Friday, February 20, 2015

Five people get the boot by bus police on our journey home

Many travelers to Italy have wondered why anyone bothers to buy bus tickets, which, by the way, are usually purchased in advance at a tobacco shop, bar, news stand or sometimes even at a bus ticket booth. Tickets must be timbrato, or validated, as you board the bus, but foreigners often notice that some people board the bus without tickets and take their seats, and the bus driver takes no notice whatsoever. This could be because the passengers are students, who don’t need to pay for transportation to and from school. They could also be locals who have purchased monthly or yearly passes. Or they could be just playing the odds that the bus won’t be boarded by . . . (play theme from Beethoven’s Fifth) . . . the bus police.

Tourist sites warn that the fine for riding without a ticket is 50 euros. Despite several years of riding buses in Italy, I have only seen the police come aboard a half dozen times—and one of those times was yesterday, when we took a bus for a half hour ride from Pisa to Viareggio. We had made it to within 15 minutes of our destination when a man and woman, well dressed but not in typical police uniforms, boarded the bus and stood next to Lucy, who was seated just ahead of me.

“She just stared at me,” Lucy said. “I didn’t know what she wanted.” Apparently, Italians know what the bus police look like, but we did not. After a few seconds of awkward pause, the woman said, “Biglietti, per favore.”

Lucy pointed at me, and I produced both of our tickets, properly validated with the time and date. The officers initialed our tickets and moved on to other passengers and took a seat in the back of the bus. I returned to my book, and unfortunately I was too focused on my reading to eavesdrop on the action going on behind us. The police had encountered a 16-year-old girl with blue hair who had no ticket, and one officer came to the front of the bus and told the driver to pull over and turn off the engine. And then we waited for 20 minutes, without any attempt made to explain the delay, probably because it was apparent to everyone that the officers had called for backup.

Meanwhile, the blue-haired ragazzina spent most of the time on her cell phone, apparently telling someone at the other end what was happening. Finally, an officer of the Carabinieri arrived and came aboard to talk to the girl. By this time, she had reached her mother and handed the telefonino to the carabiniere. Unlike the girl, who had been speaking so softly that we could only catch bits and pieces of her conversation, the carabiniere spoke loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear. And so did the mother, who apparently satisfied the officer by giving out details about her daughter’s identity, including her date of birth. It seems that the girl’s only fault may have been leaving her carta d’identit√† and her school diario at home so that she had no way to prove her age or that she was a student. Italians are required to produce proof of identity on demand from the police, but the carabiniere seemed to accept the mother’s story. We still had to wait another five minutes while the bus policemen and carabiniere stepped outside and had a conversation that unfortunately I couldn’t eavesdrop on. When the bus finally left again, the girl got off a few stops later, but not before announcing her apology to the other passengers for having caused the delay.

Meanwhile, the bus police gave the boot to four other passengers who didn’t have proper tickets. A mother and her son had tickets for an urban bus, and they had clicked them in the machine properly, but we were on an interurban bus, so they had to exit. Two other women were also made to exit at the next stop. 
None of them received a fine, though. We also observed one elderly man who entered without validating his ticket and took a seat in the front. When asked to show his ticket by the woman, he pulled out an envelope full of tickets and was somehow able to convince the officer that he had had one of them stamped even if there was no date and time on it.

This incident sent me on a search of online forums to see what else I could find out about experiences with bus police, and though I didn’t really find anything new, I did read the funny and sad story of a couple of novice travelers from London who unfortunately boarded a bus in Venice that had just been stopped by the bus police. Steve M. wrote on Tripadvisor: “Having queued for a short time at the ticket office to get the number 5 bus to the airport, the lady at the desk suddenly put up a ‘temporarily closed’ sign in front of us, but pointed at the bus and told us to pay the driver. There was no driver on the bus, but we did notice a ticket inspector further down the bus. After waiting a minute or two, we approached him and asked if we could pay him for the ticket. He was ‘busy’ talking to someone, but he replied in Italian (not sure what he said, but the word ‘minuti’ was in there so we thought we had to wait a while), he also stood up and beckoned us to sit where he had been. A minute or so later, the guy he was talking to got off the bus and the inspector walked to the back and started working his way slowly through checking tickets. Then the guy he had been speaking to returned at the front of the bus and got into the driver’s seat (he was also accompanied by two more ticket inspectors). The bus moved off, and these two inspectors, ignoring the other people at the front approached us straight away and asked for our tickets. When we meekly offered our 15 euros, they said, ‘You should have a ticket, and there is now a fine of 100 euros.’

The policemen didn’t believe the couple
’s story that they had not been on board previously or that they had tried to purchase tickets at the ticket booth. They didn’t pay the fine, though, and so they were issued tickets for double the amount to be paid at a later time. I see no follow-up posts to find out if they ever paid. However, these are all stories to keep in mind when one boards a bus in Italy. I’m certainly glad we had our proper tickets!

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