Passings on a Train

Traveling alone. Yes, there are moments of loneliness, sitting at dinner with only one glass of wine. Arriving at a dark, tiny hotel room with no one to make the atmosphere lighter. But there is romance, too. The kind that only comes with silent and attentive observation. And I know well now that fewer observations can be made — of people or of nature — when you have a companion. So I take my joys in this…

Yesterday on the train from Turin, I watched as a young Italian woman hugged and kissed her father goodbye and boarded the train, then settled down in the seat across the aisle from me. As she laid down her bag, her father – a tall and husky bearded man – continued to wave through the window and she waved back, blowing him kisses. Her hair was short and dark chocolate brown, angled across her face. And her skin was that beautiful golden shade of summer that only Italians and Argentinians seem to get. She was dressed practically. A loose cotton shirt and shorts. I liked her. There was an ease about her I sensed and admired.

She sat and opened a notebook and started highlighting. As the train departed, I put my headphones on and stared out the window for awhile. The view was spectacular. Field after manicured field, sparkling green. The mark of proud Italian farmers. It felt good to be moving; admiring the stillness of the world through the glass.

An hour must have passed when ‘he’ got on. With a hiking bag in tow and an English novel, he looked like an American, but his jean shorts were too tight to defend my hypothesis… British then? Maybe Irish? No, too quiet for that…

He seated himself quietly across from her and opened his book, then shifted his sturdy frame around in an attempt to get comfortable. Between pages he observed her subtly, but didn’t seem like the type to strike up a conversation for no reason. She continued to study and then closed her eyes for a spell, falling asleep with her mouth agape. The train rolled on and he did the same. Looking over at them in their quasi-academic slumbers I thought, ‘They could be a nice couple.’ Based on his beard and the flecks of grey in it, he may have been five years or so older than her. But it was hard to tell. He had youthful eyes and a soft face. A confident reserve.

Somewhere in the dark of a tunnel, our train stopped for a good 20 or thirty minutes. The conductor made a few announcements. This anomaly finally sparked the first conversation between them. “Did you hear what was said about La Spezia,” he asked. (His Italian was perfect.) “It will arrive 25 minutes late,” she explained, “so we will be there at 6:40, not 6:15.” And from there, their conversation continued. Explanations of comings and goings (She would stop in Rome.). A bit of small talk. I felt happy for him. Talking to a beautiful woman on a train. This easy, golden woman who loves her father.

I couldn’t understand all that was said between them but at one point I heard her laugh, a true and natural laugh. And I thought that’s the first. The first time he made her laugh. Why do we remember the first time we kiss more than we remember that?

I let my inner dialogue write a story of romance for them. He would fall asleep now, before we reached La Spezia. And she wouldn’t wake him. She would look at him in contemplation with the corner of her mouth turned and decide not to wake him. Later when he realized what had happened and panic, she would say she was sorry, she must have slept too. And in a spontaneous moment of resolution she would invite him to join her in Rome. She would show him her city as they strolled through the night eating gelato and laughing. That beautiful natural laugh. (And I was there, to witness the beginning.)

But alas, we arrived in La Spezia. They smiled a smile of genuine pleasure for having met, and said simply ‘Ciao’.

Then I stepped back into reality and strapped my backpack on. Laughed to myself as I thought of Walter Mitty. Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Real life is just the little bits. These passings on a train.

Originally published: JUNE 13, 2015 on

Cinque Terre – Italy


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