Trains in Italy are notoriously in delay. Every last one of them. They just have to be at least a few minutes late, but most usually it’s ten.
Even Niki de Saint Phalle felt it necessary to write on one of the walls in her Giardino dei tarocchi: “Basta con questi treni sempre in retardo.” Enough with these trains already, always late. This was in 1995, and nothing has changed.
You know because you are commuting to work by train. And I know because I meet you at the station every day.
There is a little bell, and then the speaker says “The train from Roma is arriving to platform 2 with the delay of…” and I strain to hear how many minutes.
I think the record is 330, but there were floods.
First I used to go the station optimistically only to discover there, looking at the orario on the screen, how much I had to wait.
But then I found out the online train tracking service in real time. This is very practical, indispensable really. There I can see, for example, that the train has already started in ritardo, and am able to track how many extra minutes it gains with each new town. Sometimes, very rarely, it says in orario, and then it is right on track.
This reminds me of the year 1990 which was the last time I went to our annual August seaside holiday with my parents. Even though I was 20, I would continue doing so but there was war. Our annual ritual was to board the train in Ljubljana with a bunch of friends on August 9th at 7 pm, have dinner when the train reached the first station (which is where originates the historical exclamation by a son of our friends upon passing our compartment, seeing us munching on Vienna-style steaks and boiled eggs, and returning to his parents: “Do you know what a good time M. family is having?”), travel all through the night and wake up in our triple bunk beds by the beautiful green Neretva river after the train left Sarajevo behind. Announcing tunnels was a favourite sport.
The end station was Ploče (later renamed Kardeljevo) by the sea, where we arrived some time before noon. There a ferry was waiting to take us to Trpanj on the Pelješac peninsula, and then barba Luka with his fishing boat brought us to Duba, our home away from home, and the eternal August could begin and last for some three weeks, after which we had to return to bleak midwinter which late August in Slovenia seemed to us after all that sun. And one year all three means of transport broke down one way or another.
But in 1990 we had another kind of problem with that train. I was awoken in mild panic: “Wake up, wake up, we have arrived!” The thing was that Croatia got a new president that year. And he made it his task to make trains run on schedule. We never knew that all those years our train should be reaching its destination at 8 or so in the morning!
Back to the present. One time you tell me you are on the train returning home, and it is the last train of the day – you were lucky to catch it. I open the page to track it and the initial delay is just a few minutes. Good. As the train is getting closer, I check again. In anticipo, it says. My eyebrows shoot up. No. Must be a mistake. I know anticipation, and this is not what Italian trains usually feel. But after passing another town it is still there: anticipo of two minutes.
I wonder for a minute what it means for the train to be early. People might miss it, for example.
I tell you the unbelievable news.
“I know,” you write back.
“How can you know?” I’m taken aback. “Did you ask them to hurry because you are hungry? Or do Italian railways have a new director?”
“I have just heard the conduttore call his colleague on another train to ask him if he can gift him a couple of minutes.”
“In order to do what?”
“Well. There is a woman here. And she missed her station. And now she has to return. And this is the last train of the night.”
So the world starts revolving around this woman now. One train is waiting for her on the next station. And her train, which means yours too, is speeding up so that she can catch it. All will be good. She will be able to reach her family on time.
“Is she young? Middle-aged?”
“I don’t know. I only heard her voice, she is in the next compartment.”
Right. And I should believe that you didn’t peek.
But I know. This is not about the looks. Italian men help because they can. They give the impression that there is no hurdle big enough. It is easier to live this way.
I like what I can hear in your voice when you tell me about it later. It is pride. “Imagine how a tedesco would respond,” you say and I grin at the thought of German punctuality.
Whereas meanwhile, and only in Italy, women rule over trains.