Fettered to the Foam

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Steve and my oldest kid and I are in a band together. We try to rehearse at least once a week, and I’m about to be away for four weeks solid. So among the many things, both practical and sentimental, that we tried to wedge into our final day at home was a last band rehearsal.

It went well, even though none of our voices were at their best. Toward the end, Magpie’s voice gave out a bit early, so Steve and I kept on, practicing a Stan Rogers song called “Lock-Keeper”, which we do together as a duet.

Lock-Keeper is meant as a debate between a sailor just home from distant lands, his holds heavy with exotic treasures and his eyes glowing with the experience of adventure; and the keeper of the lock who greets his ship and lets it into port. Unlike the sailor, the lock-keeper is utterly contented with his home and family, and sees no reason to go any further than the commute between his lock and his house.

I always feel both halves of that song, when I’m getting ready to take off for a trip. I love travel. It’s my favorite thing to do in the entire world. Every trip has me breathless and eager — and yet, I do leave a family behind, and it’s always, always hard.

"But come with me;" I say
"To where the Southern Cross rides high
Upon your shoulder.
Come with me," I cry.
"Each day you tend this lock you're one day older
"While your blood grows colder,"
"But that anchor chain's a fetter
"And with it you are tethered to the foam
"And I would not trade your life for one hour of home.
"Sure, I'm stuck here on the seaway
"While you compensate for leeway through the trades
"And you shoot the stars to see the miles you've made
"And you laugh at hearts you've riven
"But which of these has given us more love or life,
"You, your tropic maids, or me, my wife?"
                  -- "Lock-Keeper" by Stan Rogers, © 2012

I understand this song better every time I travel. I’m very much the sailor in the duet — I am always off looking for adventure, and I glory in the time I spend in anyplace I don’t already know. But that kind of life comes at a cost. Every time I spend a last day with my children before I take off for new places, I pay it, and I know that I’m fettered to the skyways, even when that’s not entirely an unmixed blessing.

But the last day with my family was yesterday. Today, I’m on a plane with J, on our way to Frankfurt preceding a frantic, high-speed transfer to one bound for Rome. I hope we get the one to Rome — there’s barely an hour scheduled between planes and this one got off the ground a half hour late already. It’s going to try to make up some time on the way. I hope it succeeds or they’ll be wedging us into the late afternoon plane tomorrow instead, and I’ll have to try to get in touch with my travel agent to let our pickup know that we’re arriving several hours later than expected.

And yet, despite the frantic timing and the worry about transfers and Covid and everything else there is that I can possibly worry about (Chase said I turn worrying into a competitive sport), I’m glorying in this. I have one kid beside me and he is a fantastic conversationalist and companion. I’m on my way to Italy, on a bright, beautiful summer morning, and I have a month of visiting wonderful places and people ahead of me.

I don’t regret taking the trips I take. Not ever. I just recognize the cost to myself and my family. I’m enormously blessed in having a family who are supportive and happy to have me wander off periodically to goodness knows where, if that’s what makes me happy. But it certainly affects them, and being without them affects me. No matter how wonderful the trip is.

I’ll miss my family off and on, I know; and leaving them was difficult. But for now, I’m going to settle down to enjoy this flight. Business class — the first time Joey has experienced that — and a long, leisurely flight over the far north, with flat bed seats to sleep in when we’re ready to rest. I got a look at the menu and I think we’re in for a treat when dinner is served. And unlike United States planes, Lufthansa follows German rules, which means they do require mask use except when you’re eating. I can live with that; we’ll just do our eating at a slightly staggered time from everyone else.

This is going to be fun. Talk to you from Rome, everyone.

“The Club” — the high-end lounge at SeaTac

And here we are in Rome!

The trip was more difficult than we expected. First of all, while Lufthansa does technically require masks in flight except while you were eating, nobody enforced the rule beyond the moment that you walked in the door of the plane. By the time dinner was served (overcooked tenderloin, asparagus, raspberry cheesecake — not as good overall as I’ve had from other business class meals, though the cheesecake was excellent) nobody had theirs on to remove except me and J. We got by because our seats were in the far back of business class, about six feet away from everybody else’s, and so I hope we could get away with eating rapidly and then putting the masks back on. We’ll see in a few days, I guess.

The menu from our flight
My in-flight dinner.

Then we had the world’s tightest connection in Frankfurt. It was supposed to be an hour an ten minutes, but it was shaved down to just under an hour when the plane took off forty minutes late and only made some of it up in flight. There was a brief but packed bus ride from the plane to the terminal, and then we found the wheelchair assistance station. The attendant was initially very rude to me and I couldn’t figure out why she disliked me, until she told me coldly that if we were in a hurry the wheelchairs were the last place to be, because it was likely to be slower than walking. J and I looked at each other, slightly aghast, and then I shrugged and said, “Well, we will just have to take our chances, because I still need the wheelchair even if it costs us time.”

After that, she became quite friendly and helpful all of a sudden. My guess is that she initially believed, because I had walked in from the bus and I didn’t have any visible signs of disability, that I only wanted the wheelchair because I thought it was a way to get to the front of the lines. Once she told us that it would be a slower trip and my disability didn’t magically clear up, she figured that it must be real and became very helpful.

We did, in fact, make better time through the use of the wheelchair than we would have on foot, which is another reason I think she was just testing us with that comment. We had carefully packed entirely in carry on bags (stretching the limits of carry on to the screaming point), so we didn’t need to go into the chaos that was baggage claim. And since we had nothing to declare, they didn’t even look look at our bags. We just went directly to the passport station, and the wheelchair attendant took our passports up to be examined and then brought them back to us a minute later and whizzed us onward to our next plane. We got to it just as it was boarding.

View out the airplane window on approach, with a city on the left and a body of water on the right.
The countryside near Rome, from the air as we descended.

The second flight was only two hours. We had an easy flight with no turbulence (there had been some going over the high north on the way from Seattle to Frankfurt, but nothing to worry about), and landed in Rome a little late but no big deal. Finding a wheelchair here wasn’t difficult but finding someone to push it sure was!! First there were four wheelchairs that met my plane, but only three attendants, because they didn’t have enough staff. Then they transferred me to a little cart, on which there wasn’t room for J so he had to keep up behind it, pulling a suitcase, though I took one on my feet and one in my lap.

Finally, they left us sitting just outside of baggage check because our driver was apparently going off shift. So he just stopped, and left us there, telling us in broken English that his colleague would come along soon to take us further.

Well, his colleague did arrive a few minutes later. But he was also driving a packed-full cart with no room for me or the other people waiting patiently from the cart I had been on. The driver stopped and called his boss for instructions while the lot of us waited.

Eventually, I got sick of it and solved his problem for him, at least with respect to how to transport me. I asked him how far it was to the exit where we’d be met by our driver and was told “just beyond baggage claim, maybe a hundred meters there.” So I gathered up J and our stuff, and we walked, with my strong teenaged son insisting on taking two out of our three bags to protect me from pushing myself any harder than that much walking was going to require.

It wasn’t far, but after 24 hours in travel and virtually no sleep the night before (Lufthansa flat bed seats are indeed flat, but that’s the best you can say about them as a bed), I didn’t have much left. Our driver met us and led us outside to the parking garage, but my lower back gave out before we’d quite gotten there and I told him that I couldn’t keep walking. He spoke no English, but had a fascinating little translation program on his phone, so I spoke into that and it told him in Italian what I had meant. I want one of those! Ideally, for a wide range of languages, that can be set individually, case by case.

Once the driver knew what I wanted, he shook his head to tell me there was no way to get a wheelchair here, but also told us that it wasn’t far to the garage. And it wasn’t. I nursed my aching back along for one more block and then sat down to wait just inside the garage entrance while he brought the car around to us, and we set out through Rome.

J and I had a fascinating time watching the architecture through the windows. Modern Italian design is very modern indeed, and quite beautiful — there was one apartment building that J and I both spontaneously cried that we wanted to live in. But it’s interspersed with medieval and Renaissance architecture that has simply stood there since its own time, and which is entirely beautiful in a totally different way.

And then there were simply the weird things. We ran into this odd round metal lattice and had no idea what it was. Looking it up later, were discovered that it’s the actual Gasometer for which our hotel, Gasometer Suites, is named! It was designed in 1909 and used to hold natural gas (presumably having once held a more solid structure inside it). By now, it’s something of a landmark; a symbol of the proudly industrial Ostiense quarter, where we are staying.

A tall cylindrical metal lattice, originally used for storing natural gas.
Gazometro (Rome)NikonZ7II, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ostiense quarter is a bit further than typical tourist hotels from the center of town. The hotel entrance was almost impossible to spot, being a simple storefront mixed in among a cluster of them. But once we found it, we were delighted. Gasometer Suites is absolutely one of the best small, budget hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms are indeed suites — they have a bedroom, bath, and a front room with a fridge, microwave, small dining table and chairs, and a sofa that can be made up as a twin bed (which we did, for J). The staff are friendly, efficient, and eager to help in whatever way they can. I made a point of emailing my travel agent to tell them we were delighted with the place, and to recommend it for her future clients who don’t mind staying a little further out from the heart of Rome.

The front room of our suite, looking toward the window. There is a small table, two chairs, and a sofa made up as a bed for J.
The bathroom of our suite.
The bedroom in our suite.

We had a complicated experience setting up Glovo, the international version of Door Dash; but we finally succeeded and ordered dinner. We went with a simple local pizza/pasta place, figuring that our first day in Italy, we should try the kinds of Italian foods we know already and see how they’re different. They both proved excellent, despite being from a casual little place that charged €6 an entree. J’s pizza used much fresher ingredients than anyone does on a pizza in the United States, and my pasta with tomato pesto had a mild, creamy sauce that was unlike any tomato pesto I’d ever tasted — and better.

We ate early and collapsed into bed around 6PM. We’re up at 5AM Tuesday morning as I write this; well rested and eager to get going, and almost correctly adapted to Italian time. I figure that we’ll stay up a little later tonight and we’ll be on track.

Meantime, we are going to be touring the center of Rome and the historical Jewish Quarter today. I’ll write about it for next time… stay tuned!

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