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Report 881: A Slow Trip to Italy for a Mother and Daughter

By stella from Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2005

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Page 2 of 16: Upset Tummies, Overpacking and the Ups and Downs of Alitalia

I am hopelessly deadline challenged, and as such, I was not prepared to leave. Two days prior to departure, I was flattened by a stomach flu, and it got me good. It had been a long time since I came face to face with the floor of my bathroom in such a way, but there we were, becoming fast friends for a full 24 hours. When I finally left the tile floor, I had a mere day and a half to accomplish quite a list of to-dos before the plane took off.

Of the utmost importance was the procurement of scary amounts of Euro cash notes and traveler’s checks - tremendously huge numbers that I would have to somehow transport with me to Italy. Everything common sense and Karl Malden told you not to do. Man oh, man, it would be nice if vacation rentals would accept credit cards. Some, including both of mine, are to be paid up front, when you arrive, in cash, before you get the keys. It really leaves you no other option than to carry wads of cash on your body like a drug mule.

Laundry done, keys made, suitcase bought, kitty supplies purchased, camera found, cash obtained . . . somehow it all got done in one morning. Mom called me from her base in Westchester County to tell me she was leaving her apartment at 2:00 to be taken by a shuttle service to JFK. I thought that hopefully I would make it out of my Brooklyn apartment by 2:30 and we would both be there by 3:00-ish. I began cramming everything into my luggage I could get my hands on (which is why I found myself in Italy with no socks and three different kinds of facial moisturizer). Mom called me again at 2:37 to tell me she had arrived at JFK. How the hell did that happen? “He flew down the parkway!” she chirped, “I am right by the Alitalia check-in, its empty here, so don’t rush.” I was now in full panic mode. My car had not even arrived.

I practically killed myself trying to bring my suitcase and carry-on down the narrow staircase of my apartment building, but I made it to the curb just as the car service pulled up. They had dispatched a crazy-haired lady to be my driver (picture either one of Marge Simpson’s sisters), and I was immediately concerned. On the way to the airport, I discovered many things about Andrea. Andrea is a cryer, and after I innocently told her that I was meeting my mother at the airport, she started weeping uncontrollably as we rounded Grand Army Plaza. (Her mother passed away last year and Andrea misses her very much.) I was afraid her sobs would cause us to veer into oncoming traffic. She revealed even more about herself with each passing block; one disturbing detail after another, her troubled sons, her third marriage. Undoubtedly, the most important thing that I learned about Andrea is that she had no idea how to get to JFK from Eastern Parkway, or, “the back way” as she claimed.

Andrea proceeded to take me on a scenic tour of the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, more frightening than scenic. She kept promising that she knew where she was going, and every two blocks she announced triumphantly, “Ah! If I take the next right, it will get us back on track!” We kept going in circles and I came close to having a stroke. In the end, it took Andrea 45 minutes to get to JFK from my apartment, a mere nine miles and 15 minutes under normal circumstances.

I rushed to the Alitalia check-in area and found Mom. There she was, spread out, far and wide. The count stood at three pieces of luggage, including what appeared to be a steamer trunk on wheels, plus an assortment of little baggies and pouches and purses. Horrors. How did this happen??? Mom could not decide what to take, so she simply took everything. I asked her about the 22-inch suitcase she bought for the trip. She pointed to the biggie. "The salesman told me it was 22 inches, I think..."

It was nearly 3:30, and though technically still early for a 6:05 flight, the line to check-in was already long. Alitalia would not let me choose our seats when I bought the tickets and I felt a sense of impending doom. We proceeded with gathering her bags, stuffing bags into bags, into more bags. I was trying to figure out how to simultaneously wheel five pieces of luggage with Mom’s wool coat slung over my shoulder when I spotted them out of the corner of my eye: the arriving tour group. It is impossible to take a trip to Italy without encountering one. I began sweating, huffing and puffing, trying to manipulate all of our bags and my 78-year old mother to no avail . . . 25 people slid into the line ahead of us. "Stay calm, stay calm," the little inner voice said.

We were finally called to the counter, and the agent promptly told us that we would not be seated together. I tried explaining, calmly, that my elderly mother needs me near her to “administer medications,” but Mom defiantly piped in, “No, I don’t, I’m fine!” I shot her a despairing look and she realized her mistake, then attempted to drum up some sympathy by whining, “I need my daughter near me . . .” but the agent was not buying it. The realization suddenly washed over me: I am on vacation with my mother; this would not be my usual solo spree. Even worse, I had been assigned the most awful seat in economy class: the middle seat of the middle section. The little voice told me to accept my lot and move onward; I was on my way to Italy, how I was to arrive would be irrelevant.

I admit I expected the worst from Alitalia; I have read so much about their shoddy customer service and angry flight crews on travel forums. They surprised me in one respect: the flight crew was very nice and they were right on time. As we boarded, I waited to see if anyone would take pity on me and voluntarily switch seats, but before I even had a chance, Mom volunteered to switch a seat so that a married couple could sit together. She landed two rows ahead and four seats away from me. There was nothing else to do but be strapped in and endure. At least she had a window seat, and every time I checked on her, she was chatting away with the friendly Milanese couple seated with her. In my row, none of the video monitors worked. With no movies to watch, I just sat there, grimly watching the GPS map of the plane making its way across the Atlantic. I did not get a single minute of sleep. My consolation was the little bottle of wine that comes with dinner, along with staring at the male flight attendants blatantly, who were ex-treme-ly handsome!

The flight itself was uneventful, and we disembarked in our connecting city, Milan. All seemed fine until we reached the entry point, where we officially entered Italy and would have our passports stamped. There were no agents available to service several hundred people that had disembarked from incoming international flights. Perhaps they were on an espresso and ciggie break? An incredible log-jam occurred, and in true Italian fashion there were no organized, orderly lines. Italians simply do not know how to queue up, they just pile on top of each other. The accompanying Americans cannot understand this, and their attempts to create lines simply made matters worse. Everyone started to get quite testy. It was beastly hot inside the cramped space. The whole ordeal took about 90 sweaty, intense minutes. Thank goodness we had a 2-hour layover.

The flight to Florence was blissfully quick and we landed exactly one hour after boarding. The last hurdle to remain was claiming the baggage. In the few weeks before our trip, I convinced myself that Alitalia would lose our bags between Milan and Florence, so I had purchased lost baggage insurance, just in case. My anticipation mounted as we were shuttled from the plane to the tiny Florence airport terminal in a sleek bus, and lined up at the itty-bitty baggage carousel. After only a few moments, it started to turn and the moment of truth arrived. My bag was the first one out! I grabbed it happily, and Mom’s bags arrived close behind. We had all arrived in Florence intact.

In retrospect, I give a thumbs up to Alitalia, despite the seating situation and video screen. Those cute male flight attendants obviously made up for many ills.

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