The Trials & Triumphs of Travel (and being Trapped in a Pandemic Paradise)
Well…where to begin?!
After having checked out of my loft at the villa I had reserved in the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Bari. My host graciously offered me a ride to the airport; which was wonderfully kind. Given, it allowed me to not have to expose myself to more people than necessary, as my travels were truly set to begin – once leaving out of the comforting confines of their seaside sanctuary.
And, interestingly enough, as we made our way to Puglia’s airport, we were not pulled over by the police. (Who were dutiful in their methods of ascertaining why drivers were on the roadways.) Much unlike the other vehicles just ahead and after us; which was not only fascinating, but made me feel as if my steps were being ordered & protected in a sense.
So, after I bid, Nico, a fond farewell, thanking him profusely. I made my way into the emptiest airport I have ever witnessed to date. And believe me, it was eerie to witness…
Furthermore, when I finally boarded my flight out of Bari, there were only eight of us passengers on the entire plane. Which I’m certain seated well over 200 people under normal situations…
Additionally, the inspection process was as effortless as any I have ever encountered! Given I passed through security with not nary a problem…simply saying, “I’m a US citizen”, and was waved through. The polizia, didn’t even look at, or ask me for my passport!
The only slight issue I encountered, was shortly after having checked-in at Alitalia. Where the extremely kind Ticketing Agent, Giuseppe, noticed that I wasn’t wearing a mask. And politely informed me that due to their newly enacted policy – I had to wear one in order to board my scheduled flight. So, fortunately, he walked over to the plexiglass service desk and appeared with a small stash of muslin. Which I later discovered had perforated edges, that fit flawlessly over my ears and acted as a makeshift mask. One that I wore whilst on the plane, and during the long line-up, upon my arrival.
Now, when I arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, it was a totally different story. Because, as I rounded the corner after having collected my luggage from Alitalia’s baggage carrousel. I walked through a peculiar passage way only to discover a sizable crowd had collected. And quickly realized, that this was due to being made to funnel through two (out of the eight possible automatic) doors for temperature screening. Then, we were haphazardly handed a document similar to the one below; which needed to be completed before we could pass through to the main terminals of the airport. Mind you, no one reviewed the document once it was completed. Meaning, that people could have written complete gibberish – just to get away from the swelling swarm of lost souls, as we were slowly sifted through a sea of people in order to get safely to the other side.
And, after having done my part in conforming with the new guidelines put in place by the Prime Minister of Italy. I finally made my way through the airport and was able to secure a seat along a long solitary hallway, several feet away from those that had also set up temporary lodgings for the night. This was due in part, because most of the accommodations in the ‘Eternal City’ were either full or closed, due to the lack of business from the contagion killing off the collective history found amongst the elders scattered across this country.
I made this precarious decision, only for the simple fact, that I figured it would allow me to be one of the first to make my way to the check-in counter, as early as possible the next morning. Or at least, that was my goal in having placed myself in that position.
Though, when I collected my belongings and readied myself at 6:15am the next day. I happened to stop at the airport’s information desk, in order to ask where I could find the check-in counter for Finnair. And, I surprisingly learned from the Information Agent, that my flight was not only cancelled, but that Finnair & American Airlines had seemingly closed up shop – so to speak. Given the only airline operating in all of Italy was their national airline – Alitalia!!!
Mind you, the last time I had checked – via phone and online, everything was ALL CLEAR!
Though, when taking a quick peak at American Airlines’ website, moments later, I learned that it had been updated to CANCELLED.
However, prior to these checks, and moments after speaking with the Information Agent. I began contacting both Finnair & American to find out what indeed the hell was happening.
Not to mention, that I had dutifully called (when I was in Bari), and even waited on hold for over an hour before having the opportunity to speak to anyone days before my scheduled departure from Rome.
Oh, and note the paragraph under the heading, “DO THIS IF YOU HAVE A BOOKING FOR 16 MARCH – 30 JUNE“. Given, I never once received any form of notification!
“When your flight is cancelled, we’ll contact you personally via SMS and/or e-mail. As the number of cancelled flights is high, we cancel the flights gradually. We are now cancelling flights from 16 March – 30 June from our systems, and we can’t cancel all flights at once. This means it will take some time, even several weeks before you receive the message about your cancelled flight. Please see below what you can do, if you have a booking for 16 March – 30 June 2020.” —Finnair
And, after reading the page above, I surmised that they were simply reverting me back to contacting them directly. So, I began the dance of jumping through hoops that the trials of traveling during a world-wide pandemic had put into place.
Which propelled me to contact the US Embassy in Rome; something I had done previously – beginning the day that the first set of restrictions went into place, on March 10, and in doing so, I spoke to a woman by the name of Donna. Even though she wasn’t able to provide much aid then, much of what she had shared was only simple suggestions.
Though, I wanted to see what, if anything, they – The US Embassy, would do for their citizens caught between a wave of cross-cultural confusion, and what has now become a worldwide crisis. And quickly learned that nothing would be done! Well, other than being sent a list of not so ‘affordable’ hotels in Rome. In addition to telling me that I should seek financial assistance from family & friends in the form of having individuals wire me money to assist in my prolonged stay – if that’s what I needed to ensure a comfortable stay. Which prompted me to call the Lord’s name, but never in vain!!
Mind you, I realized even before I called them, emailed them, and waited for their call back – that they really aren’t in the business of helping the distressed. But, of course I thanked the woman that could not & would not give me her name. Though, I had talked to Donna twice, (back on March 10 and that morning in the airport) and she gave me her name both times. Shoot, I even reminded Donna of our prior discussion, from earlier in the month.
And, after having contacted and receiving an inept reply from the ‘American Citizens Services’. I became fully aware that my safety was in my hands, and my hands alone. Oh, and the individual I spoke with at the embassy, had the nerve to tell me that I could purchase a ticket with Alitalia, the Italian airline (the only one allowed to operate), but that they are only funneling flights into JFK, Dallas & LAX. Places where the virus is swarming like bees around an aggravated hive. Oh, and ask me where I live…Washington State!! Nowhere near those airports. So, I ended up buying two train tickets; which permitted me to leave the airport, and thusly arrive back in Bagnoregio, where I have been staying with a ‘gentleman’ I had befriended there previously…
However, upon arriving at the train station in Orvieto, I had to enact a level of patience that only God can permit in times of peril. Because, not one person at the cafè attached to the station (nor the polizia, because I called them, too) could inform me if the taxis, let alone buses where operating; which would allow me passage to the cozy commune I had sought to stay in during my extended time.
Now, mind you, I had reviewed Rome2Rio’s website prior to leaving the airport in Rome. Because the person I was going to be staying with was “too afraid” to chance being stopped by the polizia en-route to pick me up in a commune a mere 30 minutes away from his home.
So, I waited, and waited, and waited, and nearly two hours later – the bus, my bus, arrived. (This was well after the cafè and the cable car station that leads up to Orvieto, had closed for the day. Mind you, the train station was closed upon my arrival.) And, the first entity I thanked was Jehovah, followed by the driver, after I had boarded. I suppose being the only passenger on a bus the size of a Greyhound made it feel like it was going faster than it was, but I swear that man drove that bus like Large Marge drove that semi, in Pee-wee Herman’s movie – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Because, we whipped around curves and the tiniest of streets for the next hour, like a ride at the county fair, that I had gotten on by accident. Thinking that it was a part of the children’s attractions. And instead, was operated by runaway felons with nothing to lose!
That expressed, that day, like countless others in Italy, have been a life-long learning affair that I will NEVER forget.
So, in earnest, I’m thankful to have met someone that wasn’t too afraid to let me stay with them. Because, most of the people here are extremely paranoid. Furthermore, the reason I went to Bari, was to visit a former classmate from the jewelry academy that I had received a scholarship from back in 2015. Mainly, because once I had arrived in Italy (in late January), she had asked me to come there and see her. Though, when I informed her that I was en-route, heading further south (given that I was in Matera prior to that departure), she became unresponsive. So much so, that she did not email me until two nights before I was scheduled to leave Puglia. Though, I had been there for nine days, and I replied, in time – letting her know that I was fortunate for the villa I had rented and the fact that the host went above & beyond to accommodate me in my time of need. Furthermore, it’s in times such as these, that one is made keenly aware of who is and isn’t a friend that one can count on when in need.
Now, I find myself back where I had began my research for my fellowship, in Bagnoregio, a tiny commune above the clouds. Where I’m fed delicious homemade meals, and chatted up about everything under the sun. Because, surprisingly, most individuals are extremely fond of practicing their English language skills when they hear me speak. Especially after learning that I’m a US citizen, and a former Teacher of the subject as well. So, being amply accommodated during this part of my ongoing adventure has placed me in a position that many are not as fortunate to receive. Given, I could have stayed in Rome, if only I had found reasonable accommodations for the remainder of my stay.
Because, when I left the airport, I witnessed thousands of people apparently stuck, with nowhere else to go; whilst waiting (indeterminately) for their flights to be redirected. And, having to be made to camp out in the airport can become pretty expensive. Especially given how costly the food is in there – something many of us are keenly aware of…let alone the fact, that it increases ones chances of becoming more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus.
So, in the meantime, I’m patiently sitting, writing, reading, running stairs, and staring out the window – longing for the day that I can go outside, and ultimately, home.
Lastly, it seems beyond bizarre that the earliest flight out of Italy via American (or any other US based airline), isn’t until April. Though, the national airline of Italy is permitted to travel to and fro. Though, only if you’re willing to purchase a secondary ticket through their carrier; which isn’t the least bit cheap!!