Lenny Bruce had a saying: if you're from New York, you're Jewish, even if you're not. Conversely, if you're from the Midwest, then you're Lutheran, even if you're not. Growing up in Cranston, RI, I felt, made me pretty much Italian even though I'm not. Almost everyone's last name was Italian. (First names too, come to think of it.) When it came to languages, our high school only offered French and Italian (I took French). The high school band trip went to Italy (my brother went, and came back with leather pants). The few Jews blended in almost seamlessly. I never felt the need to actually visit Italy, and yet when my daughter decided to study in Florence, how could I not?
I left for Italy on December 22nd, a Tuesday. The deal was, I'd fly from Madison to Chicago, Chicago to Charlotte, and Charlotte to Rome, arriving on the morning of December 22nd. That made sense because Italy is 7 hours ahead of us, and the trans-Atlantic flight was 8 hours long. However, it was not to be. Weather was causing delays and cancellations all over northern Europe, and I thought they would not affect me, as Rome airport was fine and so were the American ones. In fact, despite snow on the day of my departure, my flight was still on time when I left home. However, when I arrived at the Madison airport an hour later, my flight was so delayed that if I waited for it, I would miss my other connections. The solution? "Your only hope of catching the flight to Charlotte is to drive to Chicago. You can do it in two hours," said the United Airlines gate agent. So, with no warning and no breakfast for my husband, we found ourselves hustling down the snowy interstate to O'Hare International Airport. I arrived just in time to check in for my flight..... that is, I would have been, if it
hadn't been delayed. "Your only hope is to get on a flight to Philadelphia, spend the night in the Philadelphia airport, and take a flight to Rome tomorrow night," said the US Airways gate agent. "That's it?" I asked? "That's the best you can do?" It was, it seemed. "But," she said brightly, "the only seat available on that Rome flight is in first class!" With that crumb of consolation, I made my way to Security and a several hour wait to a city that was at least a few hours east of where I was then. Oh, and did I mention I was getting sick at the time? After an autumn of spectacularly good health, I'd woken up that morning with a sore throat, which developed into a cold as the day progressed. By evening, I was miserable, and hoped a good night's sleep would help. Normally, if I catch a cold it only lasts a day or so.....
As luck would have it, Philadelphia was to be my return port anyway, as I had plans to attend my niece's Bat Mitzvah on the way home. So I called the cousin with whom I'd be staying on the flip side, and was told I'd be welcome.... I did have to rent a car to get there, though. The next day, I returned the car, got to the airport early, and waited around for my flight. Notice the lovely Liberty Bell in the international terminal: it's made entirely of Legos!
Finally, it was time to board. At the gate, I was surrounded by so many people who looked familiar, even though I didn't know them.... and then it hit me. They all, every one of them, could have been my neighbor in Rhode Island. And they all spoke Italian! Anyway, just the process of boarding was exciting. I boarded first, with all the other "first class" people - never in my life has that happened! For the first time ever, I was on the other side of the curtain, and let me tell you, it doesn't suck. From the seat (which reclines like an electric La-Z-Boy recliner), to the service (why do they treat people more nicely when they think you're rich?) to the food, it was pretty wonderful. This was good for me, because by then I was feeling worse, not better, and had loaded up on all the over-the-counter medication I could find in hopes of surviving the trip without coughing and sneezing all over my neighbors. I had only one "neighbor," which turned out to be both pilots taking turns napping; neither one of them was there very much. Here's the seat:
When I was bumped off my original flight, I had the presence of mind to ask for my vegan meal to be transferred to the new one. (You had to give at least 24 hours notice, and the airline was doing that much for me.) Normally, on a flight, one receives a tray with the entire meal at once. In first class, I received an enormous salad before the entree. That's mixed greens with a little shaved carrot on top, and the greens were all fresh and delicious - no iceberg lettuce at all. On the side were some fresh sliced strawberries and a roll with Earth Balance spread. Notice how it's served on a cloth napkin with at least three forks! (I guess the third one was supposed to be for dessert.)
It's a good thing the salad was so wonderful, because the entree itself hadn't survived the treatment it had received at the hands of.... someone... apparently the pilaf you see here had been put under some kind of broiler/ heat lamp/ something that was probably perfect for everyone else's beef but too much for what I was supposed to eat. It should have only been warmed in the microwave, I'm guessing. The rice and bits of vegetables were hard, dry and pebbly. I ate the carrots and bok choy, sent back the rest, and went to sleep without dessert or any movies even.
In the morning, they somehow did not have my breakfast, so I pulled out my trusty instant oatmeal (always carry that when traveling) and got some hot water and orange juice. Now it was Thursday morning - for me, two days since I had left home. I couldn't wait to see my daughters - one, already in Italy since September, and the other just off the plane from China. If their plans had worked out, they were waiting for me in Florence, only two train rides away.
First, though, I had to collect my luggage. I was a little worried that it would have all been unpacked somewhere along the line by curious TSA staff who'd want to know why I was schlepping so many bottles of vitamins, bars of chocolate, packs of tea and oatmeal, and random gift-wrapped items into Italy. For some reason, it was no trouble at all to pass through Customs; the agent could not have looked more bored as he flipped through my passport and stamped a random page. To make this long story slightly shorter, I managed to navigate myself into Rome, find a train for Florence (although not an actual seat on it - I had to stand the whole 1 1/2 hours while holding up my suitcases), and after a half hour of mutual searching, into the arms of my waiting daughters....OK, this photo is from the end of the trip, but the daughters part is true!