While I was still in Australia I got a message from work telling me that I had to travel to Italy 2 weeks after I got back to the USA.
Unfortunately, the way my office arranges expenses like this, is for us to pay them, and put in a claim form to be reimbursed a the end of the month. That would work OK if I had a credit card with nothing on it, but that isn't the case here. Flying a family of 4 to Australia (and then from Brisbane to Melbourne) is not a cheap exercise, and we are working hard to pay it off.
To help with repayments, I have put our credit cards "away" where we can't be tempted to use them. It bothers me how effective this strategy has been, but it's fortunate that it's working. In the meantime, I didn't have access to the credit that could have paid for my working trip. Not that work would have reimbursed the interest... you did know that the interest-free period only applies to new expenses when you were able to fully pay off the old credit, right? So not being able to use this card for work wasn't a bad thing at all. But I still needed to get to Italy.
In a situation like this, someone else can pay for the ticket, and put the claim in. So long as they didn't owe anything on their card, then it won't cost them anything. But it can't be nice to go through the hassle. I suppose the responsibility ultimately falls on whomever most wants me in Italy!
So I got out of paying the tickets on a card that was going to cost me, but that left a new problem. The tickets have to be bought by someone other than me. The person paying for me didn't pay attention to my schedule, and bought me the return ticket to travel a day late. I don't like being away from my family at the best of times, but an extra day because he made an incorrect assumption is very frustrating. Of course, he bought the cheapest possible tickets (to save the company money), which made them non-refundable, non-transferable, non-anything-you-can-think-of-here.
The other problem was the layover in Milan. I arrived at 7:30am, and flew out at 9:30pm. That's 14 hours in a strange city, carrying a computer, after a 9 hour flight, with minimal sleep. I was so looking forward to this.
In my favor, at least I was going to be visiting Milano (Milan). The only other continental city that I've really visited before was Paris, and I loved that, so I was hoping that the destination would help make up for some of the pain.
ArrivalMalpenza airport is 40-50 minutes drive outside of Milano. Fortunately, there is a regular shuttle for 5€ each way (I wouldn't have spent this if work hadn't caused me to be spending so long in Milano, so I figure I'm justified putting this into my expenses). The shuttle takes you directly to the very impressive Milano Centrale (Central Station). I read that Frank Lloyd Wright called this one of the most beautiful stations in the world. It is undergoing a lot of renovations but it is still spectacularly impressive. My only complaint is that the public toilets cost 0.70€. If you find yourself in that area of the world, try to stay away from coffee.
Being just after 8am on a Sunday, everywhere but the inside of the station seemed deserted. I walked around a little, trying to work out where to go. I circled the forecourt (an enormous area), went down a few streets (not seeing anything besides more small streets, decided to stop at a caff, but then realized I was running low on cash. Not a problem, as there was a nearby ATM just inside a nearby bank (you know, the type you get into by swiping your card in the lock). That looked appealing, as it was around freezing at the time.
Now I knew that the ATM would probably be in Italian, but how hard can it be? I can get by reading French, and there aren't too many things you can do in an ATM. Besides, I only have one account attached to this card, so I figured it would be easy.
First of all, there was a keyboard attached to this ATM. Why would it need a keyboard? It still had the cash dispensing slot, and a drawer for deposits, so it was a verifiable ATM. Just a little different looking. After inserting my card I was presented with a list of about 10 items, which seemed to include something to do with the internet, and something else to do with SMS. This was starting to look bizarre. I'm guessing this terminal allowed you to purchase all sorts of services as well as access your money.
After a complete failure to guess which service was related to cash, I made a guess. Now I'm at a new screen, and I can't work out any of the words. OK, try again. Nope. After 4 or 5 attempts I started to get worried it would decide to eat my card so I gave up. Now if only I had the access to the internet that this terminal purported to provide. I could have used language services to get a rough translation of what I was seeing.
So now I was looking for a usable ATM. I set out along a nearby street only to discover that I'd walked into a business district. But being Sunday morning, it was akin to a ghost town. I was getting disheartened.
After going some distance down the street I realized that it seemed to end at no where in particular, so I crossed to see if anything looked better on the other side. And then on my way back... voil! An ATM. This one also had a keyboard, but didn't seem to be advertising anything fancy like SMS, so I gave it a go. Sure enough, it immediately asked which language I wanted, and from there on it was easy. Whew!
Jet lag and lack of sleep were taking a heavy toll, so I went back to the caff which I'd found in a small side street, and proceeded to have my most pleasant experience of Milan so far. I even used the iPod to relax in front of a recorded TV show. Things were definitely looking up.
As a side note, this cafe was also where I discovered my first in-ground toilet. I'd heard these are common in southern France, and it appears they go further east as well (before you get ALL the way East and find nothing but). I can't complain though, as it was free.
WalkAfter my lack of luck with the various streets, I decided to buy some snacks back in Milano Centrale, walk around the building to see it all, and then maybe toss it all in as a bad joke and go watch some videos (between the iPod and notebook computer I had enough to keep me occupied for all 14 hours). Defeatist, I know, but I was too tired and jet lagged to really care.
I started in a small supermarket looking for those snacks. It's always fun buying food in foreign countries. For a start, you see things you've never seen before, and I love trying new things. Second, you can't always tell what something is from the packaging. That makes it even more fun. Over the years I've eaten some wonderful things that I could never possibly name.
Once stocked up, I started on my walk around the building. This was when I realized that I had simply arrived too early in the morning, as the forecourt was starting to really fill up with people! Apparently this is a very popular place to hang out on a weekend. I continued around to the side of the building where I saw some huge crowds. Some seemed to be waiting for something, while others were just milling around. I even saw a group of ladies set up in the park cutting people's hair. I thought this was something only done in China, but now I know better.
After following the train station for some distance I suddenly realized that I wasn't walking along the train station any more. It was the foundation to the train line. It just looked like an ornately decorated building. My defense for missing this is that I was just too tired. I might have turned back, but I didn't want to go through the crowd again, so I decided to set out and come back on a parallel route. I figured I could always backtrack if I made a mistake and got lost.
Fortunately, this area of Milano was very regular and practically impossible to get lost. It also seemed quite interesting, and I was starting to see a lot of people out and about. I finally made my way to what looked like a major street. This was as good as any to follow.
It was a fortunate choice, as it appeared to be a major shopping strip. However, being a Sunday nothing was open except bars (though we'd call them a caff), bakeries and book stores. I don't know why book stores were open when almost no one else was, but I was happy to look in them. I found a couple of things for Anne, and even found an English language novel for myself.
At the end of the street I found myself at a park (Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli). This place looked like fun. People were out jogging in the rapidly warming day (it was still cool, but getting quite pleasant). Families had their children out in the playgrounds, riding on the mini dodgem cars, on the carousel, and taking pony rides. I found myself wishing I had Luc and Nic with me.
I kept walking along here, admiring the scenery, the landscaping, and the old fortifications which now form a rocky ruin at one end. There was even a swarm of hovering insects over one of the ponds, visible through the tree branches. This more than anything gave the day a feeling of being "nearly Summer", and reminded me of home in Queensland. Chicago by contrast is almost completely insect free.
I eventually decided that this park must stretch up close to the end of the financial district I'd been in early that morning, but I had obviously missed it back then. (Checking the map now I see that it was about 100m short of the street I was looking down).
By now my legs were aching, my bag was heavy, I'd been walking for hours, and I was getting tired. I was tempted to find an internet store and look up details on where I should visit in Milan (such as the Piazza del Duomo) but it was all getting too much. I decided to stop at what appeared to be a nice restaurant back near Milano Centrale and have a decent meal.
The place was absolutely packed with people who'd all decided the same as I had. I thought that it was hidden away enough from the station that not everyone would see it, but I was wrong. All the same, I got a seat after only a short wait, and was served quickly. I just looked for anything labeled locale or de Milano. It turned out that this was exactly the right thing to order, as it was one of the nicest meals I've had at a restaurant in a long time.
I was tempted to go back out and do some more exploring, but I have already mentioned that my body was starting to give out on me. I still managed to put off leaving for a bit longer, while I looked around Milano Centrale a little more and called Anne from a payphone (our first conversation was unsuccessful as Nic decided to hang up on me!).
Lamezia TermeWhen I finally got back into the bus back to the airport I was exhausted. I made my way through security, checked out the shops, watched a little video, and had an uninspiring piece of pizza for dinner. It would have all gone well, only I made a mistake with the timing on my ticket when I started moving for the gate. After misreading a note that the checkin staff had made, I suddenly thought I had to be boarding the plane now. I raced down to the gate, and found it closed! I was absolutely in a state of panic, and none of the Alitalia staff were prepared to take 30 seconds to let me know if I'd missed my flight (they insisted I had to wait at the end of a queue of a dozen bored looking people).
Still anxious, I went back to the gate, only to discover people starting to show up now. It appeared that the note I had was telling me when to back at the airport, and not when to board the flight. So I made it in plenty of time. I can't imagine the trouble I'd be in at work if I'd missed the flight after all that.
A couple of hours later and I was at Lamezia Terme, prepared for the hour long (and 60€) trip to the hotel in Cosenza, with the hotel driver who knows no English. However, a familiar voice called out to me, and I saw the guys from Chicago who I'm working with this week. I didn't expect to see either of them, as they'd arrived much earlier (after significantly shorted layovers). Unfortunately for them, both their bags had gone astray, and they'd caught a ride with my driver to see if they had shown up. Alas, they had not, though the airline had found the bags in Rome. 24 hours later we've heard they'd arrived in Lamezia, but we they won't arrive here until tomorrow. In the meantime another guy from Chicago and I have been lending out some badly needed clothing (unfortunately, there are no washing facilities here).
I would probably have enjoyed just trying to sleep in the car, but it was nice to have some English speaking company after just a day around people who barely spoke a word of my language. A day like that was enough to make me pick up an Italian phrasebook before I flew out of Malpenza, but my head was spinning too much to make much headway with it. So the conversation was a nice way to wind down before collapsing for the night.
Today I was a mass of pain and jetlag. The only saving grace was the coffee. This is no small thing, as the coffee out of vending machines here is far superior to anything I've tasted in the USA. All the same, I should get some sleep and hope that tomorrow I will feel better.