by Nancy Davis Kho
I was a college exchange student studying in Vienna, and had planned to meet an American friend in Florence so we could explore Italy together during Spring Break. But when I reached Florence I got word that due to a boat strike, my friend was stranded on an idyllic island in Greece, and wouldn’t make it.
My initial reaction was disappointment—I’d waited so long to see Italy and now I’d have to return to Vienna alone. It wasn’t until a few hours later that it dawned on me that I had an alternative: to stay and explore Italy as I’d planned, only alone instead of with my friend. Resolving not to tell my parents until I was safely back in my Austrian dorm, I struck out alone and spent the next five days exploring Florence and then Venice with only my guidebook for a companion.
It was one of the most liberating and exhilarating experiences of my life—waking up each morning in my hostel and deciding what I felt like seeing, eating, and doing. I struck up conversations with people I never would have spoken with had I not been alone, and as the days passed, I grew increasingly confident and captivated with the idea of solo travel.
The most memorable part of the trip, however, was the journey back to Vienna. On the last day of the trip, while wandering along the beautiful canals of Venice, I lost track of time. The only way to get from Venice to Vienna in time for classes the next day was to take a night train.
Horror stories about Italian night trains were legion among the American students I’d met. The most common tale was that once you fell asleep in your compartment, roving bands of thieves would pipe sleeping gas into the air vent to put you out completely, then help themselves to the contents of your overstuffed American backpack. A casual observer of night trains in Italy in the late eighties would have come across a vast number of wide-eyed American teenagers, slurping coffee and clutching their backpacks with both arms and legs while glancing furtively up and down the train corridor.
But I had no choice. I made it to the station near Venice and boarded my train The car I chose was packed with Italians, quietly opening their picnic dinners or their evening newspapers.
Across from me sat a man who was a dead ringer for Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He was about ten years older than me, and, as I was dressed in American Student (i.e. backpack and sneakers) he began practicing his English with me. He was very friendly and I tried to answer his questions politely. He finally asked “Where are you headed?” and when he heard my answer, he gasped and began shouting at me in Italian.
From the reactions of my other seatmates I gathered that I’d done something wrong but had no idea what. Finally the man calmed down enough to stutter, “You are on the wrong train! This will unhook! You must go to the front!” Apparently the car I was in was to be uncoupled at the next station. As we started pulling into the station, the man grabbed my backpack and parcels and began shoving me toward the door. “You must run to the front of the train! RUN! RUN!”
The train pulled into the station and had not yet stopped when he gave me a push out the door. I must have looked like a cartoon character with my legs bicycling ahead before they even reached the platform, and I tore off towards the front of the train as fast as I could go. Behind me I heard the sound of someone else racing along and glanced back. It was my new Italian friend, yelling “I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!” as he chased after me.
Given the extra incentive to kick, I made it all the way to the second car of the train and hurled myself through the opening. With heart pounding as the train pulled out of the station, I stowed my backpack, wiped the sweat from my brow and flopped into a window seat. Then I finally took a good look at my surroundings.
I had flung myself onto an Italian army troop train. Yes, I was the only female (and a young, blonde one at that) in a sea of Italian soldiers. The only stories scarier than the “poison gas through the vent” fables were the “I was groped by young Italian men” variety. I froze and began reorganizing myself into an inconspicuous lump pressed into the corner, so as to avoid the inevitable attentions of my fellow travelers.
Except they never looked at me. For an hour these young men stared moodily at their reflections in the window, or buffed their nails, or spoke in quiet voices among themselves. But not once did they look my way. Relief settled over me, followed inevitably by resentment. Why are they not bothering me? Am I not good looking enough to be hassled? Has my nonstop consumption of European pastries perhaps taken a toll? I was in such high dander by the time we reached their stop, I had vowed never to speak to any of these strangers again.
As the train pulled away from that stop, a young woman walked past and glanced into my compartment, now occupied only by me. She passed another two or three times before opening the door and taking the seat opposite me. She was dressed very plainly, wore no makeup and, and had no luggage. Once the train pulled away she introduced herself as Lorena and began to tell me her story.
Lorena, it seems, was fleeing the country and her abusive boyfriend, who she said was connected to the Italian mafia. Her safe haven was to be a convent just on the other side of the Austrian border from Italy, where she knew a nun who would take her in. She planned to live out her days safe from the Mob as an Austrian nun—if only she could make it across the border. She had neither passport nor money for the train ticket, and was just keeping her fingers crossed to make it safely to Austria that night.
The train slowed in the darkness and I realized we were at the Austrian border. We could hear the Austrian border police moving slowly down the corridor, checking passports, and Lorena grew increasingly frantic in our quiet compartment. It all ended very quickly—the Austrian police opened our door and asked to see our passports, then summoned Italian police when Lorena failed to produce one. Politely but firmly, they asked Lorena to accompany them off the train. Before leaving the car, Lorena hugged me, then walked off with the police.
By now it was the thickest, deepest part of the night, when even the stars seem to have shut down. I sat alone in the compartment, staring out the window into the darkness and wondering what else could possibly happen on that train ride. I decided—gas through the vents be damned—to get some sleep.
At which point the door to the compartment opened again and in walked the perfect antidote to sleep. Two young Austrian men sat down, each with a Mohawk (one green, one red) and face piercings, dressed in black leather and dripping in chains and spikes. The two talked quietly to one another for awhile and then I realized Red Mohawk had asked me a question.
“Are you American?” he asked, pointing to the title of the English language book I had on my lap. Knowing he had already guessed the answer, I nodded slowly, waiting for the barrage of anti-American criticism that sometimes followed that question in Europe.
An enormous grin appeared on his face. “I love America! I’ve been to New York. I’d love to live there someday!” The other man was similarly enthused: “We listen to American music all the time!” As they waxed poetic about their love of America, they spread out a picnic on the seats that separated us. Soon the three of us were sharing a pre-dawn breakfast of wine and hunks of thick peasant bread, discussing Vienna, New York, and everything in between. Rays of sun began to break into the train window as we approached Vienna, and by the time the train stopped the morning sun flooded the station.
I stepped down to the platform with my backpack and glanced back, half-expecting to see the train covered in rainbow swirls and shooting fireworks. It may have been the end of my journey, but it was the start of a lifelong appreciation for the strange and wonderful experiences that come only to the liberated traveler.
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Nancy Davis Kho is an international business professional in Northern California, temporarily enjoying more limited circulation in the company of her two young daughters. You can reach her at email@example.com