Pope-apalooza Tour 2011 Buttons

Pope-apalooza Tour 2011

Day 0 Wednesday September 28, 2011
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No cats were likely to starve in our absence.

Our plan for this trip was not overly complex. The focus, of course, was on the thirteen-day tour of southern Italy with the group from Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. The formal part of the tour was scheduled to start in Rome, but it devoted only one day to the Eternal City, and it neglected most of the major attractions there. Therefore, we planned to arrive a few days early and see some of the sights of Rome for ourselves. As we have for the last six years, Sue and I were traveling with our long-time friends, Tom and Patti Corcoran. Sue and I had spent a few days in Rome in 2003, but the Corcorans were going there for the first time.[1]

The green suitcase held clothes, Sue’s CPAP machine and the Mister X game that we never found time to play.

I had spent quite a bit of time over the summer planning the stay in Rome. In addition to seeing the sites that we had missed eight years ago, I wanted to pay a visit to Viterbo (north of Rome) and to the Alban Hills (south). Both of these places had strong ties to my major interest, the popes in the Middle Ages.

Hot dogs on the griddle.

Our flight to Rome was not scheduled to depart from Logan Airport in Boston until 5:45. So, even though we faced a two-hour drive to Boston, we had plenty of time to get our affairs together in the morning.

Since I had played bridge on Tuesday evening at the Hartford Bridge Club, I did not get to sleep until midnight. Nevertheless, I awoke at my usual time, 5 a.m. to find that Sue was still up from the night before. This did not strike me as unusual. She almost always has pulled all-nighters before our vacations.

Autumn leaves, our luggage, and Sue’s Subaru.

I signed onto the Internet and checked the bridge results. We had finished fourth out of seven, which was a little disappointing; no master points. I then checked the ten-day forecast on weather.com for both Rome and Naples. The two forecasts were almost identical: up until the second weekend of the trip there appeared to be no chance of rain, and the high temperatures each day would be in the eighties. Then it would cool down a little. It is always wise to take long range forecasts with a grain of salt, but these could hardly be more promising.

The other two residents of our house in Enfield, CT, were a pair of black indoor-outdoor cats who had their own door and came and went as they please. Giacomo was very friendly; his brother Franklin was misanthropic. Giacomo usually visited me around dawn to demand a full-body massage, but there was no sign of either of them on this morning.[2]

My closet was bare. I did two loads of laundry – dark clothes and permanent press.

Fully loaded in the Corcorans' driveway.

We originally had planned to bring the big red suitcase that we had taken to Russia the previous year. However, the zipper on one of the outside pockets had broken, and we could come up with no suitable way to secure it so that it did not flap around. We reluctantly resorted to using the green suitcase that I had inherited from my father.[3] Sue was forced to use Chick’s small red suitcase. She had wanted to bring the mother-daughter backpacks that she had purchased for our first Rick Steves trip in 2003 and had taken on our four subsequent European vacations, but she could not locate the day pack that attached to the bigger wheeled backpack. The former had disappeared into the black hole of stuff in which we dwelled.

Based on the forecast I threw in an extra pair of shorts. I had not previously expected it to be so hot in Italy in October. A friend of Sue’s who had just returned from Italy confirmed that it had been very warm there throughout September.

Sue assured us that she could do this tour on one leg.

Sue finally went to bed at about six. She intended to sleep until 9:45, but a phone call from Chick Comparetto woke her up at eight. In previous years Chick has been kind enough to take care of the cats, which actually require very little attention. This year, however, because of vision problems that limited his driving, we had to find someone else. Sue’s sister Karen, who lived about a mile from us, agreed to come in and feed them every two or three days.

We had never vacationed at this time of year. I could hardly believe that I had committed myself to missing three Saturdays of college football. Moreover, early fall is a beautiful time in new England. The weather is usually comfortable, the leaves are colorful, and the air is brisk and invigorating.

The forecast on WTIC radio for Connecticut’s weather for the day of our departure called for showers, but when we went outside the sky appeared clear and blue. My experience is that the early-morning weather forecast is generally useless.

When the four of us met in 1972, my brand-new Datsun 1200 also had an LZ license plate.

Sue and I made every effort to consume whatever perishable food we could find. I had hot dogs and potato chips for lunch. I have always had a weakness for the latter, and I had to wonder if these would be the last chips that I would see for three weeks. I feared that I might suffer from grease and salt withdrawal.

Our plan was to drive Sue’s Subaru wagon to the Corcorans’ house in Wethersfield and to pick them up for the journey to Boston. Tom’s sister Carol had agreed to let us keep the car at her house in Quincy, MA, and had arranged for her husband Mo to take us to the airport from there. We packed up the car and started our journey at 11:45. Our first stop was my dad’s apartment complex, Bigelow Commons, where we dropped off both sets of keys. Shirley at the desk commiserated with me. She really seemed to like my dad.

Sue called her father, who was in town but recovering from a virus. He reportedly was feeling a little better since they had upgraded his medication.

How many lanes does this guy need?

The drive to Wethersfield was inconsequential. We had made this trip so many times that our cars could almost find their way there with no assistance. The Corcorans were packed and ready when we arrived. We departed from their house at about one. For once we seemed to have plenty of time. We could not afford to cut it close; there was only one flight per day from Boston to Rome. We had no plan B.

Tom drove Sue’s car and used Patti’s GPS to find Mo and Carol’s house in Quincy, MA. Tom has his own GPS, but it had a female British voice that irritated Patti. On the other hand, Patti was in love with the guy whose voice provided instructions on her GPS.

I-84 seemed to to have an inordinate number of trucks with oversize loads that morning. The drivers did not appear to be very adept at managing them, either. Tom had a little difficulty in maneuvering our car around them.

At one point in the journey everyone, except Tom, of course, fell asleep in the car.

Mr. Wonderful always says the right thing.

When we got close, Tom flawlessly directed our vehicle through the maze that is the street plan in Quincy. We arrived at Mo’s house at 2:45, right on time. Carol was not there, but Mo was sitting on the porch. He let us use the facilities, and when I went inside the house I noticed that they had a Mr. Wonderful[4] talking doll just like the one that I had bought as a Christmas present for Karen many years earlier.

Patti and Mo.

We piled into Mo’s jeep, and he drove us to airport. I sat in the middle of the back seat between Sue and Patti. Our route took us along Walliston Beach. It was a very nice view, and not many people were using the beach. Mo said that in the summer it was always packed. Heavy traffic seemed to be coming out of the city, but not much was going in our direction. We had to cross a bridge that was under construction, but, as Mo predicted, the traffic still moved fairly steadily.

Mo let us off at Logan’s international terminal at about 3:45. We still had plenty of time. Almost as soon as we entered the airport, I spotted a guy wearing a black tee shirt. On it was depicted a hand clearly giving the bird. The caption was “Smell your mum!” Perhaps my previous assessment about Americans being the ugliest and crudest in the world was premature. Almost no one in America uses the term “mum.”

We expected Alitalia to be more crowded.

We encountered no line at all at the Alitalia ticket counter, and the ticket agent expeditiously provided us with our boarding passes. This was the point at which it finally felt as if we were really going to Italy again.

Patti, Sue, Tom, and my gear waiting for boarding.

Sue sat down in order to rearrange some things in her luggage before we went through security. Don’t ask. We suffered through the familiar but ridiculously degrading ritual of removing our shoes. For once I had the foresight to wear socks with no holes in them. The TSA people found nothing objectionable in any of us. Maybe they were just glad to be rid of us for a few weeks.

That would be us.

In the huge international waiting area we found four seats together that were not too far from gate E7B, from which our flight was scheduled to depart. Tom and Patti were hungry. Sue and I watched their stuff for them while got a sandwich of some sort at the food court. When they returned, I asked them if they had seen any place that offered fountain drinks. They replied in the negative. I therefore went over to the nearby store to retrieve a bottle of Diet Coke. Since it was not very cold, I put it back and went searching on my own. Fortunately, I was able to obtain what I really wanted, a large Diet Coke in a cup with plenty of ice from a Chinese fast food place for $2.88.

Patti consulted her iPad only to learn that the Red Sox had lost the last game of the season. They had been tied with Tampa Bay going into the day, but now they were out of the playoffs. They completely swooned at the end of the year. What a strange season: a horrible start followed by a remarkable comeback capped off by a truly unexpected collapse. Tom was a big Red Sox fan. My game was college football, which was almost unknown in New England. A mediocre UConn team had miraculously qualified for a BCS bowl game the previous year, and the school could not give away its allotment of tickets.

The overhead bins were not even full.

I had made our plane reservations, and Tom (or more likely his secretary) had obtained his and Patti’s. We did not coordinate the seating. We were therefore quite surprised to discover that Sue and I were assigned 40J and K while Patti and Tom were in 39J and K. Patti and I had window seats. Sue and Tom were on the aisle. The seats seemed pretty comfortable. Business Class (called Magnifica by Alitalia) would certainly have been better, but I had nothing close to the requisite frequent flier miles, and I was not about to shell out a few thousand dollars for one night’s comfort.

Airone. Get it?

Our plane was an Airbus 330. The configuration of the main cabin was 2-4-2.

We boarded right on time, but we did not take off until 6:05, twenty minutes after the scheduled departure time. The TV screen on the airplane predicted that we would arrive eighteen minutes late.

The last view of North America at twilight.

Alitalia had a strange fetish about the little plastic curtains that slid down over the windows. The attendants always insisted that they be fully raised for both takeoffs and landings. I have no idea what motivated this requirement.

Where is the call button? "Stewardess, Benino snuck aboard without a ticket."

My recollection was that on previous Alitalia flights Il Corriere della Sera and other Italian newspapers were available to read. I did not see any this time.

Fashion note: Two of the male flight attendants had similar unusual sideburns. They were rather long but squared off. That is, they had to shave between their eyes and their sideburns. They reminded me somewhat of the Star Trek sideburns except that they were rectangular, not pointed.[5] I mentioned this as a public service. Weird fashion trends that I had noticed in Italy on previous trips had become common in the States a year or two later. This might be a chance to get ahead of the curve.

The sideburns guys really struggled with their makeshift tent.

The plane was not completely full. A few people changed seats to be a little more comfortable. One young woman claimed the entire back row of the central section.

I noticed that Alitalia planes sported what appeared to be a heron on both wingtips. I wondered what its signficance was. I had never associated herons with Italy.[6]

Benino wanted to help me write the journal, but I did not trust him.

Saints preserve us! During the flight Sue unveiled her latest finger puppet, Benino the Bunny, who claimed to be the offspring of the ill-fated union of Jana and Va Bene Bunny. When Sue showed Benino to Patti, she snatched him from Sue’s finger and for a while refused to release him.

Some of the flight attendants sleep on the plane. The way they do this is to construct a little tent that covers three or four rows of the J-K section on the starboard side of the aircraft. The two guys with the squared sideburns had a great deal of difficulty getting the tarp attached. Even though they were only a few rows ahead of us, I could not figure out the source of their problem. In they end they rigged it up so that they were both satisfied with it.

I did allow him to look at my notes.

Before supper the attendants served packages of crackers and pretzels. I was starving, but I did not find them very tasty. I don’t care for pretzels at all, and I expected better from Alitalia. They must have hired American caterers for the flights that departed from Boston.

Alitalia serves drinks before the meals. They then come around with a second serving of drinks after the meal. Both Sue and I had red wine before supper. We both selected the fish, which was served in a sweet green sauce (peas?), mixed vegetables, vegetable lasagne, some ham, cold green beans, bread, crackers and cheese, fruit. We were shocked to discover that on the second pass they had run out of wine! Sue took water instead. I had a thimble-full of exceptionally bad coffee.

Not a bad spread for the plebeian cabin.

I traded Sue my cheese for her ham. She dearly loves cheese.

I had brought my blue U-shaped neck pillow on the plane, and it allowed me to sleep pretty well. I had to rearrange myself several times whenever my neck or tailbone began to ache.

Nature called a few hours after supper. Although nearly everyone seated on this side of the cockpit was asleep, there was a line at the toilet on our side of the plane. Spotting a gap between two rows in the middle of the plain, I summoned up my legendary poise and balance in order to traverse it. Halfway through, however, I lost my footing and stumbled over the unsuspecting passengers. It was embarrassing.

Goals of the trip:

  1. Get through it with our entire party intact.[7]
  2. Learn as much about the popes in Rome and the nearby towns as I could.
  3. Relax and absorb whatever southern Italy had to offer.
  4. Make some new friends.

[1]  Actually, I think that Patti had visited Rome many years ago on a school trip, but she did not remember it very well.

[2]  Sue reported that she saw both of them outside at about 9 o'clock.

[3]  My dad died two weeks before the trip. Sue and I had been quite busy with arrangements for his funeral, which was halfway across the country.

This Mr. Wonderful would not hesitate to let you know if you look fat in that outfit.

[4]  This Mr. Wonderful is not to be confused with Paul Orndorff, the muscle-bound wrestler who used the same moniker.

[5]  Aside from the guy in the train station in Viterbo with whom I shared a bench on Thrusday, I do not recall noticing anyone else with this look in the two and a half weeks that we spent in Italy.

[6]  I later looked up in my dictionary the Italian word for heron, which is airone (eye ROE nay). When I later saw other Alitalia planes labeled "Air One," I figured it out.

[7]  I was not too optimistic about this one. Patti’s general health was suspect. Sue had severe problems with her knees. I did not know about Tom’s conditioning, but I had been in much better shape on our other joint vacations. For the previous five months I had been visiting my dad pretty much on a daily basis. I had a choice of sacrificing bridge or exercise, and I decided to keep playing bridge.