A hot summer day in Italy, 2003 (somewhere between Rome and Naples)
I didn’t really know where I was, or where I was going.
I was following this recommendation and that, from acquaintances I’d met along the way. A German girl had said the Amalfi coast was worth seeing but I must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. I never went quite that south.
Sitting in a local bus squirming along a country road with its ups and downs and tight lefts and rights, I was keenly looking out the window for any kind of landmark. All of my travels that summer had been a sum of the people I’d met, an encounter leading to an idea for the next stop.
Traveling alone, I felt free. I had no itinerary. I was making it up on the spot.
I was wearing the same clothes I had worn all summer. A favorite well-fitted grey t-shirt and the Benetton denim skirt I had hastily cut shorter, from ankle length to knee-length, in the Rimini store I bought it from, in the dressing room after paying. A Finnish girl I later on befriended in Florence would always laugh at the image of me cutting away, and she never missed the chance to point out that the result was “uneven, but in a cool way”. On my feet I was wearing my usual flip-flops.
Hugged tightly under my arm was a large white canvas handbag with a faded Bollywood picture on it, the bag an Irish girl had called funky. It was from somewhere in Italy, or maybe France, I no longer remember. I had everything on me, from passport to probably my home keys, but I looked casual. My big backpack was in storage at a railway station somewhere. Having arrived in Italy directly from my Erasmus year in France, I had mailed some items home so I could travel light. Everything was spontaneous.
This bus ride was going to be a short one, that was all I knew. It was a remote place with no tourism. An Italian man seated near me gave me instructions in English on which stop I’d need to get off. As a language lover, I’d been speaking my broken version of Italian all summer… but sometimes I liked to crawl back into my comfort zone and speak English.
Then a uniform-clad man entered the bus. His dark blue suit looked hot for the day and he didn’t look happy. He was a ticket inspector, I soon learned as he started checking everyone’s tickets. I had bought a ticket of course. But as the man looked at my ticket, there appeared to be a problem. I realized I was supposed to have stamped it. I wasn’t used to stamping bus tickets.
He turned the little slip of paper, my ticket, over and over in his hands and demanded I pay a fee. An unstamped ticket wasn’t valid. I understood him but wasn’t quite able to explain well enough in Italian that it was entirely accidental. He didn’t listen to me and had no sympathy to spare.
The ticket inspector turned to the man who’d given me instructions just a while earlier and asked him, since he was younger and looked more metropolitan, I imagine, to translate into English that I must pay a fee.
And this, I clearly remember: the man refused.
He just said no, I won’t translate it.
The ticket instructor looked around for someone else’s help but everyone avoided eye contact with him. An older woman nearby was firmly looking out the window pretending not to hear or notice what was going on. Other passengers in the bus were looking at their feet or pretending be be asleep.
After a while, the inspector had no choice but to give up; he left defeated. He didn’t speak English and clearly thought he couldn’t explain to me that I needed to pay a fee. He seemed to think I didn’t understand what was happening, didn’t understand any Italian, since I was a blonde in beach wear, an obvious foreigner.
As soon as the door had closed after the inspector, there was a collective sigh of relief. The old lady started laughing and clapping her hands, looking me in the eye triumphantly. Everyone in the bus broke out in cheers and chatter!
It turned out quite a few of them could have translated the message, had they wanted to.
I loved Italians at that moment… for being able to break the rules. I never knew such solidarity existed.