SOP does not mean Standard Operating Procedure in Italian!

In Manarola now (Cinque Terre), and it’s 11 July. WiFi again, so here’s our travails in Lucca.

7 July 2013

Well, you live and learn.

We got up bright and semi-early this morning, packed everything (including a loaf of bread we didn’t want to leave behind) and Roberto showed up bang on time to take us to the Roma Termini… to find our train was delayed by half an hour. No problem. We stood around and waited (nowhere to sit down). It was relatively easy to find where the train would leave from — large boards announcing the train number, its ultimate destination, and then the platform (binario) from which it would leave. The platform number only showed up about 10 minutes before its actual departure time, but that was enough time to fight our way through the crowds to platform 19.

We had seats 51 and 52 on carriage five. So we hustled our way to carriage five. And then realised that we had to take our big suitcases with us on the train. Mine weighed 18.4 kg when I left home, and there were a few extras in it this morning: probably a cool 20 kg. The steps up on to the train were very narrow, and getting the bag on board meant you had to be able to hoof it up to about waist height, in a hurry. Succeeded. Luckily I’m an ‘agricultural’ lass. But then, once on the train, the seats were arranged in six-seat cubicles, with luggage racks above each row of three seats (you sat in pairs, facing each other). The luggage racks were already full, so the only option was to leave the large suitcases in the very narrow ‘aisle’ part outside of the little cubicle. This left precisely one skinny-person’s width of room for everyone else to walk down — with their 20 kg suitcases. Nuts. No way would anything like that be allowed in NZ! Had we needed to evacuate in a hurry, forget it. (So, my advice if you are planning to travel Italy by train: don’t bring a bag bigger than you can lift over your head — and, as you will see later, don’t expect to get to your destination on time.)

Once we settled into our seats, however, they were reasonably comfortable — luckily, as it was a three-hour journey. Out the window we saw plenty of Italian countryside. Lots of baled hay (large square and round bales sitting in paddocks, and no hay sheds), and lots of individual fields of sunflowers. And the occasional small olive orchard. And no stock — all that hay, and we saw nothing to eat it other than three sorrel horses. Odd.

We also saw two small airfields; what appeared to be a (nuclear?) power station; several seaside villages chocker full of cars and people. And lots of Italians lying under sun umbrellas on some pretty average-looking beaches: no sand, just pebbles and rocks.

And we saw lots of what I am now thinking of as typical Italian trees. They look like trees in a kids’ cartoon — lollipop trees. They have straight-ish trunks devoid of branches until near the top, and then the pine-tree-type foliage spreads out a bit like a lollipop on a stick. And they exist in long lines down the edges of paddocks. Very picturesque.

I was brave enough to try the onboard train toilet. I wouldn’t recommend it. ‘Manky’ comes to mind. The sign next to the toilet appeared to say ‘don’t use the toilet in close proximity to stations’. The reason became clear at the flush stage of proceedings — everything is jettisoned out onto the track below. And it didn’t have a toilet seat — but then no free public toilet in Italy has had a toilet seat so far. The only toilet seat I have found on a public toilet was here, in Pisa train station. But I had to pay a euro for the privilege. At least it was pretty much clean (or maybe that was an illusion cunningly achieved by the eerie, blue-ish fluorescent light that bathed the inside of the stall.)

And that brings me to the learning part of this journey.

We arrived in Pisa half an hour late, but with still 20 minutes to catch our train to Lucca. And that’s where things ground to a halt. We found train 6933 on the departures (partenze) board, and it said 13:43 (the scheduled departure time — Italians work in 24-hour clock time), and then in the ritardo (delays) column it had ‘SOP’. I immediately thought that meant things were running to standard operating procedures. Nup. Couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently, there is a strike today (Sunday) of state railway workers in Pisa. But it finishes at 5pm. So, we are waiting to get on the 1750 train to Lucca. If we can fit. God knows how many other people will also be waiting to get on the same train.

But the problem was that we needed to get in touch with Alessia, the lady who owns the accommodation we are staying in in Lucca, and who was picking us up at the train station. Problem. I haven’t brought my Blackberry with me, as it is a work phone and not authorised for international roaming. Dave has his pre-paid phone with him, but at $10 per mb (and not topped up before we left!!) we had enough credit for one email to Alessia, and that was it. Dave managed to get ahold of her via a pay phone, finally. Now, I am sitting (surrounded by bags) in the sit-and-wait area at Pisa train station while Dave does a recce outside for somewhere to buy a prepaid SIM card for my iPad so we at least have emergency access to the Internet. So that was bad planning!

It’s now 1511. We’ve been here since about 1320. Sigh.

The next problem will be when we leave Lucca en route to Manarola in Cinque Terre. That is a three-train experience with one 10-minute connection. The only mitigating factor is that it seems for the small-town trains the ticket is valid for a particular journey within a given time period, so making exact connections doesn’t seem to be so much of a problem. Thankfully. (Our ticket to Lucca is valid for four hours from the time on the ticket; and the nice, English-speaking lady at the customer help desk said that if we went outside of the four hours she could give us a stamp on the ticket so we can still use it. The least I would expect, given that we’ve been delayed by a strike!)

In retrospect, my phrasebook should have been a heads-up. Given that phrasebooks generally consist of phrases that you expect to use, the translation for: “I’ve missed my flight because there was a strike” should have rung some alarm bells.

Dave has just returned from his SIM-card buying recce — result: it’s Sunday, all of those places are closed. Sigh. Not only that, the Customer Assistance desk now appears to be closed, so God knows what happens to anyone who has suffered a ‘stricken’ train now. This is a little window into the world of 20 years ago!

But the good news is that there appears to be a train to Lucca leaving at 1550, and it’s not SOP yet. (‘Sciopero’ is the Italian word for strike, so I am guessing that it is abbreviated ‘SOP’.) Watch this space.

We’re here! I am now (1901) sitting on the couch in our appartamento in Lucca — and I have found my little piece of Italian countryside paradise. It’s perfect!

The 1550 train from Pisa did operate, and on time, even. The short journey (about 25 minutes) got us to Lucca, where Dave found another pay phone and rang Alessia, who then showed up in her little Yaris about five minutes later. We squeezed ourselves and all our luggage into her little car, and were chauffeured in to Lucca. And we have landed a winner.

Alessia, as she explained to us on the drive in her ‘bad’ English (her English is excellent; ‘bad’ is her description) she is a chemical engineer who lost her job two years ago in the global financial crisis. She is clearly a very intelligent woman who has turned to renting out this apartment as a means of supplementing the family income. Her 92-year-old grandmother lives downstairs; a good friend of Alessia’s (who also speaks English, we are told) is in the apartment next door.

The building is (again) very old, but exquisitely renovated. Whereas the apartment in Rome had no windows to the outside world (and did smell unavoidably musty as a result, even with the air conditioning unit), and was one main room with a kitchen enclave and wee bathroom, this apartment has a spacious sitting room and kitchen, separate (large) bedroom, and bathroom complete with washing machine! There’s no air conditioning, but there are beautiful shuttered windows that open wide and have insect screens. The view out the kitchen window is on to a large (half-a-paddock sized) garden. The entry door is off a wee barnyard. Will have to take photos tomorrow and post when I get a chance. (Alessia informs us there is free wi fi available in all the piazza in Lucca town centre.)

Not only is the apartment perfect, Alessia asked us yesterday via email if there was anything we needed, because the supermarket is closed on Sunday. We said some lettuce and tomatoes for a salad and some milk for breakfast would be most appreciated; just let us know how much. We arrived to find not only lettuce and those delicious, picked-ripe Roma tomatoes; but buffalo mozzarella, some bread, peaches, banana, yogurt and biscuits. And she said not to bother paying for it. Well, that wasn’t going to happen: we insisted on paying. But talk about ‘going beyond’!

Laundry, after 33 hours travelling followed by three hot and sweaty days in Rome, is a priority. The washing machine is very welcome, even though it is the teeniest tiniest washing machine I have ever seen. And it takes up to three hours (yes, you read that right) three hours to do a load on the full cycle. I have chosen the breve (short) option, and load number one took nigh on an hour!

In the lounge is a large (300 page), hard-cover coffee-table book full of images of Lucca; as well as several maps and information guides. Given that this is Sunday evening, it’s research time. And what a convivial activity for a mediterranean summer eve. A spectacular finish to what was a trying day.

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