It may be 30 years since the Strage di Bologna, but Centrale train station still bears the scars of the terrorist bomb that ripped it apart on 2 August 1980. Outside the building the main station clock forever shows 10:25, the time that the bomb went off and killed 85 people. In the waiting room, where the bomb was planted in an air-conditioning unit, there is a hole a metre wide in the thick marble wall, running from floor to ceiling. Most of the room has been rebuilt, but this remains to show, with chilling vividness, the power of the explosion. Next to it, there is a stark list of the names of the victims engraved into the stone, along with their ages. I notice that one of them was a three year old and realise that she would be the same age as me now, had she lived. It’s a sobering thought, and I head towards my train in a pensive mood.
The conductor jollies me out of my sadness, laughing at me and my enormous bag as I trundle along the platform. The platform is low, while the steps are high, and the bag (I have discovered) weighs a ton. I gaze ruefully up at him, giggling at the seeming impossibility of the task. Scrambling down from his eyrie, he chivvies me up the steps, telling me that he’ll pass the suitcase up to me. I warn him that he’ll do himself an injury, but he’s a cheery chap and is as good as his word, despite staggering under the weight. It’s all done with a wink, though, and I sense he’s done this many times. He points me towards the correct couchette compartment and I squeeze along the narrow corridor. Opening the door, I see a shock of white hair poking out from under the sheets on the middle bunk, and a pair of feet dangling over the edge up on the top. Hoping the current occupants don’t snore as much as the ones I shared with on my way to Florence, I drag my bag inside and attempt to stuff it into the space under the ladder. I’m being totally ineffective, however, and there’s a smothered chuckle from the owner of the white hair. He turns out to be a friendly middle-aged Frenchman; he chats to me briefly as he gives me a hand, before heading back to his bunk. I’m not sleepy yet, so hang out in the corridor with the late-night kids. There’s something fabulous about watching the night-time countryside whizzing past outside the window. Working on the basis, however, that the sooner I go to sleep the sooner the holiday will come, I slip back into my couchette compartment. The Frenchman and the pair of feet on the top bunk are both fast asleep by now, and I realise with a sleepy yawn that I won’t be far behind them. I pull the stiff paper sheets over me, punch the pillow into some semblance of softness, and submit to the rattling lullaby of the train’s movement.
I wake the next morning to see the pair of feet disappearing from the top bunk. The white-haired Frenchman is also up and about, and gives me a cheery smile and a bonjour. I fall down the ladder with a yawn and pull up the blinds: it’s a beautiful day in France. The conductor comes in to give us back our passports; I try to speak to him, but my sleep-addled mind isn’t coping with language at all today. I burble a few words of gibberish and he backs away slowly with the kind of wide-eyed smile that I get in front of my students when they’re making absolutely no sense.
My first mission in Paris must clearly be to drink plenty of coffee.