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Encountering the kindness of a stranger: A noble Sienese soul

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Well, here’s my “trip report.” Yes, I went to Italy. I went here, I went there, I saw this and that, I ate this, I drank that, I took lots of clichéd photos of this and that, and wrote pages of banal entries in my travel journal about all of it. Blah. Blah. Blah. Right?

That’s all very well and it was all very, very good.

But the essence of the trip was:

Eleven days into my trip, I was scheduled to leave Siena at 10am to return to Rome on a nonstop bus. A week earlier I’d arrived from Rome and was let off at the bus station in Piazza Gramsci, just below Siena’s historic center.

So, naturally, the morning I was leaving Siena, I assumed I would pick up the 10am bus back to Rome in the same spot, in Piazza Gramsci. (Yes, I know the familiar saying about the folly of “assuming.” The rest of the tale confirms its wisdom.)

But when I looked up at Piazza Gramsci’s flashing outdoor transit schedule board at around 9:30, I noticed that it said nothing about a 10am bus, nonstop or otherwise, to Rome. It showed numerous buses going to various hill towns in Tuscany shortly before 10 and shortly after 10, but nothing about a bus to Rome.

What was going on? I looked at my bus ticket. I read it closely for the first time since I bought it. Oh, God. It said that the bus to Rome leaves from Siena’s Colonna San Marco bus stop.

Okay, so where the hell is that, I thought, as I looked at my watch?

All I knew is that I had to shoulder my black bag and roll my fat suitcase to the taxi stand a few hundreds yards away, get a taxi, and ask to be taken, and taken quickly, to the Colonna San Marco bus stop. It must’ve been 9:40 when I got in the taxi.

Colonna San Marco is not close to Piazza Gramsci, but far down, several tight, winding roads down, far from the ancient center, close to the very congested, car-infested nexus of on-ramps leading to innumerable Tuscan destinations. Fortunately, my taxi driver had little regard for speed limits and an unerring ability to avoid killing pedestrians who hugged the walls of the narrow, bumpy paths on our furious way down the hills, and he got me to the Colonna San Marco bus stop in less than 10 minutes and in one piece.

I was greatly relieved. But, for some reason, my taxi driver wasn’t satisfied. I was ready to hand him the fare, give him a tip, and wish him a good day, but he waved me off and got out of the taxi before I did. He walked over to the small posted bus stop schedule and scrutinized it carefully. I followed him and I too soon discovered that it said nothing about a bus to Rome. He shook his head. He indicated to me in hand gestures (Of course! It’s Italy!) and a few words of broken English that the bus to Rome must be arriving at Colonna San Marco — but the other Colonna San Marco bus stop, across the way, on the other side of this frantic, traffic-clogged thoroughfare.

The clock, as they say, was ticking.

We hurriedly got back in the taxi and he weaved his way swiftly and expertly around all the confusion and got me to the other side, to the other bus stop, in a few minutes. Again, I felt things would be okay. Again, my taxi driver didn’t. Again, he refused payment and got out of the taxi and headed for this particular posted bus stop schedule and started reading. Again, I followed him and could see, oh God, that it said nothing about a bus to Rome. At this point I was almost resigned to missing the Rome bus, wherever the hell it was, paying an additional fare for a later bus to Rome that day, or maybe even spending a costly unscheduled day and night in Siena. That would mean I would also be paying for my reserved hotel room in Rome, which I would not be occupying that night.

I was also quite mindful that my taxi driver, who didn’t know me at all, who had no stake in my trip, who could’ve easily dropped me off at the first bus stop he took me to and driven off without thinking twice about me, was now well within his rights to demand his fare for services rendered (and then some) and communicate to me in hand gestures and broken English that he did all he could to help me, was sorry it didn’t work out better, but that he simply had to move on. Of course I would’ve understood completely.

But he didn’t do that. He indicated that I should get back in the taxi. Was he going to drive me somewhere else? No. We weren’t going anywhere even though he was behind the wheel. Instead he whipped out his cell phone. He started calling for information. Someone at his taxi service? A representative of the bus line? I’ll never know to whom he was talking or what he was saying because obviously it was all in Italian. I do know that he called more than one number and that he waited patiently on the line for help. It was almost 10. Finally, he got hold of someone who obviously knew something about that damn Rome bus. He listened intently, snapped his phone shut, turned to me, and nodded that, yes, this was the right stop.

I paid the fare, gave him a tip (and then some) and he pulled my suitcase out of the trunk. I was still apprehensive as he drove away, not sure he was right, but minutes later, a little late, the bus to Rome drove up. I showed the driver my ticket, took my seat, and, as we drove away, silently blessed my taxi driver, his growing family, which I’m sure he had, and all their future generations.

Epilogue: Anyone who happens to have a working knowledge of the Tuscan bus lines (kybourbon?) will know I made another key mistake that morning. What was it? The first stop after I got on that Rome bus at Colonna San Marco was … well, none other than Piazza Gramsci, where I had been stationed originally. Yes, if I had waited at Piazza Gramsci just a few minutes more, I would’ve read on that transit message board that the 10:18 am bus to Rome was scheduled to arrive there on time. All that scurrying down to Colonna San Marco was quite unnecessary. In fact, the Rome bus made another scheduled stop in Siena after Piazza Gramsci before finally heading off to Rome. I could’ve avoided all that anxiety if I had just stayed put. Silly solo traveler. But then I never would’ve encountered such kindness on my trip.

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