Trains do something to me. They change my perspective, expand my imagination, create a sense not of freedom exactly but escape. As a result, I do strange things on them like the time I hopped off a packed commuter train only to get back on the next car where it was less crowded and I thought I could find a seat. It amazed the conductor. I barely made it in time.
At the Milano train station (see last week’s post), I barely made it in time, too, but I did make it. I pulled on the stuck bathroom door and cried out for help. The woman I met earlier pushed from the outside and we managed to open the door. I wasted no time trying to figure out what went wrong. I thanked her and jumped from the train just as the doors closed and the train started its slow roll down the platform. The woman stood staring at me from the steps of the train. Then the train picked up speed and slipped into the darkness. So, I had my romantic moment after all, I thought.
It didn’t last long. When I got back, Matteo was gone along with his pit bull and my duffel bag. In addition to my clothes, that meant I had lost about five pounds of homemade cheese and trinkets for the grandkids, who thought I had taken the trip to meet Luca, an Italian fish who turns into a boy in the Pixar film of the same name. As I sat cursing my fate (e.g., Was the piss really worth losing my possessions? Am I that poor a judge of character?), a cadre of uniformed polizia approached. They brought Matteo in tow along with his dog.
Apparently, while I was on my mission they had swept through the station, turning people out. The station closed at 2:00 am and anyone unlucky enough to be caught between trains was forced into the large piazza outside. That included this tattooed guy with a pit bull in a spiked collar. When the polizia found out that the duffel bag didn’t belong to him but “un signore” who had disappeared in the station, they went into full security mode.
“Do you know this man?” they asked me, pointing to Matteo. “Yes.” “Is this your bag?” “Yes.” “Why did you give it to him?” “So he could sleep.” “Why is it so heavy?” They may have asked this to test me, since Matteo told me later they had searched the bag already. I told them about the cheese. “Documenti,” the head poliziotto demanded.
Although the cheese did not impress them, my American passport did. I don’t think they expected it. A pause followed after which the head guy thumbed through its pages and asked a few perfunctory questions about my reason for traveling through Italy, how long I intended to stay, etc. Then he explained how I couldn’t just wander around the station after closing time. “We almost arrested your friend,” he said.
I looked at Matteo and his dog and realized that if I hadn’t jumped off the train when I did, things would have turned out much worse. But with the mystery of il signore and the duffel bag solved, they escorted us out of the station, locked the huge, wrought iron gate behind us, and left us to fend for ourselves until morning.
There’s nothing quite like a night on the street to give you perspective. And from my perspective on the steps of the station, the piazza looked like something from Dante’s Inferno. Immediately outside the gates slept a few dozen African immigrants wrapped in blankets. One of them argued with himself violently. Past the immigrants rode groups of marauding youth on bicycles. They wove in and out of other bands of youth who shouted and screamed, probably drunk.
As Matteo and I descended into the piazza, we came across Germans, Chinese, Americans, and other foreigners schlepping around with luggage in search of hotel rooms. We followed them in and out of several hotels ringing the piazza. I would go in while Matteo and the dog waited in the lobby or outside, but each time we were told there was no room at the inn. Most clerks were sympathetic but looked down their noses at the pit bull, which turned out to be a sweet dog who took a liking to me.
For the next four hours, we moved from spot to spot trying to avoid trouble. The dog served as our guardian. If anyone approached or acted threatening–which occurred twice–one look at the dog was enough to send them packing. This did not prevent, however, a guy dressed in orange from following us around bumming cigarettes and asking for money for caffe, both of which we obliged. He said he was a Dane living in Crotone, Italy, which didn’t explain why he was wandering around the Milano train station, but at that point I was done asking questions.
Matteo and I spent the rest of the night huddled in a bus shelter across the street from the piazza. We stayed there until the station opened. When it did, those who had been waiting for trains rose en masse from their benches, makeshift beds, and hiding places all over the piazza–from the small park on the near end to the enormous white apple in the middle and the Army bivouac at the far end–and rushed to the warmth and safety of the station. I don’t know the significance of the apple or why the polizia were nowhere to be found all night except that Matteo reminded me that everything in Italy works that way: made for the big shots and people in power.
Of course, the bathrooms were still closed and I had to go again in a big way. Since Matteo’s train departed first, I managed to hold it together until we could board his train. When the doors opened, I rushed inside, used the toilet, and then collapsed in a seat next to him and the pit bull. Yes, you can take your pit bull onto the train in Italy. Not wanting to repeat the mistake I made earlier that night, I rested a minute, exchanged contact info, and said goodbye to both of them. The pit bull cried when I left.
And my next train for Bologna? Suffice it to say that Milano has no gates even when the board flashes “Gate” in bright, orange letters. At that point, though, I didn’t hold it against them. I just wanted to get the hell out as quickly as possible, which I did. Cheese and all.
This is the second part of a two-part post entitled “Mano-a-Mano a Milano.” Image credit: feature by Christian Stamati on Unsplash. 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.”