Mano-a-Mano a Milano (1)

Let me begin by telling you what you probably already know. Traveling isn’t easy, especially when you do it alone. You have to be part travel agent to handle the tickets, connections, schedules, misinformation, no information, conflicting information, and unexpected problems that rush at you like hired assassins in a video game. Add to that vaccinations, antigen testing, sworn statements, surgical masks, and the infamous “Green Pass” now required in many places, and you’re just about assured a disaster.

My disaster occurred at the Milano train station this past week as I traveled from Bourg-en-Bresse, France to Termoli along the Italian coast on the Adriatic Sea (see Traveling and “Never Thought”). Things had been going relatively well up to that point. I had managed to get myself from San Francisco to Lyon, France through Atlanta and Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. Going from Lyon to Bourg-en-Bresse required two trains and was a bit messy, although the worst part was not having a euro to use the restroom at the Lyon Gare or train station. I still had dollars. That you have to pay to piss irks me not just as an American but a human being. Still, I was able to contain myself until boarding. Thankfully, most regional and national trains have bathrooms. Sometimes, they’re even clean.

I am not a travel agent. I don’t leave things to the last minute, but I have gotten more relaxed about planning since I don’t have to worry about anyone else but me. So, apparently, I didn’t pay enough attention when reserving seats on the four trains I had to take from Bourg-en-Bresse to Termoli. As a result, I had an eight-hour stopover between my arrival in Milano and my departure for Bologna the next morning. Since the nearby hotels were full, I had no alternative but to spend the night in the station. However, I didn’t think it would be so bad. After all, I’d done it before in airports. I figured the worst to come of it would be a stiff neck. So, I found a bench away from the tracks, stuffed my duffel bag underneath, and settled in for the night. I comforted myself with the idea that under different circumstances this might even be a romantic evening.

It wasn’t. It started, again, with toilets. In this case, what really got me wasn’t that I had to pay to use one but that they were all closed. I faced the prospect of having to wait six hours before they opened again in the morning. If you know anything about men of a certain age, this was no small problem. I imagined twisting myself into a pretzel to get through the night. I started eyeing dark corners. I swore to myself I wouldn’t cry.

As I surveyed the station, I spotted a big guy wearing shorts and a t-shirt and covered in tattoos ambling toward me from the far end of the platform. He led a muscular-looking pit bull on a long leash. The dog, the color of ham hock, had a thick, spiked collar around its neck. I was hoping the guy wouldn’t find my bench, but, of course, he did. He plopped down with a thud and tore through a ragged backpack. Then he pulled out a plastic cover that looked like it came from a takeout order, turned it upside down, and poured water into it for the dog. It was hard not to strike up a conversation at this point, especially given the dog, which stared at me suspiciously.

The guy introduced himself as Matteo and said he was heading home from an event for dog trainers in Northern Italy. He had brought his favorite dog and traveling companion with him. Then he asked if I wanted a caffe from the Lavazza coffee machine near our bench. I did but had to decline, explaining my predicament. He told me that everything in Italy works that way: made for the big shots and people in power. “They don’t have to piss their pants,” he said.

I liked Matteo, so much so that when he tried to squeeze himself and his dog into a doorway to sleep, I offered him my duffel bag as a pillow. He looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and gratitude and accepted my offer. Then, as he dozed off and I watched the few remaining trains depart for the night, I realized they had bathrooms. If I timed it right, I could hop on one, use the toilet, and hop off before it pulled out of the station. The plan was risky–something out of James Bond (or Monty Python)–but it was clear to me that I wouldn’t make it through the night. I had to take action.

I roused Matteo, told him my plan, and asked him to hold onto my bag should anything happen. You know, like getting stuck in the bathroom of an outbound train in the middle of the night. He looked at me again, this time with a mixture of disbelief and surprise. The dog did the same thing adding, perhaps, a tinge of pity.

I picked a local train that had just opened its doors and was boarding passengers. I managed to sneak past the train personnel and polizia, hopped on, and asked a woman how long before it departed. “Five minutes,” she replied. I decided that was enough time for me to get to the toilet, do my business, and exit before the doors closed. I was so nervous, however, that it took longer than expected. I panicked. Then the bathroom door jammed.

I wish I were making this up.

This is the first part of a two-part post entitled “Mano-a-Mano a Milano.” Look for part two next week. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

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