Editors’ note: An earlier version of this essay briefly appeared on the author’s profile on nanowrimo.org under the category of “Narrative NonFiction.”
The 7:30 p.m. Eurostar train from Rome to Milan was full, so I got a ticket for the next train. It wasn’t an express, but I thought, How bad could it be? I would have to wait a few hours in Rome’s Termini Station, and it would take another eight hours get to Milan — but so what! Can’t stop me! I can do it. Yes, I CAN because I am AmeriCAN!
Since moving to Italy from New York with my two cats three weeks before, I’d been in invincible mode, facing challenge after challenge. The latest was a text I’d received from my cousin Kate, in Milan, who was watching my two cats while I got myself set up in Rome: “Come for the cats. They are puping (sic) everywhere.”
Kate didn’t understand that you needed to clean their litter box or they will get angry and “pup” in cleaner pastures, like your clothes. Before I got a chance to answer, she had sent a second text: “They cry for you all night.”
That did it: I was going to go to Milan to rescue my cats.
A train in Milano Cardona station in Milan, Italy.
Photo by Flickr user Omer SimkhaAs I waited on the platform, there was an announcement that snow was causing delays, so the train would be arriving at midnight, adding at least another hour to my three-and-an-half-hour wait.
Pacing and shivering, I examined my ticket, trying to decipher my seat number from the strings of crazy digits. In my broken Italian, I asked for help from some of the other passengers. I should have been clued in when they responded with looks of pity and shakes of the head.
When the train finally pulled in, hordes of people lunged forth, bumping and running, desperate to get on. I rolled my eyes: Italians can be so dramatic.
Pushing through the crowd, I felt confident — Yes, I can! I am AmeriCAN! — someone inside would help me find my seat.
I opened the door into the carriage. It didn’t smell very nice. This was the type of train that you see in Hitchcock movies or an early Helena Bonham Carter / Merchant-Ivory film where there is cabin after cabin after cabin on one side and the other side, the corridor. Each cabin had curtains — for privacy, I supposed.
The six-person cabins sure seemed to be filling up, and I was still in the corridor with a lot of working class men from Naples. I asked the youngest of them, a happy-go-lucky fellow named Luigi, to help me find my cabin. He glanced at my ticket, scrunched up his face into mischief and retorted:
Cabina? Ma che cabina? Non c’è neanche un posto! “Cabin? What cabin! You don’t even have a seat!”
He laughed, gesturing “this is it!” — dramatically presenting the length of the cold, stinky corridor.
Luigi explained that, on these non-express trains, if you buy a ticket on the same day you travel, you don’t get an assigned seat. Thus, I had bought a ticket to stand for eight hours in the unheated corridor of a train to Milan that stopped at every village, hamlet or group of three people or more, in the middle of February.
I said, “But people will get off and I can take their seat!”
“No, I’m sorry. We are in Italy so the things that should be organized aren’t, and the things that shouldn’t, are! Those seats are already assigned!” This apparently was a great piece of stand-up, as Luigi was once again shaking about, tears of laughter in his eyes.
I was staring at him. I’d taken all kinds of New Age courses, read the books that teach you to change what you can, accept what you can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference — but this was some fucked-up shit.
“I have to stand for eight hours?”
Ma no! “Certainly not,” he answered, his face opening into a huge grin, knowing he had a good punch line coming. He showed me the “seat” where I could “sit.” Every foot or so along the wall of the corridor, just under the windows, was a creaky, barely padded, pull-out metal bottom part of a “seat.”
I said to Luigi, E’ come u francobollo! “It’s the size of a stamp!”
He thought that was hilarious. I, instead, went into a stupor. I stuck my face out the window to get cold air on it and started muttering: “Omigod omigod, this is not happening …”
I squished my bottom on as much of the francobollo seat as was possible (about half a cheek). I leaned back on the corridor wall, facing the lucky six people in the cabin with the heat who looked at me with equal parts empathy and relief while drawing the curtain closed.
I starting pulling sweaters out from the luggage and piling them on like blankets, mumbling, Yes I can, yes I can. By the time I had taken out the last sweater, my mantra had changed to No, I can’t, no I can’t! I’m an AmeriCAN’T. I bit my lip to stall the tears.
I gazed down the corridor. Some of the Napolitanos didn’t use the “seats,” choosing to lie on the cold floor. I offered sweaters but none of them paid any attention, one dismissing me with a wave of the hand. I felt stupid and alone. I’d heard of the phenomenon of southern laborers commuting to the north like this, but I’d never ever imagined being IN it.
I looked about for Luigi, who felt like my only friend in the whole wide world. One of his compatriots pointed upward. There he was, our happy guy, lying down on the baggage rack above the compartment door, snoring. He’d stretched out his arm so that his hand was thrust against the window part of the train to maintain his balance. Nobody sleeps on luggage racks in America. What kind of country was this?
After a while, the body insists on sleeping. I fidgeted on this tiny seat until I found that the most natural position involved leaning forward across the tiny aisle and using something relatively soft — a hat, a scarf, a tissue that you had been crying into — to place between the window of the six-person compartment and your forehead.
Still leaning my forehead on the cabin window, I swiveled my face to the right and saw that each person in the line of 30 or so francobollo seats had ended up in this same position. I rotated my head back down so that I was looking at my knees and fell “asleep.” Once in a while, someone would tap me on the shoulder to pass to go to the bathroom at the end of the corridor. I’d sit up straight and swing my legs to the right to let the guy through, as would the next person, then the next and the next — like human dominoes. I’d get in a few minutes of rest before hearing the flush, the cue to lift myself up and swing my legs back to the left to let the man back through.
Seven hours later, Luigi had climbed down and I confided to him that I had to rush to Milan to save my cats. I showed him a kitten photo. He turned to the others, waved the picture in his hand and announced:
Deve andare a salvare i gatti! “She has to go save her cats!”
These men, so crabby the night before, all melted. They felt sorry for me: They were used to this, I wasn’t.
With Luigi in leadership, they ganged up on a lawyer-type in one of the cozy cabins and said: Falla sedere la signorina! “Let the young lady sit!”
Snuggled into the corner of the warm six-person compartment, dozing off and smiling, is when I finally knew: Yes, I can and yes, I will.