In the middle of November, I will be travelling to Canada by train to attend my graduation for my Ph.D. While there, I will stay with some dear friends, a man and woman who have helped me over many a hurdle by their concerted force and welcoming ways. So, it was only fitting that some days ago when I happened to read Italo Calvino’s “The Adventure of a Traveler” I immediately understood the notions and laughable moments he set forth therein: anticipation and longing are an arrival of their own, an arrival at the state of appreciation for one’s eventual destination. The glow cast over the trip itself is something which comes from one’s expected activities: for me fellowship, laughter, and good times, for Federico V. in the story a regularly appointed rendevous with his lover, Cinzia U., “a resident of Rome” who also lives at the end of a train journey.
The whole of the story, a ten page short story, is taken up with describing Federico’s activities as he looks forward to the train journey, calculates just where on the train to sit and how best to get a compartment as much as possible to himself, plans the details of his trip ahead of time, and gets a “token” of his whole trip, an actual telephone token with which he will call Cinzia once he arrives. It is significant that he only supplies himself with one, when he could easily even on his apparently middle class budget afford to supply himself with several, in case of loss or error on the phone line. This token is in a sense the last bar that stands between him and his lover, and is simultaneously the last thing he has to do to meet her and the first contact he will have with her each time he travels. As the text says, “Everything seemed to be there to encourage him, to give a spring to his steps like the rubberized pavement of the station, and even the obstacles–the wait, his minutes numbered, at the last ticket window still open, the difficulty of breaking a large bill, the lack of small change at the newsstand–seemed to exist for his pleasure in confronting and overcoming them.”
The whole trip is filled with things Federico already knows well from past experience: how to keep other people at bay and mostly out of his compartment by closing the curtains; how to borrow a paper from someone who’s finished reading it; how to start out in a second class car perhaps to switch to first later in the trip; how to arrange his clothes for sleeping so that he does not wrinkle his overcoat, which he uses as a blanket; how to adjust the heat and cold to keep himself comfortable without too much resistance from other passengers; in short, how to organize each and every moment of the trip so that nothing goes wrong and he gets to where he is going with the greatest ease possible. And yet, how can it be the greatest ease possible, when he has planned everything out with the careful consideration of an obsessive-compulsive person who has never been on the trip before?
When he is finally on the train and having his “adventure,” which to some people would be simply a rather pedestrian and necessary trip (though of course they are not travelling presumably for the same reason as he), snatches of a French love song he seems to be making up in his head flow through the text, and one wonders if he’s finally thinking of Cinzia as something other than an abstract goal. But the fragments of the song (“Je voyage en volupté,” “Je voyage toujours…l’hiver et l’été,” “du voyage, je sais tout,” “J’arrive avec le train,” and so forth) are more about the trip itself than about his lover Cinzia, love in the wonderful city of Rome, or anything more usual that a man travelling for love might be expected to be thinking of.
When the old pillow merchant comes by out on the platform, there is even a bit of Calvino’s fantastic imagination: “The pillow now was in Federico’s arms, square, flat, just like an envelope, and, what’s more, covered with postmarks: it was the daily letter to Cinzia, also departing this evening, and instead of the page of eager scrawl there was Federico in person to take the invisible path of the night mail, through the hand of the old winter messenger….indeed the very fact of departing, the hiring of the cushion, was a form of enjoying [later comforts, later intimacy, later sweetnesses], a way of entering the dimension where Cinzia reigned, the circle enclosed by her soft arms.”
The comedy of the story and the gentle pathos is typical Calvino, for when he calls Cinzia up on the telephone, she is still drowsy from sleep, “and he was already in the tension of their days together, in the desperate battle against the hours; and he realized he would never manage to tell her anything of the significance of that night, which he now sensed was fading, like every perfect night of love, at the cruel explosion of day.” On the surface, of course, the “perfect night of love” is the night he will actually spend with Cinzia; still, since they have “days” together they presumably may have also more than one night, and the “perfect night of love” about which he will never be able to tell Cinzia the significance is also the night he has spent on the train, on his great “adventure,” a modern day knight-errant struggling against modern day challenges to reach his lady.
Thus, though Calvino is never heavily ironic nor heavy-handed either, this stands as a mild cautionary tale about letting anticipation and longing build and find their natural release in an ordinary way, instead of frittering away the strength of one’s feelings through petty details and obsessive habits. It certainly was an eyeopener of a tale for me, because ever since my trip was planned, I have been notifying my friends of every minor detail of my arrival and departure and have tried to make my plans foolproof from this end as well. Now that I know what one of my favorite authors has to say on the subject, I will try to conduct myself with a more becoming gravitas, and save my feelings for my friends rather than for the displacement activity of hogging the seats on the train!