Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Travel/ People: Train from Paris

Travel broadens one’s horizons, as every footsore adventurer knows. But not always in terms of mileage covered, plastic meals ingested, railway window records of scenery traversed, fellow travellers communed with, or sites, sounds and history jotted down for posterity. Why, then, does a traveller set out again and again, no matter how fatigued by the queue-pocked schedules, the diverse discomforts encountered or the silent surprises of legends come alive?

It could be for the chance encounters. The special moments beyond the momentary. In short, because of journeys beyond landscapes.

Join me in this one.

 Original sketch by Chandranath Acharya

Weary from being footloose and fancy free in the streets of Paris for a whole week in 1997, I longed to get back to northern Italy, from where I’d branched out to see what I could see. The Eurorail second-class coach to Milan was icy-cold that night, my companions as travel-weary as I. A pair of Italian high schoolgirls from Vicenza – Lisa and Cristina – made a joke of the fact that they had missed their earlier train by minutes. The bearded Argentinian artist in the fourth seat joined us in Italian between long sips from a hip flask, while the Italian girls helped me to bridge the language barrier.

Suddenly, the door was flung open. Conversations froze in mid-sentence. A chinky-eyed, tanned and burly man in sloppy jeans and an oversized jacket entered, hastily arranged his bags on an overhead rack, then treated us to an orchestra of snores as he fell asleep across a seat-and-a-half in minutes – obliterating our chances of catching a wink that night. But that’s before the comedy in real life began.

The ticket inspector entered and checked our rights of passage, while our companion slumbered on. ‘Signor, biglietti, tickets…’ The eyes opened for a moment, then the sleeper slumped into a more comfortable pose. ‘Signor,’ the official pleaded. Our fellow traveller groaned, then signalled that he had no ticket.

The inspector could take no more. In a torrent of Italian, he levied a heavy fine, double the fare in francs. The traveller opened his wallet and waved a 50 franc note – it was all he had! At that, the official disappeared – only to return with a colleague in tow. They briskly filled up forms for the fine and demanded the traveller’s passport. In response, he produced a little black booklet. That drove the officials into a huddle. Did the face match the photograph? They looked puzzled. Once the forms changed hands, the officials vanished down the vestibule.

And the stranger sighed, turned, and fell asleep once more. As his snores reverberated through the coach, our friend from Buenos Aires regaled us with Argentinian folk cures for snoring. With a jerk, the sleeper awoke, unlocked his suitcase and produced not only his tickets but a Mexican passport.

Silence. Could we believe our eyes? ‘If you had a ticket with you, why didn’t you show it to the official?’ Cristina demanded. Our compassion, either drunk or drugged, just shrugged. We all joined in her queries.

We had to resolve this mystery. Why would someone with a valid ticket want to pay a fine? And what was the document he had used in lieu of a passport, the painter asked. It proved to be a…. Vatican card!!

So, our companion was a priest in training! Shocked, we coaxed the Mexican into showing his tickets to the official, which he did with great reluctance. But he forgot to have his penalty forms cancelled.

‘Why should I worry about the future in the present?’ he asked.

What an unusual character! Long after he had disembarked, he provided us with conversation and mirth all the way back home.

(A version of this article appeared in Sunday Herald, Bangalore, in May 1998)

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