Friday, February 6, 2015

Missed train provides hotel room, interesting encounter with three Trenitalia customer service agents

Italian civil servants don’t have the best reputation for helpfulness, but we have usually found them to be adequately cordial and efficient. Of course, we have encountered some who are impatient, curt and unfriendly, but if we remain polite and patient, they often soften a bit and agree to help us. Thursday we asked for assistance from three different Trenitalia customer service agents. Two were not particularly helpful, but the third made up for all the shortcomings of the first two.

Our day started routinely enough. We had arrived at our San Salvatore apartment the day prior, and Roberta took us to the Pescia train station at 8:30 a.m. I had purchased tickets online to travel from Pescia to Cefalù in Sicilia because we will be joining a Rick Steves tour in Palermo next Monday. The journey required train changes in Firenze and Napoli. It would also involve the unusual occurrence of the train entering a ferry to cross the Straights of Messina from Villa San Giovanni to Messina.

The plan hit a snag when the train from Firenze to Napoli encountered a delay, putting us behind schedule by more than an hour and causing us to miss our connection to Cefalù. We went to customer service to inquire about our options, and the agent typed on his computer for a minute.

“There is a train that departs in three hours,” an agent told us. “It will take you to Villa San Giovanni. From there you can ask at customer service and they will tell you what to do. You can take a boat across to Messina and then go on to Cefalù.”

“Will there be any more trains to Cefalù by that time?” I asked him. He checked his computer again. No, not really.

We wondered what an agent in Villa San Giovanni could do for us if this agent already knew there would be no more trains to Cefalù. We would have to sleep in the waiting room at the station or else pay for a hotel, and we had already made reservations in Cefalù and would probably have to pay for the missed night there. Airlines sometimes pay for customers’ hotel rooms if the delay is the fault of the carrier, but we doubted that Trenitalia would do the same.

Then the agent pulled a classic Italian bureaucratic ploy, one we had experienced before. “You can come back in an hour or two,” he said. “Maybe then I’ll have more information.” I wondered but didn’t ask: What kind of information could he give us then that he couldn’t find right now? Would Trenitalia somehow announce a previously unscheduled train to Cefalù? But we gave him the benefit of the doubt and said we would come back. And when we did, he was gone, replaced by another agent.

We re-explained our situation to her, and she gave us the same instructions. She also confirmed that there would be no more trains to Cefalù and had no idea how the customer service agent in Villa San Giovanni would be able to help us, but she said he would know what to do. We had the distinct feeling she was just trying to pass the problem on to us and the next agent. However, it made sense to get closer to our destination, so we did as directed. She did make a notation on our ticket that we were authorized to take the next available trains to Cefalù and stamped it with her official seal. As we walked away, though, we wondered if customer service would even be open at our scheduled 8 p.m. arrival time in Villa San Giovanni.

The Napoli-Villa San Giovanni train left 10 minutes late, and after a few unscheduled stops to wait for other trains to pass, we arrived 30 minutes late. Fortunately, the customer service agent at Villa San Giovanni didn’t close until 9 p.m., and we were his only customers. His name tag gave his first name, Giuseppe, and he was exasperated that the agents in Napoli hadn’t called ahead to let him know of our situation. Then he seemed inclined to pass our problem on as well. We could take the ferry to Messina, he suggested.

“And then?” we asked, already anticipating the answer? “Will there be a train to Cefalù?” He checked his schedule, but he probably already knew the answer.

“No, not tonight. The next one leaves at 5 a.m.”

“But where are we supposed to sleep?” I asked.

“There is the waiting room,” he said, but we turned around to look and saw only cold marble floors and large windows that held in no heat. We had no blankets and the floors would suck every calorie of heat from our bodies.

But Giuseppe wasn’t finished checking possibilities. He called on his cell phone. He typed on the computer. He called on his phone again. He rummaged around in his inner office and took out some forms. He came out in the lobby and took a quick break to smoke a cigarette while pacing nervously. By now, it was 15 minutes beyond his closing time. We could see the lighted sign of a hotel just across a parking lot, and we figured we would soon be forking out a premium price for a last-minute stay.

Then Giuseppe was back on the phone, and after a few minutes, he handed it to me and told me to speak with another agent.

“You must stay at the hotel and come back in the morning to take another train,” she said.

“Do we pay for a hotel?” I questioned.

 “No, we will pay.”

Wow, that was more than we had expected, and I thanked her and handed the phone back to Giuseppe. He was trying to fill out a form for us to give to the hotel, but he had not made much progress. It seemed to me that he had never done this before, and after a few minutes, he decided to personally escort us across the parking lot to the hotel so he could explain the situation in person to the hotel clerk.

The clerk had never heard of such a thing before. We could overhear enough of the conversation to know that he did not trust that his hotel would be reimbursed for its expenses. Giuseppe tried to reassure him, but the clerk was not easily convinced. Finally, Giuseppe made a phone call and put one of his superiors on the line and handed the phone to the hotel agent. This worked; we had a room in a very nice hotel, and Giuseppe could finally go home to his family after working 40 minutes past his closing hour. He told us to come back to his window around 8 a.m. the next day, and he would give us directions and tickets.

We were very grateful, and as we enjoyed our comfortable room and our continental breakfast the next morning, we wondered if Giuseppe had given us special treatment because we were American tourists. What would have happened if we were native Italians? First off, we would probably have been yelling at Giuseppe about the late trains and lack of service. Maybe he would have been angry himself by this time and just closed his window at 9 p.m. and told them to come back tomorrow. And what if we had been Russian tourists, not able to speak Italian well enough to explain our dilemma? None of the agents we had encountered spoke more than a few words of English. We will never know, but we will remain forever thankful to Giuseppe, who worked well beyond closing time to make sure we had a place to stay.

To me, Giuseppe is a good representative of this region--hospitable, kind--and I will think of him when I think of Southern Italy, Lucy said. She made a thank-you card and a package of Hershey chocolates, and we gave them to Giuseppe the next morning while he wrote further information on our train tickets permitting us to take a ferry at no charge and then catch the next train from Messina to Cefalù. He seemed reluctant to take the gift, and when Lucy snapped a picture of him at his work station, he shook his head—no photos, please.

Lucy on the ferry to Messina, Sicilia
When we finally arrived at Cefalù 30 hours after leaving Pescia, we realized that this experience would be one of the highlights of our trip. We don’t come to Italy just for the stupendous food, scenery, art and architecture. What we enjoy even more is the chance to experience a different culture, learn a new language, meet interesting characters and find ways to adapt in another society. We had expected nothing but a routine train ride, but instead we found ourselves in a difficult situation which in the end we will probably remember with more fondness than anything we will see in Sicilia.


  1. Wonderful story! Have a fabulous time in Sicilia and let the adventures continue!

  2. So glad you made it safely and have already started on your next adventure. When human kindness is revealed it is always a reminder to me to try to go the extra mile. Thanks for sharing the heart warming story.


Comments welcome.