If you get off, remember the coach number

My husband, Richard, and I stood on the platform at the Rome train station, waiting for our train to Sicily. We had a certain amount of faith, since our reserved seat tickets were clearly marked Rome to Taormina, but we were mystified about how exactly we would get there.

Sicily is an island off the toe of the boot of Italy, separated from the mainland by the Straits of Messina, the mythological passage between Scylla and Carybdis. I had looked on the website of the Italian railway system, the Ferrovie dello Stato, while planning the trip. I knew that we would be taking a ferry across the Straits, but I couldn't picture the crossing at all.

Our guidebook spoke of a boat train. Would we get off the train, cross on a ferry, and board another train in Messina on the Sicilian side of the straits?

Yet we were not changing trains. Our tickets clearly indicated that we would sit in the same seats all the way from Rome to Taormina. Therefore, the train itself must be crossing the Straits.

And another thing. The departures board in the Rome station listed our train's destination as Palermo. Taormina is not on the way to Palermo. Messina is at the northeast corner of the Sicilian island, and Palermo is roughly at the northwest corner. Taormina is about 25 miles south of Messina on the east coast.

Logically, it seemed that the train must break up at Messina, with different sections continuing on to different destinations within Sicily.

Our purpose in going to Sicily was family history research. Richard's father was born in a village outside Messina, and we were on the trail of some family records. We had decided to make Taormina our base, since it is close to the city of Messina and has a stunning setting overlooking the Ionian Sea and delightful accommodations for travelers.

During the seven-hour scenic journey along the south coast of Italy, I got my first real information about the crossing. I could overhear muted snatches of a conversation in English, a few compartments away. It seemed that we were not the only people with questions about the crossing.

Some American travelers were chatting with an English-speaking Italian man. He explained that the train would break into two-car sections at Villa San Giovanni on the Italian side of the straits. The sections would be shuttled onto a ferry, cross, and then be shuttled off at Messina where the train would reassemble.

Impatient with anticipation, we waited on a side track in Villa San Giovanni. Finally, our carriage was on its way down into the bowels of a huge train ferry. The rails on land line up with rails inside the ferry, and a shuttle engine just pushed us down inside. Then the power went out. There we were in the hot, dark belly of the ferry.

The other passengers began to stand up and move toward the door. I leaned toward our neighbor, who, speaking several languages, seemed to have a better grasp of what to expect than I. "On doit sortir?" I asked in French. "Must we leave?"

"You can get off if you want to, you don't have to," he answered in perfectly good English, picking up his small satchel and standing up.

So, we got off the train carriage, taking care to note that we were on first-class Carozza 11. (Carozza is Italian for carriage.) We would have to return to this exact seat and car if we didn't want our luggage going to Taormina while we were on our way to Palermo. I also noted that we exited from Staircase No. 3, as we stepped into the open air.

We were in blazing southern sun, crossing a dazzling blue sea. At long last, nearly numb after hours on the train, we were crossing the Straits of Messina.

The straits are only a couple of miles wide at this point, and Messina was spread out before us and growing closer. First the blue sea, then the wharves of the waterfront, then the facades of the buildings, above that the large dome of a church, and above the dome, the green mountains. We had imagined Richard's family and all those other emigrants leaving a barren land. We had no idea that Sicily would be so green, so fertile.

I was so deeply involved in snapping pictures, and disoriented by the strangeness of the crossing, that I wasn't aware of how quickly we were approaching the shore. Suddenly it seemed that the ferry was about to dock. And looking around, we were the only people still on the deck! We realized we should be back down in the train car, getting ready to be shuttled off the ferry. Quickly, we headed down below.

There was an unexpected moment of horror when we found ourselves between decks and looked around at the train cars. All second-class carriages, marked Firenze-Agrigento. First-class Carozza 11 from Rome was nowhere to be seen. I was close to panic. Richard didn't look too confident either.

We retraced our steps to the upper deck. I remembered Staircase 3. At the bottom of Staircase 3, there was a landing and two more descending staircases. Which one? Richard recognized some graffiti on the wall, and we ran down the stairs and out into the huge lower hold. Yes! There was our train!

Everyone else was comfortably seated, or standing up by the windows watching the shuttle engine backing toward the car. We were the only passengers outside the train. We leaped up the three steps to the carriage door and pulled. The door would not open.

I was panicky and sweating, starting to feel dizzy. First we couldn't find the car, now we couldn't get on it. The engine was just about hooked to the car, ready to pull it out and on to Taormina without us, while we stood helplessly outside.

We spotted a trainman and ran to him for help. He understood our situation at a glance, pulled on the door himself. It was firmly closed. He was talking - in Italian of course. I managed to quiet the buzzing in my ears enough to understand that we should wait until the engine was coupled to the car, then the power would be restored and we could open the door. Which we did.

Back in our seats, sitting on a side track in Messina while the train was reassembled, I sipped some water, wiped my sweaty face, and wondered what went wrong. How did everyone else know how to get back to the train at the right time? Was there an announcement? We may never know.

The train moved from the ferry station to the main train station. We sat at the platform there for a few minutes. I noticed a hibiscus bush in bloom in the little wasteland between the tracks. It was an early hint of the beauty of Sicily, a beauty we would not be ready to leave when it was time to reverse the trip and cross the straits again.

On the return trip, however, we were most careful to note the exact route from the train to the upper deck, and to be sure we weren't the last to return to the train.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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