On our return trip to Florence from the Cinque Terre, an incident occurred on the train that shook Brett and I to our core, and still haunts us to this day.
We were assigned seats at the back of a car on the train. There was another couple sitting up toward the front, but otherwise the car was empty. Right before departure two young men entered the car. They spoke to each other briefly, in a language other than Italian, and one sat at the window in the row directly in front of us; the other chose a seat across the aisle and one row forward and they ceased communication. Both had small bags with them, and after sitting down produced laptops and stayed busy with them.
After a short distance, the conductor entered the car from the rear, to check on tickets. We showed him ours, then he asked the young man in front of us who showed his ticket. Then he approached the second young man across the aisle. He did not have a ticket.
The young man started out playing dumb, like he didn’t know what the conductor wanted and couldn’t understand what he was saying. The conductor was persistent, in both Italian and English, and offered to sell him a ticket if he didn’t have one. The young man continued to shrug his shoulders, try to look helpless, and so forth. The man in front of us watched carefully, but made no move to help his friend.
The standoff escalated, and eventually both the young man across the aisle and the conductor were shouting at each other. The tension grew thick enough you could have cut it with a knife. Brett and I sat in our seats, feeling more and more terrified as we began to feel there was a good chance of a gun being produced, with the conductor being shot. We calculated where we were sitting, and that we would be in the line of fire with no place for us to go or hide if shots were fired. We were too afraid to speak to each other, but held each others’ hand tightly and hoped things did not get any worse than they already were.
And then we remembered we were in Italy. The conductor was not armed, and although he got in the young man’s face he did not physically touch him or threaten him in any way. The chance of a gun being produced was not impossible, but about as close to zero as it could get. This was not America, where the young man could easily have been carrying a gun in his bag and less hesitancy to use it. Our joint relief at this realization was almost palpable and our grip on each others’ hand eased.
At the next stop the conductor escorted the young man out of the car; police were waiting on platform. The young man in front of us left as well, staying a short distance behind the conductor and his friend. We wondered if he had been the “handler” for the other.
Men, women, and children have been shot in U.S. while shopping at the supermarket or at the mall, while watching a movie in a theater, or attending a ball game, sitting in their classroom, or while in church. There is no place anyone is truly safe from being shot in our country any more, and I think we all carry that fear inside of us, whether we’re willing to acknowledge it or not. We know a shooting can happen anywhere, at any occasion, and affect anyone. The small incident we encountered on a train in Italy brought that fear home for us, and we remember and feel it again every time we read about another shooting in our country.
I have no problems with gun ownership whatsoever, but there is something much deeper going on in our country than any arguments over “freedom” or the ownership of guns, and a sickness that has taken hold. And we seem to have made a choice to live with that sickness day in and day out.
42 thoughts on “Here & There: A Story”
I wonder if it was a training exercise? How strange that the men were together but then completely separated. I’m glad it went no further, and I agree, with the state of things here, that it would have most likely turned into violence. Such a sad realization.
Our hypothesis was they were refugees, and the one guy was getting the other to a different location. I guess one of their methods is that one doesn’t pay and they hope they don’t get caught. So, the “handler” stays out of it so he can continue his work of moving people around or getting them to where they need to be.
Well said! I am so sad about so much that is happening in our country. I don’t even have words.
We were surprised by how much we had internalized the fear of getting shot and brought that with us. It is beyond appalling what’s going on in the U.S. these days, and there’s no end in sight.
Perhaps this fear or unease about the ever present possibility of violence would give us a pause to consider how many people of color experience life in the US these days. Fear of being detained by the authorities or no reason. Fear of how even a simple traffic stop can escalate into something much more dangerous. Even legal residents are stopped and asked to “show me your papers”. Living is fear is not the way people should be living.
And it is a sickness called “fear of the other”.
Fear-mongers have always been able to count on using “the other” to scare people and instill fear. I can’t even imagine what the fear and worry that people of color carry with them constantly does to them, to their well-being, their long-term health and so forth. Things seem to be devolving more quickly these days as well.
It’s crazy (and sad) how the mind goes to whether someone is carrying a gun in this country, but given our current situation, it’s hard not to have that fear. It’s really distressing. I do wonder about the relationship of those two guys. Did they meet on the platform? Were they running some kind of scam that got one of them a free ticket in the past? (Unlikely in our European train experience. LOL)
I wrote this because it was such a strong experience for Brett and I, and how much we had internalized the fear of guns being produced just because of what happens continually in the U.S.
We have no idea what was going on with the two guys. Brett tends to lean toward scam, I fall on the side of refugees and the one guy getting the other moved to somewhere else and not having the money to pay for a second ticket. I heard many stories when I taught English from refugees about the chances they took to get to the U.S.
I have to wonder if the one who was removed from the train was a refugee. Perhaps his friend had papers in process already and did not want to be “linked” to the other for fear of endangering his own status but was keeping an eye on his friend or family member.
I wonder this because we had an experience on the train in France a few years ago (there were 4 of us traveling together) where a young man of color sat down across from us and after listening to us speak English for a bit asked us if he could practice his English and talk to us. He was tidy but dressed in a slightly odd mix of clothes and had only a small bag with him. After chatting about the weather and general things, we complimented him on his English and asked where he had learned it with such an American accent. Had he been to college in the States? No, he told us. He had spent as much time as he could in the refugee camp watching American movies, listening to any English tapes he could find, and trying to find anyone to speak with. Eventually he fled and made his way to Greece, and was now “hopping” trains to get to Paris as he had an application in process to settle in France but needed to join family there who would give him a place to live and help him find a job. On hearing this, I was immediately suspicious that this was a scam and we were going to be hit up for money. But as we continued to talk we all came to believe his story. He never asked us for money nor was threatening in any way, and actually thanked us for talking to him as he felt it made him look less suspicious on the train to be talking to white tourists. Amazingly we never saw a conductor on that train which was very unusual. And he slipped into the crowd at the Paris train station after softly wishing us a good remainder of our trip. I hope that he is well and living safely in Paris.
American gun violence? Now there’s another story…..so many places I no longer feel safe in this country.
We think they were refugees, and I strongly think the one guy was getting the other guy moved and stepping up to pay his ticket would have only gotten him in deep trouble as well. I would have loved to have spoken to them, but the car was nearly empty, and they ignored everyone else.
There are so many situations and places we no longer feel safe here in the U.S. We try not to live in fear, but discovered on that journey that we definitely had internalized it without realizing it.
I don’t know if it’s luck or naivety but as a Canadian my mind did not immediately go to a gun. I don’t ever expect to see someone pull out a gun. Of course having grown up in Toronto I know it’s possible, but it is just not my first thought.
I’m glad the situation de-escalated safely.
I don’t think people from most other countries would think about guns appearing, but it’s sadly a fact of life here. Brett and I never spoke to each other during the incident, but both had the same fear. Gunfire is never impossible anywhere, but outside of the U.S. is most situations it’s improbable.
I guess you forgot about the ‘almost’ gun massacre on of French train, of whom the gunman was subdued by 3 American tourists. The 3 Americans became international heroes.
Of course there are guns in Italy and all of Europe. You Americans are really dumb asses.
I don’t think you read very well because you seemed to skim over the part where I said “the chance of a gun being produced was not impossible.” I know people get shot in Italy and other European countries, but here’s the thing you seem to gloss over: it’s extremely unlikely. You give a link to a shooting incident that occurred three years ago, yet fail to back it up with any evidence of any other shootings occurring since then. No stories either of Europeans arming themselves in droves, or demanding concealed carry, or warnings about the need for “good guys with a gun.” Europeans are not shopping with a sidearm, or stopping for coffee carrying an assault rifle. Give me about a half hour with Google and I could come up with a VERY long list of all the shootings in the U.S. in the past three years, in just about every location imaginable, with some of them massacres and all of them horrific. Last week alone there were over 950 gun incidents in the U.S. and over 450 deaths from gunfire. This is what we live with day in and day out in this country, and many of us have internalized it.
And for the record, I have been threatened with a loaded shotgun put to my head. I know what that fear feels like, and the absolute terror of possible being shot. I told the person (someone I knew, BTW) to go ahead and shoot me because I knew my death would be mercifully quick, and the person backed off. I am a very, very lucky woman, but those fears are coming back. I highly doubt you’ve experienced anything close to it, dumb ass.
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Whoa, Anna!?! Since you say “you Americans”, I guess you are from another country, and you might not know that for we Americans that’s a bad thing to say and a huge insult! I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, because I used to work with someone who was taught English and learned about “American ways” after immigrating here to a rough ranch. She swore like crazy, because that was what she had heard, and thought it was normal conversation. It was kind of funny sometimes but she was obviously a nice lady who didn’t realize at first.
Anna was posting with a NY IP address, so not exactly sure where she’s originally from or what was going on.
Ah…up state New York Anna! Now I get it!
How horrid to live with the fear of a shooting, even if not consciously aware that that’s at the basis of the fear. I’m like Christy from Canada. I didn’t think of guns and shooting.
And yeah, like most Australians, I’m against gun ownership except tightly controlled reasons. Like rifles for farmers. And no bloody semi-automatics or automatic weapons. Definitely no hand guns. But tighter gun control is never going to happen in the US and you will continue to have regular shootings and mass shootings and shootings in schools and have the fear that things will escalate to a shooting.
Freedom and rights! Defined in so many different ways.
BTW in his first visit to California, my youngest was held up at gun point by two men. He said “It’s cool. I have nothing. I’m Australian.” And he rode his skateboard away. The two guys let him go. I think they may have been shocked by his naive response.
People we met from other countries really don’t understand the U.S. and what goes on here when it comes to guns and why we have so many gun deaths. We stayed with a family in Switzerland where EVERYONE owned a gun had it registered, went hunting, etc. but felt absolutely no need to keep it at home. People all over are very baffled by the gun culture in America.
Your son was lucky. As I answered in a previous comment, I have had a gun put to my head by someone I (thought I) knew, and it was terrifying. I just knew that if he did shoot I would die quickly. But now we have to worry about the guy in the theater, and maybe choose a seat near an exit, or whether someone will decided to shoot up a shopping mall or wherever (there was a shooter once at our local mall in Portland, a place I had been at just two days earlier – two dead for no reason other than the guy was angry). It just doesn’t stop and isn’t likely to anytime soon.
Yes, it’s beyond comprehension. And I can’t imagine your fear. You can imagine mine when I heard the story about my naive, “the world is wonderful” son.
I can imagine. The business where our son worked at age 17 was robbed at gunpoint right before his shift began and his boss still made him work his shift (closing) – alone. We were terrified and made him quit the next day.
Far out. That shows so little care for their employees. Alone!!??
The owner of that shop was awful. He went from that job to a great one, at a nearby movie theater where he worked all the way through college (they always brought him one whenever he was home on a break). Plus, free movies for Brett and me!
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You are so right black on black crime is terrible. I believe the Democrats will solve that issue soon.
Black on black crime has absolutely nothing to do with this story or what happened.
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I believe most Americans are tremendously trusting and naive in traveling. I have been in the middle of bad situations- that all happened overseas. A massive robbery of a jewelry store in Hong Kong, a bombing in Saudi, a burning log thrown off a bridge at our car in Germany (it hit the one behind us). One of my childhood friends had a son killed in a shoot out on the border in Mexico. I do know not to walk in poor neighborhoods in Baltimore &Chicago (and now DC and Philly). My niece no longer fells safe in Downtown San Francisco- so they hire an armed driver to pick them up so they can go hiking in the hills.
The one person who owned the most guns I have ever seen was a Holocaust survivor. He had guns all over his apartment. Never used one in violence.
Violence stinks. Take away guns from people who did not legally buy them….that would help tremendously.
You have to be trusting when you travel, in others and in yourself, that you know how to sense when things are not right. There was nothing on that train ride initially that made us think that anything could be wrong. We had no idea the young man did not have a train ticket and would get into an escalating argument with the conductor. How could we know? How could anyone have known? Most incidents happen not because people are naive and trusting, but because of nothing more than they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Brett was a sharpshooter in the military. He was a certified grenade expert and a certified M-60 expert. He’s never owned a gun since I’ve know him because he has never felt the need to own one. That has nothing to do with anything, just like the Holocaust survivor you know who owned a lot of guns. Legal ownership or expertise is not the issue with guns in this country. I think if you check, all or almost all of the perpetrators of mass shootings and other gun violence in the U.S. LEGALLY obtained their guns. If you have the solution for determining who owns their guns legally or not, let us know.
I look closely at this issue. In the past- Most US mass shootings are committed by someone who got a gun that was legally obtain, but they did not, personally, own. Most shootings in the US are done with illegally obtained guns. Random shootings kill far more people then mass shooting- but they are generally not against white people so are glossed over. Gang related mass shooting in poor neighborhoods are simply reported as city gun violence, in general. There were 600+ Mass shooting Situations alone in 2020 in big cities According to NCCCJ.
I am glad Brett felt no need to own a gun.
I have many friends who are equally certified and more ( including the Holocaust survivor) who feel very comfortable with their right to have a gun.
Taking away legal guns is not a solution until the illegal guns are targeted.
Mental health checks should be a way to “turn in” or “take away” guns.
I think there are good solutions out.
Good debate instead of hard sides is the good way forward. There are reasonable people on both sides. All or nothing tends not to work in a democracy.
There is no national standard for what constitutes a mass shooting; usually people go with four or more deaths in a single incident but it’s not codified. NCCCJ was tasked with looking at violent crime in the context of COVID-19, and gun deaths did go up initially when people were staying at home, but dropped again after two months and were still below previous levels. The NCCCJ has since been disbanded.
However, according to a report produced by the FBI in 2018 about gun murders they investigated, in 40% of gun deaths, the gun was LEGALLY purchased to commit the crime; in 35% of gun deaths, the gun was one that was already LEGALLY owned; in only 17% of gun deaths was the gun illegally owned. If you examine most recent horrific mass murders: Las Vegas, the Aurora theater shooting, San Bernardino, Parkland HS, and on and on, the guns used were LEGALLY purchased. The Las Vegas shooter had over 30 LEGALLY purchased guns with him.
Again, if you have a solution for stopping those with mental health issues from buying guns LEGALLY, please present it. According to the FBI and Justice Department, there is no “profile” for who will commit a gun murder. Mental health checks are supposed to be done now, but I’m sure you can see how well that has worked. There are loopholes galore that allow people who should not be allowed to own a gun to easily purchase one.
Is gang violence an issue? Yes. Are gun deaths (including suicides and violence against household members) outside of gangs a issue? Big yes. To only focus on gun murders related to gangs (where most are underage and it is illegal for them to own an handgun) is disingenuous. Again, there is way more to this issue than gun ownership, legal or otherwise, and what kinds of guns people own. There is a much, much deeper sickness in this country when it comes to guns and gun violence.
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As I read your story it hadn’t occurred to me that either one would have a gun. Watching the US news lately I admit, the US is one of the last places I ever want to return to for a visit. So much violence, so much racism and so much hatred. I hope it returns to the US I knew. Maggie
That’s what’s ingrained now in so many Americans, that gun violence could very well occur in a situation we watched. We enjoyed staying in countries where gun violence was not an impossibility, but was very highly unlikely. It was a freedom we don’t always enjoy in the U.S.
This was interesting! I’m not sure if you’d feel comfortable telling more, but your reference to being threatened at gunpoint has me curious. Most people who are murdered, with or without guns, are harmed by family or friends, right? I live in a “nice” suburban area, but horrible gun crimes happen around here quite a bit. Seems to be about evenly divided between family violence, robberies, and gangs. I’ve been threatened, too, but not as blatantly as you were. My neighbor had guns, addiction, and serious mental health problems, and finally I got him to get rid of his guns. (Hope he hasn’t gotten more without me knowing- I’m sort of an informal guardian, and he is sweet and neighborly with me). For the person who wouldn’t go in a “poor neighborhood”, don’t you realize that bad guys go to “rich” neighborhoods to steal?
I had broken up with my first husband; he came back with the shotgun. I called his bluff and he backed off. He came back next with a hunting knife and put that to my throat, but I said the same thing and he eventually backed off again. I had broken off with him because he had been becoming more and more violent and when he finally hit me that was the end (for me). Having access to a gun in any domestic dispute makes the possibility far more likely someone (usually the woman) will be shot or killed. I was a very lucky woman. I had friends that hid me for a while after those incidents, and he thankfully never showed up at my work.
Again, mentally ill should not be allowed to purchase guns.Those who are convicted of domestic violence cannot legally buy guns anymore. I am really sorry this happened to you.
As far as the rich /poor thing, yes, the rich neighborhood do get broken into….but you have much less chance getting caught in cross fire. BTW- I am middle class 😉 and I, personally do not own a gun.
It never would have occurred to me that guns could have been involved in your train story, either. In my small, remote area of Canada, a man with no firearms license and two illegal semi-automatic rifles killed 22 people (mostly strangers) in a premeditated rampage. Most Canadian men I know do not own firearms and they don’t feel they have a “right” to do so (it is certainly not in our constitution). When I lived in the US, my kid had the chance to go on a sleepover with a friend. I half-jokingly asked the mom if there were any firearms in the house. Turns out she, herself, had a second job as an armed security guard, and had a revolver on site.
When all of our kids were little, from our son all the way through our daughters, if they were going over to someone else’s home to play or for a sleepover, we always asked if we didn’t know them if guns were kept in the house, and if so were they locked up. It was just something we personally needed to know and act on, if necessary. We knew of a couple of gun accidents that occurred in homes, and of a serious/tragic domestic dispute that involved guns, so that information was just an added layer of safety for us.
Guns are something all Americans have to deal with and think about one way or another.
Traveling, as well as any other human activity, involves some risks. Nothing and nowhere is 100% safe. There are many instances when tourists get caught in different risky situations and of course, the language barrier and lack of knowledge about the local culture, laws, customs can make things tricky at times. It has nothing to do with being naive though.
However, I agree that in our society many people live with the fear of being shot because of the way guns and gun ownership are. For those people who advocate for the right to own a gun, I would like to suggest them to also emphasize the responsibilities associated with gun ownership. I agree that one person may have the legal right to own a gun but I ( and many like me) also have the right to feel safe in my own country, whether I am on the street, on a bus, or plane, or store, school, you name it. The theory that if I am being attacked, I should attack back and have a gun ready to use with me is quite childish. With that approach, where are we, as a society, heading? To become a war zone?? A war that we create ourselves for ourselves?
Let’s not forget that this country is still very young. There are other countries in the world which are thousands of years old. So the real question is how are we, as a society, going to last for thousands of years? What values are going to carry us through history for thousands of years? Are gun ownership and casual use of it going to help us create strong bonds between different layers of our society that would allow generations and generations to thrive and outlast in the future? Maybe we can learn something from older societies, look at what kept them together for thousands of years. Probably at some point in their history, they may have had a culture of violence and prevalent use of personal weapons ( not necessarily guns as guns were invented relatively recently) but when that didn’t serve their long-lasting goals, they walked away from it. There is value in the collective wisdom of humanity and we can always learn from it.
What baffles me is that the conversation about gun crimes revolves so much around statistics and the right to ownership. It seems to me that we cannot see the forest because of the trees. In my opinion, we should talk more about what vision do we have for our country and our daily lives, for today and for the future. Do we really want to live in a place where our children( and grands) as young as 4 yo learn about lockdowns and practice active shooter drills every month? A place where every time one goes to a mall or movie theater has a thought that it may be their last place to be alive? Or a place where parents fear for their children’s safety every time they drop them off at school? Or as it happened to Laura and Brett, otherwise two peaceful people, who discovered that they’re living every second of their lives with the fear of being involved in a gun violence episode? I did the drills with my kindergartners when I was working and I can tell you how terrified they were and how awful I felt every single time to cause them so much unnecessary anxiety.
There is a bigger picture than the one where some people feel the need to exercise their right to own a gun as if the guns would give them a bigger sense of freedom and security. It is in fact a false sense of freedom as freedom lives in our thoughts, not in our possessions. And as far as the need to feel secure goes, raising people out of poverty, shared wealth, and wellbeing would be so much better than using guns, don’t you think?
Thank you for this very thoughtful look at some of the many issue that go along with gun ownership in our country outside of whether the ownership is legal or now. Freedom does lie in our thoughts, not in our possessions, but that idea has been turned on its head when it comes to guns in the U.S. We have not had a reckoning yet of what our current gun culture has done and is doing to our country and who we want to be in the future. In my own opinion, when there was no reckoning after the Sandy Hook shooting, we were doomed. Again, I am not against gun ownership. I question why people need assault type weapons, which were created to kill a LOT of people in a short amount of time (and do) and for some, need to flaunt them, but I do not question the right to own guns in the U.S. You raise many of the serious questions this country has not, and seems to refuse to ask itself about gun culture in the U.S. We’ve been well trained to look at “legal” vs. “illegal” and other red herrings instead of facing some very glaring issues.
I thank you for having the courage to bring up this difficult topic. I know that the tendency is to avoid controversial issues because nobody likes the drama and uneasiness they create. Plus, it gives bullies more avenues to spew their venom and poison any conversation that is not in agreement with their ideas. It’s time for decent people to speak up and step out of their comfort zone and tackle these bothering issues. If we are silent or we just tip-toe around the heaviness of them, the loudmouths will prevail and we all are going to suffer the consequences for their foolish decisions. Sandy Hook broke my heart too and look where we are today and what the madmen made out of it. What is wrong is just that: wrong, regardless of statistics.
This incident has bothered me since it happened – it was such a wake-up to how conditioned we (Brett and I) have become by the gun violence in our country.
What is wrong is wrong. I have yet to hear a very good, cognizant argument for the continuation of how things are from some. It’s always just “freedom!” But, whose freedom?
Thank you again for so clearly and eloquently expressing your opinions.
From Paul Krugman’s column today on “freedom”:
…when people on the right talk about “freedom” what they actually mean is closer to “defense of privilege” — specifically the right of certain people (generally white male Christians) to do whatever they want.
Not incidentally, if you go back to the roots of modern conservatism, you find people like Barry Goldwater defending the right of businesses to discriminate against Black Americans. In the name of freedom, of course. A lot, though not all, of the recent panic about “cancel culture” is about protecting the right of powerful men to mistreat women. And so on.
Once you understand that the rhetoric of freedom is actually about privilege, things that look on the surface like gross inconsistency and hypocrisy start to make sense.
This is exactly what’s going on – it is all about privilege, and the privilege to do whatever they want, without a care for the freedom, safety, etc. of others.
I’m guessing you have seen the short Jane Ellliott video where she asks a white audience to stand if they would be willing to accept the same treatment that blacks have to accept in our country. Privilege in a nutshell. The same is true for some (but definitely not all) gun owners in this country.
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