Before I got on that Italian train, it was the summer of 1999, and I was a 20-year old studying in Italy. The two dozen students in the program included familiar faces from my university as well as students who’d joined the program from other schools. Their ages varied from mine up to retirees.
Though we had a great deal of personal freedom, greater freedom awaited: that of traveling alone. I was excited to take a massive bite out of Europe (as my savings would allow). However However, I was also slightly afraid of encountering things I didn’t know, languages I didn’t speak, and homophobia.
But I was willing to risk getting out of my every comfort zone to gain a sense of independence and some time to think. What better way force myself to ponder the future than to be surrounded by the unfamiliar? And that’s how I ended up alone on an Italian train bound for the Côte d’Azure.
Strangers on an Italian Train
My compartment contained six seats made of some kind of barely pliable plastic. Except for me, it was empty for several stops. A few passersby looked in but did not slide the door open to sit with me. I wondered if this was because they could tell I was gay. “So what if they do?” I thought to myself. “I’ll enjoy the leg room.”
That was all over when four guys not much older than me clambered in. I’ve never been afraid of being myself. But I was, at first, intimidated by these four strangers. And I was a rather surprised when they greeted me with a cheerful, “Ciao! Come stai?”
Two of them spoke English with me. But when they spoke to each other, they used an Italian dialect I couldn’t grasp. Eventually they explained they were speaking Sicilian, the language of my ancestors on my mother’s side. When I told them I was also of Sicilian decent, we spoke of the island. They were disappointed I had no plans to go there on my first trip to the Motherland.
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A Lit Conversation
I had also recognized a familiar smell as they entered. At first, they explained it by saying that they were “Rastafarians” and “fans of Bob Marley.” I’m not entirely sure if they were joking. Believe it or not, they thought weed was legal in the States because of all the talk about blunts in American rap.
They told me they were considered outsiders back in Palermo. Being gay, I too felt like an outsider. It made our unlikely collision work.
I don’t think they actually lit up on the train. I wouldn’t have asked to join anyway because I knew at the time it was very dangerous to get caught doing controlled substances in Italy. But they had clearly smoked before they got on at Roma Termini, Rome’s main train terminal. It’s an edifice so bleak in design, a joint might be the only thing that could help one find beauty in the structure.
Also Being Gay
Our Italian train journey was turning out to be a nice one. And then came the dreaded question: “Did you leave your girlfriend home in New York?”
“No,” I laughed, suddenly nervous. But being young and brave (or stupid) enough not to lie answered: “I’m not into girls.”
They were confused for a second. Until one looked another with realization on his face. “Ah… not into girls,” he repeated. I held my breath. “I see. Cool, man. My uncle – he is also being gay.”
“And the guy who cuts my hair, Mario. We have beers or apertivi when I see him on the piazza,” said the other laughing. “I tease him though. I call him Maria sometimes. But he’s cool with it!”
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A Soldier Invades
They shared their food and drinks with me – hastily-ripped-in-half sandwiches and Peroni beer. For dessert, I brought out cookies and a bottle of prosecco. We had turned into quite the party.
Eventually, another passenger joined. From the moment he laid eyes on me, I could tell he would not be nearly so cool. His presence quieted us.
At the time I spoke more Italian than I could understand, but I understood enough. The new arrival was in the military. He wore his summer uniform. The soldier’s demonstrative hand gestures did much of the communication.
He wasn’t comfortable with me being there. He thought I should leave the compartment. The Sicilian-Rastafarians didn’t tell the solider I could understand him. But they glanced at me supportively. And they already told me they hated serving in the conscripted Italian military.
After much back and forth with them, the soldier got up. He did the Italian version of flipping them off – gesturing at them with the back of his right hand against his throat and under his chin. I wasn’t even worthy of an obscene gesture.
“You didn’t have to tell him to leave,” I said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
“What trouble? Let him go to the bar,” one of them said.
“You’re our friend and he’s an ass,” said another.
“We’d rather hang out with you. We don’t care you’re gay. Screw the military! Besides, your nona and your mama are Sicilian. We might be related – it’s not so big an island.”
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Turn of the Century
I would never forget those kind Sicilians who smelled like hash and defended me from the invading soldier on an Italian train. Later that trip, I would be similarly grateful to a group of Québécois girls from a convent school, who agreed to share a room with me in an otherwise hostile hostel. And I came to treasured a woman who bought me dinner and introduced me to friends after I was hassled by teenagers in a French phone both.
This summer was how I closed out the 20th Century. And those travels prepared me to be an gay man. It was how I learned that – when it came to being open or living in fear of homophobia – my choice was clear. It would not always be a smooth ride, but there would be help along the way.
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Last modified: October 11, 2019