“Why can’t we take the train?”
“What – all the way?” H. gives me his your-quirkiness-is-turning-into-madness look. “It’s – it’s –”
“The longest leg would be just twelve hours,” I filled in, smiling sweetly. “If you went to Australia, you’d have to sit on a plane for over twelve hours.”
“Y–yes, but–but, you’re actually proposing to take a train from Norwich to London, London to Paris, Paris to Rome, then Rome to Milan, Milan to Paris, then –”
“Yes, I know.”
“But you even want to go from Paris to Rome by train? That’s, like –”
“Yes, twelve hours.” My smile loses some of its brilliance.
I truly hate flying. I do it when I have to but I find the whole experience increasingly stressful. The wait at the airport, the luggage restrictions, sitting cramped in that tiny space, with the constant noise of the engine, and that unpleasant aircraft smell.
And so here we are, in a taxi driving us across a barely awake Paris to the Gare de Lyon, to catch a 6.30 a.m. train to Milan, where we will change for a train to Rome. I wonder for a moment if I am putting our marriage to an unnecessary test. I’ve come prepared to tackle any protestation of boredom on H.’s part. There’s music uploaded on my iPad, a velveteen-covered neck pillow and a copy of The Society of Authors’ Author magazine in my holdall.
As the TGV leaves the station, my heart feels light. Twelve hours to myself. Twelve hours with no work, no e-mails, no mother phoning, no household chores to be done. When was the last time I had twelve hours in a row to myself? When was the last time I had even half that to myself?
The early-morning grey is gradually dispelled by sunlight. The sky is brightening. We whizz past country churches with steeples, fields, small towns. I fall asleep, my neck pillow wedged behind me, supporting my low back.
I wake up to luscious, dark green hills against a turquoise sky. The guard announces Aix-les-Bains as our next stop. The hills reach up to become mountains and the train plunges in and out of their bellies. Suddenly, a large expanse of water a slightly greener tone than the sky. A lake. “Let’s go to the buffet car,” I suggest to H. and we make our way down from one carriage to the other, swaying between the seats, trying not to step on protruding feet and canine tails. By the time we reach the buffet, we’re in the middle of this magnificent lake. There’s a small island, with a fairy-tale-like château sprouting out of it. “What’s this beautiful lake called?” I ask the lady behind the counter.
“Lac du Bourget,” she replies, smiling.
We stand by the window and watch the sunlight glinting on the smooth, green-blue surface. There are children bathing by the shore, and people having a picnic. Any moment now, I expect to see water sprites leap out of the water.
“Well, isn’t this sight alone worth the train journey?” I ask tentatively.
“Hmm…” H. replies. But he is smiling, entranced by the view.
The mountains grow taller, their peaks sharper. We’re passing the Alps. I now cannot see them without thinking of the many books and extracts H. and I have recently been translating, all set there. The Alps seem to have become a favourite backdrop to many Italian novels. A place between countries, languages and cultures. Where Austro-Hungarians turned Austrians, then became Italians, then Germans, then Italians again, each time switching language. Summits veiled in shreds of cloud like gossamer, with streaks of snow on their sides. Patches of brown showing through subtly different shades of green. I wish I had the vocabulary to name all these vibrant, deep greens. Gorges with jagged sides, as though hacked with the sword of a pre-human giant. Rock formations like camouflaged faces watching the train as it runs past them. Observing humans, unseen. Sprawling masses of rock carved by the wind and smoothed by the rain. A view that commands awe. I can’t help feeling that there is something un-judging and yet unforgiving about mountains. A force not to be challenged and never to be disrespected. On one summit, a solitary cross.
My ears imagine the wind howling through these narrow gorges, sweeping across the green valleys. I picture Alpine witches riding on broomsticks, carried by this wind, laughing uproariously on their way to a sabbath, circling the peaks, snowflakes blowing in their faces. Perhaps they gather to stir polenta in a large cauldron, on cold winter nights. Trilingual witches who compose rhymes in Italian, German and French.
In Milan, we jump into a taxi to change stations, to catch the train for Rome. After the rather slow, tattered TGV, the Italo train is a luxurious experience of speed, ample leg room, comfortable seats and just the right potency of air conditioning.
Between Milan and Turin, the flat land of the Po Valley, with rice paddies, grey skies, and a pastel landscape. H. falls asleep, my velveteen pillow framing his neck. The countryside becomes more chiselled and colourful as we approach Tuscany. When the train pulls into Florence – blink and you miss it – I catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s dome. I am as excited as a child. I think Dante, Guelphs and Ghibellines, and my old friend Gianni Schicchi.
Deep in Tuscany, there are faded, terracotta-red casolari atop hills, with rows of cypresses straight as arrows, silent sentinels of olive groves and vineyards. Mediaeval cities perched on cliff tops, as though carved from the rock itself, with churches I imagine covered in frescoes. H. is also looking out of the window, while listening to Turandot on my iPad.
The woman sitting behind us pulls down the blind. I could weep and protest as politely as I can. I want to see every tree, every rock, every stone castle and olive grove. The direct sun is uncomfortable for her eyes. We compromise and keep the blind halfway down, which means that I have to curve my body to see outside. After a while my back is aching and the poor woman’s eyes are stinging as the sun is now lower down in the sky and she asks to pull the blind down lower. I wish I could explain to her that where I come from, the sun is an unpredictable luxury not to be wasted but worshipped wholeheartedly whenever it honours you with its presence. That I have spent the last couple of years feeling cold and am so sun-starved I could almost hold the sun’s glare, afraid to look away in case it hides behind the clouds again.
As we approach Lazio, maritime pines begin to appear, their tall trunks slightly twisted and bent by the winds from the Mediterranean.
The sun has set by the time we reach Rome. H. is exhausted. So am I. We take our luggage and step out of the cool train into an embrace of intense July heat.
“Next time we’ll take a plane, right?” H. says as we walk to the taxi rank.
“Next time, perhaps you can fly, I can take the train, and we can meet in Rome?” I suggest.
“Well, we’ll see,” he replies.
I peer into his face out of the corner of my eye. I think he has forgiven me my quirkiness-turned-madness, but I guess I shouldn’t push my luck.