|Anne's welcome-to-Italy orientation ran a bit longer than expected.|
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This trip to Italy was special for me. It was the first vacation I'd had since I lost my husband, and my first to Europe by myself. I needed to get out and do things, my family and friends told me. Start living my life again. Italy had been next on our list of places to visit, so I'd decided to try it alone with a Rick Steves tour group.
Over the previous months I'd studied the maps and itinerary, agonized over what clothes to bring, packed and unpacked, then packed again. I watched Italian movies and took Italian language lessons at the cultural center. With a strict workout regime, I was strong and fit — ready to carry my own bags and find my own way from San Francisco for Rick's tour of Venice, Florence and Rome.
At last, I was on the train to Venice to meet my tour group. I glanced at my watch: 1:30 p.m. — ample time to relax for this seasoned traveler. Our group's orientation meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. at our Venice hotel, and only thirty minutes away by train from Padova where I'd spent the night. I took a long breath, smiled and congratulated myself, thinking about how I'd unpack, clean up and take a walk around Piazza San Marco before the meeting. I'd get to know my fellow travelers, then enjoy a gourmet dinner with them at the restaurant.
As I settled into my upholstered seat to watch the rustic Italian scenery roll by the window, I tried to massage my aching shoulders and neck. My bags seemed to be getting heavier, even though the previous night I'd ditched lotions, shaving cream, extra contact lens solution, magazines and my old slippers in an effort to lighten the load. Kicking my shoes aside, I peeled off my socks and saw that I already had blisters the size of flattened garbanzo beans on each baby toe.
The train car was nearly empty. Across the aisle a pair of lanky, denim-clad young men lolled in their facing seats, eyes closed, ears plugged into music thumping from their players. They were probably college students, tired from a weekend of heavy partying, trying to catch up on their sleep.
After more than an hour of scenery had whizzed by, I began to wonder if I had misinterpreted the train schedule. I should have been in Venice by now. Each station came and went, marked by a large white horizontal sign with the town's name in black letters. Where was Venice? I rooted through my daypack for my map, and as I pulled it out I saw the sign outside my window, "Ferrara." I located Ferrara on the map. It was partway down the boot of Italy...in the wrong direction! I choked back a scream.
"Mi scuzzi," I shook the shoulder of the young man nearest to me. He jerked out of his daze and gave me a sleepy look. I held my train ticket up to his face with one hand, and shook my map at him in the other. "Venezia?" I said in my most American-accented Italian. He squinted at my ticket, gave me the universal shoulder shrug with palms up and shook his head, "Bologna." My stomach clenched and the nervous acid-drip continued. We were on our way to Bologna. How could this be possible?
Stuffing my map and guidebook into my daypack, I stood to exit the train. The teenager held up his hand to stop me. He shook his head. "Bologna," he repeated. I thought for a minute. "Why should I continue on the wrong way? I still might have enough time to get to Venice for the meeting if I get off now." I looked out the window and saw some people standing next to a small building backed by a graffiti-scarred concrete block wall, nothing like the busy train station I'd left. Apartment buildings lined the tracks, laundry hanging limp over balcony railings. Okay, maybe I should go all the way to Bologna. I might have a better chance of getting a direct train back to Venice.
Slumped back into my seat I muttered to myself, "How could I be so stupid?" In my haste to get on the train, I'd forgotten to look at the ticket and see if I was at the right gate. My head was pounding, my eyes were dry and tired, my body still on four-something a.m. California time.
By the time we arrived at the Bologna station, I'd become resigned to the idea I'd miss the orientation. Shoulders drooping, I stood and gathered my bags. I dragged them down the steps of the train onto the platform. My two young compartment-mates were waiting as I stepped off. Each of them grabbed one of my bags and gestured, "Come on!"
I stiffened as they lifted my bags. All I could think of were the warnings about all the pickpockets and thieves in Italy. My fingers felt for my money belt, satisfied that it was safely under my shirt. I ran to follow them, down the tunnel of stairs that led to the other side of the platform, trying to keep up with their long legs. They paused for a minute to read the large schedule posted in the underground passage. They pointed at the listing, and then started running again.
"Quick," they motioned. I chased them up the stairs and across the crowded, cavernous station to the ticket window. They put my bags down and waited in line with me as I moved to the front. They told the cashier which train I needed, then looked at me and smiled. "Grazie mille," I said. I gave them my best smile and a tear squeezed out the corner of my eye behind my sunglasses. As I paid for my ticket, they raced off. This time I looked at the gate number and carefully noted the train destination on the big overhead board. It was going to be 7:30 by the time I arrived in Venice, but I didn't mind missing the meeting. I'd had my own orientation.
— Anne in Moss Beach, CA
Note: When we contacted Anne about running her Tour Tale, a message came back from her iPhone — she was already back in Italy, this time on a Village Italy tour!
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