Positively negative: The sequel

What a difference a few months make. You may remember this post and this one. If you don’t and haven’t clicked on the links, I’ll give you the quick version: Flying internationally then was fraught with bureaucracy. Lots of papers to fill out, lots of document checks and Covid testing and an added soupçon of fear and weirdness.

This time, a transatlantic flight was almost normal. But first, a little more backstory. We had return to New York trips booked on Alitalia, airline of the pope, Italian jet set types, and ladies from Bensonhurst. But as of October 14, Alitalia’s out of business, supplanted in Italy by something called ITA Airways, which apparently is supposed to exorcise the bad old ghosts of Alitalia and lead us Italians into a glorious, leanly staffed but full-service, digital (whatever that means) aviation future.

Move along, nothing to see here.

The problem for us was that ITA wouldn’t honor our tickets; under the deal with the European Commission that created the new entity, ITA was explicitly barred from doing so. In a mad scramble online, we bought new tickets, round trip from Rome, on the German airline Lufthansa. We’d flown Lufthansa before and liked its in-flight service—because of flight attendants’ propensity to pour a lot of wine I think of the carrier as the Riesling Express–and thought that it would be interesting to see if and how Covid-19 concerns changed that service.

In a few words, this time around it was pretty much the same,

Once we booked a return date and as that date approached, we had to do the usual stuff to gradually close the house: using up perishable foods, and not buying much either. We decided not to go out to eat that often, either, to reduce our chance of contracting Covid, even as a so-called breakthrough case. We saw that we needed a negative Covid test, 48 hours if it was a rapid preflight test, 72 hours for a PCR test—this is the phrase I loathe, “the new normal.” Our neighborhood pharmacy, Pagliacci in our town, could do the test and give us a two-day “green pass.”

We were poked up the nose here.

About that green pass—for Italian residents, it’s a digital QR code that’s stored in a smartphone app. But for us nonresidents, a paper document worked, although I could have downloaded a digital version from Italy’s health ministry. One of these days I’ll write about Italy’s newfound digitalization. Later.

We made an appointment to get the “tampone”—the Covid test and literally, a swab, and when Monday afternoon rolled around, we went down the hill to the pharmacy. Unlike testing in NY, tests in Italy aren’t free; we had to pay €22 apiece, with €44 coming to abouit $51. A short wait and we got our passes. We were negative. The odds favored this; the entire region of Umbria has about twice the population of Staten Island (which is about 500,000), but it has about half the number of new daily Covid cases.

Then we headed into the trip vortex. The next day we went through our closing down the house checklist. Gas off, furnace off, security system engaged, etc. At least we had something pleasant after that. When we dropped our car off at our neighbors’ place, they invited us in for some bruschetta so we could taste the new olive oil. It’s always a pleasure–their two friendly Maremmano sheep dogs greeted us near the door and then we sat around talking, eating the delicious oil on the bread, and talking some more. Finally, we had to leave; our friend and man with a van Angelo would soon be arriving to drive us to the airport, where we planned to stay overnight for an early morning flight to Munich, and then change for one bound for JFK.

The next 18 hours or so are a blur. Angelo arrived, we loaded our bags, bade a sad ciao! to the house and hills. We stayed in a funky boutique airport hotel called Hello Sky–it had a great, very blue, very very blue bathroom. We’d planned to go into the town of Fiumicino for a seafood dinner, but we were exhausted and ate some paninos in our room. Sad!

Up early the next day, we hustled our bags and sorry bodies across the skybridge to Fiumicino’s Terminal 3, found the Lufthansa area and expected to be grilled and checked and documented. But, pleasant surprise number 1, nope. No line. The Lufthansa woman smiled (!), scanned our passports (American ones–EU people weren’t allowed into the U.S. just yet), and looked at our green passes. Security was just as quick.

If you haven’t been through Rome’s main airport lately, you’re in for a surprise. It’s actually pleasant. No, really. There are cool bars everywhere, the food is good, as we were able to enjoy a last bar-made cappuccino and cornetto. Sure, there’s the usual GucciPucciFerragamoArmani silliness, but there are also nice long soft bench-couch places on which to relax, subtle lighting and, I am not kidding, a sushi bar. But it was too early for sushi.

Munich’s airport: Decent food, easy to get around, straight simple lines

We had to go through Munich, and we had to wear masks for both flights. So, short crowded flight there with minimal service. A couple of hours in Munich’s Bauhaus-y airport, complete with sticker shock (Italian prices spoiled us.) We then, in an orderly way, boarded our Airbus A350 for the ride to New York. We fly premium economy so we can take more bags and stretch out some. (It also means a gentler reentry.) Lufthansa’s inflight service is pretty terrific compared to US based carriers. I’ll just show you the meal, etc., rather than describe them. An early rise and a few glasses of German bubbly meant that I conked out and didn’t get to see the ending of the Elton John biopic Rocketman,

At this point you probably expect me to diss JFK, US immigration and customs. But you would be wrong, A combination of a nearly empty flight, no other flights landing at the same time, and a glitch in the matrix means that we sailed through all of it. We didn’t have to scan our passports, the passport dude was semi-friendly. Our bags came out quickly—hey, with maybe 40-50 people on board, there wasn’t much luggage on that plane—and we were outta there. Neighborhood friend Wendy was there to welcome us and drive us home and…well….the Belt Parkway. But we were too tired to care.

That said, JFK’s Terminal 1 felt awfully shabby. The moving sidewalks didn’t move, there was ratty carpeting everywhere. It doesn’t feel like a gateway to a world capital city, much less a country that holds itself up as the world’s standard bearer. In general, it feels kind of decrepit around here after being away for so long.

I’ll write more later about what it feels like to be back in New York after more than five months of being on an Umbrian hilltop. But sheesh, people, was this country always so strange and stressed? You can feel it on the road and in the supermarket, where the masked and the unmasked eye one another suspiciously. The political strife. Even our nice morning dog group seems to have split up into factions. It’s as though this invisible hand is pushing us across the ocean,.

But our kids are here. And so is the glorious dachshund Lola. Damn,.

To know her is to love her.

Addio, Alitalia. It’s been sometimes good to know you. Still, we hate to see you go (because you owe us).

I flew for the first time on July 4, 1971, when I was 14 years old. My family took an Alitalia flight from New York City to Rome, and I was on vacation with my parents and my younger sister and brother. The trip was a big deal for us; it was my father’s first time back to his native Italy in 16 years, and it was our first trip abroad. I remember a lot of the details. The plane was a new Boeing 747, and even in economy class they gave us slippers to wear. The dinner’s centerpiece was a filet mignon in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Excited to be on a real vacation, my 11-year-old sister and I explored the plane. “Maria, come here!” I called to her as I peered beyond the curtain toward the first-class cabin and its spiral staircase. “No, go there,” the mustachioed flight attendant told me, pointing us back toward steerage.

Ever since that first flight, I’ve taken Alitalia a couple of dozen times. The Italian flag carrier was historically generous with its mileage loyalty programs, and its direct flights to either Rome or Milan were a godsend to people who dislike changing flights and going through security more than once. It served as the unofficial carrier of the postwar Italian diaspora, and was the pope’s official airline. 

But Alitalia is about to taxi back to the big hangar in the sky, joining other defunct airlines like Sabena, TWA and Pan Am. Years of bad management, wildcat strikes, patronage staffing levels, and indifferent service took their toll. Alitalia has been in receivership since 2017, and the Italian government of Mario Draghi and the European Union finally pulled the plug. Sure, successive Italian governments tried to keep Alitalia aloft, but after billions in bailouts and repeated, unsuccessful efforts to find it a suitor, everyone called it quits. 

Sorry, your flight’s been canceled and there isn’t much that you can do.

There’s a psychological element to the carrier’s end. Although a lot of Italians had become tired of its hijinks, Alitalia remained one of the last cornerstones of Italy’s postwar boom, which saw the mostly rural, war-torn country become a modern economic and social power. Indeed, Alitalia’s fate echoes the fate of other big Italian companies, like the auto giant Fiat, which once stood for that postwar economic miracle and is now just a part of a French-led conglomerate, Stellantis. This hollowing out of Italy’s big companies has taken a big toll on Italian pride, no matter how many soccer championships the national team wins. This psychological toll is one of the reasons for the ascendancy of populists like the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, and the right wing party Brothers of Italy. The latter is led by the photogenic Giorgia Meloni, who can be thought of as the Italian equivalent of the French politician Marie Le Pen.

Taking Alitalia’s place will be ITA, or at least a company called ITA at this moment, which may or may not use the Alitalia brand and aircraft livery when it takes to the skies this month. A public sale of the old company’s assets will be held soon. Think of the change as something akin to the bailout of General Motors back in 2009, when the U.S. government severed the automaker’s assets from its debts and let the “new,” debt-free GM continue to operate. Only this time, the EU specified that there’s to be less continuity between the old and new companies. Ticketholders for flight’s after Alitalia’s October 14 demise have been told, basically, tough luck, file for a refund. 

Despite all the bad times, some of us will be sad to see Alitalia land for good. Sure, thousands of people complained about bad service. Booking agents could be impolite or even hostile; delays were, for a time, legend. But the airline served as a cultural bridge and a symbol of the stylish, dolce vita Italy. When you boarded an Alitalia flight at JFK—an often-chaotic ritual, to be sure—you felt as though you were already in Italy, for better or worse, between the Italian announcements and the proper, rather snobbish attitude of the designer-attired cabin crew.

You could feel almost human in premium economy.

For one thing, Italy’s humanity in all its glory seemed to be embodied by the flight attendants. I once watched a female attendant watch with concern as a very young couple tried to soothe their screaming infant. “Give to me,” she told them in accented English. Putting a napkin on her shoulder, she walked up and down the aisle with the infant, rocking it softly and cooing to it. The baby fell asleep within minutes and she gave it back to the parents. “See?” she asked them. “It’s not so hard. Be calm.” 

Alitalia’s premium economy service was a terrific medium between the lay-flat luxury of “Magnifica” class and the awful, cramped economy cabin. Flight attendants brought us glasses of prosecco and swag bags by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel. The cabin was intimate, with only 17 seats. For a small premium, budget-minded travelers could feel cosseted and a little special. 

Often, though, those good moments were punctuated by less-happy times. The cabin crew wasn’t always interested in keeping flyers happy, retreating to the back of the plane and telling people they could serve themselves from the cart if they were thirsty mid-flight. The meals declined in quality—a recent Covid-19 compliant meal consisted of a few overcooked, stuck-together ravioli and two bottles of mineral water. Italian speakers often got much better treatment than non-Italians. Forget about it if a celebrity boarded and headed to first class; most of the crew would migrate to the front, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves.

The final indignity, at least for my wife and me, came recently with an email canceling our flight back to New York. We’ve been here in Umbria a few months now, and have to get back to New York for the holidays. And I’ve filed for a refund from the €100 million the government has set aside for people like us,  and rebooked on another airline. It seems that under the agreement with the European Union creating ITA, the new entity doesn’t have to honor our tickets nor does Alitalia have to find us flights on other carriers—which is the usual procedure here in Eurolandia  

So farewell, Alitalia, it’s been a tempestuous affair between you and me. But I’ll still miss you. Now where’s my refund?

Photo up top: Andrea Tavoni, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other photos are by author.

Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

The superwide angle lens in the shot makes this room look bigger than it is. Behind the room is a postage stamp yard and the houses on the next block. The view is, in a word, boring.

No wonder Americans like(d) to work so many hours outside the home.

I’m whining because, if you’ve followed me on the social interwebs, you’ll know that I left the green hills of Umbria for the tough streets of New York City. Only we’re talking about Staten Island and….[yawn] I’m sorry, I dozed off. There are lots of nice parks around here, and I’m told that pleasant interesting people walk their dogs in the morning in those parks.

But I wouldn’t know because I’m in jail, a prisoner of Andy Cuomo and his warden, The Spartan Woman. Okay, it’s quarantine and the adult part of my brain understands That This Is Necessary and it’s all about Protecting My Loved Ones and Neighbors. But the lizard part of my brain screams get me out! Now! Except it’s dreary and gray out there. I’m pretty much confined to this room during the day and have to wear a mask when I venture out, mainly to grab my guitar or ask for a snack or some coffee. (The good side is that I’m barred from doing anything in the kitchen. After nearly two months of fending for myself for nearly every meal, this isn’t the worst thing to happen.)

Got drugs?

Eh, we didn’t think this was going to get bad again, did we? Not just my current incarceration, but the whole thing, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases, the renewed clampdown, The Donald denial of reality…. Wait, that last bit was completely predictable. As I prepared to leave, the Italian government had instituted new measures, like mandatory outdoor mask wearing and earlier restaurant and bar closures. And there’s an ongoing discussion about the need for another lockdown. Already, Lombardia, with Milan at its core, is under a nighttime curfew. Contrary, or maybe in addition, to the common perception of Milan as this serious hard-working Eurocity, it’s also party central, with great nightlife, bars, ethnic restaurants and places to just hang out outdoors with friends.

To get back to New York, I got a ride from the great Angelo, who along with his little pup, are great company for a road trip. Rome’s airport, Fiumicino, was a ghost town, as you can see in the photo below. I took a room in Hello Sky Air Rooms Rome, a hipster airport hotel because I had a morning flight and I hate leaving the house before dawn. It makes a depressing trip even worse.

Eerily quiet for a Tuesday early evening
Last dinner. Sigh.

My room was a cool monk’s cell. The nice guy behind the check-in desk’s plexiglass barrier showed me the limited restaurant menu and suggested ordering room service: “There is no penalty for having dinner delivered to your room.” I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening except that channel surfing was fun because the chain promoted a Monocle magazine sort of multiculturalism that was completely reflected in the choice of TV channels. TV Algérique, anyone?

The rest of the trip was pretty much a mirror image of my way to Italy. Alitalia did not cancel the flight; it’s actually been one of the more reliable airlines during the pandemic. I had to be more American this time and show the blue passport so that the nice Customs and Border Patrol people would let me into the country. I scored a bulkhead seat, read a novel, ate crappy sealed-in-plastic food, drank San Benedetto naturale water (the only on board beverage choice) and slept some. Arriving at JFK, I practically flew through passport control—props to the polite and even friendly people!—and when I exited the customs area the New York State folks grabbed me and made me fill out a form promising to do this quarantine thing.

Which brings us to today. I write. I go down the YouTube rabbit hole. I started watching Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are on HBO Max, which is nicely atmospheric. I’m not sure yet where it’s going, but Guadagnino (he’s from Palermo, like my family) definitely knows how to capture a place and time. The contrast between the little America vibe of the base and kids’ interactions with local Italian kids is pretty interesting. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with it.

I’ve also become a fan of cheesy Mexican crime/comedy shows on Netflix. The best so far has been Casa de las Flores, or House of Flowers, about a wealthy Mexico City family that owns a flower shop. And the family is falling apart in interesting ways. Big repressed sister is a riot; she speaks in a slow Spanish enunciating every syllable. It’s really odd, but I read that it’s how certain matrons of that wild city speak. Another good one is The Club, about a few rich Mexico City kids combine phone apps and MDMA sales, get rich, and run into turf wars with the established drug cartels. Watch it for the architecture; upper class houses in the city are fascinating to look at.

But for now, I have this. The Warden’s brought me a snack. Hey, maybe prison won’t be so bad.

And let’s give a listen to this post’s theme song:

Easy flying for all the wrong reasons

Well, this was different.

I entered Terminal 1 at JFK airport and there was no one there, in early afternoon. I exaggerate, but only a little. I find the Alitalia check in desks, but before I give them my suitcase, I’m stopped by a nice guy standing at a table. “You have to fill out this form and we need two copies.” I’d already filled in the form online when I checked in. “This is revised. You need the revision.”

Not wanting to be held up, I complied. “Can I take your termperature?” Sure—97.9 F. I filled out the forms; one was for the gate; “the other one is for Rome.”

Waiting for the crowds

Security takes two minutes. Maybe less. I actually chat with the guy who lets you into that area. “Yeah, this is the liveliest it’s been in months,” he tells me. There was one person ahead of me. I get through—they don’t even bother with the belt routine, and are fine with bottles of sanitizer,

The woman ahead of me, with a massive mask, keeps asking the guard the same question. I don’t even remember what it was; something about cell phones. Ma’m, I’m being as clear as I can be, as she rolls her eyes. We obviously had a newbie with us; what was she doing traveling now?

I get through and…well, nothing. It’s straight out of the horror film, The Langoliers, where a planeload of people get stuck in the recent past and have to outrun the creatures that eat up the past. Or something like that, I’ll have to look it up. But it’s like what I do remember, basically an empty terminal with a couple of food shops open and that’s it. No bars, no sit down restaurants, no one pushing a massage session or overseas phone SIMs. The few people working alternate between extreme chattiness or looking very put upon. Hey, pal, I’m not thrilled with being there either.

No bars, no aromatherapy, no people

I get to my gate. There is one other person waiting. Soon maybe another ten show up. Everyone is speaking Italian because US citizens, the new pariahs of the world, are banned from the European Union, unless they have permanent residency there and can prove it. I look across the space and see that Lufthansa Flight 401 is about to leave. Grr—that airline had canceled that flight for months, and because of that, I’m traveling alone to make sure our house is still standing.

The weirdness continues with the flight. The Airbus 330 is maybe one-quarter full. We’re spaced far apart. I opted for a window seat, a rare treat for me. I knew this time that no one would sit next to me, so I had both seats for myself. It’s nice to have an auxiliary seat in coach;; the other seat was for charging my phone, and I stashed my knapsack under the seat in front of my nonexistent neighbor.

Almost there

I’d looked at previous days of this flight and it usually took off early. Not us. Some unexplained “technical problem.” But after an hour, we were taking off, the empty dark plane feeling light and wieldy.

Service was minimal, apparently designed to minimize contact, No drinks service, which on European airlines is usually pretty elaborate. Flight attendants hurriedly dispensed minimal meals: limp ravioli, a piece of cheddar, a small bag of tarallucci, a cup of “tiramisu,” which was like pudding. And two bottles of San Benedetto water.

I used the water to wash down my flight sleep regime and soon nodded off. I got up once from my nap to get more water. Anticipating this the crew set bottles out on a shelf in the service cabin.

After a luxurious breakfast consisting of a package of marble poundcake and, yes, more water, we landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Again, an eery emptiness, punctuated by last year’s cheery what-to-do-in-the-Eternal-City posters. No separate EU/non-EU citizen passport lines. Before showing the passport, though, we got our temperatures taken again, this time passing a uniformed guard wearing a weird helmet. And yes, a form. “I filled this out in New York.” “That’s for you. We need this. Italiano o inglese? Italiano, please.

I was filling it out, and the airport cop went around to everyone to make sure we were filling it out correctly. Then finally, the passport routine. Usually, when you present an Italian passport in Italy, the guard looks at it for maybe half a second and then waves you on. This time, the guy typed stuff in, looked at me, looked at my passport. In Italian, he warned me to adhere to the quarantine. I told him I’m hanging out for two weeks on a mountaintop, watching sheep and clouds go by. “That sounds nice,” he said dreamily. “I could use a peaceful week or two.” He actually smiled. This does not happen that often.

My new friend Angelo was waiting to drive me to Umbria, about 2-2.5 hours. Instead of taking my small Renault, he was driving his big Mercedes van. Please, this time sit in the back, he asked, gesturing toward the third row. This was not exactly conducive to talking, but then again, neither was my Xanax hangover.

Angelo way, way in front

We stop for coffee at the huge Autogrill that spans the autostrada. It’s almost empty, and the shop is closed. But there’s coffee! And all of a sudden, ordering coffee at an Italian bar has gotten complicated. I asked for caffè macchiatos for Angelo and me; here, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with a little steamed milk floating on top. “Is Lavazza ok?” asked the barista. I must’ve looked puzzled because she started to offer me a couple of single-origin coffee beans. I was fine with regular Lavazza.

So, after gathering my car, I’m up on the mountain again. We never got to open the pool; instead we spent the summer shut in with the a/c going full blast. I’d forgotten what New York summers were like. I saw the sheep this evening, grazing like mammalian locusts. We had monumental thunderstorms, which came as a relief, friends tell me, after an oven-like summer.

I did my duty, registering with the health service for quarantine. I’m told to expect a call and maybe a visit. People may think Italians are chaotic and anarchic, but when it comes to public health, they rival their neighbors to the north. More as it happens, then.