A stranger's generous gesture helps some Kiwis out of a dire situation in Italy ... JUSTINE TYERMAN tells the story
The train from Milan screeched to a halt in the dark station. We waved at the smiling young couple standing at the doors waiting to disembark.
But their expressions quickly changed to panic as they grappled with the doors and were unable to open them. The train, already an hour late, sped off with all its passengers still onboard.
Mystified, we stood at the deserted station wondering what to do next.
Soon after, we got a text from daughter Bridget and fiancé Jeremy saying the doors had jammed and they would have to get a train back from the next station. It was after 11pm by then and the little village of Varenna on the shores of Lake Como was largely asleep. We found a café open and sat down to wait.
Fifteen minutes later, Bridget phoned from Bellano.
"The good news is we managed to get off the train. The bad news is there are no more trains, no taxis, and no sign of life here," she said.
"Okay. We'll send a taxi from Varenna," we replied optimistically.
Easier said than done. The man at the café spoke little English but his message was clear: "Too late, no taxis, everyone asleep."
We walked to the largest hotel in the village where husband Chris went to find the manager while I explained the situation to the maître d'hôtel. He called all the taxis in the village and came back with the same answer: "Too late. No taxis. Everyone asleep."
By this stage Bridget and Jeremy had scoured Bellano for overnight accommodation and checked out the online sites to no avail.
They were faced with hauling their suitcases along a dark road through a series of tunnels or spending an uncomfortable night on a railway station bench.
Having failed in my mission to find a taxi, I went to look for Chris. To my astonishment, I found him having an animated conversation with the hotel manager. He was slapping the chap on the back and laughing.
Great, I thought. At a time like this he's decided to stop for a chat with a total stranger.
But as I approached the pair, the Italian man pulled a set of keys from his pocket, handed them to Chris and pointed to a car across the piazza.
"Here, take my car. Go and get those young ones. They shouldn't be out there alone in the dark. And they mustn't walk along that road at night."
Incredulous, I hugged the man and promised to be back pronto. We set off very carefully in Alex's little Fiat. The road to Bellano was windy with many tunnels.
We found Bridget and Jeremy huddled together at the train station looking sorry for themselves. It was well after midnight by then.
When they spotted us, they looked like they had seen a vision. As we drove back to Varenna they said even the locals couldn't open the carriage doors and there was no train conductor in sight.
We delivered the Fiat safely back to Alex, introduced him to Bridget and Jeremy and there were hugs all round. The dear man seemed delighted to have helped us out. Next day we took him a card and a large bottle of limoncello.
Looking back on that night, I'm still staggered. With the scantest of information, this generous man grasped our desperation and didn't hesitate to help. We could have stolen or crashed his car but he trusted us — a couple of Kiwis in a dire situation.
Would we do the same if approached by strangers with such a far-fetched story?
We've written to formally thank Alex and ask him to come and stay with us. I hope we can repay his kindness one day.
* Stay at the beautiful four-star Hotel Royal Victoria in Varenna and give our warmest regards to Alex: royalvictoria.com