Many thanks to Lisa Hendey for the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite subjects: travel. You can read the interview here.
There was a question in the interview that I didn’t answer over there:
Have you ever had any travel “disasters?”
I told Lisa that yes, there was something, and it was an incident I’d been intending to blog about since it happened, but I kept forgetting, and then waiting for the right opportunity again, and then forgetting…but now’s my chance!
So..yes. There has been one real disaster – only one so far, and while what happened wasn’t as bad as being stranded in an airport for three days or suffering an accident or serious illness far from home, it was traumatic enough. And potentially far worse than it was.
So, yes, it was actually one of the worst moments..of..my life. Second worst, I’d say. Yup. That bad. So here you go….
In the Pyrenees
Two and a half years ago, the boys and I had the amazing experience of spending three months in Europe. If you were reading me back then you know that the course of our journey took us to France for two months – we spend most of September in western France, around Montignac, in Lourdes and then Provence, and then October was Paris.
We left Paris in early November, the plan being to spend most of that month in Italy, and then heading back home after Thanksgiving.
Doing what they do – run – in Lausanne. In front of the Olympic Museum (which was closed)
After a few days in Lausanne, Switzerland (the only place in Europe I experienced sticker shock – expensive!) , we took the train to Padua, which was the first stage of the Italian segment. Padua for almost a week, then Assisi for a few days, then finally Rome for two weeks.
It was to be an all-day train ride from Lausanne to Padua, via Milan. There were several stops, the longest being Milan.
It was a lovely trip, first through the Alps, then to northern Italy, and onto Padua. We looked out the windows, ate snacks, read, and some of us were probably praying our mother never hauled us to Europe during (American) football season again.
And…here we go! Padua! St. Anthony, here we come!
I should mention that of course, we were traveling with all of our luggage. I’m committed to packing light, and I had already sent some of our stuff back to the States with a friend from Birmingham who had spent a week with us in Paris, but still…we each had a suitcase, plus a backpack. And remember, the boys were two years younger then – Michael was seven and Joseph, twelve. My point being that getting these suitcases in and out of trains without letting gravity pull an overloaded child determined that I CAN DO IT MYSELF under the tracks was…a challenge that required speed, negotiation skills, and balance.
As we pulled into the station, I knew that we would only have a couple of minutes, since trains don’t spend much time at all on these stops. I also didn’t want anyone – especially Michael – to take a tumble as they struggled with luggage.
So I told them, as we gathered near the door, that what I wanted them to do was get off, stand on the platform and take the suitcases as I handed them down to them. Sounds good.
The train stopped. The door slid open. The boys got out. I handed one suitcase down. Check. I reached for the other.
The doors shut.
There was some sort of green button next to the door. I pushed it. Then punched it.
The train started to move.
I punched and started shouting. I tried to will the doors back open.
The train sped up. As trains do.
And the last thing I saw as we slipped away, doors shut tight, was Joseph on the platform, arms outstretched, trying to run but being held back by someone, crying out, “MOM!”
Even now, thinking about that moment, tears come to my eyes, even though I (and you) know it all turned out fine.
But at that moment, I was as frantic and panicked as I’d ever been in my life. I raced up and down the train cars, looking for someone – anyone who was in a uniform. Finally, I found one, but he spoke no English, and neither did his colleague, but it didn’t take long for him to grasp my point: Bambini – in Padua!
What to do?
The next stop was Mestre, the first Venice station, and so of course, what I would do is just get off (with the damn suitcases), and find a train right back. I was confident that the boys knew what to do – to stay put, because we had talked about it often in Paris in relation to the Metro, which could be crazy crowded, with plenty of times we were squeezed on at the last minute before the doors shut.
What do you do if you all get on the train, and I don’t?
We get off at the next stop and wait for you.
What do you do if I get on the train, but you get left behind?
We stay where we are and wait for you.
So I knew they’d stay there. Well, that’s comforting. They’ll stay! In Padua! Italy! By themselves!
Finally – finally – the train employee reached the Padua station by telephone and ascertained that the boys were safe – they had been taken to the police office at the train station and would, of course, wait until my return.
As I said, it was a barely-thirty minute ride to Venice, but those were certainly the longest thirty minutes of my life. Our trip had gone so well, and had been such a rich experience, but now, every doubt I’d had about me taking these two kids to Europe by myself returned and echoed with added embellishments of guilt about my carelessness.
As we pulled into Mestre, an older man who, with his wife, had boarded in Milan and had been seated across from us and seen all of it happen, approached and offered to help me find the return train to Padua. So grateful, of course I said yes, and together, we pulled those two remaining suitcases out of the train and found the platform for a Padua train that would, thank goodness, be coming in only a matter of minutes. We got to that platform, I thanked him profusely, but before he left, he glanced around, found a woman of about my age, and explained to her (in Italian) what had happened. All I could understand was bambini and his dramatic re-enactment of “Mama! Mama!” But that was enough, and he handed me over.
Another excruciating thirty minutes, attempting to converse with the sweet woman who’d been appointed my guardian, when finally I was back in Padua. Off the train, to the police offices…and there they were. Mi bambini.
I am so, so sorry. So, so sorry.
The officers were quite kind as they took my information and made copies of our passports. The boys said that some bystanders had been under the impression that they were supposed to be going to Venice and asked if they wanted to take the next train, but they knew better, and said, “No, our Mom will be coming back. We know it.”
As we got the taxi to our apartment, Michael – who was naturally far more frightened by the experience than Joseph – muttered, “I’m never riding a train again.”
I told him, as nicely as I could that I totally understood, but we certainly weren’t going to be walking to Assisi, and the whole thing was totally my fault and it wasn’t going to happen again. I promise. I’d learned my lesson, and from now on, we’d do as I finally woke up and observed the Europeans doing – crowding at the train door, luggage in hand, ready to jump out as soon as they open, and not taking any time to gather anything, because there isn’t. Time.
The street in Padua where our apartment was located.
We finally got to our apartment, after I’d called the owner from the police offices to tell her that we would be late meeting her. As we settled in and I told the owner the story of why we were late, she gasped and shook her head and murmured at intervals, “Mama Mia.. Mama Mia.” And I remember thinking amid the remnants of my breathless panic, Huh. They really do say that.
Sometimes I think back on that horrid hour of our lives and think, It really wasn’t that bad. They were immediately taken care of by the authorities. It was fine.
But then I think again…what if someone evil had been there and taken advantage of the situation, and offered…
And I can’t think anymore. It’s too terrible. I can’t fool myself. It could have been much, much worse, and thank God and Saint Anthony and all the good people there that it wasn’t.
A few days later, we were leaving Padua. Michael had accepted the facts of life and was okay with the train – considering he’d ridden it twice to Venice during our week, that wasn’t surprising.
But our departure and final visit to the Padua station wasn’t drama-free, either.
As we were checking out that day, a big protest parade marched passed our apartment. The owner shrugged and said, “Students. We protested back in our day, now they do.” No big deal.
Well, it turned out to be sort of a big deal. The protests built as our taxi made its way to the station, and by the time we arrived it was a mess, for the plaza in front of the station was the final destination of the protest, the police had gathered and the students were approaching. They’d closed off the front of the station. I looked at the driver, he shrugged helplessly, and so we got out anyway. With, of course, our suitcases.
A bystander warned us that we should probably get away – “The students are going to start running, probably, and there will be tear gas,” he said.
(There were, in fact, injuries. The protests were one of the many anti-austerity protests around Europe that fall. As this news article relates, there were two policeman injured by firecrackers – which we heard.)
But we couldn’t enter the station….the doors were locked, and the police stood guard…or could we?
I watched to see what other people were doing, and it seemed pretty clear to me that there must be a back entrance, for I saw a steady stream heading down a side street away and back towards the station. I have to wonder why our taxi driver didn’t just take us there for indeed, as we found out after a ten minute walk, there was a back entrance, and it was open and inside, everything was quiet and calm.
Almost there. Almost.
I set the boys at a table at the doorway of a grocery store in the station and I dashed in to get snacks and drinks. When I returned five minutes later, their eyes were wide with excitement.
“Mom! We saw someone GET ARRESTED! And it was the same police lady who helped us the other day!”
Shrine of St. Anthony, Padua
Seriously – loved Padua, despite a rough beginning and weird end.
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