It is often said that at least Mussolini made the trains run on time. While this might not be entirely true, Italy's former fascist dictator managed to modernize the train system and make it a fairly reliable method of traveling around the country.
Flash forward 80 years: Present-day study abroad students count very heavily on those trains for cheap travel on our three-day weekends.
Last weekend my roommates and I decided to take advantage of this resource and escape Florence (who knew we'd need a break?) by heading to Cinque Terre-five coastal towns in northwest Italy, near Christopher Columbus's native Genoa. We boarded the train excitedly Friday morning, embarking on the first of many planned journeys for the semester.
A few hours and only one seamless train change later, we knew we must be nearing our final destination as we caught brief glimpses of the aquamarine Mediterranean Sea glittering in the midday sunlight. As soon as we checked into our hostel-a first, for me-we hit the beach to recapture our fading summer tans. Rather than lying on the sandy North Carolina beaches I've grown up on, we trekked down a winding trail and perilously hopped from boulder to boulder to find the ideal sunbathing rocks.
Riomaggiore, the town where we stayed, felt like it was dreamed up in a Hollywood studio. It's a seaside resort town whose colorful buildings seem to dangle off cliff sides over the brilliantly blue sea-a perfect subject for a postcard. Only a handful of restaurants and hotels dot the main thoroughfare-Via dell'Amore-the lovers' walk.
As we lay on the rocks, contemplating absolutely nothing, our only sense of time came from the chiming bells of the church, perched atop the cliffs-its simple white structure stark against the azure Italian sky. And as we treaded the cool water, we were at peace and everything felt so far away-home, Durham and even Florence.
That is, until, my arm began wrathfully stinging.
I spotted a jellyfish-rather tiny compared to the ones I remember from my summers sailing at camp-but with equally harsh tentacles nonetheless.
Once I recovered from the surprise of jellyfish even being in the pristine Mediterranean, I recalled another tidbit from my days spent out on the Neuse River-ammonia provides at least temporary relief from jellyfish stings. Although we of course didn't have any meat tenderizer out on the rocks, my roommates dutifully offered to sacrifice some bodily fluids for my sake. Despite their generosity, I resisted that tantalizing offer. Even a cure for my tingling wasn't worth the humiliation or lost dignity.
Even better than the sea creatures or the old speedo-wearing European men that seemed to pervade all the beaches were the Turkish toilets that greeted us in the bathrooms. If you don't already know what they are, trust me, you don't want to. More comforting was our Australian hostel-mate who was convinced he had gotten bedbugs. Don't worry, though-the hostel will refund your money if you've got them.
On the train ride back to Florence, with our slightly burned faces, but otherwise glowing, we began to think about our next adventure. We'd pulled off our first weekend of traveling together without a hitch.
Or so we thought. As we were all contentedly finishing up our beach reads in Pisa, we were alerted by a Italian train porter that our train had, in fact, been empty for about 10 minutes, and we were to board another.
Once we were one train station outside of Florence's Santa Maria Novella-only about a three-minute ride away-we were herded on and off no more than four different trains over the course of an hour. The crowds didn't help the chaos-or the constant fear that the nice-looking Italian gentleman might be pick-pocketing you. The several dozen riot police-armed with shields, batons and helmets-stood nearby just in case any passengers got feisty. The only thing they were useful for, however, was directing my roommate on where to hail a taxi-and then wanting to know her name, so she could be introduced to one of her admirers.
Fortunately the train left the station shortly thereafter-and even more fortuitously, there are three McDonald's located very close to our home station. So, finally giving into our nagging desire for a good old American cheeseburger, we rewarded ourselves. But the Italians even manage to make their mark on MickeyD's-ketchup was 10 cents a packet and, rather than a playground, the restaurant had a series of Florentine images with Dante quotes.
But despite what now seem like trivial
obstacles, in the spirit of McDonald's, I'm lovin' it. Or as the Italians might say, l'Amo.
Victoria Ward is a Trinity junior studying abroad in Florence. Her column runs every other Wednesday.
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