Monday, October 18, 2010

Marys in the Overhead

When you tell people about long bike rides, they often shake their heads and say things like, "I could never do that. It would just hurt too much."

Right now, I'm at 32,000 feet over France, in a shakey shiny metal cylinder. The guy in front of me has his seat levered back so that it's resting on my left knee; my right knee is wedged against the bulkhead, under the armrest. (Airplane seats are not designed for 6' 2" people.) There's a baby 15 rows ahead of me -- I can only imagine how jarring the crying is in row 21 -- and a strange aroma keeps wafting up from a few rows back that could be someone's lunch, or maybe a recurrence from last night's dinner. We've got just eight hours of flying ahead -- about the amount of time that a fast 200K takes.

Travel like this hurts too much.

It's times like this that I fantasize about doing this kind of trip some other way ... any way that would not require me to get on an airplane or in a car. It's not that I'm afraid to fly, and it's not really on pure ecological grounds. Planes are necessary, and (compared to cars) not that big a polluter. I kind of like the view from a plane, and I like getting where I need to be relatively quickly. To be honest, I just have an aversion to being anywhere surrounded by lots of other people.

And it's not even that I don't like people, either. I am people. Some of my best friends are people. RandoGirl and the RandoDaughter are people, and most of my fellow randonneurs are people (or so they assure me). I often like meeting strangers, talking to them, and finding a different perspective on things.

But when you get this many of them all around me in a really small place, I immediately want out.

RandoGirl and I had a great time on the last days of our cycling trip. We had a few more days of really great long rides to beautiful locations. We went inland, stopping for a picnic on a nice quiet road surrounded by groves of orange and olive trees. We went back to the coast for quaint hotels on rugged shores with lovely sunsets.

Sunset over the sea in Agrigento

Sunday morning, we travelled to the Palermo airport with Ray and Sharon, a couple from Vancouver who had been on our trip. We took a cab to the Agrigento train station, and then crossed Sicily via the interior. From the train, it looked like nice quiet farmland interspersed with stark granite mountains. I kept wishing that I could have traversed this by bicycle, even though it was about 250 kilometers.

In Palermo, we took a bus to the airport. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, and everyone was out and about. There were bicycles everywhere in the city -- many folks just rambling around town, and some guys out doing their training.

Bike lane in Palermo

At the airport, we got to pay a fee for our luggage. Now, we had a lot of luggage -- probably too much -- but we had packed according to what we thought were the airport allowances. We were wrong, obviously, but you really have to wonder whether the airlines purposely try to make their baggage rules on their websites confusing, or if they are just lucky obfuscation amateurs.

Anyway, eventually we got on the first small silver tube. It wasn't too bad, as planes go. It was full, of course, and the seats were too small, and it smelled funny. But it took off on time -- at least, for Sicily -- and arrived.

At the Rome airport, we got our bags, ate a quick dinner, and headed for ground transportation. We had considered seeing if the Courtyard by Marriott had a shuttle, but could not figure it out. Finally, we went to the taxi stand and asked one of the drivers how much ("Cuanta costa" in Italian) for a ride to the Courtyard by Marriott in Fumiciano (which is the same city where the airport is). He said 20 euro, which was acceptable.

Of course, he couldn't be the one to drive us. I'm not sure if the older, irascible gentleman who grabbed our bags was supposed to be the next guy in line or what, but we ended up in his cab. I repeated the directions: Courtyard by Marriott in Fumciano -- via Portuense. "Si, si," he answered, and began the usual Rome taxi driving thrill ride on the autostrade. We quickly fastened our seat belts.

RandoGirl and I looked at one another when we saw the sign saying that we were leaving Fumiciano. I wanted to show the driver the address again, but he was weaving in and out of Saabs, Fiats, and Mercedes at over 100 kph. When he finally slowed down for the traffic, I held up the piece of paper on which I had written the hotel address again, saying, "Courtyard by Marriott ... Fumiciano."

"Si, si," he answered. "Marriott," pointing to a hotel on a hill. Hmm, we thought. It doesn't look like Courtyard by Marriotts usually do in the States, but he's the cab driver. Those guys are supposed to know.

We pulled up, and a bellhop came out for our bags. "Is this the Courtyard by Marriott?" RandoGirl asked.

"No, no," he replied. "That is in Fumiciano." Then he started to give the cab driver directions, but the driver said no, thanks. He could find it.

Back into the cab we go, and the cab driver is putting the address into his GPS. He wants Via Portuense in Rome -- we both tell him, "No! Fumiciano!"

He mumbles something under his breath, but all we catch is "Americano."

Soon, sure enough, we are on Via Portuense. The driver is going along, looking at addresses, and grumbling ... a lot. Apparently, Via Portuense parallels the autostrade, but he is insistent on staying on this busy street to take us to the hotel, which he seems to think must be close.

About 45 minutes and a half-dozen traffic-choked roundabouts later, we pull into the Courtyard by Marriott. Throughout this debacle, I had been watching the meter on the cab, which now read "68.50." After we get the bags out, I hand the driver the agreed upon 20 euro, plus a two-euro tip. He, somewhat predictably, explodes.

"No! No! This is impossible!" he cries. "Seventy!"

"No!" I reply. "You agreed! Twenty euro. It is not our fault that you took us first to the wrong hotel."

"No! No!" he said. "You said Marriott!"

"We said Courtyard by Marriott. In Fumiciano"

"Si, si, Marriott."

He then gave me back my 20 Euro bill and told me that I was a stupid American. I pointed out that at least I knew the difference between a Courtyard by Marriott and a Marriott, and he tried a few more times to pick a fight with me. RandoGirl and I started to walk away, and he asked for the 20 back. I gave it to him, and he said a few other things in Italian.

But I don't speak Italian. I'm a stupid American.

After a rather comfortable night at the Courtyard by Marriott, it took us five minutes on the six-euro shuttle to get back to the airport. There, we stood in line to give our bags, and then stood in another line to pay 50 euro for the extra bag. (Lufthansa and Alitalia must use the same lawyers to document their baggage policies ... or maybe it's the stupid American in me again.) This left us rushing for the gate, with a quick stop at the duty free store for a few bottles of Brunello di Montepulciano.

Back at baggage check-in, we had noticed a group of German tourists carrying large statues of the Virgin Mary. All of these folks were on our flight, which meant that their statues had to be properly stowed before we could leave the gate. Once the overhead bins were full of Virgin Marys, there wasn't enough room for the small carry-ons with which every European travels. (This is a sensible way of avoiding the extra-bag fee that only stupid Americans end up paying.) As a result, the area beneath every seat was crammed, jammed, and chock-a-block before we could finally push away from the gate ... half an hour past our appointed time.

Mary in a hoody

RandoGirl and I were a little worried now. We had a two-hour layover in Munich before our flight to Washington, DC, and then our final connection home to Nashville. Two hours had seemed like plenty when we were booking the flights ... but, then, three bags had not seemed excessive then, either.

After an hour and a half bumpy ride in another smelly metal cylinder, we jumped off the plane in Munich and ran for our gate. We had to go through another passport check, of course, and then another security screening, but we made it to the plane with a full 15 minutes to spare before the plane pushed away.

Getting to our seats, we would have heaved a sigh of relief ... but we were on another cramped, stinky cylinder and could not draw sufficient breath to heave said sigh ... without gagging on the stench of last night's stale bratwurst.

And, so, here we are on said same stinky cylinder. They just brought RandoGirl a cold Diet Coke in the smallest can I've ever seen.

In Europe it's Coke Light

I had been planning to do Paris-Brest-Paris next year. Maybe I can come over on a boat.

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