Mentholated in Milan

“Ah, Italy!” people say, and then wax lyrical about the Uffizi Gallery, the Grand Canal, and that villa they rented in Tuscany where the locals brought them organic hand-knitted goat’s cheese.

I can’t compete. Here’s my Italian experience, all 6 1/2 hours of it, spent entirely in Milano Centrale station.

I arrived at 6:30 one evening in April, 1991. I’d been on trains all day with nothing to eat but a banana and a ham-and-brie sandwich, and despite the sublime Alpine scenery I’d traveled through, I felt grumpy and grimy and other words starting with “gr.”

Churchill was right when he said that the head can’t take in more than the seat can endure.

Milano Centrale was big, noisy, and gray. The size and the noise explained themselves, as the French would say, and the grayness was possibly a chemical reaction between my contact lenses and the ubiquitous cigarette smoke.

My Italian is gleaned from menus and the opera. It’s colorful, but limited. I can only say things like, “I challenge you, vile mushroom, to a duel!” or “Ravish me, O chicken cooked hunter-style!” Fortunately, the information office was called “Informazioni” and the man on duty spoke English. When asked about couchette (sleeping car) reservations for the midnight train to Nice, he directed me downstairs to “Prednatazione.”

Waiting for prednatazione

Prednatazione was a vast room with a dozen glassed-in booths, only three of which were staffed. From the take-a-number machine, I drew number 125 and sat down to wait.

Presently the machine broke, and a queue formed behind it of people waiting to get numbers so they could wait to be waited on. An hour later they were still in line, not grumbling to each other, not forming a committee to vote for a spokesperson to talk to management. Were they all, by some freak coincidence, English? I’m not the most assertive bunny in the hutch, and I love the English in part because they make me feel like a real go-getter.

I didn’t feel like that in Milano Centrale. I felt pale and trembling and vulnerable, like a laboratory rat, only less attractive. It’s the language barrier, I thought. After all, even in England I don’t throw my weight around. All you have to throw around in England is your loud American voice. “Hey!” spoken in a peremptory tone, or better yet, “Listen up, dude!”, will make your average English person sit up and take notice. He may even do what you want, if only to get rid of you. But I didn’t know how to say, “Listen up, dude!” in Italian, and I didn’t think anyone would pay attention if I did.

Two hours later, my number was called and I conveyed to another glassed-in man my desire to buy a couchette on the train to Nice.

He looked at his watch. “Too late now. Buy on train maybe.”

In the ladies’ room with M. Pipi

Fuming, I trudged back upstairs and found the ladies’ room. Inside was a counter with a man behind it – in France he’d be called “Monsieur Pipi”  – and the cubicles contained toilets and sinks, but no soap, paper towels, or toilet paper. You were supposed to buy these from M. Pipi, but I was damned if I would. Instead, I bought a packet of tissues from a drugstore out by the platforms. Back in the ladies’ room, I ensconced myself in a cubicle. Soon my crotch began to tingle. I examined the packet of tissues. They were mentholated.

I was happy in my cubicle with my agreeably tingling crotch, but after a few minutes M. Pipi walked up and banged on the door. Quickly I reviewed my Italian vocabulary. Oh, why didn’t I know how to say, “Basta, M. Pipi, I must be alone! My private parts have been mentholated!” I was still trying to work it out — “Sola, prego … mia parti privatazi sono mentolazioni” – when he banged on the door again.

Outside, I learned that I couldn’t be stationary in the station. It was now 9 pm, I was the only unattached female around, and if I sat or even stood for more than a few seconds, some man or other would sidle up and try to coax me into ducking off for a quick shag behind the international magazine kiosk.

As I walked, I made up a jingle to pass the time.

Oh listen to me, lasses
When it comes to boring passes
The most persistent asses
Are in old Milano town.

They will not let you linger
Though you give them the finger
They’ll put you through the wringer
Despite your fiercest frown.

So stay out of the station
Hell, shun the whole damned nation
Choose any destination
But old Milano town!

A pox on Italy withdrawn

When the train to Nice finally arrived, an hour late, I stalked into an empty first-class compartment, slammed the door, strewed my luggage all over the seats, and glared at everyone who looked in. I got the compartment to myself.

As we pulled out of Milano Centrale, I reflected sadly that every negative stereotype I didn’t want to have about Italy had been confirmed. Nothing works, the trains are late, the officials don’t care, and the men are land-sharks. A pox on Italy!

An Italian guard came in and inspected my rail pass. Wanly, expecting no for an answer, I mimed a question: was it permissible to sleep on the seats?

The guard smiled, asked me to stand, folded down the two window seats to form a bed, showed me how to turn out the light, and in a mixture of French, English, and Italian, assured me: “Don’t worry. I’ll see to it that you’re not disturbed.”

What a nice man! What a lovely country! I must come back soon, I thought, and see it properly.

Meanwhile, when people say, “Ah, Italy,” I keep quiet. Although I do take the women aside and tell them about mentholated tissues.

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