Archive for the 'European Adventures' Category

Nov. 19 (Monday, going home)

19 November 2007 at 12:00 am
by Jonah

Nov. 19 (Monday, going home)

I allowed us an hour to get to the airport and return the car, even though the hotel was fairly close. It’s a good thing I did, because we couldn’t figure out how to cross the Autstrata without getting on it. We got off at the next exit and drove down tiny streets in a little town following signs to the airport through the maze and somehow got there. The disturbing part was the roundabout with no other information other than “Malpensa Terminal 1” down one street and “Malpensa Terminal 2” down another. We took Terminal 1, but then missed another exit and wound up in “Malpensa Cargo City.” Then we followed the signs for the car rental return, but all the Thrifty spots in the garage were full. The lady in Hertz told me where to find the Thrifty desk inside the terminal, so I ran inside while Berck waited with the car idling. “Just double park it,” said the Thrifty lady, in typical Italian fashion. We left the car in Hertz Gold spot 167 (right next to the door) and dropped the key off at the desk telling the lady where it was. After more paperwork (I think you can buy a house with less paper than you can rent a car in Europe from a US company), we headed to the ticket counter.

With no kiosks available, we talked to the sole US Airways agent, who sent us down a hallway. At the end of a hallway was a guy with a list. If your name was on the list, you could pass. Fortunately, our name was on the list. We proceeded to another ticket counter, and an ICTS agent who interviewed us, and stuck ICTS stickers on our passports. It’s orange, but otherwise identical to the ICTS sticker that was placed on Berck’s passport in London Gatwick back in 2000. I wonder if there’s a limit to the number of ICTS stickers you can collect.

Italian airport security was more polite and more efficient than the TSA. The potential ramifications of being less efficient than the Italians should make the TSA tremble.

The flight back was on a 767 which is somewhat smaller than the A330 we took to Rome. The flight wasn’t unpleasant at all, but then, over a hundred empty seats tend to do that to a flight. In addition, the seat pitch on the 767 was dramatically longer than that on the A330. Tip: Avoid US Airways A330’s if you’re flying in coach. The food on the return flight was also substantially improved since the flight was catered in Italy. Ravioli (microwaved, so the texture was awful, but still reasonably tasty), a little roll, some good cheese, a fruit cup, some mouse and a mini Toblerone.

We didn’t sleep much at all, trying to stay awake in hopes getting back on schedule as easily as possible. It was also the middle of the day and sunny. The flight seemed a lot longer when there was no sleeping to be done. 8 hours is a long time. I watched the first movie, Transformers, but it was hard to hear in the plane, and this plane only had the projectors every bulkhead, and I could hardly see it at all. Then Berck and I watched a movie on the laptop. My headphones were just the Delta ones I had, so I could hardly hear it while Berck was being blasted out by his nice headphones. The plane showed another movie at the same time. Then the laptop was out of power, and the plane stopped showing movies. I had absolutely nothing to do, so I read the guidebooks about the parts of Italian history I didn’t know about then started the novel I’d brought for a time like this. Berck studied and napped.

Then they served us lunch and we began descending toward Philly. At the airport, we found the gate for our United flight which amazingly had kiosks in front of it that Berck could print out our “boarding passes” in about 60 seconds’ time. We had three hours to kill, so we went to the pub next door that served an amazingly large selection of beer and some pretty awful cheese fries. We were going to watch another movie, but Berck had left our brand new $30 splitter that we’d bought just for this purpose on the plane. We were starting to get really tired.

Near the time we needed to start boarding, we went over to our gate. I don’t know if it’s just a Philly thing or just a United thing, but there were 8 seats in the boarding area marked handicapped and only one person sitting in any of them. All of the other seats were occupied, so we took two of them and listened as airport workers fighting over wheelchairs. The plane still hadn’t even arrived yet, so we all waited around quite a while. It finally arrived, deboarded, and then allowed us to board. We found our seats on the very full flight on the EXIT ROW! Then we sat on the plane and waited some more. We waited for nearly an hour. Berck was convinced there was a mechanical problem and we’d be stuck in Philly for Thanksgiving. Finally, the captain came on and said, “Good evening, folks. Sorry for the delay. We’ve had to fill out some paperwork that the FAA requires us to complete before taking off. It seems the previous crew wrote up a coffee maker, but they didn’t say which one. We’re not allowed to leave until maintenance comes on, checks the coffee maker, and puts an inop sticker on it and fills out the necessary paperwork. The delay has been us trying to figure out which coffee pot didn’t work. We should be departing soon.”

On the flight to Denver they showed No Reservations, then an episode of The Office, then some more TV, but I was passing out of consciousness. It seemed like an eternity to take the shuttle bus back to our parking lot, and then we tried to converse all the way home to Colorado Springs to keep each other awake. I collapsed into bed while Berck checked his computers. I woke up way before my alarm went off to head to work in the morning.

Coming Home

18 November 2007 at 3:53 pm
by Jonah

Lap of Luxury

We’ve arrived in the lap of luxury. Berck reserved us a room at a “four star” hotel near the airport when we had a wireless connection in Lugano, Switzerland. We’re paying 69 Euro, but the regular cost is 118, this being November. The bathroom has a bidet and little packets of everything you might need, including toothbrushes. There’s a flatscreen TV, a HUGE bed (queen sized), a closet you can lock and take the key with you, a safe you can program, and a minibar that includes old fashioneds and martini glasses. After sleeping in dorm beds that didn’t even come with sheets, it all feels very extravagant. Unfortunately, no free wifi, it’s only available at 3 Euro per hour or 10 Euro for unlimited access.

We’re all set to fly back tomorrow morning. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get to the airport (which SHOULD be a quick drive) and return the car without any problems. Then there’s a too long trans-Atlantic flight in coach to look forward to, though supposedly quite empty so we can stretch out a bit, and hopefully, I can write some more until the laptop’s battery runs out. Then we’ll supposedly get home very late. Berck won’t tell me when. He keeps saying he already told me.

Nov. 18 (Sunday)

18 November 2007 at 12:00 am
by Jonah

Nov. 18 (Sunday)

Getting to Milano

Our night apart sleeping dorm style in Bergamo at the “Nazi, communist” HI hostel (as Berck calls it) was terrible. A couple of Italian women chattered loudly as the rest of us girls in the room tried to relax. When enough of us had turned over in our bunks to sleep, they started chattering in stage whispers. I drifted in and out of consciousness until at some point I awoke a little and realized it was both dark and quiet in the room. I was going to charge the laptop in the bathroom, the location of the only wall socket, but when I went to put there before I went to sleep, one of the other women had already put her phone to charge. We only had one alarm clock between Berck and me, so Berck took it with the promise to knock on my dorm’s door if I overslept. I figured that would be an impossibility with the number of people in my room. Indeed, I awoke around 7:30, surprised to find one of the full bunks the night before now empty. It was light outside, but the room was completely quiet. I was loathe to move around lest I start the noise again, but I figured the cell phone in the bathroom had to be completely charged, and my laptop could take its place while I slept a little longer. I got off my creaky metal bunk and unzipped my bag to get the computer, and that was enough to start the rustling. I plugged it up, but by then there was no more sleeping. All but one of my roommates stirred and performed their morning ablutions. The other let her alarm go off a couple of times and hit snooze.

So I got up too and took the laptop down to the breakfast area to plug up there while I consumed my fake cappuccino, orange colored water (till I got to the bottom and started drinking something like too strong Tang), a bun, a package of something like Melba toast, a packet of butter, and a little tub of jelly. I’d agreed to meet Berck at 9, so I had quite a while to wait. But then the laptop had plenty of time to charge as well. Berck was paranoid that there wouldn’t be enough power to navigate to the hotel using a PDF of a Google Maps page. Finally, Berck showed up and grabbed a bun while I grabbed my luggage. We extricated the car from Berck’s creative parking job and thought we’d head into the center of Bergamo again and maybe take a funicular up to Bergamo Alto. But every time we tried to turn into the city, our way was blocked by parked police cars and cones. Apparently, they had closed off the center for some event.

So on to Milan it was. We got on the Autostrata (at least those are easy to find; just follow the green signs at every roundabout) and headed west. Berck refused to drive into Milan (wisely), so I figured out a town where we could probably park and easily take the metro into the city. We made the exit off the Autostrata and paid our toll, but Berck spotted a sign for Monza. “I want to go to Monza,” Berck declared. And he was serious. Apparently, there’s a Formula One track there that you’d know about if you played driving video games. We tried following the signs to the autodromo, then tried going to the centro, but neither worked very well.

By then we were far away from the little town where I was sure we could find a metro stop, but we drove to Cologna where there were three. Miraculously, we actually found signs to Cologna Nord Metro where there was ample “parking” on the other side of white lines surrounding the bus station. After fiddling with the metro ticket machines that invited you to pick a language and then wouldn’t proceed any further, a metro official told us we had to use the dingy machine out of immediate sight in the corner. Berck inserted Euros until it spat out two tickets and some change. Then we had to wait on the platform for an eternity for a Sunday train to arrive, then again for it to depart.

Milano

With one transfer, we came out at the duomo piazza. The cathedral in Milan is the largest Gothic one in the world. Unfortunately, half of it is covered in scaffolding because they’re restoring the outside. The piazza is huge and covered in tourists, even in November. There are also lots of Africans trying to sell little string bracelets, or give them away, as they kept trying to do to me. “Free!” a thin, tall, very black man said, trying to hand me one. I declined, but he dropped it into my jacket collar saying, “Ahfrreekah!. I know from experience that accepting “free” string bracelets from refugees ends off badly, so I picked it off my collar and threw it down. We had to wait to go inside the duomo for all the folks who were attending the service inside to stream out. Then the police glanced in my backpack and determined that I wasn’t going to try to blow it up. We could only wander around a small portion of it since it was a Sunday morning.

Outside Berck introduced me to Spizico, Italian fast food. A #1 meal deal included a huge slice of pizza, fries, and a drink. Ketchup was 10 cents a pack. We found some free bathrooms and then went back outside. Berck made the mistake of kissing me on the cheek. “Amore,” announced another African with string bracelets, “Free.” I told him no, but he was insistent. Finally, I yelled, “Basta!” and that seemed to work. We wondered around the pedestrian streets filled with mainly Italians in their black poofy coats and stretchy jeans, the women with their pant legs tucked into boots. The most fashionable folks were sporting white poofy coats. We made our way to the contemporary art museum and paid to go in. It was a fairly decent collection of mostly Italian artists. I like the humorous angle stuff today is taking. There were some portraits of saints in modern garb and one of Francesco and Paulo looking like any young amorous couple on the subway. There was also a still life that wasn’t, a painting of a vase of flowers violently falling over on fire. It was titled Sacrifico.

Next we went to the MUSEO D’ARTE MODERNA, but the most recent item it had in it was dated, I think, 1928. Most of it was from the 1800’s, but compared to most of the art in Rome, it was certainly Modern.

Berck had bought us extra Metro tickets, so we had to make another trip somewhere to make use of them. I picked the castle. You can go inside the courtyards but have to pay to enter the museums in the walls.

castle in Milan

It was going to be dark soon, so we took the Metro back to the town where we’d parked the car. Apparently, we were supposed to buy a more expensive ticket because we were going so far out, but we decided to risk it for the three stops we’d be traveling through illegally. Then we tried to navigate the Autostrata to a little town north of the airport but ended up going around Milano the wrong way. Fortunately, our hotel had little signs at all the roundabouts so we could follow them right to it.

Lap of Luxury

We’ve arrived in the lap of luxury. Berck reserved us a room at a “four star” hotel near the airport when we had a wireless connection in Lugano, Switzerland. We’re paying 69 Euro, but the regular minimum cost is 118 (max 180), this being November. The bathroom has a bidet and little packets of everything you might need, including toothbrushes. There’s a flatscreen TV, a HUGE bed (queen sized), a closet you can lock and take the key with you, a safe you can program, and a minibar that includes old fashioneds and martini glasses. After sleeping in dorm beds that didn’t even come with sheets (and in Switzerland, for more money!), it all feels very extravagant. Unfortunately, no free wifi, it’s only available at 3 Euro per hour or 10 Euro for unlimited access.

Supper

We asked the desk clerk if there were a restaurant nearby, and it wasn’t exactly close, but it was the closest one. This was probably the least tasty meal we ate, and it was still a great experience. It was very cheap, so Berck ordered us an antipasto to begin with and two plates of pasta, which all came at once. Berck got some mediocre basil gnocchi. He asked me what I wanted, and I answered spaghetti. So he ordered me spaghetti scoglio. The waitress brought me a plate of noodles with what appeared to be a beach washed up onto it. There were mussels in their shells, whole unpeeled shrimp, various bits of seafood I could eat without extracting them from their exoskeletons, and a wholecrustacean on top of the whole mess, the king of his own little tide pool. He looked like a crawfish, but I don’t know what they call them in Italy. His tail was tasty in any case. I didn’t have the tools to get at the rest of him. None of it was fresh, but I enjoyed it immensely. It turns out scoglio means “reef”. After the pasta we were stuffed, so we ordered some frozen dolce. It wasn’t terribly good, but there weren’t any gelaterias to go to.

Nov. 17 (Saturday)

17 November 2007 at 12:00 am
by Jonah

From Lugano to Bergamo

I took advantage of the Lugano hostel’s free wireless (if you held the laptop in the air just right) to do a little reserach on places to stay that night. The website of one of the campgrounds in Switzerland that Berck had found said they offered caravans to rent for a night. So I found the hostel’s public phone and inserted my credit card to call them. A woman answered in German. “Do you speak English?” “Nien!” “Are you open?” “Nien!” She tried to tell me something else and then handed the phone to a male. “Hello?” “Hello! Are you open?” “No, we are closed until two of February.” Their website didn’t say anything about being closed in November and December, but apparently that’s what everyone does. So much for that idea. It had seemed like such a good one. I was back to square one and extremely discouraged.

We decided that Switzerland was just too expensive and just to head back to Italy. We drove through several connecting towns with a quite a bit of traffic (though all of it moving because of the roundabouts) down small roads with confusing intersections until we got near Bergamo. Then we headed north into the Italian Alps. I had Berck drive and drive until the road got narrower, the towns got smaller, and the terrain steeper. Finally, we entered a national park with a bi-directional road that was only one lane wide. We passed a lorry with him backing up a bit and us almost scraping the side of the mountain. Then the road ended in a little parking lot and a trail beckoned us upward. If we wanted to find our way to the hostel in Bergamo before dark, we wouldn’t have time to hike, but we decided to anyway.

The trail switchbacked nearly straight up the side of the mountain. I shed my jacket, my sweater, then my flannel shirt. It was cold enough for my breath to show, but I was marching upward in my t-shirt carrying my other clothes. We came to a fork in the road with a big rock spray painted what was in each direction, although we didn’t understand it. To the left looked steep and rocky. To the right was it continued above the treeline further up than we could see, and one sign said “PASO” and another “REFUGIO.” We headed right until we got to the top of a little ridge. The trail descended before ascending again, presumably to the PASO. There was a little stone house with a solar collector sticking out of it further along the trail, presumably the REFUGIO. We enjoyed the view, and I got dressed again because I got cold as soon as I stopped marching uphill. We could have kept going, but we did want to try to get to Bergamo before it got completely dark. The trip down was a lot faster.

We drove straight down the mountain, easily following the signs to Bergamo. Unfortunately, we ran into the same problem we had with every other city we’d tried to drive into in that we had no idea what road we were on when entering the city. The only way to figure that out was to follow the signs to the center of town to get our bearings. Fortunately, Bergamo actually had STREET SIGNS, which made navigating oh, so much easier. Once we figured out where we were, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out where to go, especially since Berck had pulled up the hostel website that morning and printed a PDF of the map it provided. We were going great, came to the right roundabout, but then I didn’t realize how poorly drawn the map was and had Berck take a left instead of continuing straight. I realized our mistake when we were on a suddenly on a divided highway. So I had him get off at the next exit and turn around. So we went the other direction, but forgot to exit because we were looking for the roundabout we’d gone the wrong way on. So we drove all the way down to the next exit and turned around again. This time we exited at the right place, but the roundabout was gone. Had we gotten off the wrong exit? Where had it gone? We got back on the highway and drove back and forth a couple of times trying to find out missing roundabout. By now it was dark, and as always happens, Berck had to pee. I had him pull off the highway and pee in an empty Coke bottle. Now he was much less agitated and we tried to find the missing roundabout again. I had him exit at what I thought was the right exit again and this time go right, but that didn’t lead anywhere.

Not knowing where to go, I let Berck wander around a residential area and get us lost. Fortunately, you can always find your way back to a big city because there’s a sign at every corner that informs you what direction it lies. Berck kept driving down smaller, narrower, and less busy streets. Finally, I gave up and told him to turn around. He started to pull into a driveway on the left when a scooter suddenly appeared outside his window. Berck didn’t seem to notice until there was a loud smack as the scooter hit our left front fender. The scooter kept going, wobbling down the road as its driver turned his helmet around to look at us. Berck pulled into the driveway and turned around, but the scooter was long gone and didn’t come back. A middleaged lady walking down the sidewalk laughed and said something to the effect of “Bene, no mala,” it’s okay, no harm. So we continued on our way.

We wandered around for a very long time when suddenly Berck’s random driving brought us to… the missing roundabout. There was a dadgum sign for the hostel on the correct turn too. From then on we followed the signs to the ostello up into a residential area that we wouldn’t possibly have been able to navigate without them. The hostel had a measly number of parking spaces with signs all around saying there was towing 24 hours a day on the ample curbs that weren’t blocking anything. Berck creatively parked one end of the Sirloin into a parking area, and we went in to register. The guidebook had promised us 50 Euro doubles, but they were all out (in November??) We could pay 70 Euros for the privilege of taking up a whole dorm room or 18 Euros a piece of we slept dorm style. Of course, it was an HI hostel, so males and females were separated. We were exhausted, had no other ideas of where to go, and decided to just stay where we were.

We still hadn’t had supper, though, and in the neighborhood where we were, there were no restaurants or bars around. So we went out to the bus waiting at the OSTELLO stop right outside. Berck thought he could buy tickets from the driver (he said it said so on the side of the bus), but that would have been the only bus in all of Italy where that would have been the case. The driver said no but he had five minutes to buy some from the hostel before he left on his route. Berck ran back in to purchase four of them, and we left when he got back.

There was an Aussie on the bus who struck up a conversation with us. He hadn’t bought a ticket, and Berck explained to him that there was a tiny chance that an inspector would board and demand to see his ticket and then a fine, and that some Italians never bothered to buy tickets because it just about evened out to pay the fine whenever they were challenged, and it saved them the trouble of having to find an open shop that sold tickets. The Aussie said he was working in Switzerland and had come down for a quick holiday. He had studied the bus map and the last bus came back around midnight or so.

The bus we were on was very small, and we soon found out why as we climbed the hill and passed through the narrow city gate of Bergamo Alto, the high part of the city. It dropped us off on a cobblestone square, and the Aussie took off to find a pub. The driver and a another guy on the bus took off too. Berck studied the bus schedule at our stop to find out exactly when the last bus left. It said 7:54. It was 7:30! Berck wasn’t sure, so he asked a lady who had just boarded and was waiting for the driver to return. She told us it left in a few minutes, obviously not understanding had his question. So I tried, “When is this bus fine.” “Ahh! Eight o’clock,” she answered deliberately. We had just enough time to grab some pizza. I picked a delicious one covered in mushrooms, and Berck picked an exciting one covered in all sorts of things. As soon as he took a bite he exclaimed, “Aaaugh! Fish!” so we traded. We wondered around the city a little bit and then had to hurry back to get to the bus. We got there right before it pulled up, and he took off as soon as we boarded. We didn’t even have to use another ticket because once you stamp your ticket in the stamping machine on board, it’s good for 75 minutes.

Anybody need two Bergamo bus tickets?

Friday, Nov. 16

16 November 2007 at 4:54 pm
by Jonah

We’re staying in a hostel in Lugano, Switzerland, just inside the border. It has free wireless, if we hold the laptop just right in the air. I posted everything we’d written so far, but there are gaps that have to be filled in. Check back for them.

The dollar has no value; things are very expensive.