03 April, 2013

Stamps in My Passport : Italy

Exactly a year ago, I was exploring Italy for the very first time and thoroughly enjoying it -- cultural highlights as well as cultural idiosyncrasies   There's one thing you should know before traveling to Italy.  Well, there are many things you should know, but especially know this:  Don't expect sparkling customer service.  Italians do many things well, but "speedy service with a smile" is not a given.  Check that need at the door, and embrace any ensuing mayhem.



The entirety of my first experience at Rome's Fiumicino Airport (FCO) last March taught me this.  I landed late in the evening and was met by my friend Carrie, who'd arrived several hours earlier.  We went in search of a cheap pre-paid mobile phone that I could use during the trip.  I'd read that there were several shops at the airport providing these phones.  We went to the Terminal 3 information desk for directions.  “I don’t know, I think there is a shop upstairs.”  We went to the opposite end of the terminal, up the stairs and to another information desk.  “Oh, you have to go to Terminal 1 for that.”  We trekked to Terminal 1's info desk and repeated our query.  “Ohhh, I really don’t know…I think you have to look in Terminal 3…”  We went back to Terminal 3, but this time we had a cunning plan.  Carrie would ask at one booth, and I would ask at another.  Hopefully we'd get matching answers.  I asked my targeted employee, and she said, “Oh, no, it is nowhere here; you have to go to the shop in the train station in central Rome.”  I walked 3 yards over to Carrie who was already receiving the sales pitch from a woman whose booth did, indeed, sell mobile phones.


Whether people were choosing to lie to us or just truly didn’t know, what surprised me most was the fact that no one at the information desks could be bothered to consult a directory, call someone, or by any other means locate the information we needed.  I must admit, I love these situations (at least in hindsight!); they teach me to think on my feet and remind me that even after weeks of planning I am really not as in control of things as I think I am.   

Oh, the thrill wasn't over, though.  The very next day, Rome FCO decided to trump the previous night’s game of human ping-pong.  Carrie and I had an early flight to Sicily, where we'd stay with American friends for a few days before resuming our adventure on the mainland.  We planned to leave our big suitcases in FCO's luggage storage and just take carry-ons to Sicily.  Our morning went something like this:

05:30 - Shuttle from hotel to FCO.
05:40 – Discover airport storage is closed, so we have nowhere to stow our heavy bags for 3 days.  Head to check-in, hoping the checked-bag charges aren't exorbitant.
05:50 – Arrive at check-in line for 07:30 flight…behind a veritable pestilence of teenagers.  A hundred 13-year-olds yakking it up, not paying attention to the next available check-in assistant.  Of course, each one is adding to the processing time by checking in a bag that could totally fit as a carry-on.
06:33 – Airline staff finally realize they could create a separate line for everyone not with the school group.  Everyone on the next flight, to Palermo, surges forward to the front of this new line, screaming “Palermo!” as the magic password, though I’m not sure how many are actually on that flight.  I'm almost trampled underfoot (seriously) by angry, shouting Italians and their bags.  Three cheers for immersion!
06:45 – Carrie and I finally reach the front of the line, but the clerk refuses to check us in.  “That is the line for Catania,” she says, pointing at the long queue that has built up behind us.  No, we insist; we've been in this line for an hour and were waiting here before a second line was formed and became a Palermo express lane.  Our flight boards in 15 minutes and we will not get back in line.  (By "we" I mean "Carrie"; that girl is more persistent than I would've been if alone, and she finally breaks the clerk's iron will.)  The clerk accedes -- pride and resentment simmering beneath her olive complexion -- but gets revenge by telling us that we must go to a desk at the other end of the terminal to pay for our checked bags, and then come back for our boarding passes.  I mutter dark and unpleasant things in my head and run for the ticket desk.  
This is how we felt. (Photo: Carrie Horton)
07:00 – Return to check-in, get boarding passes, run to security.  Guard waves us to express line, but perhaps “express” means something different here, because this line's pace is glacial.  The guards are deep in conversation and barely notice me.  Ever vigilant...
07:15 - Carrie and I are those people; you know, the ones running through the terminal as though their lives depend upon it.  Lives, maybe not; sanity, yes.  I have a heavy bag and am glad that no Navy SEALS are here to witness my astounding and complete deficit of aerobic endurance. 
07:30 – Board plane, which departs 20 minutes late because all the children are on the exact same flight.  Of course.  The source of 75% of this morning's stress is flying all the way to Sicily with us.  Carrie and I buckle up, physically and emotionally, for a long ride.

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