My first experience in Florence was a solo Christmas shopping excursion in 1992. I took a train from Rome in the early morning on a Saturday in December while the rest of my classmates went to visit Tivoli Gardens near Rome (I have still never been to Tivoli).
I was wide-eyed and thrilled by the carnival atmosphere of the leather market in Florence. I knew nothing else about the city other than the David Statue (11 trips to Italy and I still have never seen it in person). So, my Florence was leather belts, wallets, silk ties, and a few other personal and family Christmas gifts. I do not think I even had my camera so I could carry all my bags of goodies home.
I think I ate a slice of pizza or something for lunch from a crappy vendor with pictures on the walls. Speaking no Italian was a big #fail on this initial journey to the boot. After lunch I took my treasures and headed back to the Santa Maria Novella train station.
An Italian train station like most in Europe is an open-air space connected by one covered building which houses all of the essentials of train service. The platform area is divided into tracks, binari in Italian. There is a good and usually accurate schedule of the departures and arrivals all over a large station like this one. (usually accurate)
According to the schedule the next train to Rome left from binario 8 and so I moved over to track 8. I was carrying a few bags of stuff as I did not have my backpack, like an idiot, as I tried to play it cool like the Italians. Nevertheless I got to track 8 and looked at the sign above with its rotating letters much like an old baseball scoreboard. The sign said 14:24 Roma Termini: my destination.
I had a Eurail pass which allowed me unlimited travel for the 2 months we took trains so I could pop on any train that did not require reservations. As per usual a regional train was sitting on track 8 when I arrived. Of course there is also a train number on that train and that number will correspond with the sign above. I did not notice the train number on this day, I simply boarded the train and found an empty seat in a room without a reservation tag on the outer glass. At this point, and after traveling all over Europe I really thought myself to be a train pro. I put my things on the rack above the seats and sat down with my journal to write about Florence.
3 more people joined me in the 6 person room on the train. 2 very chatty Italian grannies and a young military guy in a perfectly pressed blue overcoat and uniform. Of course I said nothing to them as I could not speak more than 10 words of Italian and within minutes we were on our way. I remember it being cool enough for a sweater but not at all cold. The Italian women were wearing what looked like Parkas and the military guy shed his overcoat as the room began to swelter.
After 20 minutes or so I did not recognize the landscape being the same as on the way into Florence. This was not surprising to me because I am terrible with recognizing landscapes. When the conductor came and checked our tickets I could see the young military guy’s ticket read Firenze – Bologna. I just assumed that Bologna was a final destination because I did not know Bologna was the opposite direction of Rome. I was a real Italian geography moron.
After another 10 minutes the military guy spoke to me in English: good English. He asked me if I was American. I affirmed his question, and then he asked me the zinger. What was I planning to do in his hometown of Bologna? I laughed and told him I was going to Rome.
He told me, that the train did not go to Rome and that Rome was in the other direction from Florence. In that moment all of my confidence, my joy of Christmas, my impressions of Florence, and my hope went mercilessly out of the partially cracked window of the train car. I could not believe what had happened! The sign, the schedule, and even the big sign at the end of the platform had told me this was the train to Rome. We had left binario 8 on time so what the hell happened?
It turns out that the train to Bologna was late by 20+ minutes and that it was still on the track even though the automatic signs had switched to the next train: the train to Rome. The Rome train was sitting out somewhere on the track and it is very likely we passed it on our way out of the station. In effect, I was hosed and near panic. Why? Because I did not have the money to miss dinner back on Campus. I had spent pretty much my final lira on gifts and so not getting back to Rome by 7pm dinner would be bad.
The young military guy must have noticed the horror on my face and he told me that there would be a train to Rome every hour from Bologna. He then made a gesture to me that I would never forget.
The young man told me he was in the air force serving his military conscription. It was only then that I learned all Italian men had to serve a mandatory 2 years in the armed forces. He had been stationed in Sicily and was on his way home to see his mother for the first time in several months (I did not realize how big a deal that was at the time). He explained that his Mom had been cooking a feast since the day before preparing for his arrival. He suggested to me that I come home with him as his guest and dine with his family and return to Rome the next morning.
Like an absolute fool I politely declined, citing some lame reason I cannot begin to recall. Can you believe that The Blissful Adventurer turned down a s welcome-home meal from a Mom in Bologna, the fucking food capital of Italy? This is clearly and I am not kidding, one of the biggest and only regrets of my life. What a dim tool I was for turning down such an amazing cultural opportunity.
Of course the air force guy, likely no older than me, helped me hustle off the train, find the track, and get back on the correct train to Rome. He must have been so happy to be home, yet he still took time for me for no other reason other than culture and his desire to speak English. I made it home to campus as dinner had begun. I stuffed in my usual pasta and moon-rock but I could not help but think what they were eating in Bologna.
This was long before email and cell phones. I cannot remember my buddy’s name nor did I write down his information. I am sure he is out in the professional world with a family and a wonderful life. I have spent most of my adult life returning to Italy and have experienced so much similar hospitality, and I promise I have never again said no when offered a home-cooked meal in Italy.
Yet, I have indeed gotten on the wrong train numerous times.