Here, Have Some Melon
A few years ago, I was on a train with some friends between Milan and Florence, about to embark on my first adventures in the sunny peninsula that captivates me to this day. As I rushed back and forth between coaches and through the dining carriage in the Frecciarossa for a quick restroom break, I was stopped by four of the waiters who had been passing through our carriage earlier with snack items.
“Melon?” they asked, pointing to a plate of melons that they had been sharing at one of the Dining Car tables.
I shook my head, eager to get back to my friends. Three of the waiters were male. The fourth was a female. She looked at me kindly, cognizant, I reckon, of my discomfort at being asked to share fruit with virtual strangers.
“Grazie mille,” I began, “But I do need to get back to my friends.”
“No, bellissima, share some melon,” one of the waiters, an older man, insisted. “Por favore,” he added.
Suddenly feeling guilty about possibly appearing rather rude, and noting that three of the waiters were sitting and looking expectantly at my reaction to this fourth older man, I nodded briskly, and sat down with them.
I tentatively took a bite of the green melon with the fork the older man offered me. It was sweet. I took another bite. Then looked up, “It’s delicious,” I said, on cue, my manners having returned to me.
“Have more,” he said, in perfectly worded English. The others nodded and went back to speaking in Italian amongst themselves.
The old man’s eyes seemed to twinkle. The other waiters left.
I got up too, to allow them to pass. Outside, the landscape boasted manicured trees and pastel colored buildings. The man asked me to sit back down.
“I wanted to speak to you. You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago.”
“Oh, do I?” I wanted to be polite, especially since I was enjoying my platter of free melon, but I could begin to feel the hair at the back of my neck begin to prickle, and my ingrained New Yorker fear of strangers and unwanted flirtations began sending warning signals to my brains.
“Yes,” the old man replied. “You look exactly like her,” he added, oblivious to my discomfort.
“Like who?” I inquired politely, inwardly calculating that suddenly I was the only person in the dining car with this stranger, and that around 20 steps separated me from the door, should I have to bolt. I wondered how long it would take my friends to realize I was missing if this random stranger decided to kidnap me.
“Like her,” he repeated.
I stared blankly at him, and then realized he had taken out a black and white photograph of a young Indian woman from his weathered wallet. He was right. I did look like the woman in the photograph: the same wavy hair, the same high cheekbones, the same confused eyes.
I was so startled I stopped fidgeting. “Would you like some wine? Some chianti?” this waiter asked me.
Struggling to find my voice, I simply nodded.
He fetched two glasses and a mini bottle, the kind you are served on flights, and came back to sit down in front of me. I belatedly realized I did not have my wallet to pay him.
“My treat,” he said. “I have been working on the Frecciarossa for almost two decades, and I’ve never met anyone who looks more like her. Except that, you know, you’re more petite.”
He smiled tentatively.
“I see,” I replied, finding my voice at last, and returning his perfunctory smile. “She seems to be very important to you,” I added. “Who is she?”
Months later, at the advent of a time of much sorrow after a painful realization that I was in a failing relationship, I was rummaging through the books and notes I had carried with me through Italy, looking for a clue regarding my unsettled emotions, and then there it was, the tissue, creased in several places.
To this day, I am not entirely sure why I was given the song to listen to, but whether it was because Stefano was looking for verbal catharsis and found it in his young fiance’s lookalike, or that it was supposed to be a timely wake up call for me to stop settling for second fiddle, the song has stuck with me. I play it sometimes, and every time I do, I’m reminded of a generous and kind old man, in an express train in a country known for its epic stories, who provided me with the gentle reminder that it’s okay to wait, it’s okay to want the real deal, and it’s okay to walk away from anything substandard, because love does exist, and there is something incredible out there, waiting to be discovered.
You may also be interested in reading about how my friends and I, on our way into Italy, made a quick pitstop in the sleepy mountain village Innsbruck, where we narrowly managed to avoid being shot in the Alps thanks to very old fashioned feminist philosophies.