THE night train from Basel to Rome slid into Milan's Stazione Centrale at 6:45 on a moist morning, ahead of schedule. I had boarded at Chiasso, the Swiss-Italian frontier stop 20 miles north. Later that morning I was to fly to Boston, and I had a few hours to spend before boarding the bus to Malpensa airport.
Over the years I have spent considerable time in Milan's 235-yard-long terminal, with its 22 platforms sprawling along Plazza Duca D'Aosta.
Even at that early hour the stazione jumped with noise, motion, and excitement. Voices spoke in Italian, French, German-Swiss dialects, Yugoslavian, Japanese, English, and Scandinavian tongues. It sounded as if the students at Milan's 21 foreign-language institutes had been dismissed simultaneously.
Other sounds came from electric-powered machines hauling luggage and freight along the marble floor, from canned music, discordant, crackling, and from an amplified female voice chanting train arrivals and departures.
Commuters headed for Como, Stesa, and Locarno mingled with international passengers who would travel to almost all points of the compass.
My eyes worked like a wide-angle camera slowly panning a Hitchcock-like scene: barbershop, tourist office, police sub-station, haberdasher, souvenir booths, post office, a miniscule branch of Banca Commerciale.
A large red neon sign proclaimed that here was the Diorno, the day hotel that could provide the traveler with a sleeping room and shower, a temporary refuge where you could get your suit pressed and dry-cleaned, your face shaved, and your hair cut.
Outwardly, the stazione was total confusion. But if you truly understood Italy, you knew it was a controlled and well-balanced confusion. Everything would fall into place, even a half-day strike.
My baggage handler, a wry-looking, middle-age man, listened to me and said, ``Have a caffe. I'll deposit your luggage and bring you the stubs.''
At the stand-up counter that bisects the two exits, I had a large caffe latte, flavored with cinnamon, and two small smoked parma ham sandwiches. And the price! What a switch. It used to cost just under the equivalent of $2. But with the rate of exchange around 1,500 lire to the dollar, it cost me the equivalent of $7 plus $1 tip.
A German standing next to me protested when the counterman ran his fingers inside a thin spigot of water, a standard practice in some Italian cafes. ``Nein! Bitte! Not sanitary for me is,'' he said.
The barman grinned and shrugged. He said in English, ``But my heart is pure. Ja?''
My baggage handler slid up, handed me my stubs. I gave him a $2 tip. ``You must be a rich Japanese,'' he said grinning. He took off like the Artful Dodger.
A pair of carabiniere, clad in battle dress, machine pistols slung over their shoulders, strolled past, casual yet alert.
I watched a tall young Italian man, laden with luggage, accidently crash into an older man. In a cultivated Florentine accent he addressed the other man, who was apologizing. ``Signore, how many people are there in this stazione? One thousand, two thousand?'' The other man shrugged. The Florentine said, ``Let us say approximately 700. So, I ask why did you have to select me?''
``Again, a million apologies, Signore. It will not happen again.''
``True, for if I see you, I will hide in a telephone kiosk.''
They bowed, shook hands, tipped their hats. Each went his own way. That is what Italian males call bella figura, the cavalier with the white plume in his hat, a Cyrano de Bergerac character minus the sword.
I entered the barber shop. Two barbers and a manicurist were idle. One of them said in Italian to the others, ``Maybe he will want everything - haircut, shave, scalp massage.''
``And a manicure.''
``He is Scandinavian, maybe German.''
``British,'' my barber said, and in sketchy English added, ``M'Lord, it is desire for everything to hair and face. Yes?''
I said, ``Basta con l'inglese [Enough with the English.] I have not come to Italy to use English.'' I went on, ``Io voglio un taglio di capelli [I want a haircut].''
They laughed at themselves, hit me with a barrage of questions. My nationality, where did I live, how long had I been in Italy, where did I learn to speak Italian, and did I love their country? My haircut and tip worked out exactly to what I pay my barber in Boston's Italian North End, $8 plus tip.
``Buon viaggio!'' they chorused as I left.