Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the trip (pt.4): the arrival

These days I don't do close connections. Give me at least 90 minutes between flights, and many hours between plane and train, and leisurely transfers when jumping from train one to train two. I've spent so much time in my life running, with Ed, alone, running, always running that I feel the need to really put close calls behind me.

Nonetheless, on this trip, I have some iffy and tight changes. I couldn't help it: either I cross my fingers and try for a connection all the way through to my final destination, or I waste a night in Milan and continue the next day.

I choose to gamble. My flight from Amsterdam is scheduled to arrive in Milan at 12:10. I reserved a seat on the 2:05 train out of Milan's downtown Central Train Station. I know. Fraught with risks.

And so I wasn't all that happy when, instead of pulling out of the gate on time in Amsterdam, the pilot came on to tell us we had one of those situations where the passengers were no-shows, even as their baggage had been loaded. You know what's next: all baggage has to be taken off, the offending suitcases have to be identified and removed, everything then is reloaded. Even on a modestly sized intercity plane, it's a 20 minute game.

I write all this because the whole mess poses a challenge for me: to fret or not to fret? I try for the second, but as the minutes tick away and we remain at the gate, I'm finding it tough to grin. I am helped by the young man sitting in the middle seat next to me (I'm at the window). Clearly the missing passenger was in our row, on the aisle, as it's one of the two empty seats on the plane. The young man is a puzzle to me as he sits down. I smell aftershave. But his pants are like Ed's: well traveled. He is thin and deeply tanned. I wonder if he may be from a Middle Easters country.  Which of the many sides, then, would he take in today's very complicated conflicts?

No. I'm wrong in my guess. As the captain announces the delay, the young man sighs deeply, impatiently and says to me in quite good English and with great exasperation -- I am in Europe again! Then he promptly falls asleep.

After, as we get ready to disembark, he is eager to resume our necessarily attenuated conversation. It appears he is from Milan, but has been gone for four years -- two in Florida, two in Australia. After this brief visit home, he intends to return to Australia. That's where the girl is. He says -- Australia may be a little boring, but fuck! -- he says this deliberately, for my American ears -- I can't take Italy! All they do is complain and worry.  Well maybe. I always thought that an Italian desperation is kind of charming, but of course, I don't live here.

In the end, we arrive in Milan at 12:32. And here I am, running like a very crazy (and now somewhat older) person once more.

Luck stays with me. I hop on a city bus that is just about to leave and there is no traffic coming into the city. Don't know why. Maybe the whole city is on strike. It's Italy after all. And though I still have to print out my train tickets at the station, I grab the one machine without a line of confused travelers and set to it. If you can believe it, I was out of the plane, out of the airport, on the bus, at the crowded to high heaven train station, printing tickets and done, done, DONE by 1:15. I mean, WOW.

At the Milan station there is a lovely bistro where you can eat sandwiches, drink wine and open your computer to good WiFi and this is where I spend my saved time. Eating actually not a sandwich but a prosciutto-melon plate, with a Prosecco bubbly on the side.


My train to Verona leaves on time (yes I know; furious luck!)...


...and I have plenty of minutes in Verona to make a connection to the small local train to Ora, where I catch the bus (one minute late, but who cares -- it's the last connection!) to Kurtatsch.

And there you have it. Journey completed. And in a better frame of mind for most of it. (I can't say I was lighthearted and chipper during the dash in Milan. And too, the final bus ride was standing room only, as we were taking school kids back to their various villages in the early evening. I was pretty much counting the minutes 'til the end, rather than thinking reformist thoughts of bettering the travel experience.)

Now, I should explain where I am. Chances are you've never heard of Kurtatsch -- a strange name for Italy, you may be thinking.

I am just at the foothills to the Alps and specifically the Italian Dolomite Alpine chain. If I went just a little  further north and east, I'd be facing dramatic snow topped cliffs and peaks. But I wanted to be closer to the region's vineyards which spill out every which way here, to the south of the mountains.  I think a landscape of steeply climbing vines in the fall has to be beautiful.

Kurtatsch is very small (population of about 2000). And here is one important other thing I had forgotten about this region, but quickly remembered on the bus with all those teen agers returning home. This is the somewhat autonomous, Austro-Bavarian region of Italy -- the South Tyrol. They don't speak Italian here. They speak German. It's sort like eating pizza in a German Beer Garten. Only not that either: I am in serious wine country. I hadn't realized that either when I booked my stay. A few vineyards -- I thought... oh, great, how pretty! No, not just pretty. Alto Adigio  (aka South Tyrol) is known for fantastic Italian wines. Even as most of us wouldn't think of it as such (and so I see no American or Japanese in the crowded inn dining room tonight. They're all in Tuscany. And I will be too, shortly, but I have to say, I'm kind of blown away by the glasses of local wine they serve me with dinner here tonight).

So I'm between two cultures. Were you speaking about Kurtatsch to Italians further south of here, they'd say -- oh, you mean Cortaccia, but don't try that here. It's Kurtatsch for the locals.


I'll end with my arrival at the Schwarz Adler Turm Hotel -- a family run inn right smack in the middle of the village. With views toward the mountains and vineyards. Here is what I see out my terraced window:


Tomorrow, I'll poke around and see what's what. Today, after dinner downstairs (it's included in the price of the room), I'll plop down on those puffy quilts they neatly fold on the beds.


BTW, I do not speak German. Good morning and thank you and good bye. Oh, and Ich habe genug (I have enough) -- from a Bach choral piece. That's it. Well this, too. I mean, everyone knows this: gute nacht.

the trip (pt.3): almost there

 It is, of course, quite wonderful when a long flight lacks excitement. The overseas segment is not too long today - a scant seven hours - and not only is it a smooth ride, but it is, as the one before it, an on-time departure and an early arrival.

Ah, but what about the flight? Is it possible to train yourself to look at it differently than just a handful of hours to endure?

To a point. It is a fine beginning: instead of zoning out, I chat to people before boarding and feel great empathy for a flight attendant who is looking to unload his exasperation with a passenger who had suitcase issues. I spend a while, too, thinking about my seatmate -- a woman perhaps in her forties, from Colombia, who sits down with a large cup of coffee (an interesting beverage to consume just before a night flight) and a thick (and I mean thick) text book titled Christianity.

A flight from Detroit to Amsterdam is inherently interesting because you can assume that most people are not from Detroit and the vast majority are not going to Amsterdam. (The city is a gateway not only to any number of European destinations, but, too, to a large number of African and Asian capitals.) I remember myself traveling this way to get to Japan, just because I was intrigued by the idea of going, for once in my life, around the world. And so today I make a good effort at imagining myself to be only on the first step of a much longer journey. Time passes differently depending on how much you've allocated to a given project. Was I successful? As I said -- to a point.

The most important hour is, in the end, the one just before landing. When I first moved to the States, I traveled to Europe as frequently as I do now. It was a frugal set of trips then -- hard earned by countless moonlighting jobs. And then, after marrying and after the girls were born, the travels greatly diminished. A half dozen years passed before we found the time and money to pack the family for their first trip across the ocean.

That first trip after a dry spell was thrilling.  I truly could not imagine sleeping through the flight. And the final hour was indeed sublime, knowing that the adventure was now just a breath away from being real.

And so doesn't it make sense to concentrate on making those final flight minutes sublime again? To imagine all you've planned for your vacation, to think about the cultural shift that's about to take place, to finally realize this experience that had been only in the imagination thus far?

Dawn comes much later now in Europe. I haven't traveled in September for such a long time that I'd forgotten this. We land in Amsterdam just as the first wisps of light appear on the horizon (even though the landing time is 7:30 a.m.)

And I am, in fact, hugely excited to be here!

(posted while waiting for my final flight -- to Milan)

(Amsterdam airport breakfast)