Friday, July 25, 2014

The Weekly Daley: Planes, trains, buses and boats — oh, and elevators too

From page A6 | August 02, 2013 |

You can get there from here, but it may not be easy. Riding BART from Walnut Creek to the San Francisco airport about noon on Sunday, June 30 was more thrill than we needed. The closer we got to the city the more crowded the cars got. It was Gay Pride Day, so not only was it standing-room-only, the train was running woefully late. That didn’t matter much to the revelers who were only going into San Francisco.

We, on the other hand, were trying to catch a plane to Amsterdam and didn’t want to be late given all the security and pre-flight drama related to international travel. As it turned out, our luck held and we were late but not too late. BART workers delayed their planned strike until the next day, which was very thoughtful of them.

Georgette loves to travel, except for the traveling part. More precisely, she loves being there but hates getting there. I really like traveling, especially on trains and boats and I even enjoy flying. I don’t like the grim reality of economy section travel. No leg room for me or anyone my size or larger. When the person ahead reclines the seat, I am virtually trapped in my seat. The person ahead of me always reclines the seat and promptly falls asleep for the rest of the flight. I don’t like to bother them, so I mostly grin and bear it as long as I can. Thankfully, when the crew starts passing out the drinks and pretzels, they try to make the person ahead straighten the seat, and I can get out with a moderately acceptable effort.

Our KLM flight, aka Delta, was an unremarkable 10-plus hours. Food wasn’t bad, but I don’t remember what it was. You could buy a meal if you wanted to, but they didn’t look all that different from the stuff everybody got anyway. We’d packed a few snacks and filled our aluminum bottles with water after we got through security, so we weren’t starving or thirsty, which made the food and drink service simply a welcome break in the journey.

I often take a little chemical friend along on a long flight to take the edge off and maybe be able to sleep. I slept a bit, but mostly I read and watched a couple of movies. I saw the latest James Bond film, which I’d already seen but didn’t mind seeing again. I also watched something else but now, a month later, I don’t remember what.

Amsterdam was a stopover on the way to Milan, Italy, which was a stopover on the way to Florence, which is where we were going. Layover time was about one hour which should have been quite enough time to walk out of one plane and get on another. And evidently it was quite enough time for all those who did just that. We, on the other hand, dawdled around a bit, refilled our water bottles and waited till the last few minutes to go to the gate.

Yikes! They’re doing security again. Since we hadn’t moved out of the secure area, we didn’t even think about having to go through security a second time.

Ok, not a problem except the line is pretty slow, and now we’re down to about 10 minutes before we absolutely have to get aboard. Last call had been called. Hurry up there! We need to get through.

“You sir, and you madam. The X-ray shows that your backpacks have aluminum bottles filled with a liquid substance.”

“Ummm, yes it’s just water, we didn’t know we’d…”

“Go to the back of the line and get rid of it.”

“But, we might miss …”

“Go to the end of the line and get rid of it.”

We did, of course and then we started over at the back of the line. Time was really an issue now. Well, they wouldn’t leave without us would they? Can’t we tell someone to tell the plane crew that we’re almost there? It shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes. But there was no one to tell, no one who cared anyway.

We finally got to the body scan part of the security check, stumbled out of the scan booth, grabbed our baggage (I always forget how to tie my shoes when I’m in a hurry, so I just jumped into them) just as we heard our names being announced as those who are about to be left behind. We run-walked as fast as we could to the gate seconds before they closed the doors.

Then the nicest plane crew guy escorted us to our seats, deflecting the dirty looks from other passengers, and brought us each a glass of water. Well, there was an object lesson in paying more attention and not cutting time too short.

It was around 11 a.m. local time when we took off, and I was able to see a little bit of Germany or Switzerland or France or all three, but the flight itself was just a two-hour blur. In Milan, we had to get off the plane, pick up our checked bag, find the bus station, then catch a bus into Milan proper to the main train station. The bus ride was about 40 minutes, even blurrier than the flight before. I think we were closing in on being up for 20 hours or more at that point.

Amazingly, we got right to the train station, minutes before the next train going south was about to leave. I bought our tickets (105 Euros or about $130 USD). The two-hour train ride got more blurry yet than the previous two rides. I recall having part of a beer and snapping my head up from a sound sleep shortly before we got in to Florence, or Firenze as they call it in Italy. We grabbed a taxi just outside the Santa Maria Novella, Firenze’s main train terminal. Although the distance wasn’t more than a mile as the crow flies, it took about 10 minutes, partly because vehicle traffic is not allowed in some of the old town areas. It was well worth the $12 to get right to our Hotel Alessandra on S. Apostoli street. Saints names and other religious references predominate in the place names throughout the city. Just off our Apostoli street was the Piazza del Limbo. It contained the small, very ancient chapel of the Apostles (SS. Apostoli) and offered salvation for all the babies who died before they could be baptized and consequently would have been consigned to Limbo for all eternity (if I correctly interpret the online discussion when I looked it up). It was usually fairly shady and we could sit on the stairs without having to buy anything.

European elevators, in our experience, don’t seem to start at the bottom or go to the top. They might do one or the other but not both. Maybe the ones in hotels with more stars than ours do, but none of ours did. The Allesandra’s started somewhere on what we would call the second floor, but it did go to the hotel lobby which was nice, especially after the long trip. I couldn’t fit in it with a moderate sized suitcase and wearing my backpack, so we had to go up in shifts the first time and down the last time a week later.

That night, I actually did fall asleep at dinner and almost went face down into an excellent spaghetti carbonara.

The next day, I learned the penalty for trying to give a beggar a few coins instead of folding money…

Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.





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