For a long time I’ve been thinking of blogging about some experiences I had in Europe during my summer Europe trip of 2011. I decided I’d write them down in a single blog post as a series of small anecdotes. I sat down today to write it, and found that just one of the anecdotes gets very long. So I decided finally that I’ll write separate posts for each, and name them all in a series: Anecdotes of Europe. So this shall be the first of them. Hope you enjoy them, and do leave some form of feedback.
It was the evening of 29 May 2011 that I reached Rome for a weekend trip with a friend named Vishal. We left the station to take a look at the Colosseum. After we had spent some time there and it was getting late at night, we discovered, as was common with us, that we had no place to spend the night. We took the usual decision, that of staying in the station for the night. So we returned to the station, Roma Termini, the only big train station in Rome.
We went and sat down on the fixed metal benches inside the station. We decided we needed some sleep, so I clipped my camera bag and backpack through the metal arm of the bench using the carabiner climbing clip on my backpack. Then I buried my head on the backpack and tried to get some sleep. Vishal told me before snoozing off that he is a very light sleeper, and that he’ll wake up if there’s any problem and also early in the morning, so I needn’t worry about anything.
I couldn’t fall asleep very easily. I watched Vishal doze off. I stared around at the station that was now near-deserted. This station had been so lively in the morning, bustling with people, tourists, and Roman youths wooing beautiful girls who were giving away promotional cans of Coke Zero (I remember this because of the girls). There were very few people left in the station now. I thought of Howrah station in Kolkata and chuckled inside.
Then I noticed something else. The station had two gates on either end, and thus formed an open corridor for pedestrians taking a shortcut from one side to the other. Our bench was right in the middle of that corridor, so quite a few people were passing us regularly as they walked through the station. This situation made it even more uncomfortable for me to drift peacefully off to sleep.
Some time later I discovered that the street outside the gate that we were facing had a late night pub, and from this pub there issued a steady stream of drunken people, almost all of whom chose to walk through the station. This is not good, I thought. My DSLR cost a lot of money, and we had our passports, rail passes and a fair amount of cash with us. I glanced at Vishal. He was sleeping comfortably. I was tired as hell and all worn-out, but I couldn’t sleep in the middle of this.
After a while though, the weariness and strain of all the travel and walking lulled me into a deep sleep. I didn’t know then that my apprehensions would very soon be justified.
I don’t know how much later, I felt a sudden tug at whatever was supporting my head. I opened my eyes to find that my backpack was moving away from under my head. I blinked and looked up to find… this mountain. Towering over me, well over 6 feet tall, was this very strongly built black man, almost on the verge of portly. He had a clean, smooth bald head. I swear, he must have been Mike Tyson or a close bloodline. He wore a three-piece suit, and was towing a travel suitcase with wheels. With his other hand, he was pulling at my camera bag that was under my seat. This being clipped on to my backpack was causing it to be tugged away from under my head. His huge head was right in front of my face and he reeked of alcohol that sent my head spinning.
I was scared. Not shit scared, because I could still think and rationalize, but scared nevertheless. I noted out of the corner of my eyes that Vishal was still sleeping.
I looked at this man, mastered all my courage, and said something to the effect of ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’
Realizing from my movements and voice that I was awake, he let go of my camera bag, stood up and looked at me. I think then that he tried to say something, as if to give some justification for what he was doing. But before I could hear him properly, he walked away from the bench, lugging his suitcase behind him.
I looked at Vishal. He was sleeping like a baby. I tried to wake him. No response. I shook him, it didn’t work. Light sleep, huh. Finally I slapped him moderately hard and he woke with bleary red unfocused eyes that gave me quite a scare. I seriously thought I had booted his system while his mind was still being downloaded.
Thankfully he came to terms with his surroundings in a few seconds, and I explained to him what had happened. We decided we’d give sleep another go and hopefully get some rest till morning.
Vishal had just nodded off and I was still awake, when one long, lanky person, shabbily dressed in a T-shirt and very dirty jeans, came and flopped heavily down on the seat between Vishal and me. This sudden jerk jolted Vishal into wakefulness, who saw this man and immediately got pretty scared.
This guy laid his hands in front and started saying something in Italian through a hazy drunken drawl. I looked at his hands. They were dirty as hell. They were black and greasy as if he had been clawing through all the city’s refuse the whole day. He kept talking, as I kept staring at his hands. Then he suddenly leaned back very rapidly and the bench shook. Vishal immediately jolted upright, his face now clearly betraying undiluted fear.
The station had a golf cart in which two policemen would patrol round in intervals. Yes, it was a golf cart. I wish I could say ‘a patrol car shaped like a golf cart’, but it was a plain golf cart, with perhaps ‘Police’ written on it and a symbol. This golf cart had been around a few times, without any use whatsoever. It came around now, and I hoped they’d take the guy away or something. But no, they whirred by in front of us, without so much as a second glance.
The guy now started saying something in a low voice, leaning in towards me. I told him, ‘Hey, I don’t know what you’re saying, okay? I speak English.’ He stared at my face, seeming to understand. Then he tried something in English, but he was only drawling unintelligibly. He kept showing me those abominable palms as he spoke, as if explaining something about them. At the conclusion of his monologue, he put a dirty hand on the jeans of my right leg, slightly above my knee, and nodding gently as if he was speaking to his closest friend, he kept saying, ‘So you understand. So you see.’
That was it for me. I was really pissed off. But at the same time I felt a little funny at all this. I told him, ‘No, I don’t understand. I don’t see anything.’
He stared at my face again for a while, then stood up and teetered away.
Phew, I thought.
At this time the policemen in the golf cart came and stopped in front of us. One of them said, ‘the station is closing. You’ll have to leave.’
What? I thought. A station, closing? What is this place? How can a station, the only station in such a big city, just close like that?
Nevertheless, we got up and went outside. It was two in the morning.
Great iron grills rose up slowly and dramatically from the ground and the gates were closed. I stared at this in disbelief and suddenly felt such a fondness for Howrah station again.
The station, we heard, would open again at four. Vishal and I climbed a concrete wall of the subway entrance in front of the station and sat there dangling our legs. There were drunken people all around, coming out of the pub, and broken alcohol bottles littered the street. There were a few sober people around too. We discussed whether we should go in the pub for a while, to pass the time and to be somewhere safer than the streets, but we had stuff with us so we dropped the idea. There was a McDonald’s café, but it had closed at two.
There was a bus terminus beside the station, and I watched in surprise as buses arrived at intervals, packed full of people at this dead of the night, sober, normal people, adults and younger people, men and women, all appeared to be dressed for work, who got off the bus and immediately dissipated in all directions.
After a while when we got very sleepy again, we decided we’d sleep like true homeless people on the pavement outside the station. We walked there and saw already a few people sleeping. They were also travellers seemingly waiting for the station to open again. We found a spot, I clipped everything to my arm, and went to sleep. This time it was a peaceful, unbroken, deep sleep.
The sleep was broken only a couple of hours later by Vishal who told me that the station had opened again. We trudged back in, sat at the benches again, and slept right off.
In the morning we woke again to commotion and hustle and sunlight, people, shopkeepers, travellers and beautiful Roman girls in black tees distributing free Coke Zero. I looked around and couldn’t believe what this place had been at night.
Oh well, that’s Italy, I thought, as we put on our backpacks for another day of adventure.