Italy trip – day 8

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6 and Day 7.

Really early morning
As I mentioned in my last post, I was told by the front desk staff that I needed more time than I had planned for in order to travel to the airport so that I wouldn’t miss my flight. This meant I needed to get up at 5:30am in order to get cleaned up, finish packing, check out of the hotel, go get my car, and pick up my friend at her hotel. I set my phone’s alarm, I scheduled a wake up call from the front desk, and I set the alarm clock by my bed. I guess I was a little bit paranoid. I was able to wake up by just one device and I was able to keep my schedule. While checking out of the hotel I asked if they could call the parking garage so that my car would be ready when I arrived there. The front desk even offered to have someone run and get it for me but then there was some confusion about where it was so I just told them I would get it myself.

Getting the car from parking
I trekked from the hotel with my roller bag and backpack down the streets of Milan. After a few turns I came to the parking garage. I didn’t see anyone attending the parking office. This caused my anxiety level to rise. After a very long minute the attendant arrived driving my car. We exchanged greetings and he went into his office. I handed him my ticket and a credit card. He tried it and it didn’t work. I handed him another card. Fail! And yet another. Fail! Now I was getting really worried. I didn’t have enough euros to cover the bill. This wasn’t helping my anxiety level. Finally, I handed him my check card as a last ditch effort. It worked. The only thing I can think of is that the Italians don’t have the same sort of system or assumptions about payment. Anyway, I wasn’t happy to use that account but it worked and shortly I was on my way.

Driving to airport
I headed directly to my friend’s hotel. I didn’t even need to use the GPS to get there. I guess I was becoming a local. I was about 15 minutes late and she was waiting in the lobby. We loaded her luggage and left, we plugged the airport into the GPS and headed on our way.

At the airport
We arrived at Malpensa International Airport, piled out of the rental car, and trekked to the terminal. We had arrived with PLENTY of time. So all of my paranoia and anxiety were for not. We were on different airlines so we decided to split and check in and then regroup for breakfast. The line at Delta was relatively short and I was able to check in with little fuss.
I met back up with my friend and we headed to the food court. It was Sunday just before 8am and almost everything was closed. I was surprised that an international airport that was full of people didn’t have a single breakfast place open. Anyway the bar was open.
The bar had coffee and a limited selection of breakfast items. We had a couple of brioches, cappuccinos, and a rather large bowl of chopped fruit.

last Italian breakfast

last Italian breakfast


The brioche and fruit were surprisingly good but the cafe (even though it looked good) was not that good.
We sat and enjoyed (as much as we could) the breakfast while we remembered our time over the past week. Then we parted ways as I needed to make my way to my plane. I still had about an hour and a half but I didn’t want any troubles.

Duty free
After getting through the security line, which by the way was a lot like our security lines five years ago, I proceeded to my gate. Interestingly in order to get to the gate you are forced to walk through the duty free shops. I thought it was interesting. Other than pictures and some brochures I really didn’t have any souvenirs so I decided to buy a soccer jersey for a local team. It ended up being more expensive than I expected but I guess that’s what happens when you buy items at the airport.

Europe departure
The trip out of Europe was pretty uneventful. I was in the aisle in the middle section of the airplane. Unlike my flight into Italy the in-flight entertainment center actually worked! So I spent the majority of the long flight watching movies. I saw the “A-Team“, “Clash of the Titans“, “Cop Out” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time“. I think I saw some more but I can’t remember which ones right now.
About halfway through the flight I started to smell some flatulence. Not mine I must say because mine smells like roses. No this is the kind of gas that could melt paint off the walls. Someone around me was emitting the most ghastly smells and it was making my eyes what. The guy next to me must have smelled it too but he didn’t confess to being it’s origin. No matter what I did the smell didn’t dissipate. I just had to suffer.

Customs at JFK
After arriving at JFK the first stop is passport control. Considering how much international travel goes this airport I would have figured that they would be better at getting people through the line. Anyway, I knew that I had to wait for my bag in order to go through customs so although I was anxious I wasn’t going crazy. Yet!
I finally get to the front of the line and I hand over my passport and what not. The man is not that happy but he scans it, scans me, scans it and hands it back.
I then proceed to the baggage claim to wait for my bag. I keep looking at the clock and the baggage isn’t arriving. My layover time isn’t really long but I don’t like cutting it close.
Another 15-20 minutes later and my bag is finally in my hand. I went to the customs line which was also not efficiently managed. There were only two lines with something like 30 people in each. Finally another person opened a third line and I made a mad dash over to it. I ended up being the 3rd or 4th in line. I had nothing to declare and I wasn’t chosen for screening so I continued on out the security.
First stop was the baggage re-checkin. The man took my bag and told me my gate. He also told me which security checkpoint I should go to. I know JFK alright so I didn’t take his advice and I went to another terminal. As I arrived at the lines it seemed like I had made the correct choice. I had about 20 minutes before boarding would start so I was in good shape. I was a little out of breathe because I had hoofed it some distance but over all I was doing well.
Then the travel craziness started. The line didn’t move. I could see people going through the two security screening areas but the line I was in (non-VIP) did not seem to budge an inch. Now I was starting to worry. The time just seemed to slip away. Ten minutes went by and I had moved about 5 positions. There were still about 30 people in front of me. This was not good. Ten more minutes went by once again a small move in the line. The plane would be boarding. I got the attention of a security person and mentioned that my flight was going to leave without me. She said she’ll get back to me. I was getting extremely anxious and frustrated. There was a lady next to me in line that I saw was on the same flight. So to defuse my emotions I said hi as I could tell that she was going through the same situation as me. Finally security agent made an announcement for a flight that was 5 minutes before mine. I took the opportunity and went to the head of the line and beckoned the woman I met to follow. This of course only got us to the point before the x-ray machines and metal detectors but it was an improvement.
I’m not sure what was wrong with the world that day but the people in line were the slowest people to ever get through security. Another ten minutes had passed and I had pretty much resigned myself to being late and catching the next flight out.
When I finally was able to get through the screening I rushed to my gate which wasn’t too far from the security checkpoint. I noticed a big group of people around my gate walking the other way which could mean either the flight just got into my gate OR…
They changed the gate! I turned around and started heading toward my new gate. I saw the woman I skipped the line with and I flagged her to follow and told her that the gate had changed. Of course the gate was in the other concourse which was a brisk 5 minute walk.
Now we are about 15 minutes from the scheduled departure time but when I arrived at the gate there were just a whole bunch of people milling around and no one in authority informing anyone of anything. I tried to find someone who would know what was going on but they were either too busy to talk to me or else they didn’t know anything.
The departure time came and there was finally an announcement that the flight was delayed. Well DUH! And here I was getting all frantic trying to get to a flight that was delayed. I’m so used to this type of thing that when they gave out a new departure time I knew that it was too optimistic and that would be delayed as well.

My Good Deed for the day
About that time an airport representative wheeled an elderly lady up to the gate area. The old lady was definitely confused and not having a good day. Apparently she had been stuck in the airport all day and no one was really helping her. As I overheard her talking with the airport representative I really felt for her. Apparently she needed a wheel chair to get onto and off of the airplane but no one had arranged one. The representative said that she needed to talk to gate agent and then the representative left. Remember how I said it was difficult for me to get a gate agent’s help, well it was even more difficult for this elderly lady. So I stepped in. I walked over to a group of flight attendants and stated that the elderly lady needed assistance and that no one was paying any attention to her. Finally, one nice flight attendant went over and talked with the elderly lady and helped get everything straightened out. I have actually paraphrased this telling as there was a lot more but it’s already gone on too long. Right before they started to call us to board the plane I looked over at the elderly lady and she was napping in a chair. I went over and gently woke her up so that she didn’t miss her flight. I also said by to the woman that I went through security with.

What’s that noise?
I finally got onto the plane and got situated. This last leg I was going to be very tired and I might even sleep a bit. The plane took off later than the agent had declared (I was right) but the trip home was smooth and uneventful as all flights should be. As we were in the air I kept hearing this strange noise. It sounding like a loud slow clapping. I tried to ignore it but it would sneak into my consciousness and disrupt my thoughts. I looked around and finally spotted the culprit. A lady (maybe not the best description) was chomping loudly on gum. I mean very loudly. She was sitting at least three rows behind me and off to the side. I wanted to say something but I was drained from the day and so I just increased the volume on my iPod.

Re-acclimation
The rest of the flight was normal. The sun was falling in the sky when we landed and I snapped this photo of myself as I was riding the tram from the gates to the terminal.

the haggard traveler

the haggard traveler

Conclusion
Italy is a wonderful country. I am going to have to visit it more often and hopefully I will have more time to spend sight seeing and enjoying the enormous amount of culture it has to offer.

On a personal note: It has taken me three months to write out my adventures of 8 days. I need to be better at this journaling.

Comments off

Italy trip – day 7

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, and Day 6.

Starting the day with cappuccino (cappuccio locally)
I awoke the next day ready to venture through the city of Milan. My friends and I had decided to meet at my hotel and then head around town. When they arrived we all decided that the first order of business was to visit a local cafe and enjoy a cappuccio. We found a cafe about a 100 yards from my hotel and we sat down and ordered. The cappuccio was really good. We pulled out the map and the guide book and discussed our plans for the day. The first main stop would be Il Duomo.

The journey to Il Duomo
We decided to take the most direct path which was down Buenos Aires which took us all of the way to the center of Milan. As we walked along this boulevard I took pictures of interesting buildings.

door along Buenos Aires

door along Buenos Aires

Cool little building

Cool little building

seminary

seminary

Church entrance

Church entrance

Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II

Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II

Cool monument/fountain

Cool monument/fountain

As we got closer to Il Duomo the buildings started to become more commercialized and touristy. Lot’s of clothing oriented shops for both high fashion and not. Once we arrived at Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II the area changed to only pedestrian and bicycle traffic only but the number of people increased significantly. Also at this point we could start to see the spires that adorn the top of the Duomo. We continued toward the Piazza del Duomo passing by a living statue.

living statue 1

living statue 1

Just as we encroached on the edge of the piazza the sky decided it would open up and start to drizzle. Then the drizzle changed into a drenching rain just as we had time to duck under the overhang above an outdoor shopping mall. Of course everyone else that was in the piazza also decided to cram into this wonderful and partially dry area. So my friends and I had a short pow-wow and decided that we would explore this “mall” until the rain let up.
On a side note, as soon as the rain started there were a ton of people trying to sell umbrellas. This totally reminded me of Disney when it starts to rain. Not knowing whether we would be dealing with rain all day I purchased one of these very cheap umbrellas. It cost me 5 euros (approx $7).

rain starts in the piazza

rain starts in the piazza

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Galleria mural 1

Galleria mural 1

Galleria mural 2

Galleria mural 2

Galleria atrium

Galleria atrium

Galleria mural 3

Galleria mural 3

This place was gorgeous! This was one of the most amazing malls I had been in. We walked toward the center where there was some construction going on and as a group decided that we should probably get something to eat at one of the restaurants/cafes that were in the galleria. We chose Gabbiano which resided at the end of one of halls from the center. The food was good and we watched as the small birds would dive from any purchases that they had found in the wall to the ground to snatch a crumb and then flutter back up to the wall. The food was good and my two friends also enjoyed a gelato which was like a little celebration in an over-sized martini glass.

Gelato

Gelato

I gave a short lesson on camera features and techniques as we sat around waiting out the rain and watched the people. A well dressed lady that was between middle-aged and elderly (I don’t know the correct adjective) sat at a nearby table with her miniature poodle. She kept feeding it her food and also getting mad at it when it begged for more.

Outside Il Duomo
So we finished up and paid the bill just as the rain was letting up. This was our signal to hurry up and make our way to Il Duomo. The crowds in the Galleria had thinned. As we exited the Galleria it was almost as the clouds broke away and the sun shone through. Well, not really. It was still overcast but now the piazza was filled with people. I took this opportunity to take some pictures of Il Duomo.

Il Duomo

Il Duomo

Il Duomo 2

Il Duomo 2

Il Duomo 3

Il Duomo 3

Il Duomo 4

Il Duomo 4

Scams
As with any popular public location anywhere in the world there will be some bad apples. In the Piazza del Duomo there were quite a few foreigners (non-natives to Italy) that were going up to people that were definitely “tourists”. There were two scams that I saw although I couldn’t figure them out exactly. The first, and the only one really tried on me, was as I was walking along one of these non-Italian guys grabbed my hand and forced bird feed into it and then raised it up above my head. Within seconds a squadron of pigeons, aka flying rats, attacked the seeds in my hand. The guy then asked for my camera so that he could take a picture of me with the birds. I said No. The birds finished and then flew away. At that point the guy said give me five euros. I said no. Remember he had forced the seed into my hand. He demanded money again and at that point I walked away.
Another scam that I couldn’t figure out were many people were trying to hand out “free” bracelets. These were the small braided knot bracelets that many of us made when we were in middle school. I always declined the free bracelet but I was really curious about how that scam might work. Do they offer to put it on your wrist and while you are preoccupied does someone else pick your pockets? Do they say that the bracelet was free but putting it on costs five euros. Do they use the bracelets to flag “marks” for other scams? If anyone knows please put it in the comments or contact me because inquiring minds want to know!
One of my friends did succumb to the bird feed scam but I guess that’s why there are so many con artists out there.

Inside Il Duomo
We had been separated during the whole scam period and so I searched for my friends. We found each other and we decided to go into the cathedral. There was a short line to enter the church with security personnel checking bags. There were signs stating the procedures while inside the cathedral including photography. I mis-read the signs thinking that I would not be able to take photos while inside. But once we were inside it was apparent that photos are allowed just as long as there aren’t services. I took many photos but here are some of the more stunning photos.

stained glass 1

stained glass 1

stained glass 2

stained glass 2

christ in a box

christ in a box

stained glass 4

stained glass 4

We walked around the inside of Il Duomo for a while, marveling at the beauty and grandeur of this building and its art. This next photo is my favorite and I shot this from my hip.

my favorite photo

my favorite photo

We left the church and started on the path to the next destination. Here are some parting shots.

Il Duomo from the side

Il Duomo from the side

alley near the Duomo

alley near the Duomo

By the way, there are some military/police types in this photo that looked very serious. That’s why this photo is from way down the alley.

Around Milan
The first place we wanted to check out was Palazzo Reale which was located right next to the Duomo. As we walked to it we saw signs stating that it was closed for renovation. So on to the next location which was an odd church that supposedly had some really dark and strange sculptures. But due to my general lack of knowledge of the area and poor map reading skills we couldn’t find that church. We did find Università degli Studi di Milano where I took the following picture.

Castello Sforzesco
Our next stop is Castello Sforzesco. This was the castle for the Sforza. Leonardo da Vinci designed many of the armaments of this castle.

Castello Sforzesco 1

Castello Sforzesco 1

Castello Sforzesco 2

Castello Sforzesco 2

Castello Sforzesco 3

Castello Sforzesco 3

There was another living statue at the entrance to the castle. Although maybe this was someone associated with the museum to show period clothing.

living statue 2

living statue 2

At the far side of the castle was what I assume is the living quarters for whoever resided in the castle throughout time.

inside Castello Sforzesco

inside Castello Sforzesco

Cafe and crepe
Our next stop was going to be a botanical garden but we couldn’t find the entrance. Once again my failure in determining the correct path to the destination. So we were off to following location which was an art museum that housed all of the art that Napoleon had accrued during his expansions throughout Europe. As we walked there it was threatening to rain again. Also my compatriots were pleading that we stop and rest and get something to eat. So we stopped at a little cafe called El Beverin. I think it was supposed to be a German beer bar but everything on the menu seemed the same as other cafes that we had been in. Oh well. I wasn’t hungry but one of my friends ordered a crepe which I believe I had a bite of. Who can resist a crepe?
While we were inside the rain poured outside. So we were content on chilling indoors for a while longer. When the rain finally let up we paid our bill and headed on to the next destination.

Napoleon art collection
We made it to the art museum and walked around the courtyard taking photos. Here are some of the statues.

statue 1

statue 1

statue 2

statue 2

statue 3

statue 3

statue 4

statue 4

statue 5

statue 5

We found the entrance to the actual art museum portion but then we all decided that we could skip it.

Too tired to continue
As we exited the museum we discussed where we should head next. I was out voted and we decided to head back to the hotels. The quickest route seemed to be to go through the local park and on the far side split up and go to our respective hotels. We did this with minimal fuss and I think we were all wore out from a long day of walking around. We made plans to meet up for dinner after relaxing for a while.

R&R or Resting and Rain
Once I made it back to the hotel I completely flopped on the bed. As I rested the rain came again and this time it really poured down hard. I was so tired from the walking and all of the walking the night before. I tried to watch tv but there wasn’t anything on. I looked out the window on Milan in the rain but the bed kept calling me back.
The time passed. I got cleaned up and headed over to my friends’ hotel. Once again they wanted to try something other than Italian and I had recalled an Argentinian restaurant just a block or so away that we had passed by at some point. So off we went.

El Paso de los Toros
We arrived at the restaurant and to me it looked like the place was being overrun by a pirate party. Well OK there was one table with like 8-10 people dressed in pirate-like garb. The host led us to a table in the back room and sat us. I think he was our waiter too but my memory is failing me. Anyway, our waiter arrived and gave us “English” menus. We ordered drinks and one of my friends ordered a glass of red wine. Here again I may be getting the details a little wrong but the story still works. When the waiter returned with the drinks he had brought white wine for her. We attempted to explain that there was a problem and he left and when he returned he brought an opened bottle of white wine. At this point I had to break out my limited Spanish skills as apparently communicating in English wasn’t working and I hoped that in this Argentinian restaurant that this waiter would understand Spanish. He got the gist and in a huff he left and returned with a glass of red wine.
Other than the wine mix-up the food was good. I had a grilled steak, churrasco, as that is by far a Latin American delicacy especially when presented with chimichurri. Yum!

And of course more gelato
After dinner we decided that we would get some gelato. On the previous night’s excursions around Milan we had located a few different gelaterias and one in particular was very busy so we surmised that this must be the “good” one of the lot. So when making the decision it was clear which one we wanted to try and we made a beeline for it.
Again on this night it was busy and we waited in line which gave us some time to try to decipher the menu. It’s difficult enough that the ingredients are in Italian but there is also a whole other language associated to gelato flavors. Sort of like the crazy language spoken at Starbucks. Well, I decided on the “house” flavor which from what I could determine was just a mixture of the leftovers of other flavors. But it was good!
From there we decided that we should be turning in because we were all very tired and we had to get up early to get to the airport. We parted ways and I returned to my hotel.

Paranoia
When I entered the hotel I asked the front desk clerks how early I would have to leave to get to the airport in time for a 10:45am flight. They were adamant that I be at the airport no less than two hours beforehand. Therefore I would have to checkout and what not around 6-6:30. Ugh! I had a clerk call my friend’s hotel so that I could share the news that we would have to get up extra early the next day. Then off to bed.

Comments (2)

Italy trip – day 6

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5.

Sleeping in
The is the first day since landing in Italy that we have been able to sleep in. For me this meant that instead of getting up at 7am (1am EST) I got up at about 9am. Ah, the small joys in life. I quickly got some breakfast before the hotel restaurant closed and I set out on the day.

Driving to Malpensa
The first order of business for the day was to deal with the rental car situation. This would require me to drive to the Malpensa Airport in order to return my rental car and get it swapped for another. This is about a 40 minute drive on a very fast highway which I didn’t want to traverse with a donut spare tire which aren’t rated for either high speeds or long distances. So I decided to take the non-highway route. I plugged in the airport as the destination into my GPS and told it not to take the highway. The trip took about 50 minutes and I got to see a lot more of the Italian countryside. The only frustrating part was when I cam up behind a dump-truck that was going about 10 kilometers per hour below the posted limit. I wasn’t in a hurry so I just enjoyed the drive.
When I arrived at the airport and the rental car return spot I had to go through the whole story again. Then I had to fill out some paper work and I was given another car. It was relatively painless and I was on my way within fifteen minutes. On the way back to the hotel I don’t think I even used my GPS until I got into Varese.
Once I got back to the hotel I packed my things and checked out. I left my luggage with the bellhop. One of my coworkers who was going to join me as a tourist today also checked out of his room and checked his luggage with the bellhop.

Trip to Sacro Monte
My coworker and I decided that we were going to check out Sacro Monte while our other coworkers were stuck at the office for the day. So after driving about an hour and a half I was prepping to drive some more to visit what is considered a very beautiful church in the area. My coworker and I hopped into my car and I punched in Sacro Monte into GPS. There was one entry so I selected it and off we went.

Do not trust the GPS
About 20 minutes into the trip we both knew something was wrong. The GPS said we were going in the right direction as we headed back towards the airport. I just figured that there must be a really indirect route to get to the destination. The GPS took us down another highway that cut back north west and we figured what the heck and the journey continued.

Sacro Monte di Varese Varallo

Sacro Monte di Varallo

Sacro Monte di Varallo

After about an hour of driving on highways and in very quaint little villages we started to climb a mountain outside of the town of Varallo. Following signs to “Sacro Monte” we finally made it to the entrance to the hallowed grounds. The basilica and the almost 50 chapels/shrines all contain sculptures and artwork some of which dates back to 1500. These grounds were used by pilgrims during the periods of the crusades when traveling through Turkey to get to Jerusalem would be too dangerous. We spent a bunch of time going from chapel to chapel on the way to the basilica. Besides a maintenance crew there was only one other small group of people.

Peter

Peter

Overlook of Varallo

Overlook of Varallo

Creepy soldier

Creepy soldier

Italian lizards

Italian lizards

Fancy ironwork

Fancy ironwork

One of the chapels

One of the chapels

Another picture of a chapel

Another picture of a chapel

A really big chapel

A really big chapel

We made it to the doors of the basilica but it looked like the church was locked up. I took some pictures of the doors (should have gotten more).

The basilica (from afar)

The basilica (from afar)

basilica door

basilica door

Basilica up close

Basilica up close

Door panel 1

Door panel 1

Door panel 2

Door panel 2

Door panel 3

Door panel 3

Door panel 4

Door panel 4

Door archway

Door archway

Then I went to push the front door open and just as I did a priest opened the door. It startled me a little bit. I asked him if it would be OK if we entered and took pictures. He said it was ok. We meandered around the pews and took pictures of the various alcoves and alters. It was very impressive.

After leaving the basilica I stopped at the gift shop and then we continued walking around looking at chapels. After having our fill we decided it was time to grab something to eat.

last supper

last supper

Pannini in Italy
At the entrance to the grounds was a small building that was part snack shop part tourist gift shop. We decided that we might as well get something there as we would have no idea where to go when we got down to the bottom of the mountain. There was an elderly Italian couple that managed the stand and it took them a bit to realize that we were sitting and waiting to be served (I’m not being pompous as they had no difficulty serving another family that showed up after us). I don’t think they were trying to be rude. I just don’t think they realized that we were wanting to get food. Finally the elderly man took our drink order, 2 agua frizzantes, but his partner decided to give those to the other family. Anyway, after some minutes I decided to attempt to order food and drink from inside the stand but he decided to have us sit and take our order. I saw on the menu a prosciutto pannini and quickly decided that is what I wanted. I guess my idea of a pannini and the true pannini are two different things. What arrived on the plate in front of me was some (not many) slices of prosciutto placed on a rather large roll. No cheese. Not grilled/pressed. Just sliced ham on bread. The bread was good although a touch dry and just not enough prosciutto. Now I know for the next time I’m in Italy.
After our late lunch we drove back to the hotel which took another hour or more. We got back to the hotel and very shortly afterward our other coworkers that had to go into the office arrived. It was almost perfect timing. After saying good bye to some of my coworkers I and two of my coworkers retrieved our luggage and piled everything into my car.

Driving to Milan
Then we were off to Milan. Again I was driving as we three headed into the big city. The highway was an easy drive with mild traffic even for a Friday evening. As we got closer to the city the traffic became denser but flowed smoothly. About a quarter of a mile from our destination, where my coworkers’ hotel was, the traffic was bad. We also had to stop at various intersections that really didn’t have a clear indication of who had the right of way. Let’s just say I got honked at a few times. The GPS deposited us directly in front of their hotel and they got out. We made plans to meet at my hotel in a couple of hours in order to get some food and maybe hit some night life.

Parking in Milan
After dropping them off I headed towards my hotel which was about a half mile away. But due to all of the one way streets and traffic it took me a bit to get there. Once I arrived at the entrance to my hotel there was no place to park out front. I saw a sign for city parking so I followed the signs and they kept leading me deeper into the local neighborhoods and away from my hotel. Once I actually found the underground parking structure I was pretty much done. I talked with the parking attendant and we agreed on 25 euros a night for two nights. Like I said I was done and didn’t care. I grabbed my stuff and the valet ticket and hoofed it back to the hotel. I did make sure to mark the parking garage in my GPS before going anywhere as I basically was lost.

The beautiful hotel, people, everything
I got back to the hotel, Sheraton Diana Majestic, rather quickly and entered the lobby that although was rather small was very beautiful. There were tons of very well dressed people walking in and out of the hotel. Many of them looked like models in designer clothing. There were also people checking in that looked like models in their comfort clothes, aka sweats and big sunglasses. I only chose this hotel because I had SPG points and it was in the middle of Milan. I am so glad that I chose this hotel.
I checked in and headed up to my room. The room was a bit small but I guess that is typical for European hotels. The bed was extremely comfortable and the bathroom was huge. Both rooms were decorated impressively and my window overlooked the garden.

View in Milan

View in Milan

Where are my friends and friendly Italians
So when we made plans I had mistakenly left it up to my friends as to when they wanted to show up. I had also mistakenly assumed that it would be rather soon after I dropped them off. I waited in my room for an hour or so. Watched some tv. Then I went downstairs and walked around the hotel a little bit. Then I started to get worried. I asked the concierge to call their hotel but they weren’t there. I went back up to my room thinking that they were on their way. Another 20 or so minutes later and they still hadn’t arrived so I headed back downstairs and sat in the waiting area that was just off of the lobby. This allowed me to view out through the windows to watch the people on the street while also watching the beautiful people walking through the lobby. I sat and read in my Milan guidebook and waited. I was really worried, and hungry, and I had no idea where my friends were.
Finally, after about another 5-10 minutes they showed up outside the hotel so I went out to greet them. Apparently they got a little lost on the way from their hotel. Oh well. We started to discuss where we wanted to eat. They had decided on their walk over that they didn’t want to eat Italian as we had plenty of that throughout the week. While we were talking I kept noticing that a really attractive woman was edging over towards us. She then blatantly interrupted our discussion in order to help us. Apparently she was somewhat familiar with the area and she helped us decide where to eat. In the middle of giving us directions to a local sushi restaurant her friends arrived, an attractive couple, and she greeted them with hugs and kisses as Italians are wont to do and then continued to help us. She was very nice and I probably should have asked her and her friends to join us. I guess I was just stunned.

Sushi and miso
The friendly Italian’s directions were ok and we were able to find the restaurant, Ristorante Shun, after a little hunting around some of the side streets off of the main drag, Buenos Aires. It was a Friday night and the place was packed. When we entered the host asked for our reservation. Since we didn’t have one he stated that it would probably be about 15 minutes before a table was open. We ended up getting a table in about five minutes.
We sat and the host took our drink orders and handed us English menus. And by English menus I mean they attempted to translate the items and got most of them. After a while our waitress arrived and didn’t speak any English. We were able to point to the items that we wanted and the order was placed. I realized that I wanted some miso soup so I tried to get a hold of the waitress. We couldn’t get her so I got the attention of another waiter and attempted to explain that I would like some miso soup. You must understand that all of the employees of this Japanese restaurant were of some sort of Asian descent. But no matter how I pronounced it or pantomimed a bowl I could not convey to this guy what I wanted. He ended up pulling over another person and final a third, the host and apparently the one most familiar with English, and I was able to get my soup. The soup was good and worth the hassle.
Our sushi arrived very quickly which is not what I expected based on my experiences in other sushi establishments. The sushi was really good even if we weren’t totally sure what was in some of the rolls. The “Mario Roll” was really good and was always followed up by a comment in the really bad Luigi imitation “Hey Mario!”. After we finished dinner, I had another interesting attempt at conveying to the waitress that I had added miso to the bill but I think they had already added it when I got my check. Anyway, we paid and left the establishment content with our bellies full of fish.

Ethnic Neighborhoods
We had to go back to my friends’ hotel because one of my friends wanted to freshen up and possibly change before going out again. Me and my other friend waited in the lobby as the third went up to her room. About ten minutes passed and we decided to call up to her room to see how much longer. We didn’t get an answer. Figuring that she was out of reach of the phone we gave her some more time. After about another five minutes we called again still got no answer. Now we were starting to get worried. I went up to knock on her door to see if all was alright and it became apparent that it wasn’t so I went back downstairs. My friend in the lobby and I decided that instead of waiting for some indeterminate amount of time that we would go for a walk and get some gelato. We left a message with the desk clerk and left the hotel.
As we walked from the hotel we noticed that almost all of local restaurants and bars were African of some sort. Quite a few were Ethiopian. There were always a small group of people outside of each establishment and it was interesting to me that there were ethnic neighborhoods in Italy. I had read that there were quite a few residents or transplants of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern descent but I guess it didn’t hit me until we were walking through these streets.
We found a gelato place on a corner and ordered some. It was good but not as good as the gelato from the previous night. I don’t recall what flavor I had so I guess it wasn’t memorable. Probably some sort of chocolate.
After finishing we decided to walk a while as it didn’t take that much time to find and consume the gelato. We walked back to Buenos Aires and walked a good five blocks in each direction.

Corso Buenos Aires

Corso Buenos Aires


To me it seemed a lot like one of the main thoroughfares in New York City such as Broadway but my friend, who grew up and lives near NYC, thought it was more like 5th Avenue or some other street known for shopping.
Anyway, we had figured that we should head back and check on our friend.

It’s raining men…
On our way back through the ethnic neighborhoods, this time we ventured into the Chinese area, we came to an intersection that seemed to be having a huge gathering. It was almost like a street party. As we got closer it seemed like there were a lot of men. In fact, out of the probably 200+ people in this intersection I think I saw only one woman. Apparently we found an Italian sausage party. We hurried past the throng and on to the hotel.

And the walking continues…
Once we reached my friends’ hotel we were notified by the desk clerk that my female friend had indeed come down looking for us so we called her room. She came down shortly afterward. Earlier in the day she had made plans with an Italian coworker to meet up at a Milanese bar that was close to our hotels. With a local map in hand and some shaky instructions from the hotel desk clerk we set out again (by the way it’s well after midnight at this point) in order to find this bar. We headed up a street that seemed to be the banking district. Had a short conversation with a lost American student just outside of the Central Transportation Station.

Stazione Centrale

Stazione Centrale


Then we took some smaller streets to get to the street where the “bar” was supposed to be. On a side note, we were attempting to contact our Italian coworker throughout the night to get any specifics/logistics about the meet up locations. We failed to make contact and therefore we were utterly in the wrong location. So many things converged to get us at the wrong location but we were done. We all decided that the night was done.

Too much walking
Using my better than average (I was going to say super or keen or amazing but then I would be lying) map reading skills I plotted us a faster course back to their hotel and off we went. As we were walking it seemed like we were going into maybe a not so great part of town and this was probably the reason the desk clerk gave us the directions that he did. There were literally red lights along one fence. Then we saw an amazingly beautiful woman in a very tight red dress and tall heels (with an collapsed umbrella) on the side of the road. We will never know if she was a lady of the night or just a model waiting for someone to take a picture. I should have volunteered to take a photo. We scurried along and the rest of the walk to their hotel was uneventful and actually rather quick compared to the walk that got us out in Timbuktu.
I split from my friends just short of their hotel and walked down another street. I saw the “block party” and continued to the next block. Eventually, I made it back to my hotel with aching feet and no desire to do anything but go to bed.

Comments off

Italy trip – day 5

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4.

Finishing up with work
This was the final day of work in the office. We had a couple of short meetings and spent the rest of the day tying up loose ends. It was a real pleasure to work with the people in that office.

Getting my tire fixed
So as I noted on day 3 I had popped a tire and I needed to get it repaired. I was too busy with work to handle it on day 4 but since we were wrapping up the work for the week I had some time to deal with this situation. I also had access to a very helpful Italian coworker and I contacted the rental car agency to figure out how to solve this situation. My feeble attempt at describing the situation to the representative didn’t work so I handed my coworker the phone. He spoke Italian very quickly only saying my name one or two times so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t berating me. He hung up and let me know the results. Basically I had two choices. The first was to return the car to a local rental car agency shop and get a replacement car for the duration of the trip. The second option was to ride around on the spare tire until returning the car. As I was planning to possibly visit neighboring cities I really didn’t want to try my luck on a donut tire. So I choose the first option and in the late afternoon I found the closest rental car agency location, which was in Varese, and I took my car there. I talked with the agent, who was extremely helpful, and she explained that she couldn’t trade in my car because she didn’t have any automatics. But she told me that the mechanic where they get tire replacements was just a block away. She contacted them and gave me directions and I drove over to the tire shop.
The first thing that caught my attention was that the entrance to the shop was a single door wide enough for a single car and it was flush with the street. Luckily no one was attempting to leave when I pulled into the shop. The second amazing thing was that the interior of this shop was immaculate. One of the attendants directed me into a spot for my car. I popped the hatchback and pulled the tire out and he took it off to perform tests. I already knew it was a goner. The manager came out and between Italian, broken English, and some pantomime he was able to describe that it was dead and I would need a new tire. Then we proceeded to communicate about what to do. He informed me that the new car that I had had a new type of tire that he doesn’t carry yet and he wouldn’t have in stock for at least three days. This wouldn’t work for me as I was heading to Milan the following day. He called the agent that I had spoken to just before coming to the shop and repeated the same details. He then handed me the phone and she told me the same thing which was fine. She then told me that I could take it back to the airport as they would be able to swap out the cars. I agreed that that would be my choice and she set everything up for me to pick up a replacement in the morning. I thanked the manager for his help, packed the dead tire back into my car, and I headed back to the office (because I was some coworkers’ ride). Don’t you love an hour and half of chasing your tail with nothing to show for it?

Walking around Varese
I returned to the office just in time to finish a couple of small things up and then everyone was ready to leave for the day. I said goodbye to the people that I wouldn’t be seeing, packed up my laptop, and we headed out the door and back to the hotel. We all decided that we would do something easy this night and one of my coworkers that had been working in this town for many months suggested that we go to downtown Varese and have dinner. I suggested that we walk because it would be good for us and it wasn’t that far away and I didn’t want to risk driving my rental car any more than I had to. It was a beautiful walk and we all chatted and laughed as we walked about two kilometers (just over a mile). As we walked I started to see locations that had become landmarks as we had driven around town like restaurants that we ate at or intersections that we stopped at every day. I was starting to feel like I was getting accustomed to this town.

Pizza
As the four of us walked around town we were told, by my coworker, that there were two many pizzerias in the area. One had an extremely unique style of pizza that was like paper thin and the other was just regular pizza but was really good. We all chose the latter as we wanted the best experience that Italy had to offer. We passed by the paper thin pizza place and it was about half full but we continued on to the other place which was over full. Apparently if you wanted patio seating you had to have a reservation but we didn’t care where we sat as long as we got some tasty pizza. The inside of the restaurant was small and very packed. The only place for us to stand was in the walk way next to the cash register and coffee bar (almost all food related establishments have one of these). The waitresses buzzed by us continuously as we were always in the way. If this were the US it would have been a fire hazard. The good thing was that I saw a ton of different pizzas go by so I was starting to get an idea of what I wanted.
We had to wait about 10-15 minutes before being seated but that didn’t matter too much for us. We then had to wait about another 5-10 minutes before a waitress got our drinks and gave us menus. I thought I had a clue of what I wanted until I saw the menu. There must have been at least 50 different types of pizzas each with slightly different ingredients that weren’t (or poorly) translated into English. I ended up choosing a very delicious pizza with mozzarella, artichokes, mushrooms and ham.

mmmm pizza

mmmm pizza


The waitress was using a wireless device, like a Palm Pilot, to place the order as we told her. One of my coworkers was attempting to order beer to go with his meal and each beer he mentioned she would search in her device and respond that it was not available. It became comical. Finally he basically said you choose for me and she recommended one, checked it on her device, and left us. About a minute or two later she came back saying that that beer was also not available but she brought a substitute. It was funny but I guess you had to be there. That same coworker order a pizza with buffalo mozzarella which is basically a baseball sized ball of fresh mozzarella that is plopped onto a pizza. I tried some of it and the mozzarella was really good. My pizza was great. I’m going to have to see if some local pizzerias will add artichokes.

Gelato
After the pizza we walked around town a little bit longer but we were all wanting dessert. We made a beeline for a local gelato establishment to indulge our sweet tooth. I had a stracciatella gelato. My best estimate was that it was a standard cream with bits of chocolate. Yummy!

Stracciatella gelato

Stracciatella gelato


A couple of my coworkers got crepes with nutella and banana which I tried and was good. But not as good as the gelato. The ladies behind the counter were closing up so we got the hint and finished quickly and headed out the doors and back onto the streets. We hoofed it back to the hotel and went our separate ways as we were all very content with the food and exercise of the night.

Comments off

Italy trip – day 4

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.

The fourth day was pretty much the same as the other days as far as work was concerned. Lot’s of time discussing topics and rehashing ideas in order to work out all of the finer details and come to a good consensus. Yep, the usual boring work stuff.

Lunch in the Cafeteria
Since I have only a few items to talk about on this day I figured I would talk about some of the culture in the office. As my only experience for Italian lunches is this cafeteria I’ll generalize but be forewarned that I am doing so. Lunch at the cafeteria is between 11:45am and 1:00pm. There are two lines but they serve the same food. The meals are definitely complete meals and everyone seems to get a plate full of food. As with dinner there are multiple courses but most of what I saw people do were to only choose two. There was the typical first course which was a choice of some sort of pasta or vegetables. Then the second course was some sort of meat. There were also salads, other side items and deserts but I didn’t see the need for more food than the two many courses. The food itself was pretty good. Not as good as at the restaurants but better than most cafeterias I have encountered. The dining area was very typical in that it had long tables with many small and uncomfortable chairs meant to encourage people to eat and leave. There was an outdoor seating area with 6 or so tables with umbrellas that were on a patio overlooking the mountain lake and the vistas beyond. Of course because the weather was so wonderful those tables filled up fast so we were forced to sit inside for at least half of the time.

Dinner at Caracciolo
One our Italian coworkers invited us to join him for dinner at a local restaurant/pizzeria named Caracciolo. I’m not certain if he is a regular there or has some sort of familial or other interest in the restaurant but we all went. As with the other meals everything was served family style and the food kept coming. Instead of having multiple courses there were a bunch of different dishes that all came out at about the same time. One dish was a seafood medley with muscles, shrimp, calamari, and fish. Another was penne with sausage. A third was a type of pasta that I have never had before and they used breadcrumbs instead of parmesan cheese. In fact, there were two bowl that came out with the dishes with one having parmesan and the other breadcrumbs. The food was great.

Italian TV
We returned to the hotel rather early and we all retired to our rooms for the night. I was pretty tired as the long days and nights and the time zone shift was catching up to me. I got comfortable in bed and flicked on the TV. Italian TV is interesting because it is all in Italian. Other places in the world typically have channels that are broadcast in English (American English that is) and then would have the regional subtitles. But not here in Italy. They watch all of the American shows that we know and love but are completely dubbed over with Italian. The Simpsons is always interesting in other languages. There was a movie channel which I would say was like HBO™ except that the only movies I saw on there seemed like they were from the 80s. In fact on this particular night I came across The Hunger with Susan Sarandon and David Bowie. Of course I didn’t know it was The Hunger until just now when I researched those two actors together. It seems like a really trippy movie and was even more so when I couldn’t understand any of the dialog. It is now in my Netflix® queue.

Comments off

Italy trip – day 3

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series that was started on Day 1 and Day 2

The morning routine
So the next morning I was quite rested even though we were all up so late. Again I cleaned up and joined my coworkers for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I just had orange juice and a croissant. We then hopped into my car and headed to the office.

Motorcycles, mopeds, and ATVs; Oh My!
One thing that stands out on the roads in Italy besides the abundance of small cars is the crazy amount of motorcycles and their cousins. It seems to be that the rules are a little bit looser for motorcycles and scooters in regards to where they can drive on the street. So on our jaunts to and from the office it was very typical that these two wheeled vehicles would pass by using the center line of a narrow two lane road as the gap in traffic. I was spooked a couple of times by bikes flying through the center of the road. They also like to cut in line at stop lights. I saw bikes and like of all different shapes and sizes and styles. I even saw a high school aged kid driving a 4-wheeled ATV on the road in traffic. I guess if it runs then it’s legal to drive on the road.

What’s that hissing?
So the work day was done. We all attempted to finish our individual assignments as early as possible because we had planned to drive to Switzerland for dinner and to say that we visited that country. Some of the sessions were running a little bit long which meant that we probably weren’t going to have much daylight but we were adamant about going to Lugano, Switzerland. The plan was to head back to the hotels, get changed, regroup and all pile into my car and go. We finally left the office and headed back to the hotel. Due to my wonderful driving I accidentally hit a curb on an acute angled right turn. I didn’t think about it much until we got back to the hotel. We all got out and collected our laptop bags and that’s when we noticed the hissing. Yep, that’s right, my wonderful stunt driving tore a gash into the sidewall of the tire and it was leaking slowly but constantly. Immediately we realized that we would not being using my car to drive to Lugano.

Plan B
The original plan was that we were going to go in my car and pick up another coworker at her hotel before heading to Switzerland. But since my car was a lame horse heading to the glue factory we had to get another car. Of course the only other car available was with the coworker at the other hotel and it was a manual transmission. So we called the coworkers hotel and got no answer from her room. We hung out in the lobby of our hotel for a bit then we called again and once again she wasn’t responding. We even asked the reception desk of her hotel to look for her and they said they didn’t see her. Well the night looked like it was going to be early and disappointing. As a last ditch effort we decided to walk over to her hotel which was just about a kilometer away from our hotel. Worst case scenario was that she wasn’t there and we could just walk to downtown Varese for dinner. The walk was nice and as we arrived we noticed that our coworker was hanging out the window of her room. Apparently when we called earlier she was sitting outside waiting for us to arrive. So she got ready and we piled into her car. I was the navigator as I wasn’t comfortable driving a stick shift so I got my GPS out and dialed in Lugano, Switzerland and off we go.

Crossing the Border
A quick flashback into the work day prior to our adventure. While planning our adventure over to Switzerland one of the Italians in the office spoke up and gave us some helpful ideas of what we were going to expect as we crossed the border. He also commented “why were we going to Switzerland for dinner when we were in Italy?” Anyway, he told us that for whatever reason the Swiss charge a pretty hefty toll, something like €50 (about $63) for some sort of sticker that gets affixed to the car. Of course this is probably due to the interesting relations between the Swiss and the EU. So we came prepared to pay the sticker “toll” at the border. As we arrived at the Italian/Swiss border we had no clear indication of what we were doing. We saw what looked like a booth but no one was manning it. So we drove by slowly, in the general direction of what looked like border guards, and a blond lady on her cell phone standing on the other side of the booth waved us by. When we reached the two border guards we rolled down our window and started to get our passports out. One of the guards looked at us as if we had interrupted a really good conversation and begrudgingly waved us through. So we were thinking there was going to be another stop but then we were back on the highway.

Switzerland
So now we were in the land of watches and cheeses. We drove along the highway heading into Lugano admiring what would be probably have been beautiful vistas of the Alps if it weren’t completely dark. I don’t think the moon was out anymore or was too low in the sky to light up anything. The highway was pretty nice and we drove through I think four tunnels that were immaculate and well lit. I kind of had the feeling that I was in some sort of rally racing game but I wasn’t driving.

tunnel to Lugano

tunnel to Lugano

The traffic on the other side of the highway was at a dead-stop and was backed up for miles. We were hoping that it would clear up before we attempted to head back.
We arrived in the city and now we needed to find a place to park. There were “P” signs with arrows every block or so but they really didn’t help us in finding a parking lot. After a couple of u-turns we were able to find a rather large underground parking structure where we left the car and headed out on foot.
We really had no idea where to go.

map of Lugano

map of Lugano

I had heard from some coworkers that there was basically a plaza/street that had a bunch of cafés, bars,and restaurants. So we hoofed it towards what sounded like night life. We were all hungry by now as it was getting sort of late with the tire issue, the missing coworker, and the driving. We found a nice outdoor restaurant with somewhat reasonable prices, the previous few seemed out of our budget, and finally got someone’s attention who sat us.
I don’t remember exactly what I had to eat but I am pretty sure it was good. It better have been good because it cost 50 swiss francs (about $50) This is what I get for waiting three weeks to write this up.
After dinner we decided to walk around and see what we could of this Swiss border town.

neat building in the plaza where we ate

neat building in the plaza where we ate

a backlit fountain

a backlit fountain

a funky sign by the lake

a funky sign by the lake

a resting swan

a resting swan

a cool bus

a cool bus


interestingly lit building

interestingly lit building


empty street of Lugano

empty street of Lugano

The trip back
We eventually got tired of walking around the empty streets taking pictures of closed stores so we went back to the car. I got back into navigator mode and whipped out the GPS to find the correct path back to our hotel. I really don’t understand how a GPS determines the path to set us on but this time we took the high road. And by high road I mean we climbed up the side of some mountains using some narrow roads with many switchbacks. Again it probably would have been beautiful but it was dark. When we got to the border we again saw a small group of border guards on the Swiss side. This time they were wearing coats as we were at a higher altitude where it was a little bit brisk. We had a difficult time figuring out how to navigate around the obstructions that were placed to slow drivers down and there was no clear indication as to where you should be going. Once again the Swiss guards took barely a glance at us and waved us along. When we got to the Italian side we were stopped by a single Italian who had one hand on his firearm and a serious look on his face. He asked us to open the hatchback, like we were smuggling Swiss people across the border, but he didn’t even ask for our passports or if we had anything to declare. He waved us on and we got out of there and on our way back to the hotel.
The drive was rather pleasant. Now and then there would be some car behind us that would be tailgating a little too closely considering there was no traffic and we were still on winding twisted roads but we never had any problems. We made it back to the hotel safely.

Pit Crew
I had decided earlier in the night that regardless of the time I wanted to get the spare tire installed so that in the morning I wouldn’t have to deal with it. One of my coworkers asked if I needed assistance and I readily agreed. I could have done it myself but having the help and the company always makes it better. It took us 15 minutes at the most to change out the tire. I was really glad that he helped because it probably would have taken me much longer. Since the bar was closed I treated him to a sparkling water and we both retired to our respective rooms for the night.

Comments (1)

Italy trip – day 2

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series that was started on Day 1

Breakfast
After last night’s wonderful headache I didn’t expect to sleep well but I did. I even woke up before the three alarms that I had set for myself and the wake up call I had requested. So I was up before 7:20am European time. I got ready for work and headed down to the hotel restaurant to partake in the free breakfast and to meet up with my coworkers before heading to the office. I had some scrambled eggs (a little too runny for my liking), some bacon (it was barely cooked), and a chocolate filled brioche (croissant) with some orange juice. There was also pear juice and pineapple juice but both did not sound appealing to me. Breakfast filled me up and meeting up with my coworkers, a couple of them I haven’t seen for years, was a great way to start the morning.

Driving to Work
The office where we were going to have our meetings was in a small lakeside village of Comerio. The drive from the hotel to the office was about 15 minutes along a well trafficked two-lane road that went through a whole mess of small villages. In fact you wouldn’t know that you were changing villages if there weren’t these huge signs letting you know when you were exiting one and entering another.

The cars in Italy or small for the most part. There are some “rich” people that have SUVs or medium sized cars. My rental car was a Mercedes-Benz A-Class but it was rather roomy on the inside. It was also an automatic which is very rare in Italy. Now I have heard the stories of the crazy drivers in Italy but I really didn’t see it where I was. Yes they are aggressive and tail-gate constantly but they all seemed extremely attentive drivers with really good reaction times. I have no doubt that there are accidents but I didn’t see any signs. Speaking of signs…they are absolutely crazy there. There seems to be a sign for every type of curve or situation and almost all of them don’t have words just symbols. And the actual street signs are either non-existent or obscured by other signs, tree limbs, or the position/angle of it’s placement. This makes navigating with a GPS that much more important and difficult. More important because you have no frame of reference and more difficult because when the GPS spews forth street names it is nearly impossible to match it to an actual road. We ended up just going with the upcoming turn direction and the distance to said turn.

Work
So the first day in the office was very nice. The guy that was heading up the European team for my company showed us around the office and introduced us to the key people. There was another consulting vendor with representatives from France that we were going to be working with exclusively during the week. I had apprehensions at first as my previous experiences with other third party vendors has been less than stellar. Anyway, I kept an open mind and we set to work in our client’s mutual interest. To my pleasant surprise the rep. from the other vendor was very knowledgeable and a blast to work with.

Mix of Cultures
Many of the conversations in throughout the day revolved around the differences in cultures between countries, languages, regions, and continents. For instance one of the traditions in the office is group coffee breaks (caffé). We would head to the break area (an oversized hallway with vending machines) and make a selection from the machines and stand around chatting while drinking the tiny beverages chock full of caffeine. Most of the time the conversation had little or nothing to do about work. This typically happened a few times a day.

Style
One thing that is very apparent when in the office or walking around the streets in Italy is that everyone is dressed very stylishly. The office dress code seemed to very greatly from complete suits to blue jeans but regardless everyone looked like they stepped out of clothing catalog. I would have said a fashion magazine but those styles seem so cutting edge that I couldn’t imagine anyone wearing those outfits. Scarves seemed to be very popular among both men and women. The weather there was extremely pleasant so these scarves weren’t the type used to bundle up from the cold but the type with frills and what not to flaunt style. I actually kind of liked them but they are totally out of place in Florida. The Italian women in the office,  which I only saw during lunch time, seemed to dress rather provocatively. Plunging necklines, see-through blouses, and white pants that reveal too much, well let’s just say it could be distracting. Anyway, regardless of where I went or how I dressed I always felt like a bum in the fashion/style department. But that is OK because I am a bum when it comes to fashion and/or style.

Dinner at Bologna
So after work we all head back to our various hotels and relax for a short while before heading to a restaurant in the middle of Varese called Bologna, which is funny considering there is another town not too far away called Bologna. Since I was driving and had no clue where I was going we swapped passengers with another car because he “supposedly” knew where it was. I was able to stay close enough to the lead car that we were able to find the place but finding parking was a little more difficult. I had to circle the block before I was able to parallel park and based on the “New Yorker” in the car I did a horrible job and was the butt of a few jokes. I’ll admit readily that I stink at parallel parking.
Anyway, this is a place that many of the traveling workers go to on a regular basis because we were given extra special treatment. We were basically given our own room (there was another table with two guys but they left shortly afterward) and by the time the drinks were arriving there were already pre-appetizers. A short comment about Italian dining. There are multiple courses starting with the antipasto, then two main courses, followed by cheese, desert, coffee, and ammazzacaffè (“coffee killer”). You can read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_cuisine#Meal_structure. The reason I bring that up is that we didn’t order what first came out which was a huge assortment of sliced meats like prosciutto. Then four jars of pickled items (onions, purplish cucumbers, some sort of uncooked sausage, and one other that is escaping me). There were other plates too but I don’t even know where to start describing them. And all of these were before we ordered anything.
The next course being the antipasto sort of mixed with the first main course. I really should have taken pictures because I have forgotten most of what was passed around the table. I do remember a couple of different risottos, a couple of different gnocchis, and a couple of other plates that I don’t remember. Everything was great. Everyone was having a great time especially since the “no work talk” rule was in effect. Basically the rule is that if you mention anything pertaining to work you had to finish whatever drink you had in front of you. Let’s just say it was a drinking game and the wine flowed freely.
At some point we were deciding whether or not to order the second main course which consists of meats. Well we all decided yes. So then we had lamb, sausage, and I believe veal. Wow, my memory is fading from that evening. So much great food. After all of that people still had room for dessert. We had planned on going to a local gelateria but somebody said that was closed so we stayed at Bologna for dessert. Tiramisus and other desserts were passed around. I passed on the dessert but when it came to coffee I ordered a cioccolata (which I found out is really cioccolata densa). I was expecting a coffee with a chocolate flavoring or maybe something like the hot chocolate that is typical in the US. What I got was basically a cup of melted chocolate. Really thick but good. I wasn’t able to finish it as it was too rich and thick.
The final order for the night, at least at this restaurant, was the after coffee drinks. This consisted of different liquors that are supposed to help the digestions. I didn’t partake but my colleagues tried a few of them. At some point we realized that the lights were shutting off in the other sections of the restaurant. So the bill was settled and we walked around Varese.

The Unknown Bar
We walked around the small streets of Varese until we came to a nice little bar with outdoor seating. The place was almost dead (maybe 6 patrons inside) but that is probably because it was around midnight on a Monday night. More alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were ordered (as the “no work talk” rule was still in affect) and the conversations and laughter continued. At some point I asked what the name of the bar was and one of my coworkers pointed at a sign that said “Vietato fumare”. I couldn’t help but laugh as I told him that that meant “no smoking”. Of course this became a running joke for the rest of the week.

Getting Lost
So the bars in Varese close at 1am. The waiter that was attending to us had been coming out and standing around as if to hint that it was time to go. So we got the hint, settled up, and left. We all went our separate ways to our vehicles and since it was so easy to find the restaurant (by following people) we figured it would easy to get back. Well, we were wrong. And I had left my GPS at the hotel because I didn’t think it would be that hard to find the hotel. So, there are four people in my car. One is supposed to know where we are and how to get back but after 20 minutes of driving around we determined that we were lost. And this is why I paid for the International Data Plan on my phone. We were able to use my phone to pull up a map and directions and make it back to the hotel. Of course it was only about a kilometer or two from the restaurant and we had gone in the absolute opposite direction but we had a fun time being lost.

Billiards at the Hotel
We finally returned to the hotel and right as we walk in we see that a group from the restaurant, that didn’t get lost, were hanging around the hotel bar and buying drinks. At some point we decided that we wanted to play a game of pool. There was an absolutely beautiful pool table with very tiny holes that just barely fit the balls in. After such a long day and the alcohol consumed by some of the players it took a while to sink balls in those tiny holes. We played two full games and then said good night as it was just after 3am and we still had to work the next day. Some of those that were up until 3am got up at around 6am to work out. They are just crazy.

Comments off

Italy trip – intro and day 1

So I’ve not written for a little bit but I have a good excuse. I’ve been on a different continent. That’s right, I finally had the opportunity to travel to Europe for work. In particular I flew to Milan, Italy and worked just a little north of there in the town of Varese. My week long trip to Italia was full of adventures and laughs and great food and so I have decided to write up my trip in a series of blog posts starting with this one. So let’s get started.

The Flight Over
I’ve been traveling for work for more than ten years. I’ve even had to work outside of the country (Mexico and Canada) but those really don’t count in my book. My longest time in the air was previously something like five hours with a three hour time change. My flight to Italy, by way of JFK, was nine hours with a six hour time change. This means that I left my house at 8:45am on Saturday (9/11) just to make sure that I would have at least two hours to deal with the ticket counters and security in order to make my 11:45am flight to JFK. I then had a wonderful four hour layover in JFK before boarding my flight to Milan’s Malpensa Airport which was scheduled to leave around 6pm and arrive in Italy around 8:45am on Sunday (9/12). This was a very new experience for me. I had been on one red-eye flight from the west coast to Orlando and I was dead for a few days afterward. I figured this would be a lot worse.

One of my main goals was to get at least some sleep so that come Monday (9/13) I would be somewhat acclimated to the European time. But as the flight took off around 6:30pm I wasn’t going to nod off anytime soon. Luckily, I was fully loaded for entertainment with multiple dead tree books, audio books, podcasts, and music. Being a Delta flight there was Delta’s inflight entertainment consoles in the seat back in front of me. Also because it was Delta there was almost zero leg room. Anyway, for international flights most if not all of the movies are free so I figured I would be able to catch up on a couple of movies that I semi-wanted to see in the theaters but didn’t shell out the $11 for those titles. But the wonderful system would run a movie for about 5 minutes and then crash back to the menu screen. I tried all of the movies. The flight crew reset the system but to no avail. So no movies for me. I was able to keep myself entertained as well as catch about an hour of sleep.

Flying near the Alps just as the sun was rising was a beautiful site.

Sunrise over the Alps

Sunrise over the Alps

Customs / Passport Control
So landing at Malpensa was interesting. The real difference I saw compared to American cities was the abundance of clay tile roofs. There were also these huge beautiful “mansions” (for lack of a better word) with a central courtyard that were surrounded by farmland. The landing was smooth and the deplaning went fine. First stop is the passport control booths. But where are they? Luckily I could follow everyone else to the lines but the wonderful lack of directions. I found a line and progressed my way to the front. Then I was greeted by the passport control officer. Well, greeted is not the correct word. I said “bongiorno” and passed him my passport. He scouled, stamped my passport, and tersely waved me along. I picked up my checked bag, this is always an anxious time waiting for my bag to show, and proceeded toward the exit. I was expecting to go through customs where uniformed agents would judge me worthy to be searched or not. Nope, just two sets of doors with no guards and I was free to leave.

Malpensa Airport
I had arranged to meet a coworker when her flight arrived two hours after mine then we would take the rental car and head to the hotel. So I had two hours to kill at Malpensa. The first thing I noticed were dogs. I’m used to airports being full of people from all places and walks of life but I was definitely not used to people walking in to pick up their loved ones following their pet dog. I saw probably six dogs while exploring the airport. The second thing I noticed was the cafes. There were two of them on the arrival level. One was a really nice one with plush chairs and coffee tables and a glass display full of pastries and the other was just a practical coffee bar with a whole bunch of mini tables with no chairs. I should have taken a picture.

There were tons of advertisements for high-end clothing lines but hey this is Milan’s airport. I didn’t see any stores though except for a Swatch booth. Anyway, I settled in and people watched until my coworker arrived. We had a mini adventure in trying to find the car rental desk. Somehow we took an elevator that took us into the bowls of the airport. We final did make it to the desk and retrieved the rental car and immediately got lost trying to leave the airport even with a GPS. It was only for a minute or so and then we got on the highway. Driving in Italy is definitely an experience but I’ll save the details for another post.

Varese and the Hotel
About 40 minutes later we arrived in the town of Varese. The GPS was taking us directly to hotel but there are three problems. The first is that it is spewing out Italian street names like Stephen Hawkins on speed. The second is that the street signs were almost always hidden by a limb, wall, or just missing. The last problem was that the streets looked like a 4 year old making spaghetti out of Play-Doh™. Let’s just say that we were happen to finally make it to the hotel. We checked in and proceeded to our rooms. Now I have been to many hotels during my travels and I’m very used to key cards that open doors but I couldn’t figure out how this one worked. The card had an arrow on it which is the international symbol for “this end goes into a slot” but there were absolutely no slots anywhere near the door. Just then a member of the hotel staff emerged from out of nowhere like a ninja and assisted me by pressing the card against a panel near the door and “click” it was unlocked. I went in and started to arrange my stuff. I tried to turn on the lights but none of the switches worked. I was just about to call down to the front desk when I saw a row of red LED lights with a slot. Now I know what that is for. Inserted the card and voila the lights turned on. Sometimes I’m amazed by simple ideas like this.

Anyway, the room was beautifully designed with hard wood floors, I hidden kitchenette, a really modern bathroom, a nice sized balcony and a large but really firm bed. I knew if I laid down I would pass out and regret it.

Restaurant
After freshening up and relaxing a little bit I met my coworker in the lobby because we had agreed that we needed to grab something to eat. I asked for some suggestions of restaurants from the front desk clerk and we settled on a nice place called Montello which was located on a street called Montello. After plugging it into the GPS we headed out and it took us about 10 minutes to find the place even though it was less than a mile away. We found the place and after using a mixture of English, hand gestures and nods we were able to be seated. It was a really nice restaurant that had been built into a house. It was the middle of the day so there were few customers but the room that we were sat in had a family of about 6-8 people finishing up their meals. There was a tv that was tuned into the formula one racing. We were given menus with English subscript below the each item so we knew, to some extent, what we were ordering. I ordered a very nice risotto porcini as my first course and grilled shrimp and potatoes for my second course. The shrimp still had their heads which is always awesome to have them look back at you.

As we were eating the family that was near us finished and left. Shortly, afterward the manager changed the channel to Mtv®. It was right in the middle of a Snoop Dogg song that was totally uncensored. It was hilarious. I know the manager meant to make us feel at home but it was totally unexpected. The songs that followed were just as inappropriate for a family restaurant.

The food was great and even though we didn’t speak Italian and they didn’t speak English we were able to complete the meal with the minimal of fuss. At one point my coworker was taking a small break from eating her pasta and the waiter took her plate. She tried to say that she wasn’t done yet but the English words fell on uninterpreted ears. I would have said “deaf ears” but he totally heard her and kept going. Anyway, we laughed about it. After paying the bill we didn’t know how tipping worked. The manager said no tip. Later we learned that unless they really go out of there way then everything is included and tipping is unnecessary.

The Aftermath
We returned to the hotel, again getting slightly lost, and I retired to my room. I took a shower and tried to relax in bed. I almost instantly fell asleep. I woke about 4 hours later, around 8:30pm, and had the most massive headache I’ve ever experienced. I tried drinking water. I took another shower. I walked around the hotel. I asked the front desk if they had any pain killers but they said that even if they did it would be illegal for them to give them to me. I even made myself some tea thinking that it could be caffeine withdrawal. So, I suffered. I finally decided to just wait it out in bed. I finally went back to sleep around 2am.

Comments (4)