We have a really special guest post today – the author of Train Stories is my sister Caterina Ragg, who also wrote several Jordan posts a couple of years ago, when The Crowded Planet was just a baby.

Caterina is a talented photojournalist, exploring issues related to identity and body image. Recently she’s been drawn to train stories – stories about places, people and times, brought together by trains. Caterina is especially interested in ‘slow’ trains, called ‘regionale’ in Italian – a rarity these days, as they are gradually being replaced by high-speed lines. 

Village train stations crumble, secondary rail lines are being engulfed by weeds – but ‘regionale’ trains still chug along, their carriages and engines rusted by the elements, sometimes painted with bold graffiti, other times looking as if they belong to another era. 

For the first of her train stories, Caterina travelled between Milan and Rimini on two regional trains – one from Milan to Bologna, and another from Bologna to Rimini. A journey along the Via Emilia, a road built by the ancient Romans and still one of the most important road and rail links of Northern Italy. A journey between disappearing realities, and through the past of our own family.

train stories italy

Caterina’s notebook and laptop on a train – that’s how train stories begin

Train Stories – Via Emilia  

The warmth of yesterday’s Valentine Day has already left, and winter is making us all feel its presence, before its final goodbye.

The humidity fogging up the train windows and the mist of the Po valley hide the landscape from the lost glances of the passengers of train number 2275.

milano lambrate fog

Milano Lambrate in the fog

The rails gradually diminishes, as the train leaves the city… Milano Lambrate, Rogoredo, San Donato… The old factories and new office buildings mirror the flatlands of the Po Valley, inhabited only by dead trees and green ground.

At Tavazzano station, a group of policemen pass by. Next stop, Lodi.

Je suis humain, written on a wall.

man sleeping on train italy

A young man resting on the train

In front of me, an African man with a white sweater is talking on the phone. On his chest a small player is about to hit a golf ball. The person on the other end of the phone asks him to get off in Piacenza.

“We didn’t have much work this year, there was no snow, maybe next month.” my travel companion says, and he hangs up the phone.

train window reflection

Reflections – The young man in a white sweater

“We are over the Po”, says an old lady, while the train is crossing the iron bridge suspended over the water. She takes off a hat with a big pink ribbon, maybe as a homage to the river.

Probably in her 80s, she is wearing glitter glasses and has her hair in a perfect bun where, just a few inches over the hairline, the blond dye meets the grey of time.

With a strong Emilia Romagna accent she tells me she hopes that her friend Bruna will pick her up from Parma station. She is on her way back from Milan, visiting her niece who had just had a baby boy.

train stories man train window

Looking out the window

The train crosses another river, Fiume Taro. While we leave small, colourful houses behind, I wonder how it would have been to be born in these valleys, like my grandmother was.

As we approach S.Ilario station, in the courtyard of a farm there is an abandoned train car, with a crumbled message on its side: Viva L’Italia.

The train stops and only two young men jump on. They walk up and down the train aisle, and one of them leaves a piece of paper on the empty seats that says “I have got two children, I am homeless and unemployed. May God Protect You”.

Viva L’Italia.

A white fiat Panda is driving down the SS9, also known as Via Emilia, one of the most ancient roads in the whole of Italy, built by the Romans. The whole region, Emilia Romagna, owes its name to this road.

Just before entering Reggio Emilia, the flatlands and farmhouses are replaced by shipping containers and an old industrial complex. Three smokestacks are still painted green, white and red since 2011, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.

It’s as if all the patriotism left in the country is kept between S.Ilario and Reggio Emilia.

Modena. A young man is walking on the platform. He is wearing jeans, a leather jacket and a bright blue turban around his head. Maybe he comes from Novellara, where the second largest Sikh community in Europe resides.

italian train station winter

A lone station

The train passes the village of Gaggio, and I think about my grandmother and all the times she had to walk down the same road. When she was born, 93 years ago, my great grandmother Alma was only 17. A single mother. She was raised by her mum’s big family, and Alma’s siblings were her own.

“Every morning, going to school meant walking four and half kilometres.” Her voice resonates in my head while she tells me one of her favorite stories.

“One day, on my way back from school, a tall man riding a bicycle approached me and the other children. Who wants to take a ride with me, he asked, and all the children raised their hands. Except me. I was wearing a cute white cap with a pom-pom. I want the girl with the pom-pom to come with me, the man said. I got scared and I started to run, I ran home so fast that I thought my heart was about to explode.”

And while the train stops at Castelfranco Emilia, I am imagining my grandmother, as a little girl, running away from her father.

train window rain italy

Raindrops

As we get closer to Bologna, the Cupola di San Luca slowly appears behind the hillsides. A girl, seated on my side, turn off her kindle and the words in Cyrillic gradually disappear. She opens her wallet, revealing two passport photographs. Under the thin plastic layer there are a man with brown moustache and serious eyes, and a blond woman with the sweet and comforting look of a mother.

I would like to know her story.

The train slows down as the speaker reminds passengers of the connection with the train 2127, direction Ancona.

The train stops, the screen becomes blank and there is no time to fill it with another story.

italian regionale train fog

Encounters

italian slow train fog

Goodbyes.

Practical Info

‘Regionale’ trains are one of the best ways to travel off the beaten track in Italy. If you want to experience your very own train stories, instead of high-speed Frecciarossa between Florence and Rome, or Milan and Venice, take a regionale and enjoy the scenery, hop off at smaller stations and enjoy lunch before heading to your next destination.

There’s no need to book regional trains, and they are usually much cheaper than high-speed trains –  but you’re not allowed to hop-on and hop-off, unless you have a Eurail or Interrail pass. Read here for more info on how to travel on Italian trains.

Follow Caterina on Instagram to see more of her work.

Pin it for later?

train stories pin

Follow us on Snapchat!

Snap the Photo to add us!

2 Responses

  1. Lucy

    Lovely writing. I particularly liked the story about your grandmother running away from her father! These little stories from our families stay with us and bring the past alive no matter what xxx
    Lucy @ La Lingua | Food, Travel, Italy