Lessons learned…

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Italy - Milano, Spain - Zaragoza | Posted on 22-09-2010


So late Saturday night, after a fantastic italian dinner that keep going until almost 4am, I came home and stumbled about as I packed things up for our transfer the next day… (I can’t transfer with Chris’ tour, but I always send a few things along in Chris’ tour baggage so my carry-on isn’t too stuffed) I didn’t have to get up until noon, so I went to bed and mumbled a ‘loveyouhaveasafetrip’ to Chris when he rolled off to work around 5:30am.

It was about 11am when I woke up and realized that I’d packed my passport in that checked baggage.

Travel Lesson 1 for the day: Pack before a few bottles of wine, not after.

In a panicked frenzy, I called Chris to find out if the luggage was already on the plane, and unforuntately it was and they were just about to take off.

At noon, I went and met up with the other people I was going to fly to Spain with, and figured I’d tag along to the airport and see if I could try and board with some supporting ID and 10 people confirming my story was real and I really was just a guy stuck in a bind.

Unfortunately we were flying RyanAir — aka: fuck you airlines.
Their business model is based more around screwing people who don’t read the fine print than on good service, and as I’d just flagged myself as someone who’s ticket they could resell and make more money, there was no hope of talking myself onto the plane, so I waved goodbye to my fellow travellers and walked out of the airport into the sun as the revelation set in: I was in Italy, my passport was in Spain, and I had no idea how I was going to get there as every travel option (car, plane, border crossings, etc) would require a passport.

First step was getting back into Milan, so I hopped a bus back into town which gave me an hour to think, and I knew the fastest way to Zaragoza where my passport would be was via Barcelona. I’d never had my passport checked on a train before, so it was decreed – I was taking a train to Barcelona.

When the bus dropped me off at Milano Centrale, I went to the ticketing to find a lineup of at least 200 people out the door, and across the station. Like all things Italian, the booking agent’s computer terminals had decided they didn’t feel like working on a Sunday and had shut down… No problem, I thought, I’ll just go and use the auto-kiosks… I walked up, punched in Barcelona, and found a train that was leaving that evening for 150 euros, and all was well.

Chris had landed in Spain and sorted out his work by then and was back in phone contact. I told him what was going on, and that I was taking a train that evening, and would come fetch my passport. As he books travel for a living, it should have been a red flag when he said he couldn’t find that train available online, but he was busy and I was thankful to have a direction in mind as I killed a few hours around the train station. 20 minutes before my train was set to depart, Chris phoned me back and said “Do not get on that train”…

Travel Lesson 2 for the day: Not only is there a Barcelona, Spain, but there is also a Barcelona on the far southern tip of Italy.

Now, remember how I’d said that the computers had gone down for the day and there was a massive angry lineup waiting? Well, that was now about 300 people long, and was of course where I had to go in search of a refund for my ticket.

2 hours later, I got to the front of the line.
Luckily I ended up with a very nice helpful woman who spoke a little bit of english, and though they don’t usually give refunds for tickets you purchase yourself via the self service kiosks, argued with her boss on my behalf for a good 20 minutes and got permission to give a refund.

Of course, that’d be simple if the computers were working but there was about a half hour more of paperwork and back and forth looking for manual printouts from a backroom and quibbling with bosses before the refund was completed.

Travel Lesson 3 for the day: Refunds on train tickets in Italy are subject to a 20% you’re-making-us-work fee.

Finally, with most of my money back in hand I asked her “So how do I get to Barcelona, Spain?” and was informed that there was no train on Sundays to there – but there was an overnight on Monday that I could catch.

It was now going on about 8pm and I walked out of the train station and looked around trying to figure out what to do next… If I was going to stay overnight in Milan, I was going to need somewhere to sleep, so I popped into a couple hotels near the train station to ask about rooms.

Travel Lesson 4 for the day: It is illegal to check into a hotel room in Italy without italian id, or a valid passport.

After being turned away from a couple hotels that looked more like crackdowns than hotels, I went to an internet cafe and went in search of other accommodations in the area. I found a hotel that looked decent a short walk away, and booked myself a room (and entered my passport number online). I walked over to the hotel and presented my booking information, and of course was asked for my passport. I explained the situation, that I did not have my passport on me, but that I was going to get it tomorrow and just needed a place to stay for the night and I had other information to confirm my identity that the reservation was made under.

Being Italy, the guy had to make a big dramatic show of the difficulty with the situation. It took just under an hour, with me promising not to leave the hotel except to grab some dinner, and that if i ended up in the hospital I wouldn’t tell the police where I was staying, and a lot of unnecessary back and forth for him to finally hand over the keys. (Honestly, I think it really just came down to the fact that since I’d already paid for the room online that it’d be a pain in the ass for him to refund the ticket that got me in).

Having found a place to stay, i went out for some great dinner at a local little pizzeria, picked up a bottle of wine and some snacks and bunkered down for some rest after what’d been a stressful and draining day.

The next day I woke up, enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in the hotel, went and bought my train ticket to Barcelona (double checking that it was to Spain) and wandered out to kill 10 hours in Milan.

Things were flowing a lot better today, and even though I’d spent a week in Milan, it was on this day that I really figured Milan out. The day was sunny and clear and beautiful. It was the start of fashion week so the 4 hour stroll along the fashion streets was incredible and amazing as all the designers had their window displays ready to wow. I climbed to the top of the Duomo, a giant intricate marble cathedral in the centre of town and laid on the cold marble roof in the shade of a spire for a while. I wandered through parks and watched families meet up for long lazy picnic lunches. I had a great meal and some wine off the main square watching the people and their impeccable fashion senses stroll by.

Travel Lesson 5 for the day: Milan’d be a great place if you have a spare hundred grand or so to blow on some shopping, or alternatively, have one afternoon to whittle away and people watch.

Finally around 9pm it was time to catch my train, so I went back to the station and hopped on board and settled into my seat to enjoy the ride.

Remember how I said that on a train I’d never had my passport checked? Putting that back in perspective, I realize now that was because I’d only ever taken them within a country, never across borders…

Travel Lesson 6 for the day: Crossing borders by train requires a passport.

An hour or so into the train ride, the porter came around to check tickets, and asked for my passport. Seems that being an overnight train, rather than wake everyone, he takes the passports and presents them at the customs crossings.

I asked to speak to him privately and explained to him my situation: how I was on tour, and my passport had accidentally gone ahead of me, and that I was on my way to go get it. (I may have also added a little bit of cute and flirty which seemed to be received well by the gentleman). He said he believed me and understood my situation, but that it was really up to the customs agents, but he would see what he could do. He took my driver’s license as id and attached it to my ticket and wandered off…

Rolling forward was the most stressful train ride of my life – I knew we had to cross at least two borders before our destination, but I didn’t know at what time, when or where to expect the customs crossings. Every stop I’d be pumping adrenaline waiting with baited breath, clenched muscles and crossed fingers until the train would start rolling again. I had no idea what would happen if I got pulled off the train without a passport: I wouldn’t be able to go back from where I came so which country would I be stuck in? Would I just get kicked back to Canada? Visions of being stuck in limbo in a Spanish jail cell washed over me…

It was about midnight when we finally hit the French customs.

The train stopped, and they came on board and after about 15 minutes 3 agents entered our car. They walked the train and randomly requested people to step out to answer some questions, or to open their luggage for a search. They didn’t ask me to do so, and left the car while I sat with ever muscle tensed, sweating and anxious, waiting to be pulled from the train.

30 minutes later, the train started rolling again…
And I exhaled with joy so hard I almost cried.

The next few hours were waves of restless sleep broken by bursts of anxious tension ever time we’d pull into another station, but then the sun came up and there was but a brief pause as the station signs switched from french to spanish.

An hour outside of Barcelona, the porter came by to return our passports and pulled my driver’s license from the inside of another passport and gave it back to me with a bit of a wink.

Travel Lesson 7 for the day: Flirting helps.

From Barcelona, it was only a high speed train to Zaragoza, and the three security checkpoints to get onto the train were all ok with my story and flashings of different IDs and credit cards to back it up, and I was rolling towards Zaragoza where a few hours later I was reunited with my passport and a very much appreciated hug.

[Note: of course there’s a lot of frantic phone calls, emails and moral support that were left out of this relaying of the tale, but I’d like to add that I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of Chris… he’s rather good at that helping-get-me-there thing as well as the keeping-me-from-losing-my-shit thing… I’m a fan.]

Nearly Milan.

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Italy - Milano | Posted on 18-09-2010


A week in Milan…
Well, kind of…

We were a 130euro cab ride from the airport and a 50 euro cab ride from downtown. We were staying at a big box mall community way out of town that was supposed to be joined to the metro line by summer 2009. It’s Italy though, so they’d just kind of stopped working on that and left the area to deal with the lack of foot traffic a metro line would bring.

I took the bus/train fiasco into town one day, and it started torrentially raining as soon as I got downtown. There’s only so many times you can be poked in the eye by umbrellas and then glared at like it’s your fault before you just want to go home and dry off.

There were 2 highlights of the week though:

On wednesday night there was a crew party at a dance studio that I helped decorate that was a lot of fun both to set up and enjoy later in the evening (definitely a reminder that I’m missing a creative outlet on the road). Great band, lots of drinks, good food, and a very nice fire in the back yard made for a very nice night.

On Saturday night before transfer, the restaurant that catered the party on Weds invited us for a late night meal that was really fantastic. A small, hidden little place that pushed the tables together so the 20+ of us could all drink great wine and eat many courses of great food, repeatedly cycling with more bottles of wine and more courses of food… a really nice night of socializing in a memorable environment with some friendly faces…

A very nice way to wind up a week in Milan that wasn’t really a week in Milan; It was more of a week in a nice hotel on the outskirts of Milan where I got a ton of work done.

But it was during what happened next that I accidentally gained a better appreciation and understanding of the city…