In Praise of the Tabaccheria

For TabaccheriaThe tabaccheria in Italy is rather like the corner shop: a shop of curiosities, an information centre, a connection point. What it sells, apart from tobacco in its many shapes and guises, depends on the whim of the tobacconist. In Lucca one sold gelato while another sold model kits. It also imparts information: maps, magazines, bus and train tickets and, I was to learn, international postage. tabaccheria

Seeking information in the train station, if it is staffed, is an event. There are queues to get the ticket that puts you in the line for getting the information you are seeking, including platform information. Sometimes, after standing in the designated queue, the assistant closes the window and disappears. This is a dog eat dog world as one scrabbles for the next queue lugging suitcases and pack backs. Once at the window facing the assistant, one is often greeted with distain or the Italian equivalent of the Gallic shrug. Standing in the queue is stressful. The progression is inevitably slow and time towards the departure of your train marches faster.

Reaching Ravenna from Assisi is not a simple matter. We consulted the tourist information office: What train did we need to take? What direction did it go in? How did we know which station to change at? We were provided with the following written instruction.

Assisi ? Arezzo (train)
07.38 09.51 (change in Cortona)
09.25 10.59
(“Non cambiano per il treni 9.25,” I asked.
“Non. È diretto.” I was assured. Whew, no changes!).
Arezzo ? Bibbiena (Trasporto Ferroviano Toscano)
11.19 12.03
12.15 12.58

Bus LFH 11
Bibbiena ? Chiusia Verna
13.10 13.55
14.10 14.55

How perfect was that? But Chiusia Verna? Was that the name of the Ravenna central station? This niggled at me, but only slightly. We had, it seemed all the information we needed.

Now there is another rule while traveling: always clarify. I applied this rule at the bus stop in Bibbiena where my niggle had turned into a grumble that I could not put it into words, let alone Italian words.

“Questa pullman va a Ravenna.”
“Si.”

Still I was unhappy particularly when he asked whether we were going to “paese o sopra.” What did he mean by “village” or “above”? I wanted to get off at Ravenna central. As far as I knew, Ravenna was flat and only had one central station.

“Stazione Centrale? Ravenna?”
“Si, questa pullman.” He pointed to the bus, took my suitcase and stored it.

The scenery was beautiful. I had not expected a mountainous drive through the Tuscan Apennines and their quaint alpine villages. I mentioned this to my friend, also suggesting that I did not think we would arrive in Ravenna at 14.55.

We arrived at a bus stop on top of the mountain. Everyone got off. The bus driver turned to me and my friend where we sat and told us we had arrived.

“Ravenna?” I queried in bewilderment.
“Si, La Verna.”
“La Verna? Ma non andiamo a Ravenna?”
“Non. Non andiate a La Verna?”

No, we had not intended to go to La Verna. Now the problem became apparent. We had all been mishearing each other based on expectation, that being that we were on a pilgrim walk. There had been a mistake right from the start. Because we were leaving from Assisi’s Santa Maria degli Angeli, it was assumed that we were pilgrims and following the pilgrim trail and that we would be traveling to La Verna and the Sancuario Francesco. There had been a misunderstanding and mishearing right from the start: first the tourist information assistant and then the bus driver. Ravenna – La Verna: these foreigners and their mispronunciation! The lesson is therefore extended: write down your destination and then ask for the instructions.

A couple on the bus whom we had met in Bibbiena realised we were in trouble. It was now clear why they had looked confused when we had mentioned over coffee that we were really looking forward to seeing the mosaics in Ravenna. They had said that they had not been aware that it was known for its mosaics. We had been surprised.

They had been walking part of the pilgrim’s walk along the Via Francigena, starting from the Sancuario Francesco, where St. Francis had retreated on occasions for prayer and contemplation. Under other circumstances, we would have loved to have stayed and explored the walk, but we were expected in Ravenna at about 3 p.m. approximately an hour ago and needed to find our way there. The couple took pity on us and offered us a lift to the nearest bus station at San Stefano. We arrived to find that the last bus had left minutes before. Never mind, our good Samaritans comforted us; they would drop us off at the train station in Cesena and from there we could catch the train to Ravenna. They assured us that it would not be out of their way since they were driving to Milan and bypassed Cesena on the freeway.

Ravenna is 30 kilometres by road from Cesena so it was a surprise to me that the train seemed to be travelling a far greater distance and we had to change at Ormolo.

Tabaccheria - CopyBut I had been smart, spoken to the tabaccheria at the station after consulting a map. He wrote down the stations we would pass through. I could refer to my piece of paper, reassure myself and quell the panic that finally my nightmare of never arriving at my destination might be becoming true. With some relief we finally disembarked at Stazione di Ravenna and made our way to our beautiful apartment and collapsed.

It is not just foreigners that become confused by the rail information. When I left Naples to catch the train to Siena I made sure I had plenty of time to be lost and bewildered in Naples’ central station, Garibaldi. I knew how easy it was to get to Garibaldi from my metro station, Museo on Linea 1. That was no problem. I purchased my ticket from the tabaccheria and passed no less than three chatting assistants at the validation gate. They took little notice of me as they sat amongst dismantled computers and wiring. With the other passengers, I climbed onto the train. The next stop was Dante. We were told that the train was terminating here and that we should board the next. We did and found ourselves once more at Museo. We repeated this a couple more times before realising we were on a circular route to hell.

There is nothing like shared confusion to strike up conversation and comradery. I shared my anxiety and confusion with a woman sitting opposite me in the carriage.

She shared her frustration about the lack public transport announcements and train travel in Naples in general. After our third loop she guided me through the old musty and dark tunnels that took us to the less glamourous and exceedingly dilapidated Linea 2 and the slow train to Circumvisuvio from where there was a connection to Garibaldi. An hour and a half later I arrived at Garibaldi. I had missed my train to Siena by ten minutes.

Luckily in Italy there is always a good coffee and, in Naples, a delicious sfogliatelle to calm battered nerves. After sorting out another ticket and refund, I adjourned to the bar across the busy road that claimed to make the best sfogliatelle (a delicious ricotta custard filling held together by the lightest pastry made of semolina flour) in Naples and, of course, an expresso, strong and rich. On the wall was written:

Le giornate dovrebbe iniziare con una abbraccio, una baccia, una carezza e una caffè.
(The day should begin with a hug, a kiss, a caress and a coffee).

This is the heart of wisdom and, in Naples, add the sfogliatelle.

Ten days later, I travelled from Bologna to Volterra. It is a long journey Tabaccheria (3)leaving from Emilia-Romagna region and crossing through central Italy to Tuscany. I bought my ticket and quizzed the ticket clerk. I was informed that I should change at Cecina and then take the pullman. My problem was that I did not know which direction the first train would be heading. Consulting the large timetable, I realised that I had to go in the direction of Florence and change at Ferenzi Rifredi, a station that has no information or ticket office but does have a tabaccheria. He knew exactly what I needed to know. Without my asking, he wrote down what platform I should catch my train from, the time I should expect to arrive at Cecine and what time I should catch the pullman for Volterra Saline from where I knew I could catch the bus to Volterra. Once on the train to Cecine I sat tight as we journeyed through cities such as Livorno and Pisa, cities I had not expected to travel through, knowing that I was traveling in the direction of Grosetto and Campiglia, information that I would not have had if I had not consulted the tabaccheria.

In Ravenna we learnt that the tabaccheria has skills beyond train and bus information. My friend needed to post some cards to Australia and to England. Where else would you go to buy stamps for international postage other than the post office? I warned her that this was not a simple pop in and purchase but rather, similar to train stations, there were queues for the queues. To make a transaction in Poste Italiane you need to get a numbered ticket from the little machine, identifying what transaction you need to make. This, presumably, would mean that those with simple purchases would be quickly served because there are dedicated assistants for that purpose. Certainly, the signs above the booths confirm that assumption, so why were we still waiting 45 minutes later? Finally, our number was called. Not thinking an interpreter would be needed, I remained seated but there evidently was a problem. I joined my friend and explained we wanted to buy stamps for three cards to England and two to Australia. No, our assistant informed us, this was difficult and problematic and we needed to take a seat for a colleague to help us. This worried me: the numbers are sequential and our number had been called. Would it now be cancelled? Just take a seat and her colleague would help us. My friend had to leave so I volunteered to stay and complete the business. Fifteen minutes later, a man sitting next to me asked whether I just wanted to post the cards. Yes, I replied, but they seemed unable to help. That is because you don’t buy stamps in the post office – you buy them, yes, even international postage, at … the tabaccheria! Within five minutes the cards were deposited in the post box outside Ravenna’s central post office.
For Tabaccheria (2)

Tabacceria’s have, what my friend calls, “Theory of Mind.” They recognise what information the other person needs. This was sadly lacking in the postal assistant. She must have known that the post office would not help me and that I needed to go to the tabaccheria around the corner, just down the road from Dante’s Tomb outside Basilica di San Francesco, so why didn’t she just offer the information? Not difficult and not a problem.

One of my favourite Italian films is Benvenuto a Sud. To his dismay, Alberto Colombo (Clauido Bisio) is posted to improve the service of the post office in a coastal town near Naples. As a northerner, he is afraid of the “barbaric” southerners and is anxious. This is not helped when he arrives and can’t understand the dialect. But he is on the road to promotion and must reorganise the post office and make it more efficient. I presume he is successful because he is posted back to the north to do much the same there and that the posting, being near Milan, is much more prestigious (Benvenuto a Nord). I am not sure what he did apart from fall in love with the south, misunderstand the alcohol content of limoncello and concoct a weird plan to prove his wife’s fantasies of the madness of the south. Perhaps he employed the local tabaccheria to teach the postal assistants “Theory of Mind” and the sequel to Benvenuto a Nord will be Benvenuto a Ferovia Italia?

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