—From EF—

We’re reveling in our daughter Johanna’s pocket paradise in Tuscany, breathing the scented air and eating her amazing cookery, but we really paid our dues to get here. The three-airplane bounce from Dublin to Amsterdam to Milan was tedious, yes, but that was routine. It was the trains from Milan to Florence to Pontassieve that nearly did us in. They say Mussolini made the trains run on time, but he’s long gone.

We fretted that the hour-long shuttle bus from the airport to the train station might not get us there in time and were very relieved when we had a whole twenty minutes to spare. Ha. We boarded, found our seats, and then our snakey-looking Freccia Rossa (red arrow) sat for fifteen minutes past its departure time. Fellow-passengers said there’d been an announcement of a half-hour’s delay, but we’d still be able to connect with our little regional train at Florence, if we put speed into hiking way down the far track where they put the less-glamorous trains.

But half an hour came and went, and we still sat there. No further announcements, no lurch into bullet-train movement. 

At the one-hour mark we started to fret. We’d miss our scheduled connection, but there was a later train—just one. However, we didn’t yet have our ticket for that one, and the ticket machines in the Florence station often had long lines, even late at night. I texted Johanna to warn her that we were delayed.

After an hour and a quarter we finally departed, and the train engineer gave it all the speed he could muster. We watched the info screen as the estimated arrival time edged backwards, gaining us nearly ten more minutes, so we might not be doomed to the midnight train. 

The arrival process in Florence is always frustrating, because the track comes to an end there. The train crawls into the station, slowing to a stop at the bumpers, and will go into reverse to head onward to Rome. It took forever, but the doors finally opened and we galloped down the endless platform to look for the display board that would tell us what track our little train would be on, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t be Track 18. The other seventeen tracks start right at the station hall, but to get to Track 18 you have to walk down what feels like half a mile to get to where the train will be—if it hasn’t left yet.

Surprise. A barrier with turnstiles had been installed since last year, allowing everybody to exit into the station hall from the tracks, but re-entry requires the ticket we didn’t have yet. We could have stayed on the platforms and bought our ticket on the train, hopefully avoiding the penalty because of the massive delay, but the display board had lost its mind. It was past 11 PM, and no trains were listed past 9 PM. Whatever had crippled our train from Milan had knocked out the normal display system; we didn’t know what track to go to, and had five minutes to find our train.

Nobody could tell us where it was, but said that Track 18 was likely. The ticket machine wasn’t working, so we begged to be let back in, succeeded, and started running like hell. Before we could see the train, the fatal whistle blew, and the train took off without us.

I texted Jo to warn that we’d be on the last train, and we walked back to the head of the track to try a different ticket machine. Conrad ran back and forth to see the postings at the head of each track while I tried all the machines, none of which would work, but fate was kind. Track 14 suddenly posted our train, the one we thought we missed on Track 18, and given the system-wide delay, we’d be able to leave right away instead of waiting for midnight.

Jo had warned me that buying a ticket on the train would only work if I could find the conductor before the train started; evidently there are more than a few people who don’t pay and just count on not being caught. I stuck my head out the door, couldn’t see anybody on the platform, so just started barreling down the inside corridor from car to car. At the head of the train I found the conductor just stepping aboard, and as the train lurched forward I stuck out my hand with the exact fare and explained my problem. He just smiled, waved me away, and said “Never mind.” It was after midnight when we finally got to Pontassieve, but Jo and Fra picked us up, took us home, fed us minestrone and wine, and all was well. Hail, Tuscan paradise!

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