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Vacation Memories : Finding the Spirit of Christmas in August on a Train Ride in Italy

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

December 28, 1986|WALTER HACKETT | Hackett is a Boston free-lance writer.

ROME — The railway station was jammed with travelers and their relatives seeing them off. It was morning, the start of the long official August holiday. Italians, in a mass exodus, were on the move.

At the gate my wife, Hope, made an attempt to find our tickets in her handbag, but the gateman looked at us, loaded down with luggage, and waved us through to the platform.

We found two empty seats in a compartment, new, comfortable and air conditioned, and settled down for the 7 1/2-hour ride to Rome.

At Venice more passengers entered the car and many of them ended up standing in the corridor or sitting on their luggage. Ferrara, a conductor, came weaving his way along the crowded corridor.

My wife poked through her bag, then looked up at me. "You must have them," she said. I searched my pockets; no tickets. I looked at the conductor and shrugged. I told him we were going to Rome. "No problema, signore, " he said. "I come back."

My wife remembered, then. Before leaving the hotel she had given me the tickets and I had tucked them into my leather traveling wallet. I went through my pockets but all I could find was a receipted bill from our hotel in Trieste. No wallet, and thus no tickets, passports, money, traveler's checks, identification or driver license.

"We'll buy tickets from the conductor," I answered, holding out my hand.

"You had all the money," Hope countered. "I only had a few lire, and I used them to pay for the taxi to the station."

Then it was my turn to remember: I must have left my wallet on the hall porter's desk. We had some money in the safe of the hotel we were using in Rome, but Rome was still hours away.

A Sympathetic Face

The other occupants of our compartment, Italians all, eyed us, but no one spoke, although a distinguished-looking, hawk-faced man seemed to have a sympathetic expression.

"If we're not put off in Bologna," I said, "it will be in Florence. We can ask for help at the American Consulate." But I said it without too much conviction.

We made it through Bologna. Five minutes later the conductor returned, his metal punch clicking ominously. The conversation that followed went on and on, enhanced by gestures. I struggled along in a combination of English, French and Italian.

Suddenly the hawk-faced man spoke to me, in excellent English: "Permit me to help." Rapidly, he explained the situation to the conductor. The other passengers in our compartment, two of them women, got into the conversation.

The conductor listened, frowned and said the hall porter at the hotel in Trieste had been negligent. He should not have allowed a foreigner to leave without his wallet.

Waiter Joins Chat

He asked me and the hawk-faced man to follow him to the chief conductor, who wore a fine uniform and a hat with gold braid. He listened carefully to our tale and several times flashed at me what I took to be a suspicious look. A passing waiter, holding a laden tray, stopped and got into the conversation.

Finally the hawk-faced man translated the judgment: "The chief of the train is indeed unhappy over your misfortune, and he also hopes your good lady is not too sad. He says he wants you to enjoy the rest of this journey and you may ride to Rome.

"At the central railway station the assistant conductor will accompany you to your hotel and there you can pay him for the tickets. And he hopes this is satisfactory."

It certainly was, I said. I thanked everyone. We shook hands, the waiter included, and smiles and protestations of good faith spread all around.

When the hawk-faced man and I got back to the compartment my wife had news: "These dear people want to take up a collection to pay for our tickets."

Smiles All Around

The hawk-faced man briefed everyone. More smiles and congratulations. I looked out the window. We were about to leave the lush Po Valley. The sun seemed brighter, the fields greener than a few moments before.

As our train coasted into Florence the hawk-faced man asked my name. He made a note of it. "I am getting off here. I will send a telegram to your hotel in Trieste and instruct them to send your wallet by post to your hotel in Rome."

He handed me his card, shook hands and off he went. His card announced that he was a baron.

When we filed out of Rome's marble railway station the assistant conductor was with us, carrying my wife's heavy suitcase. At our hotel the hall porter told me that the porter from the hotel in Trieste had telephoned. My wallet, contents intact, including passports, had been found and would be mailed express.

I drew on my funds deposited at the hotel in Rome and paid the assistant conductor for the two tickets. When I tried to give him a tip, he shook his head. " Niente , nothing, please. Prego ! You and la signora must leave Italy with a high impression."

A high impression indeed! It was like Christmas in August.

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