Monthly Archives: November 2011

Homesick (A train ride from Rome to Formia and back again)

I was on a train from Rome, heading towards my mother’s home town by the sea – Formia. This wasn’t my first visit. Ten years earlier I was here with my mum and dad. This time I was on my own and it had been three months since I’d seen them.

I was infinitely sad. Without any real reason I wanted to cry quietly for most of the two hour journey. Maybe I was just homesick, I thought at the time, perplexed.

I knew I’d glimpse the Mediterranean in the Gulf of Gaeta when I got closer to Formia. As I looked out the window waiting for it, I thought about how little I knew of my mother’s youth here. Bits and pieces of information gleaned from snippets of conversation, some of them only overhead by chance. It was so little. All that I knew about my mother’s life in Formia I could list in bullet point. Sketchy ideas that didn’t even make sense sometimes – she stayed in a convent during part of World War Two (where?); Mussolini made a speech on the town hall balcony (why?); American tanks rolled down Via Appia which cuts through the middle of Formia, on their way to Rome; her father died in a road accident when she was a child; her single mother was so poor that they had to keep moving every time rent was overdue. Her family later ran a bar and this at least I can confirm is true – I’ve seen the black and white photos of her older brothers in white jackets, circa 1950-something, serving aperitifs on tiny silver trays. I’ve seen pictures of my grandmother working there too, with a cynical smile and her arms folded. They didn’t get along – so many misunderstandings between them, cleared up decades too late.  

The train kept shuffling along. I tried in vain to remember the station names and their order, to judge how far we still were from Formia. Then I thought of my first trip with my parents a decade ago and how much my mother loved just walking along the beach. It had been years since she’d been in the water so one day she just kept wandering out further and further, past her ankles, past her knees and then her thighs so that she ended up waist deep – fully clothed in her sundress and clutching her handbag. Someone from the jetty called out jokingly ‘Hey lady, what have you got in that handbag that you couldn’t leave it behind!’. She just laughed and wandered back to shore, utterly content.

That summer we ate gelati every night at the local lido. Her sister-in-law made tomato salad that we ate with crunchy bread and milky buffalo mozzarella. We promenaded down the esplanade late at night and went for long drives along the coast. Every afternoon the town fell quiet for the siesta that everyone denied still existed. I remember my mother telling me, on one of our beach walks, how glad she was to have me there with her – to show, to tell and to know.

Close to Formia and there it was, the Mediterranean as you would surely know it – sapphire blue, shimmering cool in the contrasting heat. Deep breath and smile. I was met by my cousin at the station and she drove me back to my aunt’s for the very same tomato salad and buffalo mozzarella as a decade ago. I started to feel content.

Three days later I was back at the station. My sister had called to say my mother had an extremely aggressive form of leukaemia and I should hurry back home to Australia. My cousin hugged me and told me to be strong. She didn’t say how? This time I did cry for the whole journey. A middle aged man wrung his hands and begged me to stop crying – he was anguished by my grief. But when I told him my mother was dying – the first time I’d said those words aloud – he nodded sadly and left me alone.

Waving goodbye at the platform felt like I was already saying goodbye to my mother. I was leaving, but she was leaving too. I found it bizarre and ironic to be so close to and so far from her. So close to the heart of her existence but unable to hold her hand and tell her it would be ok. All the same memories I’d had on the earlier journey had a strange intensity about them this time. So many things to ask before she left. And I was alarmed that I knew. This sadness already felt familiar. I already knew on the train journey there that something was terribly wrong and that I should be catching a plane instead. A thread still held me close to home.

The Mediterranean held it’s tongue. But I remember the bright blue flashes between trees, hills, buildings as we turned inland, saying goodbye to Formia.

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Which way to the toilet please?

Toilet humour….and so soon. I’ve hardly blogged a year and already I’m going to talk about toilets. This is because, surprisingly, many of my travels have been punctuated with amusing ablution stories. But I’m also prepared to argue that there’s a unique cultural element to the body waste management systems of each nation that’s just as worth noting as, say, eating customs (bad choice of comparisons?).

Travellers can be sooky babies when it comes to the simplest cultural differences. It’s surprising how confronting a squat toilet is to a Westerner who just wants to perform their daily task in peace and quiet. Equally as confronting, I would say, to any Asian who wanted to visit the toilets at my workplace in Australia – there are little pictograms on the inside of every cubicle in the requisite green and red circles, indicating how to and how not to use the toilet. Apparently, it’s an occupational health and safety concern if you try to squat over a regular toilet…. so very Western.

Most of my confronting or culturally baffling bathroom episodes have occurred in Italy.

I travelled to my mother’s town with my parents one year to stay with family I’d never met. It had been a long and tiresome journey – I was emotionally, physically, mentally distraught. Relatives had greeted us at the airport and though it was wonderful, these people were complete strangers to me just then. We drove for more than two hours and finally arrived at my aunt’s house. Great. Bathroom. Needed some repair work. Trouble is, when I tried to leave the bathroom, I couldn’t open the door. It had an old fashioned key to lock it. I turned it once each way and tried the handle. Nope. I turned the key again and discovered it just kept turning. In my delicate, semi-hysterical state I started to panic. The window was too small to crawl out of and was, besides, two stories up. I knocked on the door and shouted to my aunt. ‘What are you doing in there?’, she asked politely. ‘I can’t open the door’. Silence. ‘You just turn the key sweetie’. ‘Yep, I’ve tried that’. Silence. Then I heard my mother say, ‘She’s very jetlagged and tired. Otherwise,  she’s quite an intelligent girl….’. I turned the key furiously and suddenly I was free and the door swung open. Dubious faces smiled kindly at me.

I was told that, for some reason, this little bathroom in a tiny apartment in a small town had a lock that had three degrees of strength, depending on how many times you turned the key. Consequently, to unlock it you potentially needed to turn the key three times. I could not fathom the meaning of this. Was it one key turn if you were just brushing your teeth but three key turns if you planned to gad about naked for a while and really needed some privacy?

On another trip, my cousin and I wandered into a very upmarket shopping gallery and decided this was as good a place as any to use the public facilities. We wandered down a side corridor and found a line-up of four or five people (not, I might add, an unusual occurrence anywhere in the world it seems). We waited patiently but the women just ahead of us looked distressed. She turned to the cleaner and said, ‘Please, can’t I just use the disabled toilet – I’m desperate’. I use the word ‘cleaner’ but this woman had the bearing and authority of a prison warden. This was her toilet block, her domain and she was clearly very proud of its immaculate appearance and fresh aroma. The cleaner looked the other woman up and down and ushered her in without a word. A few minutes later, the clearly grateful and relieved woman came out and politely thanked the cleaner, who nodded in reply.

Then the cleaner started to frown. She sniffed sharply and narrowed her eyes. She opened the door to the disabled cubicle again and poked her head in. ‘Oh my God!’ she shouted alarmed and dismayed. She turned back to the woman who was now fixing her hair in the mirror. The cleaner rounded on her accusingly. ‘What creature did you give birth to in there? That is utterly disgusting. I just cleaned that toilet and you had to go in and do that! That’s disgusting!’. On and on she went. The cleaner was clearly furious and outraged. Admirably, in what I myself would have deemed a mortifying moment, the other woman kept her composure. I can’t remember the exact words she replied with but I remember they were haughty and tossed over her shoulder as she walked out; something along the lines of ‘It’s a toilet. So clean it.’.

Definitely something I could only have experienced in exactly that way in Italy.

If you reflect a moment, I’m sure you’ll remember some interesting bathroom episode on your travels. Like me, have you ever had to shove tissues up your nose just to be able to walk into a public toilet without gagging? Did an aunt wander into the bathroom while you were brushing your teeth and plonk herself down on the toilet with a satisfied sigh? And most bizarrely, have you ever walked into a toilet block and found yourself face-to-face with a life-sized Madonna smiling benignly at you?

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