So one time I was in Italy. I did not have a lot of money when I was in Italy, but I was very excited to be there and I wanted to see as much of it as possible. What I would do is I would ride the trains without buying a ticket. This is ridiculously easy to do in Italy. One thing I would do is I would buy a one-way ticket someplace (say, Florence), ride the train to my destination, spend a day there, and ride back without buying another ticket. When the ticket-taker came through, I would give him my expired one-way ticket. He would squint at the ticket, then ask me,
“Where are you going?”
“To Florence,” I would confidently reply.
“This train is headed for Montevarchi,” the ticket taker would say.
“Oh SHIT” I would cry, snatching the ticket from his hand and running for the doors. “I need to turn around. Thank you so much!”
Then I would get off the train at the next stop and get back on a car that the ticket-taker had already checked.
While I was doing this, I was also running another scam. A group of elementary school children in Arrezzo were enchanted by my juggling, and so I made sure to spend some time with them in the park every day. They would attempt to teach me Italian, and in exchange I would amaze them with my tricks and scare off the older kids who liked to set off fireworks in the park. Then, at night, I would position myself on the city’s main commercial drag, juggling with my collection dish out, and one by one the children would bring their parents by. I have never made so much money juggling as I did in the tiny town of Arrezzo (except for one time in New York City, but that’s a whole other story).
But gradually the children grew bored of me, and my earnings dwindled. Plus I’d been juggling so hard for so many days, my wrists hurt. One night, I finally decided that as soon as I made enough money for a train ticket back to the town where I was staying, I would go.
Not more than two minutes later, two coins dropped into my bowl. One was a euro – the exact amount I was short for a train ticket – and the other was a coin from Denmark, which was totally useless to me. I packed up and headed for the train station.
Of course, I didn’t actually buy a train ticket. Buying train tickets was for other people. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy another train ticket until I ended up in Portugal, where underemployment means that every train has two ticket-takers per car. One time, I pulled my get-off-get-on trick with a ticket-taker near the French border, and when she came through the train a second time and found me there, she just shook her head and let me stay. Yes, I was a terrible person in Italy. It does that to you.
But back to the night in question. I had just found my seat, when I noticed a man enter the cabin. I immediately recognized him as the one who had given me my last two coins. He was a short, balding man who wore every one of his fifty or sixty years on his face, plus some uneven gray stubble. We made eye contact, and I waved. He smiled, and took a seat across the aisle from me.
I thanked him for the money, and he thanked me for juggling. He gave me another euro, and I thanked him for that as well. The train was loud and my Italian was terrible, so he moved to the seat across from me. As we spoke he kept putting his hand on my knee, which made me uncomfortable but was obviously just a friendly Italian thing. Obviously.
There was a lull in the conversation while I tried to find Italian words for what I wanted to say. Finally, I settled for,
He straightened up.
“Because I don’t have a ticket for this train.”
“Because I don’t have any money.”
“Do you need money?”
“I always need money.”
“Sexo?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Sexo?” he said.
“What?” I said, leaning forward in an attempt to hear better.
He leaned in until his mouth was almost touching my ear.
“Sexo?” he said.
“No!” I said, smiling weakly and throwing myself into my seat-back with all my strength. “No, no, grazie, grazie, no, grazie, no, no, no! Grazie!”
He smiled back, his tongue darting out to lick his lips. “Okay,” he said, “You said you needed money.”
“Haha, yes!” I said, “But no! No, grazie.”
“My apartment is in San Giovanni,” he said, putting his hand on my leg again.
“Haha!” I said, “Great! Superb!”
The conductor announced Montevarchi, my stop.
“Hey, that’s me!” I said, “Goodbye!”
“Ciao, bello,” he said, leering.
The conductor had announced my stop, but it was still fifteen minutes away. Fifteen very, extremely long minutes. I stared at the train doors with terrified intensity while my traveling companion eyed me like I was a pork carcass dangling from the metal handrail. Finally the doors opened and I left. I looked over my shoulder to see the man standing at the window, waving at me. I entered an underpass leading out of the station. As soon as I broke line of site with the man, I ran. I ran until I couldn’t anymore.
And even this did not persuade me to start paying for my own train rides.
Maybe the craziest thing about this story is that this is the only time something like this has ever happened to me. If I was a woman, it wouldn’t be unusual if I had a whole gang of stories like this. They wouldn’t seem nearly as unusual. In fact, if I was a woman and I started telling this story, chances are I’d be asked, “Why the fuck were you traveling alone in the first place? Didn’t you know something like this was going to happen?” I hate that. I don’t have anything super insightful to say about it. I just hate it, and wish it would stop. But how do I make it stop if I can’t even afford a train ticket, eh?
Maybe you have some ideas, though. There are more of you than me, and you like my website so you’re probably pretty smart. So work with me here — what can we do to make this story weird for everyone?