This peculiar curse came upon me in 1993 when I was living in Slovakia with my family. We never saw anyone use tickets on public transit, so we assumed that nobody bothered to pay to ride. This was pretty dumb; in reality they all had monthly passes that they could bring out whenever the ticket checkers came to test the legality of their riding. Well, inevitably, one day I got caught. The fine was 700 crowns (then around 20 bucks) and I only had a 1000 crown note. They had no change and after pulling me off the bus went around to the local kiosks in the dreary communist suburbs but nobody else had any change, either. Finally they wanted to take me to the police station where they could get the change, but in desperation I told them to keep the change so I could just go home.
After that, in one single year of living on the outskirts of Bratislava, I got checked for my ticket 7 more times (of course, I always had one). I knew people who’d lived there their whole lives and commuted in every day and had never been checked once. The singular ability to attract ticket checkers has followed me into other cities as well. One time in Strasbourg I was late picking Zeke up at school, and after running blocks and blocks saw a tram pull in that would take me only one stop for the last stretch. I had no ticket. I considered hopping aboard anyway… and right then saw a ticket checker step off that very tram. What was to stop him from getting on again? I took the warning and ran the rest of the way.
Well, you can see where this all leading. Last night when Andrew and I came in to Pavia we saw the bus we needed to get out to the campground where his parents and Zeke were waiting for us. We ran for it, jumped on board, and asked the driver how to pay; he obligingly got out a ticket and gave us the change. So, we concluded, you can pay the driver in Italy just like in Germany. Easy as pie.
This morning we astonished ourselves by getting up as early as we’d planned and setting off at a reasonable hour. Roger came with us because our first stop before heading out for our first day on the Via Francigena was the church of San Pietro Ciel D’Oro, home to St. Augustine’s mortal remains. In due time a bus arrived at the stop and we climbed aboard, but the driver shrugged. Presumably he told us that he didn’t sell the tickets, though our inability to understand Italian meant we missed some crucial detail. He didn’t tell us to get off again, so we stayed on, a little mystified. But I knew right then it was just a matter of time.
It was, in fact, about 10 minutes. We were nearly at our stop when six, count them SIX, ticket checkers boarded the bus. They asked for our ticket. We said the driver wouldn’t sell them to us. They said we were supposed to buy them at a tobacco shop. We said we bought them on the bus last night. They said get off here and buy your tickets at that shop over there. (Or so we think the conversation went; hard to say when you don’t know the language.) So we all got off and figured they’d wait and watch to see if we bought our tickets to fulfill all righteousness, but instead the bus drove off. I was so traumatized by the recurrence of my magnetic draw on ticket checkers that I insisted we walk the rest of the way. We did, saw the tomb holding the remains from a distance (mass was just starting and we didn’t have time to stay), so that was that and off we went.
Happily, the terrain today was nothing like yesterday, and we only spent about 15 minutes alongside a canal that was kind enough to curve through fields and forests. Pavia had a few more pleasantly old churches—we are definitely out of Gothic and Baroque territory and into the Romanesque—and we got out first pilgrim passport stamp for the Via Francigena at San Lazaro on the edge of town. We stopped for lunch in a tiny hamlet at what appeared from the outside to be a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria but turned out to be a charming lunchroom stuffed full of people. We tried a shortcut (ha) that had us shoulders-deep in rice paddies and then slithering down a slope full of nettles and pricker bushes into a ditch and back up again the other side. We read a few more cantos of the Divine Comedy (keenly feeling our ignorance of Greek and Latin poetry today). In the evening we arrived in Santa Cristina to spend the night at the pilgrim hostel here and gave our greetings to a prayer group gathered in the consistory. And repented heartily of ever boarding a bus without a ticket.