I must be the luckiest traveller in the world. I set the clock for 3:30am at the Hotel St. Charles Terminus in Marseilles, and we hustled up the hill to the station and caught the Navette (I now know this means shuttle, or locally specific bus) to MRS, Marseilles airport, without a hitch. The streets around the huge station with its broad fights of stone stairs were already full of life. Perhaps Marseilles never sleeps.
Workmen speaking a language sounding Arabic emerged and disappeared down side streets, music with a distinct Middle Eastern tone seeped out of corner cafe where a red naugahyde and chrome chair stood at a black table on the sidewalk. Some of the homeless were moving about, silhouettes on the large plaza surrounding the immense stairway.
It was easier to cross the streets at this early hour, and we opted once again to use a side entrance, to avoid walking through the mostly sleeping village of homeless. Peering in the large glass front, the station looked closed, but for a lone man riding a floor Zamboni machine, and all the doors were locked.
“Oh _____!” I said in too loud English. Then a Taxi driver who was the only person in sight, pointed to the right and said a word that sounded like “derriere” which I took to mean behind, or in this situation, in the back, but there was only a long row of plate glass doors interrupted by cement pillars. As we moved in the direction he was pointing, he continued to watch and hollered something else just as I decided to try another door, and found that was open. I hollered merci.
The flight from Marseilles to Rome took under an hour, just enough time for the flight attendants to distribute coffee and croissants. We were already descending when the coffee was poured. The airport in Rome is well marked in Italian and English, and their international symbol signage is visible, and actually takes you where you need to go. We had no trouble finding our way to the trains, where we caught the Leonardo Express, a direct train to Rome.
The Leonardo is roomy and air conditioned, unless, as happened with our train, the electricity cuts out on the outskirts of the city and the train comes to a dead halt. At first the in cabing marquee which had been showing the time and temperatures inside and out, continued to work. It read, in Italian, inside:28C, outside:36C. Then it too went dead and the temperature began to climb fast. Before it got too hot and stuffy, the train arose from its siesta and began to slowly crawl toward the Rome Termini. The marquee never lit up again, and the air conditioning remained off.
The view from the stopped train.
Rome Termini station is a confusion of people from all over and has a shopping mall with a two story book store in it! It was here we were first approached by a guy who began to fill out the real life picture of opportunists I had read that Rome is famous for. These are people who make their living off of clueless travelers, particularly Americans. He was dressed in a plaid shirt and neat dark gray pants, and had a dark complexion and crooked, but healthy teeth. He did not look like the homeless, or a beggar, rather, he looked like a friendly Italian.
We were looking at a little “Eyewitness” map book of Rome, that I had just purchased in the immense book store inside the Termini Station. “Where do you need to go,” he asked. I figured he was going to be a scout for an illegal taxi or a pickpocket trying to divert our attention. He wore no badge or identification at all, just a friendly smile.
I tried to brush him off, but Richard, who I am guiding in Rome, is a very friendly and trusting sort of guy. He immediately engaged with this man, who put his hand lightly on Richard’s shoulder. A tug of wills ensued, where Richard wanted to ask this man and I wanted to use my senses and the map to orient us, and brush this guy off. I had read about this station, that it can be a place for pick-pockets to operate, and that many people operate scams, and I had a lot to keep track of.
Finally I said a street name and said we didn’t need help, would use our map. He looked puzzled, and said it would take more than ten minutes to walk there. It was clear he didn’t know where it was exactly. I said we liked walking, and knew where to go.
You have to know Richard and understand that he doesn’t ever see the seamy side of people, even the dirtiest beggars, so there’s no way he was going to suspect this nice looking friendly man. Richard’s the first to give anyone fifty cents if they ask. I’m completely the opposite, and hate begging and shysterism. I’m on my guard all the time, but friendly and not rude. I just say no and walk away.
This guy spotted confusion and sympathy. He went off and consulted with someone else, then came back as I was re-orienting myself to the paper map. I had the phone with a connection and google maps right in my pocket, and had no worries about finding the Hotel Lirico, which I had chosen for its good reviews and proximity to the station and old ruins. I like landing in strange places and finding my way around, becoming oriented via map and wits. We were hours early, with check in at 2pm.
This plaid shirted shyster rattled off a bunch of directions with a smile, then held out his hand and said, “Something for the trouble.” “No,” I said. “We didn’t ask you for any help, and I have been forewarned about guys like you.” He looked dumbfounded, slapped his thigh, looked at Richard, and finally, Richard realized our risk, and all my warnings about pick pockets and shysters sank in. “We’re too poor ourselves,” he said. “We have no coins. We thought you were just being friendly, and felt good about that,” he added. The man agued for a bit and then retreated. We checked our pockets and packs, and I suggested we move on out the doors and consult our map elsewhere. “That’s a real good idea,” Richard said with a laugh.
The Rome Termini Station is a madhouse. As we were leaving he approached us again, and this time he had some real directions, and with a flourish, waved us on. I didn’t even listen to his commands by then. Who knows what else he was cooking up for confusion.
I don’t like to live in a world where real friendliness and deception challenge my own innocent belief that all humans are good people doing the best they can. I’d rather just trust everyone I meet. At times, I think reading widely opens my eyes to possibilities I might never have considered myself, and this might make for a more fearful experience. On the other hand, I am too aware of the vulnerability of innocents, and the naive, who are easy targets for the clever. I like to take precautions when I travel, or am in an unfamiliar situation, so I can minimize my risks. Because I prepare for the worst, I am never really very fearful for my own self or belongings in this sort of situation. Traveling with a trusting other is a challenge, however.
After this encounter, Richard said, “I see what you mean. Let’s get out of here.”