“Your train leaves at 10:15.”
I checked my watch. We had 45 minutes.
“Quale binario?” I asked, showing off my Italian.
“Consult the monitors for the platform number,” she said in English—my mastery of the Italian language seemingly not convincing enough for her.
Our Rome to Florence train tickets purchased, we set off in search of breakfast.
Soaking up the Italian atmosphere—it was our first morning there—I dawdled over my cappuccino & cornetto.
And then the missus said, “Funny we didn’t get real tickets, the kind you have to validate.”
I looked up at her. I looked down at the sheet of paper that had cost me 97 Euro. I frowned.
The evening before, prior to boarding the inbound train from Fiumicino, the tickets we purchased, similar to any city’s bus or subway ticket, needed validation—they needed to be time-stamped by a yellow printing machine.
Now, glancing again at that sheet of paper, I could hear myself thinking, “This will never fit into any validation device.”
Before I go on, please understand this. I have been to Italy before. A few times. I have taken trains there too, many times. I considered myself, in fact, something of a seasoned Italian traveller—accustomed to the workings and orchestrations of this beautiful faraway country. But here, on our first morning in Italia, what I immediately knew is that I had never before seen a ticket such as the one I was holding.
“Let’s go find out how this is supposed to work,” I suggested, wolfing down what remained of my croissant.
Walking up to a notice board with a printed train schedule, I saw that our train was leaving from platform 10.
“Good place to start,” I said.
Approaching Binario 10, we spotted a man in uniform, just standing there. He looked official. I headed toward him.
Why a uniform should make anyone trustworthy or reliable I chalk up to upbringing and perception. Why his uniform made him an expert on train tickets was something I didn’t—at that time—begin to question. It just seemed logical, no? And I’m sure he was, indeed, very good at whatever his uniform authorized him to do.
But as a train ticket advisor, he knew squat.
Speaking patiently to accommodate my now-shaky Italian (does the first sign of stress do that to you too? Rob you of the ability to process information, especially information delivered in a foreign language?), he explained that we had un prenotazione, and not un biglieto.
Great. It appeared we had made reservations to acquire train tickets.
“A reservation?” I asked. He nodded. “OK then,” I said, “Where do we get our tickets?”
“Ask the ticket agent,” he suggested.
Our train, by the way, was leaving in 25 minutes.
Like sailors manning battle-stations, I swear I could feel every part of my body getting ready for impending hostilities. It was like my body was shouting, Alert! Alert! Incoming stress! Increase adrenaline flow! Maximize heart rate! Begin blood vessel dilation!
Up the stairs, and back to the ticket counter we marched, coming face-to-face with a discouragingly long line of ticket buyers. Going to the front of the queue, I stopped at a young fellow with an iPad and a paperback Italian-English dictionary. Ignoring that technological anachronism, I asked him, in English, if I could have a quick word with the ticket agent.
“Sure,” he said. But, nodding at an elderly women chatting up our agent, he added, “It might take a while, though, these two two seem to be catching up on old times.”
Waiting, I glanced down at his iPad. He was consulting a train schedule. “WiFi or 3G?” I asked.
Suddenly I heard, “Ma cosa fai qui?” It was the ticket agent. She recognized me and she was asking why I was back.
Cutting off my dissertation on reservations and tickets, she patiently instructed me to take my sheet of paper and to immediately proceed to the designated platform. What she was saying, in fact, was, “Get on the damn train!”
“Con questo?” I asked—my turn at being unconvinced.
“Ma si,” she sighed, which prompted her ancient friend, and all of the Italians within earshot, to snort, guffaw and chuckle.
“Stupid tourist,” I could imagine them all thinking. But I didn’t care anymore. This was getting tiring.
Passing by iPad guy, I heard him say, “Next time, don’t talk to men in uniforms.”
Yeah right. Everyone’s a comedian.
Rushing back to Bin 10, I looked up the monitor.
THE MONITOR! That’s what my friendly ticket agent had said to consult. I, of course, ignored her and got the platform number from some outdated printout.
And now, what the monitor was telling us was that our train was leaving from Bin 14, and not Bin 10.
“No worries,” I said, once again the expert, “This always happens in Italy.”
Down the stairs we went, sprinting through the long corridor that accessed the platforms.
Only to find—No! Could this be?—access to Bin 14 was boarded up. Construction, perhaps. Or a water leak, maybe. I don’t know, I didn’t bother reading the official-looking notice.
Fuck! Now what?
Back down the corridor and up the stairs, to Bin 10, was what.
Arriving on the platform, I immediately spotted another man in uniform. I know! I know! But this time, I was smart enough to verify credentials. He passed. He was a Trenitalia employee.
His first words were, “But your train is leaving now.” It was 10:05 AM. Our train, I knew, was leaving at 10:15. He either couldn’t tell time or he was deliberately screwing with a couple of stupid turisti americani. (Just as an aside, years ago, on a previous visit to Rome, I had a pleasant chat with a fellow from Greece. “You’re American?” he asked. “Canadian,” I answered. “Same thing,” He shrugged. What I learned since then is, whether you’re from Canada or the USA, Europeans automatically call you un americano. The option then becomes yours to explain the difference).
Taking a deep breath, I said, “I know our train is leaving soon, but access to Bin 14 is blocked. How are we supposed to get there?”
“Al fondo,” he replied.
Of course, al fondo.
Had I been thinking rationally, had I stopped to consider, calmly, our predicament, I’d have remembered that a quick walk to the head of any platform—to where the train abutments are—allows access to all of the other platforms…
The good news, in case you’re curious, is we made our train. It was a frecciarossa, by the way, an intercity train and not a pokey regional one. Hence the different train ticket.
Settling into our comfortable seats, waiting for the train to pull out, I happened to glance out my window. I quickly became interested in a man—elderly, miffed—struggling with two oversized suitcases and arguing with his (I guessed) spouse—equally elderly, equally miffed.
And that’s when it hit me.
Travelling, as I’m sure I just described, can be a stressful exercise. And, sitting in my air-conditioned train compartment, once again feeling the warm glow of our just-started Italian experience, I wondered if the older one gets, the harder it becomes to feel that warm glow, that exhilaration, that childish excitement that is triggered by travel.
And I then wondered if all those people—the ones saving travelling for their retirement years—would soon discover that travel’s not what it’s chalked up to be. I wondered if they’d find that it’s just too much of a hassle.
And, as folk get older (and especially those folk who didn’t do much travelling, pre-retirement), I wondered if those folk would find that dealing with a foreign language, struggling with heavy suitcases, trying to find the right train, trying to not get stressed in a strange land, was just too much effort.
And would they then, I wondered, quickly say, “Right, enough of this travel thing. I’m staying home.”
And I wondered if they’d think, even for a minute, “Wait a minute, I’m retired. This is what I was waiting for. I’m supposed to be enjoying this. Why am I not having fun?”
Finally, what I wondered—and what I’m wondering still—is whether Fay was right after all. Because, what Fay said was, all this anticipation and expectation of endless, carefree, post-retirement travel is really nothing more than another myth—just another retirement myth.