Italy. Summer 1979. Overnight express train from Milan to Brindisi.


My travel companion John and I were clickety-clacking southward to catch the ferry boat cutting away from the heel of the Italian boot across the blue Ionean Sea to Patras, Greece.

Our vagabond student backpacking wandering was into its third month.

I was so young and pliable that I’d started to talk with a slight British accent after only a month hitchhiking in England and Scotland. If the Queen had invited me for tea, she might have mistaken me for one of Prince Charles’ good buddies, in those pre-Diana days.

John and I had been 2 friends from high school, three years into our professional careers, living thousands of miles apart with a common desire to travel Europe.

The relationship between John and myself went off the rails almost immediately after we landed in England from Toronto. Within a week together, we could barely agree on whether London was north or south of Edinburgh.

Fortunately, we had an equal relationship. We were both equally certain that the other was a total ASSHOLE. Our tense “marriage” crumbling, we took to separating for a week or so and meeting up at pre-determined locations for a day or two before splitting off once again in different directions.

One thing we could agree on was that we were both keen on visiting “cheap” Greece. So, while knocking back huge frothy steins of beer, and lustily shouting eins, zwei, g’suffa in the huge Hofbrauhaus in “expensive” Munich, Germany, we agreed to meet a few days later in Milan so we could travel in tandem to Athens.


A then-cheap Eurail pass gave us unlimited train and boat travel in western Europe. We used the landlocked cruise locomotive not only as transport but also a place to crash on the nights when hostels were filled and there were no stable-rooms available at the inn. It provided all of the necessities for efficient travel. Our goal was to access as many European ruins, cathedrals, art galleries, and museums as possible in the time before our return flight to Canada.

We agreed to catch the overnight train from Milan to Brindisi and then jump aboard the morning ferry boat to Greece. In the Milano train station, we waited in a line for about an hour anticipating the train’s arrival. There were 30 or 40 of us young 20-something kids from various countries, festooned with our heavy backbacks and hiking boots.

Conversations ensued.

Just in front of my friend John and myself were 2 young girls, our age, Canadians we quickly discovered.

One was dark-haired and studious looking, the other, knockout gorgeous with short blonde hair and an “I’m ready to party” attitude about her. Woody Allen’s movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has two female characters (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) that could have been these girls’ close twins.


As Canadians, there was a commonality that led to excited chatter about where we lived and what we did when we weren’t backpacking… soon, a bit of flirting and suggestive talk arose between John and “Scarlett”.

As dusk began to settle in, the train arrived at the station in a cacaphonous mixture of brake squeals and diesel smoke. Together, we four Canadians climbed aboard.

A quick bond had formed between us, as so often happens when we travel. Strangers become friends in a flash in a foreign country. We stuck together and found an unoccupied compartment to share. John and Scarlett on one side, “Rebecca” and I sat on the other.

Train compartments were always cozy with their heavy sliding entrance doors and long plush-weave bench seats that faced each other on either side. When there were no other itinerants occupying the adjoining spot on the bench, we could stretch out on them to sleep. Drop-down windows allowed us to gulp in huge mouthfuls of fresh air when smokers shared our space and to hang our heads out like dogs in speeding cars to take in the gorgeous Italian countryside. Orchards filled with ripening olive trees or reach-to-the-sky sunflowers refreshed our mental cupboards when they were filled to overflowing with cathedrals and museums.

train compartment

Soon, the train began to inch forward and the compartment lights were dimmed so that we could see only shadowy outlines of each other in the darkness.

Like some magic, as the lights dimmed, John and Scarlett’s ardour rose.

The mere act of turning down the compartment light seemed to draw something intense from their inner sexual urges. Neither Rebecca nor myself were interested in creating our own “liaison” with each other.

Conversation died off and the sounds of physical connection took over. Oohs and ahhs and slurps and smacks rippled across the dusky compartment in little waves. Shuffles of clothing being removed or pushed up or down. The unhinging of bra and pant buttons and zippers. Each new note of voice or clothing sound increased my discomfort. Making casual conversation with my benchmate Rebecca seemed inappropriate somehow.

What to do, what to do.

Rebecca and I became unwilling and uncomfortable voyeurs-in-the-dark.

Feigning sleep at this point seemed to be the only option.

I closed my eyes as the level of lust and fast paced rhythmic intimacies intensified. The blending of the train’s steady staccato beat and our companions lovemaking merger was like a beautiful artistic aria in an Italian opera. I remembered that I didn’t like opera.

The train’s rhythm continued pulsing on but the movement and sounds on the opposite side of the compartment soon swelled … and peaked … and then receded. The night returned to quiet, except for the incessant click-clack beneath us.

The sun rose hot and bright early the next morning and the train pulled to a stop in Brindisi. We sleepily poured ourselves off onto the station platform. We stood chatting a bit awkwardly together. Scarlett and Rebecca said they planned to stay a day or two in Brindisi before taking the ferry across to Greece. Mailing addresses were exchanged (e-mail in 1979, not a chance!).

We said our goodbyes to the girls and ambled in different directions down the platform. John and I were soon aboard the ferry bound for Greece and seeking new adventures in a new country.

We didn’t talk about the night before.

There were uncontrollable trains that merged and passed in that night and on that trip. We hop onto one train, enjoy the journey, and travel to a destination that suits us. Then a station comes along and we decide a new destination will fit us better than the one where we’re headed.

I never saw or heard from either Scarlett or Rebecca again after that day.

A few weeks later we boarded the plane returning from London to Toronto.

I never saw or heard from John again.

(*with apologies to Paul Simon for hijacking lyrics from his song “Train in the Distance“)

 Man Looking Out Train Window