Race to Exit Italy

I woke up and checked my watch. It was 4:15 which was 15 minutes before my alarm was set to sound. Sighing I rolled over and shut my eyes hoping to squeeze as much sleep as I could out of the available time before facing either a full day of travel or one of sight-seeing. I did not seem to be able to drift off, however, and decided that the alarm must be just about to go off so might as well wake up. When I sat up and checked my watch it read 6:12—over an hour past my planned wake-up time!

A small wave of panic washed over me as while I had gave myself a little extra time to get to the airport just in case there were unforeseen circumstances, it was more like a 15 minute buffer and not an hour and 15 minute one. I quickly checked my math from the night before to see where I stood. My plane took off at 7:20 which meant it started boarding around 6:50. I had a 20 minute drive to the airport after checking out of the hotel and getting my receipt. Then I had to return the car, check in with the airline as they did not allow electronic check-in, make it through security and finally get to my gate. Adding all this up I really did not see how it was possible for me to make my flight, but decided I would give it a go.

My flight took me through Rome and I had earlier tried to change my reservations so I could spend a day in the ancient city. However the corporate travel representative I contacted earlier in the week stated that changing my ticket to do this would cost an extra $2000. I did not think that my employer would be interested in funding a mini-vacation for me, so declined. I still held out hope that there would be some sort of delay stranding me in Rome for the day, (which is probably the first time I have wished for that sort of inconvenience), or that I could work something out directly with the airline. Perhaps me somehow sleeping through my alarm, (or as it turned out when I looked at it later, me never setting the alarm in the first place), was a subconscious effort on my part to try and force some sort of delay. If I missed my flight to Rome, though, I knew that they would probably try to reroute me through Amsterdam as there was a later flight that way, so would probably miss out on Rome anyway.

Luckily I had packed the night before and had my clothes out and ready. All I had to do was take a two minute shower, (well, I suppose I didn’t have to take a shower, but I wanted to), get dressed, (which I probably did have to do in order to avoid being arrested), throw the various electronics charging on the desk into my backpack and head to the front desk.

Of course being early on a Saturday morning there was no one standing at attention behind the front desk. I would just leave the keycard in the little box that they have on the counter, but really needed a receipt in order to submit my expense report and, more importantly, be reimbursed for the hotel charges. Luckily me throwing out a questioning “buongiorno” (good morning) was met by a cough and the scraping of a chair behind a small partition followed by a clerk.

After grabbing my receipt and jogging to the car I set off to the airport driving like an Italian i.e. fast and furious with no regard to life or limb, (ok, maybe an exaggeration, but many do seem to drive like race car drivers on tracks without traffic lanes). 15 minutes later I parked the car in the rental lot and slid the keys into their after-hours drop box. Then it was a quick jog across the street and up the stairs to get in line at the single agent available. A few people were in front of me and the family currently taking the attendant’s attention seemed to be wrapped up in trying to figure out some complex problem that would take a while to unravel. Luckily another airline employee finally took post at the counter and waved the next person over.

With the clock still ticking I made it to the front of the line, (the family trying to solve world hunger or something like that still deep in discussion with the other agent). My watch said 6:52 which meant that they were probably just starting the boarding process. The lady looked at my ticket and seemed a little amused asking if I was supposed to be on the 7:22 flight to Rome. I confirmed and asked if I would make it. “That is a question,” she said while scanning my passport.

(Now I should convey the pitch of her voice as she said that. To me the inflection came across as her saying something along the lines of “that is a very good question” as in she had no idea if I would make my flight or not. I do not think that she was making a statement about how I had just asked a question. Sometimes words get lost or dropped in translation.)

She then asked if I had any bags to check to which I replied in the negative. “Good,” she said, “because they would not make it.” Then some more typing and she muttered a comment about the flight being closed. I said, “oh, no”, but she just kept typing and payed no attention to me. Then she said again that “the flight is closed”, and again kept typing. At some point there was also a phone call which she answered and seemed to help out the person on the other end as well as a side discussions with the person next to her. I could not tell if the conversations had anything to do with me or my predicament or something completely different. In fact I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, so just waited to see how things panned out. Finally the lady produced a couple boarding passes and gave them to me along with my passport telling me “gate nine” and a time which I though sounded like “9:22”.

At this point I was not sure if I had missed the flight—it being, as far as I could tell, “closed” and all—and I was put on a later flight, (one at 9:22 perhaps), or if I had to talk to the gate agent as my boarding pass said it was for the 7:22 flight. Most importantly I did not know what sort of urgency there was for me to get to gate 9. I decided to take it at a quick trot as there was still about 20 minutes before takeoff, (and probably 10 minutes before they closed the doors). There was a line to get through security, but thanks to my airline status I was able to use the fast lane which had no patrons. Once clearing the metal detector and throwing my various electronic and liquids back into my luggage it was a quick jog to the gate, (the Turin airport is not that large—it only takes a couple of minutes to walk from one side to the other).

My grandfather was quite proficient in getting to the airplane at the last possible minute. I remember at least one time and probably more when we got there and the door was already closed, but then they would open it for him. (That would never happen today.) That memory came to me as I arrived at the gate and got in line behind the small handful of people still waiting to board the plane. A few minutes later and I would have been out of luck.

After we landed and the doors opened, an older man in the front row dressed in black and wearing a long chain with what I guessed was a cross hanging from it stood along with a younger man in a suit and wearing sunglasses. The pilot shook the older man’s hand before the older man and his assistant / bodyguard descended down the stairs while the rest of the passengers waited in the plane. A car was waiting for him at the bottom of the staircase and only after it pulled away did the rest of us deplane. I assume that this was some church official heading to the Vatican.

Once we reached the main terminal, (we had to ride a bus to get there from the plane), I decided to try and postpone my flight to Detroit until tomorrow. I had a three-hour layover, (which meant two hours before they started boarding). That seemed like plenty of time to get to the airline lounge and talk to someone. However I had to first go through passport control which was—for people without European passports or flights within 60 minutes anyway—quite crowded. Then after making it through that I followed signs to the lounge until they stopped appearing. I kept going in the direction in which the last sign had pointed, but then things branched out into a couple spokes leading to gates, so I circled back and went upstairs. This time I found a lounge, but it was for a different airline and I was told to go downstairs. Now, I had just covered downstairs, but tried again. This time I noticed a sign oriented and placed in a somewhat difficult location to see saying that the lounge was down one of the hallways I had ignored before as it seemed to only head to gates.

The lounge was pretty small and they said that they didn’t have the right systems to try and rebook my flight, so sent me to the gate. After grabbing some water and freshening up it was back to trying to navigate my roller bag through the fray that was the Rome airport on a Saturday where never-ending hordes of school groups and families seemed to be on their way home from or out to holiday.

By the time I arrived at the gate my current flight’s boarding time was about 15 minutes away. I had to make it through a final security screening to finally reach a gate agent who I asked if it was possible for me change my flight to tomorrow as I had never been to Rome. “Oh, you need to see Rome,” she said typing away at her keyboard. A couple minutes later she regretfully told me that the flight to Detroit tomorrow was full and the best she could do is get me to New York that day. While that was somewhat tempting, I did not think it a good idea, so told her to just keep my current flight and I would have to come back some time. “Oh, you must come back and see Rome,” she exclaimed! Then while printing my boarding passes she turned to the lady behind her and said, “Mr. Stein here was trying to change his flight because he did not get to see Rome, but the flight is full!”

“Oh, that is terrible,” the other lady replied, “you really must see Rome!” PS. We were scheduled to depart about 10 minutes early, but after we were all boarded and ready to go the captain came on and said that our flight was delayed due to an ATC (air traffic control) issue. They had been told that it might be an hour before they could get a new lane, but he was hoping something would crop up sooner. He advised us to “stay in our seats” as if we aren’t he can’t move and we could miss our slot. Thankfully it was only about a five minute delay. Later in the air the captain told us that the ATC issue was due to people in France on strike and that our route had passed over an area served by some striking ATC workers, so had to be rerouted.

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