Martin pushed his way onto the bus and felt only slightly guilty for crowding out a woman who was trying to get on at the same time. He found a seat next to an elderly man and sat down. The two nodded to each other and then sat in silence as the driver and an assistant loaded the luggage.
Ciccio had been on the street for nearly six hours already and had only managed a few small purchases. It would not be a good business day for him. His only consolation was that he had one of the special bags and that would mean an envelope of money! When Bruno would come was only a guess but that he would come was sure.
The bus lurched forward and the driver careened through traffic on his way out of the airport. Martin tried to study the scenery as it zipped past the window but found it nearly impossible. The bus driver was driving excessively fast, but he noticed that other cars on the roadway seemed to be driving just as fast and faster. Lanes meant nothing. Cars passed on the right, cars passed on the left. They passed on the shoulder. They went around the bus in every possible angle. It struck Martin that he should be frightened, but he was tired from the long flight, so he just sat there.
It was obvious that winter was coming on in this country. The trees were already dropping their leaves and the sky was a heavy slate gray. He wondered if, perhaps, he should have brought his raincoat after all. It was a bit cool, but not cold.
After about ten minute’s time they began to enter the outskirts of Milan, largely an industrial city and as industrial cities are prone to be, it was ugly. Huge concrete buildings loomed up like monsters, most of them fairly new by Italian standards, great faceless tasteless hulks thrown together for people to live in after the war. Milan was all but obliterated from the face of the map by allied bombing. In a country where it was not unusual for buildings to be four, five, six, and eight centuries old, anything less than a hundred years was brand new. He looked out the window at the passing city and realized that much of it was familiar in the way that cities of America are familiar, and yet distinctively different. The billboards and the products they advertised were different. He couldn’t put his finger on just what was strange about them. It wasn’t that the products were unknown to him or that he couldn’t read the language, both of which was true but he was used to American advertising, and American advertising followed a rather strict formula. Although he couldn’t define that formula, or explain exactly what it was, he knew by sight that it was different here.
The streets were full of people, something that he wasn’t used to seeing in San Jose or Santa Clara. There, if people were out they were usually in cars or buses, hardly anyone walked the streets. There were sidewalk cafés with their tables set out, people sipping coffees or drinks or merely sitting outside chatting. It was interesting. Even for all its overcrowded industrial surliness, it was interesting. It wasn’t, he knew, that American cities were so much more beautiful, they weren’t. One look at the outskirts of Kansas City, New York, Portland or Seattle and the same homely nature of uncontrolled urban sprawl jumps out at you. It was just that he had expected all of Italy to look like a storybook or a postcard. He never thought it would look like every place else in the world, even America.
The bus turned a corner and lurched onto a tree-lined street and then to the far right into a bus only lane and screeched to a halt. The passengers all stood at once and tried to debark the bus the same way they got on, pushing and shoving, having no patience for standing in line.
It struck Martin that this must be the way things are done in Italy. No one seemed overly insulted by the pushing and the close proximity. He smiled to himself; this would have been cause for a fight or even a shooting in San Jose. He finally managed to get off the bus and then waited by the curb as the driver opened the underbelly and started stacking the luggage on the sidewalk. His bag was one of the first to be unloaded since he was one of the last passengers on. He grabbed it and then looked up and down the street before deciding to simply follow the flow of foot traffic to what he thought was probably the train station.
He came to a large entrance and turned into it. On either side there were small shops and stores and to the front of him a large set of marble stairs and an escalator. He took the escalator to the upper level where it emptied into a large rectangular foyer. To the left was a glassed-in waiting room filled with people waiting on their trains. The room was filled with benches and people, some of them reading, milling about and conversing: weary travelers waiting on their trains. Beyond that was the ticket counter, and he proceeded through the throng of people to stand in line to get his ticket. He was actually surprised that people were standing in line here. After all, they didn’t stand in line to get on the bus. He would have to make a mental note of where and when people stood in line and when they didn’t. It was going to be an unconventional experience. He finally got to the window, set his bag down, and looked to the man behind the counter. The man peered over the top of his reading glasses at him and asked,
Martin cleared his throat uncomfortably and said,
“I would like a ticket to Venice on the direct.”
The man responded, “Diretto?”
Martin assumed Diretto was the equivalent of ‘direct’ and so he answered, “Si.”
The gentleman opened the drawer, pulled out a ticket, and with his hand, made several notations on it, and then quoted a price to Martin, which he did not understand. Martin reached to his breast pocket, pulled out his wallet and took out some American bills. He held them up to the man questioningly. The man reached to a $50.00 bill, pulled it out, laid it on the counter and opened his cash drawer and counted out the correct change in Italian Lira and gave it back to Martin.
Martin had no idea if the change he made was correct. For that matter he had no idea if the woman at the airport in the hour before had made the right change for him. He knew that when he got to Venice, one of the first things he was going to have to do was find a bank and get a few hundred dollars worth of Italian Lire. He looked at his ticket and realized he didn’t know where to go.
He turned back to the man and asked him, again in English,
“Where to? Which track?”
The man simply pointed and responded, “Binario undici.”
Martin looked to where the man pointed and saw a large open expanse across the foyer directly behind him. He turned, smiled, thanked the man in English, picked up his bag and started toward it.
As he stepped across the threshold into the outer area, the beauty of the Milan train station struck him, something he hadn’t noticed before. To his right he heard the air brakes release on a train as it pulled in and the screeching of a whistle. There seemed to be about twenty sets of tracks, and each one of them had a train that was either coming in or departing, people milling about, men with huge wheelbarrows, wheeling loads of luggage to and from the street. There was a small newspaper stand, a man selling newspapers to passengers from all around the world. The ceiling was high and seemed to be glass paned. Martin stood for a moment looking at the scene and taking it in. It reminded him of a painting he’d seen some years ago. Not the actual painting, of course, but a print reproduction on a calendar. It seemed to him it must have been by Monet? Or was it Manet? Maybe Chezanne. He couldn’t remember. It was an impressionist or pointillism work and if he recalled correctly, the scene before him was strikingly similar. Although Martin had never been an soldier in a time of war, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this place in nineteen forty or so, flooded with German soldiers, Nazis, SS Troops. He could almost see them standing in the corridors, their rifles, their packs; every scene reminiscent of a movie; lovers kissing goodbye, comrades off to battle. Perhaps it was simply that he was tired from his long flight and the hairy bus ride from the airport. But he was in a very different place, and he knew it.
He looked at his ticket. The man had said Binario undici: binario, what the hell was binario? Could that be ‘binary’, as in two? Train tracks come in two’s, right? Well, there’s the famed third rail for electric trains… No, these were overhead electric. Okay, binario must mean tracks. Undici… What was undici? Uno… one: Dici… that must be ten. One and ten make eleven, “Unless they add differently here too.” He snickered. He was getting punchy from the trip if he was making bad jokes and actually laughing at them. Okay. He would try track eleven. Hell, it wasn’t like he was in a hurry anyway. According to his friend and lawyer, he had three weeks to figure out where he was going and what to do after he got there! He looked to see the tracks were numbered from left to right, smallest to largest. He counted down until he found track eleven and sure enough there was a sign “11” and a train sitting there. People were getting on and off, handing their bags and luggage through the windows, crowding in and out of the doors. He strode uncertainly toward it and decided he would get on somewhere toward the middle where there were fewer people. He walked down the isle on the left side of the train toward the engine and found a door where there weren’t as many people struggling to get on and off and entered. He climbed the steps to the doorway and turned left down a very narrow hallway that ran the length of the car on the outside of the compartments. He looked at his ticket to see if there was any compartment number indicated. If there was, he didn’t see it. He strode to the end of the car and found an empty compartment.
On the outside of the door to the left there was a placard that held several names. He assumed those names were for the people who had reserved this car. Okay. He would have to find a compartment that either had his name on it or that wasn’t reserved. He opened the door, stepped into the next car and walked down the same narrow hallway, looking at each compartment, looking for placards that didn’t have names on them. He finally found one, opened it and stepped in. The compartment was small, bracketed on either side by high-backed cushion benches and above them, racks to stow luggage. There was a large window that was closed on the side of the cabin. He turned around, stuck his head out the door into the hallway, looked first right and then left. There didn’t seem to be anyone else coming up or down the hallway. He checked the placard again. It was empty.
“This one must be all right,” he thought to himself.
He turned back, closed the door, hefted his suitcase to the luggage rack on the right, took his suit jacket off and sat down. He wondered how long he would wait before the train departed. He looked at his ticket and tried to read it. Some of it seemed to make sense, but he couldn’t find a departure time. It occurred to him that he could be sitting there for five minutes or for two hours. He didn’t know. It also occurred to him that perhaps he’d made a mistake. He didn’t know Italian and though the people he had come in contact with seemed to speak a few words, he wasn’t sure that everyone would.
He looked at his watch. It was three o’clock. He tried to count forward, three–no, that wasn’t right was it? He would have to count back. But how many hours was it? The travel agent had said that it was nine hours. So that would mean in Italian time, it was noon.
He looked at his ticket again. He could not decipher the departure time. He was confused and tired. He hadn’t slept very well on the plane. Of course, no one ever did. Who can get a thorough night’s sleep sitting up? He wanted to have a cigarette but he didn’t know if he could smoke in the cabin, and he certainly didn’t want to get off the train for fear that it would leave before he got back on. He didn’t know the rules to this place, that much was obvious. Well, it would be an adventure anyway.
He sat in silence for a few moments wondering what he should do. Should he wait on the train? Should he get off? He finally decided that he would stay, he didn’t want to leave his luggage unattended, at least he knew enough not to do that. He felt a rush of air as the compartment door opened, and a distinguished looking gentleman stepped in. The man was about 5’ 6”, elegantly dressed in a three-piece suit, his shoes fairly gleaned. He had an overcoat over his left arm. He was elderly, perhaps eighty years old, but had a youthful step and air about him. His hair was sparkling white and his eyes a searing blue. He smiled nervously and greeted Martin.
They played several more games through the rest of the day and at each defeat, Franco comforted Antonio with yet another lesson in the art of gathering information. Franco was not a master of chess and all its capriciousness; in fact his wife beat him regularly and soundly every time they played!
“Now there is a mind and a worthy adversary!” He thought to himself.
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson
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