Thursday, May 14, 2009

April 30 – May 1

In Transit Ottawa to Sorrento

Things did not get off to an auspicious start.

I got away from the office early enough to have given myself the opportunity to pack in a measured and methodical manner. We drove up to Ottawa at an unhurried pace. Heck, we even had time to stop in at Trailhead so I could buy two pairs of “travel underwear”.

Margaret’s sister Majda had agreed to let us park the car at their house – and I had hoped we would get to Ottawa early enough to allow us to take the bus to the airport – but having her take the car back after dropping us off at the terminal was OK too.

We arrived early enough to go to the lounge and enjoy some of Air Canada’s hospitality before the flight. But that kind of unhinged when we got to the gate and heard an announcement about a “snag” and “ground crew investigating”. Marg tolerates flying but is always somewhat apprehensive about the whole thing; she didn’t take well to this news. I am a frequent flier; I knew right away that this was going to spell trouble for our connection to a Swiss flight in Montreal.

The problem was that Air Canada dispatch (or whoever is responsible) did not formally “cancel” the flight; and since it was not “cancelled”, the “interrupted travel” protocols for rebooking had not kicked in. We were in a sort of limbo.

I called Air Canada reservations, but they needed a reservation number to proceed, they flipped me to Aeroplan (through whom we had made the arrangements) who couldn’t find the match on file for the credit card I’d used to pay the fees – so they were unable to proceed and suggested I call reservations. After a certain amount of pleading and cajoling (OK … maybe a bit of crying thrown in) I managed to get through to an agent who recognized the situation for what it was and rebooked our travel through Toronto.

So, instead of Ottawa -> Montreal -> Zurich -> Rome (Air Canada and Swiss), we wound up with Ottawa -> Toronto -> Rome (all Air Canada). And we managed to hang on to Business class for the whole trip. The downside was that we would wind up arriving in Rome approximately 3 hours after we were originally scheduled.

We were re-ticketed; and I managed to do all this while still down in the gate area. But there was still action on the ACA104 front. The flight still had not been cancelled and now the plan was to take the passengers across the way from gate 24 over to gate 23 and head on to Montreal in another aircraft. But for nearly everyone who had planned connections (many that we overheard connecting to the same Swiss flight we had originally been booked on) that wasn’t proving to be a viable option. For our part, our biggest concern was making sure that we recovered our bags and got them re-tagged to match our new travel plans.

We spoke to the gate agent – who spoke to “stock” (the people who actually handle the bags) and then watched out the window to see if we could actually see our bags. The other passengers boarded the flight, we saw our bags – along with a few others – segregated from the rest, returned to the cart, and brought back to the building.

We still had to get the bags re-tagged, and in Ottawa, this is not something that can be done by the gate agent; meaning that one of us (me) would have to go back u to check-in with our new boarding cards and have that agent re-print baggage tags. But before that, we headed back to the lounge.
Kevin and Penny were surprised (naturally) to see us at the lounge. They were booked on a 1715 Ottawa -> Frankfurt and thought that we would have been well on our way. Marg stayed in the lounge and I went back out to try and get our baggage situation straightened out.

It was not a pretty sight … “afternoon rush hour” and along with the flight to Frankfurt, there were a couple of other large aircraft waiting to whisk passengers off to faraway places. In other words, it was jam packed with people. Earlier, when we had arrived, we had walked directly up to the security checkpoint; now, the line was 3 coils long (in lineup terms, a “coil” refers to the number of time the line doubles back on itself). Up at the check-in area, the line ran nearly half the length of the building. I went through the far shorter “business class” line and when I got to an agent she said “I’ll bet you’re going to tell me a story” … and she was right. But, it was a story that she was familiar with; she quickly prepared the new tags and attached them to an explanatory note. She put the note (along with the tags) into a bin and sent them off on the conveyor belt. As I write this now, I still have no idea if that worked.

After that, I had to join the 3-coil queue for the sham sideshow referred to as “security” (a whole other topic). I managed to get back up to the lounge just before Penny and Kevin were heading down to catch their flight. Shortly after they left, we headed down to the gate to wait for our departure to Toronto.

Those of you who watch “The Amazing Race” can probably picture it now: “The two teams must now make their way to Rome. One team heads for Frankfurt and a connection to Rome. Forty-five minutes later, the second team heads in the other direction – to Toronto – where they will board a direct flight for Rome.” I can even see the graphic representation of our travels on a map … the lines radiating from Ottawa and arcing across to the respective connection points – eventually meeting in Rome. Kevin and Penny’s departure gate (15) was right beside ours (16) and we watched their aircraft push off taxi and get airborne. What I do like about our revised itinerary is the lack of a European stopover. Air traffic Flow Management being what it is means that we are less likely to be subjected to “air traffic control delays” coming from overseas than we would be if we were on a flight originating in Europe. We’re still enroute as I write this, so the jury is still out.
Eventually, we boarded our aircraft for Toronto, but the weather had deteriorated (in Toronto) and were a bit late arriving … meaning that we had to hustle like crazy just to get from where we arrived at the Rapidair gate (120) to the far end of the “hammerhead” at gate 172. We made it with enough spare time to have an opportunity to briefly stop in at the lounge. The tightness of this connection also represents another opportunity for our bags to go missing and I’m starting to think that if they come off the carousel in Rome it will be nothing short of a miracle.

Perhaps a word about the Business Class seating on this air craft … the aircraft itself is a Boeing 767. Recently, Air Canada began retro-fitting these aircraft with “pod-style” seating. The seat itself reclines back to fully horizontal so that – after the meal – you can lie down flat and catch some serious ZZZ’s (or zzz’s for my American friends). Supper was a choice of appetizers: Vodka smoked Atlantic Salmon and Cucumber or Tomato, Pesto and Feta Tart with Mesclun Greens. The main course was a choice of Grilled Veal, Halibut or Gnocchi (I had the Herb-crusted Halibut with Rhubarb, Leek Butter, exotic Grains and Bok-choy). There was a cheese plate and fresh fruit (or ice cream) for dessert. Breakfast has just been served after the “lights-out snooze” portion of the flight. It was a continental breakfast with some fruit, yogurt and a small danish … along with juice and coffee. Oh … and did I mention the little toiletry kit that was on each seat? Slippers, an eye mask, toothpaste, toothbrush, lotions, balms … I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to riding at the “back of the bus”.

We’ll be landing in Rome in about an hour … let’s see what happens.

(fade out, fade in … something to indicate the passage of time)

What happened was what I had expected to happen. On this trip, there were two points at which our baggage was most likely to become separated from us; at Ottawa because of the last-minute change of travel arrangements, or in Toronto because of the short connection time between the Ottawa arrival and the Rome departure. After we were sure that no other bags from the Toronto flight were going to be forthcoming (determined by the increasing number of Tunisians at the carousel and the sharp increase in the number of bags marked TUN -> FCO) we headed over to the Customer Service area. There are three, each dealing with specific airlines. I had a hard time finding the Air Canada on the sign because it was printed in black – and I’m used to seeing it in red.

We gave the agent the claim vouchers – but she said that there was no message attached to the bag numbers. On a hunch, I asked her to try the “old” ones from the Ottawa/Montreal/Zurich/Rome ticket and sure enough, she found messages saying that the bags would be leaving Ottawa on the same flights we eventually took – but would be a day late arriving. The problem, of course, is that we are heading to Sorrento for only two days and plan to leave for Pompeii and Florence on Sunday morning. We gave the agent the phone number for the Babyluna Hotel in Sorrento and she told us that they would get the bags down there to us. Once again we’ll have to see what happens.
So that was an unproductive hour-plus and now we were starting to be concerned about our rendezvous arrangements with Penny and Kevin. When last we spoke, the first to arrive would wait by the Leonardo train arrival area at Rome’s Termini station and the fallback would be the information desk.

All good in theory.

Today is May Day and it seemed as though everyone in Italy was travelling by train. Never mind the fact that it’s Rome (as in all roads lead to …); it’s a holiday in Rome! Oh … and did I mention that there were at least 3 (and probably closer to 5 or 6) “information centres”? We scanned faces – thousands of faces – for nearly two hours while we wandered the main level of the station. No luck. Finally, when I started to realize that I was recognizing people that I‘d looked at during the search; so we eventually decided to board the train for Naples (and eventually Sorrento) and hope that Penny and Kevin came to the same realization and did the same thing.

So now, we’re blasting through the Italian countryside – southbound to Naples – on one of the Italian high-speed trains. It’s time to do the transition music/fade out fade in thing.

In Naples, we transferred to the smaller “regional” train called the “Circumvesuviana”. It was really more like a subway than anything else; especially as far as the amount of graffiti plastered all over the carriages was concerned. It’s a long way from Naples to Sorrento to begin with and the journey felt even longer on the hard plastic buckets that pass for seats. But at least we had seats. A each stop more and more people kept getting on – far more than were getting off so in the end, the train was packed. We tried to wait for most of the crowd to clear ahead of us, but there is only one rather small exit from the Sorrento station and there was quite the crush of people going up and down the stairs as we tried to exit the building. In any temperate climate, pickpockets thrive – and this is especially true in Italian tourist areas. A skilled pickpocket will work crowded areas where there is a lot of jostling and bumping. No, dear reader, I did not fall victim to a pickpocket, but it was just one more thing I had to keep on my (by now) tired mind.

We chose the hotel in Sorrento for its price and its proximity to both the train station and the central area. The Hotel Babyluna is at 187 via del’ Aranci which was supposed to be a very short walk. Unfortunately, all of our printed directions and contact numbers were in our checked bags (I won’t make that mistake again); so, armed only with the rough location marked on our GPS, we set off.
We got to the area, but could find nothing marked “Hotel Babyluna”. So I fired up the little computer to troll through my email records to get the exact address and a phone number. That was where I got the “187 via del’ Aranci” from, as well as the name of the owner and a phone number. I tried calling the number, but was unable to make a connection. Street signs were non-existent and building numbers even less-so … until Marg found the number high up on the wall carved into a piece of marble. The only thing we found at 187 via del’ Aranci was a locked metal gate. Thinking that a hotel is a pretty difficult thing to hide, we went to a couple of shops in the same area to ask if they knew anything about the Hotel Babyluna. One of the proprietors pointed us back to the corner and up the small hill to a callbox for the apartments in the building. It was there that we saw one of the tenants marked as “Hotel Babyluna”. We tried buzzing, but got no response.

I started to get concerned. No bag is one thing, but no hotel in a big tourist area on a holiday weekend in Italy is another. I asked Marg to wait at the callbox while I went to see if I could find us an alternative. I went up the street to the Hostel Le Sirene and told the woman working the desk my story about the hotel. They had an internet service, so I logged in to check my email to see if there had been anything from Mario – the owner of the Hotel Babyluna – that would give me some further direction. There was nothing. I re-checked the Hotel Babyluna web site, found that it was till operational, and through it sent a message to Mario letting him know that we had arrived. I tried the phone number again but still couldn’t connect. Then I realized that the reason I couldn’t connect was because my phone does not have the correct sim card. I asked the woman at the desk if she could try the number; she did and I was soon speaking with Mario directly. He promised to be at the “hotel” within 5 minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, Mario was showing us around the “hotel”. It’s an apartment that he has converted into three smaller sub-units. Each has a queen-size bed, a small kitchen and bathroom. There is also a small balcony. Despite the hassle of finding the place and getting in, I would still recommend it.

While we were on the train to Sorrento, I took a look at my Blackberry and saw an email from Kevin and Penny. When they had written about an hour earlier, they were still at the Rome Termini station, looking for us. He said that they would continue to look for us until 1700 and then start on the train to Sorrento. I had emailed back that we were approaching Sorrento, but since it was nearly 1700 when I was writing back, I didn’t hold out much hope of that message reaching them.

So, having established ourselves in Sorrento, we tidied up a bit and headed over to the train station to wait for Kevin and Penny. We didn’t have to wait long. They arrived on the second train in. They said that they were quite relieved to see us – as we were to see them.

It turned out that they had missed a tightly-booked connection in Frankfurt. So in our own little “Amazing Race” to Rome, Marg and I had actually come out the winners. So while we were fruitlessly waiting for our bags and dealing with Customer Service, they were still enroute to Rome. We left the airport at about the time they were landing. So it was no wonder that our search of the train station was fruitless – they only arrived at the train station one-half hour before we (having given up all hope of finding them in that melee) got on the train for Naples.
So … here are my draft rules for meeting in a foreign land:

  1. Plan to be at least two nights in your first destination. This will give your luggage a chance to catch up with you (should you be that unfortunate)

  2. Your first two nights should be at some sort of recognizable hotel. even now, I fear that we will not be reunited with our luggage because the “hotel” is very difficult to find

  3. Your destination meeting place should not be an overly-crowded (or potentially over-crowded) location. Enroute delays are nearly inevitable and an hour or two of fruitless searching in a crowd is not something I can recommend as an activity to undertake on minimal sleep

  4. Identify some sort of communications capability and protocol. Kevin and Penny made use of an internet café across from one of the entrances to the Termini station in Rome.

After Penny and Kevin freshened up, we went out for supper to the Leone Rosso restaurant – as recommended by our “hotelier” Mario Casa. Finally, things started to turn in our direction … we had pizzas – at home you would probably refer to them as “gourmet-style” since they had different combinations of toppings. (Some even had “french fries” listed as a topping!) The food was very good and I was told the Italian Cabernet the others drank was very good as well. On the way back from the restaurant, we stopped at a gelateria for – what else – gelato. There was loud Euro-techno blasting away, the streets were crowded with people strolling, scooters scooted around the pedestrians.

We had finally arrived in Italy.

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