Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Italian Job

Of course we all know what Italians are like. Their tanks go fastest in reverse, their favorite after-dinner game is bunga-bunga and they (both men and women) are slim and sexy when young (and who cares when they are old?).

I have therefore found our current holiday to the Lake Como region of Italy very instructive.

First of all, their trains. Since Mussolini was resigned from his job they aren't quite as punctual. Nor are their steamers or buses. On Sunday, Colleen and I took the steamer down the lake. Being the last day of September, the steamers were doing their last runs of the season. Having spent the day at Bellagio and Varenna (please note the word “spent”; Bellagio has more designer label shops per square meter than Beverley Hills or Monaco), we took the last steamer up the lake, which has about a dozen stopping points. It set off a few minutes late yet somehow arrived early.

How did it achieve this, with all those scheduled stops en route? Easy. As it approached each berth, it sounded its horn. If someone on the ship or the shore didn't make their intentions known immediately, the engines revved up and it sailed on by.

Now, just imagine you are a tourist at Lake Como. You have had a lovely day, ending, say, at Dongo. You are early for your steamer so you cross the road to the local ristorante and have a glass of vino or a birro media. You are just taking the last, perfectly-timed sip when you hear the steamer’s horn. “Excellent”, you think, putting down your glass, collecting your hat and waiting for a break in the Sunday traffic so you can cross the road to the jetty. That's when you hear the engine revving up, notice the bow wave surging and see the last boat before spring 2013 disappearing into the beautiful evening distance.

Repeat that half a dozen times and - presto! - the once-late steamer arrives early so that Captain Giuseppe and First Officer Giovanni can be welcomed back to the bosom of their families to prepare for the long winter nights.

Colleen and I observed this from the steamer and made sure the captain, first officer, barman, scullery-maid and ship’s cat knew we needed to disembark at Domaso.  While the ship was tied up to the jetty.

Stepping on to terra firma, we made our way to the gelateria to buy a bus ticket. “No!” said the lady behind the counter. “Buy on bus!” Previous experience (another story) had taught us not to argue with her. We waited at the bus stop, foolishly early, which meant we were just in time to catch it.

Marco, the driver, refused to sell us a ticket. When we tried to explain, he just jerked his head to the rear of the bus. We could see his point. It was Sunday night and he was heading home, early if possible. The last thing he wanted to have to do was spend thirty minutes filling in a cash reconciliation for a measly €3.

The following day we took the train to Chiavenna. It is such a pleasure taking a train in Italy. You walk off the road, on to the platform and on to the train. In England there are electronic gates, which will let you or your bag through, but not both; security scans; full body pat-downs; passport control; and doors which close thirty seconds before departure meaning that if you are on time you miss the train. That's just at my rural station. Try any of the big London stations and you need to be there about two days before departure. Heaven knows how commuters manage.

In Italy, thirty seconds is ample. So there we were sitting on the train chugging from Colico to Chiavenna when the ticket inspector entered our carriage. I was struck by my usual panic. Where's my ticket? I thought it was in my inside pocket? Oh, hell, I am going to be arrested! I wonder what Italian jails are like? Oh, there it is. Whew.

I grasped it in my sweaty hand and prepared to present it.

And waited. 

After ten minutes or so I looked over my shoulder.  The ticket inspector had sat down and was chatting to an attractive lady. He sat and chatted while the train clickety-clicked along. The stop before Chiavenna, the lady got off and Giorgio resumed his duties.

And do you know what? It all seems very civilized. Do you really want to be driving a bus or boat at the end of the last weekend of summer? Of course not. If you meet someone attractive during the course of the working day, why shouldn't you take a few minutes to talk to them?

And when it comes to security, aren't we overdoing it just a tad? One day, every single one of us will pass into the Next Life. Between now and then, perhaps we should take ourselves a little less seriously and start enjoying life.

Here is where I think the Italians have got things just about right. Carpe diem, and if that means that bus times suffer or your tanks go fastest in reverse, so much the better.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Is it better to travel hopefully?

It's been said that “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive”. I don't know who said it and my Internet connection is intermittent so you, Dear Reader, will have to look it up. I would just comment that hopeful travel is a wonderful way to see the world.

We started by driving to our normal parking place near Heathrow, IBM. On arrival, we found that we were not allowed to park there anymore. Really - I have no idea why Colleen continues to work for Big Blue. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of empty IBM parking spaces but no room at the inn for one more.

“Never mind”, said the taxi driver, “I will show you where to park”. So we followed him to the spaces allocated to Lindt where he said we could park without worry. We have spent the holiday repaying Lindt for the parking by purchasing their chocolate. We got off lightly. We might have ended up paying IBM for using their parking by buying a mainframe.

The short taxi drive to the airport was largely taken up with a rant from the otherwise friendly driver. He had just pointed out the terminal set aside for Olympic athletes and I remarked “That must have been good business for you.”

Big mistake.

We then were treated to a fulmination about how a fleet of BMW cars had been imported for the Olympics to ferry around the VIPs. “Olympics being held in Britain but they couldn’t used British cars”, he fumed. “Nor do the police”.

I wondered about the police traveling about in Caterhams, or the Olympic dignitaries being squeezed into TVRs. (If you are not British, Dear Reader, look them up. As I wrote earlier, I have no Internet connection as I type this one handed beside an achingly gorgeous Italian mountain stream.)

In either a Caterham or TVR you would be traveling hopefully. You might not arrive, though.

As we debussed from the taxi, I noticed it was an Audi, made by that good old fashioned British company, Volkswagen.

The flight to Milan was nothing. Up, down, arrive late. I hoped not too late to catch our train to Colico. My case came out quickly. I hoped Colleen’s would, too. It didn't.

I hoped we would find the station and be able to buy the tickets quickly. We found the station, but the ticket office was closed and the ticket machine, having offered us the choice of English, kept reverting to incomprehensible Italian. (As an aside, may I point out that most Italian is extremely easy? As I write this, having moved on from the stream to the main piazza in Chiavenna, there is a sign in front of me saying “Banca Popolare di Sondrio. I guess - and I bet I am right - that's the People's Bank of Sondrio.)

I digress. Back to the station at Milan's Malpensa airport. At this point we noticed that the ticket office was, after all, open. We managed to buy the tickets just as the train left. It trundled off into the tunnel as the ink was still damp on the tickets.

I hoped the next train would come soon.

An hour later it arrived, gleaming, clean, modern and everything you would hope for but seldom find in a British train. For a moment I wondered if we had landed in Switzerland.

As we moved into open countryside, the rain came bucketing down. Over the years I have become used to British rain: rain which perhaps may begin falling hard as it leaves the cloud but, somewhere on the way down, becomes dispirited and by the time it reaches ground level has more or less given up. It makes you wet the same way that those little towels they hand out just after take off on intercontinental flights make you wet: there is the instantaneous sensation of something damp which is gone before you have a chance to really take it in.

This was Italian rain. It came down on you as if being chased by hordes of mafia under the orders of the local Don whose daughter you had ruined. It was torrential, exploding out of the black night and machine gunning the train windows.

I hoped it would finish before we arrived.

As the train pulled into Colico, the storm reached a new intensity. Machine gun rain was replaced by a fire hose.

I hoped the platform was covered.

The platform was open to the elements. Well, possibly not all the elements. I noticed an absence of fire and earth, but there was a goodly supply of air and any space left over was amply made up for by water. Those melting polar caps you keep hearing about? They were precipitating on Colico.

We sprinted for cover. There, wearing a shirt, shorts, sandals and a smile, was Giulio, co-owner of our B&B. His car was parked, illegally I suspect, a few metres from the platform. He was everything your prejudices lead you to expect of an Italian man: cheerful, voluble, good looking. 

Ten minutes later we pulled up at the B&B. The room was marvelous - a small lounge, bathroom, kitchenette and bedroom, all done out in wood.

Two glasses of wine were laid out on the lounge table.

I had travelled hopefully, but has been cruelly disappointed. I arrived with delight.

What was the rest of the week to bring?