A wanderlust bug crawled out from the pages of my seventh grade social studies textbook and bit me. It happened at the beginning of the school year when my class was learning the history of Ancient Greece. A picture of the Parthenon captured both my eye and imagination. All year my textbook fell open to that page as if by magic. “I will see it for myself one day,” I decided.
I traveled to many places since that time, some more than once: Hawaii, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, thirteen Caribbean islands, at least nine American states, seven Canadian provinces and fourteen European countries including (finally) Greece.
My husband Dave and I have always found traveling interesting, but admit that many days did not go as planned, some were disappointments, and some were dubbed “a day from hell.” Time must soften the harsh edge of the worst days, however, because we often tell about them in such a way that one might almost think they were the good times. These stories have been told and retold so many times that every detail has become firmly entrenched in our memories and – miraculously – a little more amusing.
Thursday, March 22, 2001 was one of those days – but let me back up a week. When you wake up in Rome on March 15th, the Ides of March, you half expect something bad to happen to you. Anyone familiar with the history of Julius Caesar, or at least William Shakespeare’s version of his death, might remember that a seer forewarned Caesar to “beware the Ides of March!” But, he was unable to avoid the impending doom and was stabbed to death that day by a group of senators, which included his good friend Brutus. You would think, with the sense of foreboding Dave and I felt being out and about on the streets of Rome on the Ides of March, that we would have exerted extra caution to prevent a mishap; but no. We were on a crowded subway heading for St. Peter’s Basilica when Dave’s wallet was stolen. It contained the equivalent of about $55 but, thankfully, no credit cards, his driver’s license, or anything else of importance. That experience taught us how quickly and stealthily pickpockets work and that we must be extremely cautious, especially in crowds. Extra caution did not, however, prevent a similar incident from happening to one of our traveling companions just a week later.
On March 17th we traveled by train from Rome to the Naples Airport where we met Norm and Laurel, our relatives and traveling companions from Nova Scotia. We then picked up a rental car and drove to the small town of Airola, 34 kilometres northeast of Naples. We settled nicely into the Italian way of life at “Antico Mulino,” an old mill in the
countryside within walking distance of town. From there we explored Airola, the other nearby towns of Benevento and Casserta, the Isle of Capri, and learned how to make pizza like born and bred Neopolitans.
Then came March 22nd – our day from hell. We wanted to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast. That was a lot of ground to cover in one day, so we made an early start. We caught the 8:00 a.m. train from Airola to Naples, where we planned to transfer to the Circumvesuviana train for the rest of the journey to Pompeii. We soon learned that, because of a train strike, the Circumvesuviana train would not be running until almost noon. We had to take a bus instead, a crowded one with standing room only.
“ATTENZIONE!” a young woman warned, referring to pickpockets. We heeded her warning when we got on the bus by clasping our cameras tightly, arranging ourselves in a close circle, and keeping our eyes on each other. The bus hadn’t traveled far before there was a commotion up at the front. A man was sliding windows open and closed with loud bangs. Naturally, we looked. A few seconds later, a woman at the back door loudly demanded that the driver stop to let her off. She was soon gone, and so was the wallet that had been zipped up in Norm’s jacket pocket. It contained the equivalent of $250, his driver’s license, and VISA and bank cards. We had learned the hard way how thieves work in tandem; one makes a diversionary noise while the other, brushing up against the victim, relieves him of valuables.
Although the day was somewhat tainted by what had happened earlier, the subsequent hours went by smoothly. Norm made the necessary phone calls to report the theft, the train strike ended, and we reached Pompeii where we spent a fascinating afternoon. By 4:00 p.m. we were back at the Pompeii train station wondering where to go next. We had seen only one of the four anticipated destinations, which was a disappointment. We decided that even one hour in Sorrento before sunset was better than not seeing it at all. “Let’s go!”
It was just shy of 5:00 p.m. when the train pulled into the Sorrento station. If we had any hope of spending an hour exploring Sorrento before dark, we were soon relieved of that notion by a taxi driver. He told us that the train strike was to begin again shortly and, if we missed the 5:00 p.m. train returning to Naples (the one on which we had just arrived), we might have to stay overnight in Sorrento. So with only seconds to spare we rushed back into the train station, bought tickets, validated them, and arrived at the platform – just in time to see the train pulling out.
To make a long story short, we did find a way back to the Naples train station that evening. A quick but expensive trip by hydrofoil brought us to the port. It would have also been an expensive trip by taxi from there to the train station if the driver hadn’t reduced his price by more than half, after we stated that we’d rather walk. On second thought, maybe we should have walked, since the taxi ride turned out to be an almost death-defying experience. Cars, mopeds, and pedestrians missed each other by mere millimetres as they tried to maneuver through bumper-to-bumper traffic. Drivers leaned on horns and jockeyed wildly for the best positions. If driving down the wrong side of the road or on the streetcar track was quicker, that’s the route they took – even with streetcars approaching head-on!
Arriving back at the train station was a relief in one respect; at least we had survived the taxi ride. But the scene we faced was surreal and frightening. Windows had been shattered and there was a predominance of armed police trying to control the mob. Between the time we bought our tickets and the scheduled departure time for our train, we found refuge at a Macdonalds restaurant. Somehow the familiar “Golden Arches” provided a sense of desperately needed normalcy after a long day that had been anything but.
We were told that the train strike affected only the Circumvesuviana train, not other routes such as the one to Airola. Nevertheless the strike must have had something to do with what happened next. Our train arrived fifteen minutes late and was even later leaving the station. When it finally did leave, it moved at a speed no faster than we could walk. Just before entering a major intersection, the train stopped and barriers were lowered to prevent traffic from crossing the tracks. Frustrated drivers naturally honked their horns and shouted, but the barriers remained down and the train did not budge. Twice, when the cacophony reached a crescendo, the barriers were raised briefly, allowing some traffic to cross. Then, down they came again – to more shouting and honking. After another twenty minutes the train finally began to move very slowly but inexplicably still stopped between stations. It wasn’t until we reached the city limits that the train picked up speed and we were finally on our way.
With all that had gone wrong that day, the four of us had begun to expect the worst. If anything could go wrong it would. We doubted that our car would still be parked at the train station where we had left it that morning. Surely it had been stolen. To our complete amazement, it was still there – and what a beautiful sight it was!
We were soon back at Antico Mulino with our feet up, sipping glasses of red wine to soothe our frayed nerves. We had endured and persevered through some agonizing moments. Norm had been robbed and we had experienced a train strike and a harrowing taxi ride through Naples’ crowded streets. We were very disappointed not to have seen Sorrento, Herculaneum, or the Amalfi Coast, but the wine had begun to soften all those hard edges. We felt giddy – maybe even ecstatic – thinking about how we had survived all the mishaps that had inflicted themselves upon us. We had reason to celebrate now. The day was drawing to a close and would soon be just a memory.
“Today deserves a special name, don’t you think?” suggested Laurel, studying her wine as she swirled it around in her glass. As always, Laurel was laid back but alert. Slowly she raised her glass. “I propose that we call it: ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy!’”
We smiled in response, raised our glasses in a salute, and drank.
March 10, 2008