On the train that day, finding a seat was akin to discovering a gold coin in the Tonga Trench. As I walked through in search of a seat-shaped miracle, the train began scooting along towards Bologna. A few stubborn souls avoided eye contact because they’d conquered two or three seats with splayed out legs and/or shopping bags.
To be fair, whoever had planned the overhead racks where bags could in theory be stowed had only allowed enough room for a thinly-sliced wedge of aged Parmesan cheese. So, most of the luggage the eye contact avoidant had with them would never fit up there. But to be equally just, I was so exhausted after a week of trying to understand the a) existence and b) proper use of Italian congiuntivo that even my blood hurt. I was determined to sit down, in other words.
So, I approached a woman taking up four seats with her heavily made up self and two shopping bags and pointed at one of them. “È occupato?” I asked. “Is this spot occupied?”
She heaved a sigh like I’d asked her if she’d buy me a cappuccino and an almond pastry every morning at exactly 9:27 for the rest of her life. Then she made a big show of shuffling her bags around as I got settled and tried not to laugh.
In Imola, the train made its usual long sojourn and the woman got off, making another spectacle of hoisting her bags over my lap. “Buona giornata,” I called after her, “Have a nice day.”
I was still smiling to myself when a guy sat down across from me in her now empty seat. I noted an enthusiastically pink button down shirt and nice-fitting jeans which contrasted nicely with the dark chocolate brown of his skin. Then I got a phone call from an American friend and I started gabbing away.
And that’s how the stranger across from me bridged the gap. “You speak English,” he said when I hung up, his tinged with an African accent.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m American.”
“I’m from Nigeria,” he said, introducing himself as James. It was a summer of such meetings on trains and through apps, each one a little mini story of its own.
“American,” he said. “That’s great.”
Except for when I see a gaggle of other stereotypically loud Americans approaching, I also never feel as proud to be American as I do here. I know it has something to do with the way that peoples’ faces light up like a singer under a spotlight when they realize where I’m from. Being American in the States is like being a blade of grass in a field. Here, it’s strangely like some kind of superpower because American culture is cool, American music and movies are cool. Even going to get a hamburger (here pronounced “ahm-boor-gare”) is cool.
But back to Bologna, where the extravaganza that was exiting and entering the train had begun. It really is something to behold.
Because in Italy, it can be a little bit of each-man-for-himself and nowhere is this more evident than in the area around the open doors of a train.
The people on the outside crowd the entrance like starved vultures ready to descend on fresh roadkill. There should be an aisle in the middle of them so that everyone on the train could get off — this is pure logic, like gravity or the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Yet, this narrow lane through which people exited became increasingly pinched with each passing second; the folks trying to get on threw elbows, cut each other off, cast suspicious glances around and muttered curses under their breath.
So, by the time I’d almost made it off the train, the incoming mass had begun to push furiously in so that we were squeezed into each other like condiments in a sandwich. The air around us became like an international airport, with cuss words flying in every direction.
“E una guerra!” one older woman said loudly. “It’s a war!” We were shoulder to shoulder between a row of high school kids on their cellphones. Behind me, a guy trying trying to drag his bike off the train was emitting such a string of gorgeous blasphemies that I wanted nothing more but to pause, pull out my ragged notebook and take notes. But I was being shoved towards the stairs with everyone else and there wasn’t much else to do but oblige.
For the umpteenth time, I found myself standing in the bustling entrance at Piazza Medaglie D’Oro. Fishing for sunglasses, I took in this cement half circle which is the point of arrival and departure for Bologna, the small city or large town which holds so many of my memories like a beloved, smudged vase.
In my periphery were two shiny leather loafers. They were doing the little shuffle a person does when they know should go one direction but they’re deciding whether or not to go in the other.
“Where are you walking to?” James finally asked; I’d forgotten about him momentarily, lost in my thoughts.
“Center, più o meno,” I said, because when one starts to learn a second language, their new language is a strange mix of the two. I started to walk through the brilliant sunshine and towards the dirty steps leading up to Parco Montagnolo. On the other side, before we parted ways, James asked for my number. I’m always hesitant to give near strangers my digits, so I gave him my Instagram handle instead.
During the school’s obligatory pausa caffe (coffee break) I saw a message from him which read, “I want to inform you that I am going to Notte Rosa tonight. Do you want to go, too?”
I’d always wanted to go to Notte Rosa where for several days, the Costa Romagnola (the seaside close to Faenza) is alive with music, food stands and people until the wee hours. I had a pink dress to wear and a free Saturday night so I answered, “Sure, why not?”
James lived in Forlì — the next town over in the direction of Rimini — so we agreed to meet on the train that would stop there at around 10,15. The train was late, of course, and brimming with excited youths in every shade of pink. He and I took a seat by the window. Ironically, we were by another withered woman who was about as happy as a lobster heading for a pot of boiling water about having to move her bags out of our way.
Before we’d gone two stops, I admit I already knew that James and I weren’t headed for romance. At least, not in my opinion… but we’ll get to that. It wasn’t anything particular he was doing; there just wasn’t that… zing. The one that’s like an American Fourth of July, with fireworks going off somewhere around your heart.
Meanwhile, the stars were blinking over Rimini and we followed the crowd of people heading towards the beach like so many pink fish.
The stars were soon obscured by a lit-up ferris wheel, a massive stage set up on the sand and rows of stands hawking food and drink.
We got in line for one of them that was blaring techno music and we danced all the way up to the bar. Drinks in hand, we jumped back in the river of bouncing, yelling, excited humans that all emptied onto the soft sands in front of the stage.
The night ebbed away under the care of a string of DJs. I was lost in what felt like one endless song, having reached that careless, blissful place to which dancing is the door. I didn’t care what I looked like or what anyone else around me was doing — including James, who was repeatedly trying to steal my attention back.
Sometime after three in the morning, the last techno beats were swallowed by the peaceful waves. The pink river of fish reversed, trudging slowly away from the beach and back to the Rimini train station. We perched on a dirty bench to wait for the first train back towards Bologna, which left around four o’clock in the morning. Next to us, on the ground, a group of students sprayed with pink glitter and face paint arranged themselves on the ground, heads on each others stomachs. One of them was soon snoring.
Finally the train arrived in a rush of humid air that made it feel colder than it actually was. We all piled onto the train at once; there was no torturing of the passengers inside who trying to get off because we were the only ones trying to ride a train right at that hour.
Per usual, the lights inside the train were completely illuminated. This made it impossible to detect where we might be at any given moment. Especially because — for many Italian regional trains — there weren’t any displays and the speakers that should announce the stops were only slightly functional. Whenever the conductor came on to announce a station, he sounded like a mouse in a glass jar inside a swimming pool. So, everyone blearily pressed their faces to the glass and tried to peer outside.
“Dove siamo?” One Italian girl asked me, “Where are we?”
When I first got to Italy, I was astounded that even Italians couldn’t tell where they were. Now, I have accepted that most things around here simply don’t make any sense — including the train system which Italians themselves created. So, I replied with “Boh,” which means anything from “who knows” to “who cares” and which more or less summed up everything.
Around then, the conductor started to come through to check tickets. I calmly retrieved mine from my wallet. Meanwhile, James leapt from his seat like there was a tiger lurking beneath him and it had bitten him in the right butt cheek. I barely had time to react before the doors were opening. I saw James fly out of them like a cannonball from a cannon.
“What are you doing?” I yelled out the door. James was motioning frantically at me.
“I didn’t buy a ticket!” He yelled back. “I’m just gonna buy one and then we can get back on.” Then he was darting inside the station, not waiting to hear me calling out that he wouldn’t have enough time to do that before the train continued to the next mysterious stop. I’m honestly not sure why I followed him off the train, but I did.
As the train sped away in the direction of Faenza and my bed, it was the nail in the romantic coffin. Meanwhile, having decided again to not buy a ticket, oblivious James was pulling me by the arm, asking me for about the millionth time if he could kiss me.
“It’s an hour until the next train,” I said, which didn’t even correspond to his question. “If you would’ve bought a ticket in the first place we wouldn’t be in this predicament.” To the east over the sea I knew so well, the sun began to peek over the horizon, waiting to see how James would respond.
“Oh come on baby, don’t be mad,” he said, trying to squeeze onto the bench with me and insert his legs under my head. I got up and switched benches because I was getting that annoyed feeling like we’d been married for 10 years and he’d just mastered my biggest pet peeve.
To cement the feeling, the first of countless transport trains blew through at top speed, rousing bits of trash and paper from as far away as Egypt and dropping them on my face. Actually, perhaps Finland judging from the rather chilly, humid air washing across me. The pink dress that had served me well for dancing on the beach wasn’t cutting it for an unplanned catnap in Forlimpopoli-Bertinoro. Two stops away from Faenza: so close, yet so far.
Ironically, when we got on the train again I fell asleep and almost missed my stop in Faenza. James had gotten off in Forli, but I barely remembered it through my sleepy haze. And I definitely wasn’t the only one…
The next day, I received a dozen messages from James about how much fun he had and how much he wanted to see me again. I had to give him credit for his eagerness, but I just wasn’t feeling the same. I felt that little sinking feeling when you realize that you’ve tried again but nothing came of it. Then little, unreasonable panic arrived that said, “You’re gonna be alone forever.” Luckily, it was followed by the more reasonable one which asked, “So what?”
Anyway, I’d had a busy day to keep my mind off of it all. I didn’t respond to Jace until the next day, when I had woken up to more messages telling me that he missed me and wanted to introduce me to his all friends. Oh, boy.
“Hi James,” I wrote. “I had a great time with you and I think you’re a nice guy, but I am not really looking for a relationship right now.” Not entirely true because I think we’re all kind of hoping for the person that enters our lives and immediately makes us want to make time to be in a relationship. But it was the perfect white lie for the increasingly stalker-ish position I found myself in.
Except that transmitting the message to Jace was like trying to teach a pigeon how to fetch. “Come tell me that in person,” he said. “Please. I need to hear your voice.”
“I already told you everything I need to tell you,” I wrote.
“But baby, I need to hear it from you,” he wrote back. I left it up to him to re-read the message which was… well, from me.
The next morning, he had written me a song and recorded it in What’s App. It was like a strange combination of Lionel Ritchie and Kendrick Lamar, but he had to start over at one point because he’d messed up. Also, his mom had entered the room at about the two minute mark and he paused to say, “Mom, close the door, I’m recording!” She’d apologized, then there was a sound of the door closing and then Lionel-Kendrick was back in action.
“James, I appreciate that you took the time to write me a song,” I had written him. “But I think your efforts might be better spent on another girl.” It was the nicest way I could think of to tell him — seriously, for the last time — that I wasn’t interested.
That afternoon, he called my What’s App number a dozen times. I’d been in class and out with friends and hadn’t noticed until I pulled my phone out in the evening to check if a nearby bar was open.
“Holy shit,” my friend said. “Who’s that?”
“The guy from the train,” I said. “Trainwreck.”
We started to giggle; I felt bad but really, I’d taken to giving most everyone I’d date or have a crush on a nickname. There was Hot Bartender (or HB for short), who worked at Boca Barranca and as the name suggests, was easy on the eyes. Or Rome-eo, the guy who’d come all the way up from Rome to meet me. Later, there was The Brazilian, who I’d met at a club near Ravenna and although it would’ve been simpler to employ his rather short, easy to remember name, that was that. Then there was the one guy with whom things really did take off and who started out as “Boy Toy.” But those are all stories for another time.
Meanwhile, back in Bologna again I’d ordered my friend and I two gin and tonics. While we were waiting at the bar watching a different sexy bartender try to decide which gin to give us, I blocked James’ number.
“Another one bites the dust,” I said as we clinked glasses. And then I paused, because it’s never a waste of time to get to know another person, however briefly.
From James I’d learned that — at least in his opinion — most “white people” in Italy don’t talk to him, because he’s black. If that’s true (and I sincerely hope it’s not) I am quite disappointed by the other people around here I happen to share a skin tone with.
And I’d learned that his family came here to escape his father, who was an abusive jerk with connections in the government and therefore nowhere in Nigeria was especially safe for them. And from me perhaps James had learned that penning love songs for a girl and stalker-calling her over a course of 72 hours following a first date isn’t advisable.
Or maybe there’s a girl out there who loves that kind of thing and she’s on the next train to Bologna.