Olives and coriandoli on Italian trains


en.wikipedia.org TRAIN

Post WW II European films were all about neo-realism, and scenes in crowded 2° or 3° class train compartments were often a perfect setting. Third class has disappeared since, and most trains nowadays have open space carriages with rows of seats, some of which face each other across a functional folding table. People hunker down over their laptops, or commune with their smartphones and in worst case scenarios have conversations on them that make me miss the staid reminders on Swiss trains not to bother fellow passengers.

Boarding an Intercity train for an afternoon’s work in Naples was like stepping into one of those great classics. I first had to push ahead through the narrow corridor hurdled with suitcases, and finally got to my compartment. Through the glass partition I could see it was going to be a tight fit, and the smell of salami and garlic hit me on sliding the door open. The only free seat was a middle one, and my co-travelers were all digging into immense paper wrapped sandwiches as I clambered over the legs of the large elderly ladies sitting next to the door. Mumbled apologies, bags moved, I sat, temporarily overpowered by the environment. Open stares, followed by a chorus of friendly nods and offers “would I like a sandwich?” which I refused with a smile as I took out some documents to review for my meeting.

Train food

Train food

Well, it turned out to be a particularly entertaining trip, a lovely example of what Italy can really be like, beyond all the history, ruins, art, fashion and culture. Beyond the exasperating politics, chaos and corruption, beyond the foodie myths.

It’s basically a country made up of extremely varied regions, where the people speak with slightly different – or very different –  accents and dialects, where their cuisine and habits can also differ hugely. But when you end up in the cramped quarters of an old fashioned train compartment, their one shared characteristic blossoms: they’re friendly, unabashedly inquisitive and they thrive on talking. I was doing my best to keep to my reading, but lost my foreign cool and joined in when one of the large ladies said to the one at the window “Mi sorprende da te che sei nata a Napoli!” – roughly translated “how can someone born in Naples come out with something that inane!” Based on their pretty hard to understand rapid-fire pronunciation, I’d figured by then that the two ladies were from a town near Naples, the one next to the window originally from Naples but easier to follow, and that though they were engaged in a series of serious exchanges with the familiar “tu” pronoun, they’d never met before.

Fontechiara.com 2

It was all pretty endearing as most of the conversation rotated around food in some guise. The first part was about what to do with the olives from your tree in terms of pickling, or salting or however you choose to preserve them. The various personal secrets were happily exchanged and heatedly debated –  wash them in barely warm water, no, no never too hot! One of the ladies confided that you can put them in a basin on your heater or under your heater (which is best I asked? she replied it depends on your heater). The number of times you change the water, number of days the process takes and in what recipes you use the olives after were all discussed in detail.  I realized belatedly that all this was for small black olives, and none of them knew if their system would work with the green ones I can pick from a friend’s tree in Rome. I’ll just have to try.

The ladies informed us they were best friends since they were toddlers, had grown up on the same village street and migrated to Tuscany to work as nurses at the same time. One of them regaled us with tales of having had to go to her mother-in-law’s every single Sunday for the whole day – “never to my own mother’s” –  In the first six years of her marriage because her husband missed his mother’s home-made “sugo” – spaghetti sauce. Apparently hers never tasted quite as good. At some point, the doctor advised her husband to eat lighter fare – ligher sugo. The mother-in-law refused to modify her recipe, and to my compartment friend’s delight, was so offended at the very idea, that she refused to speak to them for months and didn’t “invite” them for Sundays for years after. She swore it was true.

View from the train

View from the train

At one point I realized the man next to me hadn’t said a thing all along, so I turned to him and stated I took it he wasn’t from Naples.  On target: he was from Tuscany, from a hilltop village I recognized as being wine-country, which led to a discussion along those lines, plus remarks on the particularities of his regional pronunciation. Indeed, in the land of Dante, hard C’s tend to sound like English “h”, as in “casa= hasa – house,  cane= hane– dog”, which can be confusing when you’re learning the language, and delightful when you become more familiar with it. He added to my pedestrian examples of house and dog, and left me with a lovely memory of his softly musical “coriandoli”* …  without the c.

* “confetti” in English

Pictures: train carriage http:// en.wikipedia.com;  Italian olives:  www.fontechiara.com



This entry was posted in Blogging, Food, Italy, Languages, Sociology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Olives and coriandoli on Italian trains

  1. M. L. Kappa says:

    Lovely post, Bea. Glad I stumbled onto your blog

  2. Hello ,
    I enjoyed reading this post , For one thing I recently started travelling on trains here in India and mainly on the weekends , I was taken back to the times when I had such conversations with fellow passengers, it was nice reading about the conversation between the ladies , and as you and herschelian stated about the modern day gadgets of communication , that is so true !!, I see it here a lot as more and more people are hooked to their cell devices , at times I think though they are all means of communication devices , are we really getting the true essence of communication, anyhow that’s another conversation we can have later ,well it was really nice reading about the train trip – thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Joel F says:

    Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed reading this.

  4. lundygirl says:

    I loved reading this – felt like I was right there. Friendship is a very wonderful thing (those two ladies). My last train journey was spent partly with football fans who I feared would all be drunk (they weren’t) followed by sharing a table with three women on their way to the US. I preferred the football fans for company.

  5. roninjax says:

    Great post as always. It brought back my memory of taking the train from Pisa to Florence. I still have the images in my mind of the mountainside along the way and of the open seating areas. It would be nice to have this type of transportation in the U.S.. I must admit I haven’t ridden a train in the U.S. since being a teenager. I recall also a nice trip to Tuscany and seeing the marble excavation, as well as the beautiful view. I was amazed. I love the Italian language and learned a few phrases. Actually I wanted to learn more but I don’t stick to it. Tossed between Italian and Spanish.

    • Bea dM says:

      Yes, you can catch great views looking out of trains, views you could miss when driving. I don’t recommend learning both Italian and Spanish at the same time, too confusing 🙂

  6. herschelian says:

    Lovely reminder of the true joys of using trains. The laptop, WiFi, and the dreaded mobile phone have killed the pleasures of meeting people in a random but un-threatening way. I go from London to Fife by train (4.5hrs) a few times each year and it is soul-less. Here in China the high-speed rail is amazing, people play cards, eat noodles, chat, sleep. Being a “wai guo ren” (foreigner), kids make a bee-line for me and want to practice their rudimentary English – and even if they don’t want to approach me their parents and grandparents push them forward! One little lass spent half an hour correcting my Chinese pronunciation with great patience.

    • Bea dM says:

      The kids sound polite – they actually do what their parents tell them to! – but what I find interesting is they’re motivated to speak English, which means they realise it’s a must for their future prospects nowadays. Sad to say you still rarely get the same attitudes from Italian kids….

  7. sittingpugs says:

    Would a Tuscan person then say, “Don Orleone?”

  8. Trains are such a wonderful way to travel and, in this case, meet people. It is a shame that we don’t have the same opportunities here in the United States.

    • Bea dM says:

      Coach buses aren’t nearly as conducive to human interactions, but bus travel in the US has an exotic aura of adventure for me too 🙂

  9. I love Italy, and reading this makes me want to return ASAP. Great entry 😀

    • Bea dM says:

      Thank you! and do give it a thought – I can suggest inexpensive lodgings in Rome 🙂

      • I’ve been to Rome twice…Florence twice…Milan twice…Verona, Venice, Pisa, Cinque Terre too…so I’m more interested in going to Turino or southern Italia next time around! 🙂

      • Bea dM says:

        Actually I couldn’t agree more: Turin is tops of my bucket list (been there a number of times, but only for business, not tourism) and the south of Italy can be an unexpected delight.

      • Italia (the Mediterranean in general) is just a plethora of treasures just waiting to be discovered.

  10. zipfslaw1 says:

    My favorite European train story: the very first time I ever came to France, it was as a stop on my way to a little town in what used to be East Germany. I took the train from Paris to a big station somewhere in Germany. While we were still in France, I went to the dining car (or whatever they’re called now). I ordered a coffee in French, and was sold a coffee in French. At some point after we crossed the German border, I went back to get another coffee. Again I ordered it in French, but this time the server just smirked at me–something about his look communicated that he was now going to be utterly unable to understand me unless I spoke to him in German. I don’t speak a word of German, but fuck him–I smirked back, ordered my coffee in Yiddish, he served me, and I returned to my seat happily caffeinated.

  11. zipfslaw1 says:

    Beautifully written story!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s