Sunday, October 25, 2009

Roman Holiday Part 1: Taking Flight

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to write about my trip to Rome, but it was definitely worthy of several blog entries. I took a lot of notes of what happened during my visit, so I decided I’d just go back through the notes I wrote down and then expand upon those details. We will start with my trip to the airport, since airports are always worth a story all their own. Has their really not been an airport show since Wings? Wait, I have a faint memory of a short-lived LAX. Well, TV developers, I bid you make a couple less hospital and procedural shows next year, and give me a good airport show.

Anyway first note: Fabby and Luis suggest bus. So I had come up with a somewhat complicated but inexpensive way to get to JFK. Instead of taking a cab in rush hour traffic to the airport, I was going to take the R train right outside of work and then switch to the E at Queensboro and then take the E all the way to Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue, and then catch the Airtain to JFK. Estimated travel time about an hour and 15 minutes. Estimated cost. 5 bucks. At the end of the work day I mentioned to Fabiola and Boss Luis that this was my chosen method of transportation. They were not impressed. “Take the express bus from Grand Central.” I was told/ordered. I was doubtful. The bus will get stuck in traffic! They claimed it wouldn’t be that bad and considering I still had three and a half hours before my flight, I’d be fine. I have a thing against buses though. It’s my least favorite way to travel. I’d rather be on a cramped subway than a packed bus any day. This distaste mostly comes from a hatred of school buses, but I don’t like coach buses that much better. Even though the bus is a little more expensive, they are adamant I take that instead of the subway. So I abandon my own plan and go with the bus. I figure from here on in there will be no one around to suggest or demand I choose a different plan other than my own.


I get to the bus outside Grand Central about 7:02 and get on the 6:51 bus which has not left yet. When putting my bag in the luggage compartment the bus guy asks “what airline?” “Alitalia” I tell him. His face goes blank and then he says “Terminal… 4.” “No.” I say. “Terminal ONE.” “Okay, Terminal 1!” he replies and chucks my bag in the bottom of the bus.” I am pleased with myself as I board the bus that I remembered to check the terminal. We head out about 7:08, so already this plan seems super speedy. We get caught in a little traffic on the way. The coach bus isn’t crowded, but I’m never really comfortable in my seat. I check my travel pouch repeatedly to make sure I have my passport and my Euros with me. I do, I do, but I can’t be SURE they haven’t gotten away somehow. Nerves.

(On the bus to the airport. So nervous I can barely keep my eyes open!)

So as we pull into the terminal, I notice these signs about how tipping the drivers is appreciated/required, so I go for my wallet. This older person across from me (man? Woman? I cannot tell.) starts fishing through his/her change purse. Really, guy/lady? You’re gonna give this guy a dollar and nickels and pennies? That’s something else. I’m sure they love that. Anyway, I hop out at terminal 1 (not, 4) tip the guy and head in to get my ticket. I have a little less than 2 hours to my flight (note this time for when I get to my return trip.) I check in and get my ticket and I’m on my way!!! To sitting at the gate for an hour. I am nervous and excited. I buy myself a water and take some decongestant so that my ears don’t explode during the flight. I have very sensitive ears when it comes to ascending and descending during flight. If I don’t take something the pressure builds and becomes so intense I can feel the pain from my inner ears all the way down my throat. It’s excruciating and there’s no real relief until we’re back on the ground. But I take a Claritin and my ears are fine. So that’s what I do. I also sent a few last minutes texts and emails on my phone since I will not have service during my trip. 4 days without my phone. How will this work?? I did download an Italian-English dictionary app that I could use offline over the weekend, so I’d still carry the phone around with me even if I wasn’t calling anybody. Then, before I know it, they announce boarding for rows 33-40. I am in row 20 so I sit back for a minute. But everyone else gets up. Line jumpers! Apparently, the airline decides to drop all pretenses and announces boarding for all rows. No more countdowns. No more priority for first class. Just everyone pile onto the plane. Oh, Italy. I think you and I are gonna get along just fine.

I get to my row and I’m the first there! But there’s still not enough space in the overhead compartment in my row. So I jack the space in the mid-section bin across from my room. First come,First serve! And then I cozy into my window seat. As I sit, I peer over the headrest of the seat in front of me and see a child no older than 3 or 4. Oh no. I think. This could get loud. For a very very long ride. What’s next? A gigantor fatty to come sit next to/on top of me? Luckily, this was not to be the case. I was blessed by the travel gods and perhaps a Guardian Angel Mommy and got seated next to a very delightful mother and daughter travel team, Carolyn and Mary. I did something I never do while traveling next to strangers and introduced myself. We said hello and then they immediately offered me mint-chocolate chip candies! HELLO? Do you see what I’m saying about divine intervention? We discuss our reasons for going to Rome, they are visiting family and I am being a weekend adventurer. They think it sounds very exciting and I giggle because I’m doing something cool (and in the process of giggling I once again make myself uncool). We spend our time taxiing on the runway looking through our entertainment guide and trying to figure out these remote controls that look like wii controllers attached to our arm rests. We’ve got seats with individual screens in the backs of the seats in front of us and about 1001 different entertainment options to choose from (games! movies! TV shows! Music!) if only we can figure out how to work the controller. But that has to wait until we’re up in the air. We take off on time and zoom into the air without my ears going crazy (thank you, Claritin). Once we’re at the right altitude, it’s back to fumbling with the wii-ish controllers. I figure out how to work mine first and without a moment’s hesitation start watching Star Trek. HOORAY! Best. In–Flight Movie. Ever. Carolyn and Mary are more than a little amused by my… enthusiasm for the movie. But it’s SO GOOD and they just don’t know cuz they haven’t seen it. For some reason, Carolyn and Mary can’t get their controllers to go “interactive” so I help them up by bottom mashing in the classic Contra-style formation and before you can say “B-A, start!” I’ve somehow guided them to the Flight Entertainment Promised Land.

As my movie starts, the captain comes on to tell us we’ll be getting two meals and snacks and drinks during our flight. I had been wondering about this. I haven’t flown internationally in several years and all of the domestic flights I’ve been have included nothing – maybe a cup of soda. Any sort of trail mix snack they had to offer was sold to you at unreasonable prices. To learn that I would be given several food options over the next several hours which were already included in the fare made me very happy. So far, Alitalia was treating us right. I watched my awesome movie had a glass of soda with my snack, then about an hour later they brought dinner and I had the beef instead of the fish, because if Airplane! Taught us anything (and let’s face it. That movie taught us many things.) it was that we don’t order the fish, if we want to stay healthy. The food was really really good and I had a nice glass of red wine with it as well. Am I certain I’m sitting in economy? If not for the lack of leg room I’d be really unsure. After dinner, I got a bit sleepy and missed most of the section of Star Trek when Kirk and Spock are trying to rescue Pike from the Narada, but I woke up for the end and the great Credit Sequence. Since it was now about 1am, I figured time for bed, so I put on a Bug’s Life for some restful background noise and dozed off. I slept well, only waking up to watch the grasshopper get ripped apart by the hungry baby birds. Good times.

I wake up later and it’s breakfast time. Hooray! More food. Breakfast is not really as good as dinner was. But that’s mostly because my sandwich had melted cheese and I’m not a fan of melted cheese as a breakfast ingredient. I mostly eat it anyway. I continue talking with Carolyn and Mary and it turns out that they are taking the train from the airport into the subway system in Rome as well, so we decide to all go into the city together before we go our separate ways. I’m thrilled by this because getting from the airport to the subway was the part of my trip of which I was most unsure. These ladies rock. They also tell me to eat lots of pastries and pizza and gelato throughout the day because it's an inexpensive way to snack and then have a big dinner when everyone else leats ate between 8-10pm. I make notes of all this in my book. I also make a note to see the "Mouth Of Truth" which they tell me is fun and is also featured in Roman Holiday.

It’s time for another movie, and I have just enough time to watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I’m not sure about this movie, because I did not hear good things from X-Men fans. I figure this is my best shot at not needing to pay to see it while still being a captive audience. Suffice to say, I did not like this movie. I mean, as an action movie, I guess it’s fine. But in terms of character, it has nothing to do with The X-Men comics and also really nothing to do with the other X-Men movies. So it’s weird. I couldn’t get into it. First I watched it full out, and then I turned the sound off and just watched the images, and then I turned it off altogether about halfway through. Better luck next time, X-Franchise.

We start our descent and I fear my ears will go through the typical super-pain, but it’s not so bad and I’m able to hold my nose and blow them out and it’s all good. We actually arrive in Rome an hour ahead of schedule! Hooray. We taxi for a good 15 minutes and then finally disembark. Halfway off the plane, I realize I’ve dropped my blackberry in my seat and I have to fight against the current to get back there and reclaim it. I rejoin Carolyn and Mary when we get off the plane. We turn the corner to head toward customs and WHAM! – We walk into a wall of people. The entire customs area is filled to capacity. Carolyn is amazed. She’s never seen it like this. It was too early for the customs officials to take lunch. What could be going on? Apparently 3 planes got in at the same time (thanks to ours being early), so several hundred people all crammed into the customs area at once and the customs staff didn’t have enough stations open to handle the influx. As more and more people crammed into the room I got separated from Carolyn and Mary, who got swept up towards the front while I was pushed to the side. I felt like Christian Bale at the beginning of Empire of the Sun. It was bad news. I was lost! What if I never got out of here and had to spend the whole weekend looking for land mines? Anything’s possible.

The room was gross. Everyone was wearing clothes that were too heavy for the Rome weather, plus we’d been on the plane for the last 8 hours so everyone needed a shower. It took about a half hour for me to make my way to the front of the line. Once there I walked up to the official, who said nothing to me, didn’t look at my passport, stamped a random page and passed it back to me without making eye contact. It was anti-climactic to say the least. I wanted him to at least inquire about the reason for my visit or my length of stay. But I was super excited just to get it over with. I zoomed down to baggage claim to look for my friends.

When I find them, I see they have encountered a problem. Though the probably got through customs 15 minutes before I did, the luggage carousel for our flight is busted. This is not an issue for me, who only has carry on luggage, but they can’t get their extra bags. The conveyor belt unloading the luggage is still working but someone’s bag landed in a way that it won’t drop into the carousel and all the rest of the luggage is stuck behind it. People are being driven to distraction. Who knows when an airport technician will come and fix the bags? No one around here seems to be rushing to do anything. A couple guys decide to chance climbing on to the carousel but just as their bravery comes to ahead the technicians arrive and release the luggage. We grab the bags and head out for the train.

The train station at the airport is kinda cool. I thought to take a picture of it, but I felt like it wouldn’t have looked like anything in a snapshot. There was really just a long tunnel that led out into the sunlight. It was cool though. The trains were old school passenger cars, some covered in graffiti. It was like something you might think you saw in Empire of the Sun if you hadn’t seen that movie in the past 20 years. We get our tickets and there’s a train to Termini just about to leave. Mary reminds me that i have to stamp my ticket at this little stand before I get on the train, otherwise I can get a big fine if the conductor asks to see my ticket on the train. I remember having read this in my travel book, but with all the excitement of getting through the airport, I wouldn't have remembered that detail at all. So we stamp our cards and we race toward the train. Everyone is shoving into the closest rail car before the train leaves. There is no way we are gonna try to cram ourselves in there and we let it go. Carolyn and Mary explain to me that there is no AC on the train and attempting to ride all the way to Termini in what we are now realizing is really unseasonably warm weather in Rome in an over packed car would be uncomfortable… and smelly. So we walk down the platform so we’re away from the crowds for the next train. The next one comes in about 15 minutes and we’re on our way. We sit in our only little booth by the door and our train turns out to be an express instead of a local. Hooray! After several stages in the airport that took longer than necessary it was exciting to make up some time. While we’re sitting and relaxing, Carolyn warns me about gypsies. I am very curious about gypsies, since I’ve heard many stories about them and the crazy things they may try to do to rob tourists. Carolyn says that the gypsies will come through the train asking for money, and I’m like “please, this is NYC you’re talking to. I can handle the rails." But no gypsies come by during our train ride, and no conductor for that matter either, so I didn’t have to worry about the timestamp after all. Go figure.

When we get to Termini we make our way from the train station section to the subway section which takes longer than you think it might. Mary introduces me to the Rome version of the Metrocard Machine and tells me not to get the daily or weekend passes because there’s no way I’ll be using the subway enough for to financially make sense. This is sound advice. The subway for me was pay as I went and I think I spent only 4 Euros on it my whole trip. Once we were in the subway though, it was a sad moment because I was going in the opposite direction from Carolyn and Mary and we had to say our good-byes. We wished each other well and they said I was brave for going on a trip all by myself and to have fun. It made me feel good to be called brave, but also a little nervous because I didn’t feel brave and was hoping bravery was not really the trait I would most need to rely on for the rest of my weekend. As I headed off on my own to metro line B, I thought about how thankful I was to have been next to them on the flight and how nice it was for them to help me get through the initial confusion of being in a different country. I wondered if I’d ever hear from them again. (I did! Upon returning home I found them on Facebook! Hooray!)

(Look, it's Rome! For real!)

I climb on the blue line and make note that I like the subway cars in Rome. They have these poles that have half ovular handles in the middle so there are more places to hold on to and also denying folks the ability to wrap themselves completely around the pole while reading a book… not that I ever do that on the NYC subway or anything. I go two stops to Colosseo and head out. I climb to ground level and – oh look, there’s a gelato stand! It’s in front of the Colosseo! I have made it. Let the adventures truly begin!

TO BE CONTINUED… in PART II – Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day but I Saw It In An Afternoon

1 comment:

carolyn said...

Owen,you must write a book! I loved reading the part about Carolyn and Mary! Best wishes always!
Carolyn