Thursday, August 14, 2008

Last Year's Italy Trip, cont.

Back to our regularly scheduled vacation ...

All I Want is a Room Somewhere

In planning our trip with my dad and niece I tried to keep our costs to a minimum. Given that this is high season, this presented some challenges. In Florence I booked us into a youth hostel. When we checked in Bill, the kids and I were directed to a dormitory style room with two bunk beds. The bathroom was so small that the automatic faucet went off every time I walked into the bathroom. The “shower” consisted of a shower head in the ceiling. When you turned it on, the entire bathroom -- the toilet, the sink, the entire floor -- was soaked. “It’s only two nights,” I thought to myself, “No big deal.” After a day of sightseeing I returned to the room to shower while the kids went to the room in an adjacent building where my father and niece had their room. Now I should preface this with information about Italian towels. I don’t know why but they seem to have a preference for towels with the look, feel, and absorbancy of a tablecloth. Toweling off after a shower is a wholly unsatisfying experience here. At the pool I have noticed everyone uses a terry cloth robe so I know they are aware of terry cloth, but somehow this has not resulted in widespread adoption for bathing purposes. Much to my surprise and contentment, the hostel had enormous terry cloth towels. I could have wrapped the thing around me three times easily. So I took my shower, washing Florence’s dirt from my body and soaking the entire bathroom, and happily laid on my bed in that terry cloth towel. It was delicious.

After dressing for dinner, I headed to my dad and niece’s room where I discovered that they had a TV, computer with Internet access, beautiful bathroom and, the coup d’etat, air conditioning. Given that I had made the reservations, I was feeling just a little bummed out. Bill, the kids, and I sweated our way through that first night and woke a little more grumpy than usual.

The second day we were moved to a bigger room with a bigger bath but all the other features were the same. This time we had a room overlooking the garden, which seemed like a nice touch until we discovered that “quiet hours” were not going to actually be enforced by anyone. A very loud Spanish woman was in the room next to us and most have said “Encanta” a hundred times while talking with a friend. Ninety minutes past the posted beginning of quiet hours, everyone was still partying. Bill finally went down at 12:45 to ask when quiet hours would start. “Soon,” he was told. Even my narcotics weren’t able to overcome the noise. The next morning we woke up especially grouchy. When I told my dad about the noise he replied, “I didn’t hear anything.” I wanted to clobber him.

I was really worried when we headed to Lucca where we were booked into another hostel. Fortunately Lucca doesn’t attract the partying type so it was a much quieter stay. The rooms were very nice with loft beds for the kids, a TV, and an ok breeze. We were back to tablecloths towels but generally pretty comfortable. In Orvieto we splurged on a real hotel that had air conditioning. It was glorious! I slept like the dead. And in Rome, where we stayed in a convent, we hit the motherload: A/C, a TV, real shower, and terry cloth towels all for 100 euros, a true bargain in Rome. I always gripe about A/C back in the states because it is so overdone but I actually miss it every once in a while here, especially after a long, hot day of sightseeing.

A Model of Inefficiency

At the risk of sounding negative I will make the observation that if modern day Italy is any indication of life in Ancient Rome, itìs no wonder that the Roman empire fell. I present the following examples:

The portinaio

When we first arrived at our dorm, we were greeted by an affable portinaio (doorman). Thankfully, we had two Italian women from the laboratory with us to translate because he spoke absolutely no English and I barely speak any Italian. During the tour he asked us how often we wanted the rooms cleaned. We had been told the room was 20 euros a week with cleaning so I asked if there was a difference in price depending on the frequency of cleaning. One of the young ladies translated and he shrugged dramatically and gestured with his hands. He told her no worries about the cost. So I asked to have the rooms cleaned daily. A week later we were told that the cost of the cleaning was 10 euros per day. I asked if I could have the cleaning just once a week. This was, of course, impossible. I could have cleaning every day or every 15 days. Those were my only choices. I suddenly knew how the kids feel when I make them choose between two undesireable options. Naturally, I choose the 15 days. Then a week later someone, god knows who, decided that since they had changed the price of the room on us after we arrived that we could have the room cleaned once a week. I don’t even bother to try and keep up anymore.

The portinaios are here 24 hours a day. They change about every 6 hours and some are more helpful than others. The advantage of the frequent change is that I can often get one of them to do something that another one will not. At the heart of it, I think Italians are really anarchists. They have rules, but no one seems to follow them. Or they merely invoke them when it serves their purposes. While everything is impossible, it is simultaneously possible if you ask the right person, at the right time. As one tour guide told me, “Things are forbidden, but this is Italy where things are only a little forbidden.” So, we have learned to work this to our advantage. My father and niece were unable to keep their dorm room b/c the building was full as of June 30th. So, we let them stay in the kids’ room while the kids slept on the floor in our room. We got away with this for two days. Then at 12:45 in the morning our phone rang. I could hear the portinaio tell Bill to come downstairs. “What could it be at this hour?” I wondered. Bill was gone for at least 20 minutes and I was starting to worry. Finally he returned and told me the portinaio wanted to know if my father and Alyssa were in room 6. Why this was an burning issue out of the blue at 12:45 am remains a mystery. Bill explained that they were not and that we had returned the key 10 days before. The interrogation proceeded with numerous confirmations that they were not in room 6. Finally the portinaio asked where they were and Bill confessed that they were in the kids’ room. The portinaio raised his finger to his lips and assured Bill that this would be their little secret. We had no other questions about them for the remainer of their stay despite the fact that they traipsed in and out of the portanaio’s office several times a day.

Bill’s customs ordeal

Bill came to Italy to learn a particular technique from an immunologist. He shipped the specimens that he planned to work with via FedEx before leaving the states. They arrived in Milan the following day and have been there ever since. They are stuck in customs and for two weeks there was virtually no explanation of why they were there, how long the process of clearing them would take, and when, if ever, they might arrive. Finally, Bill was told that he had to pay 134 euros to get them out of customs. There was no itemized bill, just an amount. Bill’s colleague was able to get an itemized bill but over half of the fee was vaguely attributed to “customs” while the rmaining charges were for a review of the specimens and other things. The university here requires 10 days to generate a check so they cannot pay for it and customs does not accept credit cards. So we have to have our bank in the US wire the money. Then they will release the specimens. Bill has been able to accomplish almost nothing in the laboratory since he arrived. The upside of this is that he has been able to travel with us more than we expected and can often enjoy our daily trips to the pool.

The Bus Depot

The bus terminal is a fine example of an “overstaffed” establishment. On any given day there are 3-7 employees standing in the bus terminals ticket/information area. I have never seen more than 2 people actually selling tickets at any time. One day I was there in a line about 7 people deep. One man was working while 4 others were standing around talking. An older women got out of line to ask one of the chatty fellows a question and he shooed her away and told her to get back in line. Geez, if a little nonna (grandma) can’t beat these guys into submission I won’t even try. Another day Bill was in one of two lines at the station. He assumed that someone would be returning to man the window for the other line since people were standing in it. At one point the man manning one window moved over to the other window and helped a few people there. So, essentially he just alternated windows. Seems like a single line would have made more sense.

I’ve also watched employees sit and talk on their cell phones while I’m waiting in line on numerous occasions. Fortunately I am rarely in a hurry so I can just accept this as a temporary reality, but I have learned never to assume that I can get something done quickly.

They are a curious lot, these Italians, capable of such remarkable culinary, fashion, and technological acheivements. But they do so at their own pace. It’s not worth it to get them to quicken their step: they won’t do it so I’m learning to march in time with them.

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