We’d spent four days exploring the incomparable coastal villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Now my friend, Juliana, and I were traveling by train from Levanto to Rapallo on the way to Portofino.
By nature, I’m introverted and reserved with those I don’t know. This manifests in avoiding casual contact, or starting conversations, with strangers. Juliana is the opposite and the most affable of people. She is the Welcome Wagon of travelers. It is as if she has a tattoo on her forehead that says, “Talk to me.” And, they do. All sorts of strangers, in all sorts of places, with all sorts of questions or issues, and speaking different languages, spontaneously approach her. She smiles, engages and is soon in deep and intimate tête-à-têtes. This happened again at the Levanto train station.
While in line to get information about the next train, we were having a foolish discussion about some travel foible. The nonsense conversation entailed mix-ups in our plans; and, Juliana making speculative and ribald observations about other travelers. My laughs were muted and contained. In contrast, Juliana filled the station with loud, uncontrolled and continuous peals of mirth.
After receiving guidance and tickets, we moved to the train platform. There were only a scattered handful of other passengers. I made a trip to the men’s room, while Juliana sat alone on an isolated bench barricaded by our luggage.
I’d barely been gone for minutes. As I returned, Juliana was engaged in animated conversation with a man and a woman. I considered stopping at another bench to avoid being drawn in. However, I approached. Knowing my preference for avoiding small talk, Juliana caught my eye and laughed. I furtively rolled my eyes. She introduced the pair, Lola and Charles. Somehow, in a matter of seconds she had gleaned extensive information about the couple. The pair had met on an expensive, small group hiking tour and were moving between towns. Juliana related the entire itinerary of their current travels. More incredibly, she’d learned details of their lives that I don’t know about people I’ve known for decades. She described Charles’ work in New Jersey for Toyota USA and Lola’s as a lawyer from Washington State.
The vivacious blond woman volunteered that she’d approached Juliana after hearing her laughter in the train station. “I just love her laugh. I’ve never heard a laugh that fun and infectious in an adult. Don’t you just love her laugh?”
It struck me this was an odd basis to initiate a conversation with a stranger. Nonetheless, I cautiously agreed that Juliana did indeed have a unique, frequent and childlike laugh. I added that she’d had plenty of practice perfecting it on this trip as she laughed her way across Europe. I figured that would be the end of it and we would part ways. Such was not the case.
Lola continued with enthusiasm, “I wish I had a laugh like that. Charles, don’t you wish you had a laugh like that?” Charles nodded and didn’t try to interrupt his loquacious companion.
I gave Juliana a surreptitious look that asked, “Where did you pick up this weird bird?” She shrugged. The situation and the bizarre conversation tickled one of her many funny bones and she snorted out another laugh.
Lola was delighted and pointed, “There it is. That’s the laugh.”
Maybe I was immune. It was certainly a fun and joyous laugh. But, I wasn’t as certain it justified the front page headline treatment Lola was giving it. To be polite and to keep Juliana laughing, I gave exaggerated agreement, “YES, that certainly is ... THE LAUGH! I’ve been hearing that laugh allllllllll week!”
“You’re sooooo lucky.” Lola burbled.
It was time to exit stage left from this peculiar scene. But, there was no escape. The train wasn’t coming for ten minutes. And Lola wasn’t taking a breath to offer an opportune moment to leave. If i hadn’t just returned, I’d have excused myself to the bathroom. We spent the interminable time listening to the travails of their trip and how she planned to deal with the Tour Company for assigning them a guide who knew little about the country and could barely speak English. I pitied the company representative who would have to deal with this whirlwind’s wrath. Lola then poured forth a frenzied spiel on the background of their jobs and lives. I gave monosyllable interjections and tried to ease away. Juliana blocked my desertion. She chatted easily with them like an old friend and talked about the highlights of our travels to date and laughed some more.
“Oh, your trip is so much better than ours.” Lola exclaimed.
I was terrified that Lola was about to abandon her tour and join Juliana’s Worldwide Excursion of Laughs, Inc. Fortunately, the train was approaching. I pointed out we’d have to catch our ride and snatched my backpack and suitcase.
Lola said this was also their train. That made our departure more urgent. I indicated to Juliana to join me in a sprint down the platform. She laughed and gathered her stuff.
Lola beamed at the new giggles. Instead of saying farewell, she said, “Do you have a recording of your laugh? You could sell that laugh. I’d love to buy a CD of you laughing.”
This was edging into stalking territory. The proper response would be to run far and fast. I made for the slowing train. Juliana was now in stitches at the crazy suggestion. Being overly polite, she replied to Lola that she didn’t have a CD of her laugh, as though it was a perfectly normal question.
“You should. It’s the best laugh I’ve ever heard.”
Leaving the odd couple, Juliana caught up to me several cars down the platform. I helped hoist her luggage up the steep stairs and we moved into the half-filled car. I snagged a set of four facing seats and moved us into the window chairs. I was exhausted by the ludicrous exchange and didn’t want to risk repeating it on the ride to Rapallo. Instead of putting the suitcases in the overhead rack, I stacked them on the aisle chairs. I told Juliana this created the Great Wall of Bill that would prevent anyone from sitting there.
This caused the already amused Juliana to guffaw uncontrollably. I tried to stifle her glee. Too late. Lola and Charles entered the other end of the car. Juliana’s laughter was like a homing beacon for the chatterbox traveler from Washington State. I slunk into the chair to avoid detection and looked out the window. In the glass reflection, I saw Lola stop at our aisle and her disappointment at seeing the protective wall of luggage. I feigned intense interest in the railroad tracks and didn’t offer to move them. I shot Juliana a look that said, “Don’t you dare ask them to sit here.” After a moment, Lola directed Charles into the adjoining chairs behind Juliana’s back.
The train started to move. I was happy at dodging the socialization bullet. To minimize attention, we chatted in whispers. Rehashing the kooky conversation with Lola, I had suggestions about how Juliana could make a financial killing recording her mirth. The market was endless: little titters; rib-ticklers; explosive guffaws; Xmas holiday laugh tracks; bawdy chortles. I didn’t think Lola could hear our hushed exchange. But, she delighted in Juliana’s frequent loud sniggers and cackles. We heard her tell Charles how great it would be if they had such a ‘fun couple’ on their trip.
To my surprise, about halfway through the short train ride, Lola turned around and popped up like a Jack-In-The Box kneeling on her seat. She started talking to the back of Juliana’s head about how her laughs were making the trip entertaining. I was shocked at this incredible breach of train etiquette, and disappointed that my suitcase wall had failed to prevent this incursion.
Lola chatted amiably about the beautiful region we were passing through and any number of other things. Juliana was holding her stomach to control the pain from her extended laughter and her joy at my discomfit. Lola asked about our plans in Portofino. Juliana talked generally. I prayed she didn’t give away details that would allow crazy Lola to track us down.
When we pulled into Rapallo, I bolted. I didn’t want to end up making shared dinner and travel plans. On the platform, I smiled and gave them a firm and detached, “Goodbye, have a nice trip.” I turned and moved quickly away. Behind me, I heard Lola asking Juliana for her Facebook and Instagram information!!! Once out of sight in the terminal, I looked for bus information and waited to see if Juliana had managed to dis-engage.
Juliana found me. Through laughs, she chastised me for abandoning her.
I said, “If I hadn’t left and given you a reason to run away, you’d have been in a laughter recording studio, or, we’d be making plans to join them on their next three trips. Neither is a good idea.”
For the rest of the stay in Portofino, I was on nervous alert to spot Lola before she could ensnare us again.