"There's no tyrant like one's own brain.” Louis Ferdinand Celine
Back in Italy: I start writing this in the train, just leaving Bari... heading for Benevento... then on to Napoli (Naples) for 3 days... then Rome for 1 more... then back to NY (with a 5 hour stopover in Amsterdam). In a week, it'll be like I never left.
There are no direct trains from Bari to Naples, so I have to get out of this train in Benevento and buy another ticket from there to Naples. You'll read about that in the next installment.
So far, I've been in Italy about 8 hours and already there are tales to be told.
Right now, a single beer, drunk at 12:15 PM [I never drink before noon] has forced its way down to my bladder and is not sitting peacefully there. It wants release. But I want it to wait until the conductor punches my ticket.
Here was the plan: Maurizio... a different one... was the only response to my inquiries from couch surfers in Naples.
Call me when you get to Italy. Even if I can't host you, I can at least show you a bit of this crazy town.
Sounds good to me. And would be too, if he answered his subsequent emails, text messages or the phone.
[Note: Folks in Italy and Albania... maybe all over Europe... don't have voicemail. I can't leave a message for someone to say they didn't get. I can only leave email for people to blame an errant spam filter.]
Back in Italy for half an hour. The 7 hour ferry from Albania behind me in the water. I just passed customs.
I walk, bag laden, a full kilometer the wrong way, trying to leave the port. I'm following signs to an exit that turns out to be closed... locked up tight. Not an exit at all.
Then, I try to take a cab from the port to the train station. A local (of which there are very few in the port at 8AM on a Sunday morning) says it would save me a 40 minute walk and only cost 5€.
I hike back to the main port building. The same one I left half an hour and a 2km round-trip before. In front are a bunch of cabs. Around the first cab are, what look like a bunch of cab drivers. I walk up to them. One of them, a beefy guy, looking like a cab driver, takes my hat off my head, spits into it and puts in back on my head.
Taxi? he asks.
Estacione, I say.
Vente (20) Euros, he says.
Cinque (5) Euros, I say.
Ok, he says. Then someone else exits from the station and speaks to him.
OK, he says, You go together. I forget the Italian. In English it means: Ten Euros from him. Ten Euros from you.
Not knowing how to say fuck you in Italian, I wave him off and walk back into the main port building to ask about a bus. The woman at the ticket window says, in English, I should take Bus Twenty- Slash.
Where can I get Bus Twenty-Slash? I ask.
There, just outside, she says pointing over her shoulder.
I walk out, in the direction she pointed. There is nothing but a fenced-in concrete platform. No bus stop. Not even a way for buses to enter.
I walk some more.
About 40 minutes later (a lot of asking, a lot of pointing, a bit of being ignored), I arrive at the train station. I ask for a ticket to Naples. The guy behind the window tells me I can't get there from Bari.
Actually, I have to take a train to Benevento. Then I get out, and buy another ticket to Naples.
“How much time do I have in Benevento?” I ask the ticket man.
“The train arrives at 4PM,” he says. “The train to Napoli leaves at 5.”
OK, I think, that gives me an hour to change trains. Easily enough time. Yeah, right.
After I buy the ticket to Benevento, I head for the waiting area, a dingy room with metal benches along the walls.
What a collection of characters! It's like a Greyhound bus station in the U.S. You got the nodding out junkie on crutches, the bag lady, the old guy with eight suitcases, the screaming looney. Then come the cops, or maybe it's the army. I donno. There's one older guy in a blue uniform. With him are two younger guys.. barely in their twenties.
The younger guys wear green uniforms. They also wear army boots, and these floppy maroon hats that looks like a fez crossed with one of those Jamaican rasta hats. It sits on the back of their head where a pony tail would be if they had pony tails. I don't know how it stays on, unless it hides official Italian army dreadlocks. At the tip of the hat is a long blue tassel that hangs just about to mid-back.
The man in blue asks everyone for papers and train tickets. There are a few people who don't have everything in order. The young guys in green write some information in an official-looking notebook. One old guy, apparently illegally selling cigarettes or phone cards or something, is booted out. I pass the inspection. In my three weeks in Albania, I was never stopped for ID. Two hours in Italy, and already I've been passported. Ah Italy, you really deserve a black spot on my map... except Torino.
[Note: As I type this in the street bar, at 5:30 in Naples, a bunch of kids run past me. One of them sprays me with shaving cream. My face, my computer, my hat, my jacket. They laugh as they run and turn the corner. An old man offers me a tissue to clean off. The kids had no reason, just malice, the fun of children nailing a cat to a tree. But that's Italy to me. Only three more days here. I hope I don't return. But now, I will return to my narrative.]
Right now, I have three and a half hours until the train leaves. I'm hungry.
I find my way to the train station restaurant. A ham sandwich for breakfast. That's about right for this trip. Now that the dollar is so low against the Euro, I can figure U.S. prices by doubling what I pay in Euros. OK, a $6 ham and cheese on a roll. Sounds like New York prices.
I sit by myself at a table next to some guy with a long red beard and his Little-Mary-Sunshine braided-hair girlfriend who crosses both her arms and legs when she speaks to him. Maybe they've been having an argument. They speak English with American accents. I'm tempted, but I don't speak to them.
In the corner is a young Italian. About 20, a handsome guy. I watch him take something from his pocket that looks like a lipstick tube. He touches the end to his finger and then rubs the finger on the side of his neck. He does this a couple times. Then returns to just sitting.
In the corner, closer to him, is what looks like an Italian family. Some hefty females and slightly less bulky males. The young guy motions to them to watch his bags. Then he makes a smoking sign. Two fingers to his lips. I guess he plans to go out for a smoke and wants that crew to watch his bags. He looks at me too. I move two fingers to my eyes then direct them toward his bags.
I'll watch 'em. Is what I want to say.
Once outside, he keeps looking in to check the bags. I guess he knows what Bari is like, and wants to make sure his stuff is safe. I take my Charles Dickens book and move to his table. When he comes back, he thanks me with a gracie.
Then he takes note of the book I'm reading.
“English?” he says. “You like English?”
He opens his bag and pulls out a couple beginning English readers. One is a Bram Stoker short story anthology (rewritten for beginning readers). The other is what looks like a children's book by someone I've never hear of.
Wow, a friendly Italian. A nice guy. I wonder what he wants.
“That's nice,” I say. “Are you learning English?”
“Yes,” he says. “I love English. Are you learning English too?”
“I'm American,” I tell him.
“You are from the U.S?” he asks.
I shake my head, then remember I've left Albania. I nod.
“You are my first American,” he says, shaking my hand.
“You live here?” I ask.
“I live in Torino,” he says.
I shudda known. The only decent Italians are from Torino.
“But I am not Italian,” he continues. “I speak French, Italian, Spanish, English and Arabic. I am from Morocco.”
Figures, not only is he from Torino, but he's not Italian. So much for my idea of finding a nice Italian.
“You want some water?” he says.
“Sure,” I say reaching in my pocket for half a Euro.
“No,” he says, “I pay.”
When he returns with the water, we talk. We talk about English. We talk about life in Italy.
“I'm here with my uncle,” he tells me. “But I don't like Italy.”
“That makes two of us,” I don't say.
“ The people here are stupid,” he continues. “They know only Italian. You speak English. They don't know. You speak French. They don't know.”
“Most Americans only speak one language,” I tell him in weak defense of people I don't like very much.
“America is big,” he says. “You travel. It's still America. In Italy, you travel it's someplace else. How do you live?”
“You mean my job?” I ask. “I'm a teacher. I teach English.”
“A teacher? You teach me.” he says, leaning back in his chair and waiting for some bon mots. I have none to offer except a smile.
“My name is Hachim,” he says ruffling through his bag. “Here is a notebook,” he says pulling out a notebook. “I write my feelings. In English. I read to you.”
I wish I could have recorded it. It's part unintelligible, part French, part Italian. Lots of “I want my life. I need to live my life. I know what happens is Allah's will. I think Allah will provide. Allah will help. But I cannot live this life here. I need to be free...”
“Do you want a beer?” he asks.
Hmmm, must be reform Muslim.
And that's never a question I can answer with the shake of a head.
He goes to the bar. Due birre he says.
The bartender gives him two bottles of Becks beer and tells him some amount. He reaches into his pocket and begins to count coins. I can see he doesn't have enough money. I hand him a five. He takes it with an apology.
“I want you to keep my English books to remember me,” he says. “And here is a picture.”
He fumbles through his wallet and finds what look like two passport pictures. He separates them and hands one to me.
“So you will remember me,” he says.
He looks at his watch and tells me, “I have to go now. My train his coming.”
I look at my cellphone. I still have an hour.
“I'll walk with you.” I say.
On the track, when the train pulls in, we hug good-bye like parting siblings.
“Don't forget me,” he says. “I won't forget you.”
“Don't worry,” I promise him. “I won't forget you. I have your picture.”
He waves as the train pulls out.
A tear nearly wells up from it's ducted depths. But I realize how ridiculous that is. And besides, now I have to gird myself for my new reality. Now I have to face ITALY.