Innocence, and guilt, abroad

I have heard that when a thief puts his hand into someone else's pocket, he is so engrossed with the practical matter of making a neat withdrawal and the fear of getting caught that cries of conscience fall to a hush. The survival instinct is all-consuming. This is precisely how I felt last winter when I boarded a train in a Florence stazione and felt it lurch into a soft, accelerating creep. I was bound south for Rome, a forged ticket in my hands.

Before going abroad to study, I invested about $500 in a 60-day Eurail pass that grants access to the stupendous web of railways spread over the map of the Old World. This pass aged quickly - used twice, it soon expired. How wasteful and unfair it seemed! I resolved to fudge the numbers to get a more favorable expiration date.

Back in the United States it was unthinkable to cheat the system, but it seemed like the fashionable thing to do in Italy. I felt a little guilty at first, less so once I'd altered the numbers, and no remorse at all as I boarded the train.

But now I trembled with nerves as passengers squeezed through narrow aisles. Eventually, a dusty, sun-roasted man barged through the door and dumped his massive duffel bags onto the seat across from me.

Once the train got going, the old man pulled out his authentic ticket. I grew tense, catching a glimpse of numbers neater, more authentic, than my own. Giovanni and I fell into conversation, and his curiosity about America distracted me during those dreadful minutes.

The conductor appeared at the door and asked to see the tickets. I produced the forgery.

"The die is cast," I whispered, bracing for the face-off.

"Where did you buy this ticket?" he asked after studying the front and back.

"At a travel agency," I replied with false confusion.

He lingered over the ticket, and in silence I felt fear well up, the fear of discovery, arrest, arraignment, sentencing, a strip-search, and a lifetime spent rotting in an Italian jail with a view of the Amalfi Coast through cold slender bars.

Finally, the standoff broke when Giovanni burst out, "Excuse me, he is a foreigner," and some sentences I couldn't make out. The conductor handed back the ticket, and that was that. In the contest of nerves, I won $20 - but where was the exhilaration of victory? Giovanni had paid as much as I'd stolen, and I felt poorer in my heart. He who robs the state robs a penny's fraction from millions of men, but all my sorrow bent to the man across the aisle.

Had I the wealth of a Medici, I would have showered Giovanni with gold. But being a student, I had only my dreams of redemption. In Rome, three palliatives eased my conscience: To Giovanni, I lent my better shoulder and helped port his duffel bags home. To myself, I made vows never to cheat again. And to the Italian rail, I gladly paid $20 for the return trip.

But what about my stolen ticket? Perhaps Dostoevsky would have delivered a confession to a rail official or the police, but sorry as I was, the risk of jail was too frightening. In hindsight, I could have bought a round-trip fare back to Florence and left the return ticket unused, but the idea didn't occur to me at the time.

Today, the incident of the unpaid ticket is a source of deep regret. I hope to return to Italy and repay not only that $20 - by purchasing a train ticket I'll never use - but to throw to that darling country all the charity and service I can spare.

Michael Fainelli, who worked for the Monitor, is a freelance writer.

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