Fiumicino (the airport, not the town)

Landing in a German airport after the chaos of Rome’s Fiumicino airport is like going from a crowded, humid, sweaty subway up into the fresh, clean countryside. I always fly in and out of Fiumicino, so perhaps the other Italian airports are havens of calm and comfort…..but I wouldn’t bet on it.

To give you a bit of perspective on Fiumicino, there are 3 main interconnected terminals where you catch your flight, cleverly named Terminal 1, 2 and 3. And then off to the side – away from those, in a separate building — is Terminal 5, which is only for US and Israeli airlines. It has an extra layer or 2 of security.

Terminals 1 and 2 are for airlines from the rest of the world outside of Italy, and the only times I’ve used them was to take an Air Berlin flight to either Munich or Hamburg. Needless to say – everything was very organized, the people were friendly and helpful, and it was a pleasant experience – except for the fact that Italians in general do not like air conditioning, the result being that the airport is kept at a sultry 80 degrees in summer.

Terminal 3 is just for Alitalia, and you can count on there being at least 3 times as many people as the authorities would deem safe. So in addition to the 80-degree setting on the thermostat, you also have the heat generated by giant herds of very frustrated people. Italians have this reputation of being incredibly friendly, but those friendly Italians do not happen to work at the airport. I think you have to pass a sulking test to be hired. The employees all give off vibes that their lives would be so much better if it weren’t for these needy tourists flocking into their terminals…..expecting help…..if you can imagine such a thing.

When I used to take my beloved cat Orson back and forth, I had to fly Alitalia from JFK — 2 hours away….traffic willing. Philadelphia airport is only 20 minutes from my house, but USAirways – the only non-stop to Rome – in an effort to endear itself to pet owners worldwide, does not take any animals anywhere it flies at any time. But at least when I got there, New York’s Alitalia was surprisingly well-organized.

Fiumicino’s Terminal 3 Alitalia, on the other hand, gives you the same calm feeling you might have if you were stuck in the middle of Time Square’s New Year’s Eve crowd. To be honest – I do occasionally exaggerate a bit, but this really is the procedure I had to follow when bringing Orse back to the US: Let’s think of Terminal 3 as one of the long New York City blocks….say between 5th Avenue and 6th Avenue. After we entered at 5th Avenue, Orsie, luggage and I had to muscle our way through the tightly packed swarms of people to check in for the JFK flight, which was, of course, on 6th Avenue. When they saw Orson, they would give me a slip of paper acknowledging that I had a cat, which I had to take back to a counter just inside the entrance at 5th Avenue to pay for his “ticket”. This could not be done when we were originally passing by that exact counter; I had to get the paper from the check-in counter first. So I would go to 5th Avenue, pay the extra money, go back to 6th Avenue, and only then would they give me my boarding pass and put a notification on Orson’s cage that he was official. I would then have one final trip to 5th Avenue because that’s where the station was to drop Orsie off to be taken to the plane.

When coming to Rome, you come through Terminal 3 Arrivals, because it has the custom and immigration people who have never looked at either me or my bags.  The very first time I took Orse to Italy, I had no idea where to pick him up, and the “friendly Italians” whom I asked had me running from one baggage claim area to another because Italians have a difficult time saying “I don’t know”, and they’d much prefer to give you a wrong answer than no answer at all.  I finally found him tucked away in a dimly lit corner. On the other hand, I saw this in the Munich airport:

Munich airport

Munich airport

And if you should miss this highly-visible, easily-understood sign, I’m pretty sure that any of the smiling airport employees would know exactly where you could find your pet or bicycle.

After Orson died, I went back to the convenience (not to be confused with comfort) of flying USAir, which means I now have much less legroom, and I leave Rome from Terminal 5. The first time I was there, I thought it was a bit creepy to enter the huge entrance room and see machine gun-armed guards patrolling above us on a catwalk just below the ceiling. Now if you see someone up there, they’re probably changing a light bulb. Because this terminal serves so few airlines, it’s relatively calm and orderly, and has the added benefit of being cooler than 80 degrees.

Since Terminal 5 is set away from everything else, they have a shuttle to take you to the plane-boarding area, which is fairly new and has shops from a lot of the high-end names – Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, etc.   It’s a somewhat pleasant way to say arrivederci to Italy. The last time we were there, we were standing at a counter having our final caffe`, and we could hear rain pounding on the roof. Suddenly, water started pouring out of one light fixture after another, as you can see in Picture #1.

 

Picture #1

Picture #1

Picture #2

Picture #2

 

Picture #2 gives you the over-all scene. Everyone scurried away from the seats, there was water everywhere, and someone thoughtfully placed one very small red pail where it would definitely NOT catch any of the rain. The high-end shops were not immune from the leaking roof, either, as I saw the sales person in Gucci manning her mop. This is the showcase terminal for one of the world’s most important cities.  As we were snapping our photos, we noticed that the others doing the same thing were all non-Italians. The Italians? They just shook their heads and wandered off to find a dry seat, muttering “e` cosi`” — which loosely translates as “that’s just the way things are…..”  I don’t know what the equivalent phrase would be in German, but my bet is that they seldom need to say it and if they ever do, it would definitely not be in one of their airports.

Expectations

Often you don’t think about a topic until someone asks you a specific question and they expect a reply.  For instance, I’ve had people ask if spending half the year in Italy has lived up to my expectations. In trying to come up with an answer, it occurred to me that I really hadn’t had a lot of expectations, and most of the ones I did have somehow got all switched around.

For instance – I thought my Italian would be MUCH better by now.  Of course I’m slightly better than I was 5 years ago, but my rate of improvement is at the same pace as a couple of corals getting together and becoming a barrier reef.  If I keep going as I am, I’ll be 160 before I can easily hold a real conversation.

The switch to my expectation, however, is that I really enjoy the process of learning Italian.  I absolutely adore Eva, my teacher at I Love IT, and learn at least 4 things that are interesting….though not necessarily linguistically useful…. in every class.  However, it’s all at the “theory” level.  I even enjoy doing the homework and am really disappointed when she says there is none (my classmates hate me).  I can see myself taking lessons for years to come.  On the other hand, if I truly wanted to learn the language, I’d be out there in the street with Italians, talking to everyone I could, engaging in conversations just for the sake of speaking, listening to practical, real-life Italian.  This is what Alan does and the end result is that he’s always given the Italian menu in the restaurant while I’m politely handed the one in English.  This doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it should IF my true intention had ever been to speak fluent Italian.

The whole social aspect of being here is something I had never carefully considered. I did not expect just how active the life has turned out to be. Since I thought my Italian would be better, it stands to reason that I probably also thought I’d have more Italian friends than I do.  However, there are a lot of English speaking people around Orvieto, and it’s an incredibly warm and welcoming group — probably due to the fact that they’re here because they’ve chosen to be.  They weren’t born here, they don’t have family here, they’re not escaping from anything; they’re here because they love Italy and want to spend time absorbing whichever part of the culture they find interesting.  As a result, this group is comprised of people with a much broader range of interests and expertise than my friends at home, who tend to fall into a range very much like my own.  And perhaps most important, here we make time to enjoy each other’s company.  I don’t know what it is about life in the US, but it seems to ALWAYS be much busier, and I don’t see friends nearly as often as I do when I’m in Italy.

We haven’t taken advantage of Orvieto’s central location to travel as much as I thought we would.  There are still so many parts of Italy we want to see, and as for European countries — we seem to return to the old standbys: France and Germany.  We did hit Slovenia this year (FABULOUS!!!!), but that still leaves about 2 or 3 lifetimes’ worth of other places to try.  When my elderly beloved cat Orson was with us, I could blame him for our not traveling more….not wanting to leave him in the care of the only kennel in the area.  But now that he’s been dead for 2 years and all we have to show is a couple of trips back to Germany and a few days in Slovenia, I have the feeling it was somewhat unfair to blame him in the first place.  I would like to believe that in 2014 we’ll get slightly more serious about branching out a bit more….although I thought the same thing about 2013. I’m not sure if this particular reality of our life in Italy can be labeled “unrealized expectations”; more likely, it’s just plain procrastination.

Of course I expected that I’d like living in Italy for longer periods than just a vacation, or I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of setting up camp an inconvenient 9-hour flight away from home.  I’m happy to report that in this case, my enjoyment is MUCH more than I ever expected it to be.  I never dreamed that I would feel as “at home” in Orvieto, nor miss it as much as I do when I’m back in the US.

The only downside to this back and forth is my ever-deteriorating relationship with US Air.  My expectations of them were never lofty, and unfortunately, they were right on target:  cramped, uncomfortable seats that get more cramped and uncomfortable with each trip, along with inedible food that somehow manages to become more inedible as the years go by.  Yet as the plane descends and I catch my first glimpse of the Italian landscape, the pains leave my joints, and I can almost taste the meal I’m planning to eat at my favorite restaurant that night.  I’m able to put my abusive USAir relationship behind me and get back to good friends, gorgeous countryside, my lovely town and Eva’s homework.

Dinner with good friends.

Dinner with good friends…..

Gorgeous countryside you can see right from the parking lot.

Gorgeous countryside I see right from the parking lot……

The always lovely Orvieto....

The always lovely Orvieto…..

The I Love IT gang.

And the I Love IT gang….waiting for me to return to more homework.

Midnight Train to Munich

Actually – it was the 12:15.  And for someone who’s had at least a little travel experience, the trip was one rooky mistake after another.

The goal was to meet friends in Munich on May 10th.  My first thought was to fly. I only needed to go TO Munich since we were all driving back together, so I looked at non-stop 1-way tickets.  The figure was over $800!!  A more experienced friend suggested looking at round trip tickets – and indeed, the price was around $200.  Problem #1 was that I didn’t want to end up with my car at the airport, and problem #2 was that if I went by plane, it would require 2 trains in Italy – Orvieto to Rome and then Rome to the airport – and another from the Munich airport into the city.

But a train to Munich seemed like THE perfect solution, since I could park my car in the free parking lot at Orvieto’s station, and on the other end, I’d arrive in the center of town, across the street from our hotel.  How could this possibly be a bad plan?

I tried the internet and was shocked at how little information there was. While I was encouraged to find that there was a direct train, when I went to see availability and price, it said:  “Online prices are currently unavailable for the selected route.  We apologize for any inconvenience.”

So I hit the travel agent.  After getting the same heartfelt apology from her website, she called them.  They told her that because the train went through Austria, they could hold up ticketing for Italy until they were sure no Austrians wanted to fill those seats.  A friend got into a different website that said there might be construction on the line, which could be the reason it was impossible to get any details.  While these excuses might have seemed plausible for getting between remote outposts in the 3rd world, I would expect a bit more from trains in Italy, Austria and Germany.  And by the way — I just looked again today and the website is still apologizing.

The travel agent could, however, get information about the NON-direct train – the 12:15, getting into Trento in northern Italy at 7 a.m., where I would enjoy a 3-hour wait for the train to Munich.  This did not seem ideal, but the price was right:  $90.  True – I’d have to sit up on the 12:15, but I sleep very well sitting up in all modes of transportation.  I was quite pleased with my decision….

…..Until I talked to another much more experienced friend who, after asking the price, then asked the important follow-up question that I had failed to ask:  Is that 1st or 2nd class.  I’m sure you can guess what I found when I looked at the tickets.  I tried to get them changed, but the 12:15 was a TOTALLY 2nd class train, and the agent said that since the 2nd train was “only 4 hours”, it shouldn’t be a problem.

So – the night came and I parked my car in the lot, dragged my 2-weeks worth of clothes to the escalator and found that not only did the first one not work, but neither did the 2nd.  I got my over-packed suitcase up the 40 steps one slow lift at a time.  There was only 1 other person in the waiting room, which was only slightly less creepy than if I’d been there alone.

I remember seeing old movies where people boarded European trains with the hall on one side and compartments on the other.  I always thought it was romantic.  Unfortunately, this particular train looked like the exact one from those old movies and time had not been its friend.  It might have helped if the night had been a bit less humid, the train a bit less full and my suitcase lighter and smaller.  Finally, I found my compartment and seat.

The compartment seating was 3 on each side.  My seat, it goes without saying, was in the middle – 5 men and me.  None of us was particularly tall, but leg room was so tight that we all had to work to position our knees so as not to annoy each other.  This was not a compartment for basketball players.  The most gallant of my fellow travelers offered to put my suitcase above my seat, but he immediately realized that it was impossible to lift and I just left it out in the walkway, blocking anyone foolish enough to want to get from one end of the car to the other.  The air circulation system had long ago stopped working, making the compartment stuffy, and because it was after midnight, the lights were off.

And did I mention that the day before I had started with a mild clearing of throat, which at this point was turning into a somewhat hacking cough?

On the plus side – no one had eaten garlic for dinner and everyone’s deodorant seemed to be working.

A mere 7 cramped hours later we arrived in Trento, where I got to spend 3 hours waiting in a drafty waiting room for my next 2nd class train adventure.

This train, however, was definitely not Italian.  It looked like it had been washed recently, and when I entered the car, there were rows of seats rather than compartments, and the air was fresh.  There were plenty of spaces for luggage.  Life was looking up…..until the officious conductor came along and pointed out that I was in seat #65 in the 1st class car, instead of seat #65 in 2nd class……5 cars back.  As my one act of defiance for the trip, I left my suitcase in the 1st class car so I wouldn’t have to drag it back to steerage.

My real seat turned out to be in another 6-person compartment, but it had been cleaned regularly, the air system worked, I could see out the windows, and unlike the first train, it was definitely not from between the wars. True, there was a bit of confusion at the end when I had to buck traffic for 5 cars to get back to my luggage in 1st class, but I eventually got there.

As billed, the Munich train station was right across from our hotel, so even though I was greeted with wind and pouring rain, I didn’t have far to get wet.  And since I’ve now learned my lesson to always take a 1st class train, I’d have to say that all in all, the episode turned out to be a good one……except for my blossoming cold.  But that’s another story.