My vow to leave by an early-ish 8:00 or so didn’t pan out --- of course. I slept in, convincing myself that I had this whole day to meander up to Milan, so why the rush. Good enough excuse for me! With cowboy style Italian coffee in hand, I finalized the very last of my packing (& repacking), wondering what that airport scale would reveal once these two bags were perched atop them. I did decide on a small assortment of items to leave behind, mostly toiletries and such, and made sure I packed the next line of disposables on top for easy access. Yep, that luggage scale is on my "to do" list....
Pepina the cat arrived early and joined me for the morning’s chores. After nibbling her cat food snack, she positioned herself for a comfy nap and slept right though all my fussing and flitting as I continued my bumbling over the suitcases. She did, however, make a great sounding board for me as I rattled on about any number of things relevant to the moment. Too bad I couldn’t pack up that sweet girl and introduce her to Texas cat chow.
I loaded things in the little Punta, did one last check of the apartment, fed the chickens, ducks, and goose a few left over crackers, and maneuvered the car one more time between the low rock wall, large stones, and trees that line the back road area at Casamonti. And what a glorious day…sunshine all around wrapped in a comfortably warm breeze that seemed to scream “Summer’s coming…just you wait and see!” I couldn’t help but give up a resigned smile as I pointed the Punta towards that lovely dirt road one last time for a run towards town.
A quick stop at the Agip for a caffé and a farewell to Simone, Valerio, and the sweet lady that works in the kitchen and loves to give big smiles for free when she’s not too busy. Hugs, vows to see you next time, and a very adorable little cinghiale keychain (Tuscan wild boar…kind of like the armadillo icon is to Texas – except cinghiale tastes good) regalo (gift) from Valerio, and I was one my way once again-- next stop Ray’s office in town.
What luck! Not only was Ray there, but Anna Rita, as well! A bit more chat, fond farewells, flight checked in and boarding passes in hand, and it was time to find my way out to the autostrada with a northerly trajectory for Milan. With time on my side, I chose a back road I had not taken before, and to no surprise I was once more gifted with views that were nothing less than a master’s grand painting at every angle. But ah…yes…this land is truly the Master’s grand painting, and how wonderful to be in the midst of it, indeed.
The autostrada and super strada were their busy selves on this beautiful day, and I relished being just another driver in this equivalent of a real-life video game. The secret to driving in Italy is commitment…hesitating does not work here. The entrance “ramps” are short and require the driver to yield if necessary, and that often means to a high speed, multi-ton truck…or if you’re unlucky, the “truck trains”, as I call them – long lines of trucks nose to tail traversing Italy north to south. There’s another challenge along the big highways here, that being finding oneself in the left lane and unable to move over to the right…as a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche, or Audi that believes anything less than double the speed limit is too slow is literally nipping your bumper! What would be labeled as aggression or maybe even road rage in our country seems to not actually be that on these thoroughfares, believe it or not. I think it’s because everyone seems to know the rules in Italy and generally plays by them. Note I said “rules”, and not “laws”. Laws seem to be mere suggestions. And those rules include knowing you need to yield to the speedsters, knowing that tailgating is really just the auto equivalent of “ciao…kiss, kiss” (and move over NOW, grazie), and that dividing lines are there just in case you feel like abiding by them. This applies to the twisty, turny, swirly roads of the county side, as well.
Oddly enough, we never…ever…witnessed one accident, and collectively there were many hours spent on Italian roadways. Marty and I chalked this up to the aforementioned knowing the rules and driving with commitment --- and one other thing we Americani could learn from; it is rare, very rare, to see an Italian on the phone in the car, save for when traffic is inching along. The need to stay alert and in tune with where the wheels of your vehicle are going is great; there is literally little mental energy to spare if one wishes to continue drawing breath on this side! (side note: a quick bit of research revealed there are laws against driving and cell phone chatting. Opps.)
Another icon of the Italian auto ways – the illustrious Auto Grille! I know I mentioned these delightful entities in earlier blogs, but I felt a little need to devote a bit more time to these oases of love sprinkled along the major roadways of Italy. Not to diss the MyChef chain, but I dare say that Auto Grille to MyChef is like Marble Slab Creamery to the freezer box of ice cream at the convenience store. The auto and super stradas are built for fast travel, obviously, and that includes not much distraction in the way of billboards and retail signage (there are none here…wow…nice!), but there is also not a plethora of choices for making that quick potty stop or snack grab. The servizio stations are spaced apart nicely enough, however, and there are smallish green signs placed on the highway divider that announce the milage (kilometerage??) to the next one, nicely providing for estimations on just how much more one can hold it.
These major chains are open 24/7, unlike the smaller stations you’ll find in the towns. Generally, like much of Italy, the la pausa (what we’d call a siesta) is observed in many, if not all, businesses and government or civic offices. Things shut down about noon, then restart in a couple of hours, generally. Not a bad gig, I’d say. It allows and encourages rest, time with family, and a great way to refresh and carry on into the evening. Interesting, too, is the payment method in the smaller stations. Most will accept credit cards, but the transaction is conducted inside…no pay at the pumps here. Also, if you happen to hit a station during la pausa or after closing, many have a little vending type booth that allows payment for a certain amount to a certain pump…cash only, please. If you over shoot the amount, a receipt is issued and you pick up the change the next day or whenever you stop by again. Not a bad system IF you’ll be in the area…the little booth on the outskirts of Milan Malpensa airport made a nice 15 euro profit on my little fill’er up before returning car escapade. Ahh well…
But back to the big boys. Auto Grille entrances are quite grand, often it seems, by way of a staircase that leads to only one or two doors for ingresso (entering). Most will spit you right into the fast food area that is a gustatory smorgasbord of all-things-yummy that can be had quickly. The bar is always a hoppin’ spot as folks clamor for that quick hit of strong espresso or a nice cappuccino. The Italian pay system usually applies, too – go to the cashier, tell them what you want, pay, then take the receipt and pick up your goods. Oh…another quick aside that made my day: an Italian speaking woman came up and asked me where to pay while I standing in line for my espresso at one of the Grilles. How nice to have an answer for her…in Italian, thank you very much (even if it was just two words – é lí - it’s there)!
If the fast food scene isn’t on your agenda, it’s easy to find the way to the really cool dining area of most Auto Grilles. The larger ones are often designed with a restaurant style facility that arcs across the highway like a literal food bridge, with a full service Auto Grille on either side. Kinda fun to slurp your pasta while you watch the traffic whiz by underneath. The choices are lovely…several varieties of each course for the offering, all fresh and appetizing – at least for road food. And certo (of course), del vino is always right there to accompany your meal. Yeah, I’m kind of diggin’ the lunchtime wine thing…ha! I’ve decided the availability and acceptance of alcohol might actually result in less abuse…or maybe everyone is continually a little buzzed, so it just works out! (side note: there actually are very strict underage and DWI laws in Italy – and maybe that helps keep things in check, as well)
Once the belly is full and the restroom checked off the list, one doesn’t just step out an exit door and zoom away. Ohhh no…these marketing geniuses have the store laid out whereby a lengthy, curvilinear stroll through a really wonderful array of goods is the one-way path out. If the row upon row of cookies, snack crackers, chocolates, candy, and other sweet delicacies don’t grab you, well how about rustic displays of salumi, prosciutto, cheese from A to Z, and every other pork product known to Italian man. No? Well, keep going and you’ll find any number of choices of wine, liquors, and other drinkable salves. Not enough? Okay…check out the last rows of toys, gifts, CDs, and travel goods…plus the displays of specials of the day. Whew. It’s truly a gauntlet of temptation and a momentous challenge to walk through that uscita (exit) empty handed.
Arrival at the hotel outside of Milan (same one we stayed at when Marty departed/Kathleen arrived) was not without a few challenges, one being the aforementioned filling of the rental car tank. Funny, but there seems to be quite a negligible offering of stations near the airport. Thank you once again, dear GPS, for helping me find one not too terribly far from my final destination!
Finding my way to the airport was not too difficult, nor was returning the little Punta, thanks to a nifty little map provided by the rental company. This would be 3 times now that I’ve dealt with rentals in Italy, and each event has been nonplussed. I’ve read some horror stories, so I’m grateful for such positive experiences! We’ve used Auto Europe, and they are pretty darn straight forward to work with. Anyway, car was cleaned out and turned in, and me and my heavy bags made our way into the terminal, taxi beckoning our goal. (Side note: We did receive one little "note" from them a few weeks after my return....two tickets from our first day fumble driving through Parma which included two swipes through a no traffic zone....Zona Traffico Limitato. Oh well...sure could've been worse!)
It was on my journey 3 years ago to Italy with friend Tammy that the protocol for getting a taxi was learned…the hard way, of course! Therefore, the task of hopping in one for the quick ride to the hotel didn’t seem to cumbersome to this tired traveler. Wrong. Maybe it was the time of day. Maybe there was a strike. Maybe I just was having a run of bad luck….but there were no taxis, buses, or shuttles to be found!
I went back and forth a couple of times, thinking I’d just not seen the right place. I even called Marty…Help! “Honey…just find a taxi and get to the hotel, okay?” Doh.Just as I was about to give up, I saw a taxi pull into the taxi que. Wait…two taxis!! I dashed for one, but it seemed to be half full and picking up more of the gang. I made eye contact with driver number two. He looked back at me. Nothing. Well dang! I was getting in his taxi even if he didn’t feel like driving right now! Me and the heavy bags marched on over, gave a quick smile, and said “How much to the (insert name…which I forget!) hotel?” He quoted something like 20 or 25 euro, which was ridiculous, but at that point I would’ve given him my shoes for a ride to a comfy bed! The short-cut got us there in oh, probably 10 minutes, and in his zero command of English and my 20% command of Italian, I ended up having to fork over 25 euro, which was about the equivalent of 32 dollars. Insane, yes, but sometimes money really doesn’t matter…sigh.
(Side note: While doing a back and forth “Where do they hide the taxis??” routine in
the airport, I was stopped by an Italian woman and asked where the tickets for the
Malpensa Express train were to be found…all in Italian, of course! I just happened to
know the answer from an earlier pass down the same corridor, so I was able to guide her my broken Italian. Cool!)
I got myself unloaded with the help of a very kindly staff person who even made sure I had a glass of wine delivered to my room, checked in with Marty, then headed down to the dining area for a bite. Almost vacant except for myself and another solo traveler, the quiet calm of the dining room was soothing. I enjoyed a lovely meal of pasta with cinghiale sauce, accompanied by a nice glass of wine. Ahhhhh. (and there's a "spy" photo somewhere I took of the fellow dining there, but alas...I can't find it! Yet....)
...but I beat the dawn to the punch with my 5:00am wake up call. Well, okay…we actually greeted each other at about the same time as daylight comes early to Italy this time of year. I wiped as many cobwebs from my brain as was possible at the hour after fitful sleep, dressed and packed, and headed for the front desk to catch my 6:15 shuttle to the airport. Fortunately, I had enough time to let the nice man at the bar fix me a cappuccino to accompany my brioche while I sat a few minutes and chatted with Marty. We marveled at how just two weeks prior, we had sat together in the very same spot as he awaited his shuttle.
Rather than wax on with the not-so-enthralling tales of my travel home, I’ll leave it in synopsis form:
*plane almost one hour late in departure from Milano, but not a bad flight to JFK
*JFK was an absolute frickin’ nightmare of lines and confusion…do not, I repeat DO NOT fly into JFK on Memorial Day weekend. From feet on the ground to able to stop to rest took 3 hours. Uggggg.
*Flight out of JFK was delayed 45 minutes for boarding, then on hold for an hour on the taxi way. 3.5 hour flight grew to almost 5 hours. Add to the formula the following –
**screaming, crying, fussy child in seat behind (the whole time…for real)
**very large woman to the right who sprained wrist and is on pain meds
which cause her to snore and twitch the entire flight (the whole time…)
**very tired man on left (I’m in middle seat…I’d kindly given him the
window thinking it’d be easier for making a restroom visit during my
3.5 hour <short!> flight….BIG mistake) who didn’t seem to realize
there’s an unspoken protocol on flights… you don’t sleep on the
shoulder of the stranger next to you – ever – period. Especially if you have the window to snuggle
So, needless to say, it was probably the worst flight I’ve ever endured, but I’m proud of myself for not going postal or even doing more than a few audible sighs. I did, however, find a cathartic outlet at one point when I really was about to scream….
ODE TO THE FLIGHT FROM HELL
The seating muse must be mad
I guess I’ve done some wrong?
The last leg of my journey has
become unbearable long.
A spoiled kid is screaming
and I’m the middle seat
Feeling more like a slice of bologna
squeezed beyond complete.
Snoring to my right and
an arm flailing whack
While the guy on the left is
practically in my lap.
I won the prize on this flight
got all the things ya dread,
I’m holding back the screams as
I’m about to lose my head.
Wish I were a little meaner
and I’d shove the guy aside,
I’d tell the whining kid
to shut up and don’t dare cry!
I’d tell the snoring queen size
I really need a break.
Could she lose 50 pounds
cause my sanity’s at stake?
But I just sit so nicely
silently bearing it with a smirk
At least I won’t make the nightly news
as the traveler who went berserk.
- May 26, 2012 on hour 22 of this very long day of travel
But like all things, grand or not so grand, my long ride home came to its end as we slipped onto the runway at San Antonio International Airport. My energy was renewed as I anticipated finding myself back in Marty’s arms after these two weeks apart. I texted him that we were on the ground, and I’d be there shortly, knowing he would be waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs leading to baggage pick up. Lipstick freshened, I deplaned as soon as humanly possible – more relieved than words can relay at leaving my little middle seat prison – and hurriedly made my way to the exit. There he was…smiling from ear to ear, all handsomely dressed up in a blue shirt and tie, holding a dozen red roses for me (just like when we got engaged!)…my man, my sweet husband!! We embraced for the longest time, so thankful to be back together, so happy to see each other. I can attest that I know how very blessed I am to have the husband and marriage I have, but I must also say that time apart can help refocus and crystallize the cognition of these things, both cerebrally and in the more profound areas of the heart and soul. I remember one of my colleagues in Corpus telling me, after Marty and I married, that she thought of me as a real Cinderella story. I liked that…what girl doesn’t want to live out a fairy tale?...and I realized once again that I really do have a Prince Charming at my side. Nothing’s ever perfect, mind you, and who would want it to be…but to have the love and commitment of a person who chooses each day to once again be side by side throughout life, good times and bad, who values the richness and experiences life can offer, who is so incredibly generous, who is a true partner in the deepest sense…these things are the stuff of dreams. And I stepped from one temporal dream in lands afar back into my real world of dreams come true the moment I stepped off that simple concrete stair step in an ordinary airport…happily ever after.
Addendum: Marty and I spent the night in San Antonio upon my return ... a wonderful way to ease back into the time change after the rigors of going west. We returned to Kerrville the next morning, and my sons Matt and Nathan were both in....and had the house decorated for a Welcome Home that warmed my heart to the cockles (whatever those are!) ! They, along with Marty , fixed a grand welcome home meal of Ray's Pasta (I'll add that to the recipe page soon) and treated me to a welcome befit for a Queen. Not that I minded...nope....not one little bit! After all, it really IS nice to be Queen now and then! But truly, I was so touched and felt very blessed to have two wonderful sons and a dear husband who actually did miss me and were happy to have me back home. As Dorothy and her ruby slippers said so well....there's no place like home!
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.