Some journeys are just longer. To others, there’s simply no end. My thoughts exactly as our train halts for the third time in the last three hours in a station which is still not our final destination. I am steaming, sweating, perhaps also swearing on a train in Italy, somewhere between Rome and Ariano Irpino.
Chance and curiosity plotted to get me here. First, my name was drawn at a tombola organised during a wine and cheese tasting event, opening up the possibility for me to spend an agro touristic week-end in the beautiful Campania to which I am now headed. The flight tickets were not included, but for someone who never won anything before, this was no obstacle. The organiser is very considerate: he makes arrangements for me to travel in the company of one of his colleagues. I praise such generosity and cannot believe my luck. But that was before I meet my travel mate.
The lady he sent over is not a gift. Suspicion ramifies inside me that she is on the mission of putting my patience to a test. This I do not have plentiful and she seems determined to put me off balance. Her conversation opening line when we reach the airport is: “I hope no plane crashes today.” I’m dumbfounded: why would anyone mention plane-related disasters 15 minutes before boarding a Ryanair flight? “Last time I was here, one did crash on the platform and our own plane had to be delayed.” Meet Vania. I will be stuck with her for the next endless hours.
While I am quite the independent traveller, Vania acts as if crossing the street on her own were a wild experience. Hence she follows me: I turn left, she turns left. And as she does so, she feels compelled to utter her precious opinions and substantial advice. And she has one for everything. I now finally have someone to coach me on how to eat, where to sit, when and how to look out the window, etc. Vania truly makes one appreciate the golden side of silence.
I hope my nerves would last. The doors close behind me, taking me hostage in the Italian train. But pray the Lord: the seat next to my undesirable partner is already taken! I rush in the hall, rejoicing the prospect of some peace and quiet. But no, Vania cannot let me sit on the floor, and insists I take the only spare seat that lies not far (enough) from hers. Needless to say, there is no refusing Vania. Not if you want to save yourself a headache.
I then search for refuge into music. But even though a perfectly visible cable connects my ears to an iPad which I ostensibly hold in hand for anyone to see, Vania keeps talking to me. Fearing I might be too subtle, I increase the level of my rudeness to point out as clearly as humanly possible that I need a break by diving into a book, doing my best to fake concentration and turn invisible. But there is no stopping Vania: try as I might to camouflage my presence for a little while, she ends up tapping on my knees, making signs that I should look outside.
A window separates me from that wide open field she is so crazed about. I wish she were on the other side. The train has no air-conditioning. The night is falling and we are much delayed now. We’ve been travelling all day: took a plane early in the morning, then a bus to Rome Termini, walked the streets of Rome, and ended up on this battered old train. We are trapped in one of the five carriages that carry too many people it can handle. We sweat in unison. After all, Vania did warn me: “I hope we make it to Ariano. When I travel, there’s always a problem.”
The train squeaks and dies on us at 9 o’clock in the evening: this time, we even get the privilege of an announcement. It says sorry, due to technical problems, overheated engine, all passengers must get off, not going any further. Everyone takes the exit except for Vania who believes we should stay, just in case the train decides to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and move again. I jump out, thinking that reaching the destination would not solve my problem: I still have a whole week-end in front of me with Vania.