Today started like any other day. I got up earlier than Katie and started to clean up the place. Even though this is my usual routine, today was not to be a normal day. We had company coming over, and not the kind of company where you can simply stash everything in your bedroom until they leave. Serious company. Jay Gelman was coming over for a rather long stay, and there was nothing we could hide from him. Actually, Jay wasn’t coming today, but rather tomorrow, which, as you will see, are not entirely distinguishable from one another.
Back to my routine, I am on the computer, allegedly finishing things up. That’s when Katie usually gets up and starts making coffee, and today is no exception. The fact that I don’t get my customary hand-delivered cup is of no consequence. I’m really trying to finish “something” up very quickly, and pretty permanently. Today, I’m actually going to turn off some computers.
As per usual when I am either working on my computer or cleaning up the house, I become distracted many times over, each task left unfinished as I see something else that needs doing. These are the actions of an unorganized, rushed spirit. I am anxious. Very anxious.
Katie joins in voluntarily with the house-wide tidying. I finally complete my work on my computer and shut it down for the first time in a very long time. I also shut down Katie’s computer because neither machine will see much use for a while. I have neither lost interest in computers nor been fired from my job — not yet, anyway — and yet, here I am, shutting down the computer that I use every day to make my living. I’m disconnecting the umbilical chord. Leaping into the unknown with quite few unheroic looks over my shoulder. Katie is taking the entire process in stride.
The awkward dance is interrupted by hunger — another fixture in our daily routine. We generally do not consider food until it demands consideration of its own accord, and introduces a certain amount of disorientation along with its growing immediacy. We call Brian and Heather, who accept our offer for a quickie breakfast at the bagel shop. The errand turns into a much more complex outing than originally anticipated, but ultimately results in placating the beast for the time being. We return home, worried that our preparations will require time that we simply do not have.
We complete our tasks early, and are surprised that we have time left over, and we’re not sure what to do with ourselves. Best not to get there too early, because then we’ll be saddled with another form of anxiety — just as bad but at the same time much worse, because we’ll know we’re that much closer to our next big adventure. We load up the car and take out the mountain of recycling material down to the bins in our parking lot. We decide that we cannot sit around any longer doing nothing, and decide to leave.
Brian and Heather drive us to the airport after we call Jay to tell him that the house will be empty whenever he is ready. The adventure begins.
There are mundane details regarding our airline travel. We never received our tickets in the mail. We still haven’t paid the taxes due on the tickets purchased using frequent-flier miles. The in-flight staff is very gruff, and I’m pretty sure that a woman was thrown off the plane before it took off because she was questioning the authority of the airline gestapo.
The gentleman next to me reminds me of a G.I. Joe character and requires the overhead air stream to be pointed directly at my right ear, pushed to the upper limit of its output. To my constant detriment, I am plagued with a complete and utter avoidance of any kind of confrontation with people who are unknown to me. A reasonable person would turn to their neighbor and calmly ask “Pardon me, sir, I am very cold. Would you mind terribly if I changed the aim of your air hose slightly, as well as turned it down just a hair?” In a moment of triumphant pride, I seize the opportunity to turn it down myself while Sargent Slaughter is in the aft lavatory.
The airline food is not very good, but that’s to be expected. Knowing full well that becoming dehydrated is a recipe for jet lag, I carefully plan my trip’s intake of liquids and juicy solids including the moist, but poorly seasoned chicken cutlet in front of me. I have bet on the fact that if I drink a lot of other things, a few mini bottles of Scotch will help me sleep and not cause me too much dehydration. Sure, a semi-inebriated sleep isn’t as restful as normal sleep, but at least it’s sleep. I must fall asleep or tomorrow is really going to suck.
Alcoholic beverages turn out to be five bucks a pop. Helpfully, they’ve also provided our European friends with a price in their home currency — four Euro each. Thanks. Already, there’s a 30% exchange rate markup on Euros, which means that it would really cost me $5.20. I bought these Euros two years ago when the rate was lower, so I could make out slightly on top. But, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for booze on an international flight. It’s downright barbaric to charge for liquor on a transatlantic flight.
Sgt. Slaughter finally gets tired and cold and turns his air hose off of his own volition. Slow and steady wins the race. At least I tell myself that. Hell, it only took three and a half hours plus a clandestine kamikaze run during his trip to the head. Most of the lights in the cabin are extinguished, and the only really disturbing light is coming from the projection screen 6 rows up. It’s Pay it Forward, which is a pretty good movie. Fortunately, the airline has decided that my particular seat did not require a headset, and who am I to argue? I have to sleep anyway. Yeah. That’s the ticket.
Besides, why watch a movie when I can hum along to all the mindless boy-band-like songs that I heard on the radio earlier today while on my dump-and-chase romp through the house trying to pretend to a guest that I’m not one of those people who ends up being found by the police weeks after dying when one of the tunnels through their hoarded possessions collapses because there wasn’t enough structural integrity within the section of wire hangers and junk mail to keep the roof up. Modern rock my ass. Oh, man. I traded liquor for tea. It was a calculated move. I had rejected coffee — even decaffeinated — for tea because coffee is a diarrhetic. Foolishly, I hadn’t asked for decaffeinated tea. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Speaking of stupid, why can’t I get this stupid song out of my head. Maybe if I really concentrate, I can get another one, one that doesn’t suck. Wait. Nope. That one sucks, too, and it’s got a faster beat. Maybe if I concentrate on Mozart, I can slow down the pace of my brain and drift off to sleep. No dice.
I open my right eye to see Haley Joe Osment getting the crap beat out of him by some school bullies. I switch eyes and Katie has her earphones on and is watching the movie. She must be in the same boat I’m in. The Colonel next to me is also watching it. We’re all screwed. I know they’re showing three movies on this flight, and the second one is almost over. This doesn’t look good for me. Time to really concentrate on falling asleep. Have you ever tried that? Does it work for you? Yeah, me neither.
I think I may have slept for 20 minutes or so. I ended up watching the last 45 minutes or so of Taxi, whose only redeeming quality was that Jeff Gordon makes an appearance at the end. That gives you some indication of the quality of this film. Finally, I get the only good news I’ve heard or thought up, or thought up hearing, since the flight began. We’ll be landing in 45 minutes. That’s about the time when the entire population of the 747 decides that they’d better get in line for that bathroom right now because otherwise they’ll have to use the facilities on the ground. Horrors. It’s amusing to me that some people end up standing in line for almost 25 minutes before being shooed back their seats by the in-flight enforcers.
Frankfort is a cool airport. A bit retro while being completely modern. I suppose this is how a lot of Germany feels. The Germans are supposed to be supremely stylish, but I don’t know enough to know the difference. One big problem in my opinion: too much smoking. In the US, it’s almost a crime to smoke cigarettes, at least in the Washington D.C area, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that personal freedom was one of the next to go. Frankfort Airport, in sharp contrast, has smoking bars. I’m not talking about a joint where you can get a pint and smoke a cigarette or cigar. I’m talking about an elbow-high counter-top, with nothing else around it, practically in the middle of the corridor in the terminal. And it’s not just one… there are dozens of them. Just a few short hours earlier, I recalled walking past the “smoking room” at Dulles International Airport as four or five people walked in, each holding the door for the next. I commented to Katie, “sheesh, they need an airlock on that thing because it just lets the smoke billow out of the room,” and here they are in Germany, puffing away in the middle of the terminal. What struck me was that these smoking bars exist in places which are clearly sanctioned by the airport (they have signs and everything), but no attempt of any kind of ventilation has been made, leaving the smoke to just hang around in the air. The constant eddies inadvertently produced by travelers serve to evenly distribute the smoke to every corner of the airport. I really believe that people should be allowed to smoke. I just really don’t want to have to breathe it. Especially not for five hours, which was exactly how long my layover was.
There’s an art to avoiding madness during an airport layover. You can take the easy way out and sleep in the boarding area until your plane is ready to board. Or, you can do what we did and tour the airport, wandering aimlessly in and our of duty free, travel electronics, and magazine stands. After trying to head-off the hunger beast at the pass by suggesting a bite to eat, we decide that we really should get some food. Unfortunately, 5 hours is just enough time to strand yourself in a city by missing your plane if you foolishly leave the airport. So, we decide to stay and endeavor to ferret out some authentic German cuisine. I suggest brats, sauerkraut, and beer. Katie points out that it is eight o’clock in the morning, and I acquiesce. There’s really no need for sauerkraut this early in the morning.
After trying very hard, we find a place willing to charge us 17 Euro for two coffees, two eggs and 4 sausage links. We return to the boarding area where Katie tries to keep her eyelids open with her pinky fingers. I tell her to just go to sleep. I’m pretty sure that it was at the exact moment she lost consciousness that the gate attendant announced that we’d be boarding immediately. We travel mit dem bus to the regional jet, which, from the length of the bus ride, probably departed from Zurich.
The Alps are absolutely breathtaking. [Update 2005-03-12: photo]
We passed over Zurich(?) and the terrain immediately transitioned from rolling hills and farmland to endless miles of show-capped peaks. Actually, the entire range was bathed in snow, as were the aforementioned hills. But, snow-capped peaks has a nice ring to it. I definitely have to go skiing here. Soon.
Unfortunately for Katie, the descent into Amerigo Vespucci Airport was less than smooth. I thought she was kidding when she backhanded me after a mock-vomiting incident in her lap. But the immediate opening of her air hose to full-blast-in-the-face after a sudden drop of a few dozen feet made me feel bad that I had joked about being queasy. I’m usually the one eying the steel-belted, quadruple-ply bag in the seat back in front of me, although I’m fortunate never to have required its services.
Getting out of the plane, I catch a glimpse of a rather high hill out of the corner of my eye. I had never really noticed that Florence is nestled in between several very majestic, green hills. Being outside the city offers me a new perspective that I hadn’t appreciated during our first trip, hundreds of digital photos now a blur in my mind. I snap a picture and the colors immediately begin to run.
It was June when last I laid eyes on fair Florence. It is way colder than I expected it to be. I’m sure it was only 50 degrees or so (11 in the local system) but it was windy, especially on the airport runway which we had to cross to get to the terminal, which is reminiscent of my trip through Central Wisconsin airport, except without all those gates.
All bags accounted for — let’s find a cab. We retrieved the second-to-last bag on the carousel, and were pretty close to the end of the line leaving the airport. I’m sure it only has a single runway, so I’m skeptical about the popularity of the Florence Airport for taxicabs. We jump directly into one and were on the road in a minute or so.
As we left the airport, I mentioned to Katie that we should see how much it would cost to rent a bicycle or even a scooter for a day. By my count, scooters outnumber people three to one in Florence. Scooters line the streets for blocks and blocks. If Ford Prefect had first researched Florence instead of wherever he did, I’m sure his name would have ended up being Vespa.
The ride to our flat took ten minutes, and probably should have taken fifteen or twenty. We almost ran several vehicles off the road, including bicycles, and had our fair share of close calls with pedestrians. I can honestly say that whatever desire I had to take any kind of wheeled vehicle on the streets of Florence has evaporated completely. After all of the weaving, honking, and near-death experiences, we made it to our destination near Santa Croce.
We had made excellent time, and the property manager was not scheduled to meet us for another 45 minutes or so. We decided to look around for a bank, because we were going to need to convert our traveler’s cheques into euros. On the way, I saw an Internet joint, and decided to poke my head in. I call them Internet joints because I don’t know what else to call them. In the US, I would probably call it an Internet Café, because most places that have fee-based Internet access also serve overpriced coffee and pipe Williams Sonoma’s Play and they will buy CDs all day long. I could also call it an Internet Access Point, but that term implies wireless access point to me. Ergo joint.
The woman behind the counter reading a novel is young. Very young — probably around my age or a bit younger. Maybe a college student. This is fortunate, because she is likely to speak very good English. Despite my willingness to both speak Italian and to simultaneously butcher it, this is a conversation that definitely needs to be conducted in English. Trying to explain that I have my own laptop that I’d like to use to connect to the Internet on their network is something that I cannot even begin to describe in Italiano. It turns out not to be as expensive as I had feared. If I pay in advance, I can get a pretty good deal since I will be using fractional hours each time I need to connect. I need to shop around a little bit, but if you are reading this, it probably means that I went ahead and made the deal.
One block away from La Ch@t, we find a bank. Banks in Italy have single-person cylindrical tubes that allow one person to enter at a time, and scan you for large amounts of metal such as a gun, samurai sword, or bag full of padlocks. In order to enter, you must push a button on the outside of the door, which then rotates open. You step in, wait a moment, and then the inner door opens — like an airlock. We were attempting to master this new type of door when we realized that it will not open no matter how much we try to outsmart the device. The bank is closed. We read the sign on the door which seems to indicate that it will reopen in 20 minutes. This is a perfect time for espresso, which we have been desperately needing since we stepped off the plane in Frankfort.
We haul all our bags, which are still carrying around with us, into the café across the intersection. A very friendly old man — probably the owner — comes over to serve us. He looks disappointed when we order two café lattés, so I order a 5-inch pizza along with our drinks. Yep. Coffee and pizza is just as good as I had remembered. We relaxed for a few minutes before Katie decided to return to the bank. I stayed in the café, since there was no better place for me to wait with the bags. There is no way we were going to get those bags into the bank, so I’d have to wait on the street otherwise. But, we had paid for the table, so I felt entitled to continue to sit.
Katie returns after about 4 minutes, which I figured was a world record in terms of currency exchange. Unfortunately, this particular bank does not exchange traveler’s cheques, so we will have to visit another bank. By this time, we need to meet the property manager, so we return to the flat about 3 blocks away. On the way, we stop at a Bancomat and withdrawal as much as we can.
We enter and meet Lucilla, who is very young and speaks excellent English. I’m sure that’s why she manages this property for the owner, Isabella. We tell her apologetically that we have been unable to exchange our cheques, which we got for the express purpose of travelling with large amounts of cash. She says that she completely understands, and that her associate, Mauricio de la Muerte, will stop by first thing in the morning to collect the balance. Seriously, though, she plans to return the next day or two days later to collect the balance. I give her my cell number so that she can call and set up a collection time. She knows of a bank in the Piazza della Repubblica that will do currency exchanges, and shows us on the map where they are. Feeling like an idiot, I start the tour of the flat. Thirty-five seconds later, we’re standing in our living room, again, saying goodbye to Lucilla.
I have a conference call scheduled for four o’clock, and I have 15 minutes. I send a text message to one of my colleagues that I’m ready to go, and Katie and I step out the door to explore more of the surrounding area. My phone rings after a few blocks and I stop paying attention to where we’re going — Katie is doing all the driving. For the next 13 minutes, I followed Katie around the back streets of the east end of the city. When I was finished, we were emerging into a piazza with a post office and supermarket. I believe Katie was trying to find the supermarket, so that we would know where it is. I decide to enter, because I will want something to eat for dinner. Katie stays outside with her bottle of water, no wanting to attempt to explain to the employees why she’s drinking it and doesn’t intend to pay for it on the way out. I browse around, discovering that it’s pretty much like an American supermarket except that I only recognize every fifty brand. I can usually tell what is contained within any given package, because it’s mostly food and there are pictures. I decide that a baguette, parmasean cheese, and wine makes a great meal. I grab these things and then wait in an enormous line to pay.
The woman at the checkout rings up my items and says something to me in Italian as she considers the bag in her hand. I look at her and proudly state “Non parlo L’Englese,” which prompts her to change the look on her face from partially blank to completely blank. I quickly straighten up and say “I mean… non parlo L’Italiano!” She holds the empty bag up a little higher, and Katie mutters to me “she wants to know if you want to buy the bag.” Feeling like an idiot, I decline the bag and we walk out with a bottle of wine and a cartoon-style brick of cheese stuffed into my coat pockets while Katie wields the baguette as protection from marauding wine-and-cheese thieves.
Fortunately, the supermarket is only 2 blocks from our flat, so we go home to rest. It is about 5 degrees in our flat, so Katie situates herself on the couch while I prepare the food. There’s a bottle-opener in the kitchen, which is fortunate, because otherwise I would be forced to resort to using the swiss-army-style knife that we brought with us. Using a swiss army knife to open a bottle of wine is about as easy to do as cleaning a fish with the same knife, which leads me to question the usefulness of the whole swiss army knife concept. By the time I have the wine open, Katie already has her eyes closed. I decide to skip the cheese, and break-off a quarter of the baguette and sit down on the couch. We toast to our first day in Florence and finish the bread.
I want to go back out into the city before it gets dark. It is only six o’clock or so, leaving us with at least forty five minutes of daylight left. Katie declares that she is both tired and cold, and will not be going out again. I’m freezing, too, but my thought was that we would warm up hiking around the streets. Not wanting to go out without her, I take a very hot shower and get ready for bed. Katie is nearly asleep when I climb into bed with my laptop. Normally, she would complain that I wasn’t going to sleep after getting into bed, but tonight, she doesn’t care one bit. Finally, Sunday is over. Wait. It’s Monday. How did two days go by that quickly? Oh, well. I’ll figure that out, tomorrow.