Saturday, June 14, 2014

A bad day in Italy is still better than a good day in New Jersey.

I had this day circled on the vacation calendar. It was a travel day and today we had to travel west (Ost!) across the center of Italy to Fiumicino - Aeroporti di Roma. Youngest son was headed home to JFK airport and The Chancellor, Oldest Son and I were continuing to Sicily. We started early in the rain and were on the road by 5:30 AM but needed gas before hitting the Autostrada.

Unfortunately, the only thing open was an Italian Self-Serve station. Self-serve is not quite as popular over there as it is in the US and we had only used the full serve kind. "Fill it" and handing over a credit card is kind of a universal language.

Let me be just a bit honest - Self-Serve in Italy is just bizarre.

This station had three distinct devices on the pump island: One with a screen that allowed you to select the gas, cash or credit etc etc, one that accepted the cash or credit and one to actually pump the gas. Of course it was my job to pump the fuel and I headed out of the car and directly into blaring an Italian pop music. It was all like "Cinque, Cinque Cinque!" when the DJ came on and now I am having a hard time concentrating. I'm tired. I had no coffee. The music is blaring. I attempt to ask for 20 Euro worth of fuel in machine number 1 because I can't quite find a "fill it" button and attempt to use my credit card in machine number 2. No workee. It spits the credit card and I go back to machine 1 to figure out what went wrong.

Later the Chancellor told me that every time I walked away from machine 1, it would play a video explaining how the complex self-serve worked, but by time I walked back it was done. It was like Michigan Frog.


Go to the Credit Card, Video. Come back. No Video. I never saw a video of any kind.

Now I'm running between stations like a chicken without a head. Back to machine 1. Same thing. Credit card spits out.

New plan: Cash. I put a 20 Euro bill in the machine and pumped enough fuel to get us to Roma, and we were off.

It was a fairly easy and scenic drive on A24 passing many full-serve fuel stations through the mountains in the early morning. It was at about half way at the 10 KM tunnel under the above mountain that I had a sinking feeling about my credit card.

Sure enough it was missing. I must have left in the crazy second machine.

Fortunately I keep ma feathers numbered for such occasions
- Fog Horn Leghorn

Two weeks before we left we received a notice from our bank that The Chancellors credit card, which had the same number as the one I just lost, would be replaced with a new credit card, with a new number tied to the same account. When I asked why, I was told "because if you lose one card, we have to replace both if they have the same number". Well that doesn't sound easy in Italy.

Aha. I called the US and cancelled one hard working credit card after a confusing episode where I couldn't figure out how to make a US call on US cell phone in Italy without Googling It. (do you dial 1 first? 011? +39?)

Next up - the Rent-a-car challenge to return the car full.

You know the scam. Rental Car agencies want you to return the car full of fuel, a nearly impossible job under the stress of being in foreign country, under a deadline and worried about missing your flight.

We were 70 KM away from the airport still on the A24 when The Chancellor wanted to fill the car at a convenient Autostrada fuel station. The boys and I talked her out of it. I guess it's a man thing, not fueling until you absolutely have to. The boys and I thought for sure that there would be plenty of stations between here the Aeroporti and that if we fueled up now we would only have to do it again near the Airport.

The Chancellor's motto? "Anything can happen"

But first we had to get to the Airport.

The spot where the A24 intersects the beltway around Roma has a split where one side goes to Central Rome and the other exits and guess which side of the split we got on - NOT the one with the Aeroporti signs.
Right about here, we should have been in the center lane but I missed it and we were headed straight into Roma-Rush hour traffic. The Chancellor wanted to pull off - into another fuel station. (That's two if you are counting) but I talked her out of it because I was focused on turning around and instead of taking deep breath, figuring out where we were while we fueled the car, we headed straight toward Roma Centro.

I finally got the Google Maps fired up. (Gee that would have been a good thing to have BEFORE hitting Rome) and and the app found a turnaround. It was ahead on the right and so we fought bumper to bumper traffic and exited. Next simpleton Google Maps wanted us to cross three lanes of Rome traffic for a turnaround on the road we had just turned onto. This seemed easy to Google Maps,just "make the next left".  But in our sleep deprived state we she had to jump into traffic, cross three lanes and all in the aforementioned sluggish French Hybrid.

Stress Level 4 of 5.

Somehow she did it and and we were headed back under the highway we had come in on. Next it was another turnaround, across three lanes of traffic and back headed East away from Roma.

Google Maps was happy. I was happy. The Chancellor - not so much.

Somehow we made it onto the beltway southbound towards the airport with Google explaining in Amerdigan-ised Italian and then we hit bumper to bumper traffic again. It was early but the specter of missing out flight was clear in everyone's mind. I was thinking that Youngest Son's ticket was screwed up in the US and that getting him on board today's flight was going to be a challenge that needed time to fix.

And I was looking for fuel stations.

For future reference; There are no fuel stations on Circonvallazione Orientale between A24 and the Aeroporti.

The Chancellor was not happy about it.

Next stop - Rental Car return at Fiumicino.

I find Italian logic baffling. As an Engineer and former programmer, I believe you should not be able to get in state that is a dead end in any process.

Apparently the Italian Engineers that came up with the parking ticketing system at the Rent a car return did not share my love of logic. We pulled up to the gate and while The Chancellor was unbuckling her belt and straining to reach the  "gimme a ticket" button, the entrance gate lifted.

Logic says you should not be able to gain entrance to the parking lot without a ticket. Italian Logic says different. Again, at my insisting we entered with out a ticket. Honestly, I was thinking "How smart in must know we have a rental car" because it never occurred to me that it would let you in without a ticket. That couldn't have been further from the truth.

Then we found the parking level (Cinque!) to return Senora's Automatica. You needed a ticket to enter and now we didn't have one.

What the Italians lack in logic, they make up for in thinking on their feet. The rentacar clerk asked where our ticket was and Oldest son explained in perfect Italian that his father was stupid and we did not have one.

Rentacar clerk sprang into action. He went to the car behind us, asked for their ticket, entered it into the machine and then let two cars in one ticket.

This was not his first Rodeo.

In the end, God was gracious to us or Flavio behind the counter saw how much trouble I was in for not getting fuel and had mercy on me. Either way, we ended up with nearly the same bill as we would have had with nearly no penalty. Well, as far as anyone can tell because by time you get your credit card statement with the conversion from Euros to Dollars, add in fees etc etc I have no idea how much we actually paid for anything.  It was a lot.

Happy Memorial Day. Youngest Son headed home and The Chancellor, Oldest Son and I headed to Sicily.

Next up Senora Manuale hits Sicily.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Legend of Senora Automatica

The Chancellor and I had planned our Italian vacation meticulously: Fly in to Rome, drop the Boys off, fly on to Naples, pick up a car rental, meet up with the boys in Sorrento a few days later and then drive off to Abruzzo to meet up with Family. From there it was a drive to Rome back across Italy to drop off Youngest Son while The Chancellor, Oldest Son and I fly off to Sicily and pick up a new car.

All of this while flying in parallel to my brother and his wife who would join us for the first two legs of our adventure. There were houses to rent via Internet, flights to schedule, cars to reserve all while making sure we had enough clothes, money and other essentials along the way.

There was a four page itinerary mapping out a rough plan for each day. There were Euros to obtain and phones SIM cards to purchase. There were maps and routes and agendas.

Operation Desert Storm was simpler.

Imagine then my sleep-deprived surprise at the car rental counter when the Signorina behind the counter pushed my NJ drivers license back across the counter and asked if it was expired.

To my horror - it was.

I thought of the Mike Tyson quote:
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

The plan of course was that I would do all the of driving on curvy mountainous roads around the Amalfi coast and then drive the 4.5 Hrs to her family in Abruzzo, drive the 2.5 Hrs to Rome's Airport and the drive the 8 hours from Taormina, Sicily to Naples to complete our circuit. All in a manual transmission car big enough to hold 4 adults and luggage yet small enough to navigate the tight curves of the coast.

Now, in an instant, that plan went right out the window.

So there we were, at the microscopic Italian rent a car counter trying to decide what to do. There wasn't really much choice. There was "The Chancellor gets behind the wheel" or we spend two weeks in Naples at the airport.

She insisted that if she is to drive, it should be with an Automatic transmission and I agreed. We have some history with The Chancellor and manual transmissions. On my 25th birthday we went into Philly to celebrate with friends. Let's just say "it was impossible for me to drive" my stick shift VW bug home that night and leave it at that. All I recall was my face pressed against the passenger window, nearly passed out and calling out "clllluuuutch", "clllluuuutch" as the car nearly stalled at every red light and stop sign.

It did not go well that night but to be fair she did get the hang of the Manual Transmission in the Honda Accord we owned for 10 years. If it were flat NJ, I think she'd be up for the Manual challenge - since this was hilly, curvy Italy.....

Automatica por favor.

Luckily the agency had an "pieno di dimensioni (full sized)" with an "Automatica". Unluckily, it was a 50% price increase over the manual.

As a man with an expired licensed, I had no room to negotiate. I had no hand.

Automatica por favor. Si.

For enough credit, the car was ours but first the Signorina behind the counter had to clear it with the central office in rambling Italian. We had been studying Italian for weeks but the only two words I picked up were "Senora" and "Automatica".

The car was ours and the legend of Senora Automatic was born.

Next stop - 0.25 KM to Naples Airport arrivals to pick up my brother and his wife.

We found the Peugeot 5008 in the furthest corner from the exit of the tightly packed rental car lot. Imagine a square perimeter parking lot with vertical rows of tightly packed tiny cars.

In my head I had planned out an escape route as I entered into the parking lot on the shuttle bus. I would go counter clock-wise to the exit along the perimeter - perpendicular to the rows. Senora Automatica started following that same plan and then pulled a Crazy-Ivan - She turned down one of the rows of cars towards our starting point, the office of Signorina. The pathway narrowed and narrowed and the she attempted to make the left turn to get back on course and then make a second attempt at the exit.

Apparently, a car big enough for 4 people and luggage is too big to turn the tight corners of the tightly packed parking lot from whence it came and the large car "stalled'. We attempted to restart it which turned out to be surprisingly difficult - it was almost as if we had to turn it off completely to start it again. The dash flashed something in Cyrillic. Cyrillic! Russian? On a French car in Italy? It was trying to tell us something but I had only reviewed Italian in preparation.

It started to rain. Cars to the right and behind were honking, frustrated that we were now blocking all motion in the parking lot. Senora Automatica was forced to perform a classic Austin Powers turn. Back up. Turn. Forward. Turn. Back up. Turn. Repeat as needed, like this:



I had no choice but to get behind the wheel and try to get the car un-wedged, all in clear view of Signorina where moments before, I had verified that is is illegal for me to drive with my expired documentation.

When she began with the drive, Senora Automatica had trouble reaching the pedals on the French Monster and in order to get Senora Automatica close enough to the wheel, I had to push the drivers seat from behind the seat since she wasn't strong enough to pull it all the way up. In order to get behind the wheel,  I had to undo that and move the drivers seat back so that my knees where not touching my forehead. Then when I had backed up and turned a thousand times and she got back in to assume control, we had to go back to her driving position again with me opening the back door and pushing her forward until she could reach the pedals again.

All this while the nice Italian people beeped their horns in celebration.

Come se dice "American Clowns"?

There was a lot of commotion for two people switching seats - like clowns coming out of Volkswagen. Again, as the guy with no hand, all I can say is "you're doing great" because the slightest negative energy will cause the whole situation to go Nuclear.

Finally free from the parking lot, Senora Automatica headed for her first Italian Traffic Circle - At the Naples Airport. Challenge level 10 out of 10. As you might guess, Italian drivers are a bit aggressive and in a traffic circle its every man or woman for themselves. I told her to "follow that bus" and closed my eyes. I thought that at least we could just walk back to the Signorina's counter if something happened there.

We pulled up at Arrivals and the car "stalled" again. Again the Cyrillic. Again hard to start. Third time in ten minutes - it was as if it went to sleep or something.

Turns out - that's exactly what was happening because my brother got in the car and asked if this was Hybrid. It was. When it "stalled" all you had to do was press the gas again, Cyrillic free.

We were off to Amalfi equipped with my brother's Italian GPS that pronounced the Italian street names and cities in Americano-ised Italian AND my phone with GPS and data plan. Somehow we still ended up going the wrong way out of the airport and north towards Roma not to Sorrento as planned. It was another adventure as we had to find an exit that had an easy turn around in the Naples evening rush hour.

45 minutes later and now were passing the Naples Airport. Again.

Strategically there are three approaches to driving to our rental Villa which was situated about dead center on the Coasteria Amalfi.

1. Drive the Autostrata all the way to the water at the eastern end of the coast and the drive the twists and turns for 27 KM from Salerno. (Easy to begin with but 27 KM of twists and turns)

2. Drive almost to Sorrento on the west edge of the coast and then drive the 10 KM up the famous Amalfi coast road.

3. Drive over the mountains for an hour of twists and turns worse than anything the coast road can throw at you and then take a short trip up the coast road to the Apartments.

For two months I had pored over maps making sure I could follow #2 above and yet somehow we ended up on 3 - the worst possible route. This was due to deteriorating weather and approaching darkness. We had to keep moving.

The ride up the mountain was like slowly boiling in water. At first it seems OK, maybe a bit warm and then the next thing you know the water is boiling away. It was at about Gragnano, the Pasta Capital of the world, that I started feeling ill to my stomach. I think it was from looking down at my phone all the time. Then the downhill hairpin turns started.


Back and forth- looking over the edge at nothing but cliff. At one point we came around a curve and there was a ambulance, lights and sirens blaring flying towards us and two dogs in the road. I am not making this up.

In the end, the SS163, the famous Amalfi Coast road was nothing compared that mountainous SS366 that we left.

We arrived at Le Due Marine in the dark alive but we still had to park.

Once again I was the stunt driver, backing the car onto the gated ledge 50 meters above the sea. My brother was guiding and making a motion for "plenty of room" like I was backing into a spot in South Philly but I was more concerned with backing Automatica off the cliff as the Hybrid had the hardest time crossing the slight marble threshold. I felt like I had to over-rev the engine to get past the threshold and once I cleared it I would go sailing off into the darkness like a Darwin-Award winner.

In the end I nursed the car into position and we unpacked for our stay.