Wood. There isn’t enough of it in the world, especially if you are Italian with a huge superstitious streak on your way to Italy and just made some outlandish proclamation on the state of your traveling luck. And so this is where I found myself on a midday Monday in July at Los Angeles Airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal. I had just sent a message to my friend, who had dropped me off not ten minutes before, to say that I was seated at the gate eating bad airport food. Already, he asked? Yes, I lead an extremely charmed traveling life, I replied. No sooner did the words leave my lips than I scrambled around looking for some wood to knock on. There was nary a tree born surface to bang my fist on in this sea of vinyl, plastic and metal. I was horrified. I knew better than to tempt the travel gods. With apprehension, I made my way to the gate when they called my name. Apparently, since I checked in on line I had to show the gatekeepers my passport. This was not a Delta flight despite the fact that was whom I had booked it with. This was a code sharing Air France flight to Florence, Italy with a connector through Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. I had spent considerable rolling of clothing time the night before to fit everything I needed for this two week trip to Italy for a cousin’s Tuscany wedding and a visit to my home town in the Alps, into one red carry on pilot’s case. I was so proud of my overstuffed little bag. The Air France lady was not. You have to check it, she said. No, I don’t, it’s the perfect size for the overhead bin. She eyed it suspiciously and lifted it. Yes, you do, she said, it’s very heavy; it will hit someone in the head. I have travelled at least a half a million air miles in my lifetime and I have never seen overhead baggage come hurling forth and knock someone in the head. Well, not without me gingerly pulling it out of the bin first. Nope, she said, we are checking it and the feeling of dread of no wood and no carry on just pervaded my entire being. This trip was on such a good fortune roll up till now.
The night before at check in, I did not want to keep my row 92 seat in the upper deck of the plane. Years of trapaphobic traveling have made me an expert on aviation seat configurations for all sorts of planes. What was the point, I thought, of cramming all that stuff into carry on just to be the last to get off the plane. I checked the available seats on the first floor. The plane was packed, but oddly enough there were three empty seats in row 15 about three rows back in coach. They had some weird yellow lines and a red x in the center of each. I clicked on the aisle seat and a pop up said- $32 for this ‘get off the plane first seat’. Huh? This was a new one on me. I have purchased plenty of “extra room for your legs so you don’t turn in to a flying pretzel” seats in my time, but a seat where you pay to get off first? Does this mean that they will push people out of the way for me as I go up the aisle instead of me having to do so? A bargain, I thought, at twice the price and so I took the aisle of that bank of three. A jam-packed plane, a ten hour flight and three seats to myself to not get any sleep in! I was the envy of all the other travelers. At one point the stewardess tried to put some elderly lady next to me. Did she pay her 32 bucks to get off the plane first, I asked? No, well, move along then and they did, especially since the woman wanted the aisle seat only and it was already mine.
I forgot about my failure to knock on wood as we made our way across the country and the Atlantic. The two hours I thought I would spend at Charles De Gaulle Airport shopping for lovely French perfume and a baguette were barely enough to make it from my arrival gate to the Florence departure gate. Up and down stairs and escalators and hallways. It never seemed to end. The one thing we do better than any European country is to design airports. That’s for sure. This was not fun since I had taken my plantar fasciitis or fascist foot, as I like to call it, a painful knee and 40 extra pounds with me on this trip. And I am not talking about my fat carry on luggage either. Then there is the obsession by Europe with passport control. We had to show it like four times in Paris. At Italy’s Milan Malpensa Airport (why you would name an airport ‘bad thoughts” is anyone’s guess), we had to show our passports no less than six times from when we set foot in the airport to when we took our seat on the plane. The last two times were at the beginning of the jet way and then again at the door of the plane. This is about a 10 second walk. What exactly does the Italian government expect us to do with our passports in that span of time and distance?
The flight to Florence was uneventful and on time. The plan was for me to take a train to Pistoia, Italy where my second cousin, Fedra, would pick me up. She is the daughter of cousin Luana, who is the daughter of my Zio Eugenio (my mother’s deceased younger brother) and his wife, Zia Lola (my last living aunt or uncle at 90 years old). I was to visit these maternal Tuscany cousins before heading to the wedding of my paternal Dolomites second cousin. Christine and her husband to be, one of the funnest guys on the planet, now lived in Singapore and came home to be married. Rather than do it in our home town, this very smart, tasteful and generous couple decided to have a three day Tuscany wedding for 120 of their friends and family, which is how I came to be in Italy this summer.
My plans had altered a bit. I was to have stayed at Fedra’s home for a few days before connecting with my siblings for the drive south to Siena for the wedding. A few days before departure, I got a message that my aunt was in the hospital with heart trouble and could I stay in a hotel instead. I found a lovely house at the last minute with one of their four rooms to rent about a half hour away from Fedra, but near the Best Western where my siblings were staying in Lucca which had no more rooms left for me. All was set for Fedra to pick me up at the train station, take me with her to feed her horses, take me to the hospital to see my aunt and cousins and then off to my temporary Tuscany bed and breakfast that evening. Feed the horses? I can barely get a cup of kibble into a bowl on a daily basis for Moe Moe, my tiny dog, but I’m game. What could go wrong with any of this plan?
We get to the baggage area in Florence. The plane is packed. About maybe 20 or so suitcases come down the chute and nothing else. We are done, no more bags, says the Italian baggage handler to a room full of bewildered passengers. Sorry, the rest of the bags are still in France. Why, I innocently asked? Who knows, could be a strike, could be no more room on the plane, could be lunch time and everyone let go to eat rather than finish loading. Get on the line over there at the Lost and Found and fill out a form to report your luggage missing. Again, why? You know it’s missing, I know it’s missing. You even know where the hell it is, but we have to fill out a form telling you that? Some of the more vocal passengers with me, OK, the Americans, began demanding that we speak to an Air France representative. Can’t do that, no one will come down and talk to you. They have no time to do that. What we do know is that there are three possible flights the bags could come on; two that evening and one in the morning, none of which do us any good tonight because the Lost and Found office closes at 8pm anyway so even if it showed up no one gets their bags till tomorrow. Now remember, my baggage was to be carry on, meaning I had fully expected my new pajamas and a change of underwear would accompany me to the hotel that night. I was dejected and deflated and most of all annoyed at the lack of wood in this world. In 53 years of air travel, some several times a month, I had never had luggage lost or not arrive with me. Me and my big gloaty mouth at LAX!
I call my cousin and tell her I am on the line to fill out the lost baggage report. This is not a short line since literally half the plane’s luggage didn’t arrive and there was no way for me to catch the train to her town. Fedra tells me to just stay put and she will pick up me up at the airport. This is about an hour and a half away, which in Italy driving is the equivalent of about five Los Angeles driving hours. I fill out the form and of course my bag can’t be delivered by the airline to my bed and breakfast because Lucca is too far away and it would take three days for that to happen so I will just have to come back to Florence when the bag arrives which I won’t know until I get an email telling me so. Great. By now I am up to about 22 hours with no sleep, despite the virtual bed I nabbed for myself on the plane, because other than maybe an hour here or 20 minutes there, I simply cannot sleep on things that are moving.
Fedra shows up and it was wonderful to see her again. Are you like 30 years old now, I ask? Forty-four, she says. She is aging wonderfully. I apparently refuse to age at all. So why didn’t you ever get married, I ask, like the most annoying relative you can conjure up in your mind. I got married five years ago, she says. My husband lives in Dubai now. Nice catching up with you and way to go on the long distance husband, a new goal of my own, I tell her.
We wind our way back to Pistoia now. The plan was to go to her mother’s house, which was next door to my aunt and uncle’s home, relax a bit and feed the horses. Fedra had turned the property into quite an equestrian center complete with a sand filled jumping area. She competes in jumping over things with her horse events. It was so great to see my uncle’s place again. She has three horses there with a barn and a corral. The house is as I remembered it from my last visit 18 years ago when my older son was three. It was wonderful to see her mother Luana again. We are a year apart cousins and although we grew up in different countries, we have a fondness for each other born from the days our parents dressed us alike in scratchy wool Tyrolean outfits when we were two and three before I moved to America. We saw each other occasionally over the years as teenagers and young adults before the busyness of adulthood set in. I adore her and her brother, Gordiano a few years younger.
We now had to attend to the dilemma of my missing bag. I had zero clothes with me on the plane. The goal was to have ALL my clothes accompany me on the plane not in the cargo hold. Luana had a nightgown or two but as far apart as we were geographically that’s how far apart we were in clothing size as well. Fedra and I had stopped at a few stores before we got there to see if I could pick up a few basics to last me at least through the night and the next day. Clothing in Italy is made for size six women, not for my size. And after going up several staircases in every store, I can see why. Italians love their staircases. They are everywhere and very long. I was tired, in pain from both feet and knees, and sweaty from the hot and humid Tuscany weather. And I had no way of changing any of those things at the moment. I struck out at every store we went to and this included the men’s department. Luckily, Luana remembered that right across the street from the hospital was a clothing store, which catered to fatter women than is the Italy norm. Bingo! I managed to buy a nightgown, a blouse, a T-shirt, three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear and a bra, all like Macys quality for 75 American dollars. Now one thing I have always loved about Italian T shirts over my many years of visiting, is that they will write any kind of random American phrases on a shirt that only the creator could possibly even venture a guess as to what the hell it means. And so that is how I have come to be the proud owner of a black T-shirt that says “CHANGES IN PINK STORY” in sparkling little rhinestones.
The hospital was in lovely little Tuscany town called Pescia where my cousin Gordiano lived. The plan was for Luana to relieve her brother and then Fedra, Gordiano, his wife and I would go to dinner. No sleep, no shower, no clothes, no problem. Let’s go. We got to hospital and saying her room was on the second floor was just a suggestion perhaps to the Italians. We walked up and down several flights of lovely marble steps before we got to her room. Zia Lola was in bed and the first thing I noticed was she was still dying her hair at 90! I loved seeing her with her black full head of hair. I harkened back to the times as a teenager coming to visit them with my mom and siblings. My uncle was a chef. Here in the states he would be a 5 star one and my aunt was no slouch in the cooking department either. Back then she had chickens and rabbits on her property and would take us with her as she snapped the neck of our dinner. She was a tiny, feisty lovely woman and we all adored her. She was from Tuscany so her accent was much different than that of we Northern dialect folks. She was a lover of beauty, my aunt. She dressed well and loved to dance. Zia also didn’t stop living just because her husband died years before. She knew the secret of a life continued to be well lived. I’ll leave it at that.
By the time I got to hospital, the morphine needed to keep her heart calmly beating awhile longer had taken its toll. She didn’t speak but chattered her teeth. Her eyes didn’t really focus and if you touched her skin she jumped. Luana told me to go around the other side of the bed as she was turned more towards that side. She told me a few days before that her mother kept asking them when I was coming. I leaned down and told her I was there. She opened her eyes wide, looked at me and pursed her lips into a kiss. With a few slight tears so as not to instigate a deluge, I said goodbye and we left. That was Tuesday night. By Wednesday we had heard she was no longer responsive in any way and the doctors told my cousins it was the end for her. She died on Saturday. I am not sad. On the contrary, I am so happy I got to say goodbye. When the dearingly departed is 90 and above, having seen so many buried at a fraction of that number in recent times, to me it’s just a rejoicing of a live well lived.
We left the hospital at about 9pm or dinnertime in Tuscany. Fedra, (my lovely chauffer and spirit guide), Gordiano, his wife and I went to a great little trattoria in Pescia not far from the hospital and his house. We had a lovely meal of pizza and frizzante (a sparkling Italian white wine) followed by dessert and espresso. One must never order them together in Italy. You have dessert first then you order coffee. Then the owner sent over a few complimentary items to finish the meal. First, there were lemon sorbet shots with Limoncello. It’s a delicious Italian liquore made with lemons, alcohol and sugar. He then sends over glasses of Vin Santo with a few biscotti for dunking. Vin Santo is an amber sweet dessert type of wine and one of my favorite Italy drinks. Wonderful evening and meal despite the less than happy occasion of our meeting. It’s a testament to the spirit and culture of this country and these people really. Gordiano and his wife then took us to his house for a nightcap. I had never been there, as he did not have this house last time I was here. What a great place, complete with a small built in pool on the second level. Another round of drinks and it was near midnight and I had to move quickly to get into my room at the pretty inn for the night. A bed and breakfast is not like some big hotel with a front desk going 24 hours. The night before I left, I read the fine print and it said check in was only from 3pm to 7pm. Panicked, I called the owner to see what could be arranged, since I knew even before leaving there was no way to make this deadline. No problem, she said, they owned the restaurant next door to the villa and it was open until midnight and I should just come over to get the keys. And so I did and what an adorable place I was to call home for a few more days. It was beautiful and charming and so was Laura the owner. I loved it! I had a few new clothes. I saw my aunt. Reconnected with my cousins, had a great meal, fed some horses or at least watched, and got an email around 10pm from the annoying French airline people that my bag had arrived in Florence. I was no longer stressing about having to clothes shop again among the size sixes. I took a shower where you had to pull on a string tied to a switch to get hot water. I have no idea. All I know is the water was cold unless I pulled the string. And so 30 hours after I left Los Angeles, I crawled into bed in a lovely lavender and white room. Buona notte.