I took a bus from Milano Linate Airport to Milano Centrale Train Station, as planned. I knew I had to get my Eurail pass validated, so I followed the signs to the main ticket office. A tubby guy with a fantastic moustache stood behind a little information kiosk and stamped my pass. When I said I wanted to go to Paris he pointed me toward a long line for tickets. Ok, I thought, if I get the 4 pm train as planned I won’t have any issues with a little waiting. Half an hour later, when I stood in front of the ticket desk, the ticket woman gave me an incredulous look: “Toodaii Sahnday. No train for four!” She told me I would have to take a series of trains to get to my destination, but I could still make it in time, even early. She gave me my ticket to Ventimiglia, the first stop, and said, “Yuh goh godda rahn ees een two meenuss!” I bolted out of the room, almost knocking over an entire family of Japanese tourists, and I fled up the rolling sidewalk to the main train hall. Somehow, the little Italian I know showed up when I needed it most, though my panicked expression and running probably spoke for themselves. For two flights I yelped “Scusi!” and “Permesso?!” as befuddled travelers stepped out of my way. I arrived in the nick of time and the conductor gave me a scolding (at least I assume that’s why he was so emphatic), but I settled myself into a car. I must really have been a real sight to the two men and one woman who were already in the compartment. I was wheezing and talking in English and with these big heavy bags that I sort of perched next to me to avoid sticking them above my head. One of the men was reading a German newspaper and the other looked out the window with a sculptural sort of gloom on his Romanesque face. The woman, the very definition of MILF (dyed blonde hair, obvious signs of plastic surgery, bright blue eyes, a deep tan, tight brown knit dress, fur trimmed coat, sheer black stockings, knee-high high-heeled leather boots, and crazy makeup), eyed me for a second and then went back to reading her newspaper. So we hurtled through the Italian countryside, me trying not to go all fuddy-duddy while admiring the scenery and they going about business as usual. When the men got off at Savona station, I got out the croissant I had saved from our Cairo-Frankfurt flight. I guess I haven’t eaten croissants in a while and forgot how crumbly they are, but I tried my best to maintain some poise. My nose started running in the middle of the whole thing and I felt like I was reliving my toddling years but with myself as a babysitter—struggling to multitask the damage-control to de-crumb my fingertips and stifle a sneeze and keep at bay the snot that threatened to drip down my face, which was already covered in crumbs, as was my scarf, my bag, and my shirt. The milfy lady just kept reading her newspaper, thankfully.
For a while, we passed through flat farmland with the Alps a commanding backdrop, then we crossed into mountains and went through a few tunnels. We stopped at a few towns and Genova, which looks almost identical to Alexandria architecturally (late 19th century apartment buildings with balconies and painted shutters over the windows) and location-wise except for Alex’s dust. There were even a few stray cats wandering around the train station, though they looked a lot cleaner than those back in Egypt. We went along for a few stops with the sea on one side, a restful gray-blue and so clear you could see the sand billowing up under the surf. I was reminded on this first leg of the journey of why I like train travel so much. It’s usually pretty relaxed and you get a rare chance to peek into people’s backyards and livelihoods for a second as they whip by, unlike the view from a car on the highway (please tell me where you’re driving if you find yourself in disagreement—I want to know!): a dog digging gleefully in the back yard of an apartment complex, gulls swirling over a man tossing crumbs like they were seeds he was sowing, three sailboats in a tight circle around a man with a megaphone in a dinghy (I’m assuming it was a sailing school), an old woman putting out the wash, a street fair with twinkly lights, an endless greenhouse filled with nothing but (what looked like) broccoli, an older woman who typified the elegant image that I think of when I think of Italian women—bold but flattering makeup, a pristine white mink coat, and a scarlet beret, an Armani bag over her arm—clearly making no excuses for her age, but celebrating it in a way other cultures, my own, especially, have difficulty doing.
The train headed southwest from Milan to Genoa, then west along the Mediterranean coast to Ventimiglia.
I switched trains (and from the Italian national train service to France’s) there to head to Nice, which went right through Menton, where I will be studying. Let’s just say I am even more excited to head back in that direction now that I know what it looks like!