Andrea and I have been up since 5:30 this morning. Beginning at Praiano we have taken a bus to Amalfi and then a second bus to Salerno. We are booked on the 10:29 train to Taormina in Sicily, six hours away. Our experience of Italian public transport has mostly been good, though the trains can get crowded. I stood for the first hour of the two hour trip from Rome to Naples (the train emptied at Pompeii) and the Naples to Sorrento train was a standing room only cattle class experience. Thankfully we have booked seats for the long ride to Sicily - we're in Caretta (carriage) 4, Seats 90/91.
The train is on time. We man-handle our luggage (a backpack, a cabin sized bag with wheels, a day pack, camera, handbag etc) down a narrow corridor looking for 90/91. I see it ahead of us but am perplexed when we reach the door to find all six seats occupied. Six sets of eyes turn our way as we stop at the door while I check our tickets thinking - oh shit, an Italian double booking fiasco. I check my tickets and they are correct. We're in the right place. And so begins a conversation in sign language and halting English and mangled Italian where I am clearly saying 'WE HAVE A BOOKING FOR SEATS 90 AND 91. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?' My sign language becomes louder and may, by accident, include some of the swearing I am thinking. No way are we going to stand for six hours. Out of character, I become the chivalrous male and indicate my poor (pregnant?) wife as part of the exchange (that would help my argument; get the sympathy vote, but would also be miraculous).
Everyone is waving their hands but no one seems to know how this has happened. Everyone has tickets. I show them mine and ask to see theirs. The couple in 90 and 91 are in the wrong seats. It turns out the two older ladies by the window have tickets but they are for tomorrow's train. They have boarded a day early. They simply shrug and make no effort to resolve the situation. I indicate that they are the problem but stop short of grabbing them by their mantillas and dragging them into the corridor. It's a stalemate. I stand and stare at the two matrons, each in their early seventies, and clearly well versed in the art of stonewalling. They avoid my gaze and I begin to smell a rat -a Naples rat, as that is where they have boarded.
The couple in our seats (90/91- in case anyone is not clear about this), are lovely and amidst a lot of shrugging and gesticulating offer us their (our) seats. They don't seem to want to press the matrons to relinquish their booked seats. It is a case of keeping the peace, not causing a fuss (very un-Italian it occurs to me). We hesitate, as this hardly seems fair, but accept with an appropriate level of reluctance. The woman, well dressed in high heels (Italian women don't seem to be able to cope with flat soles - some podiatry problem?), and her equally well dressed husband are relegated to the aisle where there are a couple of fold down bench seats, but also a constant flow of human traffic requiring them to stand or swivel at each passing.
The plump matrons remain silent, unmoved with an attitude of 'what's the big deal? It happens all the time. We can't be asked to leave the train or our seats now. We are three hours from our home. What's done is done.'
ACT II Death Stare
I load our relatively small pieces of luggage on top of their giant bags above our heads. They look a little taken aback. How dare I load my bags into their storage space. I am furious. I wear my version of a Julie Bishop death stare (an Australian politician famous for her steely killer look in situations such as this) and don't hide my displeasure, my anger at this injustice. Andrea, sitting opposite me, is watching my face and reports later the sparks flying, the daggers piercing, the smoke emitting from my ears. She thinks this amusing, wondering how it is being received by our travelling companions.
I am in avenging mode. I am determined that my death stare will triumph; will result in such discomfort that guilt will force a change of heart and justice will be done. The other two occupants, a mother and teenage son who have failed to enter the story so far and who are in their seats as booked who, I suspect, understand much more of my rantings than they are prepared to admit, keep their eyes downcast and avoid becoming involved.
My death stare fails to make any difference. At this juncture my frustration is again rising and I pose a question to the compartment and to the matrons in particular: 'Are you going to let them (the couple in the corridor) stand for the full six hours?' It's in English/Australian and so fails to have any impact (or at least fails to be acknowledged). Avenging angels (myself) are clearly not fully rational.
After an hour I insist that the standing woman take my seat and I move to the corridor. The mother of the teenager has engaged in what seems to be friendly banter with the frumpy matrons and I begin to develop my conspiracy theory. Occasionally one of the matrons, the one who has dyed hair so sparse that I can see her scalp, offers her seat to the standing couple but makes no pretense of any real intent, not even shifting in her deep comfortable seat. The other, who fills her seat to capacity, starts to sing - a jolly little Italian number which speaks of her smug victory. I ask the mother (to test my emerging theory) if they are all friends? She understands enough to say No.
The hours clickety clack by. The sea follows the train. At every curve a scene of a flat seascape with a volcanic ash or pebble beach lining the shore and kids playing, families sitting beneath umbrellas presents itself. The villages also follow the rail line and to the east the land rises sharply from the flood-plain. Mostly we speed through the stations, occasionally we stop. The villages are recent, filled with boring rows of ochre two story buildings and little of the romance of the ancient towns we have seen.
The compartment settles and there is a peace of sorts. Perhaps a resignation.
ACT III. Mafiosi
At around the four hour mark there is movement in the compartment. The frumpy bloated matrons indicate that they will be alighting at the next station (Paolo). Everyone stands. I am asked to move my bags to allow them to access theirs. I am also invited (remember I am the only adult male in the compartment) to help bring their bags down, a task which I carry out with some grace despite my still simmering anger (the passing hours have mellowed me - I have been unable to maintain my death stare, unlike Julie Bishop who has much more staying power). The bags weigh a ton. Are these mafia matrons carrying the dead bodies of their husbands in these things. Are the bags stuffed with high grade heroin? Have we stumbled into something more dangerous than we realise?
As we pull into the station it becomes clear that all six are alighting here. A strange coincidence? One of the matrons hands the standing wife her large handbag which I now realise she has been nursing for the last three hours. In a bizarre and somewhat false ritual we all shake hands and bid arrivederci as if we are a group of old friends who have had a minor tiff but patched it up and all is forgiven. The matrons are particularly gracious. They seem to be in a jolly mood - their ruse having worked as planned.
They exit and we have the compartment to ourselves and I am left with the sense that I have just participated in a Calabrian scam worked on us by a team of six. Did the final handshake mean that I am now an honorary member of the cosa nostra? Luckily there were no kisses involved. I hope none of our companions were part of the Sicilian Corleone family for that is where we are headed.