For the past several weeks we have been out of our “comfort zone,” travelling not throughout Italy, but to the east. First to Istanbul and then joining a cruise from Istanbul to Venice, stopping along the way in Greece, Montenegro and Croatia before returning to terra familiare – Italy.
As is the case when travelling to new spots for the first time, stuff happens. And some stuff happened on our very first day, on our arrival in Istanbul. Istanbul, you see, has two international airports – Ataturk airport, on the European side and Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side. We flew into Gokcen from Rome and were told by our cruise line that they would not provide us the complimentary transfer to our downtown hotel because we had flown into “the wrong airport.” Let’s just say that this position elicited more than a rant from me.
But this “wrong airport” scenario had played itself out with us in the past. And it took place right here in Italy.
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Some years ago, decades in fact, Suzy and I spent a wonderful month travelling around Italy with my parents. After several weeks of packing and unpacking, moving from city to town, we found ourselves in Como, the lovely town at the base of the lake bearing its name. Our itinerary called for a couple of days in Como, during which we boated along the lake visiting Bellagio, Menagio and the iconic Villa d’Este hotel. We then were going to drive from Como to Rome and spend a few days there, finishing our vacation before flying home.
The night before departing Como we began to hatch a different plan. With our one year old son and au pair in tow, we decided that rather than drive to Rome, taking the train would be faster, more comfortable and more convenient for our group. So we spoke with reception at the hotel and confirmed that we could take a train from Como to Milan where we would change trains and zip into Rome. As one of the drivers I was relieved at this change of plans.
The next morning we collected our train tickets from the front desk and a small party of us loaded the rental van with the twenty or so pieces of luggage, baby strollers, car seats, portable cribs and other life support systems that any traveler with children knows are the unfortunate part of travelling with them. We then set out for the train station and, finding it with surprisingly little difficulty, proceeded to unload and move this mountain of belongings near the track where our train would be making a two minute stop. We wanted to be sure to be able to get everything on board and get a seat for the trip.
I then returned to the hotel to pick up the remaining members of our party and it was off to the station again, in plenty of time for our late morning train. We arrived, saw the rental car kiosk and then checked the information board for the arrival time of our train to Milan. It did not appear on the board. I looked for Milano. Still nothing. Often the trains are designated by their final destination, so thinking perhaps the train to Milan continued on elsewhwere I started looking at the detail for all the trains scheduled to depart soon. Still nothing. So swallowing my pride, I headed to the ticket office to ask them when the train to Milan would be arriving and from which track it would be departing.
Fortunately, the ticket attendant spoke English and understood my question perfectly. Unfortunately he responded, “the Milano train goes from the other station.”
The other station? The other station? What other station? Our map had shown only one station in Como and it was beyond our imagination that a town of this size could or would have more than one station. But, the station manager assured us, there was another station and our train was leaving from it.
In twenty five minutes.
In an instant twenty pieces of luggage were hauled out of the station and literally thrown on the roof of the van. Thank God my father had spent the day several days earlier on his personal vision quest to find bungee cord, and we used his booty to tie everything down, a la famiglia Clampett. Austin, our one year old was whisked to the car so quickly his feet did not touch the ground. Within minutes we were on the road, heading for “the other station” the location of which we did not know.
Somehow we found signs for TOS and arrived in the parking area in front a few minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive. We reverse Clampetted, getting the mountain of personal belongings along with the impersonal ones to the track at which the information board announced the Milan train would arriving. Austin was dragged along and our group assembled on the platform in time to make the two minute boarding.
The only problem that remained was the rental car. This station had no visible rental car kiosks, nowhere that we could see to drop off the key and return the car. As the train grew nearer, my father’s search for a rental car agent became more frantic until, as the train pulled to a stop in front of our pile of baggage and humans, he found a porter with an old fashioned wooden broom, handed him the keys and said, “take care of this.”
In a flash we were on board, all of our luggage somehow crammed into the racks above our seats in our six person compartment. The train, which was now underway was completely filled and our coup at finding an open compartment was indeed a coup. We had avoided a complete disaster, getting our train (from The Other Station) and getting seats for the hour long trip.
There was but one catch. The compartment had been empty because it was reserved for the disabled, the elderly and the veterans of World War II. Now my parents were, at that time mature, but not exactly elderly, at least by Italian train traveling standards. My father had served in World War II but on the other side. None of us was disabled. Until my mother, a paragon of virtue and rectitude reached into her purse and pulled out a small package of Kleenex. Folding it into a small square, she placed it inside the right lens of her glasses, instantly becoming disabled. She was blind in one eye. A Cyclops.
As for my father, by pulling one arm up his sleeve he either became a one armed man or someone who was frightfully disfigured. In that instant the reserved cabin became ours.
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We arrived in Rome after changing trains in Milan, where, like the Kevin Spacey character in The Usual Suspects, my parents became able bodied again. And later that day, at the EuropeCar office in Rome, despite being told that “Mister, you just bought yourself a car” somehow the porter in Como managed to get the keys to the agency. Our trip from Como to Rome, a routine trip with a stop in Milano had been a success. Just not exactly as we had planned.