Work Trip to Italy, December 2001
Saturday - Good day so far. Got to see Andy & Sean. Traded cars with Er got his old Honda to drive to airport while Er has the truck to Christmas tree shop and be able to take the entire family. Sean and I played in the truck & I kept the boy busy while Jo & Er got ready to take the boys to breakfast with Santa. Went up to see the folks, Played with the layout & picked up & packed while Berni & Irene went to cookie sale at Faith Lutheran Church. They got back before I headed off. Left for airport at 11:15 AM. They say you need to be 3 hours early for foreign travel, can't believe it will be that bad on a Saturday. Parked in C lot and I was right to question the 3 hours. Even with getting a boarding pass at counter I'm setting at gate 103 at 1 PM, they won't board the plane till 2:30 PM. Oh well I have plenty to read. They did check passports against boarding passes, which is the first time I've seen that. Argh this plane is almost full. My original seat is a center isle seat 4 across all seats are full and seats are narrow, seating is 3-4-3 10 seat across in a 747. Last time I flew a 747 it was 2-5-2 9 across. Mom warned me Lufthansa packed them in and she was right. Henrietta the cute Danish flight attendant takes pity on me and finds an aisle with an empty seat next to me. Two seats over is Henrick another Dane who is at least 6' - 7". Neat guy 2 kids girl & boy 8 & 4. Runs a shoe business in Copenhagen, sells "Vans". Went to school at University of Texas at Austin. He popped an Achilles tendon playing badminton ?? Even with empty seat new armrest sticks out, another case of better for airlines not better for passengers. I maybe nap for 15 minutes on a 9-hour flight. Food is typical "BAD" but wine and beer appears to be gratis. Movies are "Curse of the Scorpion" (not to good) and "Angel Eyes" which I saw in theater and liked.
Sunday - Landed on time but sat on runway for 35 minutes. Leaves only 50 minutes for connection. Turned out not to be a problem. Passport control complained I talked too loud and woke him up and customs was a wave through. Made it with time to spare. Alitalia flight was 25% full. They put me in something like business class, not first class but a wide seat with no one next to me. Great view of the Alps as we fly south, plenty of snow. Great little Proscuitto sandwich and some kind of cheesecake dessert great for airplane food, things are looking up as I head towards Rome. My flight is 1 and a half hours ahead of the rest of the group so I hang around the Rome airport. There is no arrival information? This airport was designed with the intent that people cannot meet you at the gate. Departure and arrivals happen on separate levels and on the arrival level there are no chairs for waiting and you are funneled directly to the baggage area. I eventually decided to wait in the baggage area since Frank brought his wife and there is no way they got by with carry on, I barely got on with my backpack and briefcase. We meet up and collect bags then find an ATM and I withdraw 300,000 liras about $140. Our guy in Rome has arranged for Limo service to our hotel, 2 Mercedes 500SE's; traffic was not that bad and we arrived at the hotel at 5 PM. We retired to our rooms and tried to stay wake until 7 PM when we planned dinner. They took and kept our passports, which made me nervous. We head off to dinner end up at a place called La Scalla about a half mile from the hotel. Very good meal, Joe and I had something that looked like Lasagna with a white cream sauce for an appetizer, Veal and mushrooms for the main course. 50,000 or $25 is my portion of the bill. Back to the Hotel, 3 Excedrin PM and off to bed at 9 PM local time or 31 hours without sleep. 12/10 - Monday Slept 10 hours!!! Good breakfast eggs and bacon. Today is a free day so we're off to see Rome. We stand out at a trolley stop for about 30 minutes until we figure out there is a trolley strike. Trolleys keep passing by with "X" for destinations and angry looking drivers at the controls. We decide to start walking. We walk through the Villa Bourgese a large estate that has been turned into a park. They are shooting a movie at the Villa, Lots of people standing around without much happening, typical of movie making. We go to an underground super market. I try to buy a 2-liter bottle of water with 50,000 lira the clerk freaks out. They hate giving change in Rome may be related to the impending switch to the Euro. The clerk has to go to her boss to get change for the equivalent of a $25 bill. She finally sells me my water but with much protest. We walk through this underground shopping system for about a half mile and finally exit at the Spanish steps. This is a major meeting place in Rome, several hundred steps that connect different levels of the city. Lots of young kids sit on the steps and socialize. This city is 2500 years old, Italians love cars but they are not tearing anything down to make room for parking or wider roads so the solution is motorbikes and smaller cars. Mercedes is making a thing called a "Smart" which looks about 5 feet long. From the Spanish steps we walk down to the Trevi fountain. This thing is spectacular. Again it is a public space that people meet at. The sculptures are unbelievable and the water flow makes the whole thing dramatic and unique. After viewing the fountain Frank & Joan (Boss & Wife) went off to the Coliseum and Joe (spacecraft navigator) and I head off to see the Vatican. It is a very nice walk and you can't get lost because St. Peters is so BIG! It dominates the entire city skyline. We walk along the river Tiber and eventually get to St. Peters Square, which is actually round. It is a huge area with giant speaker system and stadium size TV screens. They are building a giant nativity scene with a 100' tall Christmas tree. Joe and I buy sandwiches and watch the show. St. Peters is open and after a security check with metal detectors we enter the largest church in Christendom. It looks big enough to have it's own weather. The digital camera battery quits (Erik lent me his new digital camera a great gadget). Joe has his digital video camera and says he will give me a VHS tape of his video. We tour the Vatican Treasury and see a list of all the Popes from St. Peter to today. We wander over to the Sistine Chapel but it is only open from 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM. We run into an enterprising Cab/Tour guide. He offers to take us to the Coliseum; we are tired of walking so we take him up on his offer. Traffic in Rome is BAD! On the trip over we drove past the "Circus Maxims" where chariot races were held 2000 years ago. The Coliseum is neat with an interesting museum we spend an hour there. We flag down a taxi. No meter we get taken pretty good on this ride. Rick Steves I'm sure would have been helpful with public transportation but sala vie. We clean up, head to dinner at the "Meeting". A large group so we just let the waiter bring whatever he thinks is good for Antipasto. Very good appetizers and interesting. I think it may be impossible to get a bad meal in Italy; they have a passion for food in this country, which is hard to appreciate until you come here. I had shrimp pasta and a very dark chocolate gelato for dessert. Dinner ran $25 per person that was typical for the trip. Off to bed I will try sleeping without Excedrin PM tonight.
Tuesday - Did not sleep well, only slept about 1 hour. Old hands say the second night is often the worst night. Meeting is at Alenia spacecraft builder which is in the suburbs. I feel very fuzzy but I do not have to present today and all I have to do is not snore or fall out of my chair in the back of the room. I get approximately 3 hours of sleep during the presentations. They have a buffet lunch that could not be duplicated at JPL. Spectacular! Great fruit salad, Meats and pasta. We finish up around 5 PM and fight traffic back to Rome and our Hotel. Traffic in the morning and evening is brutal. We have grown to a very large group so we split into 2 groups for dinner. My group ends up at a Sicilian restaurant right next door to the Hotel. We still had a large group so we let the waitress select the Antipasto, some neat roasted vegetables and a seafood salad was among the selections. We were seated in a raised area and the hostess took a bad spill going down the steps. She was wearing 3" heels and was more embarrassed than hurt. High heels are common in Rome. Italy has a passion for shoes as well as food and almost every fashionable woman wears heels. Considering their diets almost all the woman are thin, young men are thin but middle aged and older men are often heavy. We have added Stephano, a scientist from Padova University to our party. He is very helpful with the attractive waitress who speaks almost no English. I have a rolled chicken dish. I've been OK except for the desserts. Hope all the walking is making up for it. Did not get to bed until 11PM, which is typical for dinners in Rome, more Excedrin PM I need some sleep.
Wednesday - I thought I might have today free but the Bog boss Frank implied we are all going to Alenia so I don't rock the boat. This also insures I will arrive at the train station with the rest of the group for the trip to Padova. Joe, Stephano and I are developing a good relationship so I won't be totally bored. Lunch is in the company cafeteria and interesting. You pick different colored poker chips to indicate your entrée and place them on a gray or brown tray to indicate what kind of first course you want place it on a conveyer belt and the right food gets placed on your tray. Good meal but not as good as yesterdays buffet. More meeting then a taxi ride to the train station. Our taxi driver is an old guy with what appears to be a picture of his mother and a saint on his dashboard. A very slow and deliberate driver. Unheard of in Rome. This is the cheapest taxi ride so far. It's been in the low 40's the entire time in Rome and we will be heading 300 miles north, this could get interesting. This is the Euro star high-speed train and we have 1st class seats that cost $65. We have a great meal in the diner. Pasta, Turkey and Fennel and cream pie for dessert. The train takes 4 hours to get to Padova and we arrive at 9 PM. The taxi line is 20 people long and at one taxi per minute we decide to walk. It is a 15-minute walk and Padova is a neat town, down town is almost exclusively walking. Frank finds the Hotel and we check in. Off to bed the Hotel and town have made a good first impression.
Thursday - This is the day that I need to shine I'm the "camera expert" and the University of Padova has built the latest camera for European Space Agency and I'm supposed to evaluate their presentation. This is an old university. It dates from the 1400. Galileo taught here. They still have the lectern he taught from. Tom and Frank the bosses seem to be happy with my questions and interest in the instrument. I need to generate a trip report when I get home. We finish up around 1 PM and instead of going to lunch Joe and I decide to go to Venice. I walk to the train station while Joe goes back to the Hotel to change clothes. As I stand in line some guy comes up and wants to cut in line. He's late and his train leaves in 5 minutes. I say sure as long as he tells the clerk that I need 2 round trip tickets to Venice. You can get around Italy pretty well with only English but having a native speaker speeds thing up. Tickets are 9 dollars total for a 30 mile round trip train ride, very reasonable. It is starting to snow by the time we get to Venice 3:10 PM it is snowing hard. It is degrees 26 F in Venice. Everyone we talk to says you must see this place if you come to Italy. Well they are right this place is amazing, Venice is an Island connected to the mainland by a 6-mile causeway that the train and one road run on. We saw no cars or trucks in the city; I think foot or boat moves everything. The heavy snow makes for a beautiful scene. It is a maze of small walkways and canals. We start looking for a place to eat a late lunch and get in out of the cold. We find an Indian place. Turns out we see several Indian restaurants in Venice not too surprising considering Marco Polo and the spice trade was the foundation of Venice's wealth. Great curried chicken, first really spicy food in Italy. We sit snug and warm and order some hot chocolate, this stuff looks like melted chocolate, they give you a small spoon and it's so thick you can actually eat it with the spoon. The snow stops and we start exploring. The snow is rapidly compacted and is turning to ice! Walking is becoming treacherous especially on the bridges over the canals. Joe is a spacecraft navigator and his reluctance to ask directions is stronger than most males. Nothing is straight in this place and the map we have only shows about 40% of the walkways and truthfully we are lost most of the time. We both agree that our wives would find our geographical uncertainty and cold and ice unacceptable. We are looking for St. Marks Square and not having much success. To give you some idea how cold we are we stop in to shop at several stores just to get warm. I do find the art glass jewelry Wendy is looking for and I solve some of my Female Christmas shopping problems. We find the big bridge over the Grand Canal. Some orthodox Jewish teenagers want me to take their picture. It looks weird to see a 15 year old with a full beard. With all of the terrorist bombing a good time to be out of Israel. About 5:15 PM I start asking directions even though Joe thinks I'm cheating. All the locals say it's very easy to find St. Marks, they are wrong, it isn't easy but eventually we find it. It is spectacular and well worth the effort. Venice was a city-state for most of its history and this is where the governor's palace is. Using Erik's camera I get much better low light sensitivity and the picture look OK we will see when I print them out. We know there is a waterbus the #1 boat that leaves from St. Marks and takes you back to the train station and we are looking for it. We find a water taxi and he offers to take us to the train station for $50 we politely decline and he is kind enough to point out where the #1 boat is leaving. This is a much better deal $3 per person, talk about a local this thing stops every 200 yards, we sit inside and it's still cold, a young couple is keeping warm by necking the entire way. We get to the train station by 6:40PM plenty of time for the 7:04 PM train to Padova and a walk back to the engineering department at the University to car pool to some place in the mountains for dinner. The train station is very full. The schedules are not updating. Last update was at 4 PM and it is almost 7 PM. This is not looking good! The information booth is closed down. Anyone looking official has disappeared. We try to call Stephano but Joe's international cell phone does not work (it calls the US OK but calls in Europe do not work all the time). We buy a phone card and can't make that work either, we are trying to call Stephano's cell phone and that might be part of the problem, we do not have the hotels phone number which is a big mistake, note to self always get a business card from hotel when you register, for about the tenth time we're glad our wife's are not along. We ask locals about going bucks up and getting a cab, they say don't bother the roads will be clogged all night. Seems Venice is like Washington D.C. Four inches of snow brings it to its knees. A train is leaving for Treste, which is not Padova but does go to Mistra first which is 6 miles closer to Padova so we get on. This thing is packed, people standing everywhere. We find seats in one of the last cars. We get to Mistra around 7:40 PM I have to use the restroom, when I'm done Joe spots a train coming in, we run through the tunnel and Joe on his young legs sprints up the stairs and finds some guy who says he "THINKS" the train may be going to Padova. I join Joe and on the train we find two other guys who "THINK" the train may be going to Padova so we go for it. We are sitting in first class but no one is checking tickets on these trains. It is night and nothing looks familiar, it is a long 20 minutes, the train slow and the station is Padova, now will the train stop? YES our travel Karma holds, we're in Padova 40 minutes behind our original schedule! We decide to walk to the engineering department and see if there is a note, again a call to the hotel would have been helpful here. The locals were right, icy roads; traffic jams everywhere in Padova and on the freeways we passed while on the train. Walking is very treacherous; a walk that normally takes 10 minutes takes 30 minutes, I'm proud I have not fallen, have come close several times. There is no note at the university and it is locked tighter than a drum. We head to the Hotel. We get there at 9:30 PM. We have notes waiting for us telling us the dinner has been cancelled and the airport is closed. We find Tom, a co-worker and head out for dinner at a little place around the corner from the Hotel I have raviolis in a butter sauce and a pork dish named "Stinko". Dessert is a phyllo dough cream thing. All of the meals in Italy were great. I decide to try to go home with Tom tomorrow even though we cannot get an airport update, into bed at 11:30PM.
Friday - Up at 3:00 AM did not sleep well at all. This is going to be a sleep deprivation study. We leave the Hotel at 3:30 AM in a taxi. It is 25 miles to the Airport, roads are very icy, freeway is still clogged, it is very slow, and we get on the back roads and averaging 15 miles per hour. We get to the Airport at 6:15 AM, almost 3 hours to go 25 miles! My 6:45 AM flight is cancelled; we have to start re-planning our trip using Omega travel the JPL travel agency. It's an 800 number but Tom's phone does not work. The international phones JPL is getting are not doing the job. We resort to prepaid phone cards; we use the first one up on hold. We buy a second card and finally get a new itinerary. We get a 10 AM flight to Frankfurt and if all goes well we may get a 12:20 PM flight to LAX by way of San Francisco. The flight leaves late, which really bothers the German pilot (The plane must be on TIME!) he apologizes at least 5 times for lateness. We don't get to Frankfurt until 12:15 PM. The SF flight is out, we would not have made in anyway, security is very tight leaving Europe. They check our passports at least 5 times. My original itinerary probably would not have worked, not enough time in Frankfurt. A minor panic occurs when I misplace my notebook with this journal during a move in the waiting area. We moved because of smokers, which is way too prevalent in Italy especially in restaurants. My clothes stink, we sure are spoiled in California. Our back up bookings takes us through Chicago then on to LAX. We will be getting in to LA around 8:30 PM, a very long day. I end up in Economy plus (more leg room Yeh!!) Tom is stuck in the center of 5 seats in economy. I do OK on this leg. A cute German girl is next to me headed to Orlando, She is looking to warm weather. So am I, it's been a cold trip. We get to Chicago on time at 4:15 PM local. Going through customs O'Hare is its typical joy (AKA Bad). Long lines but no big hassle. A travel aide gives Tom and I the responsibility for 2 polish women. We are supposed to push them out of the shuttle train at terminal 3. We are going to 1. I guess Tom and I look trustworthy, I know we look tired. We finally get to gate B3; another crowded airplane and a late departure 6:45 instead of 6:15. My row is full but I have an 8-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister sitting next to my window seat. Small quiet kids are almost as good as empty seats. Mom and Dad and one other brother are across the aisle. They are on the first leg of a trip to New Zealand. My eyes are burning and I have to stop reading, not sleeping much. Will need sleep soon. The kids are impressed with the fact that Tom and I send robots to Mars. Nice parents also. Land a little late; I get home and into bed about 10 PM, about 50 hours without much sleep. An interesting trip, I find out I have a lot more in common with the Italians than I thought, we are both very snobby about our food. The poor sleeping was a pain and December is cold in Italy but anyone who has a chance to see Italy should do so; I plan to go back before I get too old.