Mussolini’s Revenge

Mussolini would not be pleased.

In the heart of Milano

In the heart of Milano

That thought kept popping up on Day 4 of our Italian adventure. Before we left, we decided to leave Piedmont for one day and venture into Milan. I wanted to see the Last Supper – perhaps my one and only chance to do so – and the side trip would be a nice break from the cemeteries and town halls that dominated our hunt for family roots. I did not, however, want to drive in the big city, and since I love train travel, I made arrangements online for us to go from our farmhouse apartment to the center of Milan.

Trusting the Internet for this was probably my first mistake, though I didn’t learn it until we met our cousins on the first night. How convenient, they said, that the farmhouse was just a half-mile or so from the local train station in Valenza. And there was a direct train right into Milan. Not to the central station, but it would be easy enough to take the metro from there to anywhere we wanted to go. Ah, I see, I nodded, smiling and thanking them. I didn’t tell them we already had our tickets, and that my web research hadn’t uncovered this option. No, I had us leaving from Alessandria, about a ten-minute drive away, and then changing trains in Voghera. D’oh.

Doesn't that just scream "Speed!" "Reliability!" And that's one of the nicer ones...

Doesn't that just scream "Speed!" "Reliability!" And that's one of the nicer ones...

I also first thought we would drive into Alessandria, but with the local station so close, why not take the train from there? We did, and I felt somewhat vindicated that our cousins’ suggestion would not have worked: the direct from Valenza left too early in the morning and did not run late enough at night. The original itinerary was sound, given the time of our visit to see the Last Supper (you just don’t walk in off the street to see it; you need tickets months in advance). Of course, we had added another connection on the trip back, but the last train from Alessandria to Valenza left after we were due to reach Alessandria. No problem.

So on Thursday we reach the Valenza station. I duly validate our tickets, and we board a beat-up two-car contraption for the first leg of the trip. It sounded and ran like an old bus stuck on rails. But we chugged into Alessandria on time. And we left there for Voghera, again on time, in a slightly larger and nicer train. In Voghera, we were making another step up, to an InterCity train. Only problem was, it came in late. But not really a problem; we had plenty of time to reach Milan and make our tour.

Close quarters...

Close quarters...

The InterCity trains have six seats in small compartments off a main hall. Seats are reserved. With our arrival, the compartment was full. The day was hot. The air conditioning was non-existent. The lanky dude across from me had several cell calls in three different languages. Thankfully, he was the only one of our seatmates on the phone, but I realized in that moment what a traveling hell it will be if the airlines allow cell phones on planes. Ring tones and vapid conversations assaulting you from every direction – great.

Now, Trenitalia, the national railway, had no control over our seatmates and their habits. But it did control the train, and ours was barely moving. This semi-sleek and supposedly fast vehicle could not have outrun our diesel-bus bucket from Valenza. Track problems? Mechanical problems? Don’t know, but I kept thinking about Mussolini, and the first tug of what became a nagging fear entered my head: What if the trains have problems going back? If we miss a connection…no, no won’t happen.

The Sforzzo Palace, from the bus

The Sforza Castle, from the bus

Roman ruins

Roman ruins

The day in Milan was fine, except for the heat and the tourist-trap lunch we had. I broke down and tasted some of my mother’s gelato – heavenly – and we saw the major sites along with the Last Supper. Back at the train station, with the nag close to becoming an anxiety-induced panic, I checked on the last train from Voghera to Alessandria. If something went wrong and we got to Voghera too late to catch it, we would be a long way from home. The information guy told me it left at 9 pm. I was not sure he understood what I asked, though he spoke English. We boarded the train and I hoped for the best.

Once again, reserved seats in mostly full compartments. Our car included an earnest-looking young guy and pregnant woman who looked like Juliette Binoche. The train left Milan proper and began to pick up steam  – much faster than anything we had experienced on the trip in. No track problems! No mechanical problems! We’re going to be all –

And then it stopped. It was an easy deceleration, nothing jarring. Only to my soul, that is. Because in that moment, I knew: Forget Mussolini and making the trains run on time. His ghost was having its revenge for the ignominy of being strung up like a Parma ham back in ’45. Screw precision and timetables. You people are fucked.

Juliette called home. So did the others in the car. The young man let out a swear that roughly translates as “cock” and then apologized. But nobody blamed him. Most of these folks were on their way home after a long day’s work on a too-hot Thursday in May. And we had those two connections…

After a few minutes, the engine roared back to life. Relief spread through the compartment. We slowly moved forward, coming to another stop at a small-town station not on the itinerary. Annoucements in Italian we couldn’t understand, but we got the gist – mechanical problems. No shit, Giacomo. We were waiting for a local engineer to come. People filed off the train, to smoke, get some air, kvetch. Though no one seemed totally surprised. Maybe this is the norm in Berlusconi’s Italy, even in the modernized, industrialized north. I saw a group of people huddle around a conductor. Could be another hour, I learned. I looked at my watch. We would never catch the last train from Alessandria to Valenza. With luck, lots of luck, we could still get from Voghera to Alessandria, then could take a cab back to Valenza. With no luck, hope there was some sort of habitable hotel near the Voghera station.

Suddenly – dare I say miraculously – we were herded back onto the train. It had sprung back to life. Take that, you spirits of fascism past! We would be all right, we would – wait. What does that announcement mean? Broken English from our seatmates. The next stop would be the last one for this train. We would get off and wait for another train to Voghera.

Doom. Gloom. And an incessant self-flagellation, as I felt like I had screwed up. I should have looked harder for a direct train. I should have driven. I should have helped more nuns off their trains, like the one I aided in Milan that morning. For once, I was not sputtering at my mother. I was sputtering at myself.

Off the train now, waiting for the next one, and a small commuter train comes in. I turn to a young guy near us. He, luckily, speaks good English. He tells us this train will stop at Voghera. The one we are supposed to take is nowhere in sight. All aboard!

So this is Voghera...

So this is Voghera...

We get to Voghera in time to catch a train to Alessandria. Only the info guy back in Milan was wrong. It’s about a 90-minute wait. And of course we have just missed the one that would have gotten us to Alessandria and let us take the last train to Valenza (a minor hit for the Italian knock-off of the Monkees, the Capuchins). By this time, it’s almost 9. I have not eaten, because I wanted to wait till we got back, haha. I need a beer. Luckily, the station restaurant is still open. Two Amstels and a candy bar fill some of the hole. My mother has held up well through all this, and we are resigned to that expensive cab ride back home, assuming we find one whenever the hell it is we reach Alessandria. For a moment, I let myself laugh. I remember that this is what traveling is all about. Adventure. The unforeseen. At times, grappling with adversity. And it’s not always pleasant. But it’s always memorable. My mother and I are sharing a traveling adventure in Italy, courtesy of Trenitalia. OK.

Now, this is more like it!

Now, this is more like it!

A few minutes later, I see that the pride of the Italian train fleet is about to pull in. A Eurostar, truly sleek, gleaming, the kind of high-speed travel Europeans take for granted and we can only dream about. It’s about to pull into Voghera and…it…stops… in…Alessandria! Of course, from what I know about European train travel, these babies require advance tickets and are much more costly than the local train we were supposed to take. But it was worth a shot…

The train arrives – on time. The conductor steps off. People enter and leave. Finally, we approach him, show him our obviously useless ticket. He is about to wave us off, when my mother explains we were on the ill-fated train from Milan. He looks at her. He has pity for an old woman traveling with her obviously incompetent son. He lets us board.

We spend the next 20 minutes or so whizzing through the Italian countryside. The seats are comfortable. The air conditioning works. And we get to Alessandria about an hour early than we would have if not for the kindly conductor (and only two hours later than the original itinerary called for…). We are both beat. But we made it back. And I am here to tell the world that the precision of Italian trains died with Mussolini. I guess you can’t have everything.

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~ by mburgan on June 21, 2009.

One Response to “Mussolini’s Revenge”

  1. Reblogged this on i cittadini prima di tutto.

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