The man in the corner of the railway compartment is reading Great Expectations. A good book to read the night before the mega concorso, billed by the media as "the exam of the millennium". It is also the last time Italians will be able to get a job as a teacher without any training.
Anyone with a degree, like our Dickens reader, can sit the concorso, a public exam, and hope for the best: a job for life as a state teacher. But a change in legislation means that after the exams for each subject finish this Easter, there will be only one way into the profession - through postgraduate courses lasting two years. Since the courses are likely to be expensive, it's no small wonder that everyone prefers the short, sharp alternative of an exam. To sit the exam costs a mere 60,000 lire (pound;20), a bargain compared with two years at university. But the chances of getting through are not great. With 1.3 million candidates for 20,000 posts, our Dickens reader's expectations stand a 1 in 65 chance.
Exams like this used to be held almost every year in Italy, but falling rolls and cutbacks in the lean 1990s brought teacher recruitment to a halt, and the entrance exams were suspended. The average age in staffrooms began to creep up and a generation of potential teachers was left out in the cold.
Everyone in the compartment - everyone on the train, it seems - is headed for the same place: Verona, the exam centre for prospective secondary English teachers. The reading matter, varied though it is, gives the game away: English Grammar Made Simple, A History of English Literature by Anthony Burgess, a slim volume entitled Guida al concorso on how to pass the exam. Silently we troop out into the Verona night, each to their own bolthole - a pensione, a friend's flat, a convent. The exam starts tomorrow morning at eight.
Just about every school in the town has been requisitioned for the exam. At mine, the Liceo Galileo Galilei on the outskirts of Verona, there must be 500 of us waiting for the gates to open, including a conspicuous cohort of pregnant women and mothers with young children.
The exam is to last eight hours and begins with the invigilator reading out a long list of rules. Windows must be closed, but the door must remain open. No one to go to the toilet for two hours. A pregnant woman in her eighth month asks if she can go earlier if necessary. Yes, if she has a certificate to say that she is pregnant. No one to leave the building for the first four hours. No identifying marks to be made on exam papers, which will be sealed in envelopes at the end. All bags to be taken to the front of the room. At this point about half the candidates pick up their bags and dump them near the invigilator; the rest stuff them under their seats out of view.
The security measures don't always work. A week ago, in nearby Padua, the police were called into a concorso after a woman was found wired up to a minute radio transmitter; her sister was dictating the answers from home.
The tension drops slightly when the school barman arrives to take orders for lunch. He has a pencil and notepad and ticks off our requests for panini (sandwiches). Salami? Mozzarella and pomodoro? Mortadella? "This is Italy," whispers my neighbour, "and the barman has to make a living."
Each candidate is given four double sheets of ruled paper. "Are we to wrie on alternate lines?" asks someone from the back of the room. "You should know the answer to that one by now," the invigilator replies cryptically, leaving your correspondent none the wiser.
All that is missing now is the exam paper itself. It finally arrives, about an hour later, "from Rome", says our invigilator. An extract from E M Forster's A Passage to India to be analysed, with eight questions in quirky English, and an essay to write on "Britain's relationships with the English-speaking peoples from the British (sic) Commonwealth of Nations". Furious writing begins.
Italians universally adopt the same strategy in exams. Note-taking is unheard of. They launch straight into a brutta copia (rough copy), which they then copy out neatly (la bella copia) as the final version to be handed in. But this means a lot of writing. When candidates finally get round to doing la bella copia, it is often perilously late, and many get caught short. As a result, examiners are frequently directed from essays that peter out mid-sentence to an appended note, "please see rough copy", referring them to an ugly scrawl full of crossings-out.
Time is marked by the school bell which rings uselessly for absent pupils every 40 minutes or so, though it feels more like every 10. Two hours into the exam a woman goes out to the toilet and doesn't come back for an hour. Crying outside breaks the silence when a woman comes back in from breast-feeding her child. "I think the baby wants some more," the invigilator says. "It's the other child," answers the woman. "I think he's fallen down the stairs."
Then a bearded official enters and announces: "Letter Q has been drawn." This turns out to refer not to the Superenalotto (Italy's answer to the National Lottery), but to the oral exams. Those who get through the written part of the exam will be summoned to an oral at a later date, in alphabetical order, starting with people whose names begin with Q.
At 1.30pm I am the first to throw in the towel and leave. I must also be one of the first non-Italians to be allowed to sit a concorso for a state-teaching job, since EU legislation on employment opportunities and recognition of qualifications has only recently been taken up here, and can still be a grey area. My qualifications seem to have passed muster, but two British colleagues, one of them with a PGCE, have been told they cannot apply. The one with the PGCE was informed by the local authority in Trieste that she would first have to sit the Italian school-leaving exam (the equivalent of A-levels).
The government wants the new teachers to be in the classroom in September 2001. With a surname beginning with N, I should be one of the last to be interviewed, perhaps a year from now, if I pass the written exam. But will I?
In the twilight on Verona station, a single theme dominates the conversation: Adela Quested and the Marabar caves. "Who is this Adela?" someone asks. "What's her connection with Miss Quested?" "It's the same person," her companion replies. "Mamma mia, I hadn't realised." "Didn't you see the film?" the companion continues. "The James Ivory film?" "Oh, he was in it, was he?" says the first woman. "He was the director," says the cinema-goer.
On reflection, perhaps my writing will get me through. The oral, when it comes, is meant to identify those candidates with an aptitude for teaching. That's another story.
David Newbold is The TES's correspondent in Italy. He is still waiting for his exam result