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.