European Vacation – August 10

This was the day we left for Florence. We packed, bid adieu to Gaetan and Lina after vowing to return soon and climbed on the train for Milan, where we would connect to Florence. We can’t thank Lina and Gaetan enough for your hospitality. We had forged new and much stronger bonds with these wonderful cousins from France.

The train from Chambery to Milan was a French SNCF train, but we were somewhat apprehensive about what the Italian trains would be like. We were pleasantly surprised when we climbed upon an Italian Eurostar train in Milan (not to be confused with the Eurostar that runs between London and Paris. The Italians had the Eurostar first) and found a very chic, comfortable train, complete with a conductor that looked like an Italian fashion model (female). But a word of caution about train travel in Europe. If you go with the Eurail pass, be prepared to have to pay for reservations on the high speed trains, and be prepared to wait in line. The cost of reservations was negligible in France, and I hear Germany doesn’t charge, but Italy seems determined to first abuse their guests traveling by train, and then fleece them of any remain euros. Reservations run about 10 – 15 euros per person, per leg of our journey. Our trip for 4 from Chambery to Florence cost over 100 euros in reservation costs. During our stop over in Milan we tried making reservations for the rest of our trip, but had to wait in line so long we abandoned the notion in frustration and rushed upstairs to catch our train to Florence. No problem, we’ll make the reservations when we get to Florence. Upon arrival in Florence, we had a brief, unpleasant encounter with the world’s surliest information desk attendant (apparently information in this part of Europe is not served with politeness. Perhaps you have to pay extra for this) who directed me to the Biglietti (Ticket) counter.

Ah, another line. Jill and I tossed a coin and I won (although that’s up for debate) the right to go make our reservations. Let me put this in context. Jill is Italian. She grew up in an Italian family where at least half are somewhat conversant in Italian. Both her parents still speak Italian. Her two grandmothers speak nothing but Italian. Jill can understand most Italian, and can generally make herself understood. My Italian is limited to one ill fated adult Italian class and what I’ve been able to squeeze out of one of those do-it-yourself Italian CD sets in the last 6 weeks. Something a simple as asking for a class of water is very likely to get me a slap in the face. Where are we? Italy. Who gets elected to go to the counter and arrange the rest of our train connections? Me..of course. “Oh don’t worry, everyone speaks English here.” Famous last words, but to be fair to Jill, her use of the language has been limited to “Grazie” and “Buon giorno”. Everything else has been limited to her asking “Do you speak English”, in English, and getting an immediate switch. She didn’t even have to ask in Italian, although I felt it would have shown that we’re trying hard to stretch our cultural boundaries and assimilate their cultures. Her logic, “If they speak English, they understand. If they don’t, I’ll just walk away.” Hard to argue with my woman’s logic.

So, convinced, I got in the queue for the ticket windows. There I met a very nice university student from Ottawa and chatted for awhile. He had traveled through German and Italy so far, and was now off to France and Spain. It was the trip I always wanted to take in my twenties, and was never brave enough too. A buddy bailed on my after I had it all planned, and I wasn’t brave enough to go alone. My new friend was in a very similar circumstance, but decided to go for it. I congratulated him on his choice, and told him the decision not to go was one of my few regrets in life (well, that and the Speedo, but that’s a fairly recent addition) and that it’s taken me 25 years to make it. He was feeling a little lonely, but I think that made him feel better.

My time in line proved to be more enjoyable than my wife’s, who watched the drama of the Stazione Maria de Novella unfold around her. Several shady looking characters skulking around the joint, and one miniature female thief (probably about 10 years old, the age of my youngest daughter) who grabbed a purse out of a ladies hand and attempted to escape. The polizie grabbed her before the door and dragged her screaming back to the scene of the crime. My wife managed to Velcro both children and 5 suitcases to various bits of her body, keeping an eye of every suspicious character in a 100 meter radius and fervently praying for me to hurry.

Unaware of the drama that surrounded me, I got to the ticket window after a 30 minute wait. Following my wife’s logic (and because I didn’t know the proper conjugation of the verb parlare) I asked the girl if she spoke English, prepared for the instant switch to comprehensible language that usually accomplished it. This time all I got was a shrug and “non”. Damn! And Jill was out of shouting range. Okay, here it goes. Finally, with the few Italian words I could dig up, the few English words she could dig up, some frantic gesturing at calendars, computer screens and scribbling down of notes, we managed to work our way through the process. An American at the next window looked at me and said, “Hey, your Italian’s pretty good”. Not nearly as good as my wife’s I thought, but hey, what the hell, it worked. We worked our way through our multiple reservations, had a few laughs (mainly at my butchering of the Italian numbering systems. I believe 15, also know at quindici, died of multiple stab wounds) and after I muttered the magic words, ‘finito” she sighed, wiped the sweat off her forehead and immediately put the closed sign in her wicket. I thanked her and told her she was very nice. At least I think that’s what I said. It could have also been that I’m dressed in oatmeal and she resembles a large chocolate lizard. I’m not sure. Either way, she smiled.

I returned to my wife, expecting adoration on the way I handled my close encounter with Italian but greeted instead with a “let’s get the hell out of here”. Mistake number 2 was deciding that it would a lovely walk to the hotel from the train station. In my mind was a leisurely stroll through romantic cobblestone streets. Here’s what go between us and that dream. First of all, somehow in France we had inherited an extra suitcase of gifts from family. While the gifts were very much appreciated, they all appeared to be made of lead, or perhaps the stuff that they make black holes out of, so dense it sucks in light. Jill, bless her heart, starting off trying to wheel this and her own suitcase on the streets of Florence.

Point of information. The Streets of Florence were constructed in 14 Billion BC. They used Brontosaurus’s to place the rocks. I believe Fred Flintstone was the operator. A smooth rolling surface they’re not. But Jill felt it was better for me to have free hand to check the map on my GPS and keep a hand on my wallet (Paris was still fresh in our minds). I know my bride was at her breaking point when in the middle of the Piazza San Lorenzo, the suitcase tipped over once again, tangled with the other one, causing Jill’s muttered curses to reach to audible level and prompting her to launch a kick at the suitcase that would fell a large draft horse with a single blow. I sensed this was probably a good time to step in. Taking one last look at the map, I grabbed the extra suit case and, exuding way more confidence than I felt, headed off to our hotel.

The other thing going against us was that a festival was just wrapping up and there were merchant carts and pedestrians everywhere. Garbage was strewn throughout the piazza. Not exactly the romantic medieval city we had seen in the brochures. But as we got closer to the hotel, the scene improved, and by the time we found it (apparently any visible signage on the street would ruin the whole experience) we were almost in the mood to laugh about it. Almost.

I have to explain something here. Because of limited seats when I made the original reservations in Chambéry, we had to arrive in Florence one day early. I had phoned and was assured that it was no problem at our hotel, a highly recommended quaint little place called the Hotel Europa. Sweating, we dragged our suitcases in the door, to find the hotel is actually on the 2nd and 3rd floor, and the only elevator is about the size of a large juice box. We decided to take the stairs. Exhausted at the top, we were greeted by the proprietor, Gassime, who asked “do you have reservations?” Yes, I gasped, still trying to catch my breath and keep the sweat from running my eyes. “We were booked for tomorrow, but we came one day early. I talked to you earlier on the phone. You said no problem.” His response was an “Oh my god” and a smacking of his forehead. Not exactly what I was looking for.

Apparently, the extra reservation was accidentally cancelled. We had no room for tonight. This is the feeling of homelessness and helplessness that travelers have nightmares about. I was getting a little steamed (having dragged all suitcases up 3 flights) but my wife, having totally recovered her cool, charmed his socks off. She can be quite good at it when the mood strikes her. “We’ll take care of you” I was assured by our courteous little friend, and somehow, I believed him. We were ushered to an adorable breakfast room, given some ice water and asked to wait just a few minutes. Our frustration was evaporating in the charm of the place. Every so often, he would pop his head in, making sure we’re okay and letting us know that “we’re working for you”. Finally, the world’s most adorable chambermaid, who just has to be somebody’s very lucky nonna, let us know our rooms were ready. The girls got a king bed that took up about 90 percent of tiny room. I was split off into a spare room where the air conditioner wasn’t working, but no matter, we were in Florence, we had a roof over a head, and a clean bed. Things were good.

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