Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Return Trip

It's often noted that the later stages of life come to resemble the early ones. The cycle of life seems to hit its apex in the striving, self-important years, then retirees come to resemble carefree adolescents before succumbing to the vulnerability of the first stages of life. The English phrase “losing one's marbles” is roughly equivalent to becoming “rimbambito” in Italian, i.e. becoming a baby again. Yes, we do sometimes revert to our earlier stages.

I've discovered some of that symmetry in my own life cycle while traveling recently. My very first foray into Europe was in my student years and in Italy I found myself particularly vulnerable. I hitch-hiked my way from Nice almost to Rome but having gotten to Viterbo at about 10:00 PM, I decided to take a train for the last leg to Rome. Hitch-hiking is not a very effective means of transport late at night on country roads, especially in a country where you don't speak the language. People were all very friendly, from the university students who accompanied me to the Viterbo Station, to the man who accosted me when I descended from the train at midnight in Rome's Termini Station. Asking if I needed a cheap place to stay, this man, who I'll call Aldo, because I seem to recall that was his name, said he knew an inexpensive place to stay in someone's apartment but for the night at hand, he knew a closer place only a little less cheap. While suspicious, I did need a place to sleep and had no clue where that might be, so I followed him to the first appartment and slept there without incident. Aldo implausibly claimed to be a doctor who just liked to help students and he showed up the next morning to accompany me to the other place in a residential neighborhood south of the center, stopping here and there for coffee, which he generously paid for. He introduced me to the woman in whose apartment I'd be staying, although she understood no more English than I understood Italian. Aldo couldn't have been more helpful. He suggested that if I really wanted to see all the sights in and around Rome, it was essential that I rent a car, if only for a day. His English was passable when he wanted to explain something but if questioned, his English instantly faded to a memory. Despite some apprehension, and no doubt due to the gullibility of youth, I acquiesced to the pitch and soon we were sailing around the city in a rented Fiat with Aldo at the wheel, looking a little like a bad copy of Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso.. We were joined by two of his girlfriends for a ride out to Ostia. I failed to pursue the opportunities presented there, which might well have found me stranded naked in a pine grove, and we headed back to the city for more sight-seeing, which extended to a night club in the wee hours. As I reached the point of exhaustion, Aldo said fine, he'd take me back to the apartment and then return to the club and he'd see me in the morning. As you may have guessed, he didn't turn up the next morning and when I hastily returned to the car rental place I was told that everything was OK, “my friend” had returned the car and taken the deposit. I was furious but in reality, he had shown me a good time and served as a guide to Rome. I was fortunate. When I returned to the apartment I discovered that two young American women were also staying there and had been similarly ripped off by Aldo. They had come with their own rental car loaded with gifts they'd bought on their tour, but which their designated recipients would never see. We spent the next few days dividing our time between sight-seeing and looking for Aldo, vowing that if we saw him before he saw us, we'd kill him. We never saw him again.

The apartment was OK and seemed to fit my meager budget, but it wasn't as cheap as I'd thought. If it was to have cost Lit.3,000 a night, it came to something like Lit.7,000, because I'd taken a shower or a bath, and possibly turned on some lights. Toto's wonderfully comic movies were not made of fantasy. That's the way it was. Everything cost more than it was said to cost. The price of a modest meal wasn't what you planned because the cover charge and charges for bread, water and service could double the bill. Taxis had surcharges for baggage, round trips, holiday or nighttime service and for rate hikes that had not yet been installed on the meter. I got out of the country with a sigh of relief, escaping to the relaxed and secure atmosphere of Germany, despite having been completely enchanted by the beauty of the cities, the countryside and the women of Italy. The enchantment remained and the nervousness abated over time to the point where I've managed to live more than half my life very happily in Italy.

I've come to understand the post-war Italian mindset. Times were tough. Food was scarce and people learned or invented the tricks of survival. Once learned, those tricks turned into habits which persisted even after conditions had become notably better. The techniques of survival were ably documented by masters of the Italian cinema such as Totò, Gassman and Alberto Sordi.

Decades have passed and again I live on a restricted budget, as in my student days. Faced with the need to attend a family ceremony in London, I sought an economic means of getting there. Despite all these years of living in Italy, I am, for better and often for worse, still an American, and what are our most deeply held values? Low prices and convenience!! Closer to our hearts than mom, apple pie or the Constitution! The Perugia airport is only fifty-five km from our house and Ryanair offers seemingly the lowest prices to London, so just as I followed Aldo to that bargain apartment, I booked us on Ryanair.

Ryanair is operated by an Irishman, Michael O'Leary. I have met many Irishmen in recent years and have found them all to be unfailingly friendly, kind and generous. I'm not counting those who escaped the potato famine to become policemen in the USA. Their comportment is uniquely American. Perhaps not all Irishmen are like the ones I know. After all, not all Italians are like Aldo. Maybe only the best of Irishmen are drawn to Italy. Some of the others, especially those of the Enron generation, run airlines or banks Aldo managed to fleece three tourists in two days. He was good at his vocation but Ryanair processes thousands every day. What a shame that Alberto Sordi did not live long enough to depict O’Leary in a film.

Ryanair did remind me of those old days in Rome. The airfares they sold us seemed reasonable
but we each needed to bring along a suitcase, which nearly doubled the fare, not altogether unreasonably since they occupied about as much space as we did.. Always hoping to please my nervous wife, I opted for travel insurance and on-line check-in, figuring that the latter would assure us of assigned seats before getting to the airport. Not exactly! The boarding pass did arrive via email a few days before departure. An earlier statement from the airline said we could bring aboard a stowable carry-on bag but it seems that when the privilege of checking a bag is purchased, the carry-on privilege is rescinded. Our seats were indeed assigned prior to our departure, middle seats several rows apart. Recourse was available for nearly all inconveniences. For a fee we could change our seats, with a number of pricing options. There were enough other options available to run the price up to that of a business class ticket but none which could get you a seat suitable for average human dimensions. Of course, our assigned seats were next to occupied seats so if we wanted to sit together, we'd have to change both seats.

Once I'd paid the fees for the new seats and the carry-on bag I realized that I'd have to do this again for the return trip so I tried to check in for the return flight before leaving home. The Ryanair website seemed to work and I selected new seats and the carry-on option and proceeded to the pay page to enter my data. Something failed and when I returned to the site, it no longer acknowledged our reservation number, adding a layer of apprehension to the frustration.

In London, another try yielded a similar result, but three or four days prior to departure we received an email with the usual diabolically selected seats, which we managed to change, along with buying the carry-on option.

Given that the Ryanair flights leave at the crack of dawn from Stansted, which is somewhere in the north of England, we decided to go there the night before the flight and stay in the hotel attached to the airport. That was uneventful except that the electronic key cards to the rooms are apparently programmed to function only in the hands of British subjects. Fortunately we found some helpful Brits. As an architect, I like the Stansted Airport, with its light, airy roof and sense of open space. Unfortunately, the interior circulation was apparently not entrusted to the designer of the building. My guess is that it was done by Michael O'Leary himself. If there was any consultant involved, it would have to have been a moonlighting Gina Haspel, or someone of similar tendencies and experience. Normal people want to get from the airport entrance to their plane as quickly and simply as possible. Current security concerns do create an unwanted obstacle but beyond that, the passengers' needs are basically having a toilet, a newsstand and a cup of coffee with which to ingest their tranquilizers.

Checking in at the Perugia airport had been very easy except for the suspicious looks and thorough screening I got when traveling with an American passport but we knew that getting through Stansted would be no piece of cake, so we started looking into getting a wheelchair for my wife, who was not confident of surviving the procedure. At the airport we found a very pleasant, helpful man at the assistance station who provided us with the wheelchair and told us to just follow the purple line. This man had no connection with Ryanair and he's a credit to England. We may have been flustered by the speed with which the purple line took us through security. After wheeling through the unnerving spiral of the mega-shopping center on the way to the departure gates, I asked my wife where her carry-on was. In the confusion, I had forgotten all about it and sitting pretty in her wheel chair, she figured I had stowed it under the chair. I told her if the flight was called, just get on it and I'd try to join her later, and then I fought my way back upstream through the British version of the Mall of America to the security area. The bag was sitting there just as we'd left it and I raced back through the mall from hell for the third time just before the departure gate was due to close. Actually it hadn't opened yet.

We eventually departed thirty minutes late, with the usual safety instructions read in an indecipherable eastern sounding dialect, which, from the familiar “thank you” at the end of each blurb, we realized was an attempt at English. After an uneventful flight, enlivened by conversation with a pleasant man from Oxfordshire on his way to view to view the Giro d'Italia, we had another soft crash landing in Perugia, just like the one in Stansted a week earlier. The plane bounced, shook, shimmied, and braked hard to a stop. Both times, visibility was good. Was the landing done on autopilot with a defective computer hacked by Russians, or was it a training flight? A more radical explanation would be that the premium item in the Ryanair seating auction was the captain's chair. After all, every year in F1 racing some young driver magically appears in the cockpit of a minor team, his wealthy father having provided enough sponsorship money to keep the team going for the season. Young race drivers are not flustered by minor crashes so our pilot may have been the same for both legs of the trip. Our fellow passengers refrained from applause at our survival and everyone exited the plane as if nothing had happened. No visible damage was seen but how often can a plane take this sort of abuse before those little curled up wingtips go limp?

We were relieved to get back to Perugia and while we were quickly off the plane, there was a long wait for our baggage. The dog who eagerly sniffed all of us as we filed into the airport apparently was the only dog on duty so after he had checked us he was taken to process the bags backstage before they could be loaded onto the carousel. Best of all, our car was still there in the parking lot, I hadn't lost the keys, and the car started.

Just as I can look back on my early misadventures in Rome with a certain bemusement by now, realizing that no irreparable damage was done, back in the safety of my home I can now admit that Ryanair got us to and from London for less than the price of a high speed train ticket and in somewhat less time. 

 We enjoyed our time in London among family and friends with its fine weather and splendid spring flowers. For nomadic adolescents traveling with little money and less baggage, I can recommend Ryanair. Just skip the extras, practice yoga for a few days prior to the trip, eat something before you get to the airport, and take some Xanax or whatever works for you. However, I will take inspiration from our friend Carol, who divides her time between Umbria and New York City. After returning to NY last autumn on American Airlines, she said enough is enough and booked her spring return to Italy on Holland American Lines. She returned looking more relaxed than ever after a comfortable fifteen day passage. We may skip the ship to England next time but the train is looking better and better as an option.