Sunday, August 20, 2017

Overseas Travel: Fun, with some Pain

 My wife Anita and I go to Italy a lot, usually by way of Holland and France. My mother (now 104 years old) lives in Holland, so each year we first spend a couple of weeks with her and then we travel South. We feel that pound for pound, Italy has more to offer tourists than any other country, closely followed by France.

Intercontinental travel gets harder with age. But we haven’t thrown in the towel yet by just going on cruises and organized tours. We still run around Europe independently by car, by train and by airplane. This usually leads to some unsettling experiences.

The last time we flew to Rome from Holland, we had our first “interesting” experience immediately upon landing at Fumicino airport late in the evening:

After deplaning, we both hit the first toilet we could find, a fairly common practice. Then, we proceeded towards baggage claim. Only AFTER we were outside the security area did we realize that Anita - who is diabetic - had inadvertently left her insulin pack in the bathroom which she had just visited.

Panic! Diabetics need to have their insulin on hand. Without it, the situation can become life-threatening within hours.

We spent the next half hour running around and asking Italian officials how to proceed.

And here, we experienced (again, as in the past), the common-sense, courtesy and common humanity of which Italians seem to have such an abundance: After we explained our problem to security guards, they permitted us to RE-ENTER the secure area! Then, under supervision of ticket agents, we were allowed to search several bathrooms for the forgotten insulin. It was difficult to retrace our exact steps in the labyrinthine Fumicino airport, so we had to check out many bathrooms.

After an hour-long search, we found the medical pack. I wonder whether Homeland Security would have been equally flexible. Had the same thing happened to us in this country, might the authorities’ response not have been: Tough luck. Just go to the nearest emergency hospital and get yourself a new supply of insulin, cost what it may...?

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We also returned to Venice. Our experience there was mixed. It was a bit of a pilgrimage, as Anita’s ancestry stems from there.

To be sure, I have always found the mysterious watery city magical. However, the crowds are worse than ever, with gigantic cruise ships disgorging thousands of tourists every day. San Marco Square can be a nightmare. Venice can be very tiring. The best part are the vaporettos , which take you from the airport to your hotel, and to the gorgeous and colorful islands of Murano and Burano, where you can eat great food and shop for famous lace and glass work.

A much better experience was Verona. That Tuscan city is a jewel. Its Roman arena, while not as large as the Colosseum in Rome, is better preserved, and it is used for a variety of events. We went to a rock concert there by the Italian idol Zucchero. For three hours, the band played ear-shattering rock, blues and other genres, while thirty-five thousand Italian housewives, businessmen, businesswomen and youngsters stomped, jived and sang along enthusiastically. A true feast!

Italy remains awesome. We hear a lot about its problems - economic, demographic, political. These don’t loom very large when you are there, at least as a visitor. The country appears vibrant and comfortable. Its people are diverse, but not extremely so. They don’t appear to be overwhelmed by a flood of refugees and illegal immigrants from across the Mediterranean. Do those tragic folks live in hidden refugee camps, invisible to tourists and middle-class Italians?

We always stay at the Paba, a tiny hotel one block from the Forum and the Colosseum. The owner is Alberta, a lovely and loveable sixty-something woman. She brings breakfast to our room every morning.

We had another “interesting” experience on our departure day: The taxi that picked us up to get us to the airport was driven by a phenomenally beautiful middle-aged woman. Clearly a hardworking mother, possibly single. Incredibly charismatic, charming, competent.

Alas, as we drove down the Via Imperiale to circle around the Colosseum, we got rear-ended pretty badly. We weren’t hurt, but our necks didn’t feel too good. Also, the trunk could no longer be shut and hold our baggage.

The beautiful taxi driver promptly got out and discussed the matter with the imbecile who had hit us and caused a monumental rush hour traffic jam at the foot of the Colosseum. The discussion took all of five minutes. Within seconds she had taken all the necessary pictures with her iPhone, and insurance and personal information was exchanged in courteous and businesslike fashion. Her mission was to deliver us on time, and she wouldn’t flinch from that. She promptly transferred our baggage from the non-working trunk into the back seats and we were on our way before we knew it. What professionalism! What sang-froid!

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Over the years, we have had many such “interesting” experiences when traveling overseas. Anita was mugged at Paris’ Gare du Nord. Her assailant didn’t get anything from her, but he did cause her back pain. A few years ago, two Roman punks grabbed my briefcase. I ran after them and got it back. I was already in my seventies, so I am proud of this. But that too, caused me some physical pain. We have missed our share of train and airplane connections. Sometimes a train stops for several hours in the middle of nowhere, as it did once due to a suicide in Holland, and another time due to a collision with a cow in rural France.

In 2005, it took me three days to get back home. I was supposed to connect at Heathrow, but the Russell Square terrorist attack in London created havoc with all air traffic.

In 2010, I was forced to spend an extra week in Europe because of the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano (try to spell that!).

I can do without surprises or “interesting” experiences (remember the old Chinese curse). Unfortunately, the only real surprise when traveling is if there is NO surprise. By and large, surprises are inevitable.

Ideally, you would be transported to your destination, beamed there by Scotty. The old Greyhound Bus slogan “Getting there is half the fun” is false. Getting there is not fun. What’s fun is BEING there. That’s why we haven’t given up international travel.
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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