“Ladies and gentlemen, be advised that the last train for Florence has already departed from Rome.”I was on a train from Sicily to Rome, where I needed to make a connection to Florence, when I heard this unfortunate news over the intercom. A distinguished older gentleman in a blazer, seated beside me, stopped a conductor and demanded an explanation. A young Italian woman with dyed black hair and numerous facial piercings leaned in to catch his response.“There are no more trains to Florence tonight, I’m sorry.”A ripple of grumbles passed through the train car. The gentleman’s voice rose excitedly, “How could that be? My wife is expecting me in Florence tonight. What do you want me to do, walk?” The conductor, whose face was gaunt and boasted a large nose that protruded from under the low brim of his boxy green cap, pressed his lips together with annoyance.“Actually,” he said in a hushed tone, “I’m headed to Florence myself. The captain just told me that the train is delayed in Orte, the next town over. If you hustle and take the commuter shuttle, you could catch it.”“Beh—why didn’t you say so in the first place?” the man in the blazer demanded. The conductor shrugged his shoulders with his hands spread wide and eyebrows raised (that classic, full-bodied Italian shrug), as if to say “Whattaya gonna do about it?”We would have two minutes to make the commuter shuttle, and then one minute to make it from the shuttle to the train. “I doubt I’ll make it,” the conductor muttered. “So you guys—yeah, right!”The train began to decelerate as it approached the central station of Rome, and passengers started to pull their belongings down from the overhead bins. I hastily shouldered my duffle and struggled to guide my bulky rolling suitcase through the aisle. I imagined myself stranded, alone, at midnight in Rome’s Termini station, a late night sanctuary for wandering criminals and drug addicts. Completing the mental mathematics, I realized with mounting anxiety that only five Euros remained in my wallet, so I would not be able to afford a place to stay.Soon, there were five of us, all bound for Florence, assembled at the exit. We smiled nervously at one another, looking in each other’s eyes. The girl with the piercings, the conductor, the older gentleman, another young man in a brown leather jacket and bright white sneakers, and myself. I became vaguely aware of a sense of shared determination and Darwinian morbidity; each of us wondered who wouldn’t make it.The train came to a halt and the doors opened. I lowered my rolling bag down the steps as quickly as I could, when the girl with the piercings noticed that I was struggling. She turned unexpectedly, grabbed my suitcase, pulled it onto the platform, and set off running. “Let’s go!” she shouted, towing the suitcase behind her. I bounded after her, followed closely by the tailored gentleman, the conductor, and the young man in the leather jacket. “Could your luggage be any heavier?” she shouted back over her shoulder. The conductor passed us with long loping strides and motioned for us to follow. The young man in leather flanked me on my right, with the older gentleman a few feet behind us. In that moment, somehow, the fates of five strangers became connected.I laughed as we whizzed through the station, past droves of people. We ran through the gypsies with hands forever outstretched, past the beggars bowed forward in supplication, past newspaper stands, ticket counters, and coffee bars, the conductor directing us as we rounded corner after corner.Finally, we arrived at the shuttle. I hefted my luggage through the entrance and climbed aboard, out of breath and exhilarated, with no more than five seconds to spare.The five of us stood in the vestibule, bracing ourselves against its walls and catching our breath as the shuttle trundled away. Laughing delightedly, the young man in the leather jacket marveled at how nearly we had been left stranded. The older gentleman graciously admitted how we would have surely missed it without the guidance of the conductor. I was still silently reeling from surprise that the girl with the piercings had taken charge of my unwieldy luggage.“I’m Cristina,” she said, looking at us expectantly. “Massimo—my pleasure,” responded, the elder gentleman, offering his hand.“Paolo,” grunted the conductor.“Matteo,” said the young man in the leather jacket. His hair was buzzed closely on the sides and longer on the top, where he had gelled it into a squat mohawk.It was my turn, and I felt the familiar discomfort of having to reveal myself as a foreigner. Although my haircut and jeans were decidedly Italian, I could never conceal the dry vowels that tumbled out of my mouth when I spoke.“Sono Janet,” I offered, awaiting the questions that inevitably followed.“Where are you from?” Matteo asked in an easy, Sicilian drawl. “I’m American, but I live and work in Florence,” I answered, a well-worn phrase in my life as an ex-pat. Perhaps because we had succeeded in making the shuttle together, or perhaps because of the late hour, the customary barrage of questions and evaluations of my linguistic ability failed to materialize. For once, I did not feel like an outsider.As the shuttle neared the station, we prepared for our final dash to the train. Paolo, the conductor, who had initially been certain of our failure, again took on the role of team captain, discussing the strategy we must employ. He described the various obstacles we would encounter: the long platform, a staircase, and a ramp leading to the track.Like competitive sprinters toeing the starting line, we positioned ourselves on the steps of the vestibule a second time, awaiting the moment the doors slid open. Then, we exploded from the train’s exit and dashed down the platform. We reached the flight of stairs, and before I knew it, Massimo had taken hold of the right lateral handle of my suitcase, Matteo was on the left, Cristina the front, and Paolo the rear. Astounded, I padded uselessly alongside these four strangers as they conducted my suitcase down the steps. I felt as though I was not merely a part of the group, but an essential component of its existence. Without my monstrosity of luggage as our focal point, there would not have been a need to band together. I was the emulsifier in this unlikely group.We made the train.From past experience, I knew that spontaneous camaraderie often fades as quickly as it is born, and this was no different. As we pulled away from Orte, our sense of urgency dissipated in proportion with the distance between our train car and the station. And yet, as the train rumbled along, I felt a comfortable silence that for me has only ever been obtained amongst old friends. The conductor’s iPod played the tragic theme from La Dolce Vita, trumpet and saxophone calling to one another, and we listened as we plunged through the sprawling dark Italian landscape for Florence.
*This story can be found here: