The Train to Roma

Daniel McCoy
Apr 24 · 6 min read
The cardboard sign I used when hitchhiking in 1971

It was nearly midnight when I got off the train in Milan. I had made it all the way up to Denmark during my spring break from studying in Rome but now I was heading back. I had hitchhiked south through Germany, but the rides had been short. Rather than stop for the night, I was hoping to get a train back to Rome. Sure enough, there was a train leaving soon for Rome. I got myself a ticket and found my way to the platform. A train pulled in just as I arrived at the platform. I hopped onto a second class car. Being about midnight, all the compartments were dark and had their shades drawn. This was obviously a longer haul train that had come in from somewhere else. It was already filled with people taking the night train to Rome who had settled in for the night’s ride. I didn’t want to barge in on sleeping strangers, particularly not knowing what language they might speak, so I just kept walking along the corridor into the next car as the train pulled out of the station.

Photo by Andrew Trius on Unsplash

In the second car, I saw a light on in a compartment halfway down the corridor. In it was a young man, maybe my age or a few years older. He was stylishly dressed for a young European man of the day in 1971, maroon pants, a patterned button-up shirt and boxy oxfords. His hair was in an only slightly long and in a not-quite-shag cut. He was a bit more upscale looking than my hippie-ish American look, jeans and a sweater with shoulder-length hair and a knapsack. He gestured for me to take a seat. After a few tentative attempts at a greeting it became apparent that he was German and spoke no English or Italian. Luckily, I had taken some German in high school and had enough vocabulary to handle greetings and get the gist of what he was saying.

He was surprisingly happy and enthusiastic to see me, as if he had been lonely in the compartment, just eagerly awaiting company. Very quickly our conversation, greatly stilted by my limited German, started to take a puzzling turn. It dawned on me that that German verb machen, roughly to make or to do, could serve a function in German that I hadn’t learned in class, something like its use in English in expressions such as make out or do it. In fact, when he said something along the lines of willst du machen mit mir, it became quite apparent that he was hoping for a sexual encounter that night, right there in the train compartment. I didn’t freak out. I had been around gay men a fair bit, though never hit on this way. Three of the first friends I made in my first month at college came out of the closet that semester and were still my friends at the end of the year. But my wiring is pretty straight. If I had had any gay curiosity, there had been ample opportunity to explore it. So my answer was a polite no thank you, or maybe nein danke. However, he was not satisfied with that answer. He was not aggressive, I never felt threatened, but he would just not let it go. It turned into pleading. I couldn’t grasp all the words, but it felt like he was saying things along the lines of but it’s so perfect, the night is young, we have this compartment to ourselves, come on! I kept politely declining. He kept on pleading.

I had witnessed young men subjecting young women to similar pressure before but it felt very alarming to be the subject of this attention myself. I felt trapped. There was nowhere else on the train to go. All of the other compartments were full of sleeping strangers. I wished this amorous fellow no harm. I just wanted him to stop pleading. I just wanted to rest. An Italian conductor walked by at one point, but I didn’t want to create a scene, especially involving yet another language of which my grasp was weak. After more than an hour of relentless pleading, the train pulled into the next station in Bologna. Rather than face three or more hours of this, I made a quick decision to abandon my ticket to Rome. I grabbed my knapsack and got off the train. The stop in Bologna was a short one and the train soon pulled out, disappearing down the track, leaving me alone in the deserted Bologna train station in the middle of the night. I found the board listing train departures, but there was nothing until morning. Any comfortable place to sit in the station was closed for the night. So I walked out into the unfamiliar city of Bologna.

This way to Firenze

I wandered the empty streets near the station until I saw a road sign which said FIRENZE beside an arrow. I figured that must lead to the Autostrada to Florence and on to Rome. I decided I would walk out to the Autostrada and try hitchhiking again. I still had my cardboard hitchhiking sign with ROMA printed on it that I had used earlier in the trip. It might take a while to walk there, but once there I might catch a ride on someone’s early drive to Rome, so I set off in the direction the FIRENZE sign indicated.

I walked for nearly an hour through Bologna. The buildings gradually thinned out, and eventually gave out completely. Another sign near the edge of the city made it apparent that this was the back road to Florence. It was a clear night, but there wasn’t much of a moon, so I found myself walking down a two-lane road through the Italian countryside by starlight. I saw the occasional farmhouse porch light well off the road, but mostly I could just see the road and sense in the dark that there were open fields on either side of me.

I was tired, but it felt good to be out in the open countryside. My stay in Europe so far had been completely urban, all streets and rooms and train compartments. The air here was fresh with the smell of green fields. The sense of openness all around was exhilarating. I had been afraid of the dark as a kid, but this dark felt welcoming somehow. I had just enough light to see that I was following the road. I felt really good. So I just kept walking.

A common cuckoo

After a few hours, a subtle pre-dawn glow started to appear in the east. It was just enough for me to sense a bit more of the fields around me with the shapes of the hills not far behind, even the occasional tree. I heard the sound of a cuckoo and immediately looked around because I thought there must be a cuckoo clock in a nearby house. There were no buildings anywhere near. Only then did I realize that what I had heard was the cuckoo bird that the clocks were made to mimic. The cuckoo sounded again and this time I was able to appreciate the beauty of the bird’s call without distraction. I smiled as I walked through the growing pre-dawn glow. I mentally thanked Dieter. I had not found out the German fellow’s name, but had decided to call him Dieter because he deterred me. In deterring me from my train ride to Rome, Dieter had inadvertently given me a slice of beauty that I would not have experienced otherwise, the sound of the cuckoo in the predawn glow on the Italian countryside.

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Daniel McCoy

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Tell Your Story

Everyone has a story to tell, probably many more than one. Tell Your Story is home for the best creative nonfiction and personal essays on Medium, stories from the heart that help us all understand a little bit more about ourselves and the world around us.

Daniel McCoy

Written by

Tell Your Story

Everyone has a story to tell, probably many more than one. Tell Your Story is home for the best creative nonfiction and personal essays on Medium, stories from the heart that help us all understand a little bit more about ourselves and the world around us.

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