Monday, May 6, 2013

All Roads Lead to Roma, Part !!: De Train! De Train!!

"Being a tourist is no excuse."
~ Unknown

Mike and I have been in cars exactly five times since March 27, and not one of those times were either of us driving. We've been all over France and Italy as passengers — cab, boat and train. Mostly train.

I was a bit worried when we decided to do most of this trip by train because, as Americans, we are not used to train travel. We are so used to having a car and taking off for wherever whenever we want to go somewhere. Being dependent on trains means that we have to go by their schedule.

"We need to be back at the stazione by 2:00," I mentioned to Mike the other day when we went to Assisi.

"When's the next train after that?" he asked me. He'd wanted to spend a little more time in Sta. Maria degli Angeli, the small town at the foot of the mountain below Assisi.

"Five-something." There was not enough to do in that tiny town for three hours. We hurried ad caught the train.

On the other hand, being able to travel to other places via train is pretty nifty (Good grief. From which decade did I pull that word?). We don't have to pay for expensive European gas, get lost driving around, or try to find and pay for a parking spot. Zip in on the train, see what we want, and leave.

So it was on Saturday morning that we decided to take the early train into Rome for the day.

The ticket machine

Of course, the stazione do not always have someone selling tickets, especially early in the morning, so we used the automatic ticket machine. They're relatively easy especially considering the fact that they have a number of different language options, English being one of them. We've used the machines a lot and had absolutely no problems.... until Saturday morning.

I typed in the arrival city of Rome, chose the 7:30 train, and the machine told me to pick our seats.

"I thought second-class tickets don't usually have assigned seats," Mike said.

"Well, this train does for some reason." I was perplexed, too, but I chose coach #5 and seats 5 and 6.

"That seating option is not valid," the message on the screen read. I hit continue, and the machine deleted everything. I had to start over completely. I once again typed in the destination of Roma Termini, picked the 7:30 train, and arrived back at the "pick-your-seat" screen.

"Here we go again," I said.

"I thought second-class tickets don't have assigned seats," Mike repeated. I ignored the comment this time and chose coach #3 and seats 11 and 12. I got the return trip screen, chose Spoleto at 15:58, and got the "pick-your-seat" screen again. I forget what I chose for those, but I again received the "That seating option is not valid" screen. Once again, I hit continue, and the machine completely obliterated my order.

"What the hell is this?" I was agitated.

"Why is it deleting everything?" Mike wondered. I had no idea.

"How can I choose a valid seat if it gives me no options?" I was about ready to kick the stupid thing in. A line was forming, so we decided to try one more time and just go for the ticket to Rome and buy the return once we got to Termini. Again I picked coach #3 and seats 11 and 12, and my order went through.... with the machine giving us seats 12 and 21.

The train arrived on time, and once we got on we noticed that seat 21 was behind seat 12 on the side of the train that had, for some reason, only a row of single seats. There was no rhyme nor reason to the way the seats were numbered in that coach. 31 was a few in front of 12, and 35 and 37 were together in front of 24 and 25. Trying to figure it out makes my brain hurt, so I'm letting it go.

A conductor came through and checked that we had tickets and that they were validated.( Just so you know, it is not enough to have a ticket in France or Italy. You must also validate your ticket or face a fine if a conductor comes through to check tickets. Conductors do not always come through the trains, by the way. Both of those are stories in themselves, but i'll save those for another day.) The conductor punched our tickets, and when she got to the row in front of us, she told both of the people sitting there that they owed more money.

"I wonder what that's about," Mike whispered to me.

"They probably paid for a lower-priced train," I said. "I think this is a faster train since we have only two stops instead of five between here and Rome. I guess that's why we had to pick seats."

I had no idea what I was saying, but it sounded right, and he believed me.

The machine that validates your ticket

Fast forward to 14:00 Saturday afternoon when we decided we had had enough of Rome and headed back to Termini, the main train station in Rome. We approached the bank of ticket machines and typed Spoleto in as our destination. As luck would have it, there was a train scheduled to leave at 14:25. For that train, we didn't need seats, so we easily bought the tickets for it and hurried to see which of the gazillion platforms it would leave from.

"One EST," Mike said.

"You think they'd know exactly which one with less than a half hour until the train leaves," I moaned. I had visions of a platform change from 1 to 30 five minutes before departure. "And, by the way, I'm starving." I validated the tickets, and we headed towards the platforms and food vendors.

Train station food in Europe is not bad, but it is expensive. I did not want a 6 euro baguette or panini. I noticed a McDonald's close to Platform One. We ordered, hurried back to the platform, and scarfed down the burgers while waiting for the train to arrive.

A little before 14:15, a train pulled in. The departure sign still said our train was leaving from Platform One EST, so I asked someone if the train parked there was the one for Perugia (Perugia is about 30 minutes west of Spoleto and end of the line for our train.)

"Si. Si." He pointed at the train and walked away. Mike and I climbed into the car and took a seat. The air was stifling because it was warm Saturday, and apparently the air conditioning was not on. Another gentleman entered the car, and I asked him if we were on the train for Perugia. He nodded, mumbled something I couldn't understand, threw his suitcase on the rack above a seat, and fell into the seat. (Note: I'm translating everything again for convenience.)

Not too much after that, an older man dressed in a tattered, olive-green wool uniform stumbled into the coach. I got the impression he had not bathed for a few days (if you get my drift).

"Is this the train for Orte?" I think he asked me. Like the other guy, he mumbled, so I really only caught "tren" and "Orte."

"Si," I answered, and he collapsed in a seat across from us. The sun was blazing in his window, so he took off his hat and started fanning himself. Unfortunately, the fanning caused a bit of odor to head in my direction. Mike and I put our heads down on the tables in front of us (Yes,some Italian trains have tables in them.).

"Gobbledy-gook. Gobbledy-gook." I picked my head up and realized the man was talking to me.

"I'm sorry?" I had no idea what he'd said.

He pointed to his wrist and said, "Time?"

"14:25," I replied happy that we were going to leave in a few minutes.

We did not leave in a few minutes, and I finally walked out to the platform and noticed that the departure time for our train had changed to 15:25. I told Mike.

"I'm glad we wolfed those burgers down in time to make this train,'" he grumbled.

"That's not as bad as sitting in this heat," I said. "And don't tell me to imagine I'm on an iceberg or something. I might strangle you." He always has this habit of telling me to think about being in a cold place when it's hot. Apparently his father did that in the days when cars had no AC. It didn't work then, and it sure doesn't work with me.

Termini Stazione in Rome

At any rate, more people started coming into the coach. One couple said we were in their seats, but that they would sit elsewhere. Others came in, and the air got heavier and hotter. Someone threw the old guy out of his seat. While I felt sorry for him, I was also happy that he and his "aura" moved to another section of the train.

Very soon, there were few empty seats in our coach. A young couple hauling two big suitcases came in and told the couple behind us that those were their seats. Of course, we were sitting in that couple's seats. We got up and, to make a long story short, moved to another coach.

(Just as a side note, let me say that the first coach we were in was packed with people. I think when we moved, there were two empty seats. The coach we ended up in was not even 1/4 full.)

I was starting to worry because so many people had seat assignments in the other coach. A few minutes after we sat in our new seats, the old man in wool came into the coach, nodded at us and sat down a row or two in front of us. I felt a little better.

Just before we departed, someone turned the air on, and our coach started to cool down. The conductor blew the whistle, and we slowly edged away from the station. I looked out of the window to my left and saw two platforms quite a distance from the main train station. Those two platforms were marked "1EST" and "2 EST." Holy crap.

"We may have a problem" I said to Mike. "I hope this train is going to Spoleto."

Second-class seats

He stared at me as I explained having seen the two EST platforms.

"How were we supposed to know? There were no signs anywhere." He was optimistic. I was not since I had no idea if the train we were on was going to our destination. I couldn't bring that up, but I had visions of ending up in Perugia or Ancona and having to buy another ticket to Spoleto IF THERE EVEN WAS A TRAIN THAT WENT BACK THERE THAT NIGHT.

But, I said nothing about that. I did say, however, "We might have to pay more since we're on the wrong those women this morning."

"Maybe the conductor won't come through," Mike hopefully murmured. I rolled my eyes. I KNEW the conductor was going to come through because that's just the way our luck goes. "And if he does, you can just explain that we didn't know about the other platform."

I nodded but knew that wasn't an option because being a tourist and not knowing are not excuses that work in Europe. I closed my eyes and put the tickets on the seat next to me. I prayed and prayed that the conductor wouldn't wake me up if he came through.

The commotion in the row in front of us caused me to open my eyes. The conductor was talking with the old man. Apparently, he was not on the right train, and he had to pay more. He was not happy. Neither was the conductor.

We were next. I handed him the tickets.

"No. Wrong train!" I wasn't sure whether he meant we were on a train not going to Spoleto or that we had picked a more expensive option.

"This train. No go Spoleto?" I asked him.

"Wrong train," he snapped at me. He took out his little cell-phone looking thing and tapped into it. "32 more euro."

"What did he say?" Mike was awake now.

"We owe him 32 euro. He says it's the wrong train," I said.

"This is the fast train," the conductor hissed. He looked at Mike. "Fast train. Fast."

"@#$%!! That's @#$%ing %%^%#@$," my normally calm husband said as he threw a 20, a 5 and a 10 euro note at me. He looked at the conductor who was ignoring him and staring at me. "How much @#$%ing faster will this get us to Spoleto?"

I was trying to decide whether to shoot Mike or not because arguing with these train guys is tantamount to treason. I decided that murder in front of an official would not be a good thing, so I just pleaded with Mike with my eyes to be quiet. "Does this train go to Spoleto? I asked the conductor as I handed him the money.He gave me 3 euros in change, threw the receipt at me, and walked away without answering me. I still didn't tell Mike I wasn't sure where we were going to end up.

It wasn't the end of the world, but the two of us were pretty angry that the guy tore up our original tickets and didn't give us credit for what we had already paid as the morning conductor had done with the women in front of us. I also didn't like the way he treated the old man. Maybe the conductor was having a bad day, or maybe he was hot from riding on the earlier train without air, but it wasn't quite right. But, we survived.

Just so you know, the trip from Spoleto to Rome — and vice versa — usually takes about an hour and forty minutes. The fast train, which thankfully did stop in Spoleto, got us back here in an hour and 25 minutes.

Tomorrow: The water is off in Spoleto...

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