Thursday, May 13, 2010

Italian journey, 6: By train to Palermo

Thursday, May 13—

BY LAND, AIR, or sea; that was the question: how to get from Naples to Palermo. I'm not sure why we rejected flying; there are low-cost flights, though they often have hidden extra costs, and generally have to be bought well ahead, and we don't like to commit ourselves too early in the game. Or it may be that we'd just flown as much as we wanted in the previous week or so.

Then too I'd thought, back in the States, that we'd be spending a couple of days in Naples, and that we'd be walking past travel agencies with attractive posters advertising specials: Tunisia, €79; Bucharest, €119. But in the end we never got to Naples, preferring that drive to Amalfi and Paestum.

In the end it was the baggage that tipped the scale, so to speak. We were comfortably in Caserta, and could take a train from there. Going by boat would have required a long schlep from the Naples station to the docks; going by rail would require only one change of trains. On the way to the car rental office, Saturday morning, I impulsively dropped into a travel agency and asked about the possibilities; rail seemed much easier and a little cheaper.

So after an early supper in the Jolly Hotel, friendly enough but not really mirthful, we walked a block to the station and wrestled our stuff onto the nine o'clock train to Naples. This wasn't going to be so bad, I told myself; the shuttle-train is bare-bones, the seats are metal (what few there are: the cars are designed for standing), but there aren't many riding and there's plenty of room for our baggage.

I carry a fairly small back=pack: four shirts, two polo shirts, two pair of pants, a pair of shoes and another of slippers, various socks and shorts, a couple of books. I carry also an attaché case full of the thirteen supplements and vitamins we insist on bringing along. (I'm not really complaining: I seem to keep a semblance of health and strength. Besides, since I grabbed the attaché case at the last minute when I realized the quantity of pills I'd be carrying, I slipped this laptop in as well; good thing, as a later post, on technology, will reveal.)

Then there's my shoulder-bag: notebooks, hand-cleanser, eyeshade, flashlight, camera and batteries; and attached to it the small lightweight case for the iPad and its keyboard — again, more on that later.

Like me, Lindsey's responsible for three items: the black cloth shopping-bag affair she always hauls around, a fairly small wheeled suitcase, and her purse. Also, tonight, a plastic shopping bag of various food items. One two three, four five six, I count them off as we get on the train to Naples, and again as we get off. Our arrival track's a long way from the waiting room, so I have plenty of time to recheck everything, as I compulsively do.

Nothing open in the Naples train station; even the newsstand closes at ten. Our train leaves at 10:48; there's nothing to do but sit on one of the few, widely-separated benches — the station's apparently designed for commuters — and wait. Anyhow, it's late; we're sated from dinner; we're coming down a bit from a couple of days of wonder and delight.

Finally our train backs into the station. Our car is the second from the front, a long haul from the waiting room. One two three four five six, we schlep along the grimy cars in the grimy night, sweaty and dirty, and haul aboard up the steps and find our compartment. We've reserved the two window seats, facing one another: but there's a guy sitting in one of them, and two other men in the six-seat compartment. God knows how long they've been on the train, maybe all the way from Rome, maybe further: the little garbage container is full; empty plastic water-bottles stand on the windowsill. I claim our seats; wrestle our stuff onto the overhead shelves; and we settle in for what's billed as a nine-hour trip.

Many of the books I've recently read on Sicily seem to involve railroad trains. This is not surprising: Sicily seems to be a place you leave or return to; it's as if these books are not written for Sicilian readers but those who, like me, long for Sicily, or perhaps regret her. My favorite writer so far has been Elio Vittorini, as noted here six weeks back, though others come close — I'll try to get to some comments on H. Festing Jones's charming Diversions in Sicily one of these days. Vittorini's father worked on the railroad so it's logical he'd thread his stories on train travel: but then I worked on the railroad too, for a year or so, in the remote past.

Vittorini refers to his fellow travelers not by name — introductions are never made — but by physical characteristic: Big Nose; The Man with the Hat; and the like. I'll do the same. White socks, let's call the guy who'd been in Lindsey's seat, is now sitting next to me; he's taken off his shoes and stretched across to rest his feet on the one empty seat in the compartment, next to Lindsey. I hope the feet smell better than the guy.

Next to him, on the other side of me, is Dark Man, perhaps Indian, perhaps not. The easy racial and ethnic divisions we Americans make are much less clear on the road to Sicily, where centuries of immigration, trading, and war and occupation have left an amazingly complicated gene-pool soup. Dark Man sits motionless and expectantly; I never see more of his face than the right profile.

Opposite him sits a young and slender, clearly Italian, neatly dressed in dark trousers and a rugby shirt with a gothic-script initial on the breast-pocket and a patch reading Rough To Go on his shoulder. Once we've settled in there is total silence in the compartment until the train starts, when White Socks lunges to close the window against the racket of steel wheels and rails.

It's good for the soul, as my mother would have said, to make a long train trip from time to time. You're put in your place, in more ways than one. You're reminded of the sheer distances, for one thing. I'm not talking about high-speed trains here; they don't exist yet in Italy. (In fact protestors are trying to prevent it from happening up in Piemonte.) I'm talking about slow trains, intercity trains, locals. This long Naples-Palermo run slides past most stations without stopping, but now and then there's a long wait somewhere; finally a train rushes past in the other direction and our train regretfully strains into motion again.

There's no leg room: Lindsey's black bag is at her feet, since it won't stand upright on the shelf. White Socks is asleep: fortunately he's short; his head won't tumble onto my shoulder; he lies suspended shoulders and feet by the two opposite poltroon, cushioned seats with tattered covers and head-rests. His socks are twice as long as his feet, and drape listlessly beyond them as if seeking to get away. I sleep seated, head thrown back most of the time, cradled in my hands on the pull-out table-shelf some of the time.

We sleep forty minutes or so, then wake, whether from an unexplained stop or resumed motion. It's dark outside, of course, and often we're in tunnels, whether beneath mountains or cities, it's all the same. The light remains full on in our compartment, but we're too tired to stay awake, and the books are packed, I'm in no mood for the International Herald Tribune, and I don't want to display my iPad with its supply of electronic reading.

Finally, at four o'clock in the morning, we arrive at a brightly lit, quite modern station where we stand for quite a while: Villa San Giovanni. I try to think where that might be and give it up. A parade of long-distance trucks files by on a narrow road next to the tracks; one by one they make a slow impossible right-angle turn into a tunnel built just big enough for them. After a long wait we move again, but only a quarter-mile or so: then a long stop: then we back into the station again.

Ah: we must be breaking the train up to run its cars into the ferry; Villa San Giovanni must be across the straits from Messina. I have no map, unaccountably, and it's still dark out. Finally our car is moved into a huge steel room past three or four men who stand around holding things. We bang up against the end-stop. Out the window I see a garbage bin with three compartments; a coil of cable the size of a refrigerator, wrapped in plastic; a couple of ladders; a portable scaffold on wheels; various drums of oil and grease.

Finally we hear the sound of a quiet motor, and a little later we detect the faintest of rolling motion: we must be on the water. It would be nice to leave the carriage and look for a café; there must be one on board somewhere; but I have no idea how long the crossing will take and don't want to risk it. Dark Man is standing in the doorway leaning against the edge, as he often has; he likes to stand in the passageway and look gloomily out the window into the night. He seems ready to speak. We must be near Messina, I say to him by way of invitation to conversation: Yes, he replies in a single word, and looks back out the blank window.

White Socks has awakened, stretched, put his shoes on, and disappeared, I don't know where. Rough to Touch stands in the passageway. I don't know what he's thinking. Dark Man is prepared to leave; I'm sure he'll get off in Messina. It's seven o'clock now or so, and suddenly we feel a bump, we're connected to a locomotive, we're being pulled out of the ferry, we stop, we're pushed back again to couple on to the next car, we repeat the maneuver. It's a laborious ballet of huge apparatus and ponderous weights.

Then I suppose we somehow reach Messina. The sky is beginning to show some light, but either it's not enough, or my eyes aren't working right. Dark Man has disappeared, ditto his baggage. Rough to Touch still stands in the passageway; White Socks is yet to be seen. A woman with a big suitcase looks in: Posso? May I? Yes, I say, of course, come in. She begins to sit in Rough to Touch's seat, and I point to Dark Man's: That one is free. She heaves into it with a sigh, a smile, a thank-you.

We don't move for another hour. At eight o'clock we finally pull away from Messina; we can see tracks, rails, signals, lampposts, wires, gravel, all the familiar detritus of railyards. Then landscape: weeds, rusty outbuildings, then orchards, suburbs, hills, all interspersed with tunnels: the Italian loves tunneling.

It took another four hours to reach Palermo. I nodded off between stations, then awoke: our train was now a local, and often waited in a station for an oncoming train: there must be a lot of single track between Messina and Palermo. At a place called Termine — it was not our terminus, of course — Posso and Rough to Touch get off. White Socks shows up, grabs his back-pack off the rack, and disappears. We go back to sleep, Lindsey and I, to awake a little before noon, as the train finally pulls into Palermo.

Notes on our meals during this trip can be found, as always, at Eating Every Day; photos of Campania can be seen at this webpage; photos of Palermo can be seen here.

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