Christopher Columbus left Genoa Italy in 1492 to discover America.
I arrived in Genoa in August 2000 to discover all trains, boats and planes are booked out in advance because everybody in Northern Europe heads to the Mediterranean for the summer holidays.
I had just finished touring Italy and Sardinia with the Red Centre Dreaming Aboriginal Dance group from Alice Springs and as it was my 50th birthday in a few days. I decided to travel to BordeauxFrance to share this important milestone and a glass of fine wine with my wife’s family whom I suspected were planning a ‘surprise’ party.
Having spent over 30 years touring Europe I thought I’d just jump on a train.
Sadly, it wasn’t going to be that easy. I had left Sardinia by ferry in time to catch a night train from Genoa to Paris, but hit a summer cyclonic storm, staggering into Genoa railway station at midnight, washed out, with no sign of any trains.
Italians call Genoa “la Superba” because of its impressive palaces up to seven stories high.
The only landmark to greet me was a statue of Columbus outside the railway station. “Was he still waiting for a train?” I thought to myself.
It was Saturday night. If I wasn’t in Bordeaux by Monday my wife and ‑ worst of all ‑ my mother in law would kill me.
My Italian isn’t the greatest at the best of times and at midnight a miserable station-master wouldn’t listen to my pleas, or a generous offer of a several million lire (about $5.00) bribe for any ticket to any French destination. No seats for next two days!
Fortunately some English tourists were waiting for the only train to Paris in the next 12 hours, an “Orient Express”-type night train from Rome to Paris with no seating ‑ only pre-booked couchettes (beds) and a first class restaurant.
If Columbus could get out of Genoa and discover America in 1492, surely I could travel across Europe? I had no choice ‑ when that train left Genoa, I had to be on it ticket or no ticket!
The train pulled in, I emerged from the shadows and discretely boarded, looking for somewhere to hide with the biggest suitcase that ever travelled across Europe.
I’d settled in a rest room when a very large Italian security guard looking like a hit man from The Godfather realised this soon-to-be-50 Australian was freeloading. Unceremoniously dumped onto the platform, plan B was to try the other end in the seconds before the train departed.
Nearly breaking 10 sec for the 100m with a large suitcase full of my Italian liqueurs, I discovered the lights on in the first class restaurant. I don’t know who was more shocked ‑ myself or the catering staff.
The chef had obviously just finished a dinner sitting and was about to have a glass of wine. He looked at this exhausted, washed out Australian, exclaiming in the language of my ancestors “Sacre bleu! Que faites vous ici?” (What the bloody hell are you doing here?).
“French” I thought. “Now I have half a chance of not being arrested.”
Okay, French Catholics expelled my Huguenot family in the 16th century. Now it was time to kiss and make up.
“Je suis Australien…I’m Australian. I need to get to Bordeaux to share my 50th birthday with my French family whom we’ve not seen for 400 years. The Italians are trying to stop me” I pleaded in my schoolboy French.
After strange looks and unintelligiible conversation the chef and his female assistant disappeared.
What could they do? Throw me off the train? Lock me in jail? Nothing could be worse than arriving late for by my mother-in-law’s surprise party!
I looked up and saw chef Jean-Paul with a large bottle of French champagne and glasses on a silver tray, his assistant Monique carrying a platter of breads, patés and assorted cheeses.
Jean Paul apologised in broken English for Italian mistreatment, inviting me to celebrate my 5Oth birthday with a surprise party the three of us could share.
After 3 hours of consuming vast quantities of champagne and cognac, singing and dancing, both my French and their English had improved so much that we became friends for life.
At 4am they explained they only had 2 hours to get some sleep before the “Orient Express “passengers would expect their petit dejeuner (breakfast).
The restaurant crew had sleeping berths so they decided I could sleep on top of the tables, with white napkins for a pillow.
As I lay down, very tired and emotional, Monique pinned on me a hand-written message in French for the attention of the security guards.
“SECURITY: Mr Colin is a guest of the first class crew. DO NOT DISTURB, love and kisses Monique.” A sign that now hangs proudly in my living room.
At exactly 6.00am, still three hours from Paris, I was awoken from a very deep sleep.
The problem of where to hide for the next few hours was solved when Monique put my suitcase in the freezer and handed me a uniform, explaining that I’d be serving breakfast.
Out came fresh white starched tablecloths and silverware. I found myself setting the tables I’d just slept on.
As I greeted the first class passengers with a very basic “bonjour Madame et Monsieur, petit déjeuner?” (G’day, breakfast?), I could hear Jean Paul and Monique laughing their heads off in the nearby kitchen.
After a few minutes’ work experience, getting the hang of this breakfast caper, I came to some Australians, excited about having a romantic breakfast in first class, surprising them with “G’day. Where the bloody hell are you mob from then?”
Looking puzzled to be greeted by an Aussie “garçon”, they explained they were from Bacchus Marsh ‑ 15 minutes from my home town of Gisborne in Victoria. “What the hell is an Australian doing serving breakfast on the night train from Rome to Paris?”
“It’s a long story,” I explained as the Italian security guard from The Godfather appeared. Not wanting to push my luck any further I jumped into a spare seat, hiding behind a copy of Le Monde.
From my description, Jean Paul and Monique quickly realised whom our visitor was. They made sure he got his breakfast and was on his way.
After that small episode it was plain sailing to Paris. A very tired-looking Jean Paul and Monique extracted my large, chilled suitcase, bidding me farewell with customary French kisses and hugs.
After a frantic taxi dash across Paris I ‘made’ the Bordeaux train connection by a few minutes.
In my haste and exhaustion, I’d managed to board the train to Toulouse!
This was discovered when I accused an elderly woman of occupying my seat. This time an angry French conductor said that instead of throwing me off the train I could get off at Poitiers and catch a connection to Bordeaux.
By the time I got to my in-law’s house, they’d all left for the summerhouse, near the ocean 1½ hours north. Little did they know the problems I was having!
There I was I on a very hot Saturday afternoon in Bordeaux’s deserted suburbs, not knowing where my surprise party was.
I put plan B into action, knocking on the few remaining houses whose occupants were still home, asking if they knew the summerhouse phone number for Madam Dal Bon from no. 13.
Miraculously the old couple in no. 27 had the number and rang my wife to come and rescue me.
When my wife finally arrived she took one look and said “It’s your 50th surprise birthday in a few hours’ time. Where and what have you been up to look so tired?
“It’s murder working on the orient express” I said passing her the sign Monique had wrote