La Natività in Palermo

When I was a student, I was lucky enough to be able to travel around Europe any time I felt like it, which was often, even though I was operating on a poor student’s budget, thanks to being an unwilling member of the “Big House” – unwilling except when it came to enjoying the 75~90% discounts on train tickets dependents of SNCF employees could get, that is… One of my favourite destinations was Italy, especially Roma and Napoli. I had a very close friend – we’re still close, but he lives in French Guyana, and I live in Hong Kong, so we haven’t seen much of each other in the last 14 years… – who enjoyed traveling, and while he didn’t get the same discounts, he’d skimp on everything else, including food, so that he could afford going to Italy several times a year.

This friend, whom I shall call here Jeff, was a Comparative Literature and Law double major – although he dropped out of law school later, bless his soul. He wrote his Master’s and PhD project about Giuseppe Tomasi Lampedusa. Like me, he went as far as finishing his PhD coursework and writing the PhD project, and quitting to get a job after that. Close friend, I said… So, Lampedusa. Il Gattopardo, The Leopard – popularized through the movie by Luchino Visconti with Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. Because of Jeff’s monomaniacal dedication to his thesis, we spent quite a few of our Italian trips on the steps of Lampedusa. We both speak Italian, he better than I, and both have read the book and watched the movie numerous times in multiple versions – sometimes it felt like I should get an MA degree for the support I poured in his work… So one December, I think in 1987, we were headed to Sicily, by way of Paris, and Naples. December is always a good time to be in Sicily, since it’s warm, but just so, and since Lampedusa was born just before Christmas, December 23 1896, it was proper that we should be in Sicily around his birthday. So off we went.

We had to go first North to Paris, and then head South-East again, because the French Railways were built radiating from Paris, and it is hard, and slow, to go from point A to point B if neither is Paris. Welcome to Jacobinism 101. So 3.5 hours North, then a quick dash from gare d’Austerlitz to Gare de Lyon, and we hop on the 8pm-ish train to Roma and Napoli, dubbed the “Napoli Express”. Now, let’s get something out of the way before I proceed: it is true that associating an Italian city with “Express” when naming a train is an outrageous claim, that should probably be brought up to a court of law, and, given the number of people defrauded, the case should probably be handed over to a tort lawyer. Nevertheless, since the train originated from France, one could be led to believe that the crawling started at the French-Italian border of Modane. Nopesky. In the Eighties, French night trains were usually not only very slow, for security reasons, or so I was told, but antiques. Fact is, the rolling stock used for night trains were bottom-of-the-barrel grade crap, that were probably designed to ride at crazy speeds of 60 mph, back when diesel engines were the latest fad. Whatever monies the oh-so-powerful unions were getting from the government, were scrimped from the red-eyes.

Anyway, Jeff and I had our routine down pat: find one of the carriages, possibly at the front – since entrance to the platforms in Paris stations is at the back of the trains, front carriages are far away, and people without a specific seat reservation would rather not walk half a mile… – and snag a compartment for the two of us, since the two sofa-like seats would make great beds later in the night. The trick was to get there early and spread our rucksacks and sleeping bags around. On some trips we were lucky enough to be left alone until Roma. Sometimes a persistent fellow traveler would insist that we concede some seats, but seating next to my or Jeff’s feet wasn’t probably their idea of safe travel. Bwahaha.

Reaching Napoli would take 18 hours, give or take. By the time we reached Roma Termini, it would be lunch time, and two hours later we’d get off at the last stop, Napoli. In both cities we’d shack up at the youth hostel, bleak places where we’d meet other travelers, young and not so young, many of them from outside Europe. I owe my English partly to these numerous shallow encounters – to all of you Aussies, Brits and Yanks I forgot about and who forgot about me, thank you! Napoli is a great city, and one can have a great time, if you just make sure no pocket is left unzipped, and no bag is hanging on your back. I have been twenty times or more there, and they never managed to steal anything from me. But we’ve seen many incidents, from handbags grabbed by kids on motorbikes to wallets relieved from sweaty tourists in the open-air market. So we spent a couple of days there, re-visiting for the umpteenth time places we enjoyed and never tired of, while sipping many an espresso. And then, drum-roll, it was time to board our night train to Palermo. Man, had we known…

This was December 24, Christmas Eve, and we thought that all Sicilian émigrés on the mainland would be already back home and feasting on whatever they have for Christmas. Wrong. Ohmigodweweresowrong. Apparently all Sicilians living on the mainland were working until the 24th, and decided to take the same train, the Milano-Palermo. All two million of them. By the time the train arrived in Napoli, it was 8 hours late. And when we finally made it to Palermo, the train was 14 hours late. But we knew it would be like this, since, well, we’d been quite a few times in Italy before… What we didn’t expect was the crowd. As we got on the platform and walked along the train to find a suitable carriage, it looked like a lot of people were standing in the corridors, ready to get off. I called out to Jeff “This one looks fine, they’re all getting off!” The trains stops, doors open, and, uh oh, nobody’s moving. You’re kidding, right? No sir. A young guy calls from inside the train “Whachu waitin’ for? A coffee and grappa?” Okay, so we have a joker on board. And bless his soul, this was the one ray of sunshine in a very bleak train ride. This was standing only, and I meaning standing: no crouching, no sitting on the floor, for there just wasn’t enough space. People with a seat would not move, and trips to the loo were usually prefaced by tirades along the line of “This is *my* seat, fuck with my seat, you fuck with my family!” The Opera was born in Italy, and we got real-life reminders!

Dawn comes, and we reach Reggio di Calabria, the toe of boot-shaped Italy, with even more people than when we boarded the train at Napoli. Sicily is not far, a 15 minute crossing by ferry. Well, 15 minutes is what the ferry took to cross. It took however 45 minutes to fit the train inside the boat, basically by sliding one third of the train inside the boat, unhook the remaining carriages, pull back, slide the second third into the ferry, rinse and repeat. So the 15 minutes spent on the boat, smelling the cool marine breeze, felt great, and going back to our carriages felt like going back to prison. Six more hours of slow moving, stopping in every piss-ant village – but with one improvement: people finally started getting off! We tried to open a window, but a woman standing next to us started complaining about being cold. In Sicily. Seriously. And we needed the fresh air – between the smells and the fatigue, short of a gallon of espresso, there was only one way we could keep awake, and our nostrils unoffended. Mama won’t budge, she is cold. So Jeff starts humming military marches, he has a huge repertory, and can annoy or charm you, depending on your position on military music, nine ways to Sunday, with his renditions of European military music. Since we’re in Italy, probably the largest European contributor to military and civilian music, he launches on a medley of military marches from different periods, diplomatically skipping the Mussolini era. Soon we have our joker and his friends humming and singing along. Mama dashes off to the next carriage in a huff. Score one for the French-Italian Musical Alliance™!

I can finally sit on the floor, and my mood isn’t really improving. The jokes from the young Sicilians at the end of the carriage can only entertain me this far, and when they switch to Sicilian, they might as well speak Macedonian. This trip is not as fun as the others, and I am starting to regret going to Italy around Christmas. Call me a grouch, but I usually don’t associate Christmas celebrations with that kind of misery. And military marches are not exactly mood-lifting… Someone bumps into me, and as I raise my head to give the woman rushing to the loo a piece of my mind, I see in her eyes that she’s not completely with us. Planet Zork, you have a visitor! Crazy old witch is more like it. When she opens the door of the toilet, she sees a bunch of cardboard boxes piled up to the roof of the toilet. Them Sicilians, they’re nice, but they tend to travel with the wildest assortment of luggage, as if they have to carry all their worldly possessions wherever they go. The two young people with the cardboard boxes gesture to the loo, implying that it can’t be helped. The witch starts shouting that she wants to pee, and yada yada, to which the young guys shrug, and point to the toilet in the next carriage. No, won’t do, Mama wants to pee here, and only here. Pandemonium ensues. Just what we needed. And then, just as abruptly as it started, the row ends. The witch comes back in the corridor, and before anybody can stop her – we were all too tired, and to this day I still remember watching the scene in slow-motion – she pulls the emergency brake and runs away. Train conductors arrive, and carabinieri show up behind them. I had no idea Italian trains had cops on board. Maybe they’re heading back home too, but they’re in uniform, so who knows… They get into the compartment where the brake was pulled and ask two people to hand over their IDs. “You are witnesses to this incident. Don’t tell me you didn’t see anything. You will be required to appear in court and testify.” Woah. Justice, the Italian way.

The train starts again, and a couple of hours later we arrive finally in Palermo. A beautiful city, albeit dark and oppressing. I don’t know whether it’s the city’s influence, or because they’re exhausted, but there’s no typical Italian exuberance in the greetings between the travelers and their families waiting for them in the station. A couple of days in Sicily will teach us something about the locals: they are nice enough, and helpful when talked to, but they’re the most quiet people I’ve ever seen. The contrast between the island and the mainland was striking. But coffee was just as good!


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