I used to think that public transport in the UK was bad. Expensive and unreliable, I would often feel frustrated at the sheer randomness of British trains. I remember wanting to book a trip to Cornwall over the summer, but being appalled at the train ticket prices being over £200. Why was it cheaper for me to catapult myself to Italy with three big suitcases than it was for me to wobble across England on the train? None of it made much sense to me. However, the UK is notorious for its train strikes, meaning that I soon got used to its chaotic system.
That was until I moved to Italy. For this year, I’ve relocated to a town called Pavia, a 30-minute train ride from Milan. A university town akin to Oxford, Pavia does not have much going for it in terms of public transport. Buses are few and far between, often coming not as scheduled, and stopping their services as early as 8pm. I’ve never even used the bus in Pavia, because I find the system so incredibly convoluted and difficult to navigate, meaning that I have to use my trusty legs to get me from A to B, even if it takes an hour. Luckily, I’m well-versed on these types of treks having come from St. Hugh’s.
While waiting for the bus is, at worst, a bit inconvenient, the trains are a completely different matter. Although the ticket prices are a lot cheaper than in the UK, allowing you to travel across the entire country for roughly €20 (especially if you book in advance), it’s truly a gamble whether or not you’ll be travelling on a strike. Sometimes even the strikes go on strikes, adding to the unpredictability of the Italian public transportation system.
Unfortunately, luck has not been on my side during my long-haul trips. In December, I was due to travel from Pavia to Nice, by the intercity train, for a holiday. With a direct train going from my town to Ventimiglia (on the Italian-French border) and another train going straight into the south of France, the whole journey was supposed to take around five hours at the most. I’d booked the earliest train, leaving at 7am, and had booked in advance so that a first-class ticket would be only €1 more expensive than a normal ticket, and so I was excited to enjoy the luxuries of my wonderfully cushioned seat. Instead, I was mortified to find out that I was travelling on a strike day!
Despite my previous luck, I had been cursed with a train that, although wasn’t entirely cancelled, terminated much sooner than anticipated; I was stuck in Genova, a mere hour away from Milan. I was not even a quarter of my way through my trip when I found myself stranded, lost at what to do next. It must’ve been about 9am, and I was informed that if I want to take the next direct train to Ventimiglia, I’d have to wait until the strike ends at 6pm. Hopelessness dawned on me as I realised I didn’t want to spend the whole day camping out at the train station, but with my suitcase and freezing hands. I didn’t have much choice. For two hours, I waited for the next train that would take me even just a little bit closer to my destination; my only company was the Cavalier King Charles spaniel running across the platform. Soon enough I was stuck in yet another random station, even smaller than the one in Genova. I can’t even remember its name because it was in such a remote part of Italy.
This is where I spent the majority of my afternoon. I was cold, exhausted, and hungry. It was raining and there was no place for me to sit, so I had no choice but to create a makeshift seat out of my suitcase and stare blankly at the train announcement screen, only to see cancellation after cancellation. At that point, I was sure that I was never going to get to France, and almost accepted defeat. After three hours of mindlessly playing Candy Crush, a miracle arrived in the form of a train, finally going to Ventimiglia! I arrived in Nice after almost 12 hours of travelling, feeling frazzled yet relieved that the strike had finally ended. It was truly a nightmare journey, but one that I’m sure I’ll look back fondly on someday. I’ve come to accept that journeys often don’t go as planned, and all we can do is persevere and hope that we will reach our final destination. Being forced to confront such stressful travel scenarios has made me more resilient in approaching unpredictability, so not all hope is lost when something goes wrong during a journey.
Public transportation is always a gamble, but I am certainly grateful (especially in Europe) that places are so well-connected. In fact, I find it so astonishing how even from London, we can get on a train all the way to Amsterdam, passing through other countries for such affordable prices. With cheaper trains, it is definitely a lot more accessible to travel across countries in the EU, and I’m sure my journey will be smoother next time I attempt to go to Nice.