Sometimes the most memorable experience of a place is not what you found when you got there, but in the journey. Cinque Terre is not only one of my most favorite places to visit, because it is truly a breathtakingly beautiful place, but because my train ride was truly memorable. We bought tickets in Paris, and traveled from Paris to Geneva, and then from there to Milan. The train ride from Geneva to Milan was to me one of the most underrated train rides in the world, but that's another story all by itself. Once in Milan, we have to connect to another train to Genoa, and then another local train to Cinque Terre. Once we debarked in Genoa, we looked at the board and saw that a train was leaving for Genoa in fifteen minutes. Thinking it was our train, we ran to board the train, and the conductor waved us through. We walked the length of the train, and settled in one of the emptier compartments, with an Italian businessman on the opposite bench, dead asleep.
We were half-way between Milan and Genoa, when the conductor came in to check our ticket. Our companion woke up and showed him his ticket. Then it was our turn. The conductor took a look at our ticket, shook his head, and started to spat Italian fireworks at us. We had a book of common words, but just imagine this very improbable picture: someone is sparking fire, and you looking at a dictionary. It is just simply impossible. Luckily, I caught the word "express," and figured it out. Apparently, we were on a express train, but only paid for a local train. Imagine our first reaction: we laughed, for deep down we were afraid we were on the wrong train, and that would not be good.
The next challenge is, of course, the Italian lira. Because of the short time in Milan, we committed the unspeakable: we had no Italian money. Well, not quite none. My friend had given me some before we left the States, but it amounted to $10, and we needed $20 more. What a dilemna. We tried to offer the money in US dollar, French francs, and Swiss francs. Well, that sparked another rapid-fire speech in Italian that finally drew our traveling companion into our lot. He fired something back at the conductor, then flipped through the newspaper, saying something that resembles "rate." He finally located the business section and found the exchange rate between lira, the US dollar, and the two French and Swiss francs. The conductor prefers Swiss francs, and though we had enough Swiss money, he preferred bills, not coins. He liked French francs next, but what do we know, we don't have enough. He just ignored the dollar, which of course we had in every denomination. More goes on between him and our rescuer, and after much ado, and much mathematical calculation, the conductor settled for a $10 French franc bill and a $10 Swiss franc bill, and wrote us a receipt. We figured we had given him $30 U.S. instead of $20, but by that time, who wants to argue, and who would hear us if we do. So finally they left us on the train, with a new-found friend, and a not-to-be forgotten voyage.