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.
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.