Thursday, May 24, 2007

A night on the tiles in Rome

The ground staff at all airports in Italy went on strike today, just as I was returning after reviewing a Ciclismo Classico's 10-day Bike Across Italy trip (the full montymedia on that coming soon).

Apparently, as I found out by eavesdropping a convo between a couple of flight attendants, they do this quite often. Alitalia is a government run agency, and now and then they decide to strike for 8 hours.

"It could be the ground crew, the hotel crew, or some other crew," she said. Nothing is ever agreed or resolved - sounds a bit like the industry suddenly deciding they deserve a day off en masse. The only problem? It leaves thousands of passengers stranded. How do they get away with it?

"They're a government organization. $40,000 toilet seats and all that, think about it," said the flight attendant, somewhat cryptically.

All flights between 8am and 6pm were cancelled, including my British Airways Rome-London-JFK flight. A line formed as long as the airport terminal, switchbacking its way out the door as people queued to get tickets reissued. There would be no compensation by British Airways, the airline most affected - after all, a strike isn't their fault. The last time this happened to me was a foul weather cancellation just before my flight to Hawaii. I had to go find a hotel in San Francisco for the night at my expense. Fortunately, it was a $50 hotel and a pretty durn nice. The airline is not obligated to compensate you for bad weather either, however, it never feels particularly good to be told by the United Airlines desk clerk, 'sorrreeee, you're on your own'. Especially when not even a snack voucher was forthcoming to help the reeling passenger gather their wits and plot the next move. I later wrote to United customer service and nicely told them that while I appreciated it wasn't their fault, a $10 meal/stiff scotch voucher and a less offhand treatment would do well for customer service. They ended up sending me a $150 travel voucher - right on! But I could have used it at the time ...

But back to the present, in Rome airport. The line moved about ten feet every hour. You could see people progressively slumping over their luggage, like flowers in empty vases on a hot sill. Looking for ways to sit on their luggage without crushing the contents.Those with the $14.99 WalMart 'carry ons', the kind that banks like to give you as a 'bonus givt' when you open a new account, were out of luck. Those with hardshell Samsonites rejoiced - these big, boxy, unwieldy mothers do come in handy. Someone scored a swivel chair from a sympathetic counter clerk, which became jealously coveted but eventually worked its way back down the line to worthy recipients, like passing the plate. I wanted to offer the corner of my Bike Friday hardshell suitcase to the women behind me except she looked like she weighed about 200 lbs, and I wasn't sure how my suitcase was rated. Fortunately she scored the swivel chair.

Many decided to wait for a stand by flight, and a good number made it. The rest resigned themselves to a sleepover on the hard granite floor. In any other airport there is carpet, but in Italy, it's granite and marble of course, as far as the eye can see. You might not want to sleep on industrial airport carpet trodden on by a million international feet, but compared to granite, it's like a pillowtop temperfoam mattress.

The airport Hilton was fully booked out, as were many hotels in and around the area, no doubt charging upwards of 200 Euro a night. I heard there was a carpeted chapel on the floor below, but a bar attendant told me it was closed. You'd think that if any place might open to comfort weary travelers, it would be the chapel. To refuse people access to it seems highly unChristian to me, and to even lock the damn thing in a dispute, the height of hypocrisy. A bit like story about the cyclist who approached a church minister's house in the boonies and asked if he could pitch his tent for one night in the church grounds. What do you think this is, a hotel? was the answer by this messenger of God. Then again, my pious brother once berated me for my illogic. "Being Christian is not about being a nice person, it's about serving God!" he said. That was the end of that convo.

By 9pm the cafeteria had deteriorated. The pizza offered was that awful foamy white flour crust with commercial topping on it. I find it hard to fathom that in a land where even a basic sandwich is is made with high quality ingredients and pride, pizza like this would be allowed to rear its ugly slice. It's excusable in the USA, where the gastronomical median is chili dogs, french fries Denny's meal deals, but in the land of premium olive oil, vine ripened tomatoes trucked in from no father than the back yard and outstanding pecorino cheeses?

I eyed off the only electrical outlet cluster in the whole terminal (where on earth do the cleaners plug in their Dysons?) and set up camp right beside it. I soon became a kind of focal point as people circled me like vultures with their cellphones and chargers in hand, but having done exactly the same envious circling two hours earlier I was not going to give up my post so easily. The wifi deal was 5 hours for 5 Euro, the only real deal I saw in the whole of Italy, so I fired up my office and ignored the vultures.

At 2am, people went from standing to sitting to slumping to sprawling. They'd given up pushing their luggage carts around; in just a few hours the whole terminal had taken on a surreal ambience, a fluorescent-lit land of the homeless, all of us pushing our carts around with our two weeks' life possessions, looking haggard and, well, homeless. I spoke to a whole family of seven including baby and grandmama from New Jersey, who were not able to secure a hotel room anywhere.

I set up a bed consisting of layers of my clothing and spent a fitful 4 hours being woken by The loud guffawing of a young man kept ringing across the terminal (I thought, he must be mentally compromised, why would anyone keep shouting out like that every two minutes for the past 4 hours?) and swatting giant mosquitoes that progressively at me frm head too toe.

In the morning, the queueing began again - this time to get boarding passes.

I am just thankful that the airport allowed people to sleep over. If they hadn't, I wasn't going to budge - a 200 Euro hotel rooom was not in mu budget. They'd have to throw me in jail for loitering, though I'm pretty sure a jail bed would be more comfortable than that hard granite floor...

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