Roll up for the mystery tour

(image by Paolo Margari on Flickr)
It’s a day for an adventure.  Buying the train ticket is the first challenge, at which I almost fail.  ‘Biglietta?’  asks the station attendant, as he walks past me.  I nod and reply in the affirmative.  He strolls into the office.  ‘Una?’  Again, I reply yes, and then tell him that I want a return.  He rolls his eyes.  No, not one, but two, in that case. Using exaggerated sign language and speaking very slowly, he patiently tells the idiot foreigner that there = one, and back = *another* one.  Oh, I see.  Oops.  I grin sheepishly.  Tolerantly he shakes his head and issues the tickets.  I take them and head onto the platform to wait.  Well, I say ‘platform’: the tracks are at ground level. To get to the far side, you simply wander across them.  No bridges or underpasses here: this is a proper old-fashioned branch line.  Brilliant.
An old man approaches with a grin and starts to talk.  ‘Scusa me – sono Inglese,’ I say with an apologetic shrug.  ‘Non parlo Italiano.’  This doesn’t put him off in the slightest.  ‘Ah, Eeengleesh!’  Not in the least fazed by the potential language barrier, he then launches off again in Italian, asking why I’m here and whether I like the area.  He’s a nice old chap, keen to tell me all about Salento, and where are the best places to go.  It seems the sun coming out has brought out the friendliness in the locals.  We chat for a while: or, rather, he chats, and I smile and nod in understanding.  Every so often I attempt a reply, but invariably forget the important verbs.  ‘Um … andare Lecce. Er … visitare … er … amici. Americano.’  His brow furrows.  Eventually he works out that what I’m *trying* to say is that I’m going (vado) to Lecce  to see just *one* (amica) American friend of the female variety (americana).  Bless him: he doesn’t mind my dreadful Italian at all.  It’s nice to have a chat with a random person.  He rattles on about the frescoes at the church of Santa Catherina in Galatina, and the freshness of the water at the beach at Porta Cesare.  He also keeps telling me about the ‘sabbia’ at Otranto. It takes me a few moments, but I work out that ‘sabbia’ is sand.  He repeats the word again, and the guard pops his head around the ticket office door and offers, ‘sand!’  I laugh and nod: I’d got that one, but his comic timing is perfect.  The guard stays to chat.  It turns out his English is pretty good, and he tells me about his son, who, he is inordinately chuffed to announce, passed the first level Cambridge English exams last year.  I tell him that I’m an English teacher and he shakes me enthusiastically by the hand and introduces himself: ‘I am Gianni!’ He beckons me out of the wind, behind an open door, and proudly shows me a picture. ‘My second children!  No,’ he corrects himself. ‘Not children. Boy.  *My boy*.’  He smiles a bit shyly.  ‘If you ever need any help with shops or … anything.  I give you my number.  You call me.  My wife, she is very simple girl.’  He tears a piece of paper out from a pad in the office, on which he has written his name, his home number and his mobile number.  I almost cry. This is the Italy which I was promised, in which people offer you kindness for no reason other than the fact that you are a stranger and you might need it.  ‘Next time, I speak English, you speak Italian, hey?!’ He grins, and gestures to the train, which is chugging into the station. ‘This is the train. Goodbye!’  He waves me off with a big smile, and I climb on board, feeling ridiculously cheery.

The train is made up of just one carriage, with old-fashioned, high-backed, leather-covered, sprung seats.  I can’t remember the last time I had such a comfortable journey.  Not only are the seats great, but the track is smooth, and there are no teenagers playing mobile phone music.  Bliss.  I settle back and look out of the window.  I have to change in a couple of stops’ time, and so look out for place names as we pass through.  We reach the stop, and I climb down the steps.  The station is made up simply of 4 tracks, right next to each other.  There are 3 other trains, all looking exactly the same as the one I’ve just got off, with doors open wide.  Should you wish to do so, you could get to the platform by going straight through all four carriages, barely a leap from each other.  The final scenes of Slumdog Millionaire flash through my mind.  Fabulous.  However, that doesn’t help me in knowing which carriage to pick, so I ask an official-looking chap which one I should be on for Lecce.  He gestures towards the train I’ve just got off: that one!  Oh.  Er, right.  A little confused, I head back.  Clearly I’m not the only one, as there’s an Italian girl climbing off as I try to get back on.  She asks me which train she needs for Lecce.  I point at the one on which she’s standing.  She looks just as befuddled as I do.  ‘But I thought we had to change here?’  Yeah, me too!  I smile and shrug.  She calls over my shoulder to the guy waiting next to the carriage.  ‘Lecce?’  He gestures again and nods vigorously. It’s this one, definitely.  Still not entirely convinced, we both climb back on board and settle ourselves down.  Well, if nothing else,  we’ll have company when we end up miles from anywhere.  It’s Saturday and the sun’s out: let’s go on a magical mystery tour!

The train glides on through the Salentino countryside.  Grey-green olive trees contrast with rusty-red oil drums and bright orange, yellow and purple flowers.  Spring is most definitely arriving, and it feels fabulous.  Bright green, glossy ivy wraps itself around faded brown bamboo. Fierce February sunshine against sun-bleached white rocks makes me squint, despite my sunglasses, and I lean back in my seat, closing my eyes and enjoying the warmth on my face.  When I open them a few minutes later, we are passing a level crossing.  Two mopeds, each carrying the obligatory pair of teenagers in skinny jeans and padded jackets, are at the front of the queue, and they toot their horns at us, grinning.  Not for the first time in Italy, I feel like I’ve gone back about 50 years, but today it’s definitely a *good* thing. Washing hung out to dry whips wildly in the wind, fighting against the pegs which hold it in place.  A bright pink umbrella, spokes bent grotesquely in all directions, perches in the top branches of a leafless tree; strange fruit, comically out of place and yet seemingly just right where it is.  Clearly I’m not the only one who can go adventuring.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
This entry was posted in Travelling Like a Maniac and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Roll up for the mystery tour

  1. MJ says:

    Lovely post. I felt as if I had been there myself :)

  2. CarrieLyn says:

    This is lovely. You’ve described this trip so well! I especially appreciate your line ‘This is the Italy I was promised.’ I LOVE running into that Italy.

  3. Katja says:

    Days like yesterday make me really glad to be here. It’s like the feeling I get when I go from London to my parents’ place in the Westcountry, and people just *do* things for you. It’s a truly lovely unselfishness, and it never fails to give me a warm glow when it happens.

  4. punctuation says:

    I once got dumped in the middle of rural Italy – thanks to Ryan Air, which should be sued repeatedly and mercilessly out of existence for their lying and wholly inaccurate descriptions of airports and their proximity, or lack of it, to the towns and cities with which they label the destinations they claim you will be flying to. Ahem. Deep breaths, deep breaths.

    Anyway, I had to explain, in French and sign language which were the only shared methods of communication I had with a taxi driver, that I wanted to go to the railway station to get a train to the city Ryan Air had said I would arrive in. I was a bit hot and flustered, after all I had just walked in the searing heat with my luggage and laptop for 15 minutes up mountain/hill to get to the “taxi rank”. I.e. The taxi driver’s house.

    He got me to the railway station and I turned over my euros (it may have been lire then but I digress). I then had to try and explain by pointing at the address on printed reservations and so on that I needed to get to Bologna. Much grunting and brow furrowing from the train ticket man until eventually he gave me tickets.

    No signs that I could see to determine which platform to wait on, and no indication from ticket man where to go, despite failed attempts as asking. When the train arrived I managed to see a man in what appeared to be train guard’s uniform and showed him my ticket and shrugged at him before he laughed and said in English “yes, this is the one, get on”.

    I only went for business trip so I had obtained the correct amount of Italian that I expected to be required: “one beer”, “yes”, “no”, “I do not speak Italian”, “oops, I thought you was a female” and “I’m sorry but I am English”. I should have learned the Italian for “I am so sorry but Ryan Air have dropped me 150KM from where they implied they were and I need a taxi/train to Bologna as I have a meeting at 3pm”.

    Lonely places, Italian train stations without a sufficient grasp of the Italian language….

  5. Sam says:

    Kate, that is a great description of both the charms of Italy and the people. Definitely worth jumping on a train and having an Italian adventure.

  6. LindyLouMac says:

    Another great post Katja.
    You are far too young to know about fifty years ago but I’m not and yes that is the beauty of life in Italy, living here we have gone back in time in a lovely relaxed way.

  7. Katja says:

    Ryanair are reet buggers in that respect. London Oxford Airport, anyone? (Actually, I’m not sure that one is Ryanair, but the point stands.)

    It’s amazing how much you take for granted in your own country. If you end up at a train station without knowing where you’re going in England, you just ask someone. If it’s London, you’ll probably get glowered at for daring to speak to a stranger, but at least you can communicate. Language is an enormously powerful thing, and I hadn’t realised before I came to live here how much I depend on it, even as a quite taciturn person. Quite humbling.

  8. Katja says:

    I agree – adventures are brilliant! Travelling when you don’t know where you’re going is terrifying, but also hugely exhilarating. I remember this feeling from when I went to Rome before Christmas as well, and it’s very exciting. Flying by the seat of your pants is where it’s at …

  9. Katja says:

    Thank you, LindyLou. Yes, this is life in a different age. Partly it’s town vs country – my village in Somerset is very different from London, for instance – but the pace of life in Italy generally does seem to be different from the UK. There are days when it’s frustrating, but on days like yesterday, when the sun is out and there’s no hurry, it’s blissful just to pootle along like that.

  10. Chuck says:


    Hah! I’m happy to say your experience helpful Italians parallels my own when traveling in Italy. I met a delightful 80+ year old man in the small Umbrian hill town of Gualdo Cattaneo one afternoon … he spoke no English, but his housekeeper did. My Italian is marginal, at best, yet Angelo insisted my wife and I come in for coffee. We spent an hour with him and as we were leaving he asked to come back for lunch the following week. When we arrived for our lunch date, Angelo had his whole extended family there to meet us. When I returned to Italy the next year we had another wonderful meal at his daughter’s home in the nearby town of Bastardo.

    Warm, lovely, open and welcoming people!
    .-= Chuck´s last blog ..Mighty Mount Baker =-.

  11. Katja says:

    Oh, now *that’s* the Italy that we need to hear about. What a lovely story – especially as it wasn’t just a one-off, but continued on to the following year as well. Are you still in touch with Angelo and his family?

  12. Pingback: Bleat, piggy, bleat | Driving Like a Maniac

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge