An overnight train from Salzburg to Venice

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Italy has never been my favorite country in the world, so stepping onto the overnight train from Salzburg to Venice always feels a bit counterintuitive.  But Jenny wanted to see Italy, so Italy we saw.  Or planned to see, at least -- we still had to survive the 8 hour train ride there.... which should have been fine, in theory.

24 hours before the train ride, I had said goodbye to Roman.  I did so fighting back tears, as he would have already moved back to Spain the next time I returned to Salzburg, and I didn't know when I'd see him again.  Thus, my emotions were hit or miss.  The night of the train ride (or rather, morning of, as our train left at 1:30 AM), Sergi walked us to Herrnau -- the bus stop where the taxis gather.  As we left IK at 1:00 AM, the buses had stopped running and it was too far to walk, so a taxi was our best bet. Saying goodbye to Sergi was just as tough as saying goodbye to Roman, but perhaps tougher as I was saying goodbye to him to go to Italy.  As you can imagine, my emotional state at this point was not the kind of state you'd want to be in before boarding an 8-hour overnight train.  No, you need to be in tip-top emotional shape to deal with that sort of thing.  But onto the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof we went, via Taxi.  

As soon as we arrived at the train station, we found our platform and boarded our train, in search of our compartment.  In an overnight train compartment on a Regiobahn such as this one, there are 2 rows of 3 seats facing each other, and those seats can recline.  When they recline, the seats "meet" in the middle of the compartment and form to make a bed (so, 6 seats become 3 beds).  Ideally, there will be 3 people in the compartment -- a bed for each.  Well, really ideally, there will be 1 person in the compartment -- just me.  On this night, there were 6 people (including us) in our compartment, which meant that if we slept, it would be sitting up in the chair. This was not ideal, but more comfortable than sleeping on an airplane (is how I came to terms with the arrangements).  I also had to come to terms with the 'folk' with whom we would be spending the next 8 hours; upon sliding the compartment door open and taking our seats, Jenny and I glanced around at the other 4 passengers, only to wonder if we had accidentally entered the compartment reserved for the circus performers.  Really -- each one looked like a character from a movie, and not necessarily a movie I would like to be in. But hey, I'm pretty tolerant and easy-going and open-minded, so I can handle this (is what I told myself as I sat next to the older man mumbling something to himself in Italian, his pants fully un-zipped).  Jenny sat directly across from me in the compartment and we exchanged a look of horror, wordlessly expressing the same sentiment: "Why are we on this train at 1:00 and not in bed in Salzburg, safe and sound, but most importantly safe?"

A few minutes passed and my discomfort only grew, as the man next to me had turned his entire body toward me to stare -- unabashedly -- at me, his face mere inches away from mine.  "Well, this situation could not get any worse," I thought to myself, before realizing, "Of course, it can; the situation can always get worse."  The man leaned in even closer to my face and whispered something in my ear -- something incomprehensible, as I do not speak drunk Italian -- but something nonetheless.  I looked at Jenny, sitting across from me, and, having learned nothing in the past five minutes, said loudly, "This could. not. get. any worse."  In my mind, this was the end-all, be-all worse case scenario -- we had arrived at the climax of worse-ness.  So imagine my surprise and horror when I see Jenny's eyes widen, shifting her gaze from him to me, announcing ever so matter-of-factly: "He has a knife."

Looking to my right, I expected to observe a measly pocket knife, or perhaps even that tiny little sharp tool that sometimes comes attached to finger nail clippers.  But that would have been far too normal and harmless, so of course when I turned to assess the situation with my own eyes, I saw an actual kitchen knife.  A paring knife, sure, but a sharp one at that -- and I'm guessing the blade was 6 inches in length, which may as well be a horror-movie butcher knife when you're expecting to see a dulled, tiny blade on a nail clipper keychain.

And are you ready for the situation to get weirder?  He was using said paring knife to peel a red apple, but was not eating the red apple.  Rather, he was allowing the apple to fall messily to the floor of the train compartment.  "Oh, so he's just cutting the apple for recreational purposes.  That's normal, right?",  I wondered.

At that moment -- and not a moment too soon! -- the compartment door slip open and the ÖBB ticket-taker appeared.  Jenny and I locked eyes with him -- keep in mind that our eyes are saucer-sized at this point -- silently imploring him to do something about that knife.  Unresponsive to our telepathic pleas, the main simply punched all of our tickets, turned on his heel, shut the compartment door, and disappeared down the hallway, switching off the compartment light as he left (this being an overnight train, after all).  If there's one way to feel less safe while sitting next to a creepy, drunk, knife-wielding man, it is to add the element of darkness.  I knew in that moment - actually feeling the man's hot breath on my neck - that there was no way I would be shutting my eyes on this train, let alone sleeping.  Now planning to chase the ticket-taker down the hall, I began silently rehearsing, in German, the speech I would give: "Excuse me, but there is a crazy, drunk man in our compartment, who's brought a knife along with him, and my friend and I are not comfortable with this man, or with his knife.  Or even with his recreationally-sliced apple slices, for that matter.  Could you please transfer us to another compartment?  Oh, by the way, his knife is not the kind of little knife hooked onto a pair of fingernail clippers, in case you were wondering." 

Before I could run through my monologue even once, Jenny was up, out of her seat, and down the hall, chasing after the ticket-taker.  When I caught up with her, she was pleading with the man in broken German, presenting to him a very compelling list of reasons as to why we needed a new compartment immediately if not sooner.  Perhaps the most persuasive moment of her speech occurred in the argument's final moments, when she abruptly concluded -- in English, this time -- "And.......he has a knife."

To quote Jenny, "Thanks to my poor German and panic-stricken face, and a man's decent English and sympathetic soul, pity was taken on us and we lived to wake up in Venice."  Sure enough, the ticket-taker told us to grab our things and follow him to a new compartment -- a compartment of our very own!  We slept there -- just the two of us! -- until morning, feeling like first-class citizens of a world where harassment and creepiness and unwarranted discomfort don't even exist a little bit.  Lest we be too optimistic, however, yet another drunk man joined our compartment minutes before our train rolled into Venice.  It was 8:00 AM and he was drinking out of a bottle that distinctly resembled pink liquid hand soap.  No need to call poison control, though -- this was definitely some type of liquor, and we could tell by the overwhelming stench that filled our compartment upon his entrance.  He offered us some, and we politely declined.  We also politely refrained from squealing with excitement when we reached our destination: Venice.  I don't even love Venice -- I was just so happy to step off of that godforsaken train.  We rented out some lockers at the Venice train station and spent the next few hours walking around the city, and taking as few pictures of ourselves as possible, as this was perhaps the lease presentable we've ever looked in our lives.  Venice was Venice, though -- beautiful, lively, and a little bit smelly.  And after that overnight train ride, we couldn't have been happier to be there.

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