Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Georgina Combes
‘Pronto’ the lady loudly demanded of the caller before launching into an impassioned flurry of Italian. Sitting in the next row we could not help but overhear what little we thought we could understood of her “conversatione”. Is she in a hurry we wondered, requesting that whatever was about to be said should be delivered quickly (although this was unlikely as we weren’t going anywhere fast – we were on the stopping train heading south out of Rome towards the sea). But as other mobile phones rang around us, we soon realised that ‘pronto’ was just the Italian language telephone greeting equivalent of the more recognisable salut, hola and hallo.
We were in no rush. Having opted to take our summer holiday by rail and sail, we were going to relish the joy of going slow. At a time when it’s easy to jump on a jet to Genoa, we wanted to be able to savour our slow train journeys with their snapshot of Italian life, as much as our daily two scoops of melt-in-the-mouth gelato.
On the tempo front, Italy’s a land of contrasts. Speed seems to be of the essence to Italians when they’re in the seat of a Piaggio Vespa nipping in and out of traffic and zig-zagging around cliff-side hairpins bends, but when it comes to their morning cappuccino and afternoon espresso (get your coffee order the wrong way round and you’re instantly outed as a foreigner), they naturally take it at a leisurely pace. The Italians wouldn’t dream of having a takeaway coffee. Rushing off with an over-sized, rarely-recycled coffee cup would be sacrilegious to the ritual of one’s daily caffeine intake. And anyway, what’s the counter of the coffee bar for but to lounge against while sipping the dark stuff and getting into an animated discussion with the people standing next to you about who knows what.
It seemed to be the same with food. Italy’s the birthplace of the slow food movement and the lengthy simmering and sautéing of the country’s simple, fresh, non-nonsense ingredients produces delicious dishes that by their nature are designed to be taken slowly. We happily drooled over pasta pommodoro, trying our best to seductively twirl the spaghetti round our forks and slurp the rich sauce, but like true uncouth Brits we ended up splattering our fronts, and the tablecloth, with red tomatoey spots.
Other meals, like our real-deal Napolitanese pizza, arrived pretty damn pronto. But when the meal in question is practically the size of a dustbin lid, and you’re determined not to be defeated by the best-tasting combination of dough, tomato and cheese you’ve ever tasted, you just have to pace yourself, and – in the wise words of Simon and Garfunkel – make the moment last.
We weren’t however so keen to make all of our slow travel moments last. Oblivious to Italy’s public holiday calendar we found ourselves trying, without a booking, to get a seat on the overnight train from Naples to Milan, at the end of a hot summer bank holiday weekend. Half of Northern Italy’s residents returning from a break in the sunny South seemed to have had the same plan.
On the one hand, I felt like celebrating their eco-credentials for choosing the train over the plane, while the other half of me cursed our timing (It’s hard to escape all semblance of time pressures during a two week break). So we squeezed into the cramped train corridor where we amused ourselves playing our staple boredom reliever, magnetic backgammon, while our fellow travellers infuriated us with their incessant need for a tobacco fix despite the no smoking signs.
Luckily from Rome northwards we managed to cadge a couple of seats, one in a carriage (think old-fashioned six-seater carriages with sliding doors and raised luggage racks just above head-height) and the other in the corridor (think flip-down London tube seat) to rest our weary limbs for the following seven hours. It was needless to say a slow sleep.
But despite our less than 5 star sleeping arrangements, we arrived surprisingly sprightly in Milan for our morning cornetto (for the ignorami like me before this trip, it’s a croissant not the ice-cream Pavarotti sang about) and cappuccino. The combination made a fine fuel for the slow shopping trip that followed. Who needs fast fashion when you’ve got Milanese boutiques to browse. And when the only thing you’ve written in two weeks is your signature, it’s important to keep that in practice.
So after 13 train journeys in the same number of days, we stepped onto our penultimate train home in style. No x-ray machines, body searches or panic that our nail clippers had inadvertently found their way into our hand language ready to cause some grievous bodily harm. But simply the prospect of boasting that, in one day we’d breakfasted in Milan, lunched in Paris and dined in London. Not bad for a slow day’s work.