This piece was written near the beginning of the pandemic in response to an invitation from the Haliburton Highlands Arts Council and in particular to Ruth Walker. The Arts Council was doing a fundraiser of 6 Minute Escapes-–virtual travel since people were not able to really travel at that time. (I’ve included the link to the recorded event here – this piece starts about 34 minutes in). They invited eight writers to share short travel stories by recording them and taking part in a Q&A after the event’s launch. This is the one I wrote and recorded at the time:
I’m one half of inkslingers. My partner and I offer writing workshops and retreats. This story is about what happened after one retreat we did in Italy.
We stayed on for a week to explore that magnificent country without the responsibility of looking after our retreat participants. Our group of eight – the three retreat leaders and our partners, plus our Italian friends Antonio and Sulo – all migrated to a town near Sorrento, that place of lemons and grapefruits. (My saliva glands spark in this moment, remembering the scent of citrus that overhangs the steep hills around that city.)
But it wasn’t lemons that excited me on this particular morning. The whole reason for choosing this destination was that I’d always wanted to visit Pompeii—a life goal, since I first read about it in Grade Three.
To get to the ruined city, we had to catch a train from Sorrento. A commuter train that would take us on a milk run through all the little towns as well as through Naples. When it arrived, somehow, in that tiny train station, two of our number had vanished. They were newly in love and had been oblivious to much that happened on our retreat. And now, apparently, they were oblivious to train schedules. As the train hooted its impending departure, I looked everywhere, panicked they might not make it in time.
They did, barely, and we all climbed aboard. I’d had enough of togetherness for a while and the eight of us, in couples or small groups, scattered to different corners of the train car.
James and I sat together facing Antonio who, as always, generously shared his knowledge of the Italian countryside. In the seats on the other side of the aisle sat a beautiful young couple with a toddler who had clearly inherited her parents’ genes for gorgeous. They talked together in low voices – I could hear the music of a Latin language, although it didn’t sound Italian.
The train made its milk run stops and the rest of the seats began to fill. Many people were clearly tourists. They spoke English with British, Irish and Southern US flavours. They spoke in French and what sounded like it might be Russian. They spoke in Spanish. They carried Pompeii guidebooks.
As we rumbled along the edge of the mountain, high above Naples, Antonio pointed at the towering metal cranes and the enormous tankers at the commercial docks beside the ocean’s edge. “We call that the porto.”
“Dock,” translated James.
Antonio’s face lit up. “AH Dock!” he said. “Like the song! Dock of the Bay!” And he sang the first line in his melodious, Italian-accented tenor, ‘Sittin’ in the morning sun…’”
Always one to welcome any chance to sing, I chimed in, “I’ll be sitting when the evening comes”
We stopped and looked at each other, unable to remember the next line.
From a far corner of the train car in British accented English someone’s voice lifted, clear and melodic, “Watchin the ships roll in…”
James and I sang the next line, “And I watch them roll away again…”
And Antonio joined us for the chorus.
We smiled at each other. Then from behind us came “Left my home in Georgia,”
And the beautiful young husband beside us turned to us, smiled shyly and offered, “Headed for the Frisco Bay,” the words tinted with a Latin flavour.
And so it continued, little squibs of song lines starting up and burning out as the singer floundered for the words of the next line. But someone else would know and offer it up.
And then entire car joined in with the whole chorus once again.
At the end people spontaneously broke out in cheers and clapping. The young couple across the aisle struck up a conversation. He was Italian, she was from Argentina where they lived, and they were home to introduce their baby to his family. All over the car people were striking up conversations.
What had been a random collection of international strangers and disgruntled friends a few minutes before was now a community. I did get to visit Pompeii that day, but it’s that train ride that is the most vivid memory, and the one that makes me smile over and over again.