I arrived home from Italy last night around midnight, so I guess technically I arrived early this morning. I’m going to try to post my posts this week like a madwoman to get our whole trip up as soon as possible, because I leave in a week to teach in Annapolis and that trip will fill my brain with new memories and erase some of the old ones. That means I need to get the memories of our amazing trip documented as soon as possible.
When my blogger friend Manja met Pedro and I at the airport in Rome, she took us to eat and then we toured an excellent archaeological site called Ostia Antica. It was fabulous enough to earn its own post, so this first one will be just about our travel and arrival in Fiumicino, Italy, and meeting Manja and her bestia in person for the first time.
The worst part about traveling right now is that you put a mask on the moment you step into an airport, then you don’t take the mask off until you exit the final airport. You get tiny breaks to remove the mask to eat and drink. Since we spent 26+ hours travelling, we both felt suffocated by the end.
Travelling during a pandemic adds challenges and things to get anxious about. I “purchased” the plane tickets in February with frequent flier miles. Back in February, Italy was not allowing American vacationers into the country. If I recall correctly, it opened up the end of June. Until then, Pedro and I were calm about it, just planning to re-schedule if necessary. But Italy has been doing the same thing as the U.S.: returning restrictions as the Delta variant wreaks its havoc. We were sort of waiting for a last-minute ban up till the day we flew. Airlines are all flexible at the moment because of the pandemic, with banners on their websites noting that everyone is allowed one re-scheduling no questions asked. We had to do that because of my Portland to Coast race that I blogged about. We shifted the trip by a week so it didn’t overlap with the race. It was no problem to get an attendant to do that for us over the phone. As soon as I hung up I checked the email confirming the change, and saw that she had shifted the first part of the flight, the flight TO Italy, but forgot to shift the second part, the flight back home. I called back immediately and got a different assistant, who told me that I had already used my one change. It took a while for me to convince her that I wasn’t changing a second time, but that I was calling to correct a mistake. Eventually she gave in and agreed to change the return flight as well. Whew.
Another challenge was deciphering the required vaccination credentials. It’s different for every country. The websites I checked were not clear. In multiple places it said all we needed was our vaccination card. In multiple places it also said we needed a negative COVID-19 test that was less than 3 days old to enter Italy. Nowhere, nowhere, did it say that if you had the vaccination, you did not need the negative test to get into Italy. I talked with a friend who had recently traveled to Italy and he said the vaccination was enough. But the U.S. requires a negative test for re-entry, even with a vaccination. We were nervous about it. Just to be safe, we decided to get the negative test. It is very very very hard to get this test in the U.S. We tried all the pharmacy chains we could find and they were all booked up for weeks. Even so, the turn-around time for test results was usually two to three days, and some would take up to five days to get the results. This was not helpful for travel because the 72-hour time limit for entry into Italy begins the day you are tested, not the day you find out the results. It would be expired before we even received it. We found a travel company that had three locations in the Portland/Vancouver metro area – just three! – and they had a thirty-minute turn-around time for $120. That’s outrageous. We both contacted our personal healthcare networks, and they were also booked up. It was ridiculous. We spent an incredible amount of time on this and came up with nothing except a test for an exorbitant amount of money. I did an online chat service with United Airlines, who our tickets were through, and asked for clarification, and was told that all we needed was the vaccination card. Still uncomfortable, but feeling out of options, we took the gamble. And it worked. All Italy needed was the vaccination card.
My alarm went off at 3 am on August 30 and I saw that I had received a text message from United Airlines. Our flight had been cancelled, but rescheduled. I checked the times and connections of the rescheduled flights. They seemed to be exactly the same, so I told Pedro about it and we got up and got ourselves to the airport as planned. We had both tried to eat all our perishables before the trip, but there remained one too-firm avocado that could not be eaten. I packed it carefully in my carryon bag, determined to eat it later.
When we arrived at the airport, the screens only showed the flight that had been canceled, but not the new flight. We got through security using our passports, then tried to find a United representative to help us, but none were there. The time for boarding passed and we still couldn’t find anyone, and we were stressed out. We called United, who told us, “Don’t worry, we have rescheduled you.” “Yes,” I agreed, “I saw that message, but there is no flight boarding!” The person on the line said, “Oh no need to worry, your flight is now leaving tomorrow.” I looked at the message again, and realized that yes, all the times and connections were exactly the same, but the DATE was different. Oh geez. I told the woman on the phone that our plans were not flexible and we could not leave the following day. We were already at the airport and we insisted on leaving that day. After an hour on the phone, we had new arrangements. On the Italy side, we arrived only 5 hours later than planned.
Since we had saved a ton of money by getting tickets with frequent flier miles, I splurged and upgraded to first class seats on our overnight flight across the ocean. It was a brilliant plan. The only problem was that we could not get seats together and had to ask fellow passengers if someone would switch with us. On board the first man we asked said no. The next man we asked immediately jumped up and moved all his stuff for us. Neither of us had ever flown first class on a long overnight flight before, and let me tell you it was outstanding. The seats were spacious and comfortable and most importantly, reclined completely flat. It’s still noisy and light on a plane, but we got the most comfort possible on the 9 hour flight from Chicago to Frankfurt. The only problem was that none of the charging ports at our seats were working. We mentioned it to the attendant who could not fix the problem and immediately gifted us with compensation. 7,500 frequent flier miles to me and $150 to Pedro since he doesn’t have a mileage account with them. That example of classism made me laugh. If the outlets didn’t work in coach, the flight attendant would have shrugged at us. The same nice man who switched seats with us overheard the conversation. He handed us a power pack to use and then went to sleep. We were so grateful for not only his kindness, but his super chill attitude, that when he woke up at the end of the flight we gifted him with a small bottle of honey that I had brought to give to people on the trip.
Every flight we boarded handed out sanitization wipes, which were saturated in alcohol and meant to swab down anything we wanted to clean before settling in. We watched the large crews cleaning and sanitizing between every flight and weren’t worried about catching COVID from the tray table, so we usually kept our wipes and used them to clean up during the flights, like after meals. Lufthansa also handed out paper masks, which they insisted we use instead of our cloth masks. Overnight I wanted to block the light, so I slept with a thick scarf over my head, and that allowed me to surreptitiously remove my mask so I could breathe. Yes!
Frankfurt is the worst airport ever. For some reason the German reputation for organization does not extend to the Frankfurt airport. When Margaret and I came through in 2019, we stood in line at security for two hours – TWO HOURS – and the security people were slow as molasses, rude, and frankly did not care a whit about how many people missed their connection. This time was not as long, but very long, nearly an hour in line for security. Later in our journey we heard other travelers complaining about the miserable wait in line at the Frankfurt airport. Travel tip: avoid Frankfurt when possible.
Finally we were there. Using facetime, Manja called us and said she was right outside. We had only carry-on luggage, so we skipped baggage claim and since we had flown from another EU country we didn’t have to deal with customs. We made our way outside and spotted her almost immediately and soon we left the airport.
Manja had a recommended restaurant she wanted to try out in Fiumicino, the town where the Rome airport is, so we followed the GPS and found a great place to park and were soon walking along the mouth of the Tiber River. We found outdoor seating so the dog could stay with us at the table. We tried all kinds of fried seafood that was super fresh, and suppli, a Roman rice ball with cheese and tomato, and pizza with mussels on it. And wine, of course. Then we walked along the riverbank for a while.
I have to tell you a funny story about Manja’s dog, who she calls “bestia” in her blog. The word sounds like “bestie,” slang for best friend, and clearly the dog could be her best friend. In the years I’ve followed her blog, I assumed that is what it meant. Recently though, I received a gift of a dragon quilt from another blogger (actually from the blogger’s wife, Curt’s lovely Peggy, from Wandering Through Time and Place), and Manja mentioned the quilt had bestias on it. So then, finally I looked it up and it’s Italian for “beast.” ha ha ha!!
After we ate we felt a little revived, though we had been traveling for many many hours with poor sleep despite the excellent overnight seating. Our next stop at Ostia Antica was specifically chosen with our weaknesses in mind: it’s hard to fall asleep while walking! Stay tuned.