Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

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Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Death on the tracks

This is a true story told to me by the man who took the upper berth on a train in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.

Our friend, who related this story, was boarding a sleeper car. He had reserved the lower berth in a compartment, but when he reached it, he found it occupied by a man who had not made a reservation. The man aggressively refused to budge from our friend’s berth. Our friend called the conductor. After a considerable and unpleasant argument, the miscreant relinquished the berth, which our friend then occupied.

Shortly after this, an old man, who had been given a reservation in the upper berth, entered the compartment. He was unable to climb into the upper berth. Out of kindness, our friend took the old man’s upper berth and gave him the lower one.

Next morning, our friend woke up. He climbed down from his upper bunk and was horrified to discover that the old man had been stabbed to death during the night. No doubt, the man who had been evicted by the conductor had exacted his revenge.

A narrow escape

Ladbroke monument

 

My first job as a dentist was in a lovely practice in the Medway Towns. After having worked there for eleven years, I married and then lived in London. As it became tiring commuting by car between Kensington and north-east Kent, I changed practices. I worked for about nine months in north-west London in a practice where I was not happy. Then, I moved to another practice near Portobello Road. After about four years, the owner of that practice decided to open another branch in Maidenhead, Berkshire. I thought it would be interesting to work in a brand-new practice, and as Maidenhead was served by a good rail connection from Paddington, which is near my home, I decided to move to the new practice, where I treated its very first patient.

Usually, I boarded a local train that left Paddington a few minutes past eight in the morning. Just over half an hour later, I used to disembark at Maidenhead station, which was a couple of minutes’ stroll from the practice. Of the patients whom I treated there, the less said the better. My best memory of the place was that it was near a wonderful sandwich shop. The people who worked there had no idea about portion size control. So when I ordered my favourite sandwich, filled with prawn mayonnaise, it contained so much filling that I could hardly get my mouth around it.

One Monday evening, I returned to Paddington a little earlier than usual. Not being in a great hurry, I bought a ticket for the following Monday’s journey to Maidenhead.

On the following day, Tuesday the 5th of October 1999, I arrived at Paddington early as usual. Having already bought my ticket the evening before, I was able to take the train that left a few minutes earlier than the one I usually boarded. It left just before 8 am. The train I normally travelled on left a few minutes after 8 am.

I arrived at Maidenhead and began working. In those days, I used to have a radio running in my surgery. I heard a news bulletin that mentioned that there had been a terrible rail crash. I thought nothing of it until I returned to Maidenhead station that afternoon. I discovered, to my annoyance, that no trains were running as far as Paddington. They were all terminating west of Paddington at Ealing Broadway, where, fortunately, there is an Underground line which allowed me to continue my homeward bound journey.

It was only when I reached London that I learned more details about the crash. The train that I normally boarded every morning, the one which left a few minutes past 8 am, had collided head-on with a high-speed express train coming in the opposite direction on the same set of rails. Later, it was reported that 31 people had died and over 500 were injured. Most of the victims, killed and injured, were on board the train that I missed taking because I had bought my tickets on the night before.

There is a monument to those who died in the crash. It is near the large Sainsbury supermarket on Ladbroke Grove. Whenever I see this simple stone monument or think about the incident, I shudder. One of the names on that memorial could have easily been mine.

Night club in Budapest

I apply for a Hungarian visa in Belgrade in 1979

The Hungarian Embassy in Belgrade was located in a smart residential
building on a tree-lined street near to the Hotel Slavija. I waited at a
small curtained window in one of the embassy’s reception rooms, and
after a while the heavy green canvas curtain covering it was swept
aside suddenly. The lady on the other side of the window asked me for
my passport. I handed it to her. It was stuffed full of bits of paper that I
wanted to keep for one reason or another. She removed this extraneous
material, and holding it gingerly between the tips of her thumb and
forefinger, flung it back at me, saying,
“This, I do not need.”

Konak Ljubica

Konak Ljubica, Belgrade

I filled in a short visa application form whose questions were in
Hungarian and English. One of these related to the colour of an
applicant’s motor car, should he or she be planning to drive it into
Hungary. The motorist was required to tick one of several boxes, each
labelled with a colour in Hungarian and also its English translation. The
form included a mysterious colour: ‘drab’. I imagine that this must
have been a mistranslation of the Hungarian word for ‘grey’. I paid a
modest fee in Deutschmarks rather than Yugoslav Dinars; the official
kept the passport, and asked me to return the next day….

After arriving in Hungary

…We did a lot of sight-seeing during our brief stay in Budapest (pic below). Not only
did we see the better known sights, but we also explored the lesser-known attractions, including the Museum of the Hungarian Workers’
Party and the Young Pioneers’ Railway.

BU 2 BUDA view of Castle

Budapest

This narrow-gauge railway
line, which wound its way along the ridges of the hills behind and
above Buda, was staffed and run by schoolchildren. Dressed in the
uniform of Hungarian State Railways, these youngsters operated the
scenic train service under the supervision of a few adults. The railway
was high above the city, and to reach its terminus we rode the cograilway
that travels up into heights of the Buda Hills from its terminus
near the ugly but huge triangular Moskva Ter (Moscow Square), one of
Buda’s transport hubs.

BU 4 BUDA Saluting young pioneer

Just as I had a yearning to shop for LPs, especially in the Hungarian
shops in Vaci Street and the fascinating East German Cultural Centre
shop in Deak Square, Peter also had a special desire. He wanted to visit
a Hungarian night club. We asked our hosts in Obuda about this, and
they suggested the Astoria Hotel in the city centre. One evening after
eating dinner in an enormous art-nouveau restaurant during which I ate
a portion of the amazingly pungent and highly smelly Pálpuszta cheese,
we turned up at the main entrance of the Astoria. We were directed to a
smaller side entrance, where we paid a modest entry fee to enter the
night club.

BU 3 BUDA Young Pioneers GOOD

We were led upstairs into a dimly lit smallish room furnished with a
small stage, tables, and chairs. Most of the chairs were occupied by
middle-aged couples dressed-up for an evening out, but wearing
somewhat dowdy outfits. I felt that they did not look like city dwellers,
nor did their appearance fit in with my preconceived idea of typical
habitués of night clubs. I suspected that they might have been a group
of visitors who had come from the provinces to visit Budapest. After a
few performers had regaled us with folk-songs, to which many of the
audience joined in, a magician appeared on stage. He performed a
number of conjuring tricks, after which we left. I don’t believe that the
homely show that we had just observed was exactly what Peter had
hoped for.

 

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