Nuns on a Train

By Ashley Seashore

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Half of my money is in my right shoe. My passport is in my left. The other half of my money is in an envelope in my underwear, and my credit cards, family photos, and one traveler’s check are in a flimsy pouch slung around my neck and hidden beneath my clothes. I have arrived in Rome in the dead of night at the wrong train station and I’m certain that the only reason I’ve been unmolested so far is thanks to the grace of a small crew of Sicilian nuns who have now left me.

Stazione Sant-Oreste is dark and empty. The shops and ticket counters are closed; the people are gone. There are too many shadows and echoes. I wait nervously as furrow-browed station patrolman Pierre-Luis takes my measure. Will he fulfill his promise to the nuns to look after me? Or will he do what I can see he wants to do, which is abandon me to whatever awaits me in the night? After all, he only made the promise so the nuns would stop yelling at him and poking him in the chest with their godly, determined fingers.

I didn’t recognize the ferocity of the holy women when I first encountered them in a train compartment in Torino. I was tired from over twenty hours of buses and trains already, and crestfallen because I had just learned that I’d been relying on the wrong timetable to get me to my final destination. Mine was a mere week old, but it was the wrong season. The train I needed didn’t exist again until the next winter. And that was only half the problem. When I realized my mistake, I found a payphone and used the last of my calling card to reach the hostel I’d booked in Rome, hoping they would take a message for a friend I was meeting there. My friend, however, had not shown up that day so they canceled our reservations. I had nowhere to stay.

But the only train to the Eternal City was about to depart, so I rushed through the station with my giant backpack bouncing up and down, and jammed my arm into the train door as it was closing. Squeezing myself and my giant nylon shell into the narrow corridor, an irritated conductor mumbled to me in Italian, checked my Europass, and jabbed his thumb toward the sleeping compartments. The ride would be long and slow, and I hoped for a nap to gird myself for whatever was coming next.

The first compartment I peeked into had a family with small children, already kicking the benches and pressing their squishy, food-smeared faces against the glass. In another was a single man. No thanks. I’d heard too many traveler legends about solo women on Italian trains with strange men.

Finally, I clicked open the flimsy door of the last compartment and there they were — three benevolent sisters, beaming up at me. “Come in, come in.” they beckoned, as if they’d been there waiting all along. There was one empty seat by the window.

The compartment was stuffy and small. I shoved my backpack onto the overhead shelf and went to my seat, trying to move delicately so I didn’t disturb the women’s calf-length gray skirts. I’d never been around nuns before and didn’t know how to behave. Should I be deferential? Fake some piety? Treat them like anyone else? Perhaps they would reject me when they learned I wasn’t Catholic – or allied with any religion, really. Or, worse, they’d use the hours-long train ride to proselytize, having pinned me into the seat furthest from the door. So many questions, but they put me at ease as soon as I sat down.

Sister Arnotta spoke English. The others nodded and smiled as she translated. She showed me a beautiful prayer card with the sacred heart on the front and a watercolor of their quaint convent on the back. She asked if I was Catholic. When I mumbled that I hadn’t been raised under any church, she smiled with benevolent pity and waved her hand. “No matter.” she said.

The nuns wanted to know more about me. Where I was from, where I was going, why was I alone? And, finally, why did I look so sad?

I tried to explain in the simplest terms for the sake of translation. “I’m arriving in Rome at the wrong station and the wrong time, and I don’t have a place to stay.” I told her.

Her Italian version properly conveyed the tragedy of my situation, and the other nuns clucked with sympathy and conferred amongst themselves. After a moment, Sister Arnotta declared, “We will help you.”
“Grazie.” I said gratefully. It was one of only a handful of Italian words I knew, but they were delighted.

We chatted more, Sister Arnotta unflagging in her attempts to understand me and translate to her sisters, but I was growing tired. And I was hungry. I brought out some bread and cheese that I’d been nibbling on since I left England and they offered me a simple, sweet baked roll. Their kindness seemed boundless.

Bread and conversation spent, I settled in and relaxed enough to sleep, grateful and content that my belongings were safe and so was my person. I wallowed in my predicament just a tad, wondering where my friend had gone instead of meeting me at the hostel and feeling distraught that my time in Rome might end up being quite lonely. But at the moment I was surrounded by lovely nuns. Surely things would be all right.

~ ~ ~

At one o’clock in the morning, we pulled into Oreste. The small cavalcade of nuns, led by Sister Arnotta, escorted me off the train. They yelled at anyone who didn’t get out of our way, rapped strangers on shoulders to hurry them up, punctuated their Italian with sharp hand gestures, and cleared the way so I could step down from the train like I was carrying the Infant Baby Jesus in my arms.

Amid the bustle of travelers, they wrangled the first polizia they saw, the young, chubby-cheeked Pierre-Luis, and sweetly beseeched him for help on my behalf, cooing and smiling as they presented me to him.

“No.” he replied, shaking his head and taking a step back. “No, no, no.”

How bedraggled could I possibly look? I thought. Was I too pathetic to merit sympathy?

But the sisters wouldn’t have a refusal from him. They yelled, they poked, they invoked things. Finally, he relented. Then they blessed me, invited me to their convent in Sicily, and whirled away in a flurry of gray wool and black shoes.

~ ~ ~

And now here I was, nun-less, be-backpacked, and bedraggled in an empty station with my fate in the hands of Pierre-Luis. At last he sighed and motioned for me to follow him.

Pierre-Luis led me along the platform to the police office, illuminated by a single, low-wattage bulb next to the door. It was a box of a room painted in bland yellow with economical steel desks and chairs that must have been there since Mussolini’s time. We were the only two in the place. On the desk was a phone. Pierre-Luis planted a chair right next to it. In the international language of abrupt gestures, he was very clearly saying, “I don’t want you here so let’s get this over with quickly.”

After twenty minutes, I’d combed through every hostel I could afford in my Let’s Go: Europe (1995 edition) and had zero prospects. Displeased but resigned, Pierre-Luis pointed to a long, hard wooden bench slammed against a mustard yellow wall. Again, the international language of abrupt gestures: I was to go over there and be quiet and possibly disappear if at all possible. Got it. I’d be happy to.

And I did. Until Pierre-Luis’s commanding officer came in, stopped in his tracks, and began yelling at Pierre-Luis. I wanted to defend the poor officer because I suddenly viewed him as my friend if not my lifeline, but I kept my mouth shut, even when two other officers came in and stared at me. The yelling crescendoed. I wished the wall behind me was actual mustard so I could just melt right into it.

After several heated moments, someone roughly shook my leg. “We are leaving.” one of the new officers told me.

“Where are you going?” I asked, sitting up. “Can I stay here?”

He shook his head. “You must go.” They hustled me out, backpack and all, locked the door, and jumped in a truck parked out front. They zoomed away and didn’t even glance back at me. Jerks.

But the joke was on them. Little did they know that there was absolutely nowhere in this dark, deserted, freak-me-out quiet station that I would rather be than camped out right there in front of the police office. At least they’d find my body quickly if something horrific happened.

So I stayed put. I plopped my backpack down on the cold concrete right next to the locked door and perched myself on top of it. There was a single lamp above me, trapped in a metal cage, that shone feebly in the darkness. I got out my journal, wrote ad nauseum about a boy problem I was having, and waited. The nuns had been saving graces, quite literally, and I only had a couple more hours until blessed sunrise when I hoped the city would wake up and the trains would start running again so I could high-tail it the hell out of Oreste.

The minutes crawled by. My hand grew tired from recounting the agony of a love-gone-wrong trip to Scotland. I heard the rumble of a vehicle and perked my head up. Headlights were coming towards me. I braced myself, took count of which shoe had my passport and which had my money, and was ready to run or fight depending on who was in the car.

But, as luck would have it, I am more stubborn than a squad of Italian polizia. The boys had returned. Grumbling, they ignored me as they got out of the truck and unlocked the office door, but they were quiet. Resigned, even. I knew I’d won. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes, the English-speaking officer, who later I’d learn was named Alex, emerged from the office and invited me in.

~ ~ ~

We passed the waning hours of the night companionably enough. They tried to teach me Italian, asked me questions about where I’m from in California, and gave me suggestions about where to go in Rome. Just before daybreak, an off-duty officer showed up dressed like he’d just come from a club. Tight black pants, fitted button-up, shiny, pointed shoes. He conferred with the officers for a moment, then turned to me.

“Would you like me to take you to the metro? The trains have started running.”

“Yes, please.” I said gratefully. I said ciao to the men who’d helped me because I didn’t give them a choice and followed my new savior out of the office.

“So.” the man in the shiny shoes said cheerfully. “We go to the trains. But first, coffee, yes?”

My new savior, indeed.

Ashley Seashore is a native Californian and reformed Valley Girl. Her work has appeared in Porthole, Fast Company, and She is the author of St. Justine & the Voms, a post-apocalyptic adventure romance set in the California wine country with heaps of vampire-zombies.

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