It was 1987 and I was a fresh faced, excited (extremely naive and unprepared) high school exchange student hot off the plane from Chicago. I had arrived at the Rome airport, had my luggage arrive five hours later on the next flight from NY (tragically, a running theme in my life), and had to somehow get to the Termini station, buy a ticket for Assisi, and meet my host family. I spoke no Italian. I carried no guidebook. I had arranged for no one to meet me to help me through this. (When I say naive and unprepared, what I’m trying to convey is a level of stupidity too embarrassing to dwell upon.) I was extremely jetlagged and overwhelmed by five hours in Rome airport. I set off.
Anyway, the events which followed are easy to guess. A cab ride to the train station left me with no cash. The cabbie dropped me and my big battered red suitcase outside, and I walked into the main hall of the station, which looks like a shopping mall, not a train station. Seeing no ticket counters, I thought I had been dropped off at the wrong place. Did I mention I was disoriented, broke, and didn’t speak a word of Italian? I did what any self respecting sixteen year old in the same situation would have done (or at least I nurture my bruised ego by maintaining so). I sat down on my big battered red suitcase and started to sob.
This little old guy came up, and we managed to communicate through a bit of Pidgin Italian-English and lots of gesturing the gist of the situation. He hobbled over on his cane to the adjoining hall, which I’d been too panicked-slash-idiotic to find myself, and bought me a ticket to Assisi. He bought me a sandwich and bottle of water. He walked me to my platform. He waited with me for almost an hour until it was time to depart. He took the conductor aside and told him to keep an eye on me (I assume, for that’s what the conductor did, including waking me up when we got to Assisi).
Now, I’m not one of those new-agey-miracle-believing-Celestine-Prophesy-chatroom-folk, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it. It was time for the train to pull out, and I swung the aforementioned big battered red suitcase on the train, turning my back on my octogenarian savior for less than 30 seconds. When I turned back around, he was gone. Disappeared. The platform was long, and this man walked with a cane. He wasn’t a fast mover. He had dissipated into thin air. I never got to thank him, pay him back for the train ticket, or say goodbye. Thus began my love affair with La Bella Italia.
(This tale will be included in the first chapter of my book, which I have decided will begin with the sentence: The thing is, where I’d really always wanted to visit was France.)