Thoughts on Traveling in Italy

Train broke down at Circumvesuviana Barra Station

March 29 – April 8, 2012

The Economy

When I traveled to Germany last year, I found a country that’s gradually coming into its own after an agonizing two decades of reunification. There was a feeling of forward-thinking that’s absent in most of Europe. The Germans, perhaps because of their historical burden, seemed more determined to focus on the future rather than the past.

Italy, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Even before the ongoing economic crisis, Italy was caught in a long, slow decline. Current developments such as Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation, the country’s unsustainable debt level and stagnant growth rate have put Italy squarely among other troubled Mediterranean economies such as Greece, Portugal and Spain. This birthplace of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance movement is often being looked down upon by its peers as corrupted and unproductive. Italy, despite being the eighth largest economy in the world, has lost its voice and influence within Europe.

But these are all moot points. We traveled to Italy not because of its economic status. We traveled there because of Rome and Venice, the Colosseum and the Pantheon, pasta and pizza. And on the ground, it was hard to tell Italy was mired in a long recession. Rome hasn’t experienced any large-scale riots like in Athens; nor is it a battleground against austerity measures.

Look a little closer, however, and you can find cracks that hint at the failing economy. Many buildings in Rome and Venice are falling into despair. Pompeii is in dire need of new funding to help repair its many crumbling sites. Public infrastructure like museums, airports and train stations are outdated compared with those of other Western European countries.

The most surprising thing I observed was how a large percentage of the tourists in Rome and Sorrento (less so in Venice) were Italian. I suspect that the relative spending power of an average Italian family, especially when compares to the rest of the world, has been decreasing over the past decade or two, but the average Italian is still wealthy in absolute terms. Maybe they don’t travel abroad as much, but domestic travel remains strong.

The Inconvenience

Although Italy is a developed country, I recommend treating it like a developing one instead. That is not a demeaning statement; I am simply saying problems along the way should be expected. Things don’t go according to your expectation more often than not.

Case 1

Aeroflot has a reputation for being unreliable, so we were only mildly surprised to find out that our luggage had stayed behind in Moscow. We only flew with the Russian airline because its HKD 5,000 round trip ticket was by far the cheapest.

A long line had formed before the counter of the joint ground handling agent for Aeroflot and some other airlines. The girl in front of us was sobbing – she said her luggage was lost three weeks ago and there was still no sign of it.

Finally it was our turn. The female staff looked indifferent.

“Where is our luggage now?” “Probably Moscow.”

“When will it arrive Rome?” “I can’t say for sure. Probably at 11:30 on the next Aeroflot flight.”

The conversation led to nowhere. The only instruction we got was to call the hotline tomorrow to see if our luggage had arrived or not. On this first night at least, our clothes and other essentials were replaced by a piece of paper.

I made three calls to the hotline the next day.

At 11:00 – “Has our luggage boarded the plane?” “I don’t know. Call us again in an hour after the plane arrives.”

At 12:00 – “Has the plane landed?” “Yes it has landed. Not sure yet about your luggage. Call us back in two hours.”

At 14:00 – “Any news on our luggage?” “I don’t know. Call us back in an hour.”

I lashed out at the operator. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW? HAS ANYONE EVEN LOOKED FOR IT?”

My anger proved to be effective. She called back half an hour late and she had found our luggage. But they might or might not be able to deliver it to our place tonight. Or tomorrow in fact.

I told them to forget it and we went back to the airport to retrieve our luggage.

Case 2

The train ride to Sorrento. (Read the full story here)

Case 3

I am still mad as I am typing about this a week later.

I have never had any trouble bringing a tripod abroad a flight, which include flying between the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, China, Germany and Cambodia. But in Naples I was stopped by an airport security personnel who was in charge of the metal detector. He pointed at my tripod and said I couldn’t carry it onto the plane. I could bring it on board my flights from Berlin – Frankfurt and Moscow – Rome but I couldn’t do it from Naples – Venice? What kind of logic is that?

There was no arguing with him though. I shrugged and turned back to the easyJet counter as we still had plenty of time. The easyJet attendant pointed me to the oversized luggage counter as my tripod would require manual delivery. There was no counter though – only a phone next to a list of numbers. I dialed to the oversized luggage department and requested for assistance. The operator said her colleague would come over in a minute. We waited for more than ten minutes before a rotund guy appeared. I asked him if he had enough time to deliver my tripod. He took a look at my boarding pass, grabbed my tripod and took off without saying a word. I didn’t feel confident about the whole procedure.

And of course my tripod failed to get on the plane to Venice.

I was again instructed to wait for the ground handling agent to call me if they found out the whereabouts of my tripod. Unexpectedly I did receive a call just as we were about to board a train out of Venice the next night. The operator said my tripod had finally arrived Venice and asked me to pick it up at the airport. I told her to send it to Milan where I would leave the country in two days. She said she would call me again the next day.

My phone vibrated 16 hours later during our train ride to Verona. I was well aware of the astronomical cost of the roaming fee in the countryside, so I tried to cut the conversation short by beginning with a straightforward question, “Can you send it to Milan? If not, we will figure it out when I get back to Hong Kong.”

My counterpart on the phone spoke adequate English. Not great, but adequate. She understood my question perfectly well. But she chose to ignore it. She harped on the difficulty they had in locating the tripod. I asked again if they could send it to Milan. Impossible, she replied.

I told her I needed to hang up because of the expensive roaming fee. She said I was interrupting her. She repeated how it was impossible for them to do anything. I finally hung up. The call lasted for a bit more than 10 minutes. (My roaming fee for this trip is more than $500 HKD.)

My tripod was eventually sent to easyJet’s headquarter at London Luton where it remains now. (It will finally be sent back to Hong Kong almost two months later on June 1.)

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