Reasons to take public transportation

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.

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. Image

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Colosseo, Roma @ sunset

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Fontana di Trevi, Roma

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Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italia

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Olivella, Spain

Olivella, Spain

Se Vende Buen Vino. Words to live by.

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That One Time I Hitchhiked to Philadelphia

It started out as such a simple plan. My friend, Barb, and I were going to fly to Boston for the Brewers/Red Sox series at Fenway Park. She had never been there, and I had only been to the park once when I was 7. We sat 3 hours in the rain, the game was cancelled, and we were leaving the next day so we couldn’t use the rain-out vouchers. The flight Friday night looked good. We would arrive 2 hours before the first pitch. We were waiting at the gate for our names to be called when the non-rev’s worst nightmare happened. The flight before ours cancelled. For most people, this is a minor inconvenience. For a non-rev, it’s the same empty, desperate feeling as missing the annual Manolo Blahnik sale. Instantly, the 20 open seats on our plane disappeared. We waited it out, sat the gate in a numb despair until the plane took off without us. We were new to the non-rev game. We didn’t have a backup plan, but we were enthusiastic enough to scramble for one.

We were going to miss the game that night, but there were still 2 games to be played that weekend. So all we had to do was get to Boston by 1pm on Saturday to make the next game. We scanned the departures screen for any flights going east. The closest one to Boston was a Philadelphia departure leaving in 20 minutes. We ran to the gate to see if there were any seats. Miraculously, there were. We didn’t have a plan beyond getting off the plane in Philly, but we would figure it out when we got there. The plane taxiied out to the runway. Nothing could go wrong. Except wait…what’s going on…why are we going back to the gate? I still to this day can’t believe that this actually happened, but the plane returned to the gate, and the gate agent came on the PA. They paged Barb & I to take our carryons and get off the plane. Um what? We were 2 seconds from taking off, and now we have to get off the plane?! This must be some kind of twisted joke. We gathered our things, and walked off the plane, trying not to make eye contact with any of the other passengers, for some reason ashamed despite having no clue what was going on. We stepped into the jetbridge, the gate agent closed the plane door, and it left. This time it took off.

She explained that it had started raining in Philadelphia between the time the plane left the gate and reached the runway, and that it was now weight-restricted by 2. Since we were the only 2 non-revs, they had to pull us off. Seriously. Seriously, this happened. I have never heard of anything so ludicrous in my airline career. At this point, we should have just accepted that the non-rev gods were against us and gone home. We did not. We checked the departure screens again. We needed something going east, anything going east. There was nothing. Wait, one flight left to Cleveland! That’s east! We’ll go to Cleveland! We’ll show you, non-rev gods! We ran to the gate. Of course there were seats open because, well, who wants to go to Cleveland? This time, we did not weigh enough to screw up the plane’s weight & balance (again, what?!), and it took off just fine.

About halfway through the short flight, we realized that Cleveland is not so much east as central Ohio. And Ohio is not so much east unless you’re comparing it to Nevada. Were American schools better at teaching geography, we probably would have figured that out before we impulsively jumped on the plane. We had no plan, not the slightest idea how to get from Cleveland to Boston, and no Siri (this was a couple of years before smart phones were the norm). We had a half-formed idea that we would be able to find a bus, train, or flight from Cleveland to the east coast. We would just ask the information desk at the airport when we landed. Or so we thought.

I’m not certain if this is still the case as I have never been back there, but in 2007 the Cleveland Airport Information Desk was manned by 2 blue-haired ladies in their late 70s with a rolodex as their sole informational resource. We had high hopes that they would be able to pull up the Greyhound and Amtrak schedules for us, there would be a train leaving within the hour, and we would be on our way to Fenway Park. In actuality, they didn’t even have a computer. We asked what our options were for getting to Boston that night. They were befuddled. Boston, Massachusetts? Why did we want to go there? We explained that we had tickets to the game the next day. Well then, what were we doing in Cleveland? That was a very good question. In retrospect, they had it together way more than we did. We asked if there was a train going east that night. The very nice ladies in the business of information told us that there were no trains or buses that stopped in Cleveland. Yes, they said that. Barb and I looked at each other. Do not laugh. Do NOT laugh. We explained very politely that the Amtrak did in fact stop in Cleveland. Would they happen to have an address for the station? They consulted their rolodex. They did not. Of course not.

We called our friend Adam back in Milwaukee to look up the train and bus schedules on the internet. There was nothing running that late. He would be happy to book us a hotel near the airport. We told him we’d call him back. Our only other option was a one-way rental car that would cost us about the same as just buying the car outright. We had royally messed up. We were stuck in Cleveland. We had angered the non-rev gods, and our punishment was spending the night in a city with no train or bus stops. We were about to call Adam back to book us a hotel room when we passed some businessmen walking toward baggage claim, complaining about their flight that had been cancelled to Philadelphia. We had nothing better to do, so we followed them and eavesdropped. After all, we were all trying to get out of Cleveland that night, so at least we had one thing in common!

It took us a couple of seconds to figure out that the men did not know each other. They had all been traveling to Philly on business on the same flight, but had never seen each other before then. They all needed to be in Philly by the next morning, but there were no more flights. One of the men decided that he was just going to rent a car and drive. The others said that was what they would have to do, too. After a few more minutes, they had agreed to rent one car and drive together. The first man’s company would pay for the rental, and they would all chip in for gas. Barb and I locked eyes. We hadn’t said a word to each other the whole time while we were listening to them navigate their way to this point in the conversation. We had both been thinking the same thing. The men were now at the rental car counter. We had a few seconds to act. “Do we do it?” She asked. But she already knew the answer. “Let’s go,” I said. We went up to them, trying to walk the fine line between friendly and Fatal Attraction with our smiles. We asked if we could hitch a ride.

So that’s how Barb and I ended up in the back seat of a mini-van with 3 complete strangers driving through the night to Philadelphia when we really wanted to go to Boston. We made it to Philly at 4am. We never made it to Boston. We spent the next day exploring Philly then took the bus to New York to fly home from La Guardia. About a year later, we told our parents the story. At some point, they’ll stop telling us how foolish we were.

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Dubai Airport

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