It was autumn in Europe. I was in Paris. No chestnuts were in blossom. No holiday tables sat under the trees. The sky was overcast, and I hurried through drizzle without an umbrella. I’d taken a break from my studies in Tuscany to visit my boyfriend enrolled at the university in Paris. We’d had a definitive quarrel, we’d separated, and, now in a serious funk, I was putting it all behind me as I headed toward the Gare du Nord, one of Paris’ train stations.
In my shoulder bag I had only a few cosmetics, my return ticket, and just enough lire, Italian cash, to hire a taxi upon my return. With no French francs, I couldn’t pay for any transportation to the Gare, quite distant from my cheap hotel in the Latin Quarter; so, grumbling all the way, I walked to the station .
Arriving at the Gare du Nord, with a small suitcase in hand, I went from one posted schedule to another. Unable to decipher which train to take and where I could find it at what time, I asked the first uniformed person I spotted for help. He turned out to be a baggage handler strolling across the main hall with a coworker.
I asked for directions in my fractured French. Instead of pointing me in the right direction, the two flirted with me. Not what I needed at the moment.
“Where are you from?” the first one asked in rough French I barely understood.
I managed to catch on to the next bit: “Nah, you’re, let me see, Yugoslav. Yes. That’s it. What are you doing here? How about you come with us?”
My heart lurched. Sensing imminent trouble, I said, “Non, merci–no, thank you,” and looked for a ticket agent. I could hear the handlers calling me back, but I sped across the hall. A bored agent at the first ticket booth I found gave me the information I needed by pointing with disdain to a nearby track. I was delighted to see its sign listed the names of a Swiss city, then Domodossala, Italy, and finally–Firenze! At last, I boarded the train soon to depart for my temporary home.
The train had cars in three classes. I had a seconda classe, a second-class fare, which meant eight passengers to a compartment. All the compartments in second class were full except one. I found a seat there among seven people—several children, an old woman, and a middle-aged man with, I assumed, his wife, because they were arguing with each other when I entered the compartment and quickly became mute when I took the last remaining seat opposite them.
Mine was an overnight trip, through Switzerland, northern Italy, into Tuscany, and ending in Rome. The other passengers in the car barely recognized my presence. The ‘wife” or signora, glared at me occasionally. The children chattered for hours with each other; the old woman slept; and the man sneaked a few glances at me, his mouth set in grim distrust.
Listening to their conversations, I realized that all the passengers in my compartment were related and I was the lone outsider. Unable to bear the ostracism any longer I asked anyone who would listen if they were also going to Firenze as was I. My language skills were pretty good; I spoke Italian with a Florentine accent and was comfortable in casual conversation.
No one answered me. Instead, the signora announced that it was supper time and began to distribute waxed-paper wrapped bundles of food she removed from a cardboard box. Thinking that my words had encouraged them to think more kindly of me, I smiled.
The man frowned in return. In a noticeably different accent, he said, “No, we are going to Rome. Are you from Firenze? You sound as if you were.”
“Not really. I am a student in Firenze. I am from America.”
The man shouted at me, while hugging his sandwich, a baguette filled with ham and cheese, probably moistened with good Normandy butter, I thought. “Bugiarda, liar! Americana? No, parla troppo bene, American, no, you speak too well. You are Italian, and you are hoping we’ll feel sorry for you and share our food. No doing. We have only enough for ourselves.”
My armpits and forehead broke out in sweat. I insisted I was telling the truth, but the whole family ignored me. I had intruded into what they considered their private car, and they resented me. Since I had no extra cash to buy food whenever we stopped at later stations on the way, I was resigned to fasting until I left the train and returned to my more congenial host family in via Montebello. Until then, I alternately dozed and listened to my stomach’s gurgling and to the other passengers’ sparse, whispered exchanges, more circumspect now that they believed I understood everything they said.
Arriving in Firenze, I took a taxi home. When I entered the apartment, the housemaid, Teresa, greeted me at the door with a welcoming smile and invited me into the kitchen for some bread, butter, jam, and coffee—my usual student breakfast. Before the morning of my return, I’d considered that menu meager and unappetizing, but on this day it tasted wonderful.
The next time I traveled outside Italy, to visit friends in Cologne, Germany for the winter holidays, I carried plenty of extra lire and deutschmarks. Never again would I depend on the kindness of strangers.