March 30 and April 1, 1988
After a wonderful week of skiing, we headed south to explore Italy. Within ten minutes of boarding our first train, however, there was trouble. Charlie, one of Dennis' roommates from the Youth Hostel in Bergamo, was with us, along with his boxed bicycle, for which he'd paid full price for a seat.
The conductor came by and said the bicycle would have to go in the baggage car. The train was nearly empty for the 35-minute run to Milan, and was scheduled to leave in just five minutes, but rules were rules. Charlie argued. His bicycle had been badly damaged in the baggage car on another train. The conductor insisted. Charlie left with his bike to find a supervisor.
Moments later, the conductor came back in and slammed the door. Dennis and I looked at each other, then at Charlie's luggage on the floor beside us. We'd be departing any moment. Then we noticed Charlie on the platform, trying to get our attention.
Dennis opened the window and handed the bags out as quickly as he could manage. The train was pulling away as we shoved the last bag out, and Charlie waved goodbye from the platform!
In Milan, Dennis bought us second-class tickets to Florence. The train was due to depart at 3:55 and would arrive in Florence at 7:00 p.m., leaving us time to find accommodations, we hoped.
We asked a uniformed official at the gate which platform. He turned the ticket over, wrote 15, and pointed out the train. We got in, found seats, and just to be sure we were in the right place, checked with several other people. All said yes, this was the train to Florence. A conductor was nowhere to be found, so that was the best we could do.
3:55 came and went. 4:30 came and went. We asked more people if we were on the right train and were assured there was no problem. The train finally left at 5:20, by which time the aisles were jammed with people unable to find seats.
Minutes after departure, the elusive conductor finally appeared. He looked at our tickets and said they were no good. For Florence we needed first class tickets. He spoke no English and we spoke no Italian.
"Why?" I wanted to know. "We want second class. This is second class. This train goes to Florence. The ticket says Florence." He was busily writing us a new ticket. He presented it and demanded 27,050 lira each (about $24.00). We'd already paid 15,700. I was outraged!
"No!" I shouted. "Find someone who speaks English!" The conductor glared. A passenger who spoke a little English was located, but could only repeat what I'd already understood from the conductor. He couldn't translate what I said or answer my big question, "Why?"
We refused to pay. The conductor took our passports and said we'd be handed over to the police in Bologna. We said fine. We wanted to see the police. As I searched for a map to locate Bologna, the conductor returned and said if we went to the police, we'd not only have to pay the 27,500 lira, but also 50,000 lira more, fine or fee, I couldn't tell which.
We finally capitulated. Dennis pulled the last Italian lira from his wallet to pay the difference. We had no local money left. I collapsed in tears, and asked the man who spoke some English if we would be allowed to sleep in the railway station. He shrugged his shoulders.
I was furious and could not stop sobbing. The conductor had charged us not only the 11,800 difference between first and second class fares, but also a fee of 5,000 lira levied when tickets are purchased on the train instead of at the station! And we were still in second class seats. Thank goodness he didn't force us to move to the first class car, dragging our packs through the crowded aisles of several second class cars to get there.
I tried to cry as quietly as possible, but I couldn't hold back my tears. Before long, three Italians in our compartment who had witnessed the whole drama gave Dennis 10,000 lira each (about $8.40) to replace what we'd been overcharged. We tried to refuse it. Dennis pulled out a charge card to prove we weren't destitute. From what I could gather, Milan was their city. They didn't want us to leave bad memories of it.
We arrived in Florence about 10:00 p.m., found a city map, and figured out how to get to the nearest campground. Closed! We wandered until we found a deserted park, part of a school grounds. It was shielded from the street by thick bushes. Our tent, pitched in the bushes, was invisible until you were almost on top of it. It was risky, but we had little choice. After our experience with train conductors, we prayed we'd have no dealings with Italian police!
The prices for nearly everything in Italy were outrageous. We were unable to eat and sleep for less than our budgeted $30 a day, let alone pay for transportation, museums or miscellaneous needs. The tourist crowds were unbearable. We went to the Uffizio Art Gallery at about 10:00 a.m. one morning. Thousands of people were already in line, and the line didn't move at all for the 15 minutes we stood in it.
It wasn't worth the wait, so we left and returned the next morning earlier, before the museum opened. Several hundred people were already in line ahead of us, and a group of 40+ high school students speaking French were directed by their teachers to crowd into the front of the line. We were shoved, jostled and elbowed. The entrance fee had increased from 2000 to 5000 lira in two years, and this was the off season!
We'd had enough of Italy. Forget Rome, Pompeii, Pisa, Venice. We wanted to get out and cut our losses.
After some research, it seemed the most economical way to get to Greece, where things were said to be cheaper and the weather warmer, was to take a train to Ancona and a ferry from there. The local train to Bologna was almost empty, but the train to Ancona was packed with people, so many that we couldn't even get to the aisles. We had to stand with our bags outside the washroom at the end of the car. Sixteen other people shared the small space with us. Whenever the train stopped, Dennis had to get out to let departing passengers go by. More people boarded at every station. I crossed my fingers that no one would need to use the toilet. Pushing through that crowd would be impossible.
"Ding ding!" What could that be? I strained to look through the tangled mass of bodies.
A refreshment cart? You've got to be kidding!
"Ding ding! Permesso, permesso." The cart was actually moving through the crowd, coming our way. Dennis tried to lift his big pack out of the way, but it was impossible. Finally, the steward opened the washroom door, motioned Dennis inside, and shut the door. Inside, it was quiet and peaceful. "Hmm," he thought. "This isn't so bad." There was just room for him to sit on his pack. He decided to stay. I handed in some food and small things that were in danger of being trampled. The washroom had a sink but no toilet. It seemed unlikely anyone would push through such a crowd just to wash their hands!
At the next stop, more people crowded onto the train. A man opened the washroom door and saw Dennis sitting on his pack. Shocked, he slammed the door, and began talking rapidly in Italian to his friends. Something about baño. They all chuckled. Did they think Dennis was on the toilet?
Towards the end of the trip, someone else opened the door. Dennis found himself looking into the astonished face of a passenger and the stern face of a conductor.
"Biglietto!" barked the conductor. Did he think Dennis was a stowaway? Once satisfied Dennis' ticket was good, the conductor motioned him back inside and shut the door.
It was a long ride to Ancona. We'd had more than enough of Italy and Italian trains.
Go on to Unusual Signs We Saw along the Way
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