Monday, August 11, 2008

Pack Your Bags

I'm taking you to Italy. We spent last summer there and, while it was a very physically demanding trip for me, we made many wonderful memories during our time there. We also experienced a lot of hilarious adventures. I revisit the trip often in my mind to escape sadness, boredom, etc. I figure every one needs a little escape. So I will be sending pieces of the travelogues I sent out last year over the next week or so and we can all live La Dolce Vita.

The Unexpected

Our trip began with the discovery that we had exceeded the luggage maximum for two of our bags. At first we thought we merely had to pay a fee but we then discovered that we could not, in fact, put our bags on the flight. Before we erupted into panic, the clerk informed us that American Airways sold extra bags for just this reason. I raced to American Airlines to purchase a bag where, of course, I discovered that they only take cash. So, off I went to the ATM and $30 later I had another (flimsy) bag. We rearranged our baggage while I was kicking myself for deciding that two of our bags should be Amelia and Aidan’s tiny suitcases so that they could be responsible for their own bags when I traveled alone with them.

Amazingly our first flight was almost completely uneventful. The only incident was Amelia spilling water all over Aidan half-way through our first of three flights. Thankfully I had packed a change of clothes for both children so a crisis was averted. (When Aidan returned after changing and handed me only wet shorts, I asked him where his underwear was. “I didn’t have any on,” he answered. So we had to have a little chat about going commando.) We landed in Toronto and began whittling away at our 5 hour layover. I had been dreading this part of the trip more than anything. We tossed around the idea of going into the city, but decided against it. After having a mediocre lunch, the kids discovered two bronze tiger statues. Judging from the padded flooring underneath the statues, they were intended as playthings. The statues were like boxes on Christmas morning: they were little more than a spectacle to adults with our limited imaginations, but to two kids they were ripe with possibility. By the time they were through enjoying the tiger pair, we were halfway through the layover.

We made our way to the Air Canada lounge that Bill could access through his US Airways Gold Membership. Now I should preface all this by admitting that I have little sympathy for Bill’s travel-heavy schedule. The way I see it, he flies business class to some of the greatest cities on earth, stays in swanky hotels, and enjoy sumptuous meals while I’m at home feeding the kids mac-n-cheese. He should have never let me in on the lounge experience because whatever little sympathy I had for his travel weary bones evaporated immediately. What a place: free food, free booze, free magazines & newspapers, comfortable chairs. It was like being in the luxury box after spending your whole life in nosebleed seats. Well, I’m assuming that is what it is like having never actually been in a luxury box. The kids settled into a movie on their portable DVD player and Bill and I settled into our naugahyde chairs.

While we were sitting there I mentioned to Bill that my friend Julie had asked me how his recent trip to Australia was. I had to admit to her that I had no idea because Bill and I had not actually had a conversation beyond, “Do this, Do that” since he had returned the week before. We had been so busy preparing for the trip that we had not actually had a conversation in nearly three weeks. So we enjoyed two hours of catching up while we waited for our next flight.

We boarded our flight to Frankfurt and were pleased to discover that it was a brand new jet with personal entertainment centers. Other than incredibly slow cabin service (they didn’t turn out the lights until over 3 hours into the flight) and my missing dairy free meal, all went well. Aidan slept for over 4 hours, thanks to Atarax (we are not above drugging our kids so when they turn into potheads we’ll know who to blame) and Amelia watched A LOT of TV. We deplaned tired and hungry but glad that the bulk of our trip was over. After a three hour lay over in Frankfurt and a seamless flight to Florence, our 21 hours of traveling was over.

We checked into our hotel and immediately set out in search of the Duomo and gelato. I have already been to Florence and still found the sight of the Duomo overwhelming. It is such an imposing building on such a small square. In some ways it is unfortunate because it is nearly impossible to view it unobstructed. But the geometric patterns of white, green, and pink are simply stunning. Well, at least they were to me, the kids were less than impressed. Who cares about some old church, where’s the ice cream? So we followed their lead, ate some ice cream, and returned to the hotel for much needed sleep. This was an amateur travel mistake: failing to resist the need for sleep instead of immediately getting on local time. We paid for this choice later than night when Aidan was up coloring in the bathroom until the wee hours of the morning. After our nap we headed out for a terrific meal on a vine covered terrace and all was well.

The real fun started the next morning when we had to get nine bags from our hotel to the train station. We discovered upon arrival that I cannot walk and carry/drag luggage simultaneously. This did not impose a problem given that we took a taxi directly to our hotel. Our hotel was just across the street from Stazione Santa Maria Novella, but what a street. We had to cross multiple lanes of chaotic traffic. Aidan and I crossed first carrying several small bags and dragging suitcases. Bill carried the bigger bags in multiple trips while Amelia stood guard with the remaining bags. By the time we got to the top of the stairs (there are no ramps on the left side of S.M.N, plan accordingly), I was struggling to breathe and generating stares from fellow travelers. With the recent TB scare perhaps they thought I was a carrier. I have to admit that sitting on the station stairs I was feeling a little panicked. I was embarking on a 7 week journey through Italy and I couldn’t walk and drag a suitcase at the same time. “How exactly was this going to work?” I thought to myself. Not to mention the far greater realization that my lungs had clearly worsened considerably in the 16 months since we had gone to Greece.

We managed to get our many bags onto the train to Perugia. The kids settled into the nth viewing of Shrek 2 on the portable DVD and I tried to recover from the morning’s overexertion. In Perugia we were met by the secretary and graduate student of Bill’s colleague Lugina who thankfully transported us to our humble abode (more on that later). As we traveled through the town, it became painfully clear that Perugia was the hilliest place I had ever seen. It made San Francisco look like Kansas. “How am I going to manage with my shitty lungs?” I thought fearfully as I glanced out the car window. I have always loved to travel and generally crave the unexpected when I am overseas, but for the first time in my life I wished I had never left home.

Back in Time

Our housing here was arranged through the university and in typical Italian fashion we received virtually no information about the arrangements. We had been told it would cost 20 euros a week which seemed to be (and, is in fact) too good to be true. We had been told there was A/C which, it turns out, is also too good to be true. We are living in a dorm. The kids have one room and Bill and I have another. Fortunately, we are in a suite together with a small “kitchen.” Well, kitchen is a gross overstatement. There is a cooktop, 2 dorm refrigerators, and a small sink. But there is no oven, no dishes, no kitchen supplies of any kind. We purchased table setting for 6, a 2-quart saucepan, a frying pan, silverware, and the cheapest toaster oven we could find. The toaster oven gets so hot I’m afraid it will melt the plastic on top of the fridge. As you can imagine, cooking dinner nightly is a challenge but we seem to be making do. There is no key for the suite door so I have to go to sleep every night hoping the kids don’t wake up and wander about the place and, similarly, that no one else wanders into the suite. In America this would make me crazy, I figure there are fewer psychopaths here.

There’s nothing like living in a dorm to make you realize how drastically life has changed in 15+ years. Bill and I spent the first three nights sleeping separately in our twin beds. We are far too old to even think about spooning together like college kids. Eventually it dawned on us to rearrange the furniture so that we can at least sleep next to each other’s beds. Our dorm mates can be a little rowdy into the wee hours and the birds wake at 4:30 to feast on the cherries hanging off the tree outside our window (which must stay open because there is no A/C). Thanks to Robitussin with Codeine, I am sleeping anyway. Bill could sleep through the second coming of Christ so the noise is a non-issue for him. And something is biting me at night, I’m hoping it’s not fleas.

So, needless to say the first few days have been a little bumpy …

Despite the less than ideal living quarters, the dorm is centrally located near the Centro Storico and we can pop up to the city center on the scala mobile (outdoor escalators – I was not shitting you when I said it was the hilliest place that I have ever seen – thankfully there are a lot of them here) to enjoy the evening passegiata. While Perugia’s main streets are pretty desolate in the heat of the midday sun, the town comes alive in the early evening when the locals enjoy their pre-dinner stroll. There are two universities here: the University of Perugia and the University for Foreigners. Consequently, the town has a very young and international feel to it. Evening is really the time to enjoy Perugia. Given Perugia’s perch setting, the view from the city center is breathtaking.

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