September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Smoke Gets In My Eyes

By |2018-03-21T18:25:59+01:00December 1st, 2007|"Notebook"|
Chimney Sweep in Vienna, 1967. Photo by Janos Kalmar.

ecently I started traveling again. But the thrill is gone. In every airport of every country it’s the same rushing and waiting, the same routine: Shoes off, shoes on; jacket off, jacket on; laptop in, laptop out. Zippers, laces, buckles, buttons.

Clearing security in Rome, a guard demanded that I undress.

“I don’t have anything underneath,” I said.

Non importa,” the guard replied.

Sarò in mutande,” I said.

Signora, deve rimuovere suo capotto,” he said.

Non è un capotto, è un abito,” said a woman behind me.

He let me continue.

I guess no one travels in dresses anymore.

Not long after, I was invited to a friend’s 50th birthday party in Vienna. The cheapest air fare (from Bergamo) was €0.01, but the flight arrived late — cutting it close since party clothes demanded checked luggage. Flying Alitalia meant paying too much and being at the risk of its whims (strikes, etc.).

I then remembered the train. It would take a day more, but I liked the idea of a journey that began a mere 10 minutes from my Milan home. With an overnight train I could dine and say goodnight to my children before departure. It all seemed so relaxing.

There was the emotional bit too.

I first visited Vienna in 1967. Though young, I felt sadness and a sense of being on the edge of something — the “free world” is what they called it then. Walls were sooty, pockmarked with still-raw war wounds. In corner coffee houses, red vinyl banquettes and resigned aspidistras dozed in the smell of pastry, chocolate and tobacco. Decay was close to home. According to my mother, an uncle and an American officer stationed in Vienna in 1946 pretended not to be home to escape the knocks of residents hawking heirlooms hoping for his help.

That Vienna trip was also my first flight abroad — Pan Am’s inaugural flight on the Chicago-Paris route. Air travel was still an adventure and a bit of a party; you could still glimpse the grand heritage of transatlantic travel. We dressed up (I still do). It was called “tourist” class, not “economy.” Stewardesses (not flight attendants) covered us in blankets and the china was real. The bathrooms had cute bottles of cologne and hand cream. There were 16 people on the Pan Am flight, seven in first class, the rest, including the five in my family in economy. We stretched out on the seats and actually slept.

Paris, where we awoke, felt foreign. Airports were still part of landscapes. They didn’t have fences. They hadn’t yet acquired their now-familiar anonymity. The road to Paris had two lanes. Trees, houses, stores and restaurants that were French, really and truly French, flanked it.

These images and sensations returned as I reserved my berth on the “Allegro” to Vienna. Finding that trains still have names brought back further memories. I saw my mother sitting in bed reading Cook’s International Timetable — for fun. She’d make up trips. Oslo to Istanbul? In a trice she’d have it planned; train names, stations names, connections and dining car hours.

When I got to Milan’s Stazione Centrale, my nostalgia made squalor newly appealing. The hissing trains could have been the last ones fleeing the burning East, old Europe and old feuds. Joseph Cotten or Marlene Dietrich could have stepped out from among the stumbling drug addicts and confused extra-communitari.

In the station, there were no barriers, no intrusions. The ease of it seemed almost edgy. No one stopped me or looked at my luggage. It could have weighed 100 kilos and overflowed with hazardous liquids. No one cared. Suddenly travel felt festive, fun and mysterious once more. I was glad to again be wearing that nice airport dress. This time no one asked me to take it off.

The reservation stated my train was Austrian, but graffiti and dirty windows said “Italian” louder than the FS logo. Anyone who rode a night train two decades ago can imagine my compartment — the smells, the bottle-holders, the wood-grain Formica. The grime receded and the fluorescent glare faded with the cozy bustle of settling in. Outside, the darkness was interrupted by station lights that gave even dimly familiar Mestre new fascination.

Opening my suitcase, I felt like a little girl playing house. Finally, I did remove that dress. I hung it up and went to sleep. Austria, where I awoke, felt foreign. The station smelled of pastry, chocolate and tobacco.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."