Sunday, November 02, 2008

I Sense a Theme Here...

One last backdated post... just got home a little while ago and now have internet.

I'm really glad I found the little rubber earpiece for my sound-blocking headphones before this trip. They're the part that make the sound-blocking part work. Were it not for these little babies, I'd be subject to the ridiculously loud mobile phone ramblings of the little shit down the car from me. In Italian, of course. I recall saying something about the Italian lack of voice modulation. It was in full force in the compartment on this morning's train, too, with a few strangers having an animated conversation about exactly how many minutes every train they've ever ridden on has been late. Despite the miserable guy visibly trying to sleep in the window seat.

Luckily, I have my trusty laptop as an outlet to write. And luckily, it's still functional. And with me.

In the string of overall rotten luck this trip (not mentioned before: one of my aunts had 100€ stolen out of her handbag her last day in Paris) I have been soaked again, this time after trekking around Torino for a few hours between trains.

The morning train arrived at the Porta Nuova station, where I checked in my backpack at left luggage. However, trusting such services as far as I can throw them, I transfered my laptop and SLR into my shoulder bag. When I travel, they do not leave my side, and they most certainly do not get checked in with anyone.

My load somewhat lightened, I made my way to the city center to do whatever it is that tourists to Torino do. Maybe do some shopping, have a hot chocolate, look at statues... that kind of stuff. I was about to start clicking my shutter at all sorts of neat things until the sky decided to open up. This, of course, meant that every historic seat at every historic café overlooking every historic plaza in Turin was suddenly taken by other tourists seeking shelter from the rain. And thus, I was left with the choice of hanging out in the covered arcades with all the enterprising umbrella salesmen from Africa and the Indian subcontinent, or taking refuge at the American embassy.

So off to McDonald's it was. Finally, I was handed the opportunity to fulfill my goal of poisoning myself at er... trying McDonald's in every country I visit. The menu didn't look very intriguing, so I almost made my way out of the non-line (the Italian disdain for orderly queueing apparently goes beyond bus and train boarding), until something caught my eye: Gamberi mariposi, 3 pezzi. That's right - McDonald's in Italy serves butterfly prawns the same way the corporation sells bits of processed chicken bits elsewhere. SOLD!

Unfortunately, the food is nowhere near as intriguing as it sounds. In fact, I dare say the gamberi were even oilier than at any grease schack in New Orleans... as in... the American South. Really. The rest of the food was just as craptacular as American McDonald's, too, only the beef in my burger was somewhat brown and not grey - a promising sign.

What my meal lacked in pleasure, it more than made up for with entertainment. As I exited McDonald's, a "gentleman" trying to look somewhat non-chalant as he carried a rather feminine-looking shoulder bag was grabbed on the same shoulder by one of those impeccably dressed, regal-looking Italian police officers. As he started to run, he was knocked down, then two more GQ-looking officers popped out from the other side of the sidewalk and picked him up so they could drag him somewhere more open for... god knows what. A crowd gathered and cheered as the resisting purse snatcher was finally shoved into the back of an official police Alfa Romeo. God damn! Even the cops are stylish in Italy. (And very pretty, in many cases...!)

I roamed around central Torino for a couple of hours overall, trying to find diversions and distractions, as well as shelter from the pissy weather. At this point, my shoes were starting to slosh around, and none of the open stores (it's Sunday, after all) sold either saffron cheese or Bialetti espresso makers, either of which I would have gladly snapped up to keep warm with retail therapy.

But I was miserable. Cold, wet, and missing my wife, I made my way back to Porta Nuova train station to collect my backpack. I figured with a few hours to go before my train to Paris, I had plenty of time to make it over to Porta Susa station. It didn't look that far on the map, and the directions aren't at all complicated - from one station to the other, it's simply north on a major street, then west. Forward and left. What could go wrong?

I'll tell you what can go wrong.

Italian street signs are second only to British ones in terms of illegibility. (Actually, British signs are easy to read - finding them is the challenge.)

Sure, it's classy (and classic!) to have them engraved into the sides of buildings in a serif typeface, and very small so as not to be garish and conspicuous. (Because, by god, no one here likes anything that's really visible, right??)

So I happened to miss not one, but TWO streets that lead directly to the station as I headed north, and kept going for, oh, probably 2 km more than I was supposed to. Normally, this would probably be fine since I'd left myself so much time to get to the station.

I knew something was amiss when it started looking less and less city center-like and slightly more suburban-business-area. I decided to make my left at that point, hoping to maybe triangulate upon the station, or at least see road signs pointing to it. (There were none, by the way...)

After a number of blocks of going west, that now oft-mentioned feeling of dread hit me.

Now normally, I have no issue walking through "bad" neighborhoods. I've hung out in South Central LA late at night, the "seedy" parts of Paris don't phase me, and my old neighborhood in San Francisco butted up to the projects where seeing a crackhead taking a dump on the sidewalk was no issue.

So walking through a downtrodden Torinese neighborhood with tons of hoodlums hanging out on the sidewalk isn't really a problem. I'm a big boy and can handle myself.

The thing is, I generally don't walk through these neighborhoods carrying a backpack, a shoulder bag, and a bright red shopping bag. If sharks can smell blood from a mile away, hoodlums can smell "tourist," at least from 20 metres. Now normally, I don't think this way. Hardly ever, in fact. I know the "law of the jungle," and there's generally no reason for anyone to rough me up. That and I'm about twice as wide as your average western European, and much scarier looking. Except for the fact that within three minutes I'd already witnessed two guys getting beat up... and on the same side of the street I was walking, at that!

As luck would have it, the next person I ran into was a young nun walking out of some church-y looking building. "Scusi!" I approached. She started to cower away, until I removed my beanie to show her I was a respectful, god-fearing (ha!) person. "Dov'è Stazionne Porta Susa, per favori?" I asked. The trouble with asking for directions in a language you minimally understand is that you get the answer in that language.

Following are the words I understood: Normally; you; keep; straight; but; left; but; bad; bad; bad; evil neighborhood; leave this street; future tense of "to be"; more safe.

I tried to say "Thank you, thank you very very much, I appreciate it" as I walked off but in my lousy Italian, I could've been saying, "Now can I see what's under your habit?" I think I got it right, though, because despite the storm above, I wasn't struck by lighting, and despite the thuggins around me, I wasn't mugged. And after stopping to orient myself a few times - and ask a few more puzzled passers-by if I could look under their clothes or whatnot - found the station.

Now I find myself less than an hour from Paris, likely developing a case of pneumonia considering how cold and wet it was at the Torino station and that the AC on this train was on for four hours of its nearly six hour run time.

I'm coming home with a likely pulmonary disorder, soggy shoes, much more weight, and far fewer euros. Worst of all, I'm doing it alone. Right now, all I can think about is drawing a bath, then crawling into bed. My big, empty, not-quite-warm-enough-on-the-right-side bed.

But I'm writing with a slight smile on my face. My wife, my mom, and my aunts don't have their last day for another week, and the weather forecast looks good. After all, I'm fairly certain I used up all of their bad travel karma.

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