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August 30, 2005

Viaggio Pazzo

Sunday, August 28 to Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Dubrovnik, Croatia to Ancona, Italy... to Perugia, Italy:


Question: What do you call a ticket booth with a line of 400 Italians waiting in front of it?

Answer: A ticket booth with 400 lines.


Maybe that's not the funniest joke you've ever read (and I hope it isn't) but if you've ever been to Italy for more than four minutes, you know it's the truth. On Sunday, the 28th of August, I made my way down to the Dubrovnik ferry terminal to cancel my ticket for that morning's departure and look into arrangements for leaving the next day. I'd had a late night on Saturday (thanks in part to "Latino Club Fuego") and also realized that my planned eight-hour trip by ferry to Bari (which was at least six to eight hours from Perugia by train) did not make much sense when a far faster route would involve taking a four-hour bus up the Croatian coast to Split and catching a five-hour boat to Ancona instead. Ancona is only a few hours by train from Perugia.

Pandemonium reigned at the ferry terminal, giving me a taste of what was to come. In case you haven't read the numerous and increasing slew of travel articles promoting its beaches, cities and unspoilt (though in some places still mined) forests, Croatia has once again become a playground for vacationing Europeans, particularly Italians, and particularly wealthy Italians at that. The radiant white marble and cobblestone streets of the old city of Dubrovnik are perpetually awash in 400-Euro baby calf-leather loafers and ridiculously impractical five-inch Prada stilletos through all hours of day and night. Nevertheless, I had not witnessed such a concentration of flashy --- and highly irate --- Italian spending power before setting (Gucci-clad) foot in the ferry station. Dubrovnik had already impressed me as a trippy, hedonistic melange of numerous Italian cities (part Venice, part Florence, part Naples, part Rome, and even a little Capri) but with so many Italians visiting, and now churning furiously to get their checkout papers to head back home, the Italian attitude, as opposed to just the aesthetic, became manifest.

(I'd forgotten about the attitude. How that's possible, I can't understand. It's what I loved about my prior two visits to Italy. It's also what drives most people absolutely, positively insane about the place over time, many Italians included.)

Two booths were open. A Croatian man sat behind a third, distractedly fidgeting about with a broken official stamp while a mob of identity card-toting Robert De Niro look-alikes stomped and shouted and glared through their black aviator shades while adjusting their hair. "Funzione o no funzione, eh??!!" shouted a fist-shaking grandpa who I, for one, would never be caught messing with. The Croatian shrugged and looked back at his stamp. His booth was closed, nevermind the fact that he was sitting there in his chair doing nothing. I think he was getting a kick out of taunting the Roman horde. And his counterparts at the terminals across the Adriatic in Italy were doubtlessly doing the same even then.

Don't ask me how, but I managed to navigate my way through the chaos and catch the attention of the Croatian stamp-man. "I need to cancel this," I said, thrusting my ticket out and making it very clear that I was not Italian but, in fact, American. I was as surprised as anyone to find that my American status made me more and not less desirable a client to deal with. "Wait here," said the man, and disappeared from his seat into one of the back room offices. Meanwhile, sensing that the booth I was standing at had now finally opened, the mob had regrouped and reformed behind me. In fact, the line was almost certainly still closed, but an exception was being made for Il Americano, who was changing his ticket and not boarding the ferry. I tried to make this clear to the man standing behind me. "Parla Inglese?" I asked him. "E chiuso," I followed, with a smattering of words I'd picked up in a book. He looked at me suspiciously, then down at his $4,000 watch. Yeah, sure it's closed, he seemed to be saying. He paced back and forth like a sprint-runner before a race and I had the impression that he was going to charge me and throttle me dead the moment the Croatian returned to the ticket booth. And still more Italians were crowding into the already crowded terminal and pressing up against one another (and me). The air was saturated with sweat and Acqua di Parma and I expected the room to explode at any moment into a bloody carnage of torn hair and Pucci fabric.

In my limited experience, beautiful Croatia seems doggedly intent on creating as "European" an image as possible. Think style, sophistication and class. Think weekend jet-setters, fashion shows and six-foot super-models. Also think bureaucracy. After waiting nearly ten minutes the Croatian returned with the woman who had sold me my ticket several days earlier. "We can give you a refund (for a 30% penalty)," she told me, "but you'll have to come back after 2 o'clock, after we've checked everybody out." She waved her hands at the crowd for emphasis. A few of them shook their fists back. I argued, of course: "I came all the way down here by bus and have to go back and now you want me to spend another hour and twenty Kuna? I don't have time." I had barely slept and was annoyed to have my sleep, beach and possible further "Latino Club Fuego" time fussed with. The woman didn't care, though. She apologized and turned away, galvanizing herself for an imminent confrontation with the angry legion that actually thought that the booth she was at would be open. "Chiuso," I heard her explain to the man with the watch who had been standing behind me. Vowel-rich torrents of furious shouting followed me out the door of the building and well down the street. I didn't have my refund but I was alive.


Twenty-four hours, two calamari meals, one brief nap, two swims and one fuzzy night at "Club Labrint" later I was on a bus up the coast to Split. The views along the Dalmatian Coast, though stunning in their own right, are not quite comparable to those on the Amalfi Coast --- but then again, almost nothing is. Set against a rugged green mountain backdrop, the waters are still some of the clearest in the Mediterranean and, what's more, the historic old cities and towns on the shoreline are actually still quite affordable. Do not expect this to last, however. (Do not. Do not. It won't.)

I arrived at Split at exactly 4 PM. An old woman charged me with a sign advertising a room for the night (it was in Italian, German and English) and followed me halfway across the street to the ferry terminal, where I hoped to find a boat to Ancona that evening. If not I planned to spend the evening seeing Diocletian's waterfront palace (said to be one of the most imposing Roman ruins still standing today) and wandering through Split's old city. I had already resolved to go back to Croatia sometime (and without a doubt Bosnia-Herzegovina, which, until I can finish a post on, I can only describe as one of the most interesting, stunningly beautiful countries I have seen) so I wasn't bothered much either way.

Luckily a ferry was leaving at 5:00 and I had just enough time to purchase my ticket and run to a grocery store next to the docks. Stocked with Italian deli-meats and cheeses my dinner choice was a no-brainer. I picked up two fresh ciabattas, some mozzarella cheese and a quarter-pound of fresh-sliced prosciutto. I then made my way back to the boarding line. Guess which language everybody was speaking? Voce Forte.

The ferry was a huge and sleek SNAV fast-boat. Four-and-a-half hours is all it needed to carry me and three hundred Italians (with perhaps three French and a stray Brit) over the Adriatic. The television played some crap Antonio Banderez film dubbed in Italian but I couldn't hear any of it from where I sat stuffing myself with prosciutto sandwiches in the back. The generous main cabin of the boat was subdivided into numerous spacious compartments, including several restaurants, lounges and cafes, and I was amused to see couples and their children strolling busily around the ferry from one space to the next to the next, looking casually around, and being looked right back at, just as they would on an evening passaggiato down Via Condotti and Scalinata di Spagna in Rome.

I got into Ancona shortly before 10 PM. There was the expected mayhem and a near stampede while queing to exit the boat and have documents examined by bored Immigration officials. Then I was more or less on my own on a nearly empty and dimly-lit highway running along the waterfront of the city. Without a map or a real sense of the layout of the city I simply picked the direction with the most light emanating from it and walked for several minutes. This did the trick and I soon found myself near what had to be the center of Ancona's old city. While the very brief write-up in Lonely Planet describes it as a "grimly industrial" city, I thought the part of it I was in was highly interesting and attractive. I found myself a hotel for a steep forty Euros and settled in, too tired to want to try my luck elsewhere. Then I went out for a quick walk and the obligatory slice of pizza. Everywhere I went I had to try my hand at speaking Italian. Nobody spoke English.

If Ancona is a "grim" city, it can only be so by Italian standards. The place seemed anything but that to me. The old buildings and fountains radiated history and elegance. The outdoor cafes swelled with crowds, the gelato shops did booming business and, at 11:30 PM, I picked up an Italian-English dictionary in a crowded bookstore which was --- along with a number of other shops --- still open and very lively. It was a Monday night. I had reached Italy for the third time and, after travelling through 20 other countries prior to my arrival, it had lost none of its charm for me. Nor, for that matter, had nocciolo gelato.


The next morning I hauled my bags down to the train station and bought a ticket to Foligno on the Eurostar train to Rome. There are no direct trains from Ancona to Perugia so I needed to transfer to make it the last 15 miles or so of the journey. I was fairly worked up about getting to Perugia in the early afternoon because I was supposed to start class in two days but still lacked any confirmation that I was enrolled. I wanted to be sure I could reach the office of the Universita per Stranieri before it closed, in which case I would have to visit in the morning and cut things uncomfortably close. As it was I wasn't allowing enough time for any number of possible bureaucratic nightmare scenarios.

Disorder onboard. What else could I expect? No less than three Italian men came up to me during the 90-minute trip to Foligno, all claiming to hold a ticket for my seat. In fact, each one of them held a ticket for my seat number, but for my seat number on a different train car. I did my lame best to explain, jamming my finger at their tickets and uttering "otto" or "quattro" to indicate that their ticket was not in car number seven, whereas mine was. They were polite and deferential as they shuffled off after that, but I noticed the same phenomenon taking place all over the train car with others. Somebody would tap somebody else on the shoulder and claim to have a ticket for that seat. Either the tapper or the tappee held a ticket for the same seat in a different car. I didn't speak a lick of Italian but even I knew the car number. I found the indifference to numbers rather amusing until I reached Foligno and got my come-uppance, missing the next train because of it.

"Foligno: Binario 2," read the board in the station announcing arrivals and track numbers. There was no such board outside. Imagine my surprise when the Foligno train pulled into track 1 and promptly sped off some four seconds later. I couldn't catch it because (1) it all happened far too quickly and (2) I had to run through the underpass to get back to track one, but upon going back into the ticket office I found that the overhead sign now read, "Foligno: Binario 1," even as the light indicating departure flashed mockingly. Less than ten minutes had elapsed since I'd arrived from Ancona, purchased my ticket and made for Binario 2. Yet that was that. The trains in Italy run on time. You just can't really count on much else.

But I have to take even that back. The trains don't always run on time. Sometimes they run early. Forced to wait 90 minutes for the next train --- and aware that the subsequent train to Perugia would not pull in for another two hours after that --- I paced edgily along the side of the tracks, wondering if the Universita per Stranieri would close for the day at 2 or 3 PM or shut down for a four-hour afternoon siesta and actually reopen for several hours in the evening. Perhaps it would close at noon for siesta and never reopen. I had no idea. When a train pulled in at 2:15, I hesitated. My train was supposed to leave at 2:25. Nevertheless, I assumed the train I was looking at had to be mine, so I got on it, assuming it would idle for 10 or so minutes.

Five seconds later we were off. I became convinced that I was on the wrong train now. Soon the conductor would come by and holler some not-nice things about Americans in Italian. Everybody would laugh but me and I would then be tossed off the train in mid-motion and wind up in a field of sheep-shit in Le Marche, needing to spend the rest of the day hiking along the track to get back to Foligno. I scrambled off the train at the next stop a few minutes later and flashed my ticket at a passing conductor. "E sbaglio?" I asked him (after looking up the word for "wrong" in my now indispensible dictionary), pointing at the train. "No, no, questo," he said, pointing and nodding. I clambered back on and just in time.

Twenty minutes later, following a slow meandering journey through waves of rising green hills, I arrived at the train station below the city of Perugia. Figuring out how to catch the right bus into town only took me close to another full hour: In the end it involved a very kind newspaper-stand vendor essentially stepping into traffic to stop an oncoming bus. It was the wrong bus, but the accomodating driver recognized the right bus as it passed us and waved excitedly for its driver to stop. Thus welcomed by the locals, I found myself climbing the steep hills into the heart of the capital of Umbria, a region dubbed the "green heart of Italy." My back hurt from hauling my bag around and I couldn't wait to put it someplace and leave it there. Maybe for several months.

Posted by Joshua on August 30, 2005 05:41 AM
Category: Italy: Arrival

So is your Italian ruining your Spanish yet?

Posted by: David on September 11, 2005 07:55 PM

Si and also si.

Posted by: Josh on September 12, 2005 04:28 PM
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