Stories I haven't told - 2


Thursday, 19 July 1984

Dear Diary,

Wow, today has been some kind of incredible day! I don't know where exactly to begin--I guess I should start with yesterday, actually.

Number one - Dad got me a plane reservation! His cousin Ernesto, who was helping to fix up the house in Torvaianica, has some kind of connections with Pan Am, and somehow they worked through that to change my reservation--tomorrow at 1:20 p.m. I leave Brussels for the U.S. Yeah! At least I don't have to spend God-knows-how-long in the airport waiting on standby. So I was--am--very happy about that.

Yesterday afternoon Rosanna (that's her name) picked Mum & Dad & I up & took us to Termini, where we dropped off our stuff, and then to the neighborhood of St. Peter's. We got there kind of late, though, and barely got a glimpse of the gorgeous--and massive!--interior before the guards shooed us away.
I bought Mike a
Roma T-shirt, too. Then we walked around (Mum bought 2 pairs of shoes, gorgeous, for $20!), ate a bit and had coffee, then it was back to the station. They sat in the train with me for about an hour until it was time to go. No tears or anything--I think maybe now we all feel comfortable enough and sure enough about our relationship(s) that there's no thought of, "What if I never see this person again?", etc. It was sad, of course, but not traumatic. (Plus, I'm looking forward to going home.)

Anyway, 6:15 this morning we were in Milano. I checked my bags and generally hung out. I was so bored, though--then, when I went to American Express, I found out they'd moved their office. I eventually found it--with some difficulty--and then not only did I have to wait a while to get served (there was a line) I had to pay £ 10,000 to collect it! But I got it, anyway--$150 in traveler's cheques.

On the way back, amazing incident #1 happened.
A guy approached me and asked (in Italian) where Via Brera was--he was looking for the AmEx office, too. He noticed (of course!) that I wasn't Italian, and when he found out I was American, he was very happy. "You're the first American I've met!" he said (remember that phrase).
We talked a bit--he's African, from Nigeria, and studying at the University of Turin, even though he's also working as an engineer. Wow. I was starting to run low on time, though, and I had to go, when suddenly he pulls a wrapped package out of his bag and gives it to me. "What's this?" I asked.
"A present."
"I bought it for a friend ("un'amica"), but since you're the first American I've met, and you're so nice, I'll give it to you."

I was speechless. I opened it up, and it was a traditional African (Nigerian) costume, a dress. He said it was the traditional dress of the mountain women of Nigeria--it's beautiful! Peach silk, with a flower design in the same color, and trim of red, black, green and white embroidery. I think I'll use it for a nightgown.
I kept asking him, "Are you sure? Are you positive you want to give this to me?" He, of course, kept repeating, "Come no?".

Well, I took it. I told him (before this) that I wanted to go to Africa, and we exchanged addresses, etc. Just think: an American and an African meeting on the street in Milan and speaking Italian--I love it! This whole incident really put me in a good mood.

Which was a good thing, 'cause the train trip was excruciatingly boring--I thought we'd never get to Köln. The Italian train guard didn't make me pay the zuschlag (IC train), but the German guy did. I had to give up almost all my Belgian, Swiss and French francs, and lire--the only way I got to keep any was by stashing some in my jacket pocket (especially the £500 pieces, gold and silver colored). I'm sure I ended up paying much more than DM 4, but oh well.

Around 10:00 pm we pulled into Köln (finally!) and to my dismay the Wechselkasse was closed--open only 7 am-9 pm. And the regular ticket counter guy wouldn't take a traveler's cheque. I was starting to panic--the idea of a night in the Köln train station did not excite me.
Luckily, the international counter accepted AmEx, and I was able to buy a ticket to Brussels-Midi. But (since I wanted to leave immediately) I would have to change trains at Liége, and wait for 4 hours. Yuck. But better than nothing, I thought.

So I hung around and caught the train, which is really a train to Paris--FULL of Americans! I ended up speaking with this Canadian girl (whose name I never learned). Nice, but quiet. We had a nice compartment, 2nd class non-smoker, all to ourselves, when the train guard (I'm starting to develop a prejudice against German train guards) told us we'd have to go 5 cars back, for some reason or other. We were not alone, but we couldn't find a single seat. They wouldn't even let us stand in the aisle! We found ourselves at the very back of the train, sitting by the WC--fun.

In Aachen they stopped the train for passport control, and here strange incident #2 began: I started talking to a Belgian train guard who boarded in Aachen. He told me I should get off in a closer town, where the train station was smaller and safer, and there were benches where I could sleep. He was from there, so I figured he would know what he was talking about (and he did, actually). There even turned out to be, when he checked his schedule, another train to Brussels, at 3:35--only 2 hours to wait instead of four. I thanked him (we both got out at this stop) and went to sit in the station, setting my alarm.

A little later he came in too, sat down for a minute, and told me (guess what?) that I was the first American girl he'd ever met. I laughed and told him about my African friend, even showed him the dress. He asked me if I wanted to hear some music, I said sure, turned out to be his car stereo.
I kept the door open, though, and one foot outside (I'm learning, eh?). Anyway, he asked me if I liked the music, I said sure, and he gave me the cassette! (A home-made one.) This was really too much, and I tried to give it back, but no go. Can you believe it?

Well, turns out his motives weren't quite so pure, but I wasn't interested in his pleas to "just once kiss an American girl." Ha. Like Belgian girls kiss any differently. Suddenly, then, he was very tired and had to go home. I asked him again if he wanted his cassette back, but he said no--at least he had some pride.

The really funny thing is, soon after he left, and I was alone here, another guard came and asked, in English, if I was the American. He asked to see my ticket, and wanted to know why I'd gotten off here. I told my story, and he said that somebody had told him I got off the train with the other guy, and he was worried--apparently my Belgian "friend" has rather a reputation! But I told him I'd managed to fend off Mr. Amorous, and he wished me happy traveling, etc. etc.
Not even five minutes later, he was back. "I don't want to be strange," he said, "but are you in the mood to go out for a drink or anything?"

Like I said, a bizarre day.


Notes from the future:

1. The "mum" and "dad" referred to here are my host parents from Australia, who were visiting their relatives in Rome. In case anyone was confused and thought they were my actual parents.

2. Considering I'd been assaulted twice that summer--once at school, and once in Milan on my way down to Rome, that same trip--I'm kind of amazed at how unworried I was about traveling alone, at night, and talking to strangers. Resilient, or stupid? Your call.

3. That was definitely the only time I've ever been hit on twice in one day. Too funny.

4. What made me think of this incident: yesterday we were in Ferrara, and an African selling good luck charms stopped Dario in the street. I wandered off to do some window shopping, and when Dario caught up to me he was laughing. "What's so funny?" I asked him. "That guy asked me if you were my girlfriend. I said, 'She's my wife.' 'You're lucky,' he told me, 'where I come from, a woman like that would be worth thirty camels.'"
Dario bought the good luck charm.

5. I still have the gown.