Spoiler alert: this whiny post about Italian trains does not end with some profound reflection about how great the Year Abroad is. It ends with me still whining about Italian trains, so don’t hold your breath.
Before I begin, I would like to point out that train tickets in Italy are extremely good value. Trains in the UK, eye-wateringly expensive to begin with, become nothing short of a joke when compared to Italian prices. Here ends everything positive that I have to say on the subject.
The train ride to and from Rome was quite possibly the longest journey of my life. My memory isn’t good enough to give you that fact in all certainty, but at a cool eight hours each way, it was definitely up there.
Being the jumpy foreigner that I am – (what’s that? you thought the carefree year abroad persona might have started to rub off on me after two months? I laugh at your naive optimism) – I had been afraid of being left alone in a carriage with a nutter on the long train rides to and from Rome, both of which began at the reasonable and safe hour of 2pm, but which finished closer to 10pm, which, although not the dead of night, would mean that it would be pitch black and that my side of town would be deserted by the time I got home.
Of course, I needn’t have worried: I was seated alone among an enormous Italian family both ways. Classic. On the way out, I was in a six-seater compartment with a lovely quiet lady for the first hour, and a family of five for the next seven. On the way home I was in a carriage among a family of twenty-seven (no exaggeration, I overheard the matriarch telling the conductor), for the first eight and a half hours, and alone for the last fifteen minutes.
The journey out was fairly standard: the family laughed good humourdly as the (fully-grown adult) brothers engaged in a few friendly fights – both of the tickle and the serious physical variety, occasionally offering me a chocolate or some gum. Perhaps it was because I was full excitement for the trip ahead, or perhaps it was because they kept an eye on my bag while I nipped to the in-train facilities, but as we arrived at our destination I bore the family no ill will, all the same being glad to regain a bit of personal space.
But my God, the journey back. My ears have never been so assaulted for such a prolonged period of time. They’re still ringing now, a week later. The twenty-seven strong family of Sicilians, like me, alighted the train at Rome, and, unlike me, talked NON-STOP for the next eight hours. By my great misfortune in the game of chance that is the advanced booking lottery, my seat was smack bang in the middle of their group, so most of the time they were also shouting over/through me. Initially, there was a fellow lone-passenger sitting opposite me, with whom I was able to share the odd look of fear and companionship. He got off the train at Naples, taking with him the last dregs of my sanity. I nearly spat my water out when, as he did so, the matriarch said ‘gosh, are we at Naples already? Time flies!’ It’s exhausting being around such a great deal of noise and enthusiasm all the time, I imagine it’s how primary school teachers feel at the kids’ end of term school disco: lots of shrieking and running around with little order to the proceedings. Except the disco lasts eight hours. And there is no escape. The general ‘frastuono’ – my new favourite word that, given it means ‘din’ or ‘racket’, I have cause to use all the time here – was unbearable.
Often there would be several family members in the aisles, leaning literally over or on my body to chat, resting against my innocent arm, passing food over me… in my Britishness I made an effort to make my limbs as small and compact as possible to accommodate their rudeness, but jeez, I’ve got to put my left arm somewhere. The youngest of the group spent a lot of the journey toddling up and down the aisle of the carriage, no parent in sight but adoring extended relatives all around – cute for the first fifteen minutes, okay after an hour, a bit repetitive after the sixth, especially as everyone sitting around him would all wave and shriek for his attention whenever he toddled by, basking in the adoration like bloody Harry Styles.
The family did a weird combination of attempting to speak to me and thinking I couldn’t understand what they were saying – if you’d thought the two were irreconcilable then you would be wrong, and I would have counted myself among your number until this day. As I read my copy of the Sunday Times (I had been ecstatic to find one in Rome, totally worth €5, and naturally was taking the upmost care to ensure that turning the pages of my broadsheet brought as little disturbance to my fellow passengers as possible – why I bothered is now quite beyond me), the matriarch next to whom I sat said in a loud voice to her family ‘ENGLISH’, nodding at me. Except she didn’t say the Italian word for english, ‘inglese’, which she could be forgiven for assuming I wouldn’t understand, she said the English word, ‘English’ – which she could not. I used this as an opportunity to say a brief ‘ciao’, with the obvious subtext of showing them that if they talked about me I would understand them, but alas, twenty minutes later they were back to merrily discussing me as if I were deaf. This happened again to me in the staff room at work today – if one more person asks the person next to me ‘who is this girl?’ or ‘why is she here?’ I will be forced to reply in my frankest Italian (ha, as if I have any idea how to differentiate my tone).
Of course, occasionally there were moments of repose from the familial chatter, namely when a group of students started playing traditional Neapolitan songs – guitar, backing singers, the lot – further down the carriage, accompanied by loud clapping, stamping feet and shouts of ‘bravi!!!’ from the matriarch. As I tried my best not to add to the racket with my own howl of displeasure, I mused that this is the kind of year abroad experience that I should be treasuring. This was ‘real Italy’. Instead, I buried my head in some Dickens and said a silent prayer for December to come sooner.
Call me a killjoy, call me uptight, call me what you like: but please, never, ever call me and ask if I want to join you on a cross-country train ride in Italy. Give me a British carriage, where answering your mobile in a whisper arouses the instant hatred of everyone around you, and the rustle of a crisp packet attracts the mutinous swivel of one hundred angry heads, any day of the week, and I shall know I am home.