Tracking Time in Italy


Forty years ago, I stood on the train station platform in Monterosso al Mare, which is one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre on Italy’s Ligurian coastline. I was waiting to catch a train after a day-long hike through the area. This was before the guidebooks of Rick Steves extolled the photogenic beauty of these five, tiny seaside villages that cling like barnacles to rocks in the surf.

Flash forward to the pre-COVID 2000s. Hordes of day-tripping backpackers in cargo shorts and hiking boots have eroded hillside trails connecting the towns to each other. Local agencies have had to close them for periods, invoking public safety. However, the damage to the trails was secondary; the villages have become a must-see tourist destination, inundated with tourists as soon as the weather turns warm. The pandemic gave the Cinque Terre a brief respite – one of the few positive aspects of COVID. Sure enough, now the crowds are back in full force.

In the early 1980s, I shared a six-seat train compartment with four college girls. I miss those creaky old trains; most have been replaced by sleek, modern, rolling stock with ultra-smooth suspensions. Since the young women had entered the compartment silently, I assumed they were Italian or possibly French. My assumption was dashed when one of them mentioned in American English calling her parents in Seattle. Evidently, the secret of the Cinque Terre was out even then.

On my trek, I encountered many locals in work attire. Some toted big satchels and woven wicker baskets. We had to maneuver around each other on dirt paths sometimes barely wider than a computer keyboard. On one side, a sheer slope dropped hundreds of feet to the blue-green Mediterranean. Though spectacular as a walking experience, I was relieved when I spotted the final town in the distance.

I waited for a train for more than two hours. Nothing traversed the tracks in either direction. For many years, Italy was famous for sudden, short-term rail worker strikes. This was apparently one of those times. I amused myself by poking around the sleepy station.

Gradually, I realized that I was somehow in a film by Vittorio De Sica. The station was being fitted with a then-new system to enable the stationmaster to monitor train traffic. It involved installing a wall-sized map of parallel rail lines, with segments that lit up. White bulbs indicated stations; red and green bulbs showed the go/no-go condition at various points. I recall this same display system was depicted in the 1974 American movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In other words, it was state of the art for that time.

Today, the system is so fully computerized that some stations don’t have stationmasters. Their little, projecting, glassed-in booths are either gone or empty. The quaint buildings are still there, with their archways and canopies, but you simply use a ticket machine and refer to a big, flat screen monitor bolted to a wall. Recorded messages in Italian and English announce train arrivals.

The Monterosso of 1983 had a stationmaster. Two, in fact. One of them was a young man, impeccably dressed in a neat, gray, military-style uniform with epaulets, a cross belt, polished shoes, and a peaked cap. He paced the platform nervously, looking down the tracks from time to time and checking his watch. Clearly, something was about to happen. The big clock on the outside wall audibly added to the tension, its hands moved with a sharp clunk.

The other stationmaster was inside the building. He was old and disheveled. Clothed in a rumpled black uniform of an older style, he wore his peaked hat askew on his head. At the time, he was also clearly drunk. As I watched through the door, he fell off his chair. Two older women, the only occupants of the small waiting room, rose and went over to the old man. They hoisted him up onto his chair and propped his head on a bent arm so that he appeared to be studying a manual on the desk. Finally, they carefully placed his hat on his head and stepped back to size up the set-piece they had created. Then took their places on the bench against the wall.

In this real-life cinematic vignette, I soon saw what the fuss was about. Streaming into the station was a short train with a shiny engine pulling two carriages adorned with Italian flags and colorful bunting. A small clutch of officials stepped off the train, each resembling a military general dressed for a formal event. It was an inspection team, coming to look at the progress of the new technology being installed. The young stationmaster stiffened and saluted smartly as they approached. The entourage included a more casually dressed lieutenant holding a clipboard onto which he was scribbling with stern concentration.

The officials looked around, glanced through the door at the older man, sitting at his desk, and nodded approvingly. The two women did not make eye contact with the group. The entourage walked back to the train cars and climbed aboard. Seconds later, after a screeching whistle, the train disappeared into a tunnel.

The eerily empty station at Albacina (Image: Mark Hinshaw).

I thought of this beautiful slice of Italian life while I was waiting recently to change trains on the platform in a mountain town I had never heard of – Albacina. This was part of the line built in 1866 between Rome on the west coast of Italy and the big port city of Ancona on the east coast – the very same period as the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the United States. A station is still there, but it is closed. I was the only person around as far as I could see in any direction; it felt a bit eerie. I passed the time pondering a somber, wreath-covered monument to two World War II resistance fighters  — Attilio Roselli and Ercole Ferranti. In 1944, after Italy surrendered and switched sides in the war, the two men were killed in a raid on a train. The courageous raid freed more than 700 young people being shipped by the Nazis to camps.

It occurred to me that would make a good movie too. But a very different one.

Living in Italy is like living inside multiple, simultaneous movies, with an endless selection of historic periods, subjects, and surroundings. Sometimes you laugh. Sometimes you cry. But you’re always deeply moved.

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.



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