Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Italian Job

Of course we all know what Italians are like. Their tanks go fastest in reverse, their favorite after-dinner game is bunga-bunga and they (both men and women) are slim and sexy when young (and who cares when they are old?).

I have therefore found our current holiday to the Lake Como region of Italy very instructive.

First of all, their trains. Since Mussolini was resigned from his job they aren't quite as punctual. Nor are their steamers or buses. On Sunday, Colleen and I took the steamer down the lake. Being the last day of September, the steamers were doing their last runs of the season. Having spent the day at Bellagio and Varenna (please note the word “spent”; Bellagio has more designer label shops per square meter than Beverley Hills or Monaco), we took the last steamer up the lake, which has about a dozen stopping points. It set off a few minutes late yet somehow arrived early.

How did it achieve this, with all those scheduled stops en route? Easy. As it approached each berth, it sounded its horn. If someone on the ship or the shore didn't make their intentions known immediately, the engines revved up and it sailed on by.

Now, just imagine you are a tourist at Lake Como. You have had a lovely day, ending, say, at Dongo. You are early for your steamer so you cross the road to the local ristorante and have a glass of vino or a birro media. You are just taking the last, perfectly-timed sip when you hear the steamer’s horn. “Excellent”, you think, putting down your glass, collecting your hat and waiting for a break in the Sunday traffic so you can cross the road to the jetty. That's when you hear the engine revving up, notice the bow wave surging and see the last boat before spring 2013 disappearing into the beautiful evening distance.

Repeat that half a dozen times and - presto! - the once-late steamer arrives early so that Captain Giuseppe and First Officer Giovanni can be welcomed back to the bosom of their families to prepare for the long winter nights.

Colleen and I observed this from the steamer and made sure the captain, first officer, barman, scullery-maid and ship’s cat knew we needed to disembark at Domaso.  While the ship was tied up to the jetty.

Stepping on to terra firma, we made our way to the gelateria to buy a bus ticket. “No!” said the lady behind the counter. “Buy on bus!” Previous experience (another story) had taught us not to argue with her. We waited at the bus stop, foolishly early, which meant we were just in time to catch it.

Marco, the driver, refused to sell us a ticket. When we tried to explain, he just jerked his head to the rear of the bus. We could see his point. It was Sunday night and he was heading home, early if possible. The last thing he wanted to have to do was spend thirty minutes filling in a cash reconciliation for a measly €3.

The following day we took the train to Chiavenna. It is such a pleasure taking a train in Italy. You walk off the road, on to the platform and on to the train. In England there are electronic gates, which will let you or your bag through, but not both; security scans; full body pat-downs; passport control; and doors which close thirty seconds before departure meaning that if you are on time you miss the train. That's just at my rural station. Try any of the big London stations and you need to be there about two days before departure. Heaven knows how commuters manage.

In Italy, thirty seconds is ample. So there we were sitting on the train chugging from Colico to Chiavenna when the ticket inspector entered our carriage. I was struck by my usual panic. Where's my ticket? I thought it was in my inside pocket? Oh, hell, I am going to be arrested! I wonder what Italian jails are like? Oh, there it is. Whew.

I grasped it in my sweaty hand and prepared to present it.

And waited. 

After ten minutes or so I looked over my shoulder.  The ticket inspector had sat down and was chatting to an attractive lady. He sat and chatted while the train clickety-clicked along. The stop before Chiavenna, the lady got off and Giorgio resumed his duties.

And do you know what? It all seems very civilized. Do you really want to be driving a bus or boat at the end of the last weekend of summer? Of course not. If you meet someone attractive during the course of the working day, why shouldn't you take a few minutes to talk to them?

And when it comes to security, aren't we overdoing it just a tad? One day, every single one of us will pass into the Next Life. Between now and then, perhaps we should take ourselves a little less seriously and start enjoying life.

Here is where I think the Italians have got things just about right. Carpe diem, and if that means that bus times suffer or your tanks go fastest in reverse, so much the better.

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