“I passed through Bologna once on the way to…” That’s how my favorite Italian city is usually featured in travel narratives. Tourists know its train station, a surprisingly modest building considering how many travelers are propelled through it and on to the rest of Europe. It is a squat two-story rectangle with an unfussy columned entrance. Its design is bereft of allusions to the excitement of rail travel. The architect might have had a post office in mind.
Italian train stations always combine hurry and lassitude; waiting punctuated by last-minute alterations in the track assignments. Our train tickets always dealt us the losing hand, a track assignment in the depths of the annex. We always seemed to be running, trailing our suitcases-on-wheels behind us. It seemed appropriate that the decorative clock on the exterior wall would be permanently stuck at 10:25, suggesting a wry joke about the arbitrariness of time, the futility of plans.
We would wait in the main concourse, scanning the blinking board of arrivals and departures. I would try to draw confidence from the other travelers who rode the trains ritualistically. Saturday mornings they would return to small towns where families were, but jobs weren’t. Often they carried empty casserole dishes that would be replaced with a fresh lasagna for the coming week when they returned to the prosperous city that would never be home.
On just one occasion before a trip to Venice we waited in the Sala di Attesa (the Room of Waiting). Youthful backpackers folded their bodies over the vinyl and chrome seats in an effort to lie across two at once. The room smelled of bodies and newspaper print. A railroad employee sat at a desk as though presiding over an exam. He looked understandably bored. I wondered about the doorway, why its vertical edges undulated like the contours of a lantern. Why this architectural caprice in such a boring room? I ran my hand along the cut surface measuring the thickness with outstretched fingers.
It was when I saw the plaque that I pulled my hand away in shock and embarrassment. This can’t be what I think it is.
2 Agosto 1980, Vittime des terrorismo fascista, followed by a list of 85 names. After each name there was a space and then a number. I played mental games with the numbers to avoid the obvious — that these were the ages of the victims. When I saw that one of the numbers was a 3, I didn’t read anymore. Of course I could not reason away that doorway. It was the x-ray of the blast.
Everyone who grew up in Bologna remembers the strage, the massacre. It happened on the first Saturday of the month, the start of the communal summer exodus. The bomb exploded in the waiting room, having been hidden in a suitcase. Besides the 85 who died, there were 200 wounded. And then there were the haunted people. Those who were going to take the train but changed their plans; those in other parts of the station who only heard the blast; those having coffee at the hotel bars across the street.
In newspaper photos from that day you can see the clock intact on the west side of the station, stopped at 10:25, the time of the detonation. Beside it are beams and masonry, looking like a nest that somebody stomped on.
These days I ask myself if I’m reading too much into that clock, looking for instruction where there isn’t any. The question still nags at me. Is time the most important thing or the least?
Stefanie Newman grew up in the Chicago area and has lived in Central Virginia for thirty years. She was a painter and sculptor but turned to writing, an activity every bit as difficult but at least it doesn’t ruin her clothes. She is currently working on a memoir about her family’s three-month stay in Bologna, Italy, focusing on the challenges of travel and homeschooling a ten-year-old boy.
Featured image The Scream and the Silence by August Brill. CC license.