So. It’s been a few days since the last post, and a lot has happened. I’ll try to get you all caught up efficiently, as that is the Austrian way (and not, as you shall soon see, the Italian way).
After our day at Cinque Terre, it was time to bid farewell to our Italian home and our warm, generous hosts, Chiara and Paolo. We were headed for Innsbruck, Austria with a one-night stop in Milan to see a college friend of Jen’s and meet her husband and new baby. One final Italian road trip got us up to Milan where we returned our rental car at the airport and took the local train into Stazzione Milano Centrale. We would be taking the train to Innsbruck the next morning, and for reasons that are not worth going into, we had to change our reservation to an earlier train. It was about 3pm and we figured we’d just breeze in, change our tickets, hop in a cab to Mattie’s place and be sipping wine by 4. Italians are known for their institutional efficiency, right?
We were unable to change our reservations at the automated machines, and we were directed down to the ticket office in the dungeon of the train station. (yeah, the basement. isn’t that what I said?) There we took a number. Actually, we took two numbers. There was a little machine that asked you what your problem was and issued you a number accordingly. I drew E285 and the Big Board (any Kubrick fans out there?) was showing that they were currently helping E250. Not too bad, because they were calling out a new number every five to ten seconds. After watching for a few minutes though, I discovered that they were calling a new E number about once every five to ten minutes. A’s and B’s, on the other hand, were clicking off like a coke-addled bingo caller. Ok, let’s play the naive tourist and pull a number for a different category. I pulled a B. B806 to be exact. I look up at the Big Board and they are currently helping B532. Not looking good for our heroes. Jen despairs of ever leaving the station, collapses on the floor, wailing, clutching her babushka around her shoulders, all of her worldly possessions in a single bag at her feet, and throws herself on the mercy of the uniformed man at the automated machine. I remain stoic in my best suit and hat amidst the wailing of hundreds of refugees, sure that if we can just make it past this official, a new and better life awaits us in the New World.
Ok, it wasn’t quite like that.
The man at the machine wasn’t a uniformed official, but an enterprising fellow who would push the buttons for you in the hopes that you might drop a Euro or two in his hand. Every couple of minutes an actual uniformed official would stroll by and the man would miraculously disappear, only to reappear as soon as the official would go. It was like watching a cartoon where Bugs Bunny would hide behind an impossibly narrow tree, or elude Elmer Fudd by following right behind him and matching his movements exactly. I considered pulling another lottery ticket, but Jen rightly pointed out that probably one of the reasons there were so many numbers ahead of us was jerks like me pulling multiple tickets. Fair point well made. I left Jen to keep our place in line and to let Mattie know that we were going to be later than anticipated while I headed out into the station to find:
A) Cash - because we had none on us
B) Food and/or caffiene - because our lack of cash would become a real problem if Jen had to bail me out of an Italian jail when my hunger caused me to turn Hulk in the Milano station.
C) Another way to change our tickets - because what did we have to lose?
I was unable to find A, and thus unable to acquire B*. However, I was able to find a travel agent that advertised that it could book TrenItalia** tickets. Our situation was slightly complicated by the fact that we were on a EuRail pass, which has all kinds of restrictions and only certain people can deal with, but as noted above, what did we have to lose? I mentally stocked up on as many Italian travel words and phrases as I could, armed myself with my most charmingest, disarmingest midwestern smile, and walked up to the counter.
I apologized in Italian and asked the man at the counter if he speaks English. “A bit”, he replied, although it turned out that his English is perfectly functional. English-speakers are truly spoiled by the fact that so many other people in the world speak our language. I asked him if he can book a reservation on a EuRail pass, and he said no. Well, it was worth a shot. I thanked him and headed back to see how Jen was faring at the ticket office. She was faring about as well as you can imagine. The numbers were inching closer to ours, but we were estimating another hour’s wait at least. I told her about the travel agent, and she said I should go back and see how much it would cost just to book the ticket, screw the EuRail pass. Our existing reservations were non-refundable so we were going to have to pay a bit for our new reservations anyway. We decided on a yea/nay monetary threshold for the cost of the tickets, and I went back, this time with our rail pass and our existing reservations.
I said hello again to my new friend the travel agent. He was my friend in that junior high, you’re-my-friend-but-maybe-I’m-not-yours sort of way. I hadn’t quite won him over, but again, had nothing to lose. I asked him what it would cost to book the tickets on the 9:05 to Innsbruck without the rail pass. It was well within the yea/nay threshold and so I asked him to please book it and showed him my existing reservation to make sure we were headed to the right station.
“You’re already booked to Innsbruck” he said, looking at my reservation.
“I know that, but I need an earlier train.”
“It will cost you more.”
Oh rub it in.
“I know that, but the line to book new reservations at the ticket office is at least another hour, and we have plans this evening.”
“Ok fine. Give me your EuRail pass, I can book you another reservation on it.”
Ah, excellent. Wait, what? You told me not ten minutes ago that you couldn’t do that, and to go to the ticket office. It was like Will Ferrell’s character in whichever Austin Powers movie that was, where you have to ask him everything three times, but then he’ll tell you anything you want to know.
He told me the price. I asked him if he accepted credit cards and he said yes, but would cost four euros more. Ok, no problem. I mean, at this point what’s another four euros?
Wait for it…
He needs those four euros in cash. Recall from items A, B, and C above that I had not yet been able to locate the cash machine. I falter momentarily, but regain that winningest, grinningest smile and ask him with amicable sheepishness (I’m winning him over, I can tell) if there is an ATM nearby. He looks at me for a second, then tells me to step two windows to the right where he can process those extra four euros by credit card.
So I do, and he does. He hands me my train tickets, and I string together as many grazies, moltos, milles, and benes as possible in as many combinations as I can think of, and he finally smiles. I return to the ticket office to find my wife who is now resigned to her purgatorial existence. I burst through the doors, tickets clutched in one fist, both arms up and head tipped back in a victory cry. I muscle my way through the crowd, effortlessly scoop my wife into my arms and carry her out the door to the taxi stand, hundreds of beleaguered travelers erupting into cheers and applause behind us.
Ok, again, it was not quite like that. But I did silently strike that victory pose and it did turn a few heads. We headed out to the taxi stand and within twenty minutes we were eating cheese and drinking prosecco at Mattie’s place before heading out for a highlights-only walking tour and a fancy italian dinner at the Bulgari Hotel. Molto bene.
In the end, of course, it was not my winning smile and midwestern charm that won over the travel agent. My guess is that he just didn’t want to deal with me. I think he finally just assessed that the quickest way to get me out the door was to just book the stupid rail pass. But hey, whatever works, right?
- because, it turned out later, the map on the wall showing the location of the ATM was oriented 180 degrees from reality
** once you notice that the word TrenItalia so closely resembles the word Genitalia, you can’t unsee it. You will giggle a little at every train that goes by.