Recently, I had the pleasure of accompanying some Carmine visitors to the office of the Cannobio Carabinieri, those rather scary chappies who habitually tote heavy artillery when stopping housewives for minor traffic violations. We were filing a report of a purse lost or stolen in Milan's Piazza Duomo. Having experienced the caprices and whimsies of authority in such bureaucracy-bedevilled countries as India and Nigeria, I am always in these situations braced for a brush with the stubbornly illogical, if not the downright irrational. But this was a surprisingly trouble-free experience. Our over-armed boy in blue-with-red-stripes was efficient and quick. And he knew his way around his computer. It put me in mind of a time about a month after I moved permanently to Italy when a similar experience wasn’t quite so hassle-free…
[Cue screen-wibbly-wobblies denoting flashback. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.]
Twas a dark and stormy night…
Okay, okay. I know you’ve heard it a million times before, but I make no apology, because it was black as ink and the wind was roaring and the rain was lashing down. And to cap it all, it was Hallowe’en, and in the cemeteries of Piemonte the ancestors danced in the dim light of thousands of flickering candles…
Twas a dark and stormy night. The wind howled and the rain beat down. Everyone had gone home in disgust. The station stood in the middle of a vast lake of inky blackness. The station-master’s office was gaily lit. A beacon, one might say. But no-one did. In the clutches of the gale-force breeze, the light-shade swung in lunatic fashion, sending the shadows running for cover, now here, now there. A bell rang contemptuously. Nobody was picking up. Deserted. An elaborately-egged cap lay on the console where little yellow and red lights flashed.
In the waiting room, the paint, Mussolini mustard, was peeling predictably, and the furniture – a bench, a table, a surprising filing cabinet and a yet more surprising dressing table – lounged about, bewildered, making alarming shadows. A curly-cornered train schedule dated 1998 fluttered in the vicious draught. The one object of hope a payphone. No ordinary payphone. In other words, a payphone that worked, and that took change, as well as cards.
Outside, a shutter banged against a wall as the wind rose to a peak of irritation once more. Rivulets of rainwater careered about, looking for something important, irreplaceable, or preferably both, to ruin. One tall door stood open, splashing light out into the woods, illuminating driving rain, the wild arborial dance and the detritus of the storm – fallen leaves, chestnuts in their prickly shells, cola cans, a soggy tampon applicator. The rectangle of light threw the massive elongated shadow of a figure into the lane. Silent. Brooding. Awful. Think Roswell. Think Bodysnatchers. Think…the Undead.
Suddenly, the storm abated slightly, and at that same moment a battered blue Panda turned into the lane, its weak headlights feeling their way across the storm-wrecked landscape. As the little car approached the station doorway, the diabolical figure began a crazed dance, hopping from foot to foot, waving its arms. The Panda accelerated and plunged into the light, drawing up in front of the dilapidated building with a flourish.
My knight in shining armour unfolded himself from the driving seat, dripping, but grinning, and as he nodded, the bobble on his very silly bobble hat bounced bravely, in true knightly fashion. As he hugged me, I clutched my passport and vowed never to leave it on the train again…
Do you want the whole story? I didn’t think so. Edited highlights? Va bene. ‘Tis a story of two big mistakes, many miles covered in a noble quest, a chilling cliffhanger ending and a vaguely interesting postscript.
Thursday evening. Finalising the packing for a visit to the UK. Early start for the airport tomorrow. M. cooking up a storm downstairs.
Purse missing from brief case. I must have left it at the language school in Milan today. Hmmm. No problem. There’s enough time in the morning to whizz across on my way through Milan and pick it up. M. looks worried when I tell him, but we have better things to talk about, so we do.
Do you often wake up with a clear, insistent thought in your head? I do. It’s very annoying, because the thought always insists that it’s right when sometimes it’s wrong. On Friday morning, distressingly early, I wake up thinking I used my purse in a supermarket on my way home last night and I must have left it there. Minor change of plan. No problem. Just whizz by the supermarket on my way through Milan and pick it up.
I plunge on with the day, oblivious to the lurking truth.
We drive to the station and M. calls the supermarket. Please call back later. I call the language school. No it isn’t there.
Meanwhile, M., with his enormous brain, is thinking laterally. Perhaps, cara, you left it on the train last night…I muster my best Italian, and ask the ticket clerk where lost purses go when they’ve been found by nice, honest people on trains. “The end of the line,” she replies.
Here comes Big Mistake No. 1.
There are three places the purse could be, at one of two ends of the same line (Domodossola or Milano Centrale), or at a supermarket in central Milan. M. is adamant that if I left it on the train it will have disappeared, not to the end of the line, but into someone’s pocket. That does it for me. I decide to head for Milan, which is 90 minutes closer to the airport and has a two-in-three chance of being the place I will find my purse.
Off I chuff to Milan, and just for good measure I look in on Assistenza Cliente at Milano Centrale station. I explain I may have lost my purse on the train last night. Could it be here in Milan? No, they say. It’s likely to be languishing in a public dustbin, empty. Or could it be in Domodossola? Ask Assistenza Cliente there. Domodossola is now 105 minutes away, could you call them to check for me? Per favore…Per pretty piacere…
No. No way. No how. Not on your nelly. My green uniform is far too smart for me to do anything even remotely approximating being helpful.
Oh. Okay. Thanks for assisting this cliente.
Meanwhile, M. (in between doing some very important work – i.e. that for which he is paid) has been calling lots of interesting people. The supermarket (twice), Assistenza Cliente in Domodossola three times, and, finally, the Polizia Ferroviale.
I call M.
Go to binario uno, Domodossola. They have your purse, your passport, your money, and your WHSmith vouchers, and what they are describing as a rather frightening number of receipts for Snickers bars, all safe and sound. Can you get there and to the airport in time for your flight? When you get back, can we talk about the Snickers bars receipts, please?
No. On both counts.
Here comes Big Mistake No. 2. I believe we are living in a unified Europe. No barriers to trade. No borders. I have swapped the opportunity for all those very pleasing stamps in the old passport for a concept called Freedom of Movement. And I’m willing to head out to the airport without a passport on the basis of this belief, and under the pressure of time. I whip out my flight confirmation. It says I need ID to travel and suggests, “...a driver’s licence, student card (student card??? even if I went to the LSE???), citizen’s ID card, etc”. I have my new-style provisional driver’s licence complete with gruesome pic. I have my birth certificate, marriage certificate and my decree absolute. I can prove I am me – I was born me. I became someone else for a time, but I’m me again (but still using someone else’s name). I turn my face towards the airport, believing the European dream. The bus takes an hour, and if they say yes, I’ll be able to catch my flight with an hour to spare. This is my last-ditch attempt to catch…that…plane.
“Buongiorno. Erm…Possiamo parlare Inglese? I’m travelling to the UK today (gotta stay positive). Can I present my driver’s licence (decree absolute, marriage certificate, birth certificate and a few Snickers bars receipts from the bottom of my handbag) as ID, please?” The well-groomed airport information dolly screws up her dainty face, trying valiantly for apology. She manages a rather sludgy mixture of pity and disdain.
Okay. So I’m not travelling to the UK today, then.
I call M. I lose it on the phone. I almost burst into tears. I feel ashamed. I feel rejected. I feel a wide variety of childish emotions within a very short space of time. Most of all, I want a very important person to come along and say, “Never fear, we know you, you’re our Louise, and of course you can come into the UK without your passport. After all, England has missed you and we want you back!” Only when you’re four do things like that happen.
All English-speaking eyes are on me. They’ve overheard every word of my telephone call to M., and sensed my imminent breakdown in the rising pitch of my voice. They see stress bordering on collapse in my body language. I realise that they are, every single one of them, avid fans of the television programme Airport, and are dying to see me get angry, stamp my feet, swear outrageously, deck the rep, burst into tears and/or threaten to sue. Sue who? Someone, anyone. It’s a form of catharsis. For them. Not for me.
To cap it all, I have precisely €11. Somewhere along the line - don’t ask me when or where - I have lost a €50 euro note and my phonecard is running out of credits.
The driver of the bus back to Milan (€6 and another hour) is puzzled. Did I arrive from Genova? No? Then they must have lost your luggage! The last flight-full arrived almost two hours ago. What have you been doing all that time? No. I haven’t been anywhere. But not for want of trying (I bite my lip and look out of the window). And I surprise myself by launching into my story in halting Italian as he drives me, the only passenger on a 72-seater luxury coach, back to Milano Centrale. He asks questions, I understand them and answer them. He waxes philosophical about loss of possessions, and then he waxes political about the EU. We have a pretty decent time flying along the autostrada at an illegal speed.
Funny, I learned more new vocabulary that day than in all the previous six weeks since my formal arrival in Italy put together. Including the words for ‘purse’, ‘wallet’, ‘left on the train’, ‘without passport’, ‘pretty please’, ‘when is the next bus to’, and ‘oh bloody hell’.
Back at Milano Centrale, I hurtle from platform to platform trying to find the next train to the Swiss border (two hours away) for which my return ticket is valid. No super-duper CISalpino very expensive but very fast train for me. No cash to pay the supplement to the standard ticket.
In what seems like a lifetime hanging around amid the trash and the confusion of Milano Centrale, I’m on a train to Domodossola, the very edge of Italian society. It’s about seven-thirty and the storm has begun. The darkness descends as I pass through the blighted Gallarate, and the filth of the weather prevents me from drawing inspiration from the beauty of Lago Maggiore at night. I make an effort to emulate what I imagine to be Buddhist impassivity. When my luggage falls off the ludicrously minute luggage rack, hitting me on the head, I give up even impassivity and pretend to be unconscious.
Finally – finally - I arrive at the end of the line, having passed through my home station of Verbania, resisting the urge to jump off and … just … go … home. Here in Domodossola I know that the train I have arrived on will shortly catapult itself back down the line to Milan, stopping, with a bit of luck, at Verbania. The hope that I might be on it when the rubber is released is very strong. I crash into the office of the Polizia Ferroviale and announce myself in a voice breathless with stress. I instantly have the attention of two blue-uniformed officers. One male, one female, white hip holsters, white caps. Both are very pleased to be able to prove to me that Italy has its fair share of honest citizens, to counteract tourist horror stories of Piazza Duomo muggings perpetrated by three-year-old illegal-immigrant thugs from somewhere mysterious in extra-Community Europe.
My purse is presented, and found to contain every last Snickers receipt. I turn for the door, clutching it, but just as I am about to escape, an iron claw grips my shoulder. I sense telepathically that the impulse to move on swiftly to a half-nelson is experienced, but the officer gets a hold of herself. They have to write a report.
And they have to know one important thing. What ... are these? I find myself spending the next ten minutes trying to explain how WHSmith gift vouchers work.
My explanation having been received with uncertain nods, I lapse into silence. As the minutes tick past I start to fret. My fixed smile of unflinching gratitude starts to slip as these fine officers prove, not only how honest Italian citizens can be, but also that there is an urgent need in its courageous (not to mention well-dressed) police force for some wordprocessing training. Cut and paste…erm cut and paste?
After several tries at cut and paste, I quietly explode out of the chair, politely excuse myself and run off to buy a ticket for the imminently departing train. I have a hurried and not quite conclusive conversation at the sportello about where the train on binario uno is stopping. I think he says it is stopping at Verbania.
Back in the police station, our two representatives of Law and Order on the Railways have solved the problem. Officer No. 1 is poised with scissors and Pritt-Stick, and grabs document No. 2 as it comes off the printer. Officer No. 2 is printing out document No. 1 with space to paste document No. 2 (a minutely-detailed list of the contents of my purse) in place. After an excruciating 10 minutes of trial and error (not enough space on document No. 1 to paste in document No. 2), they have it sussed, and proceed into a disagreement about how many copies they need, which ones I should and shouldn’t sign, and where, and where the official police stamp should go. Not to mention where the hell the official police stamp is.
Eventually, half out of the door, and with my luggage poised, I scribble my name three times. I shout my thanks and scarper. The train doors close and I sink back into the seat in relief.
But what’s this? The train seems to be going in the wrong direction! Through the condensation and streaming rain I think I see a succession of dimly lit minor stations, none of them recognizable as somewhere I want to go. I look around, and realise with Nightmare-on-Elm-Street-type horror that the train is deserted. Not even a solitary Friday-night reveller on his way to the bright lights of Verbania. Not even a conductor to practice my burgeoning Italian skills on.
Finally, we stop at a station called Mergozzo. Oh yes, that lovely sunlit corner with its own lake and pizza at mezzogiorno. I look for evidence of sophistication (a bar selling a phone card and a populated suburban locale are desirable attributes at this stage), and, seeing blurry lights, and hearing a telephone ringing, I step off the train.
“Oh bugger!” I think, as the train steams off (water evaporating from its roof), leaving me in driving rain to cross the tracks at track level, a sure sign that I have alighted at Nowhere City.
“Oh Christ,” I mutter, as I realise there is no bar selling phone cards.
“Oh f*&!!!!, I’ve done it again,” I shout, allowing myself a stamp of the foot (knowing there are no Airport fans around to snigger at my loss of cool), as I see that I’m in the middle of nowhere, seemingly with no method of communication, no-one to ask for help, and on a dark and stormy Hallowe’en night. I’m tired, hungry, cold and broke. I should be snuggled up in front of the TV in my Middle-England hometown sniggering at frustrated tourists growing red in the face on tonight’s episode of Airport.
Then I look more closely at the payphone and exhale in a controlled manner, but with relief. My knight and his charger are just a phone call away, and all they have to do is find me…
This story has not one but two postscripts.
The first relates to the happy finding of my purse and my passport. The nameless conductor of my train home that fateful Thursday night was too modest to allow himself to be named and therefore thanked (in very bad Italian). I’d like to thank him now.
And second, M. did me service above and beyond the call of duty that day. And with the patience of a saint. He drove me to the station (and then drove back). He called everyone he could think of and practised his Italian on them, enduring stoically many compliments on exactly how good his Italian is. He coped with a series of progressively more hysterical phone calls from me throughout the day, remaining, to all intents and purposes, calm and practical. He cancelled flights. He calmed my mother. He arranged an alternative flight. He left his warm, cosy fireside and plunged headlong into the raging storm, risking life and limb on a lakeside road already flooded and sometimes prone to landslides, on Hallowe’en, when all Christian men should be indoors, to come and rescue me at an unknown location.
As we trudged back up the Hill to Carmine in torrential rain, sometimes wading ankle-deep in mud, much slapped around the face by angry squalls, and surrounded by the drifting ghosts of Carmine’s lingering past, he was rewarded by a magnificent sight. That year’s stag, which we had thought just a myth among the local population, appeared amid the driving rain and the ghostly light, pausing momentarily to allow M. alone a privileged view, before turning away majestically into the trees.
Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007, 2008. All rights reserved. Please ask first.