I woke early, becoming gradually aware of the rhythmic swaying of the railway coach. Beyond the curtain, the day was still gray and uncommitted. There was stale cigarette smoke in the corridor and stale sweat on my skin. I rubbed my eyes, pulled down a window and stuck my head out into the rushing cool morning air. The mixed smell of damp vegetation and polluted air swirled about me. In my stomach was an emptiness made up of one part morning hunger and nine parts loneliness.
The corridor was filled with sleeping forms. I stepped over them on my way to the toilet.
Every summer, the same pattern recurs. As June gives way to July and then to August, more and more passengers take to the trains, but the authorities make no attempt to provide space for them. Trains that were half empty in May and full in June, are packed in summer with twice as many passengers as there are seats. They sit on the seat-arms and in the aisles, in the corridors of the compartment cars, taking jump seats or sitting on suitcases, or sprawling on the floor, wedged against backpacks. Ragged backpackers and old Italian ladies in black, the youthful and the outworn, the poor and the middle class (the rich are in their reserved compartments, sleeping in their couchettes), having nothing in common but their humanity.
Crowded hip to hip, stepped on, pickled by cigarette smoke, jostled and sleepless – you would expect irritability and bitterness. It is not there. Instead, there is gentleness, kindness, politeness, and a warmth of underlying laughter at the absurdity of it all.
I made my way to the washroom at the end of the compartment. It was early. Most of the passengers were still trying to sleep, so the line was short. After ten minutes, I wedged the door shut behind me to dry shave and wash my face in the untreated water. I brushed my teeth, remembering not to dip the brush under the tap. Finally I lifted the lid on the toilet and spat toothpaste and saliva down onto the ties that were flashing by underneath.
I have always found something satisfying in the simplicity of that arrangement. A turd hitting the ties at fifty miles per hour will explode into a spray of material that dries and decomposes as naturally as a cow pie in a pasture. But try telling that to an American tourist.
Ah, Europe. With the most modern train system in the world and a hole in the floor to shit through. With two hundred mile per hour luxury trains running the same tracks with others that crowd their passengers like emigrants in steerage. The last time I was here, I had become tired of its foreignness after a couple of months. This time it was like a homecoming.
And today, Venice.
Any day that has Venice in it has to be glorious. more tomorrow