One final diversion, before we get started...
Although we weren't in the movies, there have been countless films made in and about Italy by Hollywood studios and their Italian counterpart, the studio city south of Rome known as Cinecittį. For the first part of our trip, in which we arrive in the Eternal City and immediately become overwhelmed by 3,000 years of history on every street, your essential viewing consists of:
"Uh, this is your pilot speaking...we'll be taking off here shortly, bound for...Phfffffuhhhh ... Philadelphia, yeah, that's where we're headed..." Always a treat to have a captain with a sense of humor, or at least a peculiar command of language. Being up in the air is fine, but the takeoffs and landings I could do without. As long as we're 30,000 feet in the air, I know there will be at least a few minutes between any sort of disaster and my untimely demise. That way others can at least say I planned ahead for it. But those takeoffs and landings, they cut down on one's reaction time and limit your options to mostly just screaming and opening your eyes real wide. Nice to have a captain who, even unintentionally, lessens the stress load.
The flight out was actually quite nice, especially compared to what came immediately before and after. Before, I had to twist myself through the Italian bureaucracy in order to obtain a visa, which (this week at least) is not needed by short-term visitors but is a must for long-term students or anyone staying for more than a month or two. The process surely was refined by the Roman Inquisition after they took care of all that obscene art created during the Renaissance.
When my departure date came to be less than a week away, I called the Italian consulate in San Francisco to find out what they had done with my passport, since I had been nice enough to send the passport off to them in the mail just like they asked so that they could affix the visa inside. First lesson of bureaucracy -- the office is closed. Call back before 12 noon Pacific time.
Which means, since it was Friday, call back on Monday -- two days before I leave. And have a good weekend. (insert .wav sound file here of head banging repeatedly against brick wall for the better part of a weekend)
I called back as soon as the consulate opened on Monday, at nine AM -- geez, aren't I supposed to be getting some rest for this trip? -- and was told that I hadn't included with the visa application an affidavit of intent to purchase student insurance. True, I had already purchased student insurance -- and included the proof of purchase with my application -- but I hadn't yet signed an affidavit stating that I would buy insurance upon my arrival in Italy. Sigh. Such is bureaucracy.
Fortunately, my roommate had a fax machine downstairs, so a quick fax here, a run up the street to the notary public there, then across the street for a fax service back down to SF, topped off with a trip to the post office to guarantee overnight delivery to the consulate of the original signed, notarized copy, and voilą! My application was now complete, and hey there's still 40 or so hours until my plane leaves! Yow.
Upon my arrival back home, I found in that day's mail a curious letter -- from the Italian Consulate's office, containing a copy of the affidavit of student insurance that they needed me to sign in order to complete the application.
Good thing I had included a pre-paid Express Mail envelope with the original application, so that they could drop the visa-passport in the mail and it would arrive the next day. Too bad the next day was the only day it could arrive before my plane was scheduled to depart. Sure enough, the next day's mail brought an Express mail envelope with my passport inside, a bright shiny visa stamped on one of the first pages. And with a full 22 hours to go before my plane leaves -- who says you can't trust the government?!
Meanwhile, my memories of the time spent immediately before the flight are mostly of Harrison, my girlfriend's four-year-old son, crying and hurting after I accidentally slammed the car trunk on his hand as we pulled luggage out of the car. Damn. That's -not- what I want his last memories of me to be before I leave for three months. It was one of those things where everyone saw it coming (including me) but I couldn't stop in time. Harrison just stood still for a few seconds before the shock sunk in and then he let out the first holler. Michele had enough reaction time to get next to and comfort his hand, my mom reached for the trunk keys, and I simply lifted up the still-locked trunk as far as I could so that he could pull his hand out as quickly as possible.
After the trunk incident, we walked toward the terminal and within seconds my mom found a penny on the ground for me. Find a penny, pick it up... Wish I'd seen it about two minutes earlier.
With our captain now sure of our flight course leading into Phfffff...uh, Philadelphia, yeah, that's it...I went up in the air on a sunny day and said buh-bye to the Northwest for a while.
First in-flight movie: "Trial and Error," with that Kramer guy from Seinfeld impersonating a lawyer. It had a couple of good laughs, just what I needed. Maybe movies should come with a new rating, say "AD," for something that is by all accounts worthless tripe in a theater but a good Airplane Distraction when you'd rather think about something other than the invisible forces of physics that simultaneously try to push upward and pull down to Earth this raw tonnage of cargo six miles up in the air.
Philadelphia, twilight. Humid. An overcast late summer evening, so there isn't much sun to see, but it pokes out a little more the lower it goes toward the horizon. US Air runs a shuttle on the Philly tarmac so that passengers can hit connecting flights without wading through the terminal, or going through security for a second time. A couple of guys in business suits get a lift right to the front door of their plane, then the rest of us are whisked off to terminal A for International flights. After the opportunity to make a quick phone call back home, my previous flight's tardiness means it's already time to get on board the next plane.
Strangely, as I approach the check-in counter, I watch one of the check-in attendants behind the desk pick up the white courtesty phone and page my name over the terminal's PA system. My seat assignment has been bumped up -- a window seat about halfway up the cabin, rather than in the very back. I get a view, but it's long enough after sunset that the only thing to see when we take off is the skyline in pixilated streetlamp colors against a black backdrop. And that's the last I saw of the US for three months.
When we had approached Philadelphia, I spotted Veterans Stadium from the air. Just can't ever get enough of those top-down views of baseball fields. Saw the Spectrum too, although it's called the Core States Arena or something like that now. I never went to a Dead show on the East Coast, never been much to the East Coast at all except for a couple of airplane layovers like this one, but I have some good Spectrum tapes, and it's nice to see where they came from. Good old days and all that.
One more burst of thrust and added G-forces, up into darkness while I watch the lights race past, kidding myself that it's my willpower that makes us keep going forward instead of flopping back down. I see a mass of lights appear far in the distance, coming over the horizon like a whole city crawling toward us from 500 miles away, and I pull out the USAir route map to determine if it's Baltimore or New York City. I don't know which direction we were pointed at takeoff, but we took a left and went over land for a ways before the lights lessened and it became apparent that the only thing below was Ocean. Buh-bye, America.
To take our minds off the icy salt water below, our in-flight movie is "Smilla's Sense of Snow," an impenetrable flick about murder, ancient fossils, hushed conversation and really blue background lighting. I adjusted my watch nine hours ahead to reflect Rome time so that I could start getting acclimated right away, and it became impossible to concentrate on the in-flight movie when it became apparent that it was being shown at one AM Italy time. I shut the window shade, tried to curl up in the airplane seat as best I could, and ... well, didn't quite sleep. But I came close.
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