Saturday, January 4, 2014

Italy - Machines - Pazienza

I actually love hotel-room safes.

I suppose I trust them more than I should, but having experienced a pickpocket in Paris (or rather, not felt it at all), I like the thought of locking up the passports, extra credit cards and money into an apparently secure location.

I was never quite as comfortable leaving stuff at the front desk for them to put into a box which only everybody behind the desk could access - you know they had an extra key.

With a hotel-room safe, you just key in your 4 to 6 number code and "voila!" or I suppose "presto!" in Italy.  Of course, this is Italy and machines do not necessarily work all of the time.  So, on several occasions in Italy, most recently, this morning, I punched the clear sign, entered the code, pushed enter and the light went green, then the door, rather than being sealed, popped open.  I re-entered the whole thing again and again, with the same result.

I have an incredible amount of patience (or in Italian, pazienza).  I often amaze myself at how patient I can be in the face of frustration.  It's just that, when it's out, it's out, and there is not much warning (sometimes, none) when I have reached that point.  Machines, in particular, can send me right off the deep end.

It's at moments like that, as I'm reaching into the closet to grab the safe that Karen asks, "What are you doing?" I reply, "I'm going to tear this d%$# safe from the wall, smash it to bits and then search out every member of it's family and destroy them all.  Why do you ask?"

Karen just stares at me as though I've said something insane and suggests that a calmer approach might be more fruitful.  She then says something like, "What did you do?"  to which I reply, "I followed every one one of their f#$%ing instructions to the letter several hundred times and it refuses to respond."

Karen, "Let me try it."

Gary, "Be my guest, but it is the spawn of Satan and should be destroyed."

Karen, "There, it worked."

This has happened more than once.  In my defense, I think my reaction is a "Guy Thing".  We just get incredibly frustrated and want to take it out on something.  Frankly, I would not be surprised if I found out some day that Attila the Hun was actually a nice guy who just had a problem with his hotel safe and took it out on the local populace.

Karen has her own issues with patience, though machines don't seem to put her off the way they do me.  It's people who disturb her, particularly those that make her wait.  As Karen puts it, she is a very patient person, except for the waiting part.

When we are in a situation waiting for some unknown reason, Karen's usual response is to turn to me and say:  "Gary, go find out why we are being delayed."

Gary, "You mean, go up and ask that angry official who probably doesn't speak English what the problem is?"

Karen, "Yes."

Gary, "You realize he has a long scar and is armed?"

Karen, "That's okay, we've been waiting here longer than we should have."

And so on.

After a lovely stay in Venice with Jona and Claire, we had to arrange for a train trip from Venice to Pisa.  To start with, for almost every Italian town, you have a selection of train stations to stop at.  In the States, if you take a train to Portland, Oregon, you get off in Portland, there are no other choices.  Not true in Italy, you have a choice and if you get off at the wrong station, you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere without a paddle or even a taxi.  I know * * * I have been there.

Then, there is the question of how you can make a reservation.  I should have seen this coming before we left.  I bought tickets for us from Lucerne, Switzerland to Venice on line through Train Europe (which, interestingly, does not exist anymore, having gone out of business at the end of December).  It was not possible to leave the tickets at the railroad "will call" or to have electronic tickets.  Physical tickets had to be shipped to us, which was interesting, since we were leaving in four days.  They made it to us, but parts of our trip were unplanned, so I did not have the option to ship other tickets to us as we were "no longer home."

So, I was in Venice, trying to arrange for reservations on-line to go to Pisa and having no luck.  They still wanted to ship the tickets to me and that would not work as we were leaving the next day.  Frustrated, I went down to our hotel reception.

Gary, "Can you call the train station and reserve us tickets to Pisa tomorrow?"

Reception, "Oh, no.  You will have to go to the train station.  Of course, you can reserve on the computer."

Gary, "I haven't been able to make that work.  Can you help me?"

Reception, "Oh, no, I have never been able to make it work either."

So I asked Claire how they got their tickets and she admitted that her mother (who is French) had picked them up at the train station in Paris because no one knows how to get them over the computer.

So, here we are in 2014 and the electronic age and the only way to get an Italian train ticket is to "go to the station."

In the end, going to the train station worked out fine, since Jona and Claire were leaving Venice for Paris via train.  We just accompanied them to the train station (which is just a long walk and a longer boat ride, but you're still in Venice).  Upon arrival, we went to the ticket office to arrange for tickets.  There were a random number of people, standing around and a random number of agents, not helping people.  Eventually, we ended up in front of an agent and got tickets.  As the agent was handing our tickets to us, she said, "You will need to have these tickets validated tomorrow before boarding."  It was one of those moments that we did not hear the ominous music in the background, though I did ask, "How do we do that?"  The agent responded, "Go to any of the green machines in the station."

We had a nice walk with Jona and Claire to their sleeping coach to Paris, they boarded the train and we headed back to catch the water bus to our hotel, failing to notice that every machine, no matter what size or purpose, in the huge train station, was green.

The water buses, or vaporetti, in Venice are something.  The go all over the city's canals, stopping at designated points and will take you almost anywhere, so long as you pick the correct designated point.  The water taxis, which are what we have always used before, are a lot more expensive, but they have the distinct advantage of taking you exactly to the point where you tell the driver to go.  After seeing Jona and Claire off, we still had time left on our vaporetti ticket, which was the method that we used with Jona and Claire to get to the train station.

The return seemed simple enough.  We knew that we wanted the "number 2" water bus, for San Marco.  We found it and hopped on.  There were not many people on board, which should have been a clue.  However, we moved up to the front of the boat, found a couple of seats outside and prepared to enjoy the trip back.  What we had not noticed was that the boat we were now on would eventually arrive back at San Marco, but first it had to go to all other points.  In a way, there are "two Venices".  There is the labyrinth of canals and then there are the separate islands, the industrial area and the open sea.  Having spent time in the labyrinth of canals, our pilot apparently opted for the "other Venice".

It started to rain.

Having been to the back of the prior vaporetti, we could only imagine those poor people, standing around on an open deck, with no where to sit down.  Our seats, while becoming increasingly damp, were at least chairs, so we could huddle together and stick our chins out towards the wet darkness.

Venice really is quite huge and, after taking this extended tour, it is amazing how many places there are which really can and should be ignored and avoided.  We have seen them all.

Eventually, the weather won out and we decided to abandon our chairs and at least take advantage of the wind-break from the pilot house.  It turns out that this particular vaporetti had a slightly different configuration.  Behind the pilot house was a closed room, heated and dry with benches.  Who knew?  Well, besides the people already in there.  Those people just stared at us as though we were slightly nuts.  We pretended to be sailors recently saved from a sunken vaporetti.

Much later, our vaporetti pulled into San Marco and we disembarked, the last stop of that particular journey.

We had learned a lot of stuff about Venice that day.  I think Karen best captured it when she said, "Gary, tomorrow we are taking a water taxi to the train station."  I noticed that it was not stated in the form of a question and I was fairly certain that no response was even being sought.  It was more in the nature of "Gary, tomorrow the sun will rise."  With either statement I knew that, if it it were not the case, I'd be in trouble.

The next day, we packed all of our gear and we're getting ready to go.  About a half an hour before we were scheduled to be picked up by the water taxi, the hotel reception called in a panic and said, "The water is rising and the water taxi will be here in 5 minutes!  You need to be ready!  My apology."

I appreciated the last comment, but I was the person who had to pass on the rest of the message to Karen as "They want us to go, now!"

We "rushed" downstairs (you don't really rush with our luggage, it's more of a determined "advance" like a military regiment), said our goodbyes to the delightful owners of the hotel and boarded the water taxi.  The ride was very interesting.  The water was rising and the boat only cleared a couple of the low canal bridges through sinking in the water when the bridge pushed against the superstructure.  We eventually made it to the Grand Canal, which has headroom and up to the train station.

With the help of a local porter, we got our baggage up to the train station and then went in search of the machine to validate the tickets.  It was then that we noticed that all of the machines in the train station were green and none of them seemed to have anything to do with "validation".  I left Karen with the baggage and went into the ticket office.  The ticket office was a sea of inactivity.  There were potential passengers all over the place, loosely lined up in all directions and agents sitting behind the counters shaking their heads at people in front of them.  I tried to ask a simple question, "How do I validate?", but was just glared at by agents and passengers alike.  Above each of the agents was a number, which started with a letter A or B and then had a number apparently between 001 and 300, or so.  After a few minutes, I noticed that there was another green machine with a menu (in Italian) of options.  I pushed random buttons and a number I-113 spat out which didn't look too bad, though none of the numbers on the charts started with an "I".  Eventually, a number 113 appeared above an agent so I walked up and showed him my pass, to which he shook his head and said "Informazione!" and nodded to the next room which had an information desk, with a separate readout which said "I-023" or something like that.

In the meantime, I had gone to one of the many large green machines which may have had clear instructions, in Italian.  The ticket had a computer read out which I waived in front of the machine and the machine confirmed that that was our ticket, that it could be changed and that it would need to be validated, apparently somewhere else.  There were about 20 minutes left before our train was scheduled to leave.

It is at this point where, if I had my own hoard, as in a group of Huns or Mongols, it would have been show time.  "Okay, kids, let's take this place down.  If I see one ticket agent or green machine standing after your done, you're going to have me to answer to!"  So, it is not my fault, but rather just an historical accident that I did not have my hoard and the Venice train station remains there to frustrate tourists in the future.

I stormed out of the ticket office, but Karen stopped me from starting to try and muster a revolution.  Somehow, she convinced me to go back into the ticket office and, perhaps because my hair was by this time messed up like a crazy person and my eyes were starting to blaze like a crazy person that one of the agents thought that, perhaps, I was a crazy person and he said, "Validation machine on train platform."  Now, that was a new piece of information!

Karen and I went out to the platforms and, sure enough, tucked away on each train platform was a little green machine on a pole.  It had tiny words about validation, and it had a place where I could stick the tickets, so I did.  If I would have had a ticket agent handy, I would have stuck him in too.

Apparently, that worked, as the machine did a little be-bop-a-dop and the train conductor accepted the ticket.

We loaded all of our baggage on the train and we're off to Pisa!!!!!

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