4. On a train in Italy


*  All photos by me, except for the feature-image which was taken and edited by Niobe Galipi. *

Remember when you were a kid, and all the stories still seemed so real? When the romance of every Disney film felt direct and almost real, when you felt like one day you could wake up and be in that magic place with Aladdin, Harry Potter, or some talking animals. When the places from your favourite films and books didn’t feel blurred behind your unfortunate grown-up sense of reality and scepticism. In those days, these places and fantasies were like a warm blanket that completely covered you, and didn’t let any cold winds of reality disturb. Back when it didn’t take so much, and the big surprises came in small boxes.

I think it may be this feeling, a feeling of complete immersion – of being part of an adventure story, of stepping inside your favourite fairy tale world – which so many people still look for when they are older. The people who always smoke weed when they watch a film. The reason why we drink in need to really socialise and get into the moment. Or when people take LSD or MDMA that create a magic world around them.

It is also the feeling that people sometimes look for in travel.The hunger to see those far away places that people write and dream about. To find total immersion in that what you don’t know. In the openness of nature and the exhaustion of hiking through it or in the old streets and markets of cultures different from yours. It can be different for many people, depending on which stories and fantasies arouse their minds. You can hear it in the whispers of ‘Machu Pichu’ and ‘Salar de Uyuni’ that you hear from backpackers along the Gringo Trail in Latin America. For the elderly American couple the dream could be to walk through Paris, for others to explore the bazaars of Constantinople, to lose themselves on the beaches of Goa, or to stay in a white house on a small Greek island. However, no matter what place has captured the mind, the effect is the same. That captured mind weaves a web of dreams, stories and desire around. The mind romanticises those places, so that you can lose yourself in them. Magic worlds and stories that you want to jump in to, just like when you were a kid.

Salar de Uyuni, my australian friend George and me
Salar de Uyuni, 2013. My Australian friend George and me

Of course there is already something really special to these places. But you need that connection, and that desire to make it possible for you to lose yourself in wonder. That is often the difference between the tourist and the local: the accustomed and the amazed.

Milan, Genova, Parma, Reggio, Bologna, Firenze”, the Italian of the deep-voiced conductor wakes me from drowsing. Milano, Genova, Parma… the names repeat in my head like a mantra and I have to look out the window. I never used to have particularly strong feelings about Italy, but when I was sitting in that train an unexpected, powerful excitement kept my exhausted body awake and attentive. I had never realised, but like with so many people, the spellbinding image of Italy, its romantic globally famous brand, had wedged itself into my brain.

Indeed, losing yourself in the movement of traveling, is just an important part of this immersion. Like the destinations the journey can be a whole other world. Just last night I was dancing in a Latin bar in the burgeoning Gracia neighbourhood of Barcelona. Then, at three AM my old and new Barcelona friends walked me to the hostel and on to a bus to the airport. I am not one for sleepless nights, but that one was worth it. Now, some five hours later I’m sharing a compartment with five Italians in the train from Milan to Florence. I’m fighting to stay awake, having slept only one hour on the plane, writing in the back of the book I’m reading. It may not always be strictly pleasant, but sometimes it’s these extremes that make you feel alive, on adventure, and a part of live.

The reason I began talking about childhood magic, immersion, and the power of the mind in travelling, is that on this train I realised how much these go together. It is whatever the mind makes of it. Flat, grey, and cloudy or not, it is still Italy filled with every idea and hope you ever had about it. What I saw outside, for the first hours, was nothing special, but through its food, its fashion, its history, its art, and especially through its harmonious language Italy fills the head with promise and excitement. It was that excitement that woke me up and had me staring out the window for some form of confirmation.

Then, suddenly the landscape changes, the generic industrial buildings and fences make way for endless, rolling farmland. And from then I get the poetry I hoped for. A lone, old farmer walks through his field, traditionally clad in black and white, with a knapsack slung over his shoulder. With his modest presence in this huge landscape he gives power and feeling to it, man and nature, the sole man in a world that –for a second– is free of machines and obtrusions. Then we start passing rivers and towns, towns with those colourful Italian apartment buildings that wrap around rivers, marked by curving stone bridges. Not long after, the mountains and tunnels begin, I remain glued to the window as the dream worlds in my mind found their match.

My emotions contrast with the slightly bored silence in our six-seater compartment. Once again, the difference between the traveller and the local. The well-dressed man next to the window has a permanently upset face, a boxer’s jawline and an unfriendly sniffing habit. He fulfils the stereotype of a Mafioso muscle man. Sitting across him is the peaceful face of an Indian man with a full, wiry black beard. He radiates the friendliness of a calm mind. And, opposite me, an Italian of my age, with grey-brown hair and blue eyes – smiling and polite, but shy. Contact from people all around the world is another way to lose yourself in travelling, but I am too physically exhausted. I wish Diane was there, my Canadian friend, who could make anyone talk and smile, no matter who, no matter how tired she was.

Street artists at the Duomo, Florence
Street artists at the Duomo, Florence

Psychologists describe the best feeling of joy or happiness as Flow, when you are so absorbed in something that you enter a state of flow, forgetting about everything else and only being focused on the moment. When we perform a truly exhausting task we often enter such a state. You might recognise the feeling from doing sports, when your regularly busy brain is forced by your body to come into the moment. It is that kind of experience of presence and focus that mindfulness and Buddhist meditation try to make a part of our lives. Well, sitting in that train, seeing the Italian farmer walk through his fields, I lose myself in that flow of travel, beauty, and discovery. Caught in the moment like a child in his worlds of fantasy.

So maybe what we look for is always the same thing. In the oblivion and illusion of drugs, the adrenaline of sports, the discovery of travel, the peace of meditation, the passion of sex, and the beauty of art. We look to forget, to detach when we can, from the worries of past and future, and find the present.

papier-mâché work from a local artist in Sienna
Papier-mâché work from a local artist in Sienna

Two weeks later, as I am finishing this little story, I am sitting with my laptop on the stones that stretch out from the harbour of Alonissos into the sea. It is five PM and November, the sun has almost gone under. Some magic distracts my eyes from the screen as the horizon colours purple behind the Two Brothers, meanwhile a lone fisherman in a tiny white boat is the only human touch on the calm, coloured sea. Once again, the small man and the big world.

Very soon the purple will disappear, it will get dark, and way to cold to sit on these stones – it is November after all. But now, for this moment, my world is full of magic. The nature, the colours, the space, and the lonely man. The simple romance of so many paintings, so many film stills, so many stories.

My favourite example, a cyclist in the desert at the Chile-Bolivia border, December 2013
My favourite example, a cyclist in the desert at the Chile-Bolivia border, December 2013

5 thoughts on “4. On a train in Italy

  1. Dear Zois – I am so happy to receive your narratives. Great paragraphs about the view from the train in Italy, as well as the descriptions of your fellow travellers – I felt I was there! I hope to read more soon.


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