A busy airport concourse.

Last Steps (Italy)

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This will be my last post before J and I take off for Italy this coming Sunday. Wow. It doesn’t feel like it’s that close… and it feels like it’s barreling down on me faster than I can prepare for it.

I’m currently in the panic phase of preparation — the stage at which we’re getting close, but there is a lot still left uncertain and it feels incomprehensible that it will all come together in time. I’m hanging onto my nerve because I know from long experience as a traveler that it always comes together in time, even when it looks most like it will not. Right now, however, it looks very much like it will not.

It will be fine. I know that. Still looks crazy at this point, though.

The first piece of chaos is that I’ve just been informed that our flight was changed. We’re still going to Rome via Frankfurt, but the transfer time in Frankfurt is only an hour now, instead of the three hours we began with. I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate if that’s the worst we get in the way of flight changes, because I’m hearing everything you probably are too about how much chaos air travel is this summer, and how airlines are cancelling flights left and right. But an hour isn’t very much time, especially when everything is likely to be running late due to the aforementioned chaos. I really hope we don’t miss our flight from Frankfurt to Rome because our flight from Seattle to Frankfurt is delayed! Maybe we’ll be ‘lucky’ and the second flight will be delayed too?

The second piece of chaos is that I haven’t the faintest idea yet how we’re going to eat. I know, I know — we’re in Italy, why can’t we eat at any of the many wonderful restaurants that are all over that country? Well, we’re being more careful about COVID than most people seem to be at this point — staying masked whenever we’re indoors around other humans, or outdoors in crowds — and most restaurants are either going to involve indoor seating or else outdoor seating in crowded places. And one does rather have to remove one’s mask in order to eat.

We should be able to find some outdoor places we can sit safely. But I suspect there will be a fair amount of takeout, eaten back in our own hotel room for safety.

Added to all that is the fact that I’ve got limited food options because of recently discovered arteriosclerosis, and so I need to keep down my saturated fat content by a lot. It’s less trouble in Italy than in most places, because the ‘Mediterranean diet‘ is exactly what you feed to people who are managing arteriosclerosis… but I still have to be careful.

So I’m frantically researching ways to get takeout in the several Italian cities where we’ll be staying, and what there is in the way of appropriate restaurants with outdoor seating and enough distance from passerby to be safe places to sit and eat. I don’t know if I’m going to find out what I need to by the time we arrive. We’ll probably have to wing it a lot of the time once we’re on the ground… and that will probably be just fine.

On top of all this, I haven’t done any packing yet. I’ve bought some things in which to do it, though.

The first key item is my rolling backpack. On the way to Africa, all my bags had to be soft-sides duffels, small and without wheels, because of the little bush planes we flew in. They didn’t have room for anything wheeled. For Italy, I could get a rolling backpack and I did. I like having the ability to put my luggage on my back if I need to… but if possible, I prefer to roll it, and so I’ve now got a device that will allow me to do both.

The big suitcase was part of my own set, already owned from long ago. In my son’s room, there’s a storage loft where all the household suitcases live; the number of them that we’ve acquired over the years is really a little scary. Especially since that doesn’t count Steve’s, which are up at the Whidbey Island house… and he’s as much of a luggage hound as I am!! He doesn’t love color the way I do, though. Where I might have five or six suitcases each in a different pattern, from tie-dye to paisley, he’s got nineteen identically black ones. I’ve laughed at him for that for years.

The last piece of travel gear I’ve bought for this trip is a theft-resistant purse. My stepmother recommended this, saying that pickpockets in Italy are common and skilled. It has knife-resistant straps and a knife-resistant base so it’s hard to either cut off my shoulder or slice into; it has an RFID blocking pocket for cards and such (I have an RFID blocking wallet as well, bought months ago), and all the zippers which close its various pockets have carabiner clips at the ends, to attach them to metal loops and make it very difficult to an intruder who was hoping to zip one open in a crowd and lift my wallet.

Hopefully it’ll never be needed. But I believe in being careful — it’s how I’ve gotten away with being simultaneously adventurous and anxious. I do everything I can to protect myself, and then I take the adventure anyway.

So far, it’s done fine. I’ve never had a serious incident on a trip; the closest I’ve ever come was discovering I’d lost my passport and flight tickets in Israel the night we were due to leave for home. And that was my own fault, nobody took them from me, as far as I can tell.

The story goes like this: I was with my then-boyfriend (eventually my first husband and my kids’ father) M on a two week tour of Israel. We were in our twenties and didn’t have much money, so we’d packed the fewest possible number of days with the greatest possible amount of sightseeing.

(Okay, okay; I still do that. I did it in planning this trip to Italy. But anyhow…)

So we’d been picking up and moving to another part of the country every two days or so, and we’d finally ended with a last evening in Jerusalem, where we had also begun our trip, just before heading to Tel Aviv and the airport. There was a whole lot of packing and unpacking involved, and it was the evening of our departure when it occurred to me to pause a moment and double check the place where I thought we’d been keeping the tickets and our passports.

They weren’t there. They weren’t in anything else, as we found when we ransacked our baggage, either. Somehow, they must have been left behind when we packed up on one of those many stops… but our flight left at 12:30 in the morning and it was already 7pm. What could we do now?!?

We were incredibly fortunate in our choice of company, however. We’d been hanging out that evening in the souk, where we had bought our souvenirs with the bargaining assistance of a Canadian emigrant who had been living in Israel for the last several years. He knew everything and everybody; he also spoke fluent Hebrew, which we decidedly did not. He also recognized that we were total babes in the woods when it came to the kind of hard bargaining that was routinely done in the souk. Not wanting to see us cheated by our own innocence, he took over the bargaining for us, and by the time we were done shopping, we were friends. The rest of the evening, we had spent sitting on a crumbling wall with him, talking about our assorted lives, and it was there where we discovered that we were missing our passports and tickets.

A narrow market street crowded with people.  Israeli flags fly overhead.
The souk — photo by Haley Black on pexels.com

When our friend heard that we were in trouble, he gathered us up under his wing and began to make miracles happen.

First, he got on the phone to his friends. Among the lot of them, they somehow dug up the home address for the American consul in Jerusalem. (Despite Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, it only gets a consul in order to avoid offending the people who believe Israel should hand Jerusalem over to its neighbors; the ambassadors live in Tel Aviv.) Shepherding M and me into a taxi, our Canadian friend then took us to the consul’s private house and rang the bell until he got the consul to the door in person to tend to a pair of frightened and bedraggled Americans.

We explained the situation and the consul invited us in, to wait in his living room while he typed up a letter that would get us admission into the United States without passports on the strength of his signature. He signed and stamped it, and we were safe from one problem, at least. Another taxi was summoned, and our friend said his goodbyes there at the consul’s door before packing us off by cab to Ben Gurion Airport, and returning at last to whatever business he’d interrupted to spend his evening helping us with one difficulty after another.

When we arrived at the airport, we timidly asked if there was any way to deal with the missing tickets. We were prepared, if necessary, to buy our seats again on the spot at full price, and instead listened with incredulous delight as the ticket agent told us that we’d need to pay a combined $100 reissuing fee for the pair of tickets, and that was it. Even in the 1990s, a single ticket from Tel Aviv to New York cost upwards of $400 and could cost a thousand on short notice… a $100 reissuing fee for both of them was trivial.

We got on the plane with our newly printed tickets, and showed our letter from the consul on arrival in New York. They let us out into the city with no difficulty, and I replaced my passport a few months later.

I’ve been a little extra cautious about knowing at all times where my passport is when I’m traveling ever since then, and I’ve never lost another. I’ve also never forgotten the kind young Canadian who first dropped everything he was doing to negotiate our shopping for us in the Jerusalem market, and then dug up the home address of the American consul and went banging on his door at nine in the evening to demand that he take care of us. Even if we’d been able to find the address, we would never have been able to convince ourselves that it was all right to go out there in person after dark to ask for help.

But people will do a lot for a traveler in an emergency. That was one of the things I learned that night as I waited for the consul to finish typing our letter. The number of people our friend had involved in helping us was considerable, and every one of them had thrown themselves in to help us as soon as they knew what the problem was.

I remember that when I walk around — in my own city, because there are certainly pickpockets there, too — with the theft-proof purse over my shoulder. Yes, there are certainly a lot of people who will make trouble for you when you’re in a strange country… but there are a lot who will help you as well.

Next week: I’ll be writing from Italy!! If I can finish in time, you’ll get an account of the journey (including exactly what eventually happened with that Frankfurt-Rome connection). If not, that will be the following week and next week you’ll get Steve‘s discussion of traveling with a musical instrument. Either way, please stay tuned!

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