June 16, 2010

Wow! I've traveled internationally quite a lot, and have been fortunate, I now know, to have mostly avoided the kind of travel tribulations I endured on my way to Italy this time around. The first leg of my journey was from St. Louis to Chicago, usually an easy forty minute up and down ride. But there was 'intermittent weather' at O'Hare and apparently some planes were getting in, others not. We were in the line to land, but lost our spot after hovering in a holding pattern over the airport for more than an hour, when the pilot informed us they 'put all the fuel they possibly could on board the plane' but they were low on fuel and we'd need to divert to Peoria, Illinois, to re-fuel. I was supposed to be in Chicago by noon, with three luxurious hours to get a new boarding pass for my international flight to Rome. My bag was checked all the way through so no reason to worry (I would soon learn differently) and not having eaten since 7am I thought O'Hare would be a perfect place to grab lunch before boarding the international flight. Well, we ended up staying on the tarmac in Peoria for nearly TWO hours before taking off to Chicago once again and having to wait our turn for a spot on the landing strip. By this time it was after 3pm. My flight to Rome was supposed to leave, from a different airline in an entirely different terminal of the sufficiently LARGE O'Hare airport, at 3:35pm. While we were on the tarmac in Peoria, I happened to hear the gentleman in the window seat ask the girl sitting between us where she was headed. When I heard her say Bologna, I realized she was Italian. I struck up a conversation with her in Italian and we discovered we were on the same flight to Rome and thus in the same predicament. Her traveling partner was seated six rows ahead of her. For some reason they had seated me next to her instead of her friend. But I tend to meet Italians wherever I go in the world.On a plane of more than 150 people, I was sitting next to one, and there were only two on board. :) So we struck up a fast friendship based on wondering if we could make it to our next flight, if our bags would make the connection, and what we would do if we couldn't get on the plane.

We got off the plane at 3:15. We first had to battle our way through much of terminal 2 and 3 and ask a lot of questions before we realized we would need to hop a shuttle train to terminal 5. We boarded the shuttle train ten minutes before our flight was to depart. When we raced off the shuttle upstairs to the ticketing counter, we saw there was only one person at our particular airline's counter and she completely ignored us. Finally we managed to get some response from her and all she said was 'you are too late for the flight.' She then said we needed to go back to the other airline and force them to put us on their flight to Rome since they made us late. But the other airline had told us to come to THIS airline and see if they could re-book us if we missed the flight. She acted as though if we missed the flight we'd have no re-course and they would do nothing for us. I was afraid we would have to pay for new tickets. When we explained it was not our fault but that we had all come from the same late flight from a different airline, she sighed loudly, acted very put out, and called the airplane to see if they might wait a few minutes for us. She said she could issue us boarding passes but if we didn't hustle, could not guarantee that we could get on the plane. After getting my boarding pass I raced in my high-heeled boots (mistake I will not make again-my feet are still paying for it, I have scrapes on the top of each foot and they are SORE from running more than a mile in them) to security, the line for which was very long. An airport staff member told me I could not go to the front of the line even though my flight was supposed to be leaving right then, unless I had an escort from my airline. So, I ran BACK to ticketing, waited for the other two people to get their passes, and the agent escorted us to the front of the external security line, but didn't escort us past the point where our passports were checked, so there were still about thirty people in line ahead of us waiting to remove shoes, take out laptops, basically undress and re-dress. We politely asked our way to the front of the line, and sweaty, disgruntled, and afraid we would lose all our belongings while rushing through security, we made it through without major incident and prepared for the long run to our gate. With bags in hand, uncomfortable shoes and low energy from not having eaten for almost nine hours (they hadn't eaten either) we ran the mile or so to our gate.

The stewards looked at me like I was crazy when I ran onto the plane soaked in sweat and flushed from running. Bienvenuto! Welcome aboard, want a glass of water? What's the rush, right? Well, the ticketing agent hadn't told us that the flight was delayed anyway, due to some faulty piece of equipment. I was so tired and shaky from adrenaline I just wanted to sit down. As soon as I did, the woman next to me asked if I would mind trading seats with her husband so they could sit together. Of course not! So I moved. And we all sat on that plane with no fresh air for more than an hour, but hey, I was getting to Rome, I figured. My bag might be late but a day or so wouldn't matter. And actually, since we were delayed I thought perhaps my bag would make it onboard anyway. (Oh, and as a side note, we were told no other flights left from Chicago to Rome that day, this was our only chance. In retrospect, it would have been better to stay in Chicago and take the next day's flight, but we had no idea what was in store for us). I was completely unimpressed with the lack of communication between airlines, but was relieved just to be sitting on a flight to Rome. Realizing that my entire body was shaking and hurting from adrenaline and lack of food, as soon as we took off I stood up before the fasten seatbelt sign went off to ask for crackers or something. The steward was luckily really nice and stuffed my hands full of these nice little cracker snacks. I was a happy camper.....for a while.

They served us dinner early - I felt like luck was shining on me when I realized I had forgotten to order a vegetarian meal and didn't know what to do, when the girl next to me told me her parents had ordered her a vegetarian dish but that she would prefer to have the meat, so we traded. After dinner, a movie started, no babies were crying, I had a book to read, an iPod to listen to, and a window to look out of. Out that window all I could see were clouds and what was surely the darkness of the ocean below. We'd been on the plane for more than 5 hours (the entire trip to Rome was only to be 8.5 hours). Then over the intercom, I heard somerthing that I thought was surely a joke. The weather radar had gone out and though they had tried for 'more than thirty minutes' to fix it, it would not be safe for us to fly over the ocean at night without this radar. (I found out later it might not only have been the radar, but a rudder, so perhaps we had been lucky to even get on the ground safely). We were told we would be given rooms in New York City. We were circling over New York City waiting to land for over an hour and when we got on the ground they turned off the air vents and made us wait without giving us any information as to what was going on, for more than an hour. Even the stewards were nowhere to be seen, as obviously they wanted to hide from the irate passengers! Once we finally de-planed, we were bumped into another long, meandering, seemingly pointless line in the middle of the airport to wait for info on our hotel. By now they had had nearly three hours to organize a place for us all to stay, 300 of us, at least. They had one employee walking down the line asking us for our names and how many were in our party. Out of the 300 or so people on that plane, I managed to stand next to a family of 5 that ended up having the SAME NAME as me. We had a good laugh about this, since this had also been the family I was seated next to on the flight that had asked me to move so the husband and wife could sit together. People in line were half-asleep on their feet, removing shoes to stand barefoot, rushing off to buy water and hop back in line. (One other complicating factor to all this was that no one was allowed to claim their checked luggage. They said this was due to security rules, but since we all had to get new boarding passes and go through security again the next day, they surely could have scanned and re-boarded our bags - I firmly believe they left the bags on board overnight to save themselves the cost and time of getting workers there past hours to do it.) So, not having a toothbrush, clean undies, what-have-you, was also making people a bit crabby. When busses finally started coming to transport us to the hotels, we had just about had enough. Then another hour of shuffling around and I finally made it onto a bus. About fifteen minutes into the ride, the driver stops the bus in the middle of a lane of traffic, and just gets out, leaving the door open. He didn't even bother to tell us what he was doing, just left us all alone there on a bus with the door hanging open. Turns out he was trying to see where he could park the bus at the hotel entrance since the bus was too big for the parking circle. When we finally got off the bus, it was midnight. I'd already been traveling for 17 hours and had only gotten as far as New York City from St. Louis, which would normally be a two hour flight or so.

I was one of the first people in line at the hotel. There was only one person staffed at the front desk of the hotel, and you would have thought they did not have any preparation for our arrival, even though the airline had given them three hours notice or more. They even one time commented they did not have room for 'all these people'! The hotel was old, but supposedly just renovated, and they didn't even have electricity in some rooms, and none of the keys were programmed yet. Even though I was the third party in line to sign up for a room, I waited another hour and a half in the lobby for my key. I feel sorry for the hundred or so people who were behind me in line. They probably didn't get into their rooms until after 3am. I started hearing people say that they were putting families of five in the same room with only one bed. They were also putting strangers, male and female, together in the same room. Talk about safety and liability issues, not to mention just plain discomfort and embarassment for many of these people. But, after 1am, I finally got a key. When I entered my room, it was boiling hot, the air conditioning didn't work, the lights were on, the TV was blaring, and there was a dent in the bed where someone had been laying, a used towel in the bathroom, a key card on the desk. no toilet paper, etc. I was worried someone would walk in on me any second, so I called down to the front desk to make sure the room was not already booked. They assured me it was not and sent a maid to clean the room. She was moving so slowly I wasn't surprised that it took her nearly 40 minutes to change the bedsheets, bring me toilet paper and shampoo, and have a conversation about how they were not paying her for her overtime. This certainly wasn't a chain hotel, not was it one any of us had heard of. Anyhow, after 2am I finally managed to close my eyes, though my sleep was fitful due to a migraine I had from all the stress, lack of water and food, etc. (I know I sound like I was suffering out in the desert somewhere rather than just having an unfortunate travel experience, and I don't mean to sound like a whiner, but it was pretty tough on all of us by the time we got to this point in the night.) The airline had also left us with no vouchers for breakfast or anything, so the next morning when I awoke to catch shuttle back to the airport, I spent about twenty bucks in the hotel's gift shop for a small bottle of excedrin, a diet coke, and a small bag of fruit snacks. Breakfast of champions, but at this point anything with calories in it was absolute manna. We arrived at the airport without incident, but we were wrong in thinking they would have a quick and easy system in place for us to get our new boarding passes due to all that had occurred the night before. We were again in a line for over an hour, but at the end of this wait we not only got new boarding passes, but we received a twelve dollar voucher for lunch. I guess gone are the days when the airlines would give you a free travel voucher to somewhere in the continental US, refund your money, or at least double your frequent flier miles, anything! A twelve dollar voucher for lunch in an airport where a sandwich costs ten bucks was the best they could do. Anyhow, I didn't care, I was so happy to have put that night behind me. We were a little worried they were going to put us on the same plane after trying to fix it, but apparently they had secured another place, so by the time I was at our gate and looking for a place to eat, I felt pretty confident about the rest of the trip going well.

I sat down in a little cafe near our gate. They had really nice menus, the prices were reasonable. Well, most of that turned out to be a facade as the lone man working there informed us most of the menu items were not available. We could go look in a little glass case at the sandwiches available. So, I found one that worked and sat down to wait while he served the other twenty people there.....needless to say the poor guy was frazzled since he was the only employee, but he was friendly and helpful. I did have to wait a long time for my sandwich, but no biggie. Most of my complaints about this day are only in build-up to the next thing that happened; I actually felt pretty good and didn't mind the little inconveniences - and this is somewhat true of the the whole trip - I don't mind waiting for things and can be flexible when unexpected things happen, if the powers that be give me the information they have in a timely fashion. Being kept in the dark until they decide what to do with you (and whatever is most convenient for them) is what really irks me. So anyway, I'm feeling pretty good about things until I see something move out of the corner of my eye. At first I think something has flown past me, uintil I realize it is something scurrying along the floor. And then it is something scurrying over my foot - a mouse! I couldn't believe it! I shot out of my seat, ran to pay the bill and got out of there as quickly as possible, only to run to the waiting area for our gate and see birds flying about, one of which came and stood by my feet and fell asleep and then was startled and flew directly over my head on his way to safety. At least he didn't poop on me....What they say about the wildlife in NYC is really true, I guess, even inside the JFK airport.

We boarded the plane, and I'm thinking nothing else can possibly happen, and even the bird and mouse incidents were more comically bad than anything else. Well, I was assigned to the same seat, so of course the other family wants me to move again, so I switch to the window seat I had before. Well, a lady comes to my row saying I am in her seat. Lo and behold, her ticket stub does have the seat I am in printed on it. So, either the husband was wrong about having the same seat he had before, or there was a mix-up. I glady offer to give her the window seat since I usually prefer the aisle, but little did I know, this seat would end up being broken, and it wasn't even my assigned seat! With no other available spots on the plane, I end up with the one seat that is entirely boken, the metal seat sticking up in back so far that I was practically slipping off the seat forward and it was hell on my back. The stewards apologized and tried to tuck pillows and blankets under me to even it out, but it was all in all a punishing place for my bum to be parked for 8 hours. Oh, and our flight was still nearly two hours late taking off.....

BUT we finally arrived in Rome! It did take us nearly two hours to de-plane, get the shuttle to the main terminal and go through passport control. I felt bad for my friend who had been waiting at the airport already for nearly three hours, but figured my bag should be there waiting for me on the carousel since it took so long to get through passport control. However, my bag never arrived, and I was one of only three people who did not receive their bags. I was very worried about where it could be. Thank goodness I speak Italian or the process of claiming a lost bag would have been ten times more difficult. I did get shuffled from one counter to the next similar to what had happened in Chicago with the flight, but after another 1.5 hours, even though I had no clue where my bag was and they apparently could not get any info on it for me, I at least had filed the claim and was on my way out to meet my friend. I also felt a wee bit like a zombie since in two days I had gotten maybe five hours of sleep.

To make the rest of this incredibly long story shorter, there were no flights arriving the rest of that day, which was Sunday. I'd been without my belongings for two days now, and it took another day and a half to get the bag. I opened it up, so glad to be reunited with my belongings, and all my clothes were wet. My bag was probably unlucky enough to be left out on the tarmac in the rain in Chicago. But, nothing was ruined, and I was happy as a clam to have it. I started to get everything in order, and took out the converter I was going to use to charge my computer, flipvid, camera, iPod, phone, etc. Well - it didn't work. So now I've been without all my electronics and appliances for four days, borrowing other people's computers for blogging and e-mail. I have tried to find a converter but in the countryside outside of Rome they just don't carry those items in every store. :) No Radio Shack here....so I will wait a few more days and then hopefully be back on line so I can post more photos, vids, and blogs. I honestly think I've had my share of bad luck on this trip and it's time for things to turn around....except for the fact I still don't have my train tickets to France for next week - they seem to be lost in the mail system.

Sigh.....the truth is, I wanted to recount this story because it's humorously unbelievable, and then my next blogs will get down to the nitty gritty of how GREAT this week has turned out to be since getting into the studio with Euro Ferrari and songwriter Maurizio Opinato. Everything is going wonderfully and I'm thrilled with the possibilities for this project. So....don't worry, the next novella will be much more positive....just had to get all this complaining off my chest! :)

'Til next time.....

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