Monday, March 16, 2020

I have returned from Italy (Part 1: Oh Corona)

Last week, I made the announcement that I went to Italy.

I'm back just a little bit early.

You can probably guess why.

It rhymes with "Sharona."

But yeah, Italy decided to freak out over the Corona Virus.

You're probably wondering, Declan, why go there in the first place?

Because when we went, it was Lombardi that was the problem. Milan and Venice, et al were the problems.

Lombardi was "under lockdown."

I figured, "It's Lombardi. It's a quarantine. How do you fuck up a quarantine? Close the roads, the border, and shut down planes and trains in and out of the area."

Yeah, it sounds a little fascist, but it's Italy, they should know from fascism, right? 

HELL, Pope Francis declared a Jubilee year in 2015; the Italian government decided to "increase security" by putting armed soldiers in the streets with automatic weapons. The guys in fatigues with the automatic rifles are still there. They're not on every street corner (yet) but they're parked at nearly every public place.

So yeah, you'd figure that Italy, which deploys soldiers for day to day use, would be able to lock down a region using some simple tactics and strategy that could have been learned from the novel The Hot Zone of thirty years ago.

Nope. Totally fucking incompetent. No lockdown of the roads. There were STILL airplanes flying out of Milan and Venice on Friday the 13th.  What exactly did the lockdown of Lombardi consist of? Stern language?

But noooo, that would have gone against their open borders policies. EU. Peace and love and acceptance, and apparently, plague pestilence and death.

My wife and I knew shit was hitting the fan on Monday March 9th. "Oh My God! Corona is spreading!" And they promptly shut down all of the museums and public gathering places. The Pope shut down all masses until April 3rd. In fact, my wife and I attended one of the last masses in Rome.

But this announcement shutting down the museums was made in the middle of Sunday night. Sometime after 10PM, because we woke up to it on Monday morning. Our scheduled tour of the Vatican museums were canceled. Everything was canceled. We got to Castel Sant'Angelo, but we only saw the outside.

We knew it was time to leave on March 9th at 5PM that evening (Rome time). 

We called the AAA travel agent and said, "Okay, we're out of here."

But the AAA rep was working through Avanti destinations. And apparently, they could only change the time, the place, or the date of the plane out of town -- pick one.

We picked the date, because we weren't going to come back a week from Tuesday. 

Because "It wasn't an emergency."

Uh huh. Sure. Italy shutting down its ... entire tourist industry ... wasn't an emergency? Or the sign that it was about to get worse? Heh heh. Right. Whatever you say Avanti. Just get us. The fuck. OUT OF HERE.

The AAA agent would get back to us.

Later on, I heard back from the AAA rep. Avanti had come through, under the constraints they were held under.

That we could leave ... on Thursday.

... From Florence. 

Why Florence? Because we were originally scheduled to leave from there. We were to take a plane from Florence to Rome to JFK airport. Therefore, we were stuck with leaving from Florence.

Okay, fine. We had a train to Florence on Wednesday night. Far as I was concerned, we could stay in the terminal and stay.

That was all well and good. But since we had the day, my wife and I would pay a visit to the US embassy to Italy on Tuesday the 10th.

However, for reasons I can only guess at, the embassy wouldn't open until two in the afternoon. (It happened to be 9PM in the US, because the US had started Daylight savings, and the Italians wisely hadn't. That's my guess).

We had two Americans ahead of us who wanted to tour the embassy. They were denied, but they had a question about a "hard lockdown." They ended up on the phone with a consulate official. 

So my wife talked to them to hear the answer they were given, and the phone was handed to me. I asked about any evacuation plans for Americans still stuck in Italy, since our window opportunity was closing and our options were narrowing.

The official said that there was nothing she could talk to me about, since there were still ways out of the country. For the moment.

At around 10:30PM night, Italy went into "full lock down."

This ended up with a whole bunch of flights being canceled. 

So, that shifted the plane from being at 11:30AM from Florence.... to a 6:30AM flight out of Florence.

I wanted to just stay in the airport waiting room and wait there overnight.

So, Monday was the phone call for the evacuation. Tuesday was the embassy. Wednesday was the train to Florence.

Then there's Thursday.

First, it started at two in the morning. I may have gotten four hours of sleep, total.

We got there at 4:30 am. It was a local flight from Florence to Rome, so I only needed to be there two hours in advance.

The check-in took until 5:15 am. 

But they decided that I was overweight on every single piece of luggage and I had to pay a hundred euros.

Paying off the luggage took until 5:55 am.

The ticket said that the flight started boarding at ... wait for it ... 5:55 am.

So we had a gate number, so we bolted for it.  I still had my laces untied from the security check point. So it sucked.

We got to the gate at 6:15. The gate was EMPTY. Completely empty. We saw the plane o nthe tarmac, and it had a staircase going up to the plane.

Okay, I figure we're screwed. We're going to be stuck there a while.

Then my wife pushed off through the doors onto the tarmac. I followed. Maybe we'd be able to get on the plane after all. Maybe we're not screwed.

The guys on the tarmac turned us back, saying that the gate was changed.

I thought: Really? I only got the ticket twenty minutes before. They changed the gate already? Fine. Let's get on the damn plane.

My wife had to go to the bathroom. I waited.

I was then approached by an airport official who asked if I spoke English. And where was "the other one."

Enter, the cops.

From 6:15 am to 6:45, we ended up with a gathering of three cops. They took our passports and radioed them in to their superiors. They took our luggage tags so they could take our checked-in luggage off the plane.

And they waited for people above to reply. 

And waited.

And then, boarding really started. The ticket had lied to us about both the time and the place?

And my wife and I watched as the last plane we had any hope for disappeared. The cops stared at each other with vacant expressions, waiting for someone from on high to tell them what to do and what to think.

At 6:45, they took us to the security office. And they explained that, no, we didn't actually commit a crime. We were not under arrest. We had merely committed an administrative infraction. We would only have to pay a fine.

That fine? That would be two thousand euros

You can do the conversion rates.

And then we waited.

And we waited.

At quarter to nine, after we had been held in the little concrete room for two hours, I called the American embassy, because despite everything that had said, it really started to feel like we were under arrest.

The embassy emergency people had a chat with them. A guy with terrible English came out and reiterated everything we were already told.

It wasn't until the paperwork came that we realized they meant two thousand euros... EACH.


By the time we were released it was 10:45.

A security guard walked us to the ticket counter and they explained what happened.

When I asked about getting tickets to Rome, then to New York, the idiot behind the ticket counter just shrugged and said, "I can't help you." That's it. He didn't even look it up on his computer. Just So sorry, nothing to be done. Didn't even ask what we would be willing to pay. He was about as useful to us as the floor tiles. 

Sorry, that's wrong. I could at least stand on the floor tiles.

.... Okay, fine. We can play that way.

Since I was only in fucking Florence in order to fly back to Rome, because the stupid rules said I had to be, I worried that I would be screwed somehow if I made a move on my own.

I had to wait until 2:30PM, local time, for AAA and Avanti designations to open up.

So I waited. Patiently.

My wife and I sat in the waiting room at the airport, and we read.

By the time I was done, I had managed to finish off Mel Todd's wonderful novel No Choice, which I will review at some point soon.

So, it's 2:30, I've been up over twelve hours already. I was sleep deprived and fatigued.

I also wanted to burn down the airport and everyone in it so they could die screaming. But that's for the next novel.

I called AAA. My travel agent wasn't in that day. The women I did get was willing and eager to help me, but she needed to look up my file.

Fine. I can play this like bingo cards. I called AAA to get them in on it. I called Allianz travel insurance, put them on it. I called Avanti destinations, got them in on it.

The cheapest plane was $2,000. Per ticket. Through Delta.

I watch the plane boards cancel planes one by one. Every plane to every where gets canceled. 

By the time I hung up with Aventi the first time, all but two planes out of Toscano Airport were canceled.

But by 4:30 PM, we had a plan.

I would get on a train back to fucking Rome, Avanti would put us up in a Rome airport hotel, and book us on a Norwegian airline flight. In first class. And both tickets for Norwegian were cheaper than one ticket for Delta for economy class.

Fine. We went back to Rome. We paid for the train directly.

We made it to the Fiuminco airport Hilton by nine at night. We would be leaving from Rome airport at the Norwegian 6:30 PM.

We got there ... and the airport was all but shut down.

Norwegian airlines had one person at their check-in counter.

The flight was canceled only hours after we had booked it. There were no notifications to us from anybody.

So, back to square one.

We put Avanti and AAA back on task while I went around to the ticket counters... you know, the four that were open.

One ticket counter lied to me directly, telling me there were no flights to New York City. Anywhere. Ever again. And it wasn't their fault, it's all Trump's fault.

Funny, the EU travel ban had over eight hours before it went into effect. Trump wasn't canceling these fucking flights. Perhaps spiteful government Italians.

After striking out there, I called the American embassy. Surprise, they couldn't help.

Bingo card number three, Allianz travel insurance, put us onto a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, which would take us to Heathrow, which would take us home.

Great. Awesome.

Run down two terminals to find Lufthansa's ticket seller.

"It's sold out already. Can't help you."

Funny, I didn't even ask for any further help yet, how could you know what I wanted from you, you malingering son of a bitch?

I talked to AAA, who told me that we would have to be more aggressive and "proactive" in talking to people at the ticket booths.

I explained that people were either directly lying to us, or that they were so stupid that they couldn't figure out how to operate their own fucking systems.

After waiting two more hours, Avanti had finagled an Al Italia flight out ... for Saturday morning. At 2:30 pm. 

Back to yet a different hotel.

At this point, we had a few dozen friends on Facebook and Twitter pulling for us-- they were praying, and more importantly, they were coming up with back up plans. I think they had come up with plan M after a while. One person looked into trains out of Italy to the UK. Another looked into a ferry to a train to the Chunnel. Another suggested we climb over the Alps singing "Climb every mountain." Someone suggested we go to military bases and hitchhike. Elephants over the alps? Flaps your wings and try to fly?

Saturday came. We showed up at the airport at 11:30. 

The flight wasn't canceled... 

Yet.

We went to the Al Italia counter and the moderately long line. It was processed quickly. We came to the counter.

"Americans?"

I showed her the passports. 

"No," she said.

No? What do you mean no? Are you going to cancel our flight again? Am I going to have to leap across your sad, pathetic Corona rope line and throttle you into giving us a boarding pass out of this Hell hole? How much more ransom do we have to pay to get us out of here!

She took an abnormally long breath, thought about what she had to say next, and continued, "Other check in, around the corner."

Whew. No manslaughter charges for me today. 

We went to the other check-in counter. We were the first ones up, since everyone else had checked in while we were on the other line, probably -- all fifty people for this one flight.

They processed us with a little extra paperwork explaining where we'd been in relation to quarantine zones -- Rome and the Vatican, full stop.

We were given the boarding passes ... but no gate.

We made our way through the airport ghost town. We didn't have a gate yet.

But there was "direct flights to the US" security. There was "all boarding passes" security. There were at least three checkpoints we had to traverse before we could break free to actually look for our suite of gates.

By the time we made it to the "E-gates," it was one in the afternoon.

We had to wait ten more lousy minutes.

At 1:09, I was parked in front of a departures board, waiting for the gate to be announced. I left my wife to have a seat in the comfy chairs about a hundred feet away from the board.

Some people talk about the longest minutes of one's life. This was pretty much it for me.

Then 1:10 hit.

The gate number hadn't changed.

I double checked my phone's time against the time on the board. The board said 1:09.  

That's fine. Nothing odd about being a few seconds off.

Now I just waited for the board to acknowledge the time.

Finally, one minute passed....

The gate didn't change.

I thought, hey, it's Italian time. Italians are never on time. Italian time means siesta, right?

It took at least thirty seconds to shift over. It's the only wait to explain why it felt like thirty minutes.

The flight gate number went blank.

"Please God, not canceled again."

Then it turned to E24.

We had a gate.

WE HAD A GATE! YES! FUCKING ITALIAN POLITICO HACKS CAN'T KEEP US HERE!

...Right? They couldn't just cancel the flight with checked in passengers and a boarding gate, right?

Less than an hour later, we were boarding. All fifty passengers of AZ 610 to JFK airport.

We got home. We landed at around 7:20-something Saturday night.

.... And then we taxied.

We continued to taxi.

Huh.

After the first twenty minutes of taxi-ing, I became worried. Were they going to send us back? Naw. That would be stupid. And costly. And I'd have to kill someone.

At 8:10, we stopped. And they were finally going to let us off the plane.

But NOT JUST YET.

The CDC had paperwork for us to fill out. And temperatures to take.

At 8:45 PM, we had our bags, we had our taxi, and we were on our way home.


* * * *

I would like to state, right here and now, for everyone who pulled through for us in all of this. From the people who sent prayers to the people who sent backup plans. I'm relatively certain the only reason we got out was due to a miracle.

As for us .... two weeks of self isolation.

Gee, I'm a writer. This is what I call a work day.

My feelings on the matter? Let's just say that I am pissed off enough that I will no longer admit to Italian heritage. My mother is Sicilian. Which means I'd sooner cut one of these Tuscan mutherfuckers than look at them.

... Anyway. What did I think of Italy? I liked the people. The government, though? Well, I at least know where the Red Brigade went -- into management.

If you're interested in throwing us a few pennies, or a few dollars to go after the fee, you can click at the link here.

If you don't want to throw us any cash, could you consider throwing me a nomination for a Dragon Award?

If you're reading this on Saint Patrick's Day, 2020, or later, you may want to check out my latest release, Coven, over at the Silver Empire site.

Be well all. Be safe.

And for the love of God, don't go to Italy if you can help it.

7 comments:

  1. Welcome Home, Declan - many of us were starting to get worried about you. I tried (several times) to add to Moira's GFM, but no matter what I do, all it will do is tell me to see my email about the password - nothing from them ever shows us...

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  2. Currently on 30-day time out at FB for nekulturny crime of making a joke poking fun at Democrats, so I'll say "Welcome Home" to you both here. Regards, Mark Olivares

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  3. Glad you made it home safely. Been praying for you and every other American semi-stuck overseas to be able to make it back.

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  4. This is fiction, right? Some kind of art about overly-entitled, completely clueless Americans? Because it can't possibly be a true story. Nobody would be so stupid as to go to Italy during the worst medical crisis since the 1918 flue and expect to have anything except an awful, would they? But it's great art dude. Really telling. (Shakes head in disbelief.)

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  5. Sounds like you are an idiot for going in the first place. Stop whining. Dumb choices have bad consequences.

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  6. You flew there while the country was struggling with an emergent epidemic and would have been stressed about the situation whichever city you flew in. But you still manage to blame everyone... but you. Typically selfish American.
    Just look at your words:
    “The Italy decided to freak out over the corona virus” not Italy is suffering from it

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Please, by all means, leave a message below. I welcome any and all comments. However, language that could not make it to network television will result in your comment being deleted. I don';t like saying it, but prior events have shown me that I need to. Thanks.