Jan 192009

If you want to know how I almost got arrested in Bologna and again in Florence in the same two days, you have to understand the public transportation system in Milan.

My pal Diane Keaton joined me recently to visit my father’s cousins in Milan and my maternal relatives in Lucca. We soon got the hang of Milan’s metropolitan bus system which requires each passenger to buy a ticket — one euro apiece — before boarding. Tickets are available only at newsstands. I found it strange to buy a ticket for the bus at a newsstand but since these installations are on almost every other corner, it proved to be eminently convenient and rational.

Once aboard the bus, the passenger must insert her ticket in a franking machine or macchinetta. Each bus is equipped with three; placed respectively in the front of the bus, in the middle and in the back. This obviates the confusion that arises on San Francisco’s Muni — if the San Francisco passenger boards in the back of the bus, is he avoiding payment? In Milan, the passenger who boards in the middle or the back of the bus has no excuse for avoiding a macchinetta to timestamp and process his ticket.

So after several days of schmoozing with my Milanese cousins, eating gelato at every opportunity, swanning about at the Galleria and gawking at medieval armor in the Castel Sforsesco, Diane and I took our leave. With hearty embraces, we promised to see them again on our return from Lucca to Milan’s airport, Malpensa, before returning to San Francisco.

We decided to stop off a couple of days in Bologna since it was half-way to Lucca. We arrived in the city of porticoes midday and repeated our comradely pattern of snapping each other’s photos in front of naked statues, ferreting out gelato shops, deciphering maps and eyeballing other tourists. The next morning we decided to go our separate ways for the day. A robust hiker, Diane needed nothing more than her shoes.

I however found the nearest newsstand to buy a biglietto, a one-euro ticket for the bus. I was confident that I now had the Italian public transportation system down cold.

But I did not, as the shopkeeper informed me. He had no more tickets for the bus available. “But, signora, you can get on with just a euro.”

Ah, a revelation. What an enlightened city, I thought. They’ve done away with the bureaucracy of paper tickets and riders need only place their coin in one of the macchinette, I assured myself.

I was headed towards the main piazza from my hotel slightly outside of town, about 10 to 15 minute ride.

I mounted the bus in the middle and found no macchinetta. Confused, I assumed some control person would soon be round to collect my euro which I held out noticeably.

Soon enough, a functionary came by and asked for my ticket. I smiled and handed him my euro. Gruffly he said, “No, signora. You must have a euro.”

My Italian is passing fair and I unwisely used it. I explained to him that I thought I could pay with the euro since the man at the newsstand told me he was out of tickets but he that I had been assured my euro would suffice.

The bus bureaucrat fulminated. “You must have a ticket. Where is your ticket? You must follow the rules.”

I was aghast. With great precision and my best attempt at diplomacy (not my strong suit), I explained that I was obviously a stranger, this was my first day in Bologna, I wasn’t familiar with the system. I had been misinformed. Obviously I had a euro in my hand so I was not trying to avoid paying the fee. He need only tell me how to do so properly and I would be happy to do so.

The whole bus was listening now.

“Your documents, signora.”

I showed him my passport. He did not merely look at it; he confiscated it. Now I was alarmed. His partner approached, doubling the menace.

“You’ll have to pay a fine,” he barked.

“How much is the fine?”

“€45.” This was between $55 and $60 at the time.

Now I knew he was trying to shake me down.

“I will not pay it.”

“Then we will have to call the police.”

“Please do,” I said.

Did he realize by now that he had chosen the wrong tourist? But it was too late for him to back down. Everybody in the bus was silent.

I protested again about my innocence. A passenger next to me held out his ticket. My tormentors waved him off.

I tried to snatch back my passport. A mistake. Then I tried to make nice. I leaned forward and put my hand softly on number the number two man’s sleeve. He snatched it back and snapped, “Don’t touch me.”

When we arrived at the piazza which I had previously told them was my destination, they hustled me off the bus. They continued berating me. Loudly. I was longing for the police to arrive but instead bus controllers took out a pad of forms on which they wrote my passport number, name and address.

They told me to sign it. I refused. I was livid.

In the space for my signature, they wrote: “signature refused” and gave me a copy. Then I knew I had won. I let loose with all the venom I could muster in a language which is not yet my own.

“Puppets! Puppets,” I screamed at them. I chose this nomenclature only because I was so furious I could not retrieve from memory the cruder terms I wanted to use, actually the ones I grew up with, nor express more accurately the sentiments I was feeling.

And since they were berating me on the street and since they had been trying to make an example of me and the bus, I made an example of them at the bus stop.

They wanted to play boogie man? Well I could play fishwife!

I began remonstrating before a group of curious onlookers: “This is wonderful publicity for Bologna! Bella publicita’ per Bologna! Are you proud of yourselves? You try to arrest an innocent tourist who is merely confused. Is this a good day’s work? Bravi! Bravi, puppets.” I followed them for a block spewing all the inadequate expletives that I could think of.

It had become obvious to me by this time that Bologna buses had only one macchinetta and that was placed at the head of the bus. All the controllers had had to do was to say: “Madam, you pay at the head of the bus.” But in their zeal to inflict terror on bus-riding scofflaws, they decided to terrorize and shakedown someone of whom they could make an example. They thought.

(Ten days later when we were back in Milan at the dinner table, my cousin Laura pointed out to me that the bus regulators have the same authority as policemen. I had been taking a risk, she said. But in my mind the best results would have been for the police to have been summoned for then my innocence and their ill-judged insolence would have been made clear. But, maybe not. I also toyed with the possible consequences of my having spoken English. Would they have been any different?)

I spent the next two hours so furious I don’t remember what I saw of Bologna. I kept thinking, “Where is Diane?” I was positive I would run into her at any minute since I was in the center of town. I couldn’t wait to unload all of this bile and high drama with someone who could appreciate it. But I did not see her till later that evening.

Finally I did encounter a couple of carabinieri, that is, the state police. I asked them if there was a US consulate in Bologna because I had had an incidente I wanted to report. I explained the situation and they gave me directions to the appropriate office where I could complain about the treatment I had suffered.

No, I protested. “That’s not my concern. I want to know what the consequences are of their having my passport number, address and phone number in the United States. What will happen when I reach immigration at Malpensa?”

“Signora, you can go back to your home in the United States and you can…”

I supplied the word for him: “ridere?… laugh?”

“Yes, you can laugh.”

So that evening I reenacted it all for Diane. She wailed over having missed the fracas. And of course, she rightfully used the predictable joke: “I can’t take you anywhere, Francine”. And we thought that was the end of my silly adventure for the trip. Until the next day when we had to change trains in Florence on the second leg of our trip to Lucca.

During the interval of changing trains there, I dashed off to use the ladies room. I found that the men’s and women’s rooms are shielded by a single turnstile which can only be penetrated with 80 centesimi — that is, 80 units of a euro. The machine was provided for changing euros into coins.

As I was standing at the machine with my euro, a very elderly gentleman behind me asked me in Italian how to manage the system. I explained that he had to change his euro into coins and then deposit them in the turnstile. Since I was doing so right in front of him I thought I was providing a proper example.

But when I turned to enter the turnstile, I found him again behind me with his euro still in his hand and, ever confused, asking me again how to get in. I did not want to linger but I took pity on him. I motioned him to follow me closely and slip through the turnstile with me which he did.

Another donnybrook ensued. No sooner were we through the barrier than we heard shouting. I sped into the ladies room lickety-split. I don’t know what happened to the old man. But as I listened palpitating inside the ladies room stall, I heard the concierge bellowing at a couple behind us whom he had collared. He was accusing them of sneaking into the bathroom without paying.

They protested loudly of their innocence. Oh did I know how that felt! But there was no way I was going to own up to my misdeed for not only would I miss my connection to Florence, be scolded and berated and brought before a magistrate, but surely this time I would be deported as an undesirable!

Finally after several minutes when the brawl seemed to have subsided, I crept, tiptoeing out of the lavatory. I found Diane waiting worried on the platform.

“Where were you” she asked.

“You won’t believe it. I’ll tell you when we get on the train,” I said, lest anybody on the platform overhear my latest folly.

  One Response to “Bullets over Bologna”

  1. I’m ready for a mini-series on travels with Francine. Brilliant, funny writing and I’ll make sure I have the ticket if I’m ever in Italy again! Thanks for a wonderful read.

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