When you’re traveling on a tight budget, one of the first things to go are the train tickets… paying for them that is. Now, you might think that this would cause a problem, mainly in being able to take the train, but when the country you’re train hopping in is Italy and the person in charge of checking tickets is generally preoccupied reading the newspaper, a possibility arises.
Of course, it’s best not to be reckless about such things, short train travel only, preferably when each wagon is full of fellow passengers to ensure that ticket checking isn’t brisk business. Finding out which wagon the conductor is on before stepping on the train is imperative, as is ensuring you’re seated amongst a certain type of person. Hanging with nationalities that make a living selling fake designer goods is preferable, because they’re usually riding without a ticket too and are more likely to be checked first.
There are other benefits as well, increased perceptive skills and just enough of an adrenaline rush to hint at what a life of crime would have felt like.
So it is that my fellow criminal/luscious travel companion and I are hopping trains between the Ligurian towns of Riomaggiore and Vernazza (a 3-village/15-minute hop ultimately) when, moving down the corridor of a particular train car, we come face to face with Margherita.
Barring a wave of misfortune you’re likely never to meet Margherita so you can count yourself lucky that, as she waves us to a row of seats across from hers, you’re sure never to share in the following experience.
Margherita is the grandmother of the woman who rented her flat to us for the Easter weekend. Though she doesn’t speak any English she has a remarkable ability to convey exactly what it is that she wants from her poor subjects- errr, renters. She does this with a one-two punch of rapid Italian and even more rapid hand gestures. It’s likely anyone who’s ever gotten close is missing a limb or two. Early the morning after checking in she paid us a surprise visit to ensure that we hadn’t forgotten the importance of leaving the key on the table when we check out (2 days later) and that the menagerie of wooden Catholic figurines in the sitting room were still facing heavenward. Fortunately, I had avoided the temptation the previous evening to take them out and recreate the sacking of Constantinople.
Sitting across from her now, I send nervous little glances over my shoulder, feeling like a paraplegic confronted with a Jehovah’s Witness. Margherita, oblivious to our discomfort, or perhaps trying to enhance it, interrogates us about our activities the past three days. “Where did you eat dinner last night?” I manage to make out from the blistering Italian. We had eaten at a place called ‘Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre,’ and upon informing her of this, her already creased face folds even further.
“No!” She cries, “Terribile!”
I try to assuage her fears by telling her that we ate only a cannoli, though this seems to do little to convince her.
During the whole of this interrogation the train crawls along the tracks, as if it too is on its last legs. Tourists cram in at every corner. Two Americans in the row behind us shout a conversation back and forth, letting the rest of the wagon know that someone spent the night heaving into the toilet.
“What did you eat there??” Margherita demands again, her increased blood pressure showing as she pounds the handle of her walking stick.
“I had a Linguine ai Frutti di Mare and she had, uh, Gnocchi.”
White lie or not, I feel a great weight immediately after speaking it. Only a devout Catholic would be able to inflict such undeserved guilt, a standard by which Margherita ought to be wearing a habit.
The excess skin on her arms smacks the air as Margherita rants on how the restaurant’s two proprietors (known as the Cannoli brothers) are little more than crooks based solely on the fact that they have the nerve to come to Liguria from Sicily and tell Northern Italians how they ought to cook.
“They probably asked you where you were staying too, didn’t they??”
They had in fact asked where we were staying, oddly enough. Confirmation given, Margherita rants off some more words in Italian, of which I recognize only “bastardi.”
Like a shelter puppy that no one wants, our train finally succumbs, expiring in the suffocatingly narrow tunnel that is Vernazza’s sole means of exit.
Free of the conductor, we find ourselves now in the hands of a much crueler controller, who orders us to follow her as she scuttles up the colored stone steps leading to her lair.
Lars von Trier seems to have ceded the direction of our little escapade to Roberto Benigni, because in the next frame we’re seated at a thick wooden table in a colorful room surrounded by welcoming family portraits.
Margherita, after tossing her set piece of a walking stick aside, hobbles over to the refrigerator like everyone’s favorite grandmother and withdraws a perspiring bottle of limoncello. “This,” she says in about 50 Italian words, “is homemade.”
She sets three shot glasses down and tops them up with the creamy, yellow liqueur. Two sips is all it takes before I’m bubbling over like uncorked champagne, confessing my love for everything, not Italian, but Ligurian! Oh the pesto, the foccacia, the sea and, of course, the limoncello! La Dolce Vita! She rewards my acquiescence with another parting of the fridge door, this time producing a jar of freshly stuffed mussels. My ecstasy reaches new heights, the joy of Italy washing over me like it hasn’t since before moving to Rome. I down two, three, perhaps more of the aphrodisiacal sea critters, amidst countless sips of limoncello I can’t remember. All I know is that I feel blessed.
Some somber Scandinavian director takes over the camera again, as Margherita announces that she’s tired and once again brandishes her cane.
As we pass through the narrow doorway she informs us that we are to leave the key on the table before leaving the following morning.
Without waiting for a reply she shuts the door, and we descend the several steps back into Vernazza’s sole thoroughfare.