Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.78.5: Train Stories No. 4, THE LADIES OF THE RAILS (Part 2)

©1983, UrbisMedia

©1983, UrbisMedia

[Continued from Part 1]

At Pisa we checked our luggage at the station and headed off for the obligatory staged photographs of each of us “holding the leaning tower from falling over.” Concerned that we might lose one of the group, I force-marched them back to the train station, allowing a stop only a fruit stand to provision ourselves for the overnight trip up to Paris. Steve, one of my graduate students, who had not bothered to acquaint himself with the Italian terms for their weights and measures ended up with a shopping bag full of several pounds of apricots. Too-embarrassed to admit that he only wanted a couple of apricots, he purchased enough for our entire group for a week. Earlier in the trip Steve had shucked out about twenty-five dollars in francs for two beers and five minutes of the unintelligible company of a prostitute in a Pigalle bar.

On our return to the station I checked the train board that indicates where the cars with our reserved seats would be in the train so that we could line up our luggage on the binario for the most rapid boarding. The station master had informed me that the train makes little more than a whistle stop at Pisa because few international passengers board there. So we would have to board quickly.

Once again I felt like a general readying his troops for an assault, assigning the women to board first and determine the location of our compartments. A couple of the guys were commissioned to join them and stand ready at the windows so that the rest of the men could hand the luggage through the windows if necessary (a quicker method than hauling suitcases up the train steps). Little did I know that a martial attitude would prove so appropriate.

Our train cars arrived close enough to the appointed spot on the platform and close enough on time for Italy. We were ready. The women leaped aboard to locate and secure our reserved compartments, followed by the luggage-catchers, who lowered the windows opposite the compartments and then hauled in the baggage shoved up at them by the baggage-launchers on the platform, who boarded the train within seconds of its lurch forward. The operation had gone off like clockwork. I felt like Gen. Omar Bradley.

So why was all the luggage piled in the companionway of the car and not in our compartments when I arrived with a self-congratulatory smile on my face?

Jean was standing outside one of the compartments with a bemused look on her face, gesturing into the compartment. I climbed over the pile of luggage to discover it completely occupied by an Italian family and its luggage. The next of our “Reserved” compartments was also engaged, this one by four large, young German backpackers who had closed its sliding door to get the maximum benefit the soothing clouds of cannabis smoke they had settled in to enjoy. Our third compartment was the boudoir of an Italian prostitute who glared back at me with a hardened face that looked like Anna Magnani with a raging case of PMS. The Germans looked like a safer bet.

They were. Jean had already evicted them with few phrases of German, the only word of which I understood was Verschwinden Sie!, something like “get the hell out!” The Germans filed out of the compartment in a state of stoned compliance, hauling their state-of-the-art high-tech camping equipment off in search of some other lotus land.

With one part of the Axis removed it was time to confront the Italian family. I got the attention of the guy I took to be the ‘papa’ of two teenage girls and a younger boy. The mama, and an older man who might have been a ‘grandpapa’ completed the usurpation of our ‘reserved’ seats. Papa looked at me like I was showing him an x-ray of my G-I tract when I directed his gaze to the sign pasted to the compartment window that clearly said “Santiago State University.” Okay, it should have said “San Diego,” but it matched the reservation document I had in my hand and that should have been sufficient. He shrugged.

I pointed to the sign, pointed to the document, and opened my hands in the gesture that means “Quod Erat Demonstrandum”. 

He shrugged that Italic shrug again, said something to his wife, then looked back at me a shrugged again like he’d been instructed by her. Uxorious weenie.

“You have to leave,” I said, Se ne vada! Go away! He didn’t react. Nor did the rest of them. They were exercising rights of first arrival. My mother would have known how to deal with these rude squatters.

I went off to find the conductor and brought him back to the compartment, showed him the sign and my reservation, and asked him to take care of the matter. What ensued was a long conversation in Italian between him and the two men in the compartment (accompanied by facial cues from la mama) that I couldn’t follow the rapid discourse and ended with the conductor telling me that the people had tickets and refused to move.

“But they don’t have reservations for this compartment!” I protested. He agreed, but then just stared blankly back at me. I pointed to the luggage in the companionway saying that I wasn’t going to move it because we had no place to put it, but he didn’t seemed concerned. With the luggage and my group the companionway it was nearly impassable.

As he was about to leave I took his arm and guided him toward the compartment with the prostitute. She was spread out over the entire seat of one side of the compartment. None of the group, which was either in the still marijuana-fragrant compartment, or in the companionway, had ventured into her territory. I told the conductor that he had to remove her as well because all three compartments had been reserved for our group.

None of these details would have amounted to hill of fagioli to the prostitute. Without understanding the dialog between them it was evident that she completely intimidated the conductor. What I did understand was that she told him, then me, to “fuck off.” He went off muttering and I didn’t expect to see him again.

We resolved the problem of the Italian family by deciding to jam our luggage in their, rather ‘our,’ compartment. This we did by cramming hard pieces of luggage against theirs in the overhead rack, taking no care to avoid stepping on their feet, or bump them with the luggage. We shoved suitcases into the floor space between the seats, jamming their legs back against the bench seats. And then when we had things damned uncomfortable in there we would come back into the compartment and take luggage down, rearrange pieces, put them back, and otherwise be as much of a nuisance as possible, saying ‘scusimi’I and ‘spiacente’ but clearly with insincerity. Unable to endure any more of our “legitimate” activity the family finally packed up their things and left only the echoes of a few phrases of scatology behind.

We were still one compartment short by the time the train was approaching Genoa. The sun was beginning to settle into the Tyrrhenian Sea and in time the compartments would have to be made up into the sleeping couchettes. We joked a good deal about whose reputations would be more sullied: if some of the women were forced to spend the night in compartment with the prostitute, or some of the men. But we were not sufficiently emboldened by our success in evicting the family to even consider taking on so formidable-looking a foe as the Messalina of the Rails next door.

But as the train slowed on entering the station at Genoa we heard loud and strong language coming from the “bordello compartment.” The conductor had returned and had found some of his courage in the interim, the reason for which soon became evident. When the train stopped it was boarded by four armed Carabinieri, the state police. We stuck our curious heads out of our compartments as they hauled the bellowing prostitute off the train, forcing her even to carry her suitcase. Our last vision of her as the train gathered speed along the platform was of the prostitute in the middle of a four-cornered Carabinieri formation marching along the platform. As our car passed by her she glared up at us as we leaned out of the windows. She dropped her suitcase, and slamming the palm of one hand to the up-thrusting forearm of the other, delivered expertly and enthusiastically the “Italian salute” of insult. 

The long day was drawing to a close and I looked forward to stretching out as best I could on one of the second-class couchette bunks and letting the sway of the car and the clack of the rails send me to sleep.

As soon as I got something to eat. Steve was hungry, too, so I asked him if he would go forward and bring me back a sandwich from the buffet car. But in a couple of minutes Steve was back at the compartment, empty-handed. I asked him if the buffet was closed.

“I never got there,” he replied.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, I . . . I couldn’t get through,” he said rather sheepishly.

“Through where?”

“The hallway,” he said, meaning the companionway.


“Well, there was a . . . a . . . lady . . . ah . . . sorta . . . ah . . .blocking the way.” His eyes were downcast. “She wouldn’t let me pass by.”

“C’mon, nobody’s allowed to do that.” I pleaded, incredulous and hungry.

“No, really, she won’t let me get by,” he insisted.

“Where is this lady?” I demanded.

“About four cars up,” he replied.

“Come with me,” I said, a trifle bellicose from the days battles and sinking blood sugar, “I’ll be damned if we’re gonna starve after all we’ve been through today.” We set off, me in the lead, slamming upon the doors between cars and banging our shoulders against the rocking walls of the car.

Two cars ahead it became instantly evident that the train was composed of a mixture of French and Italian cars. In the French cars it seemed most of the passengers were other Europeans and Americans. This Italian car, however, was jammed with Italian families on holiday. It was loaded with kids running up and down the companionway, hopping over the luggage that had spilled over into it. A aromatic stew of bread, sausage and cheese and smoke permeated the air. There was singing and the expressive banter of the language. The car was as festive as a square in a small Italian village on the feast day of it patron saint.

With one exception. Midway down the car, seated on one of the little flip-down seats from the side of the companionway was the apparition that had curdled Steve’s blood—an angry-looking Italian ‘nona’ in widow’s black, heavy stockings rolled down to her ankles forming two, beige doughnuts. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled back into a severe chignon, and in her gnarled hand the unmistakable shape of a Di Nobili cigar, the favorite nicotine dispenser of my grandfather, Sebastian. She had ballooned up to the size of woman who no longer sought the gaze, or the suit, of men. Draped over the little seat, legs splayed open to an unladylike degree (but without the slightest erotic intent or effect), she presented the profile of glowering gorilla. 

Unconsciously my stride down the companionway slowed almost to a stop. Steve banged into my back. “See what I mean,” he whispered.

“Uh huh,” I managed, miffed at his ‘I told you so’ manner.

We were about two compartments away when she looked up and fixed a rheumy-red stare straight into me, pulled up the cigar and took a drag on it that would kill a healthy man half her age. There was no way of getting by her if she did not straighten up and flatten herself a bit against the compartment wall.

I stopped, and just in time to avoid being kicked in the face by a young boy who was swinging himself out of a compartment doorway by hanging from its lintel. 

“Let’s just go back,” Steve suggested. I had to admit the thought had already occurred to me. And I no longer seemed to have much appetite. But I was his professor, and my sense of authority was on the line.

“No way,” I said, my eyes still locked into her glare as though one might keep visual contact with a dangerous animal. I don’t know what accounted for my boldness, but just as I said it something clicked in from my memory of all those Italian widows I remembered as a kid at those Columbus Day picnics back in New York. “Let’s go for it,” I said, reaching back and grabbing Steve by the front of his shirt and pulling him toward the woman.

The “nona” made no motion to move, seeming to dare us to try to squeeze past without, God forbid, stepping on her foot, or rubbing against her. Our delicate reproductive organs would be unprotected and exposed to a vicious attack of emasculation.

Putting my voice into an almost childlike tone of supplication I gave a little smile and said:“Buona sera, nona. Vorremmo andare alla carrozza buffet. Permesso.” I was pushing my luck with the “nona”.

She looked up. The slightest smile seemed to come to her face, a rather victorious smile that I took to indicate that she had accepted the respect she expected. Slowly she pulled her pudgy legs aside, indicating her permission for us to pass. But as we did she grabbed Steve’s wrist. A look of panic came over his face. I wondered if she was going to give them one of those excruciating cheek pinches that old Italian ladies love to inflict on kids. But her smile became a touch more expansive. She held on to him for another second or two, fixing his eyes with hers, and in a voice that seemed too soft for a smoker of Di Nobili cigars she said “Buon appetito, bello ragazzo.”

Say ‘grazie mille, Signora,’ I whispered to Steve. He managed to squeak it out, and she released him.

Later, I found as comfortable a position as I could in the middle bunk, with Steve above me and one of the ladies of our group below. A mirror arrangement opposed it, making the compartment quite cramped and stuffy. We slept in our clothes, only taking turns removing our shoes. We pulled the window down slightly, but we weren’t about to leave the sliding door open; there had been reports that organized thieves had been using gas to incapacitate passengers in their compartments and rob them.

Steve was in the bunk above me and had decided to have a little snack from the bag of about three pounds of apricots he had purchased in Pisa. Unfortunately the bag had become soggy and tore open as he was fumbling for it. In the dark the apricots, dozens of them, rained down into and through the bunks below like pin-balls, some bouncing across to the bunks opposite, others scattering over the floor.

We attempted to retrieve them, but some were squashed in our bunks, others mashed on the floor. So we slept, sticky bathed in the fragrance of nectar of apricot. I chewed Steve out mildly but soon fell asleep wondering whether the Madonna Subterfuge might have had something to do with the day’s events. 
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.10.2012)
This story is adapted from “The Madonna Subterfuge” in The Stranger is Me: Travels and Self-Discoveries, © 2007, James A. Clapp