Thursday, June 16, 2011

Giornale Pugliese VI: Train

 Drawing by Hallie Cohen

You meet an Argentinian couple on a train from Bari to Rome. It’s one of the high-speed trains that make the whole trip in approximately four hours. You start at the sleepy Bari station, where an impoverished beggar woman is urging a child barely capable of walking to panhandle. Poverty creates a certain discipline, and the child runs assiduously after the coins pitched in her direction, arousing both pity and respect. She chases after the money the way the pigeons scamper for crumbs in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. The couple on the train is almost dissolute looking, the woman bored and her companion unshaven, but they have a cultivated air. They are generous with information about the train’s stops, even though they’re not inhabitants of the country. You wonder if he knew Borges. Trains are a dominant means of transport in both Italy and France and play an enormous role in the way society conceives of itself—a way that is largely absent in America, where long-distance trains are curiosities whose breakdowns and eccentricities of schedule are a constant source of grousing among those who attempt to use them. Preston Sturges immortalized the train to Palm Beach in The Palm Beach Story, with its outrageously funny Ale and Quail Club scene. Then there’s that wonderful train carrying the innocent fugitive through the Scottish highlands in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. And of course there’s Strangers on a Train, based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith. This Rome-bound train is not lacking romance or eccentricity, but it is all business, arriving at its terminus without fanfare only twenty minutes after its scheduled TOA of 6:15.

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