My Italian jaunt was set to begin; a destination I’d been longing for, for over half a year. There was a pull to live and work in a foreign speaking country, under the golden sun with rustic pasta and cheap local vino in hand. The lost in translation moments, the toothless old mamas cackling with their skirt waistlines holding up their bosoms, the winding streets with old apartment buildings and colourful blooms perched from balcony windows… I was ready for this.
I had a job opportunity awaiting me in a city on the Italian Riviera, teaching English. It was a chance to revert back to my South Korean days, trying to impart a speck of English language on the local kids. I thought this would be my opportunity, to live the dream I’d yearned for. The chance to start afresh by losing myself in another culture really appealed to me; slipping under the radar as a new Nickie-Jeano.
A 6am wake-up was to begin my journey to this place that had impressed upon my heart, with never having met it before. It was to become the most interesting travel day I’d ever met.
Scottish Best Friend had an early work start, so she accompanied me and the beast of a suitcase in a taxi, to catch a bus, of which we caught to a Park ‘n Ride. She waved goodbye from the window and I towed The Beast toward the timetable. I had to entertain myself for forty minutes, outside (because the blissfully warm looking waiting room was closed), in the foggy morning wearing an outfit ready for Milan, huddled under a coat. So I took selfies while dancing from foot to foot. Entertainment and heat.
I trickled some coins into the bus driver’s money tray and awkwardly dragged The Beast behind me, wedging it between my frozen leg stubs and the seats, taking advantage of the intermittent wifi.
The airport check-in could have been a breeze, if I’d known more about my budget airline that happened to come with an usually expensive ticket. I didn’t know about the online check-in nor that the massive fare I’d paid, did not include my baggage. I did know that I was only allowed one item of carry-on, so I over-stuffed my poor pink handbag until it couldn’t breathe.
At the departure gate, a hubbub began to stir as a trophy was paraded through the crowd. We were all called to board together in one big people moving chunk; a mob of Milanese venturers. I tossed a coin in my head and decided on taking the rear plane exit, hoping that I wasn’t going to be that ‘excuse me’ person from the front end to the back.
Thankfully my hunch was right. I was in the absolute back row, middle, in the tiniest seat squeeze I’ve ever encountered on a plane. I prayed that the person in front was not going to recline his chair into my forehead. In true NJ form, I was placed in between a new grandmother off to meet the latest family addition and the trophy wielding brass band of overly happy Italian men, at an ungodly hour of the morning, who had just cleaned up with winning a championship title in Scotland. Their instruments had been lovingly shoved into every overhead locker.
I slept when the pages of my book flipped together. My brass band buddy was out cold and his knobbly left knee had protruded into the square inches of my allocated leg space. Needing to pee, and the excitable grandmother agreeing with me, I tried to wake the space stealer. I tapped on his arm while his brass band gang watched on. He didn’t flinch, so I laughed while one of them flicked his head. He woke startled and decided to stretch his arms, connecting his elbow with my earhole. He stood up at the seat entrance and didn’t move, until his mates asked what the feck he was up to and told him to get out of the way.
I was quick to pee, while new grandmother immersed herself in a twenty minute conversation with the airline staff. I waited and waited and waited until she asked “Have you been to the loo yet?” We clambered back into the cage and admired the snow-capped alps, as we descended into Milano.
I was fortunate enough to be in the short non-Euro immigration lane. Although that didn’t stop some guy from ducking under the rope lanes, to push to the front of the line. I looked around and no one else seemed to be bothered by this. At my turn, the officer took my New Zealand passport and muttered “All Blacks”, and then I was in.
I refused to buy water and a cup of tea on the flight, so I made a beeline for a cafeteria to grab a late lunch. Italian brass band had invaded the café and were milling about in front of the food. I stood in line with my bottle of water and the hope of grabbing a sandwich, while one by one they decided to push in. I turned around and again, the queue didn’t seem to bat an eyelid while I squished my bottle in hanger*.
With a heavy paper bag and serviettes that blew out of my hand as I walked, I moved away from those brass banders and their rowdiness. I stood with my chewy bread prosciutto sandwich that I had to pull away from my head like a strand of mozzarella cheese to break it off and then whiplash my head; swigging water in between bites to moisten the crumbs so they wouldn’t jump out onto my blazer.
The between terminal bus trip took an amazing ten minutes long, feeling like it was strangely across the other side of the country. At the other terminal, I had to work out how to print my train ticket and validate it in another machine that had specific online instructions saying that it would have a red backing and ‘trenitalia’ across the top. I cautiously shoved it in and hoped for the best, that this was the right coloured machine with the right name; because if you don’t validate said tickets, you could be up for fines on board. I had an hour and a half to wait, so I stared at my reflection in a window, hoping no-one would come up from behind rending me to kick their arse.
I stood gawking at my train for 5 minutes, wondering if it was actually the right one. Until I remembered my Tokyo train to airport incident where I had stared at my train and watched it leave, not realising it was mine, and spending the trip squashed next to a curious local, hoping I wasn’t going to miss my flight.
I got brave and got on, in eye view of The Beast. As luck would have it, a very slight Australian lilt pricked my ears, and I got to speak with a lovely young Aussie couple who’d lived here for three years and their baby, who was made in Milan. In a foreign speaking country, there is nothing more reassuring than having the opportunity to speak your own language; if only for twenty minutes of a train journey.
My online instructions specified that I did not need to print my ticket from Milano Centrale to Genova P.P.; that my booking number would suffice for the conductor. I still tried to print a ticket, just in case, at a machine that asked too many hard questions so I had to leave it. I also tried my hand at the ‘self-bar’, with a packet of chips and being tripped up by fizzy water instead of flat. It also stole one of my euros and probably laughed in my face.
This train had partitioned cabins and I found my compartment with two three person rows, facing each other. I looked up at the luggage rack up high above the seats and then down at The Beast who couldn’t sit with me, because there was no space. In a ridiculous effort, I tried to haul the suitcase up overhead. The man of the cabin, a short rake of a finely dressed Italian in his late forties offered his help and struggled to only just powerlift it into place, while two ladies who had lunched and shopped raised their eyebrows. “Bene grazie” (good thanks) feebly and incorrectly fell out of my mouth instead of the more appropriate “Grazie mille” (a million thank you’s… sorry, I never pack lightly when I travel).
I fell in and out of sleep next to the young girl whose phone kept buzzing with smiley face emoticons. Nearing a big looking city I asked “Genova?” and pointed to the floor. “Si”, came from The Rake, as he helped wrestle down The Beast. I stood in the aisle obstructing the way, knowing I had a swift seven minutes to print my next ticket, validate it and jump on my final destination train.
This was a big ask. What I had not accounted for were the stairs to drag The Beast down and the ticket machine being way at the other end of the station. The ticket machine had not anticipated my haste and decided that its touch screen wanted to key in subsequent, not corresponding letters to what I had been typing in. The clock jokingly told me that my train had long gone, and the timetable told my tired and defeated self that the next train was an hour and a half away. It was now the evening and I still had an hour of train travel to go.
I grimaced to mask the ‘oh gawd I’m so tired, why me?’ and took up a post in a classically shitty train station café. Dinner was a crust-less tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwich that rendered excitement from looking at the picture on its packet; until I took a bite and had to force it down. Dessert was this random pottle of breadsticks to dip into Nutella, attached to a lemon drink that I nearly spat across the station floor. It took licking the Nutella packet clean, to rid my mouth of the fake citrus taste.
With half an hour to go, I thought I’d beat the public transport system and go and wait for my train to Varazze, up on the platform. It had gotten dark by that stage, which paired with the overly dramatic couple’s domestic, made me will the train to come sooner than expected.
I sighed and sat down with relief as I found a space for The Beast and I on the train that was on time. I was okay until panic set in when I couldn’t read the station signs that blurred outside in the dark. Where the heck was I going to get off? I think I asked an older man in broken Italiano, how many stops? As he got off, he held up his hand and showed me five.
The platform was barely lit at Varazze, as I lugged The Beast down and then up some stairs. The written directions I had from Google maps were absolutely useless when I couldn’t find any street names. I thought about taking a taxi, since it was dark, but the rink was empty. They did have a sign advertising a number, so I went inside to the phone box to call it. The phone box did not accept coins, but prepaid phone cards. I looked around at the empty station and wondered what was I going to do?
A couple were out on an evening stroll, so I showed them the written street names and asked for some help. They shrugged with no idea of the names or location of my hotel. In my head, I had started laughing hysterically at the situation and my whole entire day. They asked another guy in the distance and then relayed some very basic left right directions. Apparently this walk was going to take me ten minutes.
I quietly asked for some assistance, in my head, and then powered on in the dark. As luck would have it, my hotel had its own signs pointing out where to go; which was fabulous for me, as I need the visual cues. The walk took five minutes tops, and I was there, at the last set of stairs at 10:30pm.
The receptionist oversaw my inability to string a sentence together in English, and handed me a card and directions to my room. There, I opened the door to my home for the next two weeks and put the card into the space in the wall, to turn on my lights. It didn’t work, so I went back downstairs. The receptionist told me I’d put it in upside down. I laughed at my incompetence of functioning, she giggled politely with me. Back in the lift, I heard her let loose at my tired stupidity. I probably would’ve done the same thing as this whole scenario just screamed classic NJ. I showered and climbed into bed, feeling like I had well and truly earned this night’s rest.
I now have two weeks worth of immersing into Italy to impress upon you, which will definitely be over several blogs. There are a few tales to come; like getting absolutely raked across the coals by a train conductor, how I gave in to eating a daily 4pm gelato, how I got stuck in a crowd of chanting football supporters and how my job situation has come along.
Until then, be kind to yourselves.
*Hanger; from hangry: slight anger induced from hunger.