Monday, April 27, 2009

"Bologna Magnet". "All Tracks Lead to Bologna". Or, "Oh Lord, Stuck in Bologna Again".

So when you buy a ticket for an Italian train, unless you go First Class, you are not issued a specific seat. The flexibility of this is beautiful because you can just jump on the train and find a place to sit, wherever you want, without the hassle of finding a specific seat in a specific car. It makes the whole process much quicker and easier to just be able to sit anywhere, particularly if you are running late and catching the train just as it's leaving. And, most of the time, First Class isn't any better than Second Class anyway, so spending the few extra Euros is sort of a waste. But all of this Second Class train-riding bliss hinges on one easily forgotten requirement...the validation. If you remember nothing else, validate. Validate. It will make your life much easier, I promise.

What does this mean? Well, there are little yellow boxes placed in various spots in the train station and once you buy a ticket you have to walk over to any little yellow box and stick your ticket in to get a date/time imprint, or validation. Technically, until you do this, you haven't really bought a valid ticket and if you ride the train, you can be assessed an immediate 44 Euro fine if the conductor catches you. Well, we almost always validated our tickets properly before riding the train; there WERE a few times we forgot, but we laughed them off when we realized it later because it was only occasionally that the train conductor would come around and check the passengers' tickets, and each time they had come around before, we HAD properly validated.

So...we left Bologna early in the a.m. and took a quick, 30-minute train to Modena to wander around for the morning on my oil and vinegar hunt (see last blog post). After we'd had enough of Modena we walked back to the train station and, as had become our custom, we bypassed the ticket line and headed straight for the self-service kiosk. But, when looking at the schedule, we quickly realized that it is very expensive to get from Modena to Florence, our next destination, and you can't go straight there anyway. We had no idea why, but when we tried to buy a ticket to Florence, ALL the different options included a regional (cheaper) train from Modena BACK TO Bologna, and then a super-fast Intercity (expensive) train from Bologna to Florence. Well, we did not want to go back through Bologna, but clearly we we had no choice. And, since we both remembered Bologna having one of the largest train stations we'd seen, we were just positive that if we got ourselves back there we'd be able to find some cheaper regional trains to Florence. Therefore, we didn't buy the expensive one in the Modena train station and instead we just bought a cheap ticket back to Bologna. This all seemed like a great idea, and maybe it was....UNTIL on the ride to Bologna we realized, as the conductor came tooling down the aisle, that we'd forgotten to validate our tickets for the short ride because we had bought them in such a rush two minutes before departure.

We were sitting ducks. There was nowhere to go, though when the conductor was only a few rows away from us we briefly considered hopping off the train and running when the train stopped at a very random and tiny station. But, we decided to just take our medicine, to be grown-ups, to just sit there and....PLAY THE STUPID TOURIST CARD.

When the conductor got to us and asked for our tickets, the show was on. I had opened up my shopping bag and was proudly acting the tourist part, admiring all of the oil and vinegar I'd bought just a short while ago in Modena, while Trip had the Italian/English dictionary and the Lonely Planet phrasebook out while pretending to study. The conductor politely asked for our tickets but, upon seeing no validation stamp, he began sternly giving us a rousing Italian talking-to. We sat there, acting concerned, smiling, listening, letting him rant. Then he got to the part where he was demanding the 44 Euro fine. We knew exactly what he was talking about...not because we could understand him, but because we knew that there was a penalty for what we had done. "Blah, blah, blah, blah, 44 Euro, blah, blah, blah." Anyway, we spent about five minutes just trying to confuse him by smiling, grabbing the dictionary to slowly look up words, thanking him, telling him that yes we HAD bought a ticket and it was right HERE, speaking fluent English and broken Italian, nodding, feigning ignorance, and just generally slowing him down so much in his job that he eventually gave up. He informed us that, not only were we not validated, but we were also sitting in First Class!! (See, I told you the extra money wasn't worth it because we didn't even know we had mistakenly sat in First Class.) So, when he told us that, because we knew there was NO fine for sitting in the wrong class, we immediately apologized for THAT transgression and indicated we understood what we'd done wrong. We then stood up, grabbed our backpacks and gear, and quickly bolted toward the next train car before he could try to collect the fine. He let us go. And boy, let me tell you, did we feel a full-on sense of victory! (Is this how a pretty girl feels after she bats her eyelashes and shows a little cleavage to the cop who pulled her over for speeding? I'll never know.) Whew, what a rush!!

So, we get back into Bologna and, again, head for self-service kiosk to buy tickets to Florence. You can imagine how pissed we were to find only the expensive Intercity trains going there. We were shocked...huge train station, trains leaving every few minutes, why none of the conspicuously common regional trains we'd been riding all month? Seriously, the expensive, faster train was only a ride of about an hour and five minutes versus what would have been an hour and 30 minutes on a cheaper regional train (if any had been running at that time). However, the cost difference was 52 Euro vs. 19 Euro (about 70 bucks vs. 27 bucks), which we thought was ridiculous for saving only 25 minutes.

But, then we found that we could get to a different Florence train station for 19 Euro, on a train leaving in only two minutes, and it was only about a five minute walk further away from where our hostel was anyway!! Sweet, sign us up! So, not having learned our lesson, we again bought tickets in haste (sound familiar?). As the tickets were printing, I ran from the lobby to the platform to make sure the train was there and didn't leave, and Trip stayed back paying for the tickets. Minutes later he ran up the stairs and met me at the train's open door. When we handed the ticket to the conductor and tried to board, he said something crazy about it not being a ticket. WHAT?!?! It listed times, the car number, the seat numbers, the amount we'd paid, the date, the time, everything! But he wouldn't let us on because apparently what Trip had grabbed from the machine was only "printed paper number one", the RESERVATION. The actual TICKET was "printed paper number two", but Trip had left the machine after only the first paper had printed. The train was now scheduled to leave and the conductor told Trip he had to run back down to the machine and see if the real ticket was still sitting there, otherwise we couldn't board. However, by the time Trip huffed it back up the stairs to the platform where I stood (having been repeatedly pleading with the conductor to not close the doors on us) the train no longer stood there next to me. Oh, and he didn't have a ticket anyway. It was nowhere to be found.

So, pissed at having just wasted money on two tickets we didn't even get to use, and now faced with a choice of a 52 Euro train leaving for Florence in 45 minutes, and another 19 Euro train leaving in 5 hours, we just gave in. We bought tickets for the cheap one that left in 5 hours, VALIDATED THEM, and resigned ourselves to go read our books in a familiar Bologna park while waiting for dinnertime and another "best Italian pizza" at Il Veliero restaurant. Clearly we were not meant to be leaving Bologna yet, after all of the afternoon's escapades had unfolded to leave us stuck in Bologna again. Bologna magnets. It seems all tracks lead to Bologna. But, I gotta say, the whole thing was just comical. Plus, it didn't really feel too much like defeat to have to hang out another five hours in the sunshine in Italy. Maybe there is a god, because I got to eat my favorite pizza twice!

And yes, we did make it to Florence that night, on the right train, at the right time, with a belly full of buffalo mozzarella, spicy salami, and eggplanty goodness. Thank god Trip woke me up, though, because I was soundly sleeping off my pizza buzz when the train rolled into Florence at 10 p.m. If he had not been there, I would have probably ended up in Rome!!