During some of our European trips, my hubby and I avail of the efficient train systems at our disposal. This has afforded us a peek into people’s daily goings on. We find it a great opportunity to people-watch.
There is something fascinating about looking at people’s facial and body features, manner of dress, mannerisms and expressions. We would see mothers with their little ones in tow plus their own mothers with them, perhaps on a vacation or day trip somewhere. There would be young men, dressed smartly, engrossed in whatever they are reading on their laptops. There would be a group of young people in full hiking gear, probably backpacking through the country. There might be some Rabbis traveling through on one row while on the next, there would be African men and women in their dashikis and boubous. Europe has always been quite diverse. It seems that now, it is true more than ever!
Taking trains also affords us the opportunity to see the countryside. On our recent trips, we traveled on the Ligurian coast. We also passed through mountains as the trains effortlessly crossed tunnels that have been around for many many years.
We passed old handsome buildings with their ornate mouldings, columns, and window frames, juxtaposed against no-nonsense high rises with very disciplined lines and pristine windows.
Travelers abound in the stations. After all, summer is the peak of travel all over Europe. We were among many with our luggage, backpacks, and walking sticks, our guidebooks and water bottles hanging from our pouch pockets. You can hear just about every language you could think of spoken among the sea of heads. I have made it a game to recognize the accent, the slang, the region. Even the English spoken can be Aussie, Texan twang, Bostonian melody, or the Queen’s English and the Canadian “eh.”
For all the inconveniences of having to book your tickets, find your platform, validate your tickets in the green machines, lug your bags up and down steps where there are no alternatives, wait for the trains to arrive, plough through passengers disembarking and eager to board with kids, strollers, bags, and all, then find the right cabin and seat numbers — it’s still worth the effort. The adventure far outweighs the little inconveniences, the transient shoulder soreness, the adrenalin rush of not getting left behind. It still makes for memorable “war stories” to share over dinner conversations with family and friends.
I can remember back in the late 80’s when we were novices at this. We were running late to our connecting train somewhere in Germany. We had to run after the train as it was making its slow dance out of its platform. We barely hitched our luggage on the landing when it began to speed up. Nowadays, the doors have to shut tight a few seconds before a train starts moving. So, those heydays of running and jumping into a moving train are long gone.
I’ve seen some curious sights too. Like a big beefy man sporting a crew cut and wearing the loudest pair of shorts ever. He was topless and had his back to the open door of the men’s room busy washing some clothes on the sink. This, in a public WC at the Genoa Principale station.
Or a petite elderly woman dressed in all black, who was so bent, she was parallel to the floor from waist up. She was carrying bags on both shoulders and what seemed to be grocery bags on both hands. An elderly man was walking beside her with a cane and his own bag. They were deep in animated conversation, gestures and all. The boarded the train, like the rest of us, albeit more slowly.
When our daughter was growing up, we exposed her to all this. As early as 10 years old, we let her participate in mapping out our journeys using maps, train and bus schedules, orientation of platforms, car and seat assignments, navigating through crowds of transients. She had traveled a short train ride with her travel buddy, Chelsea, one summer. They were both 12 at the time. I had my misgivings but I held my tongue. Our friends, seasoned travelers, assured us, the experience would be good. Luckily it was.
On the year she was to turn 16, she went with a group of 8 students from various parts of the country to France. They stayed in Bayonne, a seaside town in the south where the beach was a mere mile’s walk and the border to Spain was a day’s hike. She lived with a French family of four. They taught her to drink red wine with dinner. They watched Euro soccer championship on a mega screen set-up on the beach. Over the years, she developed her travel smarts.
Here are a few basics I have learned on riding trains abroad over the years:
1. Learn to read trains schedules and some specifics. There are regional trains and there are the national or system-wide trains. Know the different schedules so you can map out your connections.
2. Learn to read signs for platforms, car numbers, and if you happen to book first class seats, there will be seat numbers. Learn to read them on your ticket in the different languages. For example, Voie is platform in French, Carrozza is a train car in Italian. If your seat number has fenestre beside it, it means your seat is a window seat. Mediano means you’re in the middle seat.
3. For regional trains, if you change your departure time, as long as you booked on 2nd class and it’s on the same day, you’re still okay.
4. You always need to validate your ticket, i.e., pass it through the green machines in Italy and the yellow machines in France, PRIOR to boarding your train. There are stiff fines for not doing this before you ride your train.
5. Conductors tend to spot check tickets and punch holes on them. There are huge fines for not having a ticket. Believe me, there are those who try. It’s not fun when you get caught. A bunch of black clad guards suddenly descend upon your car and you get lectured and required to pay up by the conductor as they stand there around you. Either you pay up or they haul you to their holding place at the next station. Someone will have to come and pay your fine to get you out. Not fun.
6. Not all stations have elevators or escalators. This is hard for those carrying heavy and multiple baggage. (My poor hubby!)
7. If you’re not on a strict budget, it may be worth your while to book first class seats for longer trips of greater than an hour. This guarantees your seating instead of having to stand or sit separately. The WCs also tend to be cleaner in the 1st class sections.
8. Make sure your luggage is easy enough to lift and has sturdy and steady wheels. It’s very useful too when it’s not so wide and it can fit on the train aisles. It makes for a much smoother transport. There are some medium size suitcases that not only have wheels but also give you the option to put them on your back when necessary.
And so, until our next adventure!