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Tuesday 4 November

Last few miles of train: it's about eight o'clock and the comfortable little couchette compartment for six, now empty of the three others who got on with me in Milan, is cleaving its way thru the attractive flat pale green and frosted Belgian countryside having left Namur a few minutes ago.

Yesterday a morning dominated by doubts as to whether I could get everything to fit in my suitcases. The answer was yes, but working at it virtually nonstop for four hours: I woke up at seven and other than a shower, washing dishes, carrying trash out, dropping a note under Pierluigi's door (I finally deciphered the inscription he showed me in the wall across from his garden — no, it's not Roman), and saying a quick g'bye to Mario and Giuseppina at the alimentari, I did suitcase.

At several points, I thought I might give way to panic — that I'd be left with a pile of stuff I couldn't bring home — but chugged thru it methodically and calmly, and was rewarded: even if the Todi suitcase weighs (curiosity, pay scale in the train station in Milan) 54.0 kg (119 pounds) and in fact I can barely lift it: I hope I don't get socked for some horrific charge at the airport. Anyhow, one thing at a time.

After my 11:00 shower and shave, which had to last for 36h, I made a large lunch with all the leftover pasta, finishing it and some mushrooms and the garlic: and I'm only just now starting to be hungry. Ate it indoors, Spello decided to shroud itself in fog, clearing only as I took my train.

At the last minute, a complication but serving as an antidote to the class A blue funk I was in — not clear exactly what I was sad about, but I was very unhappy, near tears — since the Vigili del Fuoco were proceeding systematically down the street and Orlando's car therefore could not leave town, the normal exit via S. Lorenzo still being blocked (the Mayor said it would be unblocked within a month). Maria-Paola, who'd parked at Vallegloria, wound up driving me to the station: and noon found me in suitcoat, windbreaker, winter coat, plus sweater tied around my neck, lugging the Todi suitcase uphill on its inadequate little wheels towards the car around the Vigili blocking the street.

Anyway, it wasn't so bad, and we got to the station in time — Maria-Paola waved at the Roman baths she just told me about (quite invisible, under a corrugated sheet metal roof and wrapped around the sides), and helped me get Suitcase up the steps into the train, and off I went; Spello thru the lifting mists —

Trip to Florence getting of course progressively less Umbrian of courseº — Cortona looks nice, and some rather striking crenellated castelli austere on their heights, between Arezzo and Florence.

Florence, two hours in the station. Read, wrote diary, walked all the way down some of the platforms and back — had a trolley, of course — not too dull. Remember to reconfirm my flight from a pay phone.

Milan, more of the same; on the pleasant if narrow Pendolino (EuroStar high-speed train) on the way, I wound up talking minestra with an older woman who actually understood a good deal of it: who turned out to be a well-known guitarist, Chair of Guitar at the Conservatory of Bologna (where she got off) and, according to a publicity flyer for her Nov. 18 concert at the Centro di Cultura Ebraica in Rome, in 1991 President of the Jury of the Krakow International Guitar Competition [. . .]

Anyway, Milan (40 minutes late, which would have given me the right to a $15 refund if I filled out forms, stood in lines, lived in Italy etc.) was an easy change to my Brussels train, and I was, thanx to an accurate platform map, at the right place to board, plus my compartment was right next to the door — a good combination. Also, the guy in charge of the car, a young very Italian-looking fellow although with a squarer face than usual, who spoke flawless French plus good English and German, was very helpful; it turns out he's Belgian of Turkish parents — Open character, tons of languages (I heard him gabbling in mediocre Spanish much like my Italian), helpful personality: guy in the right job.

My cabinmates: an old man, Belgian but now Italian citizen but railing furiously at Italians, people, government, institutions, everything; much preferring to speak French; divorced but with custody of his daughter from age 10 and taught her to be a mason: a skill is always good to have. A thoroughly engaging fellow, Italian from Taranto, living in NYC which he described as "paradise", because America puts nothing in the way of go-getters who want to make money, whereas in Italy he got 10 months and 20 days for owning a railroad passkey allowing him to move comfortably from car to car and sell soft-drinx etc. When he got out of the slammer — radicalized, noting that only the little guys go to jail, the big fish (the example I gave him was Nixon) going scotfree, with the appearance of honor, yet — he went straight to the States to make his fortune. Wouldn't trust him as far as I can spit, but thoroughly engaging; to say nothing of the chutzpah of discussing going to jail for possession of a rail passkey — with three rail passengers about to fall asleep with all our valuables!

The third fellow was seated across from me until the couchettes were swung down; it was exactly like sitting across from a statue of Apollo: and in fact he was Greek. Very disturbing, really: features out of classical idealized statuary. The remark is often made that Greeks now and Greeks then are two totally different races, modern Greeks looking either Middle Eastern or Slavic or generally Mediterranean, but nothing like all those statues of gods and athletes; but apparently there are still some out there. Withal he was dead tired, plus quiet by nature: still, he smiled and chuckled at the antic tales of Mr. Ten‑Months-and-Twenty‑Days (the figure is by now quite etched into my neurons somewhere, it would pop out every five minutes.)

Still, enough chatter is enough, especially with a nine-hour flight the next day. The sociodynamics of the compartment put me in the lead — all of their own, I certainly didn't strive for it — having several times noticed this, I took decisive advantage of it, clambering up to my top bunk and going to sleep quickly; everyone else did the same in about 2 minutes. And as usual on trains, I slept well.

This morning in Luxembourg, where the two younger men got off, I woke up at about 6:30; from there on out, gradual dawn over rolling heavy frost, chunky square stone farmhouses, ponds with a thin crust of ice; then hillier and mostly pines — very different pines from Italy. Tall straight toothpicklike things with very small steeply sloping branches; then finally almost flat country — ignoring Namur after the pines, last stop before Brussels.

Glad I asked, too: it was much more efficient, I was told, to get off at Brussels-Noord rather than Zentraal/Midi the end of the line. At the station, largish, faced with stairs and no carts, I asked a railman to call a porter (I can't remember ever having done that: more signs of old age!): with Belgian train efficiency the porter was there within 90 seconds; stunned by Suitcase, too — he was a big tall fellow, couldn't pick it up; I helped him put it on the cart, but he actually had to clunk the cart down and up two flights of stairs for want of elevators, normal enough of course, but he really earned his pay — fee was 60 BF, I gave him 200 BF.

Cab to airport: chauffeur was Greek, spoke pidgin French, well maybe a bit better. 1100 FB; leaving me, after a 20‑minute wait in line but a trouble-free quick actual check-in, 200 to have breakfast, airport style: 2 croissants, 1 petit pain au chocolat, 2 cartons of 200 cl of milk — 265 FB, eked out with a coupla dollar bills; with that, walk to my gate, B40, the last of its concourse, and they boarded me as I got there: a breeze so far.

I'm writing in the plane, of course; already over Ontario after an uneventful flight — apparently it must've been the cigarette smoke that used to irritate my throat and cause miserable colds each Atlantic crossing: once again, nothing. Gosh, that's nice! Anyway, I had two meals: seconds, that is; grateful for the snack and two cups of tea and three glasses of milk; need to start cooling it on the food now that I'm not walking — unless I start skating seriously.

The plane is less than half full, so no neighbor and lots of room to spread and stretch and make a mess: newspapers, mostly; I've read about ten (Times, Financial Times, Herald Trib, Le Monde, and a wide selection of French-language Belgian papers), wisely refusing to touch my onboard bag, for the weight, tight pack, and general inconvenience; surprisingly this time I seem to've been clever about immediate articles, all in my camera case: toothstuff, clean socks, plane socks, pens, this diary, glasses, etc. and haven't needed once to scrounge in the overhead bin. . . .


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Page updated: 3 Mar 99