All Roads Lead to Rome ... Eventually
Posted: Dec 10, 2003 5:32:44 PM
The tourist is a class unto itself: a transient, hapless, enthusiastic, clueless, diverse, and irritating class, but certainly a cohesive community. Albeit of a strange kind. And when things get a little hairy, they react in strange ways. I have had two such experiences in the last few days, so in this report I'll give you an idea of exactly what the group dynamics are in times of mild or extreme pressure.
The first incident was relatively mild: Greta and I, like so many others, were climbing the towers of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. But the stairs are very thin (See!) and so a backlog quickly developed. Stand still, take one step up, wait, take another step up, and so on.
At first, everyone is silent save for those who are lucky enough not to be seperated from their companions in the crush. Gradually, things thaw out, and I'm happy to say that I contributed somewhat to that. An American above was commenting - in English - to their friend that they had dropped their camera case somewhere. Without a second thought, I called out down the stairs: "has anyone seen a camera case? pass it on." And down the spiral the message echoed, and rebounded, and came back up again from a dozen throats: "what colour is it?" A quick enquiry from the now highly bemused Americans established that it was grey, and before we knew it a camera case was being passed from hand to hand, back to its owner.
The only thing that I feel really bad about is that the subsequent communal spirit that this engendered was lost on those parts of the crowd who didn't speak English, but before long a couple of them found out how to break the ice. A plaintive cry - male - came thundering up the stairs: "Maria!" Then, from far above, a - female - reply: "Pedro!" Everyone simultaneously envisaged two lovers running towards each other in a grassy meadow, and had a good laugh as the calls continued for some time, now with an edge of trans-linguistic humour.
The Sagrada Familia was fun because of that, but a much less pleasant example came on the overnight train from Barcelona to Nice. Because the Spanish and French train systems are operated by seperate countries, there is a train that takes everyone to the border, and it is from there that they meet their appropriate overnight train. A good system, except when things go wrong.
The connecting train broke down two minutes from the changeover station. A massive electrical failure, plunging the whole train momentarily into darkness.
I felt like such an overprepared tourist, because I happened to have two torches on my person: my little pocket light for reading maps and finding my bed in hostels late at night, and a larger torch that I bought to properly appreciate the Paris catacombs. Thankfully the darkness didn't last long, because no-one else had a torch.
At first people sat mute. Then, as it became apparent that this train wasn't moving again in a hurry, little groups developed of people who all spoke one language, islands of noise in a sea of silence. I, feeling fairly miserable, remained amongst the group of adamantly silent frowning males standing by the doors until I could take it no more and moved to a seat where I quickly struck up a conversation with a very nice Norwegian couple and two people from Japan. This made the situation much easier.
Time passed. Engineers walked through carrying large pieces of greasy unidentifiable metal, impervious to all inquiries as to their progress. The lights went out again. They moved everyone into a single carriage, apparently with the idea of detaching that one and getting another engine to take it into the station. You can probably imagine what being in a completely packed car did for the mood of us inmates.
Eventually, after two hours without moving, they flagged down a passing train to take us to into the station (not the one two minutes away, but another further down where our overnight connection was waiting for us). Unfortunately, this was no ordinary train: it was a hotel train. For those of you who have never encountered these beauties, they are trains, but (duh) also fully equipped hotels, with proper rooms, a bar, and a restaurant. They are very expensive also, which is why it must have made such an amusing picture for there to be scruffy dirty backpackers squatting in the aisles of the lounge, particularly when they are grumpy and tired after two hours waiting motionless on the tracks.
So we led a revolt. It was far too crowded, and there were quite a few of us, so we decided to annex the bar and restaurant, which at this time of night were completely empty. Most of us behaved perfectly politely, in the bar at least, and so the staff were not upset, but the conditions in the restauruant were much worse. Or so I assume: two people came charging out, yelling at the head waiter in Italian. Both had cigarettes hanging from their hands. Our bartender yelled at them as well, and the female of the couple burst into very angry tears, before all of the residents of the restaurant were evicted back into the lounge. Thankfully they hadn't yet cleared the bar, so a bunch of us started ordering drinks, and suddenly we weren't parasites, we were clients. I had my new friends teach me some Norwegian and Japanese, and before long the bartender was joining in and joking in several languages, and all was well. We made the connection three hours late, and I made it to Nice.
The overnight train from Nice to Rome was an ordeal in itself (I was stuck in a very small sleeping cabin with five loud French 14-year-olds on a school trip who smoked and played bad music through to the wee small hours) but no matter, I'm back in Rome, the Last City of Europe, and I'm catching up with everything I missed last time. Like what's in this picture. It is very impressive, and even now, near to the very end of my trip, I have boundless enthusiasm for these wonders. My flights are confirmed; in a few days I will be in Osaka, Japan.
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