Wednesday, 23 December 2009

T’was the night before Christmas…

T’was the night before Christmas…
Well, actually it was the night of the 21st, but it was close to Christmas and it was the Christmas rush of people that accentuated the problem. We flew from Porto to Bergamo (what Ryanair laughably calls ‘Milan’, despite being a fairly decent sized city in its own right) where we were due to change planes for Bari in the south of Italy. We had a few hours layover which was just as well as the plane was an hour and a half late (Ryanair state categorically that they are a point to point airline so that despite building a number of hubs in Stanstead, Hahn (only an hour away from, and given the official Ryanair moniker of Frankfurt) and Bergamo, where 90% of the flights are Mr O’Leary’s. They do this, I feel, to save money. They thus have no responsibility for through ticketing, no responsibility for baggage (you have to collect and recheck it in), no responsibility for checking in and you of course cannot wait on the comfortable airside of the airport but instead in spartan conditions in Departures, with a baby, and in a restaurant where you settle down to eat at half past two in the afternoon and are told you must leave because they are closing and there are snackbars with bar stools in the main concourse downstairs available. Which is freezing cold and full. What airport has time limits on its restaurants like this? Flight times and arrivals are outside their customers control and so they limit income. But this is Italy, and t’was ever thus. And I digress. They, Ryanair, know full well that people do use them as a hub and spoke airline because of the places they fly and their competitive prices, and for these things I thank them.
We arrived in Bergamo and rechecked in as soon as we could, three hours before our scheduled departure. Except there was a problem. The check-in now has to be done on-line beforehand and boarding passes printed out to save money for this execrable company. Nevermind that we had spent circa 600 euro. Nevermind that we had already flown there with them and hadn’t followed their rules from Portugal, and had we been warned there we could have fixed the problem with a quick visit to an internet café. No, it was a bill of 40 euro a head, plus VAT. Merry Christmas. But my Mrs has learned a lesson too. With this company, read the small print VERY carefully. I wonder how much this wheeze has saved them/made them in ‘fees’ (read ‘fines’).
So we went through, and airside Bergamo is a good airport. It’s clearly under serious renovation and we sat comfortably in the lounge looking to charge our mobiles, laptops and mini DVD player. The ‘we’ here is for all the passengers. There was nowhere, but perhaps there will be in the future. I know it was a sizable ‘we’ because I found a sectioned off area that looked like it was to be turned into an internet area as there were LAN connections and power sockets I slipped in with my daughter and plugged in the mini DVD and watched ‘In the Night Garden’, an opiate for two year olds supplied by the BBC. But I was spotted. A group of Spanish students saw that we had POWER, and joined us, plugging in Ipods and laptops, and still they came, until the section was full and there were far too many of us to escape detection. And we had a grandstand view, for the otherside of the huge plate glass windows we saw the runway, the aircraft and the snow falling. And boy was it falling. It was settling too, the outside temperature probably around minus 5 and we watched the departures/gates information board as first DELAYED replaced ON TIME and I waited for the first of the inevitable calls that a flight would be cancelled.
It came, and then for another flight, and another. The Spanish students were cancelled before us (the Spanish swear ever so well don’t you think?) but I knew our doom as inevitable, and soon we would find ourselves with the options of a) sleeping in an airport, b) trying to catch a train south or c) looking for a hotel room. To be fair to Ryanair this was all outside their control.
They called out the cancelation of the flight, and looking at the snow and seeing its depth, seeing the number of stranded passengers my training kicked in. For I was schooled by the late, great John Hughes. I am, of course, referring to his masterwork for travel, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (his other education videos are also worth seeing. Home Security problem? ‘Home Alone. Need to skive off school for a day and have fun? ‘Ferris Bueller’ – we have lost a great teacher with the passing of Mr Hughes). We hustled down to the arrivals hall after picking up our bags and dived into the numerous car rental agencies. AVIS? No cars. Hertz? The same. Europcar fella was on the phone so I dived into Autoeurpoa and… YES! Result. They have loads of cars…. But we can have only one. I was confused at this, but it turned out that their cars were nearly all diesel, a problem when the mercury is in the blue and diesel takes the consistency, and viability of a fuel for internal combustion purposes, of a slush puppy (US English please read ‘Slurpy’). But… there was one car available…. One (Petrol) car that could face the journey of more than a thousand k in freezing conditions, one car that could carry the three of us from frozen northern lands to the south, (relative) warmth and great food, family and friends. This was the hardy FIAT Panda! I swallowed nervously.
I had had a FIAT in my youth. Well, sort of. I remembered a washing machine on wheels with a back seat of canvas stretched between two poles and electrical fittings that, were they made by a talentless, arthritic ape with no clue of electrical engineering, would have been rejected by him (or her, for we are an equal opportunity employer in our similes) as being substandard and not fit for purpose. And that’s not fair on the washing machine, whose metal was less likely to corrode. A few years later I was subjected to the Spanish version. This was called the ‘SEAT Marbella’, but was the exact same car. I had to drive it for work and took my life into my hands on my every day commute. I recalled its ineffective heater… just the thing, I thought, for subzero conditions of ice and snow.
But wait. FIAT has a new(ish) Panda. And I remembered some motoring types saying fairly nice things about it. Could we rent some snow chains? No problem. We were in business.
The shuttle bus dropped as at the car park and the first signs were not encouraging. The car itself was under 6 inches of snow (that’s 15 cm for people who think in metric, but snow, like beer and altitude should be recorded in arcane imperial measurements – that’s pints and feet for the uninitiated by the way), but it started on the first turn of the key and ‘Wow’, a real heater, a really good little heater on a really tidy little car. I installed the wife and child in the back, noisily complaining, though the baby was well behaved. I then set to fitting snow chains, something I have never done before. After twenty minutes we were away. Scandinavian readers will be laughing hard at this, but it was my first time, and like first times it was wet, messy and very disorganized.
There now followed the worst drive of my life. I have had some tough ones before, a blow out (and I mean a big, explosive puncture) on an Italian motorway at 80 miles per hour (tsk…ok, for Europhiles that’s about 130 kph) in the rain, to driving across the width of Iberia with only third gear (this can be done but is not recommended). Please consider that when starting the drive I was tired after a day’s driving, flying and waiting around an airport. And the snow still fell. The Italian motorways were swathes of snow, ice, slush and black ice. And they were empty, apart from trucks flying past, far, far too quickly. I settled into a steady 45 kph (read 22 mph) and started to understand that Italy was not really that small a country.
Many hours later they had closed the motorway south of Modena and we had to take to the side roads. It seems that two trucks had crashed. I was unsurprised. We saw five or six large vans and trucks in ditches, some low-speed fender benders and some lunatic driving, though the last really is a given. We were in Italy after all. I snack slept after every hour or two at the wheel in lay-bys and service areas and we subsisted on crisps and chocolate. It was ten am the next day and 400 k south east before we could get back on the motorway and resume normal driving, all the more tiring for its speed and normality. My eyes were hot and stinging. My fingers cramped from holding the wheel. The journey took twenty hours and we were all physically and mentally exhausted.
It didn’t feel like it had been worth it. It had been expensive, in terms of rental costs (when you rent a car book online if you can. It’s cheaper by a factor of five), tolls and fuel. Time and effort was in the balance too. And risk. It had not been that safe. But we got home, were fed some lovely food (I don’t care what anyone says, Italian cuisine is the best in the world), and turned on the TV, to hear the horror stories of thousands of people stranded, stuck in the airport for the foreseeable future. We were late, but now safe and happy. Thank you John Hughes. Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

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