Photo credit: Zilverbat
I’m at the station in Catania, battling with the automatic ticket machine. First the screen freezes, then, just as I’m about to pay with a twenty euro note, it tells me that it doesn’t have change. Most days this would result in me losing my temper, but today – unusually – I’m running ahead of schedule, it’s hot and I’m not bothered. I amble over to the desk to try my luck there instead.
An old lady scurries past me, pulling a tiny wheeled suitcase behind her.
At the desk a professionally bored and supercilious cashier is in the process of condescending to a woman in the middle of buying a ticket. The old lady with the suitcase stands at the woman’s shoulder, twittering madly. “Sorry gioia. I don’t mean to be a pain, but my train goes in fifteen minutes and I’m in a rush!” The cashier rolls her eyes. Unfazed, the old lady carries on chattering. “When you have a moment, gioia. Sorrysorrysorry!” The woman being served glances sideways and copies the cashier’s eyeroll. The old lady is undeterred. “One to Letojanni, if you wouldn’t mind. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.” She starts fishing around in her purse for small change, oblivious to the fact that the cashier has no intention of serving her until she’s finished with the other woman’s transaction. “How much is it, gioia?”
Photo credit: Narice28
The woman before the old lady in the queue takes her ticket and walks away. The old lady scuttles into position in front of the window and the cashier, with ill grace, tells her the price. She slaps the ticket down onto the counter as the old lady pushes a ten euro note towards her, appearing not to notice her rudeness. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou, gioia. You’re too kind. Oh dear – only ten minutes! Will I make it?” The cashier shrugs, uncaring, as the old lady gathers her change and glances over her shoulder at me waiting behind her. “Ooh, sorry gioia! Go go go!” She wriggles out of the way, still talking. “Oh, I’m in such a flap!” I greet the cashier. “Single to Letojanni, please.” Hearing this, the old lady perks up. “Ooh, you’ll be with me!” I smile at her.
She hasn’t gone ten yards before she stops dead. “Oh goodness, gioia, some information: where are the machines?” I point her in the direction of the wall-mounted devices which stamp your ticket to show what time you arrived at the station; she beams at me. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou, gioia! You’re too kind!”
Two minutes later I’ve bought my ticket from the grumpy cashier and am heading towards the machines myself. When I reach them, the old lady is standing beside them, gazing down the stairs to the underpass with trepidation. She glances up at me and gives me a pleading look. “Can you help me, gioia? The suitcase …” She trails off, finishing her sentence with a helpless shrug. I smile and reach for the handle of her bag. Her mouth opens in a perfect ‘O’ of horror. “Oh no, gioia, I’ll help, don’t do it on your own!” I demur – the suitcase is tiny and light. “It’s fine, signora. You’re more than welcome.” She twitters at me all the way down the stairs. Thankyouthankyouthankyou, gioia. Oh, this station’s a fright – especially for the elderly. You’re so kind, gioia, bless you!”
Photo credit: OUFC_Gav
I leave her at the bottom and head on. I’d rather not have to make conversation with her all the way to Letojanni. Even were it not so hot, my Italian small-talk would have been all but used-up for the day, and another hour of it would be nigh on impossible. I find a seat and settle opposite a young, studious-looking girl with long mousey hair and glasses hiding a pretty face.
A couple of minutes later the old lady appears again, still keeping up a running commentary about how she so nearly missed the train. She clambers into the seat next to the studious-looking girl and starts to chat. “What time does the train go, gioia? At twenty past, right? Oh, at twenty-FIVE past! Oh, well, that’s fine then.” The studious girl talks quietly about the possible difference between weekday and weekend timetables and how La Signora might have confused the two; the old lady twinkles her agreement. “Oh yes, gioia, you’re probably right. Well, in the end I made it.” She shuffles her bottom to the back of her seat – meaning that her feet now dangle just above floor level – and beams at the studious girl. “All’s well.”
The conversation grinds to a halt.
Photo credit: Kevin Chodzinski
At the next stop a young girl tears onto the train, yelling, and charges the length of the carriage. Her girly, expensive-looking floral smock belies her wild behaviour – it seems an odd choice of clothing until a slim, harassed woman who looks like her grandmother puffs into view. She’s also dressed in good-quality clothes but her hair is unkempt and her face only sketchily made-up; at a guess she’s not the one who does the regular morning shift with kiddo. She calls down the carriage in a voice tinged with hysteria. “Stop! Stop right there!” The girl obeys for a moment – but only a moment; she whirls on her heel and barrels back the way she came, still at a run and still yelling.
As the girl races past her grandmother and towards us, the old lady wriggles out of her seat and flings her hands out across the aisle. The approaching tornado of energy halts, fizzing in frustration: she can’t pass without touching the old lady and this she is clearly unwilling to do. She stops moving, but continues to yell; all that energy has to go somewhere. The moment of pause is enough for grandmother to catch up, though: the old lady’s work is done. She drops her arms and the girl rushes on to the next carriage, where – judging by the constant sound-level – she decides to stop travelling forward. Grandmother flashes the old lady a tired, grateful glance, but daren’t stop any longer. She hurries on after her charge, clutching a ragged, battered doll with half its hair pulled out; it looks like it won’t be long before Grandmother’s goes the same way. The girl continues to yell.
The train doors hiss shut and the air conditioning whispers into life as the train moves off. The old lady shivers. She pulls a turquoise cotton scarf printed with white spots and pink flowers out of her capacious handbag and wraps it firmly around her shoulders, keeping up a low-level running commentary with no-one in particular as she does so. “Ooh, it’s so cold, gioia. Why do they make it so cold? It’s not … really … necessary …” Her one-sided conversation slows as her eyes begin to droop shut.