Waiting for Godot at Campo di Carne
Instead of meeting my son Neal at the international airport as planned, I was marooned in the boonies somewhere south of Rome. I sat waiting at a railway platform for the next train back to the city, with no idea when it might arrive. In 2004, I didn’t have a cellphone, not even the flip-open kind, so I couldn’t just call or text to get a ride. There wasn’t a taxi in sight, or I might have hijacked it to get back. I was that desperate.
While on leave from my U.S. university, I worked at a United Nations organization in Rome. My wife Marie and I found a two-bedroom apartment near the Vatican to rent. Our son Neal, on winter break from college, would be the first of many visitors to use the second bedroom.
When Marie and I first arrived in Italy, we’d taken an expensive taxi ride straight from the airport to the apartment. It seemed more a necessity than a luxury, since we had a lot of luggage for our extended stay and doubted we could find the place on our own. Smartphones with maps right at your fingertips were still several years away.
Our rental flat didn’t even have a phone, because getting one installed was costly and a long wait. We were concerned that if Neal had difficulty finding the apartment or other problems, he had no way of contacting us, which is why I wanted to meet him.
I checked on my computer at work on public transportation to the airport, the Aeroporto Internazionale Roma-Fiumicino “Leonardo da Vinci”. That morning, when I headed to meet my son, Marie said, “Now, are you sure you know how to get there?” I replied, “No worries, it should be a piece of cake.”
I started by taking the subway from a station near our flat to the central rail terminal, Roma Termi. Once there, the overhead display in the main hall showed that the Leonardo Express to the airport departed from Track 23. After buying a ticket, I headed there.
As I approached Track 23, there was a train ready to leave, but it didn’t say Leonardo Express or Aeroporto anywhere. As I looked for someone to ask, I walked up as far as the engine that had “Leonardo da Vinci” emblazoned on the side. That was good enough for me, and I hopped aboard as the doors closed. I took a seat and pulled out the International Herald Tribune I’d purchased on the way.
Since the train ride ended at the airport, there was no need to pay attention to getting off at the right stop, so I relaxed and read the newspaper. After half an hour, we should have been approaching the airport, but there was no announcement, nor could I see any sign of it out the window.
I found an English-speaking conductor and asked how much longer before the airport. Before answering, he grimaced and held his hands up, palms outward. I’d learned this was a universal sign Italians made, if they were going to give you some bad news. “Signore, is not the right train. Wrong train for the airport. Must go back to Roma Termi.”
After berating myself, I got off at the next stop which was Campo di Carne, which means “field of meat”, or “cattle pasture.” It was such a small town that there was no station building, only an open-air platform, and fields with grazing cows on the other side of the tracks.
There wasn’t even a train schedule posted anywhere, nor was there a public phone kiosk in sight. Three elderly Italian men were sitting on a nearby bench, carrying on a lively conversation. Greeting them, I learned they spoke no English, and I knew too little Italian to find out anything, though.
I discovered later, when I checked a map, Campo di Carne was about 20 miles south of Rome and less than ten miles west of the airport. Campo di Carne was on a rail line connecting some dozen towns to Rome. It primarily served commuters, which explained why there were few trains in the middle of the day.
After waiting over two hours, I was feeling like one of the main characters in the famous absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” In the play, two men wait for someone named Godot, who never arrives.
An Italian gentleman, wearing a suit and tie, showed up a bit later. I assumed he was going to Rome and greeted him, “Buongiorno, signore. Parla Inglese?” (Do you speak English?). He replied, “Un po,” (a little). With a few words and by pointing at his wristwatch, he let me know a train would arrive in five minutes.
When it came into view, I wanted to scream, Hallelujah!
I didn’t get back to Rome until three hours after my son’s plane had landed. Thankfully, he didn’t know I planned to meet him, so he didn’t wait, but found his own way.
When I got back to our apartment, my wife looked relieved and asked, “Where on earth have you been for the last four hours? Neal got here fine and is in taking a nap, but we were worried about you.”
Like a seasoned traveler, my son had taken the Leonardo Express to the central station and then got a taxi. He’d written out the address to our apartment and shown it to the taxi driver. After getting dropped off, he used the intercom in the lobby to call Marie from downstairs.
I sheepishly explained what had happened to me, although I still didn’t understand how I got on the wrong train. For my wife and son, it was more evidence that I was the perfect archetype of an absent-minded professor.
What I found out later from my Italian friends was that trains other than the Leonardo Express might use Track 23. When I said that the train’s engine had “Leonardo da Vinci” painted on its side, they explained that ItaliaRail sometimes put names of famous Italians on its train engines. It also might have been leftover from a special commemoration for Leonardo.
Or maybe it was all a big plot to get me “Waiting for Godot” at Campo di Carne. In our always-connected world today, Vladimir and Estragon, the two men in the play, couldn’t be expected to wait long for Godot without one of them pulling out their cellphone and calling or texting him, asking when he’d arrive.