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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 2 of 18: 9/26/06 From Milan to Bern through the Alps

photo by --zig

Switzerland from the train window

Flying east across the ocean can make for a very long couple of days. September 25 merged seamlessly into September 26 with no significant amount of sleep on the plane: Bobbie needed constant reassurance after all. But it was now early in the morning of September 26th, Italy time, and we had the promise of a glorious trip through the Alps ahead of us. But first we had to scale the alpine staircase in front of us.

The station, as I’ve said, was enormous. It was built in a time when public buildings were intended to make a statement about who “we” as a people were, and this building said that the pre-war Italian people were the rightful successors of the Roman Legions, able to scale any number of flights of stairs with however many suitcases their servants might need to tote. Once up the stairs, flushed and panting, we were faced with gigantic marble corridors crisscrossing the building. The walls were pristine (as yet) and our footsteps echoed as we hurried along. When we eventually emerged into the sunlight we checked for our binario at the Information Desk, found our platform without a hitch, and boarded our train with three minutes to spare. Are we good or what?

I’m not sure we actually found the right seats but like good Italians we overcame the tyranny of the ticket and sat where we ought to sit, rather than where some little square of paper said we needed to sit. What did it care, after all, which side of the train had the more exquisite view? My nerves were steeled in this act of civil disobedience by one of my fellow travelers. He was a member of a traveling five-some: two men, two women and a cell phone, who, were gathered at one end of the car, in the handicapped section (though I can’t imagine how a handicapped person could have gotten on the train without being pitched in through an open window). The place of honor was occupied by a toothless old man situated on a bench placed along the end wall of the car. The doorway to the next car (and the WC) was on the left side so the older man was thus situated in the center of the aisle, like a king holding court. I didn’t hear his wheezy voice often, but it was evidently his comfort that dictated where the group sat. He wore a now too-big faded brown suit and a pale yellow open-necked shirt. His middle-aged heir apparent sat on the back of a jump seat on the sidewall by the doorway to the WC and the next car, on the old man’s right hand. The prince also had the strong square hands of a workman; he was short and stocky, but his black eyes really did twinkle as he surveyed the car. When I timidly asked him which seats we should be sitting in he peered out at me from under bushy salt and pepper eyebrows and a black baseball cap worn jauntily on the back of his head. He gestured at the mostly empty car, rolled his eyes, and shrugged eloquently.

We sat a few seats away so that we could watch the Alps rush at us, but also so we could watch the royal party. On the toothless King’s left hand sat the Prince’s middle-aged wife. She must have been his wife. A man would have killed any other woman who treated him with so much contempt. She too was in her mid-fifties I think, and was wearing a simple dark dress and a thin knit sweater. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled back in a neat bun. Her voice would peel the paint off a naval destroyer. She also took charge of the group’s cell phone, which she passed loudly from person to person as each of the many calls needed to be shared to be believed. Across from the fishwife/princess sat a woman whose only purpose in life was to be an amazed sounding board and incredulous audience for all the revelations received over the phone.

My stocky baseball capped mentor’s perch allowed him to survey everyone in the car and anyone attempting to travel through the train or go the WC would have to walk right through the center of their little tableaux. My Italian is much too weak. I really have no clue as to what was the proximate cause or immediate subject of the constant stream of point and counterpoint among the four (plus one). The bulk of the verbal packy-ball was played between the Prince and the Fishwife. They just had to be married. Even brothers and sisters couldn’t speak to each other at such length and with such scorn as these two did. The words were unintelligible but the hand gestures, body language, and rolled eyes aimed in our direction needed no translation. This was clearly only one brief act in a marital play that had been going on before a live audience for a very long time and showed no prospect of ending ‘til death do us part.

Midway through Act II the conductor appeared. Because we now knew how to validate our tickets on the platform and could actually tell the difference between a first and second class coach, we were unconcerned. He glanced at our ticket and punched it without a comment. When he moved to our foursome (plus one) it was an entirely different matter. He took all four tickets in his hand and said something I couldn’t catch. He was immediately surrounded by three able-bodied Italians (and one invalid) all speaking (or wheezing) at once and gesturing at their tickets. Not a tall man, the conductor nevertheless was in complete control. He never raised his voice. He smoothed his uniform jacket nonchalantly. He replied to each incredulous outburst by some mild reference to “questo treino,” this train. The general hubbub gradually subsided as each interlocutor descended, in turn, to his level of excitement. The fishwife was the last down and I’m not sure her feet ever actually touched the ground. She addressed some comment to the car as a whole and an older, well-dressed woman behind us joined in and helped stir the pot somewhat. The conductor merely turned to go, mentioning “questo treino” one last time and the fishwife instigated a sympathetic exchange with the newcomer over our shoulder then asked me if she could borrow my pen, pantomiming writing on her hand. I gave her my pen and she returned to her seat, continuing the diatribe, and began to write something on her ticket. Each written letter was punctuating with waving arms and a sarcastic comment directed toward the now silent Prince. It must have taken ten minutes or so to write five or six words. She then returned my pen with a smile and a peasant’s bob: “Gratzie,” she said. “Prego,” I replied. The Prince was intently studying something outside the windows.

About this time we arrived in Lake Maggiori, and it was definitely a Major Lake. The foursome got noisily off the train. The well-dressed lady behind us stood up. I asked what the foursome was arguing about. She shrugged and said “They got on the wrong train,” and then asked if she might join us. Her name was Jacqueline; she was originally from Lebanon, now living in Milan; she was Jewish, with a grand-daughter going to Harvard; she recognized our accents as American; hated the Arabs for destroying Lebanon, and now they wanted to do the same thing to Italy and Switzerland; she adored George Bush and thought that he should use an even heavier hand in the middle east because force is all that Arabs understand or respect; she was schooled by nuns, colored her hair red, liked rich clothes, and had a nice apartment in Milan and one in Switzerland with a magnificent mountain view; she was going to be getting off at the little town of Brig just on the other side of the mountains. “Sure,” I said, “have a seat.”

I told her we were from Kentucky. And then the flood of words washed over us again. I nodded frequently between waves and tried to steal glances out the window. Lake Maggiori looked like a fjord, so deep and blue was it, even on an overcast day. And there were lovely little towns sprinkled around the shore. During one of the lulls we apologized for not being very talkative, “Tres fatigue,” I explained about our extended travel day.

“I will let you rest,” she said, “We are coming to the tunnel anyway.”

“Tunnel?” I wondered and just then it went dark outside and remained dark for a good thirty minutes with only occasional bursts of light illuminating impossibly deep gorges with impossibly soaring pinnacles. Except for your typical mountain goat peacefully munching weeds on the face of a cliff the area was completely uninhabited and then suddenly there were amazing vistas out the left side of the train proving that we had, in deed, ridden a train (literally) through the Alps!

The narrow gorges gradually seemed to open up although you still couldn’t possibly take in both the height and the depth of the ravines at the same time. The cataracts coming down from the cliffs formed streams of milky aquamarine. As we also rushed down the mountainside we could see gardens laid out below us in a neat patchwork and pinned to the lower mountainsides. Whatever else might be planted along the tracks there were hundreds and hundreds of apple trees laden with gorgeous red fruit to the point of breaking. The limbs were supported by poles the way my mother used to prop up a heavy-laden wash line. Jacqueline got off the train at Brig, took one of my brochures and promised to visit my website. She wished us a pleasant trip and we hoped she’d get to visit her granddaughter in Boston soon. And then she was gone and we resumed our rush through the glorious Swiss mountain valleys toward Bern in silence. Somehow the mountains became less forbidding and easier to see as we gained some distance from them. No wonder people like to take photographs. It’s much easier to tame a spectacle through a little viewfinder than confront it in person. We had to fight sleep that last hour, afraid we would miss our stop and sick at the prospect of being unconscious amid such splendor.

The Bern train station was not nearly so monumental as Centrale, but much more modern. The passageways are all underground, but so wide they don’t feel like tunnels. And they are lined with small clean shops. You wouldn’t even think of graffiti in such a place. We bought some delicious bread in a little bakery and the tourist office gave us a great map to the “Hotel Landhaus” where we had reservations. It was supposed to be about a 45 minute walk. Georgia was all primed and ready to go! I propped my eyes open with toothpicks and stumbled out the door after her.

(to be continued)

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