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I land in Frankfurt at 2:30. My flight to Cairo doesn’t leave until 7. The first coffee shop I pass has too long of a line. I keep walking and order at the next one. The barista is young and good-looking, and he speaks broken English with a thick Austrian accent. My passport falls out of my bag as I order. He glances at it and grins. “Donald Trump!” he says. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t vote for him.” He hands me a coffee.
I strain my eyes out the plane window, trying to see the city as we land. It’s late. There are only small patches of light surrounded by a vast expanse of desert, invisible in the night sky. The airport has closed when we arrive. The terminal is quiet and empty except for two women with their heads covered, mopping the floors. They hand me toilet paper as I walk into the restroom, and I tip them in American dollars because I don’t have Egyptian pounds yet. Their eyes light up at the sight of it.
I exit through customs into a hurricane of human voices. Men who I hope are taxi drivers do their best to wrestle my suitcase from my hand and lead me toward the exit. “La shukran,” I say, hesitating on the pronunciation. “No, thank you.”
You are there in the eye of the storm.
I’m distracted and exhausted, and I almost walk right past you. You step in my path. “Ready for this?” you say. I throw my arms around your neck, which embarrasses you. I don’t care. Neither do you. “Let’s go,” I say. You take my bags, and I do my best to follow you through the dense crowd until we reach our taxi. I’m suffocating and exhilarated by the noise and the lights. Suddenly we are in the car, and the chaos outside is muted. My face is pressed against the window trying to take it all in. “It’s dark,” you say. “Too dark to see.” But I don’t notice the darkness.
You take me to dinner at an outdoor Lebanese cafe where the staff all knows you. You order me a coffee. “Right away,” you say. “She’s American.” “You’re American,” I say. You smile like you’re not convinced. It’s midnight. The place is packed. It’s winter in Egypt, so the dining room is covered in a billowing white tent. I’m not entirely certain I’m not dreaming this.
The desert wind is surprisingly cold as you walk me back to the apartment. You give me your coat. “Watch out for the dogs,” you say. “What dogs?” “The strays. They’re desert dogs. They’re everywhere. Be careful.” You point to a bush as we cross the road. There are two skinny dogs huddled up together, sleeping. They are the color of the sand. They don’t even raise their heads as we pass. They look peaceful.
“Are you happy?” he asks.
I smile and vocalize something between “mmhmm” and clearing my throat in an octave not quite human. I am banking on him not knowing me well enough to press it. He doesn’t. He just keeps staring.
“You know how it is,” I finally manage to stammer after the silence has already crept past uncomfortable.
“Things are still a little chaotic here,” I say, trying to keep my voice cool.
“Yes,” he says. “Good to see you.”
I half turn as he walks back to his table. I catch myself from turning all the way, but I can see her dress in my periphery. I can see that she’s looking at me. He avoids walking by me again on his way out.
<a href="http://time.com/3027263/southwest-airlines-kicked-family-off-plane-after-dad-tweets-complaint/" title="News Story To Which I Am Referring"
Ok. I wasn't there. I don't personally know the Operations Agent involved, but here is my opinion (that you didn't ask for but are nonetheless receiving): When I worked for Southwest, there was a common misconception that parents with small children would be pre-boarded. That is not the case. Southwest reserves pre-boarding for passengers with disabilities (or those who claim to need wheelchair assistance from the gate area to the plane despite the fact that they just walked 3x as far to get that hot dog they are eating…but that is a different rant). Southwest offers Family Boarding between the A and B boarding groups for parents with young children. The reason for that is that seats are not assigned on board. A #1-15 is Business Select and those passengers have paid a good deal more to be on the plane first (often more than double what the lowest fare was). A-List and A-List Preferred passengers also receive a priority boarding pass, typically in the A group, as well as those passengers who purchase Early Bird Check-In for an additional $12.50. That Early Bird option is available to all passengers and many take advantage of it to get on the plane sooner. A new upgrade option is also available at the airport for any unsold Business Select boarding passes–$40 gets you A #1-15 if they were not already purchased. Again, that option is available to all passengers. Worst case scenario, with young children you board between A and B. All of those scenarios get you on the plane in plenty of time to be seated together. Now, if the issue is not merely that you want seats together but that you want particular seats together, then you need to pay extra like all the other passengers vying for those seats have to do. This is not only a Southwest policy. I cannot think of a single US-based airline that does not have an up-charge for premium seats. All of that is background. I was Operations Agent for Southwest for just under 5 years and worked at airports in 5 different cities for them. In every single city, parents would complain about not being allowed to pre-board even after the policy (that is clearly spelled out on the website when you purchase your ticket) was explained. I understand it must be frustrating in many cases to jump through all the hoops of air travel with small children. I get that. Most, once the policy was explained, patiently waited for Family Boarding. Some would gripe for a minute and then wait. Some would stand directly blocking the passengers trying to board in the A group while glaring down the agent. Some would cuss at or make disparaging remarks toward the agent in front of their children who they deemed too young to sit apart from them on the plane but not too young to be taught how to verbally abuse another human being. Each of these categories would fly on a daily basis. It got old. No matter how many times the policy was explained or how sympathetically and patiently it was explained, at least once a day there would be a parent that would verbally vomit all over you. Occasionally but not often, there would be parents who would attempt to physically intimidate an agent, solidifying my theory that people lose their minds when they enter an airport. You can be 100% right as an airline employee (we are not always, but once in a while it happens), and the company may not back you up. I was once shoved out of the way of the boarding door by a man with a C boarding pass trying to board with the A group “because he had missed his flight” earlier in the day. Instead of calling the police, as I admittedly should have done, I called someone in a management position at Southwest at the airport. They let him fly. The right thing is not always done. Even when it is, perhaps someone above you will do the wrong thing and undermine it. People make mistakes.
Now, as I said, I was not present for the incident in question, but I can guarantee that I have been in similar circumstances. I have no idea if the agent was rude to the passenger. Perhaps she was, but I doubt very much that that was the inciting factor. This passenger was an A-list flyer (meaning he should have known better). I am aware that the Family Boarding policy is not followed consistently from city to city, agent to agent, but there is a common trend among families to purchase one ticket with Early Bird Check-In and then attempt to board the other four family members holding C #24-27 with A #19. This irritates the frequent fliers, the people who legitimately purchased those A boarding passes, the others waiting for Family Boarding, and the airline employees. About half the time, the agents decide to avoid confrontation and let it go. The times when they don’t, they look like a jerk and may even get a nasty-gram sent to the company on their behalf. I get it. It is not always easy to follow the policy, and I am guilty of not always doing it. My unwritten rule was if the A-list passenger came up to me prior to boarding and simply asked if his/her children could board in A, then I could have time to assess the situation. How many children? How young? Etc. If they played the entitlement or ignorance card and tried to board a family of 6 in the A group with one A boarding pass, absolutely not. The problem you run into as an Operations Agent is that you do not often have the time to have a conversation with each passenger who does not understand the policies. Southwest has the fastest turn times in the industry, so fast that they are illogical, difficult, and many times impossible to meet. Operations Agents are responsible for getting the plane out on time and are held liable if for any reason that does not happen—even if the reason is that the company has allotted a 25-minute turn with a full crew change. For those of you unfamiliar, if the plane pulls into the gate full (143 passengers), it takes approximately 10 minutes to deplane them, sometimes more if there are passengers who need wheelchair assistance or time to set up their strollers in the jetbridge. The crew changes take an additional five minutes. That leaves 10 minutes for 143 passengers to board the plane and be seated, the agent to collect paperwork from the person fueling the plane and the ramp who is loading the bags and cargo and do all the math to process the weight & balance paperwork for the pilots. They are always rushed, always trying to get the people on the plane faster than is many times possible. Honestly, that alone can probably be misconstrued as “rude” in some cases. However, if a passenger is at the gate on time, there is ample time to ask any questions they may have about the boarding process prior to handing the agent their boarding pass to get on the plane, at which point the agent needs to be boarding people as quickly as they can with as little lag time as they can manage. In the scenario that hit the news yesterday, the passenger was clearly there at the start of the boarding process since he was in the A group. He could easily have had a conversation with this particular agent or any Customer Service Agent, who are always at the gates, about the policy. The fact that he did not ask anyone makes me assume that he already knew what the policy says.
Now, this Operations Agent will not be allowed to tell her side of the story, which is a shame. This man chose to vent his frustrations and publicly shame her on the vast social media stage. She cannot respond because Southwest will not allow it. Therefore the only version of the truth we will ever hear is his. However, even those details do not paint for me a picture of innocence on his part. He was already in the wrong attempting to have his kids cut in line to board in his group. Regardless of how big or small her smile was when she explained the policy, that should have been the end of it. Not only did he post her first and last name as well as exact location on Twitter (major security issue for her personally and for Southwest), but apparently he must have thrown a tantrum while doing it because other passengers brought it to her attention. She would never have known about it if he had just shut his mouth and vented via social media as we all do at times. If he had quietly done that and refrained from giving out her personal information, we would not be talking about this. He then decided to take it further and fee-fi-fo-fum his side of the story to other news
outlets. None of this surprises me, but what does surprise me is that Southwest is standing in his corner and not their employee’s. If Herb Kelleher was in charge, you had better believe that instead of a $50 voucher, he would have received a letter stating that he was not welcome to fly Southwest again.
That is not to say that the agent is blameless. I am certain that the situation could have been handled better. Perhaps she was perceived as short or sarcastic with him when she told him they could not all board in the A group (which he probably already knew). Perhaps she argued and allowed the conversation to continue when she should have just kept boarding. Perhaps she even was rude. I have no idea. I don’t think it is the point. That conversation can be held between her and her supervisors, who hopefully already have a solid grasp on who she is as a person and an employee and know if this sort of situation is typical or out of character for her (although, from the snippets I have heard from her co-workers, she is a very good employee and would not have responded in an inconsiderate manner without provocation). Perhaps he was verbally abusive. Perhaps he has an explosive temper. Perhaps he does not like to be told “no”. That conversation can be held between him and his children, who will hopefully not learn from his example.
Bottom line: the passenger was in the wrong. The agent told him he was in the wrong. He responded maliciously by tweeting her personal information. She rightfully demanded that it be deleted before he be allowed to fly. Now he is portraying himself as a victim, and his sense of entitlement and ability to threaten others are being rewarded with an apology from Southwest and a $50 voucher. Disgusting.
P.S. Oh, also. They were allowed to fly. They were not "kicked off the plane" as the news agencies are reporting. The agent and a supervisor spoke with them in the jetbridge after they had boarded and before the plane left and allowed them to travel on their original flight. The employee should be given a $50 voucher for her inconvenience, too.
PLAY: “Tho It Were Ten Thousand Mile”
BY: William H.A. Williams
DIRECTOR: Maureen A. Kennedy
PRODUCING THEATRE: The Irish American Theatre Company of Cincinnati, Ohio
Please note: This is a script review, not a production review…but I couldn’t help myself at certain points.
I don’t always have high expectations when I go to see a play, but I definitely have high standards. I also have a background in playwriting so while I am not the expert authority on scripts, I have a pretty solid concept of what makes a great play, a good play, a mediocre play, and in this case, the worst play ever: “Tho It Were Ten Thousand Mile” by William H.A. Williams.
The worst play ever actually started with some potential. As the lights faded (They were to do so approximately 487 times throughout the next 2 ½ hours of sheer agony, many times in the middle of a scene, or on the wrong half of the stage.), a sweet female voice singing a melodic version of the Robert Burns poem “A Red, Red Rose” filled the theatre. We were soon to be introduced to Fiona (Carrington Rowe), a college student/struggling folk singer. She would sing a reprise of the song several times onstage, all very effectively. However, my hopes that this was going to be 2014’s answer to “Once” were immediately dashed when the characters (in wordy, un-edited monologues that bogged the play down without ever enhancing the action or lack thereof) explained the premise. This attractive, 20-year-old girl was mourning the loss of her lover, a man in his 60s. Under the guise that she was reading some papers that he had left her containing the story of their “romance”, she whined and warbled her way through the opening pages of the play. The emotion was forced at best and verging on manipulative, all very one note. A simpler approach may have served a few of the lines better. The lines, however, did not serve her at all. The play proceeds to introduce us to a professor in his mid-60s (Mick McEvilley, in a plastic, one-dimensional role—more the script’s fault than the actor’s) who sees the folk singer on a YouTube video and proceeds to stalk her online until he obtains her contact information. Not wishing to appear creepy (too late), he sends her an email with a song he has written. You know, to the email he only had because he was an internet prowler. She, being a free and kind spirit we are told, fiercely independent we are told, responds, thanking him for the song, and (presumably since she didn’t know that she was dealing with a dirty old man who was drooling over her behind his computer screen) signs her name. Our dashing Don Juan (whose hair was sprayed into place so perfectly that it looked like a helmet) uses this bit of information to further his invasion of her privacy and find out where she goes to college. The fact that she is in college and he is a retired college professor is by no means a deterrent. The entire thing is portrayed by the (if you are reading this out loud, feel free to use air quotes) playwright as wildly romantic. I’m sure all the men in the audience over 50 were inwardly cheering. Meanwhile, I was pocket-dialing the police. Lecher McCreepy shows up at a place on campus where the college-aged girls who could easily be his granddaughter tend to jog, stating that he was “girl-watching”. (Ladies, please try to control yourselves. Lurkers are the new Ryan Gosling.) Of course, one of the joggers is the poor unsuspecting folk singer. He tries to control his heavy breathing long enough to invite her to meet for coffee to work on the song he had sent her. She, for reasons never acceptably explained, accepts. They then repeat to the audience what has just happened in more tedious monologues in case somebody didn’t follow the overly expositional dialogue and fact that McCreepy was pawing her and almost perceptibly panting at the sight of her in yoga pants.
They meet at a coffee shop. They both explain to the voices in their head that they are attracted to each other. The playwright even goes so far as to play the daddy issues card, making a point of mentioning that the girl (we’ll call her Electra from now on) had lost her father a few years back and is in bad head space about it. This is the stuff of which great love stories are made, folks. Electra says several times that McCreepy was looking at her too intensely and it scared her. Sadly, she does not break out the pepper spray. Instead, she continues to see him, while the playwright condescends to have them wax ineloquent about their burgeoning love, ending each agonizing soliloquy with what I can only imagine he thought was a probing or profound question such as “I was not in love with him. Or was I?” followed by a dramatic furrowing of the eyebrows and a light change. At some point during these monotonous scenes that took us absolutely nowhere, McCreepy kisses her. I dug my nails into my arm to keep from throwing up and hoped she would quickly file for a restraining order. I don’t know if it would have helped had the script or the acting established any sort of a real, palpable connection between the two, but regardless it was painful and awkward to watch.
We press on. The asides keep us moving with the grace of a derailed freight train. Now the two are a couple. He tells her he loves her. She runs away (finally, a position I can understand). The next time we see her, she has called him to pick her up from the train station in a rain storm (Because something ominous has happened, isn’t that clever? Don’t answer that.) He takes her to his house and she goes to take a shower, comes out in a bathrobe and proceeds to tell him, in a speech that could only have been written by a man who has never dealt with or known anyone who has dealt with sexual abuse, that she has been raped. McCreepy is most understanding. Most heroes are. He tells her that it wasn’t her fault. He then takes her to his bedroom and has sex with her. I can’t make this stuff up. It was at this point In the play where I started to count the lighting fixtures on the ceiling. 108, if you are wondering. I actually cannot remember what else happened before intermission because I started playing the “Cabaret” soundtrack in my head, but finally there was a merciful break. I should have left. I should have knocked a few tables over and burned the set to the ground, but I was morbidly curious if it could get any worse. So I stayed. I have only myself to blame.
The second act was not quite so traumatically offensive, but it was some of the worst writing I have ever seen performed. We were subjected to scene after scene that did not advance the plot. They would take longer than the human will can endure. Then the characters would reiterate what had just happened and what they were feeling (because, I guess, the playwright did not trust the actors or the writing to properly convey either without meticulously spelling it out). I knew that, logically, the play had to end eventually. However, 2 hours in, I was pretty sure that this guy had taken Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty a bit too literally.
McCreepy has a heart condition. You know, because he’s like 90. We have already been told that he is dead at the beginning of play. For some reason, the playwright still felt that it would be effective to try to keep the audience guessing. It was not. After another hour of talking in great detail about their sex life and seeing foxes in dreams that were supposed to symbolize his impending death, he finally bites the big one. I may have exaggerated this in my mind because I was so miserable (and it was so miserable), but I am fairly certain that the last monologue took 15 minutes. 15 minutes of Electra sobbing and finding different ways to say she is sad. Come to think of it, 15 minutes is generous. It must have been at least 8 or 9 hours. I have never been so physically uncomfortable (and not in a Sarah Kane, mind-blowing art sort of way) watching a play in my life. That includes high school musicals (which are my way of describing things as the 7th layer of hell), bad grade school plays where all the kids dress up as vegetables, and cruise ship Elvis impersonators. I took several showers to try to scrub the whole ordeal out of my head. It clearly did not work.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the subject of Fiona’s sexual assault never comes up again. It is merely the catalyst that the male playwright used to force her into bed with his idea of a protagonist. How charming.
Please do not see this play. It isn’t the kind of B-horror film bad where you can laugh at the shortcomings. It is the kind of bad that sneaks up on you in an unlit alley, beats the shit out of you with a pipe, steals your wallet, and leaves you for dead. It was the worst play I have ever seen. It is demeaning toward women, marginalizes a horrific rape, and repeatedly insults the intelligence of the audience. It was at no time truthful, beautiful, poignant, or worthwhile. It was waterboarding with words. Do not go see it. Do not read it. Do not produce it. Let it disappear back into the black hole from which it crawled.
The more I travel, the more I reinforce my belief that people are inherently stupid. I spend the vast majority of my time in airports, and the vast majority of that airport appreciation time is spent responding to brilliant observations and questions like “if my flight is leaving 3 hours late is it still getting to Phoenix on time?” and “what do you mean ATC delays, my cousin says it’s not even raining in Newark!” and “why are you boarding? The flight doesn’t leave for 10 more minutes.” People in airports are awesome. They stand in the center of the moving walkways and escalators, effectively blocking those attempting to use the aforementioned for their intended purpose: to quicken your walk from point A to point B. They let their “emotional assistance animals” (aka untrained pets flying for free without the requirement that they be kept in a pet carrier) shit in the middle of the terminal and all over the plane and do not make any attempt to clean it up or even notify anyone that it has occurred so the flight attendants and ground personnel have to scrub the floor while simultaneously vomiting in the jetbridge trash can from the smell (yes, that happened last week). They bring 70-lb double-wide strollers to the gate that do not fit through the jetbridge doors. They can walk ¼ mile down the concourse to buy a pizza and back but insist that I push them in a wheelchair from the gate area the terribly inconvenient 30 feet to the plane. They stand two feet from my face, playing on their phone, while I make painfully detailed announcements about boarding and carry-on luggage on the PA only to ask me what I just said as soon as I have finished. They are incapable of figuring out their correct destination, flight, gate, or even airline. If a flight is boarding anywhere in the airport on any airline at any time to any city, they will attempt to board it and then get angry and defensive when told they are not in the right place. Clearly, all airline employees are out to trick them. Now, in their defense, there are a lot of airline employees who suck at their jobs and should not ever ever ever work with people. However, the reason that many of them are the way they are is because years of dealing with the flying public has slowly destroyed their hope for the human race. If people behave in their real lives as they do in airports, we are all most certainly doomed. I have worked in the industry only 5 years and have been cussed out in several languages, called every name in the book and some that I’m pretty sure were invented just for such an occasion, physically assaulted, and berated so many times that I have lost all sensitivity and now find things that would make a normal person cry hilariously funny. I find especially humorous the petty details that people allow to upset them. Thankfully, my sarcasm filter operates on a high level when I am at work. Years of acting on stage has taught me to fake empathy to perfection. I don’t care how evil you are, you will not wipe the smile off my face, and this alone is enough to enrage a few inadequate blow hards. The vast majority, however, are not mean. They are foolish. I understand that many people hate to fly. They also do nothing to improve their flying experience. It is within your control (barring an unforeseen meteor falling onto the exact road you are using to get to the airport) to arrive at the airport 2 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure. It is within your control to know what is and is not allowed through security. It is within your control to be at your gate no less than 30 minutes before your scheduled departure time (an hour for international flights). And it is within your control to ask questions if you do not understand something. Every day, I have people board the flight 2 minutes before the door is about to close or miss their flight entirely who claim they were sitting in the gate area and “didn’t hear any announcements.” Everyone else is on the plane. Everyone else heard the announcements. Everyone else followed the very simple instructions and got on the plane when they were supposed to. Everyone else was aware of what time their flight was departing and knew to be paying attention. And everyone else was not shocked that the plane was completely boarded 10 minutes before departure time because there is paperwork to be completed after the last person boards. Everyone else made their flight. I have no sympathy for you if you show up at the airport 20 minutes before your flight leaves. Under no circumstances will you be allowed to board with 7 carry-ons just because “they let you do it the last time”. I will give you any information that you would like to know regarding your flight, but if you are on your cell phone completely unaware of your surroundings, then I cannot help you. Just because there is a gate number on your boarding pass does not mean that the gate cannot change. And just because there is a flight boarding out of the gate you are leaving from 4 hours from now does not mean that it is your flight that is boarding. If your boarding pass does not have a seat assignment (or, in the case of Southwest Air, a boarding zone and number) or says in bold letters “THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS”, then you would perhaps want to talk to a gate agent to get a boarding pass before looking shocked that you can’t board the plane with a worthless piece of paper. If there is not a plane at the gate, chances are your flight is not boarding. If there are people still deplaning through the jetbridge, I’m pretty sure your flight is not boarding. I am here to help you take back your intelligence from the mind-altering air that is apparently pumped through every airport in the world. Let’s work together to make travel fun, or at least not extremely painful for everyone around you. Oh, and if you plan on watching a movie on the plane or in the terminal, bring ear buds…unless you want me to trip in your general vicinity, spilling hot coffee all over your noisy electronic device that is broadcasting a movie that nobody else wanted to experience because the world does not revolve around you. This public service announcement it brought to you by airline employees and experienced travelers everywhere.
I would like to talk to you about a serious problem plaguing the non-revenue standby lifestyle. It’s called the weight restriction. There are many reasons why a particular flight can be weight restricted, but none of them matter when you are trying to get the last seat on a flight, and then the seats start disappearing because they need to add more fuel due to weather en route or 2000 lbs of cargo showed up at the last minute that has to get on this flight or there is construction at the destination and they have to land on a shorter runway. Telling a non-rev that a flight is weight restricted is like telling them that you just ran over their cat (I would have said dog, but I’m unnaturally attached to my dog and I can’t even joke about such things.) or walked through mud with their favorite pair…
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I’m not a person who travels with specific plans. The sooner you learn that about me, the better. Since I fly on a standby basis, I am never 100% certain that I will make it to my intended destination on the day I planned or at all. Maybe I’ll land in Frankfurt and the flight to Lisbon will be oversold and I will be forced to go to Prague instead. For this reason, I rarely book lodging or transportation at my first choice of destinations in advance. I don’t want to be on the hook for a rental car in Tokyo when I had to reroute to Seoul because the flights looked better. For this reason, there are not many people who I can/will travel with. I usually travel alone. My last excursion, however, I had the pleasure of exploring Italy with 4 of my favorite people. It was a trip vaguely planned about 6 months ago that had fizzled so I went to the Middle East instead but kept the idea in the back of my mind and kept sporadically bringing it up to them. Finally, I decided to just tell them I was going and whoever wanted to join me could join me. Thankfully, they all did. I was a little nervous about the size of the group, but they are all experienced travelers and generally awesome people, so I was more excited than apprehensive. It is one of those groups that, when we get together, we spend the majority of our time in tears from laughing. Add in the good Italian wine, and we were set up for a great trip. Since this whole zany scheme was my idea, and I didn’t want them all to kill me, I rented a villa in Tuscany on a vineyard that was in a location rustic enough to get the true sense of Tuscany while still being close enough to Florence and Siena to enjoy the city perks. None of us had ever been to the region before, and we were all in serious need of a vacation after the horrific, traumatizing, insanity of working at an airport during the Christmas season. Monica and I met in Philadelphia the night before our flight to Rome. Josh and Shenaqua met us in Philly the next day, and we all flew US Airways together. Meloney flew Delta and met us there. For some reason, this actually worked, and we all arrived in Rome within an hour of each other. I had not slept on the flight over. Partly because coach seats are extremely uncomfortable no matter what airline you fly, partly because the flight was from 3pm-10pm according to my internal clock, and partly because I was going to freaking Italy. I knew there would be an abundance of coffee, and that was one of 5 things I knew how to say in Italian before I left, so I would be ok. My Italian is not great. And by not great I mean not good. And by not good I mean bad. You would think that this would infringe on my ability to drive in Italy. I, however, did not think of that. We somehow managed to find a car that would accommodate 5 people and our luggage. This is no small feat in Europe, land of the teeny tiny two-seat cars and scooters a-plenty. They do what they have to do. With gas holding steady around 1.75 euros/liter (approximately $9/gallon), you do anything you can to maximize your gas mileage. So we did the only logical thing: rented a giant station wagon and drove it 3000 kilometers around Italy. Believe it or not, the price of gas is not biggest hurdle to driving in Italy. We (I) decided that we didn’t need a map. We would rely on the directions I had saved on my iPhone before I left to get from Rome to the Tuscan villa. Mistake #1. We (I) had also decided that since we would be driving to/from Rome at least twice, we should take a different route each time to explore the region better. For the initial drive north, I mapped a route along the coast. It was only a few minutes longer that the direct route on the toll road. Or at least it should have been. According to Google maps, it should have taken us 3 hours & 13 minutes from the Leonardo da Vinci Airport to our home for the week. It took us almost 6 hours. Shenaqua was my navigator because she’s really good with maps. However, we didn’t have a map. We had a stationary image on my phone with directions written for a US roadway. The directions did not make sense with the Italian signage, and we had no frame of reference to realize that every single exit would say it was going toward Firenze (Florence) when we got in the general vicinity so trying to head toward the city to get our bearings was not going to work. We stopped at a café to ask for directions then another to use the free wifi to attempt to map the route again. After about 4 hours and approximately 16 blind guesses as to what road to take that turned out, miraculously, to be correct, we had made it to within 30km of our destination. And we could not have been more lost. We sucked down a few more shots of coffee and finally found the villa, but not before we found a store and stocked up on enough local wine to last the week. We drank it all that night.
If only I could tell you that this was the most complicated part of the driving experience. The next day, we ventured to Firenze. By this time, Shenaqua and I had somewhat kinda sorta figured out how to interpret the road signs. We found it without incident. The great thing about this group was that we had no set agenda, and the plan was to wander around, find some cool cafes and museums, see the David, and basically just immerse ourselves in the city. To start with, we needed to find a currency exchange since we had spent all of our money the previous day on vino and groceries (ok, mostly vino). To do that, we needed to drive through the city a bit. Keep in mind that our car was approximately double the size of any other vehicle that we saw the entire trip. While attempting to find a parking space, I turned into an alley that ended up winding us up the hillside and around to an entirely different part of the city without an option to turn around because it was walled on both sides and so narrow that we had to pull the mirrors inside the car to fit. This was a two-lane road. I still have nightmares about seeing another car coming in our direction, because we would still be stuck there in an eternal game of chicken. There was no turning around or backing up. I’m pretty sure the passengers in the back seat shrunk themselves into the seat cushions to avoid having to watch as I white-knuckled us through the maze and finally out the other side. But we were not in the clear yet. We needed to park, and we did not know how to read the street signs well enough to determine where we would actually be able to do so. After a long period of circling, we found a parking space large enough to fit our house-boat car. However, I had to jump out of the car and let Shenaqua handle the parallel parking. We breathed a sigh of relief and climbed out of the car only to be flagged down by a shop owner and (to the best of our charades skills) told that we could not park there. We climbed back in the car, found another spot where plenty of other cars were parked without any sort of permit, and went to find the David. When we returned, 4 hours later, the cars we had parked around were still there. And so was ours. Except ours had a parking ticket. We were flabbergasted. And pissed. And we had nobody to yell at because none of the 5 Italian words that I knew were cuss words. We spent the rest of the day in the city, and then returned back to our villa, determined to fight the ticket the next day. The problem was, we were staying in the middle of nowhere, and the closest town was tiny. We didn’t even know if they would have a police station. We stopped at our usual coffee spot (yes, by the third day, we had local haunts already) and asked where we should go to pay the ticket. They didn’t know. They guessed that perhaps we go to another café near the bank. We went. They didn’t know either, but they suggested the tiny police station down the road. We went. They didn’t know either, but suggested the bank. We went. Finally, someone who would take our money. At this point, we had given up the idea of arguing. We had no idea how to go about it anyway. We just paid.
A week later, we left the paradise of Tuscany to head back to Rome to spend the last couple of days before we flew back to reality. We had been in Italy over a week, and I was convinced that I was an expert Italian driver. I was wrong. Rome is unlike anywhere I had ever attempted to drive. I’m sure it is not unlike many other cities in the world, but I don’t drive there. I take public transportation. I drove in Rome…or, their version of driving. I believe there were some sort of stop sign/stop light signals at a few of the intersections. At least I think so. But if they were there, I was certainly the only person who saw them. The cars converged on the intersections from every direction, weaving their way through the opposing traffic in a sort of bumper car jamboree. I realized that I was supposed to join in when the taxis started honking at me. I inched into the intersection, completely convinced that we were all going to die. Cyclists and mopeds whizzed by us on either side with no regard for any semblance of sanity. Remarkably, no one was killed. Even more remarkably, the other drivers stuck to this bizarre gentleman’s agreement and let us through. I started wishing we had purchased the rental car insurance. I started wishing we had all rented individual mopeds. I stopped wishing things and got back to focusing on not massacring my friends in a horrible car crash. One of the many wonderful things about Italy is the people. And the people of Rome did not disappoint. A random stranger must have noticed our terrified looks and directed us to a side street 2 blocks from the Colosseum. He pointed us to a parking place, promised us that our car would be safe and ticket-free, and then disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared.
We all agree that it was the most fun we have ever had on a trip, and Shenaqua and I vow to never ever drive in Italy again. Italy apparently agrees. 4 months later, I received a speeding ticket in the mail from Siena for going 8km over the speed limit. Really, guys? I’ll be back. But only on the bus.