Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No. 498 – Half a World Away

Performer: R.E.M.
Songwriters: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe
Original Release: Out of Time
Year: 1991
Definitive Version: MTV Unplugged, 1992

Laurie and I didn’t do a whole lot of preparing for Italy last year the way we had for Mexico, when I had to get a passport and we both got hepatitis shots. This time, I bought a carry-on suitcase as well as an Italian phrase book. Everyone who had been to Italy insisted that the locals spoke English, but I didn’t want to rely on that. Besides, it’s rude to go to a foreign country and not try to speak the language—at least enough to get around.

I got the carry-on bag, because Laurie said we wouldn’t want to walk around the various cities with huge suitcases. I was dubious but what did I know? I relented wondering how the heck I could get two weeks’ worth of clothes in there. The only way was to concede that aside from underwear everything would have to be worn twice. No problem as long as I didn’t spill anything.

The travel day was crazy. Actually, it was multiple days. On Friday, Laurie and I worked as normal before heading to O’Hare. We had a 9:30 flight to Heathrow in London, and there were some nerves as to whether it would even come off, because American was canceling flights left and right due to pilots protesting their latest contract offer by calling in “sick.” Fortunately, our pilots were healthy.

We took a 777, and it wasn’t too bad. I zoned out the first couple hours of the flight, but I’m not sure I slept. I had plenty to occupy myself, and I even brought an extra computer battery, so I’d have enough juice to get across the Atlantic.

We arrived in Heathrow early for our three-hour layover, during which I bought a UK power adapter so I could power up my phone and computer as much as possible for the next leg of the trip—the two-hour flight to Milan, which was chosen as the travel hub due to its central location.

We had to switch terminals, so we had to go through security again. However, I didn’t have to take off my shoes or go through an invasive body scanner. Apparently, the Brits aren’t as reflexively afraid of dying the way that Americans have become, so they aren’t as willing to give up their privacy or dignity for a little more safety.

The Brits also aren’t too busy to provide actual customer service. For our flight to Milan, we shifted to British Airways, and the service was like going from night to day. They even fed us—ham sandwiches. Laurie and I stowed ours, because we had lunch at Heathrow. (I had bangers and mash, of course.)

Arriving in Linate airport was like arriving in a different era. First, we disembarked the plane on the tarmac, just like in Leon, Mexico. There’s something I like about going down an airplane’s steps. From there, they piled us on a tram to the airport building.

We passed through customs, and I got to deliver my first “buongiorno” and “grazie.” Customs at Linate was in the baggage-claim area, and aside from the passengers, customs agents and a few token airport employees, there wasn’t a sole there. There was a bathroom for each sex and a couple of vending machines, and that’s it. This was a major metropolitan airport?

When we opened the doors to leave the baggage/customs area, it was like going from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz. Shops and restaurants were bustling with activity. HERE was the airport.

And here were the hucksters hawking cab rides. Laurie was tipped off to not accept anything from anyone inside the airport but instead head straight outside where a line of taxis awaited. In other words, we went to the people not looking to get our business. With a hearty “prego” from the driver, we headed to the Milan train station. Milan wasn’t our final destination; Venice was.

The train station was even more alive with activity than the airport, and we tried not to stick out like the sore tourists we were. Everything had gone to schedule, so all we had to do was kill another hour until our train.

During that hour, while I was walking around somewhat in a daze, a young guy bumped into me. I don’t think it was anything untoward, but Italy has a pickpocket reputation for a reason. Even if he were trying to, he wouldn’t have gotten anything anyway: Laurie bought us both money belts for the trip, and we put them on in London. I had nothing in my pants pockets.

We boarded the train for our two-hour ride to Venice with the help of a frazzled Italian train employee who directed us on how to validate our tickets and to the correct track. As we pulled out of Milan, we whipped out our saved sandwiches, and they were … really good. I mean legitimately good, not just “good for airline food.” The sandwiches were way better than they needed to be—another plus for British Airways.

I continued to work on some research stuff I brought with me, but I started to nod off here and there. Why not? Local time was about 11 p.m., or 23 as they say in Italy, on Saturday. If you go by the clock, I’d been awake since 6 a.m. Friday—41 hours earlier. OK, so Italy is 7 hours later than Chicago. That’s still a long time.

Finally, we pulled into Venice. I had been told by several members of Laurie’s posse, who are far more worldly than I am, that there’s nothing like arriving to Venice by train. I couldn’t imagine it, but now I was going to see for myself.

We walked through the wide but shallow station out the front doors. The Grand Canal was directly in front of us with boats going by. Across the canal was an old church and apartment buildings alight. My smile widened. If you were to look up Venice in the dictionary, this is exactly what you’d see. We made it.

But we weren’t quite at the end of our travels. We had to take a vaporetto, or water bus, to our hotel. Our language skills being what they are, figuring out which vaporetto to take and from which dock was something of a difficult task, but we managed to pull it off. Riding through Venice at night seemed unreal, like we were on a ride at an amusement park.

When we reached our stop, we had to negotiate the narrow streets—footpaths, really—to reach our hotel, which was a quaint seven-room inn. Somehow, against long odds, we made it and with no serious problems.

Soon, we were in our room, which had a full bathroom and—gloriously so—no TV. We opened the windows so we could hear the water of the canal lapping at the cobblestone streets—Laurie’s insistence at brining only carry-on bags was on the money—and the church bells near Campo Santa Margherita. It was after midnight on Sunday, and our epic three-day excursion came to a quick, sleepy and very satisfactory finish.

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