It is 34 degrees Celsius when my sister Lisa and I board the train in Bologna, and it is even hotter as we come to a sudden stop in the middle of the Italian countryside.
“What’s the problem?” asks my sister nonchalantly; she’s not particularly worried. Nor is the middle-aged man with whom we share the train car; he was unaffected by the lurching halt and didn’t miss a beat as he chatted into his cell phone. He’s wearing a wrinkled grey suit and red sneakers — an odd combination for such a hot day.
I look out the window for some clues to our mystery stop. We are still about an hour from our final destination in Napoli, and yet the train’s engines have completely shut down.
“Maybe uno sciopero?” I wonder aloud.
“It’s a strike,” I explain, “the service sectors here — especially transportation — strike every few weeks … or so it seems.”
“But they wouldn’t stop a train mid-journey … would they?”
“Nah … you’re right. I’m sure we’ll be moving soon.”
And with that, we wait. While Red Sneakers chatters on into his phone, the Mediterranean sun streams into the car. Without air conditioning to provide relief, Lisa and I take turns fanning each other with an orphaned copy of la Repubblica.
We are still stranded 30 minutes later when the train’s intercom crackles to life, and a voice — not unlike that of Charlie Brown’s teacher — fills the car. We all freeze; even Red Sneakers ends his phone call to listen. It drones on for about 30 seconds and although I don’t catch every word, the phrase “c’è una bomba sul binario,” is crystal clear.
Lisa is the first to break the ensuing silence. “Um … did she just say ‘bomba’? Like … a bomb?”
I nod at my sister and turn to Red Sneakers. He must sense my growing fear and slowly explains that they found a bomb on the tracks and will re-route us to Napoli.
“Is it terrorists? Terroristi?” My voice sounds strange.
He pauses, and then explains in Italian, “I don’t know. You tell me. You are the Americans on this train. Maybe Saddam found you. Hmmmm?”
The way he slurs his “s” leads me to believe he is from Bologna. I resist the urge to tell him that a) his Saddam Hussein jokes are not funny and b) he looks like Ryan Seacrest — mostly because it seems like bad timing, but also because I’m pretty sure Seacrest isn’t that well known in Northern Italy. And so I don’t say anything; we just stare at each other — me with a scowl and him with a smirk.
Lisa and I debate our options and decide we have none. Since they aren’t evacuating the train, it doesn’t seem like we are in any imminent danger. I’m still worried, however, since we only packed enough food and water for a five-hour trip. It is hotter than a pepperoncino in the train car, and I’m diabetic.
We immediately pool all of our remaining snacks, which include four pieces of gum, half a roll of pocket coffees, an apple, and a half-full bottle of water. Meanwhile, Red Sneakers is back on the phone and is mocking us with his eyes. Shouldn’t his battery be dead by now?
Three hours later, our rations are depleted and we are chewing relentlessly on stale gum. The train is crawling south ever so slowly and my head is full of cotton. We pass the time debating Harry Potter theories, strategizing methods to sneak Simenthal canned meat back into the U.S., and giggling incessantly. In the midst of our cabin fever, the train makes a stop and Red Sneakers leaves … without even saying goodbye.
The minute the door closes behind him, our giggling ends and we both zone in on a water bottle he has left behind. It is less than half full, and probably warmer than a caffe latte, but still … it is wet.
Not taking her eyes away from the bottle, Lisa says it first: “Well … are we going to do this?”
I lick my chapped lips and answer slowly, “I don’t know … he could have that bird flu.”
“We need to risk it. And never speak of it again. Ever. ”
I nod as she grabs the water from the bench, wipes the mouth of the bottle with the edge of her t-shirt, and hands to me.
We sit in silence for another hour, passing the warm water back and forth, taking tiny sips. Finally, nine hours after leaving Bologna, we arrive in Napoli. We pull our suitcases from the car, and leave nothing but Red Sneakers’ now empty water bottle behind.
We find our parents in the station and after serious “we almost died” hugs, we head to the nearest cafe. Dad explains that when our train didn’t arrive, he called Zio Michele’s son’s friend, Aldo — who works for the police and — and learned the infuriating news that it was merely the remnants of a World War II bomb that had been found on the tracks.
“WHAAAAT?” Lisa thunders, “It wasn’t even a REAL bomb? Because of some old shrapnel, we were forced to do shameful, ugly things?! ”
“What? What kind of things?” My mother wants to know.
Lisa looks down and takes a big, guilty bite of her panino while I immediately change the subject and regale them with our master plan to sneak Simenthal meat through customs.
As we are leaving the station, my mother asks if we met anyone interesting on the train. Lisa and I lock eyes and I quickly respond, “Nope. Just us.”