Let Me Help You – I’ve Been in the Country Five Whole Minutes

Evidently there is some loose interpretation of the word rapide.  In English, the word rapid is associated with speed, an object moving quickly, even bordering on alarmingly fast.  I am in the south of France, seated on a train with the word rapide clearly stenciled on the side, but as we inch towards the Italian border, one tiny town at a time, it’s quite apparent the term also includes “milk run”.

The distance between the countless coastal villages is so small that the train barely gets up any velocity at all before the conductor applies the brakes to stop at the next one.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the caboose can still be seen from the platform of the last village when the locomotive pulls into the next station.  If I was willing to risk losing my seat, I would walk to the end of the train to see for myself.  But with hordes of happy Italian students packed into every available seat, aisle and passageway, I’m not willing to budge an inch.

Several interminable hours later we arrive in Ventimiglia, the first village on the Italian side of the border.  Here we are required to disembark, go through customs and re-board an Italian train fitted for a different track gauge.  Many European countries deliberately installed train track in different widths from their adjacent neighbors, as a clever way to prevent some enterprising, expansionist-inclined government from transporting their entire military regiment across the border under the cover of darkness and staging a surprise invasion.

We use the time between trains to roam around the little village, extract some money from a cash machine to buy our first piece of real Italian pizza and stretch our legs in the park near the station.  Larry and I are loaded down like pack animals.  We each schlep a large pack strapped to our backs and carry an overweight day-bag slung across in front.  Larry is wearing his money belt under his clothes and has extra cash stuffed in his shoe.  I’ve gotten lazy in the warmer weather and have left my money belt in my day-bag.  We find a sunny spot, place our backpacks on a bench, and sit side by side.  I prop my day-bag on top of my backpack. Larry secures his between his feet.

We are enjoying the sunshine and our pizza when a young man approaches us from the right.  He has a map in his hand and says something quizzical in Italian.  I hear cattedrale and strada and lean over to take a look.  I love maps.  I’m happy to help locate whatever he’s looking for.  He continues to talk while I peer at the map. Larry cautiously places his hand on his day-bag.  As I am puzzling over the street names, in some vigilant recess of my brain, I hear a noise.  A barely decipherable sound.  Like nylon sliding against nylon.

In one rushing, raging millisecond, a fierce animal instinct roars awake from the deep ancestral core of my being. I leap to my feet, a torrent of confrontational words spewing from my lips, and spin to see a man clutching my day-bag in his hands.  He freezes; a startled look of shock on his face.  I am crouched, my arms spread wide, ready to pounce.  For a breathless moment, we are immobile, our eyes locked in an electrifying standoff. Time decelerates, sound diminishes, and the world swirls around me in a slow rotation.  My hand slowly stretches out, inching closer to the bag holding all my valuables.  With one final movement, I grab the bag and growl, “Give it to me”.  As if energized by my touch, the man suddenly lets go, turns on his heel and sprints away.  I stand in stunned silence, the animal instinct spent, as I watch him disappear behind the station.

I experience a jarring sensation, as if I’ve been snapped back into my own body.  I look over to see Larry chasing off the map-toting accomplice, shouting obscenities in several languages.  I let out a gush of air and clutch my day-bag to my chest.  My heart is pounding and I feel flushed and prickly.  I sink down onto the bench, realizing just how lucky I am that the day-bag was heavier than the thief expected.  Any lighter and I wouldn’t have heard a thing. I immediately pull out my money belt, strap it onto my body, tucking it safely under my clothes.  I’m relieved to note, when the threat of malice is compelling, at least my response will be truly rapide.