Post WW II European films were all about neo-realism, and scenes in crowded 2° or 3° class train compartments were often a perfect setting. Third class has disappeared since, and most trains nowadays have open space carriages with rows of seats, some of which face each other across a functional folding table. People hunker down over their laptops, or commune with their smartphones and in worst case scenarios have conversations on them that make me miss the staid reminders on Swiss trains not to bother fellow passengers.
Boarding an Intercity train for an afternoon’s work in Naples was like stepping into one of those great classics. I first had to push ahead through the narrow corridor hurdled with suitcases, and finally got to my compartment. Through the glass partition I could see it was going to be a tight fit, and the smell of salami and garlic hit me on sliding the door open. The only free seat was a middle one, and my co-travelers were all digging into immense paper wrapped sandwiches as I clambered over the legs of the large elderly ladies sitting next to the door. Mumbled apologies, bags moved, I sat, temporarily overpowered by the environment. Open stares, followed by a chorus of friendly nods and offers “would I like a sandwich?” which I refused with a smile as I took out some documents to review for my meeting.
Well, it turned out to be a particularly entertaining trip, a lovely example of what Italy can really be like, beyond all the history, ruins, art, fashion and culture. Beyond the exasperating politics, chaos and corruption, beyond the foodie myths.
It’s basically a country made up of extremely varied regions, where the people speak with slightly different – or very different – accents and dialects, where their cuisine and habits can also differ hugely. But when you end up in the cramped quarters of an old fashioned train compartment, their one shared characteristic blossoms: they’re friendly, unabashedly inquisitive and they thrive on talking. I was doing my best to keep to my reading, but lost my foreign cool and joined in when one of the large ladies said to the one at the window “Mi sorprende da te che sei nata a Napoli!” – roughly translated “how can someone born in Naples come out with something that inane!” Based on their pretty hard to understand rapid-fire pronunciation, I’d figured by then that the two ladies were from a town near Naples, the one next to the window originally from Naples but easier to follow, and that though they were engaged in a series of serious exchanges with the familiar “tu” pronoun, they’d never met before.
It was all pretty endearing as most of the conversation rotated around food in some guise. The first part was about what to do with the olives from your tree in terms of pickling, or salting or however you choose to preserve them. The various personal secrets were happily exchanged and heatedly debated – wash them in barely warm water, no, no never too hot! One of the ladies confided that you can put them in a basin on your heater or under your heater (which is best I asked? she replied it depends on your heater). The number of times you change the water, number of days the process takes and in what recipes you use the olives after were all discussed in detail. I realized belatedly that all this was for small black olives, and none of them knew if their system would work with the green ones I can pick from a friend’s tree in Rome. I’ll just have to try.
The ladies informed us they were best friends since they were toddlers, had grown up on the same village street and migrated to Tuscany to work as nurses at the same time. One of them regaled us with tales of having had to go to her mother-in-law’s every single Sunday for the whole day – “never to my own mother’s” – In the first six years of her marriage because her husband missed his mother’s home-made “sugo” – spaghetti sauce. Apparently hers never tasted quite as good. At some point, the doctor advised her husband to eat lighter fare – ligher sugo. The mother-in-law refused to modify her recipe, and to my compartment friend’s delight, was so offended at the very idea, that she refused to speak to them for months and didn’t “invite” them for Sundays for years after. She swore it was true.
At one point I realized the man next to me hadn’t said a thing all along, so I turned to him and stated I took it he wasn’t from Naples. On target: he was from Tuscany, from a hilltop village I recognized as being wine-country, which led to a discussion along those lines, plus remarks on the particularities of his regional pronunciation. Indeed, in the land of Dante, hard C’s tend to sound like English “h”, as in “casa= hasa – house, cane= hane– dog”, which can be confusing when you’re learning the language, and delightful when you become more familiar with it. He added to my pedestrian examples of house and dog, and left me with a lovely memory of his softly musical “coriandoli”* … without the c.
* “confetti” in English
Pictures: train carriage http:// en.wikipedia.com; Italian olives: www.fontechiara.com