During the trip I started writing a story called “The Vacation Trip From Hell,” but it was getting overly long, so I parked the story until after the trip. I have now resurrected the concept, because continuing developments wove themselves into a fairly lengthy and coherent narrative. The narrative has turned out to be overly long, so I’m breaking it into multiple parts, of which this is just the first.
If you’ve been following this blog recently you are aware my past few weeks have involved a shit load of the transportation industry. Here is a short run down—sometimes there are photos, sometimes not.
Tuesday, 16 September, we were off to Italy for a few weeks. It all started with a cab ride. Not as though we planned it that way. That’s just the way it worked out.
Back in Dallas we had the Super Shuttle for getting to and from the airport. We’re in San Antonio now. The substitute, San Antonio Airport’s shuttle service does not seem to be a viable alternative. They seem set up to serve downtown hotels, and they quoted me about $63 each person each way to and from the airport to my home about 10 miles from SAT. Yellow Cab looked to be the way. They were prompt, in addition to be careful, quick and kind, and the fare was slightly under $40 each way. Two passengers.
I had been through SAT only on one other occasion since my Navy Reserve days, when I used to catch a transport to and from my reserve meetings at Dallas NAS. Not a lot has changed since those days. Despite being the major international airport south of Austin, SAT compares favorably to such as Tuscon’s TUS. SAT has two adjacent terminals, one for American and a few other airlines and another for the remainder.
Good news for SAT. Waiting areas feature free WiFi. Bad news, connectivity sucks big time. It’s barely noticeable. Good news. A work table in the waiting area features power outlets for your computer, cell phone and iPad.
The flight to Italy began with a flight to Chicago, because … Because San Antonio International Airport does not serve Rome, Italy. At least not through American Airlines. Our flight was AA3417, which is really American Eagle flying a CRJ70, featuring two seats on either side of the aisle in the main cabin, a narrow cylinder of thin aluminum, as it turns out. Our seats (rewards miles) were at the very back. As we made our way back I thought to myself, “So this is what space travel is like.”
Not so bad after all. Once we got started the steward invited us to move one row forward, and things got a bit more comfortable.
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) was as we have all come to know and love it. Fortunately we were departing from the same terminal at which we were arriving. Unfortunately this was ORD, and the departure gate was a long hike down ORD’s famous concourses. Barbara Jean had time for a bathroom break before it was time to board for far off Germany (?). Yes, to get to Rome it’s sometimes helpful to fly first to Düsseldorf (DUS).
This was AA242, featuring a Boeing 767-300 (plane type 673).
Flying to Europe from the U.S. typically involves a late day takeoff and an over-night flight. As usual, it was dark over the North Atlantic, but we did get two meals (and very little sleep) before touching down on the European Continent.
“Touching down” is just a figure of speech. The pilot seemed to have a grudge with the runway, but he finally got the issue resolved before we got to the terminal.
Our first order of business in Europe was getting European money, and that involved an ATM and a bank card. We quickly found a money changer, and he pointed us to an ATM right behind his booth. Fortunately the screen had an English option. Unfortunately completing the transaction required pressing the Enter (Accept) button after supplying my PIN. The buttons did not have language options, but I pressed the button that seem the most worn and got my money, 300 Euros. That would get us started.
Came the next part of our journey, and also the part I remember most about large German Airports. Getting to your plane involves a bus ride. At the departure gate we got herded down several flights of stairs where a bus was waiting. Not enough of a bus. Barbara Jean and I had to wait for the next bus.
That bus took us to Air Berlin 8840, which featured an Airbus 321 (plane type 321), which, fortunately for us, loaded from the front and from the rear.
We had a nice trip to Rome. Too bad we couldn’t see out the window. We sat in the center seats, and the people sitting next to the windows wanted to keep the shutters down mostly. I could from time to time make out the Alps and finally the Apennines.
Surprise, surprise! Out luggage showed up at the Rome Fiumicino Airport, where we had to clear customs. I particularly enjoy the Italians’ approach to customs control. There were two lines. One line was for people with something to declare. The other was for those without something to declare. We chose the “no declare” line and breezed through.
Trains next. We needed to get to Cortona. That required a train ride. That required we get to the Roma Termini station. That required we get on the Leonardo Express, a 30-minute train to the Rome station. That required a ticket. Two tickets really. One for me and one for Barbara Jean.
Well prepared in advance, I had purchased a Eurail train pass. Study in advance had advised me the pass was good for the train to Roma Termini. Study in advance had not advised me about how to get my pass validated at the Airport.
The problem was we needed to get to Cortona, over two hours out of Rome on a local train. The problem was we needed to get to Cortona to check into our hotel, which we had reserved and already paid in advance. Barbara Jean was concerned it we did not show up by nightfall the hotel would rent our room to somebody else.
Of course, that was a bit of wrong thinking, but we were not prone to a lot of right thinking, hence the ensuing scenario.
I determined to get the train pass validated at the Rome station, where there were ticket agents on duty who could do this. To me this meant blowing 28 Euros on two Leonardo Express tickets into Rome. I had hoped this would keep us on schedule. I’ve been wrong before.
It turned out that purchasing the two tickets, which we should not have needed, was about the worst decision I made all month. And the trouble did not end there.
There is a ticket office in the airport, but there seemed to be only two people working it, and at least one of them seemed intent on spending the remainder of the day dealing with a person whose problem required extended phone conversations with parties unknown. We were advised we could get tickets at the train station, just a bit further on.
Look at a map of the Fiumicino airport. The train station is across the street, and you get to it by going up a level and passing through an enclosed skyway. This would have been all right had the escalator been working. The down-stairs were running just fine. Problem was the up-stairs were sitting dead as Nero.
I was most distressed. Barbara was most annoyed. And everybody in the airport knew it. As she boosted her three-weeks load of luggage up the stone steps the world around learned what a horrible mess was the nation of Italy. She was not alone. One gentleman from Brooklyn—I could tell from his accent and from his choice of language—had similar sentiments.
We did arrive at a ticket station where an agent was earnestly working to ensure everybody got their tickets. I handed him my credit card. Second mistake I made that day. I told him I wanted two round trip tickets. That was a mistake, since we would only need tickets to Rome.
The agent took my card and dispensed me two tickets from the machine, assuring me that he was charging me for only two tickets. We were not to learn until we returned home that was a small bit of fiction. But that’s another story.
Barbara Jean and I ran our two tickets through the slot at the turnstiles and we went to our train. Freedom at last. Very funny.
The Leonardo Express is that in name only. This one made several stops for no apparent reason out in the wilderness west of Rome before arriving 15 minutes late. This did give Barbara an opportunity to strike up a conversation with another woman doing some knitting. This turned out to be the lull before the storm.
It was now about noon, and were were slipping behind our schedule to get to Cortona by 2 p.m. We had a pass for the train. We needed to get it validated, stamped, before we could use it. Now came the second big mistake of the day.
The instructions that came with the pass said that a travel agency or ticket office could stamp our pass. I saw signs pointing to a rail ticket office, and we trouped over there. And waited in line. Thirty minutes by our estimates. Just ask Barbara Jean. Whenever she sees fit she reminds me how long we waited.
There was only one agent working the two windows, and we went into a shift change waiting. When I finally got to the window the woman told me she could not validate my pass. I needed to take it to one of the ticket windows out by the train platforms. Was Barbara ever pissed. At me.
There was a mob at the ticket windows. After some screwing around we realized we needed to get a number and wait to be served. The remarkable Italian bureaucratic efficiency was at work. I counted 19 ticket windows. I counted about one or two processing customers. I took special notice that before and after processing a customer an agent would generally work through some forms processing and possibly even make a phone call. And chat with a fellow worker. We were getting nowhere.
Did I mention that Barbara was pissed? The entire Roma Termini station knew that Barbara was pissed. People (those excitable Italians) were starting to become alarmed. People approached us offering help. We were beyond help.
I told Barbara I was going to look for an alternative solution. Would you believe that at this point Barbara was still skeptical of my abilities, my worth as a human being?
Apart from Barbara Jean (she was minding the luggage) I encountered an Italian woman, one of those who had become alarmed at Barbara’s outbursts. She advised me I should go to that information stand over there situated on the station floor, and that person could validate my pass.
There was a short line. The woman working the information stand was working diligently with the person up front, and I waved my rail pass to catch her attention. She glanced up and nodded her head. It was the first encouraging sign I had received since I arrived in Italy.
She spoke excellent English and took my pass from me. She opened up the folder, examined that everything looked legitimate, and grabbed two rubber stamps. Bang, bang. My pass was stamped. She filled in the final use date in the blank and handed it back to me. I departed a free man at last. Now to find Barbara.
Barbara Jean took the good news but stayed focused. We still had to find our train. And we had notify the Hotel San Michele in Cortona that we would be late. Barbara Jean rescued us in that respect. She reminded me about all the people who, alarmed her outbursts, had offered help. Get one of those people to assist us with a phone call. Barbara is a genius.
One such person was readily found. A pay phone was located out by the street entrance, and the call only cost 0.50 Euro. Our guy inserted the coin, got the hotel number from Barbara, translated the number into the correct dialing sequence for the Italian phone system and handed me the receiver. The Hotel San Michele desk was on the phone, and she spoke excellent English. I explained we were still coming, we would be there, we just needed to catch our train. She said no problem.
I slipped our helpful friend a Euro coin, and Barbara Jean and I went looking for our train. Thanks to the remarkable train app I had on my Samsung tablet, I was quickly able to determine that, yes, with all this screwing around we had already missed the 1:03 p.m. train to Camuccia-Cortona. The next train was 2:58 p.m., arriving at the Camuccia station at 5:23 p.m. That left me with over an hour of learning more about my ancestry from Barbara Jean.
So, we knew the time, and we knew the train number. But where? The Roma Termini station has—I counted—29 platforms. We searched the schedule boards. Nothing showed up that far in the future.
So we watched. The train came up. It was 2314 to Firenza S.M.N. (Florence Santa Maria Novella). There was no platform assigned. We watched. Twenty minutes left, and the platform assignment popped up. 1 Est. What platform is 1 Est? I went to find somebody in a train company uniform. She told me it was platform 1, all the way down to the end of the platform.
Now I made another of my grand mistakes of the day. I had received so many wrong leads during the day I was going to confirm the existence of that platform and that train. I told Barbara I was going to check it out, and I left Barbara in charge of the bags. So very wrong.
We were at platform 29. I went looking for 1 Est. All the way down to the end of the platform. I calculated the time it would take me to get back to Barbara and get to the train. When the rising assurance level finally met the declining time remaining I hoofed it back to Barbara, who was not even more pissed. She had already figured out where the platform was, but she was stuck with the bags and couldn’t follow me.
In case this ever comes up on the quiz, it’s about a half mile from the head of platform 29 to the end of platform 1. We made it with about four minutes to spare. Barbara was pissed at me. Everybody in Rome was aware by now.
We shoved out baggage aboard. The train was crowded. There was no place for us to sit together on that car. We went to the next car. Still no places together. Barbara was pissed. Everybody on the train was aware.
Some people were understanding, and moved to another car so Barbara could sit with me, not that I was sure I wanted to just then. Seeing Barbara’s dissatisfaction, one man offered, “It’s going to be all right, Barbara.” The mood softened. John Kerry might not have to meet with the Italian ambassador after all.
The train was crowded. It was a warm day. My gray tee shirt was wringing wet. I was so glad I had applied an extra helping of body perfume before leaving Elizabeth Court the previous morning.
We were able to put our luggage in the overhead racks. The train was moving. We were coming to Camuccia-Cortona. Nothing could stop us now. The vacation trip from Hell was winding down.
Train 2314 made many stops in the almost 2-1/2 hours. People got off. The train emptied. We relaxed. Barbara no longer talked of homicide.
The plan was to catch the bus from the Camuccia station into Cortona, about six miles. We got off the 2314 train and quickly abandoned that idea. A gaggle of cab drivers vied for our affection. Looking at Barbara, absolutely beat, and feeling as though I had just spent a week on the bottom of a cattle car, I asked a driver how much. Twelve Euros. No problem. He loaded our bags, and a few minutes later were unloading in front of the Hotel San Michele.
The story of trains and planes and crawly things did not end in front of the Hotel San Michele, but this saga is beginning to stretch beyond most readers’ endurance. I’m going to break it off at this point and continue in future posts. Be aware: There is drama yet to come.