Thursday, September 22, 2011

At an Italian train station: four Southerners, one bee, and an unexpected sting

When they believe no one is watching, Southerners, like any other species, are apt to run away from home now and then. Case in point: On a recent trip to Italy, I met three other Southerners at a train station platform. The encounter began with a ham sandwich, an oddly shaped Coke can, and a determined bee and it ended with an unexpected sting.

But first, a little backstory.

On the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza
There's a lengthy hiking trail that connects all five Cinque Terre towns on Italy's Ligurian coast. It's an extremely challenging trek from the towns of Monterosso to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia; the rest is easier (or so I'm told). Between Monterosso and Corniglia, which is the part of the trail I hiked, you climb up and up and up along narrow, rocky, steep trails.

Along the way, you dodge the determined 'pole people'--the no-nonsense types who dash along the trail with their walking sticks as if fleeing a burning building. If you're walking on the outside of the trail and make a false move, one of two things is likely to happen: You tumble down many feet and break something or you are impaled on a cactus the size of a Cadillac.

The steps go up, up, up
Why would anyone hike this trail? The views (and the cardio workout). The scenery is in every sense of the word 'breathtaking,' because you're out of breath when you stop to look at the distant hillside villages, the beautiful and clear sea, the passing boats, the cloudless blue sky, the vineyards climbing up the hills, the churches, the charming old houses, and I could go on but you get the picture.

After over four hours of hiking the trail, I arrived in Corniglia, drenched in sweat on this hot late-summer day. The trail from Corniglia to the next Cinque Terre town was closed due to a landslide, making my ambition of hiking the entire trail impossible (thankfully). So I decided to catch a train from Corniglia back to Monterosso, where Nick (my spouse) and I were staying.

The next train didn't leave for nearly an hour. Insanely hungry, I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich (even at a train station, the food in Italy is delicious) and a can of Coke. Unlike the Coke cans we get in the U.S., this one was long and slender; elegant, in fact. I found the platform from which my train would depart and situated myself in a shady spot on the platform. Immediately, a large bee appeared, swarming around my sandwich, my Coke, my entire body.

"Stand still, I'll get him!," said an African-American woman of about 70, who had been standing nearby with two companions, another African-American woman and a Caucasian lady (their race is relevant to the story, I promise). Before I had much chance to react, she swatted at the bee several times with a curled-up map, smacking me on the leg and rear in the process.

"Leave that poor man alone!" said one of her two traveling companions, who was probably in her 40s and was also an African-American woman. "You'd like to kill him tryin' to kill that bee!"

I borrowed the first woman's map and, with some effort, rid the world of this particular bee. (I know: Bad karma. But when you're starving and can't eat because of a bee, you do what's necessary.) When the commotion was over, I turned to the first woman, my fearless swatter. "Where are y'all from?," I asked, having noticed their Southern accents.

"Alabama," said the swatter, who identified herself as Margaret. All three of the women were from Alabama, in fact. Once I told them I'm originally from North Carolina, the conversation kicked into high gear. We chatted about this and that for the next 20 minutes or so.

Margaret was so enamored of my Coke can that, to thank her for defending me and my sandwich against the bee, I went back to the snack stand and bought her one. She was thrilled. "I'm keepin' this as a souvenir!" she said.

Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I was extremely pleased to see three people from the Deep South in their mid 40s and older of mixed races traveling abroad together. It felt like yet another encouraging sign that there has been true, lasting progress.

And then, at one point during the conversation, Margaret turned to me and asked, "Do you have a wife?"

Her friend, Sandy, immediately scolded her. "Don't be gettin' all up in this man's business!," she said.

Not wanting to tread into the choppy waters of same-sex marriage, I said simply, "I have a partner."

Margaret studied me closely for a few seconds. "Mmm hmm," she said, with an ever-so-slight but unmistakable tone of disapproval. "I know what that means."

At last the train arrived, and it was as crowded as any Manhattan subway car during rush hour. We squeezed onto the train together, but the conversation was mostly over. When the train arrived at their stop, I said goodbye and wished them a fantastic time in Italy.

"Same to you," the others said. It might have been the crush of people or the hot chaos of the Italian train, but I don't believe Margaret had anything more to say to me. They hastily departed, the train pulled away, and I went on to meet Nick, have a Campari and orange juice, and enjoy a delicious dunk in the clear, calm sea.

I'm grateful that as a culture, we've come so far in welcoming people different from ourselves into our lives. But no matter where you come from or where you travel, the journey isn't over.

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  1. A refreshing little story I know what you mean. On some days I think we've moved mountains and others I think we're still under a rock.

  2. Wow. Half a world away, and it's just like being home sometimes. I'm glad that you were still able to get something positive out of your day.

    P.S. Did you take a picture of the Coke can?