I came back to Milan on Saturday, and with a day to spare before getting the train back to Paris, I decided to go to Lake Maggiore on Sunday. Before I even got on the train, however, I found enough material for an entire blog post.
The trains to Lake Maggiore leave from the Porta Garibaldi train station, which has over 20 platforms and lots of departures, even early on a Sunday morning. Despite the frequency of the trains, however, the ticket office was closed. This would not have been a huge problem if two of the automatic vending machines hadn't been broken, meaning that anyone who hadn't bought their ticket the day before had to either use the regional ticket machines, which only accept coins, or the one main line ticket machine, which took bank notes but could only give change up to 4.95.
This initial hurdle eliminated many participants before the ticket buying test had even really started. Many wandered off towards the bar, which was desperately asking customers to pay for their 85 cent coffee using something other than a 50 euro note. The rest of us passed on to the competitive part of the exam: queueing like an Italian.
The queue was long. I arrived and took my place behind a guy with a suitcase. An elderly-ish woman came and stood next to me. Possibly even slightly in front of me. Despite the fact that she was invading my personal space, I sidled a little further into the space between me and suitcase man.
At this point I should say that I am normally nice to my fellow citizens. I give up my seat on the bus, let people with one item in front of me in the supermarket and would have no problem letting someone who was about to miss their train go in front of me in the ticket queue. Where I am perhaps not so nice, however, is in the fact that I like to have a choice about it. If old ladies try to cheat me, there is no way they are getting my place in the queue. Being British, however, I am incapable of turning to people and saying, “Excuse me, I was here first.” Instead I sidle, refuse to make eye contact, and spread my feet and elbows out in an attempt to fill the space that they are trying to steal from me. So, for several minutes, that is what I did.
Old Lady Number 1, however, was an amateur compared to the next one that came along. Peering over her glasses, she pretended to be examining the machine in an attempt to understand how it worked. She sighed a lot and addressed a few questions to the crowd. (“What do I do? Does it take banknotes? Can I buy a return ticket?”) A man near the front of the queue who was clearly a better person than me answered all her questions.
“Oh, signore, do you think you could help me buy my ticket?”
And with one neat move, there she was by his side at the front of the queue.
The fun didn't end there though. The machine refused to accept people's banknotes. It spat out their cards and cancelled their transactions. People at the back of the queue were offering change to people at the front in a desperate attempt to get their tickets on time. Old Lady Number One began to feel concerned. She asked Gentile Signore to help her. Gentile Signore looked worried. He had a train to catch.
“Don't worry, I can help you,” I said. We arrived at the front of the queue and, after a couple of attempts, bought first her ticket, then mine. She thanked me, and I smiled back.
“My pleasure,” I said. And it was.
Apparently, living in Italy can bring out the wartime spirit in all of us.