Part One: Getting There
Continuing from Paul's Preview Page
Friday, June 26, 1998
The day for departure crept up on me much faster than I'd expected. I remember being a kid, when each day before a Christmas or a birthday or a vacation seemed to drag on forever, and it felt like the special day itself would never come. Once you've logged half a dozen dog years, though, time just soars right on by, lickety split.
I got up in the morning with lots left to do. Packing, for instance. I had pretty much organized the things that I would be taking with me, but I hadn't actually tossed them into luggage yet. And then I had a few errands to run: A book went back to the library, and I made a couple of stops to make sure that I had all that I needed for the trip.
Then I zipped out to Bremerton National Airport. This was my latest in a series of "avoid paying for parking" schemes. The parking ramp at Sea-Tac International Airport is prohibitively expensive when a trip is going to last for ten days or more, so creative alternatives are required. In January, when I went to Chateau d'Oex, I used the Quality Inn Scheme. This involves spending the night at a hotel right next to the airport, then leaving the car in the hotel's lot for the duration of the trip. The room costs $99, but that's far less than the airport parking would cost. And in January, when my flight was at 8:30 am, it was nice to be right there when I woke up in the morning (even if I was tired from getting to the hotel too late).
Today's flight wasn't until 2:05 PM, though, and coming over to Sea-Tac Thursday night seemed a little bit too early. I'd have the whole morning to kill. Plus I'd actually have to pack on Thursday, instead of Friday. So I developed a new plan: The Harbor Air Scheme. Recently, a little commuter airline had begun regularly scheduled flights between Bremerton and Sea-Tac ... and there were no charges for parking at the Bremerton airport! Since the round-trip air ticket could be had for $79, this was even cheaper than the Quality Inn Scheme, plus it sounded like it would be more fun.
When I got to the airport, though, there was no plane for me: The last morning flight had left just before I got there. It wasnt really my fault; I arrived 20 minutes before flight time. But they cancelled my flight, and the preceding flight just couldnt wait any longer. But no problem! Harbor Air plopped me in a cab and sent me off on a drive-around journey to Sea-Tac. We whizzed down the west side of Puget Sound, crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and whizzed up the east side of the Sound to the Big Airport with the Big Planes. I still had two hours to spare before flight time, so this little change in plans caused no consternation. And my car was serenely parked, free of charge, at the little country airport.
There were huge numbers of people lined up at the Northwest Airlines counter. I suppose summer Fridays tend to be busy, and since next week included the Fourth of July holiday, today would be an ideal time to leave for a ten-day trip. (It certainly worked for me!) I positioned myself in one of the shorter Northwest lines. After standing there for a while, I noticed that other, longer lines indicated they were for international flights, while mine didn't say this. I received reassurance from a friendly Northwest employee that my line selection complied with their rules, however. Perhaps they recognized me as a native Minnesotan, born in the same state as the airline itself.
After checking in, I hooked up with Annie, Lisa and Brian. They had been in one of the more obviously appropriate "international" lines, so their processing took a bit longer. Still with plenty of time to spare, we were ready to go. We headed out to the South Satellite, whence all the Northwest planes depart, and we had a quick pre-flight cocktail while we trembled with anticipation for the unknown adventure that was about to begin. None of us had been to Siena before, although we'd all heard the stories of the town and the Palio. We had all been on ballooning trips with Alf before, so we knew that many delights lay before us.
Our itinerary took us first to Amsterdam, where we were scheduled to catch a plane to Florence. The non-stop flight to Amsterdam -- a Northwest/KLM code share using Northwest DC-10 equipment -- went very smoothly. The most notable part involved the time: We were scheduled to leave Seattle at 2:05 p.m. and arrive in Amsterdam at 8:40 a.m. the next day but we had daylight for the entire trip. This was because our route took us way up north, beyond Hudson Bay and over the north part of Greenland. Even at midnight, we were close enough to the pole to benefit from full sunlight.
Lisa and Brian had, very thoughtfully, brought a marvelous array of little snacks with them. Excellent bread, crackers, cheeses, candies ... we were the envy of nearby passengers as we spread out this deluxe repast even before the airline food was brought out. When the airline food did arrive, it proved to be rather good. There was a choice of vegetarian lasagna or beef burgundy. We all selected the carnivorous option. Before we landed, we had two additional little meals, all quite decent. We were also treated to As Good As It Gets for the in-flight movie. A fine selection.
Saturday, June 27, 1998
As I said, we were scheduled to leave at 2:05, but we didnt actually make it out until about half an hour later. This set in motion an annoying set of problems. Our arrival in Amsterdam was late, and upon arriving we had to go to some sort of "transfer counter" to get new boarding passes for our flight on Meridiana Air to Florence.
Had we arrived on time, we might have made our connection, although even that is uncertain. The lines in the Amsterdam airport move at a glacial pace, and the rudeness of many travelers passing through there was simply astonishing. Although we would see many things on this trip that were improvements over their U.S. counterparts, the lines at the airports were so poorly managed that, as the time ticked away, I found myself looking around for Alan Funt to walk up and point out the hidden camera. (Oops, that's probably too old an allusion for the 'net generation.)
The lines weren't really all that long, but they pointed straight out into the corridors, so it was very difficult for passengers not wanting to join our line to get past us. And, as I said, the lines themselves did not move. The capper, though, in this excruciating waltz of fleeting flight possibilities, was the pushiness and lack of consideration shown by certain other people who treated the lines like slalom courses, with us the pylons. They weaved, they bobbed, they plunged toward the front of the lines like Rottweilers on the scent of rib steaks. Don't get me started.
Anyway, between our late landing and our misadventures in the transfer line, we were unable to make our connecting flight to Florence. Because this was a very busy travel day and there were few seats available, getting rebooked was quite difficult. From Transfer Counter 6, we were sent to a new line where we could be re-ticketed.Of course, these were the same instructions given to many of our other fellow line standers, so we were able to have a similarly wonderful experience at the new counter. At this counter,however, we were also blessed with a couple of counter guys who were as rude as the passengers. Apparently, one of their perqs was to be abusive to the traveling public. One of the KLM employees (on the left in the photo) appeared to take great pleasure in making two young women who had missed their flight break down in tears; another little Napoleon (who was on the right, but like Dracula, has an image that film apparently cannot record) failed to achieve that goal with his customer, but certainly not for lack of trying.
It could have been worse, though: We were right next to a champagne bar and a casino. A group of Jesuit priests even showed up to lend divine assistance. Perhaps through their intervention, we somehow managed to get the very nice woman in the middle of the counter, between the two cads. Although there were no available flights to Florence, she was able to book us on a flight to Rome. At least we'd be in the correct country at that point. She said we'd probably have to sit around Rome for six hours, though, before we could get a connecting flight to Florence. Thus, instead of arriving in Florence at noon -- our original plan -- we'd be getting in just before 11:00 PM. Still, this was better than having to wait in Amsterdam until Sunday, so we felt we were making progress. We went to the Constellation Bar in the airport and had some beers to celebrate our success. Lisa, having inherited Alf's penchant for airport hot dogs, sampled the Amsterdam version.
In Rome, though, we were able to get on an earlier flight than expected. Indeed, we ended up having a very quick turnaround. Lisa and Annie got us on the next plane out while I was off checking rail connections. (The train alternative looked promising, and it would have been an adventure ... but it was nowhere near as convenient as the plane.) Our Alitalia flight got us to Florence at about 6:00. It was six hours later than wed hoped, but five hours earlier than we feared, so it really wasnt all that bad.
In Florence, a wonderful surprise awaited us: Steve and the crew were there waiting for us! Tired as I was from all the flights and the hassles and the time change -- it was now 9:00 am back in Washington, and we'd been up "all night" -- this was too good to be true. Apparently, they had just been waiting around the airport all day, greeting every flight that we could have possibly been on. Bless their little hearts! The crew did confide that hanging around the Florence airport on a hot day with lots of young Italian women passing through in various states of skimpy attire was not all that painful an experience for them.
All was not rosy, though: As we suspected, our luggage had jetted off to an unknown location. It wasnt as clever as we were in making alternate plans, and so it was off somewhere else in Europe. It might have been in Amsterdam, Milan, Rome, Pisa or some other place. All we knew was that it wasnt in Florence where we were. We spoke with the baggage people at the airport and tried to address this issue, then we headed to Siena with our Friendly Crew Guys.
We were too late for the cocktail reception and the screening of the Palio film. We did meet up with Robin and Stephani, who had arrived around 2:00 that afternoon as planned. They were all dressed up for dinner, which was about to begin as we arrived. We too could have gone to the "first night dinner" with Buddy and his other passengers but we were just too tired. We sat outside, admiring the summer night and the sunset over the Tuscan Hills, and we drank the beers from our mini-bars. We went to bed around 10:30. We had been up for about 30 hours straight, and our initial balloon flight would come early the next morning. The travel portion of our adventure was over, for us if not for our luggage, and the actual adventure was about to begin.
Next: Pre-Palio Days of Flight