a form of “Excuse me” instead. Judging from the TV and movies I watch, “mi dispiace” is hardly used.
I intentionally did not look to determine the skin tone of my new cabinmates nor let their maleness bother me. There was one other woman, presumably Italian, asleep in the far corner, but without her I might have been tempted to change seats. I used to not be so nervous about these matters, but a few events of late have made me more cautious.
No matter. I arrived safely (and dry-mouthed) in Rome just as the sun was coming up the next morning. Sleeping on a train is a lot like sleeping on a plane: nearly impossible. A train is worse, however, for although the legroom is severely restricted in both cases, in a plane you face only the back of the next chair instead of the legs of the opposite person. I’m sure I kicked the man across the compartment from me. More than once, most likely.
I checked in at the Hostel, and could see immediately that it didn’t hold a candle to the one in Florence, but there was potential. No one was about at that hour in the morning, so I chose a bed and then planned my route for the day. Off I went on my adventure, alone.
It was raining.
Maybe I can blame my malcontent on the rain or the shoddy sleep from the night before, but in truth I think I must blame it on loneliness. The novelty of travel has worn off. I am always lonely. Being lonely during the week used to be okay because I had the weekends and travel! exploration! to fulfill me, but the fiasco of Modena and Bologna went a long way in exhausting that energy in me. Here I was in Rome, the city of cities, the one that is on everyone’s list, the epicenter of the world as it once stood, and I completely lacked interest. I wandered towards the first destination on my map and took a detour when the Coliseum rose up on my left. The Coliseum! The ancient Roman Forums! How sad it made my heart to see the ruins as just more ruins, a few stones left bound together by slowly disintegrating mortar. The stone carvings on the grand arches melted off in the rain, ever so slowly, as they have been melting off for the last two thousand years.
I pretended, hoping that I could fool myself into a spark of happiness. Usually it works this way. I wasn’t sad, nor depressed, nor UNhappy, particularly, just not… happy. Not as excited as I would like to be when in Rome. After a few pounding rain showers had drenched me, the waterproofing on my skicoat was starting to fail and the puddles crept up my pant legs, I went back to the hostel. It was only about three thirty, but I was done. Maybe after a nap, some dry clothes, and curling up in the hostel, I would meet some fellow travelers (please please please, I begged) and be refreshed to paint the town at night.
The hostel didn’t fail me. On the common shelf I found a Jasper Fforde, the author recently recommended to me by Stuart in Florence. It was tucked in right next to Rob Bell’s Purple Elvis. Small world, this. I tucked into the book and a margarine roll packed from home with equal appetite, curled up in a chair in the front hallway, there not being a common room.
A Swedish guy checked in during the afternoon, and I smiled with hope and friendliness, but he merely mumbled “Hi” and then locked himself into his room. As the afternoon progressed, however, people started to congregate. Eventually I entered into conversation with the deskie, his friend, and another guy who was a brand new deskie in the lodge. Two Aussies also checked in, but then they left just the two of them, so my optimism of also including them was dashed.
The new deskie was from Manchester, and I could barely understand him when he talked. At first I had difficulty placing his brogue because it sounded to my untuned ear sometimes Australian, sometimes Irish, Welsh, and so on. If he were one of my students, I would be correcting him every few words. He was a right lad at that, and the more his adventures unfolded, the less I thought of him. A wanderer, like me, whose travels have taken him to Spain and even the same city in Romania where I lived, Timisoara. I thought he was late twenties, but soon he revealed to be the same age as me, within a few months. He described life in Oldham, his home near Manchester. The second most violent city in Great Britain, after some backwater in Scotland, he thought. Impossible to go to a night in the pub without engaging in a brutal street fight at the end of it. Beer was only served in plastic because the glass kept getting smashed into people’s faces.
“I would never go whiv a girl from me’ome town,” he said. “Because every one of ‘em ‘as ‘ad ten a me friends’ cocks in ‘er mouff.”
“I would never go whiv a foreign girl,” he said. “Because it’s no’ right, you know? I mean, when you’re layin’ in bed af’er, wha’ ‘o you say?”
“I’m no’ racist,” he said. “But—”
—and for the next three hours I had to listen to his bigotry as he delineated which people have less value and why. My pleas to change the subject only diverted him for a few minutes at a time.
When he lived in Spain he made his money as a meathead. He went to apartments filled with squatters and threatened to bash their heads in if they didn’t vacate the premises. For this he collected fat commissions from the owners and real estate agents who could rerent the property with the deadbeats gone. When he lived in Romania he had all his drinks paid for him by his pickpocket friends who thought nothing of dropping stolen cash on a house round. His rich local girlfriend footed the rest of the bill, but he left her and the country because, as he said, “It never works ou’, you know?”
A lad, a cad, a chav.
He started talking about something (I hardly knew what; I was trying not to listen because I could feel that his words were poison). “It don’ bovver me none,” he says. “It don’ bovver me.”
Ha! Just like the chavs on YouTube. “I ain’t bovvered,” they say. So at the end of the day I was culturally enriched afterall. I hav’ met me a right well chav. (Don’t call him that to his face though, for heaven’s sake.)
“All me relatives ha’ been inside,” he said, and he drops enough hints about his past that I don’t care to ask or piece together the gaps. Clearly he is in trouble, and in debt, but not to the government, to friends. He’s running from ex-girlfriends smattered across the continent and creditors who prefer smashing his face in to charging higher interest rates.
Most recently he was vivisected by a meat cleaver.
“The bloke who di’ me in with the cleaver were black,” he said. “But I don’ hol’ it against all black people. I got me lotsa black friends a’home.”
He moved to Rome for no reason accept to escape whatever he wanted to escape in Manchester. After two days he’s decided he doesn’t like Rome and the next day he’s going back to Spain to see if he can start up his meathead job again.
“Goo’ money in it, ain’t there tho? An’ bloody fun.”
I think he’s so used to charming girls (he was built like Daniel Craig) that he had no idea the expanse of the grimace I was making inside. Only my starvation for people of any sort, especially native English speakers, even his sort of busted English, made me tolerate him at all. We went back to the hostel and found the Australians playing cards in the hall. We all shared a few beers. Italian beers are all 66cl (that is, a deuce) and Birra Moretti is not half bad. The Australians were young, part of a large party of classmates all spread out across the continent, weaving their ways back and forth where the wind blew them. They invited me to join them and several more friends coming into town the next day for a wild night on the town. It sounded great to me. Perfect. Anything to avoid spending a night alone and bored in the hostel.
When the cute Australian with the tongue piercing started discussing drug cocktails with the Manchester chav, which eventually turned to a debate on the best methods by which to sell cocaine, I knew I was out of my element. Fortunately no one actually had any chemicals in their possession, or I might have lost my party to the white lady instead of simply the fatigue of three in the morning after three, no four, pints of beer.
Thank goodness the chav didn’t come on any stronger. Not because I might have acquiesced, but because I didn’t want to make things complicated. When his conversation started drifting towards the merits of one-night stands in his home town, I saw my avenue.
“Funny,” I said. “My friends at home don’t do that. We don’t sleep with a person just for one time. It’s not how we roll, I guess.”
“Pi’y,” he said. “I miss it. Just ki’ing.” He used that one a lot: just kidding. As if that absolved him for the unsavory fact he’d just revealed about himself. As a preface, “I’m not racist, but…” and the siffix, “just kidding.” All his bases were covered (but none of mine, thank you very much. It’s not how I roll.)
Within a few seconds, “You must be tired.”
“Yup. Good night.” There was no question he was getting nothing and the night was over.
…to be continued…
7 years ago