On November 10, I left home in the rain for a quick zip to Europe. I thought the trip was off to a bad start when I sat down on a wet bench at the McLean Metro station, 10 minutes after leaving home. That was just the beginning. As one of my grad-school advisers Professor Borchert used to say, one thing leads to another:
The short flight to Philadelphia was delayed five hours, two by a late-arriving airplane and three because of Philly weather and airport closure. I could have biked there faster. So I missed my connecting flight to Rome. During the second wait in D.C., they had to remove the luggage of people who did not want to wait to get to PHL. So the red tag that identifies bags you leave on the ramp before boarding and retrieve on arrival came off, which meant the bag had to be delivered to the bag claim, which was two blocks away in the next terminal. It was now 8:20 and my best alternative, a nonstop to London, departed at 9:20. It took 30 minutes for the bag to arrive (but at least it did). So I had to walk briskly, in the rain, across from Terminal E to Terminal A, a long way, with a couple of zigzags. The faster TSA screening (Precheck) was of course closed, so that took awhile. The plane was at the end of the long Terminal A concourse. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was seat 1A, the last chair in Business Class. I let out a small whoop and strolled on board.
During the long wait back home, I scoped out the options to get to Rome, best one being standby on a 2:25 BA flight. Happily, airline employees can fix up e-tickets on line, so got that done. Arrived Heathrow before nine, went to the posh American Airlines arrivals lounge, took a shower, worked my email, ate a leisurely breakfast, and at 11 AM paused, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, for two minutes of silence commemorating Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day. I was pleased that the staff made an announcement in the lounge, asking everyone “to join the nation” and observe the silence. To my delight they did, including the Americans. (November 11 remains a much more important day in Great Britain than in the U.S.).
Later in the day, to further my remembrance, I watched a great Canadian commemorative video, “A Pittance of Time,” and a re-read a chapter of Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s mostly grim but excellent account of an English family from 1914 to 1945; the portion I read centered on a night of bombing during the London Blitz.
I then headed over to Terminal 5 to check in for the flight to Rome. From the big, west-facing windows, I could practically see Runnymede, a mere five miles away, the place where 800 years ago this past June, the Magna Carta was signed. I have got to make a little detour on some future trip (there’s actually a bus every hour right from T5). Had a couple of great Talking to Strangers encounters, a short one with a young English mom heading with her cute and outgoing toddler, (she came right up to me) to see a friend in Houston. I dispensed some Texas travel advice (“Yes, do make a side trip to Austin”) and wished her a pleasant trip.
I snagged one of the last seats, 17E, to Rome, and 30 minutes after takeoff Mark in 17F began a long conversation that started with car talk (he offered me a car magazine) and his favored vehicle, a camper van that he uses every weekend with his kids, 11 and 8. We then talked about career change, and it came to pass that his wife, with whom he spent half of his 40 years, died five months earlier. Then we talked about life changes, about children, and about dogs. The family had acquired a pug and a border collie, both puppies, to help the kids with their loss. “They help,” said Mark, and I agreed that dogs excel at giving comfort.
We landed Rome at 6:00 PM (not 9:10 AM as planned), and the race was on – although I was headed to teach two days’ hence in Lugano, Switzerland (just north of Milan), the whole focus of the Rome visit – the finish line – was dinner with my long friends Massimo and Roberto, who started with American Airlines in Italy about the same time I did. I hopped on the Leonardo Express train nonstop to downtown. On arrival in Stazione Termini it was pedal to the metal: got Euros, bought a bus ticket, zipped out the door and onto the #38 bus. I told my Airbnb host David that I would arrive at via Calabria 20 by 7:30. My watch said 7:28 as I greeted him at the front door. Happily, Massimo had booked a hotel a block away, and soon he, another airline guy, Maurizio (they worked at Austrian Airlines in the mid-1980s), and I were strolling to Piazza Barberini, the meeting point for Roberto. Hugs all around, and we walked on a couple of blocks to Gioia Mia Pisciapiano, a lively, classic Roman trattoria (the name would delight kids and old men, roughly “the joy of a good pee”).
In no time we were chirping like magpies, smiling, telling airline war stories, Rome stories, exchanging notes on dogs and kids, and, I think celebrating what were good lives and careers. After a nice starter of mushrooms, cabbage, and rustic bread, we tucked into fettucine made with guanciale, cured hog cheek. The friendly young waiter scolded Roberto for leaving a little tidbit of guanciale, which he quickly scooped up. That led, somehow to a long discussion of wives, all in Italian. The waiter was complaining and lauding his Colombian spouse. Though I didn’t track the banter, I enjoyed seeing them all smile and laugh, and I celebrated a place where waiters are not subservient, but are peers – they are, after all, part of a team that is bringing dinner and fun. “Only in Roma,” said Roberto.
Dinner lasted a proper interval, 2.5 hours. Afterward, Roberto asked about a little stroll. Why not? We headed a few blocks, walked around a corner and right in front of us was a scene that literally took my breath away. Stunning, the famous Trevi fountain, recently restored with funds from Fendi. We lingered 15 minutes, said goodbye to Roberto, and walked back home. Hugged Maurizio and Massimo, back to the Airbnb and into deep, welcome sleep.
After 3.5 hours the previous night, a long sleep might have made more sense, but I was up at dawn, to cram the previous day’s missed exploring into a few hours – my train north departed at 11:20. So I zipped west through pleasant neighborhoods, bought a roll and some yogurt from a little shop, and ate at the top of the Spanish Steps. Fortified, I descended to the Piazza di Spagna, filled with all the high-end Italian shops. A sign caught my eye: under Article 14, it is illegal to shout, squall, or sing (emmetere grida, schiamazzi, e canti) on the Spanish Steps. So there! I had just enough time to hop on the Metro west to the Vatican. Would Francesco see me briefly? Probably not, but I greatly enjoyed a stroll past souvenir shops brimming with Catholic tchotchkes, a parade of cardinals in the curved colonnade in front of the basilica, and the grand building itself. The light was incomparable that morning, and it was a superb scene. Hopped the Metro back, picked up my stuff, said goodbye to David, and hopped back on the bus for the short ride to the stazione.
Missing thus far that morning was coffee, so I paused for a couple of jolts of Americano served by a friendly barista right by the train platform. Ah, stimulation, for a bounce in step across to platform 9 and the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) express north. Breakfast was light, so a leisurely lunch in the dining car was in order, glass of red wine. The train is fast, 150 mph or more, and in no time Brunneleschi’s spectacular Duomo, his masterpiece in Florence, rolled into view. This was a good day, and the graceful lines of the soaring dome were captivating. A blessed day.
When we emerged from a long tunnel north of Bologna, I was again struck by a simple reality: the Italians, with all their reported statal dysfunction, can build a high-speed rail network, but Americans cannot? Per che, as they say in these parts? We rolled into Stazione Centrale in Milan exactly on time. I walked across the terminal and onto the train an hour north to Lugano. Soon after settling in, a woman about my age asked me a question in English, launching a nice T-t-S. Nicoleta was from Sicily, but had lived in Rome most of her life. Originally an economist, she had worked a variety of jobs, and was especially proud of her current volunteer service with a Catholic association that helps the handicapped. She helps them visit the Vatican, and on pilgrimages to Lourdes, France. And of course we spoke about Pope Francis; she had actually met him. When I got off at Lugano I shook her hand and asked her to tell Francesco that Rob loved him.
Walked down the hill to a new hotel, the City, checked in, and grabbed a much-needed nap. Worked a bit, and at 7:30 my pal Omar Merlo (frequently mentioned in these pages) picked me up for dinner at Gallo D’Oro (“Golden Rooster”), a spectacular restaurant we had not visited for five years. Despite the interval, Matteo the proprietor remembered me, more so when I showed him the golden rooster tiebar he gave me on our first visit in 2008. In a few minutes, Omar’s brother-in-law Sandro arrived, who I had not seen since our last Gallo visit in 2010. He’s a banker, and a lot of fun. Laughed hard, and ate well. High point was gelati, mixed flavors, best of which was Williams pear, a famous type in Switzerland. Superb!
Up Friday morning, breakfast, and over to the school (USI, Universitá della Svizzera italiana), to the student cafeteria, the mensa, to crank out some consulting work. A nice T-t-S lunch with three IT Ph.D.s, from Germany, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, then into Omar’s Master’s in Marketing class for a 2.5 hour presentation. A small group, but engaged. Afterward, we ambled across the street and had a beer outdoors, joined by two of Omar’s London friends, in town by coincidence. Jaka was a Slovenian guy, very interesting and varied background, now owning D-Labs, a firm that helps start-up companies start up. Dale was an American lawyer with the same firm, former Mormon, former pro basketball player in the Swiss minor league – wish we had more time to yak with those guys, but they peeled off, and I walked back to the hotel. Lunch was big and the pub offered free pizza, so I opted for a sandwich from a grocery store. Was asleep by 9:30.
As I have written in these pages, failure is about recovery, and I had to do some Saturday morning. Distracted the night before, I set my iPhone alarm incorrectly and overslept. Missed the 6:35 shuttle bus to Milan Malpensa Airport. Next one was at 7:00. It was 6:41 when I woke, and I only missed it by two minutes. So I hopped on the 7:45, into the airport at 8:55, and into my second race in three days. This time the finish line was gate B51 and the 10:00 Silver Bird to New York. Sure I made it, with 28 minutes to spare! Woo hoo! Woo hoo! Arrived JFK at 1:15, worked a bit, then hopped on a (this time smooth) connection home to D.C.
There was one more piece of global experience that day. I walked in our front door at 6:10, immediately scooped up Dylan and Carson, and headed to their Kent Gardens Elementary School for International Night. The place was packed, and full of happy kids and grownups, many in national costumes – Korean, Iranian, Chinese, Mexican, Turkish, French. There was food to sample in the cafeteria (the Korean moms happily spooned the last of the kimchi onto my plate!), and student and adult performances in the gym. It was a happy antidote to the news of the horrific attacks in Paris. I’m sure the ISIS assholes would not have joined the fun. E pluribus unum. And #notafraid.