Archive for November, 2007

Layover in Philly

19 November 2007 at 3:21 pm
by Jonah

We’re in Philly waiting for a flight to Denver. Berck is nervous because there aren’t an abundance of empty seats. He’s been checking the availability every chance at Internet we get on our trip. If for some reason we can’t get on the one that’s supposed to leave in 20 minutes (which isn’t at the gate yet), there’s another one in another two hours. This one would be nice to get on because it will get in at 8 something, and we’ll get home in plenty of time to get a good night sleep (so I can go to work tomorrow).

Reflections on Italy: Driving

19 November 2007 at 2:47 pm
by Berck

Don’t believe anyone who says the Italians are bad drivers– they aren’t. In fact, they’re excellent drivers. They sit upright in their seats, they pay attention to their surroundings and are prepared for whatever the road might throw at them. They are active, not reactive drivers. Americans who say Italians drive poorly certainly shouldn’t be driving in Italy, and probably shouldn’t be driving anywhere. Now, the Italians certainly take risks, but they are generally calculated risks. When many of the streets are so narrow that a car and a truck cannot pass without carefully planned maneuvering, merely driving anywhere at all is something of a risk. Italians do not leave 500 feet of space in front of them, but they generally do leave enough space so that they can react as necessary. US drivers manuals are written with the idea that, “What if the car in front of you suddenly comes to a stop?” Instead, one should think about the realm of possibilities. If the car in front of you is similar, then they will not be able to stop so that you cannot stop behind them– you merely need to leave enough space for reaction time. But as long as you’re driving actively and the other drivers are reasonably predictable (they are in Italy), then there’s no need to waste space. And in a lot of ways– that’s it, things work in a predictable fashion. Unfortunately for me, it takes some time to get the hang of what’s predictable around here.

For instance, roundabouts with multiple entrance and exit lanes can be a bit confusing. If there are the same number of entrance and exit lanes, it’s not too much of an issue to enter from the left lane and exit from the left lane. But if you enter from the left lane and there’s only one exit lane (common), you’ll have to find space to merge in order to exit. Roundabouts took me some time to get used to, especially considering the constant flow of traffic. Entering and exiting a circle could take less than 10 seconds, even in a large one. In that time, it’s critical to know who has the right of way and who doesn’t. If you fly into a circle and you didn’t have a clear path (traffic in the circle has the right of way), you’ll clearly cause an accident (or at the very least get honked at). If you stop before entering a circle, you’ve lost precious momentum needed to get your 0.4 litre 60hp vehicle moving again and you’ll need a huge gap to enter, not to mention you’ve just missed the purpose of a roundabout. What’s hard to remember with all the fuss is that the only thing that matters is what’s to your left. Nothing on the right side matters unless you got in the wrong lane to begin with. You can’t take the first exit from the left lane, and you can’t take the second exit from from the left lane unless there’s two exits. Signaling would be immensely useful on a roundabout, and the Brits, for instance, are very good about it. Unfortunately, the Italians almost never signal on a roundabout, and when they do, it’s in a totally useless and/or incoherent manner. This is perhaps my biggest complaint, but I think it only bothers me because I haven’t learned to judge as easily by the line someone’s taking through the circle which exit they’re going to take, something that takes practice.

Driving slowly is rare, but generally acceptable as long as you make it as easy as possible for someone to pass you. In my 1,500km of driving here, I never saw someone in the left lane on a multi-lane road unless they were passing someone– it simply isn’t done. If you’re not passing, you get back over into the left lane. The autostrada seems to readily accommodate speeds from 35mph all the way up to 150mph or faster with little difficulty because people stay right. If someone behind them wants to go faster, they wait until the faster car passes before pulling out to pass. They’ll also pass with a reasonable speed differential– none of this passing someone doing 75mph at 76mph.

Lane usage takes all sorts of getting used to. In general, roads only have a center stripe if there’s enough room to ensure that the road is wide enough for two large vehicles to pass, which isn’t terribly often. The rest of the time, there’s no center stripe, which doesn’t mean that the road is one-way, it means that you can’t relax and be prepared to stop in case there’s not room to pass an oncoming vehicle, even though you may both be doing 60mph. There’s always time to stop assuming you take reasonable care, and you obviously slow down while making 90 degree turns around buildings.

Are they crazy? They are aggressive and will pass given the slightest opportunity. If you hesitate or leave too much space in front of you, expect to be passed. They generally won’t pass around a blind corner, but they will certainly pass at times that do incur a bit of risk which generally managed.

But then there’s the folks on the two-wheel motorized vehicles. The fast motorcyclists do, mostly, appear to be insane, lack good sense, or simply have no fear. On larger roads, they drive down the centerline, and some smaller ones they pass without an inch to spare in any direction. I never followed a two-wheeled vehicle, they are always off to one side or another, fitting in the spaces between the cars like some sort of puzzle.

I did, eventually, nearly take one out. I’d been driving around the town for a couple of hours, was tired, and desperately trying to find our hostel. I was on an empty road and decided to turn left somewhat spur of the moment. There was no one behind me as I braked and turned left. No one behind me because the motorcycle had just started to pass me, and as I turned left I brushed his rear wheel, which caused him to wobble a bit. He never stopped, just turned around and looked at me, and just kept on going. It was certainly my fault, and I’m glad that he wasn’t injured. I’m not sure why I never saw him approach behind me, and unfortunately the bike was way too quiet.

My only other incident while driving was just slightly scraping a hubcap along a wall while trying to hug the outside of a turn so as not to hit a motorcycle between me and oncoming traffic. All things considered, I can’t believe I didn’t scrape up the car any more. I was glad to have gotten the more expensive no-deductible insurance and would recommend that anyone else driving in Europe for the first time do so as well– we’re just not used to driving with this sort of proximity to other vehicles, walls, hedges, buildings…

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.