Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Slouching Toward Venice

Our son is studying in London this semester, and from the start we planned to use our daughter's high school spring break to visit him. When we realized that, due to Easter, our son had a four-day weekend that coincided with the start of our trip, we decided to have him meet us in Venice first. It was super--I loved hearing Easter Mass at the basilica San Marco--but getting there was another story.

We have a tiny airport in our neck of east Tennessee--Tri-Cities, shared jointly by the cities of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City. From Tri-Cities you fly to either Atlanta or Charlotte, and from thence to the rest of the world. When Atlanta gets bolluxed, as happens frequently, they screw with the little airports first: cancellations and delays from Tri-Cities are rather more common than we'd like. We're seasoned travelers, however, and we prepared for this by scheduling ourselves a nice comfy three-hour layover in Atlanta. From there we'd take an overnight flight to Paris, and a quick morning hop to Venice, landing ten minutes before our son's flight from London, just in time for lunch in a piazza somewhere.

Except. First it was a broken seatbelt. A broken seatbelt on the incoming flight from Atlanta, which was also our outgoing flight to Atlanta. Said flight could not leave the ground with a faulty seatbelt. As time passed several of us volunteered to ride in a seat without a belt. Nope. Seasoned mechanics worked for a few hours before giving up and calling in another plane from a hanger far, far away. Meanwhile we played cards in Tri-Cities, and, as the hours passed, ate dinner there, and then, finally, got onto a plane. We landed with 30 minutes until our international flight. We ran.

We made it. We got on the plane, and we sat. No explanations--that's Atlanta. Eventually we did take off. We weren't particularly worried, because we had a two-and-a-half hour layover in Paris, and that should have been enough for anyone, and it would have been except that the plane somehow landed an hour late, and then the airport workers in Paris were on strike.

Parisians strike continuously. I've never been to the city when there hasn't been a strike of some kind.

So we had people completely new at security doing the screenings in hyper slow motion. It was amusing for a very short time. Then it was alarming, and then, as we stood in yet another line for passport control, it was too late. My husband checked the app on his phone and saw that our flight to Venice had just departed.

Everyone in Europe was travelling for Easter. The scab airport workers had no idea how to do rebookings. The man in line in front of me handed over twelve passports--he had TWELVE people who needed seats that didn't exist. I stood in the line; my daughter checked train schedules on her phone; my husband called Delta customer service on his. The airport employee who should have been helping me broke away several times to have loud arguments, in both French and English, with other disgruntled passengers. By the time I gained her attention, my husband had managed to get us rebooked on evening flights to Rome and then to Venice, and all she needed to do was print us boarding cards.

This took thirty minutes.

The Paris airport has Hermes and Gucci shops but only fast food dining options. We ate lunch. We texted our son, who had landed in the airport in Venice and had no idea how to get to the city. (Venice is a set of islands; the airport's on the mainland.) We texted directions to the vaporetto, the public water taxi. He stood in line for it for an hour, then sat on the boat for nearly two hours until it got to our hotel's stop.

He texted, "How do I get to the hotel?"

Me: "No idea. I planned to have us take a private water taxi that would dock there."

My son: "What's the hotel's address?"

Me: "Venice doesn't have addresses." (This is true. Venice has no cars, no trucks, no named streets.)

My son: "Okkkayy"

Me: "After you check in, find somewhere and buy your father and I a bottle of wine."

My husband slept stretched out on the airport floor. My daughter slept with her neck in an impossible position. I got a pedicure. (No restaurants at the airport, but a very nice salon!)  Eventually my daughter woke up and got a pedicure. We ate sandwiches.

Now it was time for our flight to Rome to leave, and we weren't leaving. The plane stood at the gate. It had a crew. Passengers queued.

The replacement workers could not seem to figure out how to get passengers onto the plane.

At this point it became obvious that I should have taken a nap. I became anxious, jet-lagged, and surly, all at once with a ferocity my family deplored.

People began to get onto the plane, very slowly. We got onto the plane. I fell sound asleep. This helped.

In Rome our plane parked out on the tarmac. All the passengers had to disembark and stuff themselves into busses, and then the buses waited while the crew did a sweep of the plane to make sure nobody had left anything behind. This was absolutely maddening because we were of course quite late and in danger of missing our next flight. On the other hand, the one thing the crew found on the plane was my daughter's very nice camera--oops. Camera in hand, we sprinted like fiends across a very confusing airport and lo! made it onto the next flight. We landed. We were in Venice, or at least across a small bit of water from Venice.

Our luggage, however, was not. My husband's golf clubs showed up, which was quaint as there's barely even any grass in Venice, let alone golf. (He needed them for later in the trip.) My bag showed up. My husband's and daughter's bags did not.

The twenty or so passengers with luggage issues formed a queue. We were last. The luggage issues department consisted of one slow, disinterested Italian man. The man in front of us in line had his luggage: his issue was that the airline had broken the handle of his suitcase. The two men commenced arguing over who would or would not pay for the broken handle, and whether or not it constituted reasonable wear, and quite a few other things, judging by the length of the conversation, not that I really know as it was all in Italian, which I mostly don't speak.

Luggage Man said that according to his computer, our luggage had arrived on an earlier flight. He grabbed some keys, and he and my husband went off in search of it. Unfortunately the computer was wrong. (We're not sure where the luggage was; it showed up at the hotel the following afternoon.) By now it was well past midnight and my husband was becoming increasingly anxious that we would be too late to get a water taxi. I told him, in my annoyed voice, that of course there would be water taxis. You could always get a taxi in New York; you ought to always be able to get a water taxi in Venice. Stood to reason.

We gathered up our existing luggage and followed a set of signs to the dock--a long, well-lit but desolate walk. We seemed to be the only humans left awake. Then we pulled up to a series of completely empty bays where water taxis would have parked if there were any water taxis at all. A disinterested Italian man came out of a security hut, puffed on his cigarette, and said, "You should have booked a boat."

"We should have gotten here before noon," I said.

He shrugged. "Last boat leaves in three minutes. End of the dock. Walk faster."

We walked faster. There were no water taxis. We climbed aboard the last vaporetto of the night, simultaneously annoyed and extremely relieved. Somehow my husband managed to call our son, who had had a lovely afternoon and evening wandering the city and was now in the hotel watching his college team play in the NCAA Elite Eight on his laptop. He gave us the following directions: "Turn left off the boat dock. Walk about a hundred yards. Turn into the alley where there's a sign. Follow that to another alley. The hotel's at the end of it."

The boat meandered among various islands. Eventually, nearly empty, it stopped at San Marco square. I expected some form of map or people or something, but no, all we had were decently-lit paths and my son's directions. Oddly enough, they worked.

It was 2 am Venice time. We'd been traveling for 31 hours. We hugged our son and caught the last ten minutes of the basketball game, which our son's team won, while drinking a very nice bottle of Italian wine.