A train trip from Alessandria to Rome

Train travel in Italy: how to start a conversation

Last week I took a train journey from Alessandria to Rome. The intercity 511 is now considered a slow train, since high speed trains can do the same journey in less than 3 hours.

Me and my younger sister are paying a visit to our grandmother. Traveling at 400km per hour? Maybe next time. I was actually longing for one of those long summer journeys. I am on a nostalgic trip. I lost count of the number of times I took this train with my parents.

One of the things I remember is how chatty these long journeys can be. We now have a tendency to immerse ourselves into our smartphones and tablets, and soundproof ourselves with headphones. However there seems to be an easy way out of this technological isolation: boredom. When people are fed up looking at a screen, they start a conversation, often a coral one.

The organisation of space of the Intercity train certainly helps. Wagons are divided into compartments with 6 seats. Closing the door, in order to enjoy air conditioning, creates an intimate atmosphere, something missing on those fast trains.

How to start a conversation with strangers on a train

Breaking the ice is the most awkward moment. There is always a risk to get stuck in some weird conversations. You also need to have the right group of people, who are willing to converse.

You start by helping each other with luggage. You comment on the best way to fit each bag over your head. Then you complain about some sort of disservice, even if the train is perfectly on time, the air conditioning is on and you have a reserved seat that you bought last minute for a cheap price. This time the disservice is the lack of space for luggage. That of course has nothing to do with people bringing lots of luggage.

Having something to complain about creates an immediate bond because you are sharing the same experience, that of living in a country that could be managed so much better. We are in Italy, after all.

Trying to manage the excess luggage you ask each other where everyone is going.

“I’m getting off in San Vincenzo, says one young man.
So you can take my space in a little while.”

The jovial young man had just finished a phone call about the last things that need to get done at work. He was complaining about a new employee.

“I own 6 pizzerias, business is going really well, I work a lot and I really need a break now. I’m 26 and I followed my brother with the franchising idea. I already had a pizzeria in Turin when I was 19.”

Bang, Leonardo and I have an extremely interesting topic of conversation: the pizza oven. I am horrified when he says most restaurants are now buying electric ovens. But here is the trick, Leonardo and his brother use stone ovens, pietra ruvida, as they call it. Of course the recipe was inherited from their grandfather in Altamura, Apulia.

A second man joins in: “we all speak bad about the South but at the same time we all use stuff from the South.” The young man replies that he has been living in Turin for 15 years. He has a strong Turin accent. The other man has a strong accent from the South. They look each other in the eye and subconsciously declared they are different at the moment they heard each other speak. I sense the tension and try to shift the conversation towards how to make an oven.

Leonardo has a big ego and likes his own voice, he is proud of himself and likes to present his success story. He shows off with his investments and income but says he works a lot, seven days a week, and therefore needs a holiday every two months. His job is also very stressful.

I speak a bit about myself and the country I live in and what I do there. I declare I am an amateur in the kitchen and that I am striving for the perfect home made pizza.

An older man enters the wagon. When he hears us talking about the pizza oven he joins the conversation. He owns an antique shop and he built a brick oven in the garden of his villa. He shares excellent advice.

We are already in Rome and I need to get off. The journey is suddenly over. A woman in the compartment sees a fast train approaching the station and sighs: “Ah, those are THE trains! I shake hands with my fellow travelers before getting off and change for a local train. The intercity 511 may not be as fast as a Freccia Rossa or Italo (Ferrari’s high speed train ) but it certainly is an enjoyable social and cultural experience.