An American friend and I were on a train full of Italian military boys. Noses in guidebooks, we’d been planning our day trip in peace until they’d gotten on. We had started in Monza, where we lived as exchange students, and were probably off to visit an ancient ruin or medieval town or cathedral, but I don’t remember and our destination that day isn’t the point.
The boys were plotting – in Italian of course – their strategy for meeting “the American girls” (never mind that one of us was Canadian). We listened as they discussed which one of them should approach us (the one with the best English); what he would say (they tried out several variations); how his friend – and which friend – would then join him; and how we might respond.
They didn’t realize we could understand every word they said.
And so we counter-plotted: should we smile and flirt? No, we weren’t that impressed. Should we reject them with a sarcastic zinger in Italian and a toss of the head? No, too mean. We were a little surprised that these not-even-twentysomething boys were actually talking about us pretty respectfully. So when the chosen one approached, we answered him in Italian, complimented him on his English, and waited for his reaction as it sunk in that we had understood everything. He tried to make the most of it, but the train had pulled in to our station. As we disembarked, we heard the group laughing as he went back to join his friends, high-fiving and back-slapping.
I don’t wish I’d spent more time on that train, but that snippet of every day life reminds me of many things I love about Italians: their passion and go-for-it attitude; the chivalry of Italian men and their appreciation of the opposite sex; and the way young Italians socialize in groups of 20 or 30 – their compagnia.
The train ride became jumbled with other Italy memories until years later, when it somehow rose to the surface. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I remembered a quote about travel by Henry Miller: “the destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things”. It can be difficult to identify the precise moment perspectives were changed, because it happens slowly, and in pieces, and upon reflection. And sometimes, on trains.
Photo by Madeline
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