Exactly one month after arriving in Italy, today I said goodbye to this crazy but lovable country, and headed north to the colder, more efficient, not-quite-as-fun world of Central Europe. Once again, I had to battle with my dear friends at TrenI-frikking-talia in order to get anywhere — boy, will I be glad to see the back of them — but even in the face of a nationwide train strike today, I managed to cross the border, to cruise through the majestic snow-covered peaks and still lakes of the Swiss Alps, and to reach my uncle and aunt in Zürich by the afternoon. Italy, it's been a pazzo four-and-a-half weeks, but I'm afraid it's time to say "ciao baby".
The story of today's train drama begins yesterday afternoon. I walk into the ticket office at Venice train station, and I say to the attendant: "one reservation on the 10:51am train to Zürich for tomorrow, thank you".
The attendant punches away at his computer for a few seconds, then replies: "you can't go to Zürich tomorrow — is not possible" (note the lack of "sorry" :P).
"Err... what? Why not?" I ask (yes, I had to explicitly ask).
"Because, is a strike! No trains tomorrow," he tells me, as though I'm the biggest moron in the world for not knowing this (despite there being no signs in the station, and no notices on the TrenItalia web site, mentioning any strike).
"Ah, I see. So... can I go somewhere else? Milan? Vienna? Bologna? Anywhere?"
"No! No trains tomorrow, nowhere in Italy, is a strike. Ciao. Next!"
WTF?! No trains anywhere tomorrow, in all of Italy? And no notices about it anywhere? All seemed very strange to me. I really didn't want to be stuck in Venice another day: it's a beautiful city, but it's bloody expensive; and besides, my family in Zürich was waiting to see me. So I decided to see what further information I could find. I jumped onto one of the self-service ticket computers in the train station, and attempted to buy myself a ticket for the 10:51am train tomorrow using the machine. The machine gave me an error: "reservation not available at this time". Hmmm... OK, seems that the computers know about the strike as well. But maybe they'll let me take another train? So I tried the 2:51pm train: same result. How about the early train to Zürich, at 8:42am? Hey, what do you know: bingo! The computer is prepared to give me a ticket on this train.
So I go back to the attendant at the counter, and I say to him: "the computer over there says I can catch the 8:42am train to Zürich tomorrow".
The guy doesn't respond: he just starts tapping on his keyboard again. Then he looks up, and says: "yes, of course, you can get that train."
"But what about the strike?" I enquire.
"Strike no start until 9 o'clock." Once again, he says it as though I must come from Mars, if I don't know that train strikes always start at 9am. My G-d: was this guy for real? Do you think it would have occurred to him in the frikking slightest that this vital little piece of information just might be of use to me — and that he could have volunteered it without my asking? It was like drawing blood out of the 10-metre thick concrete wall of a nuclear reactor! I mean, honestly: how much less competent a person could TrenItalia have possibly hired — even if they'd pulled an alcoholic off the streets, shoved a green tweed uniform on him, and paid him in bottles of metho instead of in Euros, I think the alkie could have done a better job at serving his customers than this pr$ck did.
Anyway, no point in telling the devil: "by the way, there are two big red horns sticking out of your head, dude". Instead, I just tiredly said: "right, then — one 2nd-class reservation, with Eurail pass, for the 8:42am Cisalpino to Zürich tomorrow." And that was that.
This morning, I got up nice and early (great fun, being moderately hung-over 'n' all after last night's pursuits), in order to be at Venice's Santa Lucia station at 8:15am. The reason? Well, my 8:42am train direct to Zürich left from Venice's "other main" station — Venezia Mestre — and there's no way I was going to fall for that one again, especially not on a 6-hour, high-speed, reservation-compulsory transnational trip. I made it to Mestre easily in time to get the Cisalpino — which, by the way, is a lovely high-speed service.
The train was packed to bursting on the first leg of the trip, from Venice to Milan. It was quite a madhouse, actually, with stops at several of the larger cities along the way (e.g. Verona, Brescia), and with people jostling through the crowded aisle in order to sit down or to get off. However, most of the crowds jumped ship when we reached Milan: and from then on, it was much more peaceful. I think that the majority of passengers just got this train, because it departed before the general strike started, and also because it's apparently one of the few "guaranteed services" that runs whether or not there's a national strike (since it's both a special service, and an international train).
The scenery out the window was nothing special whilst in Italy — mainly just flat, endless farmland, interspersed with regular urban sprawl — but once we started climbing into the Alps, it was a different story. We soon reached the southern part of the Alps that make up the Italian region of Switzerland (the region based around Ticino): we passed through the resort town of Logano, where the views of the sheer snow-capped peaks and the cystal-clear lakes was bloody incredible. "Wow", I thought, "this must be Switzerland."
The sudden dramatic beauty out the window wasn't the only indication of a border crossing, though. The change in the staff and the PA announcements on the train was just as dramatic, and just as characteristic of the differences between Italy and Switzerland. In Italy, all the announcements were solely in Italian — with the occasional sentence or two in broken English — despite the train's ultimate destination. Once in Switzerland, however, all announcements were made in perfectly fluent (for all) German, Italian and English! Plus, the rude Italian conductors were replaced with smiling, courteous Swiss conductors, as well as with attendants offering snacks.
It was quite comical, really, what a different world it was after crossing the border, merely by observing the proceedings within the train. You could almost smell the increase in efficiency, the more informative attitude, and the higher focus on reliable service. Crossing the border from Italy to Switzerland may be as easy as hopping on a train — and they may not even bother to look at your passport — but it's still about as contrasting a journey as you can make, and the contrast is not at all confined to what you see out your window.