Setting off for the Deep Balkans tour

17. Juni 2013 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Milano Centrale, Bar Centrale: The first capuccino in the south: it used to be a wordless sensory event, now it needs to be photographed. Not such a bad thing as it may seem: I’m travelling more consciously now, more aware of time passing. I discovered that good documentation enhances the value of each journey, and it even contributes to savouring the moments as they happen. That means taking pictures as well as thinking about what to write later.
Marianne accompanies me to Zurich and helps me with the bags. I can carry everything myself and still have a free hand, but it’s troublesome. We have coffee at il baretto, and then I’m disappointed to have to board the ugly and breakdown-prone Pendolino train. But it’s just travel nerves, and everything turns out fine. I even find space for my bagged bike, a huge black parcel faking innocence on a train where bikes are not allowed.
Opposite, and also not in their reserved seats, a female threesome with a Valais accent: mother, daughter and auntie on a short trip to Venice, by way of St.Gall, where one of them lives. They mingle French and German, the daughter lives in Geneva and has an Italian husband. They unpack a thermos of coffee and a set of china espresso cups. For me, a last look at Swiss multilingualism and enjoyable lifestyle.
In Lugano a young black priest or friar sits down with eyes signalling the will to communicate. Unfortunately I’m listening to Corin Curschellas on my iPhone and am half-way in trance. When I take my earphones out later, he has to leave soon, at the border town of Chiasso. He is from Benin, he says, and blesses all of us, the Valaisannes, me and the dangerous train.
In Milano Centrale I have a layover of nearly two hours. The cafe bar is nice, but I’d prefer to catch the earlier Freccia Bianca express train. It wasn’t bookable on the Internet when I got my ticket, probably for the same reason that the train schedule as a whole went online a month late: Italian carelessness. Some call it chaos. It makes me a bit nervous, because I’ll only have an hour and three quarters to find the ferry harbour and check in in Bari. And soon I get more anxious as the train starts building an awkward delay for no obvious reasons. First, a quarter of an hour, by Bologna it’s 30 minutes, later 45. If I miss the ferry there won’t be another one for two days. I decide to unpack and assemble the bike while still on the train, saving 10 minutes.
In any case, I shouldn’t be so disconcerted. Either I’ll make it or I won’t, but it won’t change the course of my life. Plus I can’t make the train speed up by looking at station signs nervously or asking the conductor. In Pescara, I take a look at the departures monitor. An earlier Freccia bound for Lecce sports a delay of 215 minutes. I see it pulling out of the station just before us. It’s kind of comforting to ride south in the wake of an even more out of sync train.
I ponder why it isn’t possible for me to enjoy the trip now and sink into the upholstery of comfortable propulsion in the same way as if the train were on time. Perhaps there’s a lesson for me: regain composure and focus on the tall reeds along the line, on the rows and rows of parasols, the pot-bellied men soaking in the muddy waters of the lagoons, take in the smooth light of the evening’s onset, the blue hue in which the Apennino Abruzzese languishes in the back of beyond, look sideways at my greying hair reflected in the mirror of the dark window as we rattle through a tunnel beneath the Gargano peninsula where Marianne and I once spent a cold and snowy March week many many years ago – yes indeed, time has passed.
My lesson now seems to be to lean into this time no matter if I’m lagging behind by an hour now compared to the place my putative punctual self would be, and to write about it instantly to make me feel calm and present.
On the stretch between Milano and Rimini I was sitting opposite an elderly couple, again bilinguals mixing bits of French and Italian. I helped them with a heavy suitcase and we got to talking in French. They live in Fribourg, where he arrived in an early wavelet of immigration in the early sixties. The family had had a small farm south of Naples, but the only son didn’t have the strong arms of the father, and when he died and his mother got ill, he had to leave „to save a life“, as he told his would-be employer, CIBA-Geigy in Marly. He’d learnt Latin and French at the seminary, and the fact that he plonked down just west of the Swiss language border was good fortune. He would have taken a German course, he assures me, had he ended up in the German-speaking region. He thinks it’s vital to adapt to the receiving society. For a while he and his wife were anxious about the various initiatives to cut down on immigration, or even to send the recent arrivals home. He would not have had a home to return to in the seventies.
He ruined his health working at the chemical plant, but he still would have liked to study the subject. He says upon my question that his wife didn’t go out to work, but then she makes it clear later that she very well did, cleaning offices at Swisscom.
Now they’re on their way to Rimini where they’ll be spending ten days at a good-value family pension, only €47 p.P., meals, wine and beach concession included. Having been a pensioner for 14 years, he says he deserves the holiday more than in previous years. Why? he encourages me to ask, and then he tells me the long version of his medical history, starting with stents and surgeons sending him home too early with pains and blood trickling from him, and ending with an unambiguous gesture demonstrating a prostate examination he had to suffer. His diminutive wife with her wrinkly face, blue mascara and lilac finger nails is mostly quietly nodding, but she has her own topics: the high incidence of crime in Switzerland (you can’t walk in the streets anymore at night), her granddaughter who wants to pierce her eyebrows at 16 (granny advised her to wait four more years), the lovely fish they will be eating at the pensione. When she naps, she clutches her handbag. Meanwhile her husband shares a piece of wisdom with me which made his pharmacist laugh out loud, he claims. What kinds of professions should your children learn, assuming you have three of them? One should be a doctor to take care of your ailments, the second a lawyer to fight your legal battles. And the third? Should be a mafioso to make the grade financially.
Well, here’s one happy couple glad to be holidaying in their lost home.
And that’s not the end of the story of a long day. There’s a beautiful sunset watched by an only slightly less winsome woman from the platform outside the compartment as the train skirts the Gargano, the sun irritatingly on my side, which was supposed to be eastward facing. After I’ve managed to assemble the bike despite the swaying of the train, a ticket collector appears for the first time on this journey and grumbles that bikes are not allowed. I retort with a practised explanation in Italian, pointing out the delay and showing him the bike bag. He doesn’t want to hear and marches off with a disparaging gesture. Those foreigners, glad to be rid of them.
I ride off quickly at Bari trying to recover the route I’ve plotted on a city map printout. But I get lost quickly and people I ask, picked out at random from the frolicking Sunday night crowds, invariably point me in the wrong direction with the magic formula „diritto, sempre diritto“. Finally, when I’ve found the gate to the port, I learn that the check-in is 1.5 km out along a dark harbour road. „Ma lei a una bicicletta, non c’e problema“ and he mentions Fausto Coppi, a former Italian cycling champion. I hasten to the agency and back in ten minutes and once again have to make a detour, I end up at the maritime port because once again someone fooled me, and at the gaping mouth of the ferry, five minutes before the scheduled departure, I learn that the check-in agent should have given me a boarding card for the bike too. There’s no way I’m going back there and I lure the Jadrolinja lady with tales of my previous trip to Dubrovnik on land and praise the glorious history of the ferry lines. I think she understands the drift and, after long consultations with the officer on duty, she waves me up from the lower car deck where I’d been waiting alongside a clutch of Harley Davidsons from Basle, worth a quarter of a million francs.
Then there’s the revoir with the shabbily charming interior of the ferry straight from Tito times and waiters who are hovering about a depleted buffet. I find I have a cabin to myself, and get to take a shower at just the right temperature. Then, to complete the day’s conciliatory end, I have a huge meal of calamari, chips and salad. After all of this, there is still time to watch the ferry glide out of the harbour and into a quiet warm night.


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