Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 2. The Most Selfish Flounderfest


                The flight from Phoenix to Chicago, where I’d catch my connecting flight to Rome, had been a breeze because of the long chat about politics I’d had with Mike, the Manhattan artist/viola player sitting next to me. A woman in front of us kept turning around and staring at us through the seat crack, not fully appreciating our spiritous debate, but we weren’t deterred. Our seats were at the very back of the plane. I didn’t love the seat because it didn’t recline. But Mike was fun. And he totally won our debate on gun control.
In late April, Mike’s daughter, who is in her late 30s, was shot in the knee while returning to work from her lunch break near Battery Park. Two ticket scalpers got into a scrap and one fired a pistol at the other. One of his bullets missed his target and hit Mike’s daughter. She had surgery and is doing fine now. The man who fired the gun, I researched later, is being prosecuted for attempted murder; another bullet had grazed the rival ticket-scalper.
                The Rome-bound plane I boarded in Chicago had an amazing first-class section where everybody gets their own cubicle, each outfitted with a decent-sized TV and fully reclining seats. I was sitting near the back with the rabble, taking the left aisle in a middle row of four seats. But the flight wasn’t full – I had two empty seats next to me, and that made a huge difference in comfort. A man sat in the far right aisle seat – a young priest dressed in an immaculate, black cassock. He was reading the bible with a quiet intensity. I imagined he had been called to the Vatican for some stressful reason. It certainly didn’t seem like he was on vacation. He proved to be a champion airplane-sleeper – one of those people who can sleep sitting up, chin on chest. I got some quality sleep later by taking up the seat next to me and a touch of the empty seat next to him.
                This was to be a grand adventure of a different sort for me. I had no hiking, mountain climbing, nor any other outdoor adventures planned for myself. My goal was to immerse myself in Italy exactly the way I wanted to. It was my second time to the country – I had gone there in 1998 for my honeymoon, which was all kinds of phenomenal, and it was my first time in Europe. I got to spend 10 days in the most romantic country in the world, by definition, with the love of my life. Amy and I visited Rome, Florence, Venice and Pompeii, taking trains or taxis everywhere.
I’d always dreamed of getting back there. When Dusty, Kent, and Paul decided they were going to Europe for the summer of 2017, I decided to use my frequent flier miles to go with them. Dusty had told me two years earlier about a killer American Airlines credit deal that gave customers 50,000 miles as a sign-up bonus. I got the card and earned another 10,000 points over the following two years. My round-trip ticket from Phoenix to Rome cost $117, which covered the taxes.
                Unlike previous flounderfests, which is what we call our annual friend trips, we would not be together this time. (Additionally, some of us had to work and could not go.) Our trips lasted from a weekend to three or four days, but in 2012 we took an epic trip to Switzerland for 11 days.
This would be an equally long, but selfish flounderfest, fully indulged: Kent wanted to climb in Switzerland, Dusty wanted to hike and road-bike in Switzerland and visit Venice, Paul and I wanted to visit places in Italy we’d never been to before, and I wanted to tour the country by motorcycle.
My plan for the solo motorcycle trip in Italy had evolved over time. I thought about going to Milan, then Venice, then finally settled on Florence as the final driving destination. I counted on using CIMT’s one-way option, which costs a little extra, to maximize the number of places I would go.
                I still had a few books on the language leftover from my honeymoon. On this go-around, I made real progress learning Italian by combining my reading with lessons on YouTube. I used it a lot on the trip. A couple of times, people complimented me for trying to learn. (I did get called out once by a young person, gently, for mixing it up with some Spanish.) I had conversations and interactions with people that I never would have otherwise, and had above-average treatment and service just about everywhere I went. I swallowed liters of fantastico espresso by saying in a confident manner, “Caffe doble, per favore!” I received ice as never before in Europe, with no dirty looks, because I asked for it specifically: “Vorrei aqua in bicchiere, con cubettos di ghiaccio, por favore.”
                Not that I saw much ghiaccio in Italy in the summer of 2017.
                Europe suffered record heat that summer in the middle of one of the worst droughts in a century. Paul and I knew the country would be warm in August, but reading before our trip that taps might run dry in Rome blew our minds. The Vatican turned off its fountains, and some fountains and nasone drinking fountains were shut off. Rome authorities turned down water pressure and threatened they would have to turn off the water at famous outdoor fountains.
The worst worries of the crisis never came to pass, (ironically, the summer of 2017 also saw record tourism for Italy). But “Lucifer,” Europeans named the heatwave, was epic.

Next: Rome

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