An ordinary Sunday evening

It’s 6 pm on Sunday evening in Trieste. I am walking by the train station, almost at the end of the long (about 90 minutes) walk from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, of which I am a guest this Spring, to my downtown apartment. The end of my European stay is quickly approaching; I am about to spend my last month here frantically trying to finish all the projects that I started — that’s how things always go.
In a week, however, I shall be visiting a collaborator in Strasbourg. I am going there by train.
That reminds me, I do not have my train ticket yet… might as well get it now.

I am trying to render below, as accurately and faithfully as I can, conversations that obviously took place in Italian. A and B are the two Trenitalia‘s employees with whom I interacted. Nope, I am not making any of it up.

I need the complete itinerary

Oh good, the train station is almost empty. I walk to the ticket counter. There is a short line, and there are two windows.
It’s my turn. One of the two windows is free, but the lady sitting behind it seems busy, she is looking down, as if she were checking something on her desk. She raises her head, looks at me for a split second, and quickly looks down again. I wait. She looks at me again. I make eye contact.
Me: “Excuse me… may I… ?”
A: “Why, gee, I don’t know — I am the person sitting behind the window, wearing a badge, no one is standing before me, do I look like I am going anywhere ?”
I grew up with this nonsense. Does not bother me. I think it does not. Anyway. I approach the window. I can now see what it was that was keeping her so focused. Whatever.
Me: “Good evening, Ma’am, I need to travel from Trieste to Strasbourg on May 14, and from Strasbourg back to Trieste on May 18. I need to purchase tickets.”
A mumbles something incomprehensible
Me: “Excuse me ?”
A again mumbles something but I can barely hear her voice
Me: “I am sorry, I cannot hear you”
A (now in a perfectly understandable tone, which I have no trouble hearing, even through the glass shield): “Well of course you cannot, there is that baby crying !”, and she points at a lady standing in line at another counter, holding a baby in her arms. Indeed, the baby is crying.
Personally, I had not even noticed that there was a crying baby anywhere near me. Surely that is not the reason why I could not hear A — the reason being the fact that she was mumbling. It is clear to me, however, that A is in a bad mood, seriously annoyed by the crying baby.
A: “Are you the person traveling ?”
Me: “Yes, Ma’am”
A: “How are you going to Strasbourg ?”
Me: “Er… by… train ?”
A (rolls her eyes): “Yeah, duh ! How are you going ? Which route ?”
Me: “Er… uh… I.. don’t really know that… I mean, it does not really matter to me… the fastest ?”
A (visibly annoyed): “Sir, how am I supposed to issue a train ticket if I do not know which route ? You have to tell me which stations you are going to go through !”
Me: “I am sorry, there must be a misunderstanding here. Is this the ticket counter ?”
A: “Sure is. This is where you purchase the ticket. But you have to tell me which ticket you want !”
Me: “But… I do not understand, can you not simply enter in your computer the names of the stations of departure and arrival, and let the computer figure out what the best route is ? How is a traveller supposed to know…”
A: “Yeah right… as if. No, Sir, things do not work that way, you see the Information kiosk (She points me to the counter where the lady with the crying baby and quite a few other people are standing in line) ? That is where you are supposed to go first, they will figure out an itinerary for you, at which point you can come back here and then I shall be able to issue a ticket for you !”
Me: “Listen, I remember now — the person whom I am visiting said to me in an e-mail something about going through Torino… does that help ?”
A: “No, that won’t help, I need the complete itinerary.”
Me: “OK, well, I am sorry, I had no idea that I had to do that, I usually just walk to the ticket counter… (she is not listening anymore, no one was waiting behind me and so she promptly went back to reading her magazine).

Do I look like Wonder Woman to you ?

As I walk toward the Information kiosk, resigned to taking my place in line, I try to recall a single time I had to go through such a two-step process in order to get a simple train ticket, at any one of the many train stations to which I have been in my life. I simply cannot.
“Itinerary” ? Why would a passenger need to provide that information in order to be issued a ticket ? Isn’t that what individuals working at ticket counters at train stations all over the world are supposed to do (and have computers for) ?

The baby is now crying more intensely. The lady holding him seems to have been talking to the Trenitalia employee (B) for a long time. B is describing to her all sort of possible routes to get to some place, I can hear her talking. Some of the other travellers standing in line between the lady holding the baby and me, become impatient.
A lady in line asks B “Excuse me, this seems to be taking an awfully long time… can someone else help me ? I have been standing in line for half an hour now…”
B reacts vehemently, in a loud, defiant tone — “Hello ? Do I look like Wonder Woman to you ? I can only do one thing at a time, you know… and you know what else ? I am not even supposed to be working now, it is my break ! Yes, I do have the right to take a break, I have to go pee too, you know ? So, as soon as I am done with this lady, I am taking my break, Ma’am !”.
With a voice which is a mix of shock and irritation, other people in line voice their discontent… “come on, this is (censored) ridiculous… I have been wasting my afternoon in this (censored) station… what is this, a (censored) joke … I could have just started walking and (censored) gotten there during all this time…”.
B (addressing all of us, collectively): “Hey listen, ladies and gentlemen, can you read that ? Look… T-I-C-K-E-T-S… how ’bout you just go there and get your tickets ????”
Sure enough, we all say/shout that the reason why we are all standing in line there, is that we were all sent to this “Information kiosk” by employees (such as A) working at the ticket counter, who would not issue a ticket without the “complete itinerary”.
On hearing that, speaking in a voice loud enough for A and her colleague to hear, as many as thirty feet away, B shouts:
Oh, really ? Is that what they told you ? Well, maybe you should go back and tell them to try entering on their computers the name of the stations of departure and arrival — works like a charm !

Take your break

Thankfully it is Sunday and I am in no hurry. I can even afford to laugh a bit. If I were in the US or in Canada I would be trying to guess where hidden cameras might be — I mean, seriously, someone would have to be shooting an episode of Candid Camera, in order for people to act this way. But, in Italy ? Nah.
The people standing between the lady with the baby and myself abandon the line, exasperated but resolved to get their (censored) tickets. They rally back to the ticket counter. Me, I am not ready to face A’s wrath, so I stay in line.
B clearly wishes to see me go. When she is finally done with the lady, whose baby is now crying desperately, she solemnly states: “Well, Sir, I am very sorry but now I am taking my break. It is my right as established by the collective bargaining agreement…”
Me (I interject)” “Ma’am — it is quite all right. You take your break. I shall be waiting.”
B: “Well, that is fine but I shall be gone for fifteen minutes, for that is the duration of my break as per section II.A…”
Me (starting to lose it): “Ma’am, I said it is fine, I understand. I need to be talking to you, because your colleague at the ticket counter sent me here. According to her, she cannot issue a ticket without the complete itinerary. So, you be gone fifteen minutes, fifteen hours, fifteen years — I have no choice but wait, but… when you come back I shall be standing here. There is no escaping that !”
B (suddenly sounding much humbler): “Very well, Sir, I shall be right back.”

Hey, no skin off my nose…

B returns after three minutes, if that long. Meanwhile I have calmed down. I should be upset, though.
After all, I have been watching all of the people who left the line and walked back to the ticket counter, get their tickets in few minutes and walk away — yes, even from A. I am not sure why I have not done the same thing. Oh wait — it’s ’cause I am stupid. I’d forgotten.
B: “All right, Sir, where are you going ?”
Me: “I am traveling from Trieste to Strasbourg on the 14th of May, returning on the 18th.”
B: “Oh no, you cannot, there is a strike on the 14th of May.”
Me: “Nationwide ?”
B: “No, just in Trieste.”
Me: “All day ?”
B: “From 9 am until 5 pm.”
Me: “Can I not leave earlier ?”
B: “OK, let me see…. there are several possible routes and depending on which….”
Me: “If that can be of any help, it was suggested to me to go through Torino…”
B: “What ?”
Me: “It was just a … suggestion but I don’t know if…”
B: “Why would you go through Torino, traveling from Trieste to Strasbourg ? It’s just crazy, makes no sense !”
Me: “Well, then, I am sure you will be able to come up with a better…”
B: “I mean, I have been on this job for twenty years and each and every person going to Strasbourg for whom I issued a train ticket, went through Milano and Basel, in Switzerland. Why would anyone want to go through Torino, it takes longer and it is more expensive !”
Me: “Ma’am, like I said, it was merely a suggestion, one that I received from someone who does not do this for living. If you say that there are better solutions, I am sure you are right…”
B (while I am talking she grabs a pencil and an old map… marks on it the cities of Trieste, Strasbourg, Torino and Basel… talking to me in the most condescending possible tone): See ? Why, oh, why would you want to spend your whole day on the train going through Torino, when you can get to Strasbourg in half the time by going through Basel ?
Me: “Very well, then, through Basel it is”
B: “Oh, no, no no, Sir, I am just here to do whatever you want, so, at your service, let me get started”
She turns to the computer, and starts typing, but at the same time she keeps talking — about me, loudly, as if I were not there.
B: “I told him what the best route is but, hey, he wants to go to Torino, I’ll send him to Torino — no skin off my nose…”
Me (I am getting upset again): Listen, Ma’am, I am going to say this one last time. Going through Torino was a solution suggested to me by someone who is not in your line of work. Please disregard it. Pretend I never mentioned it. I do not need to go through Torino. In fact, I do not care what the itinerary is, as long as it is the fastest and/or least expensive, much like any other one of your customers. Now, since I have been in this station over half an hour now, as you know, can you please cut the crap once and for all, and just give me this (bite my tongue)… blessed itinerary ?”
B (again sounding humble): “Yes Sir, let me get to it right away.”
She works on it for a few minutes. I can tell something is bothering her.
B: “OK, Sir, I am done, I have your itinerary. It is through Torino, as you wanted.”
Me (almost shouting): OMF…
B: “I am kidding ! Relax, man… You are going through Basel.”
Me: “OK, Good.”
B: “You know, they were right, though…”
Me: “Who was right ?”
B: “Your friends… it actually is faster through Torino, and um, it is less expensive as well — unfortunately there are no seats left.”
Me: “It’s fine, you did your best. I just hope that the last seat was not purchased right as you were showing me those cities on the map. Good day.”
B: “Good day, Sir.”

That is so cool !

Me: “May I… ?”
A: “Gee, I don’t know, I am here, I work at this desk, it says ‘Tickets’ above — take a wild guess !”
Me: “OK, so, I do have the itinerary, could you please issue the ticket now ?”
A: “Sure.”
A: “It’s 475 euros round trip.”
I balk. That sounds like a horrendous amount of money. I must be really getting old. Train used to be cheap.
Me: “Do you take American Express ?”
A: “Yes, but I need a document.”
I hand her my Canadian passport.
A: “I need an Italian document.”
Me: “I do not have any, I am a Canadian citizen.”
A (rolls her eyes): “Yeah, right, now you are Canadian — that’s rich !”
Me: “Ma’am, I am a Canadian citizen, so this passport is the only document I have. Are you saying that foreign people cannot pay with credit card ?”
A: “Of course they can, as long as they show me a document !”
I feel blood going to my head. I am about to explode. I am going to do something terrible. I shall be on the six o’clock news. My wife will be ashamed.
A (has turned my AMEX credit card and seen my picture on the back): “OMG is that you ?”
Me (in a broken, shaky voice): “Yes.. that would be… me”
A: “I had never seen a credit card with a picture on the back ! That is so cool !”
Me: “Eh… uh…”
A: “OK, here is your ticket. Have a good trip.”
Me: “But… the passport…”
A: “Oh, don’t worry about that. Good day, Sir.”
Me: “Good… day… Ma’am…”

Great to visit

It’s about 7 pm as I walk toward the exit, and I think I must be looking like I have no idea where I am, what has just happened and why people act the way they do — a foreigner, basically. A young lady (probably in her mid twenties) approaches me as I am about to leave the station. My guess is that she is American. Let us call her C.
C: “Excuse me Sir, do you speak English ?”
Me: “A little… well, if you can put up with Italian accent….”
C: “Oh, good, maybe you can help me. Do you know which one of those windows I have to go to in order to get a ticket ? I can’t seem to figure it out.”
Me: “Well, so… do you know where you are going ?”
C: “Yeah… Of course I know where I am going… Berlin… what do you mean ?”
Me: “No, sorry, I mean… do you know the itinerary ?”
C: “The… itinerary ? I am just going from Trieste to Berlin…”
Me: “Yeah, I know but… how ? I mean… do you know the complete itinerary… which stations… do you… travel… through…” (she looks at me like I am stupid. I feel stupid.)
C: “How would I know that ? And why would I care ? Isn’t that for the people at the ticket office to figure out ?”
Me: “I know ! But see… depending on whether you know the complete itinerary or not… you have to… the Information kiosk… but then again other people… look… why don’t you…”
C: “Hey listen, it’s OK, I’ll figure it out. Crazy country isn’t it ? I mean, it’s a lot of fun, a great place to visit and all but… I don’t think I could live here. I mean, some things are just too weird… “
Me: “They are weird, are they not… I don’t think I could live here either.”

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20 Responses to “An ordinary Sunday evening”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    (a) Come on, at least, they were open at 6PM on Sunday!
    (b) I don’t blame the baby for crying.
    (c) Yeah, it is well known that Northern Americans do not have the right appreciation for “documents”. What puzzles me is: I guess your credit card does not have any nice stamps on it, so how can it count as a “document”?
    (d) As for the reaction to your picture: She must simply have been blown away by being confronted with your famously stunning looks TWICE.
    (e) Why does the ticket at the station in Trieste cost 475 Euros when sbb.ch sells it for 385 Francs (which is still not cheap)? AND throws in the complete itinerary (via Milano and Basel) for free.

    • Massimo Says:

      a) It’s a train station, they are supposed to be open. Of course working on Sunday is not pleasant anywhere, but in Italy it is a tragedy.
      b) Hell, I was about to cry and I am neither small nor cute…
      c) I am not sure why, but she took my Canadian passport seriously after seeing the back of my creit card.
      d) How do you get to be always right ? So annoying…
      e) Damn if I know. Is that first class with reservation ? Maybe next time I shall write you instead. You are not going to show me map and give me a geography mini-lecture are you ?

      • Schlupp Says:

        No, second class, admittedly.

      • Massimo Says:

        Well, I am not going to risk traveling without reservation after being stuck in Firenze with my wife a few years ago, we were supposed to travel to Calabria on New Year’s Eve but could not… not that being stuck in Firenze is bad.

  2. transientreporter Says:

    1) Is the problem: a) laziness; b) Little Napoleon complex? i.e. do they just not want to bother, or are they letting you know who’s boss?

    2) As a Korean, I can tell you what happened in my home country. There was a problem with local bureaucrats (e.g. airport officials, local district office lackeys etc) throwing their weight around and acting like Little Napoleons. What happened in the 1990’s was that the government instituted a uniform, standardized complaints system that citizens could file against any government bureaucrat. And it had real teeth – real consequences for pay and promotion. Attitudes changed overnight. The Little Napoleons became servile little sycophants who started breaking rules to keep the “customers” happy.

    You can’t win.

    3) I’m curious as to whether there are regional differences in Italy regarding efficiency and quality of service. Not knowing very much about the country, I would have predicted better service in Trieste than, say, Naples. I was watching the movie “Io Sono L’Amore” the other day (about a family in Milan) – everyone in it was so buttoned up and uptight, I thought they were German.

    • Massimo Says:

      I think it’s a combination of being unhappy about having to work on a Sunday and the desire to go on a power trip.
      I doubt if any reform such as the one you are describing would go anywhere, in fairness not just in Italy but anywhere in Europe. But I might be wrong.
      And yes, there are regional differences but I have never believed them to be as great as the media or the entertainment industry would have you think.
      I liked that movie and yes, fairly realistic I would say.

    • transientreporter Says:

      1) This is how you handle the situation: You walk up to the ticket booth and you say, “Hello, signorina. I’m traveling to Strasbourg, but my companion here – Mr Thirty Euros – doesn’t want to go. Would you look after him while I’m away?”

      It’s like when you go to a crowded restaurant here in the States, walk up to the front desk and say, “Hi. Benjamin Franklin, party of four.”

      2) I liked that movie and yes, fairly realistic I would say…
      It’s a great movie, but not as good as “Natale a Miami,” the greatest movie in the history of Movieland…

      • Massimo Says:

        It’s a great movie, but not as good as “Natale a Miami,” the greatest movie in the history of Movieland…

        That’s one thing I like about you — always measured, never into hyperbolae or anything over the top…

    • transientreporter Says:

      Here’s the list of the greatest Italian movies of all time:

      1) Natale a Miami
      2) Natale a Beverly Hills
      3) Natale a Rio
      4) La Dolce Vita
      5) The Bicycle Thief
      6) Cinema Paradiso
      7) Life is Beautiful
      8) Il Postino
      9) Io Sono L’Amore
      10) Malizia (starring Laura Antonelli – OMG unquestionablyhandsdownthemostbeautifulwomanintheworld)

      • Massimo Says:

        A few comments:

        1,2,3) You left out “Vacanze di Natale” (any one of them, there must be like, oh I don’t know, 25 thereof), with Christian De Sica, the less-than-legendary son of the legendary director Vittorio De Sica.

        1,2,3,4,7,8,9,10) Quite a few of your favorite movies seem to feature unusually curvaceous female protagonists, including the unquestionably-hands-down-etc. I am sure it is just a coincidence. After all, I do not see “La Ciociara” in your top ten. Anyway, I like the same kind of, um, movies, you know…

        6,7) Together with “Mediterraneo”, probably the worst movies made in Italy over the past twenty-five years, which managed to have (some kind of) success abroad. On the other hand, “Pinocchio”, hands down the worst italian movie ever made, deservedly did not have any success of any kind.

      • transientreporter Says:

        1) …there must be like, oh I don’t know, 25 thereof…
        25 greatest movies of all time, right there…
        2) Christian De Sica… Christian De Sica? I didn’t notice him. Was he in the movie? =)
        3)Quite a few of your favorite movies seem to feature unusually curvaceous female protagonists…
        What other kind of movie is there?
        4) Speaking of “Malizia”, what is it with Italian guys and their mama/Madonna complex? Which leads to the question: Are Italians Catholics because they’re Italians, or are Italians Italians because they’re Catholic?
        5) “Cinema Paradiso” stays. I agree that “Life is Beautiful” is problematic (and by extension, Benigni is an overrated director). Let’s pull that one out, everything moves up one spot, and Number 10 goes to… Bertolucci’s Il conformista.

      • Massimo Says:

        1) I think you might enjoy some of Alvaro Vitali‘s work… La liceale nella classe dei ripetenti might be the first to sample, an all-time classic. Some of those movies are literally priceless, the titles themselves are so … what can I say, they are so bad that they are actually good :-)

        2) Well, it is a bit like that, you know when the football coach is asked to comment on a player who apparently was on the pitch during the game but no one could recall seeing him, and the coach goes “well, he did precious, albeit somewhat obscure work”… that would apply to CdS as well.

        3) No comment

        4) I am so not going there — plus what do I know, I am Canadian…

        5) Both “Life is Beautiful” and “Cinema Paradiso” are so gooey they make me sick. I like Il conformista but I did not mind Novecento either. The last emperor, on the other hand, was rubbish.

      • transientreporter Says:

        I’ll check out Alvaro Vitali – thanks for the recommendation.

        I’ve always had ambivalent feelings towards Bertolucci. Il conformista was very fine, The Dreamers was okay (not great), and The Last Emperor was just plain boring. But worst of all was that butter-in-the-butt-crack movie which may be the most overrated film in history (and that’s no hyperbole).

        BTW, La Ciociara? You DARE compare Sophia Loren with the divine, the sublime, the ethereal Laura Antonelli?

      • Massimo Says:

        Last Tango in Paris ? I would not know, I have been told by many that it is a great fine … Now, if only I could stay awake past the first ten minutes…

        I was not comparing Sophia with Laura, I simply expressed mild surprise seeing that La Ciociara did not make it to top ten in your list, given the apparent correlation described above…

  3. Cath Ennis (@enniscath) Says:

    Geez, dude, buy your tickets on the internet like a normal person!

    (Smug because when I went through Italy by train in 1996, I had a pre-booked ticket for my entire route (London-Dover-Calais-Paris-Marseilles-Nice-Monte Carlo-Genoa-Pisa-Rome-Florence-Milan-Lucerne-Basel-Strasbourg-Luxembourg-Brussels-Bruges-Calais-Dover-London – see, even I know that you don’t go through Torino) and could get on and off any train at any time, as long as I did the route in the right direction and order. I did see lots of people yelling at various ticket counters, though).

    • Massimo Says:

      Yes, smarty-pants, I know about that “internet thing” (I have been asked to contribute to the distinguished International Journal of the Internet of Things, you know…), but you see, when your route includes regional tracts (like in this case), you still have to have regular tickets for those, and you need to go to the train station to pick them up, you cannot just print them on your own — welcome to Italy. So, since in the end you have to go to the station anyway, might as well do everything there…

  4. transientreporter Says:

    Hey, switching subjects, take a look at this
    citation (I got this from Jerry Coyne’s blog).

    I think this is what you call “co-authorship” with the emphasis on the “co”.
    Now, can you – as a professional physicist – explain this to me?

    1) What are the criteria for getting authorship on a paper like this?
    2) Philosophically, if you’ve made a 0.125% contribution to a paper, have you in fact made a contribution?
    3) Does having a citation like this on your CV actually make any difference? When hiring someone, would you ever say, “Well, we really weren’t thinking of hiring this guy, but damn! Check it out! He has co-authorship on this paper!”

    Maybe this is a subject for a separate blog post. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

  5. Grad Student Says:

    Wow. In 2000, I travelled around on some sort of Euro pass, cost on the order of $2000 Cdn for 18 days. I also started and finished in Italy, but I stopped in Rome, Pisa and Milan.

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