N is for Nerd Who Fell Down Stairs

When traveling by 2nd Class train in Italy, you don't really buy a timed ticket. The ticket machine spits out a ticket that states the city of origin and the destination. This ticket is then usable for some length of time I don't exactly remember - several weeks, anyway. Before you board the train, you're supposed to validate the ticket by running it through a machine in the station that prints the date and time on it. On the train, a conductor might come by and check to make sure that you've got a valid ticket. As I understand it, the fines for riding without a valid ticket are pretty hefty. That's the set-up. Here's the story.

We're in La Spezia, sitting in a freezing-cold train car, waiting to depart for Pisa. We've spent the afternoon hiking between three of the five towns of the Cinque Terre (absolutely gorgeous, by the way, and highly recommended), and thus we're both dead tired, stiff and sore. And I'm sick as a dog, hacking and coughing and generating what seems like gallons of snot every hour. The train is scheduled to depart at 7:03 - and the column labeled "Ritardo" on the big board, "Late" that is, is blank, meaning the train's going to be leaving on time. It's 7:00 on the button when Em turns to me and says, "Hey, did we validate our tickets?"

"Aw, crap," I say, and without a second thought, because the tickets are in my jacket pocket, I jump up and get off the train, thinking there will probably be a ticket-validating machine right out there on the platform next to the train. No dice. I know for sure there's a machine back in the main station, so I dash down the stairs to the tunnel that runs under the tracks. Through the tunnel and up the stairs, tickets are punched. A quick glance reveals that our train is still motionless over on track 6. I head back for the stairs. Right at the top of the stairs, my inherent klutzy nature takes over at exactly the wrong moment, and I trip over my own feet. I'm going down and I know it.

It happens simultaneously in super-slo-mo and incredibly fast. As I'm falling, I'm thinking, "Oh, shit, this is really, really going to suck. I really can't be hurt right now, I have to get back on that train!" Maybe not quite so coherent or linear as this, but these thoughts are running through my head as I fall, alongside an image of Em wondering where the hell I am as the train pulls away, her aboard with all our luggage and no tickets. Then I hit the stairs, it hurts every bit as much as I expected, and thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump, I'm at the bottom of the stairs. The pain is excruciating, and I spend a fraction of a second being extremely grateful that I didn't break my damnfool neck or crack my skull open.

The image of the train pulling away with ticketless Em aboard flashes through my head again. I pop up, on my feet with more agility than I could have imagined possible. A few onlookers are staring at me from the top of the stairs with concerned looks on their faces. I give the Big Two Thumbs Up and shout, "I'm OK!" though, looking back, I realize that brushing myself off and saying, "I meant to do that" would have been funnier...well, to me, anyway.

I try to set off at a run back down the tunnel, but quickly realize that, departing train or not, a run just isn't in the cards. I settle for the fastest hobble I can manage. I force myself back up the stairs, each step agony, on the other end. As I emerge on the platform again, Em is hanging out the door of the train watching for me. She was ready to grab the bags and get off if I hadn't made it back in time, of course. The conductor is blowing his whistle; the train is ready to depart. I manage a jog for the last few steps to the train and haul myself aboard.

As we take our seats and the train pulls out of the station, Em points out that I've got a seven-inch rip in the crotch of my pants. Not a popped seam, but an enormous rip in the fabric. I borrow her windbreaker - which she had actually borrowed from QIR - and tie it around my waist like an apron. Not a classy look. In fact, it looks thoroughly idiotic, but it preserves my modesty, such as it is.

We arrive in Pisa over an hour later, and after some hemming and hawing on my part about whether we'll spend the night at the train station waiting for the middle-of-the-night train to Rome, Em decides that I really need to sleep in a bed. I bow to her superior wisdom, even though the cheapest hotel room we can find near the train station is €45.

The bruise on my upper right arm has by now faded to a jaundiced yellow. My left ankle still doesn't feel quite right, and the bruise on my right thigh remains a horrifying and disgusting vivid rainbow of painful, tender flesh.

And the conductor never even checked the damn tickets, anyway.