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Italy’s Happy Memories Lessen Travel Angst

I’m home from Italy now. For a few frustrating days I wondered whether I’d be spending Christmas in Europe.

On my attempt to get home I missed four flights in 96 hours. The first missed flight was due to Hurricane Sandy, the initial domino that seemed to tip my travel fate off course, after my flight to San Francisco via Newark, New Jersey, was canceled.

The homeward-bound deconstruction of my Italian trip began when I spent one night in the Turin, Italy, airport after Slow Food International decided some of us delegates didn’t need to spend our last night in a hotel. Unfortunately, I was the only delegate at the Turin airport (the rest were in Milan). This didn’t concern my 20-something Slow Food USA representative, who chirped, “You know what? Get a bottle of wine, get some snacks and just have fun with it!”

I’d like to give her a snack.

Doni had the Torino, Italy, airport to herself where she spent the night and later was prevented from boarding a plane because the airline had no record of her ticket number. Apparently, this number is fairly important. Duly noted.

My second unplanned night in Turin was at La Rosa Bianca Hotel near the Turin airport (a sweet little place for only 55 euros, btw) after a major mix-up when the airline claimed I had a confirmed seat number, and a flight number but no ticket number. No ticket number, no boarding. Most likely, it was an error made at a United Airlines call center as scores of flights were canceled and thousands of passengers were stranded.

Meredith Fisher travel agent to the rescue, who booked a whole new series of flights home, starting with one from Turin to Munich the following morning. But I missed not one, but two flights to Munich (one was blamed on mechanical difficulties, though I never learned what happened with the second one).

When I finally did board a tiny puddle-jumper and landed in Munich, I had so little time left to catch my connecting flight to San Francisco that Andrea, my Italian seatmate (who lives in San Francisco and was heading that way, too), coached me as our plane’s wheels touched tarmac.

“As soon as the plane stops, grab your bag and run!”

I started to tell him about how I’d sprained my ankle about six weeks earlier, and how it was still swollen, and I hadn’t worked out or done Jazzercise for almost two months, but he looked so earnest. And I did not want to spend the night in Munich. The only German I know is from “Hogan’s Heroes” 45 years ago.

“Just run!”

I did. We did. When I started falling behind, Andrea – my airport angel – grabbed my 20-pound carry-on bag and sprinted ahead of me, and said he’d wait for me.

He did. We made it. Just barely.

Once on the plane, I felt so grateful and relieved. I thought my worries were behind me, that I was in the home stretch heading for San Francisco.

Throughout the ordeal, I maintained a texted lifeline with my earlier travel companions, world travelers son Joe and daughter-in-law Marie, via my cheapie little Italian travel phone.

Gelato smiles all around in Venice with Joe, Doni and Marie.

At each turn of events, Joe – who I eventually dubbed “Mama Joe” for his intensity of worry and advice – was texting me messages of disbelief-turned-relief “what the hell?” every time I missed a flight but got a new one. Joe was so happy when I texted him after I boarded the Munich-to-San Francisco flight.

But no, the travel gods weren’t done with their fun. As the final insult I missed the last flight to Redding from San Francisco because I was detained with what seemed about 1,000 sloth people slogging through custom-quicksand. Then, after running from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 I was stuck in security behind a dazed, unhurried man who removed his belt, shoes, laptop, keys and pocket change as if he were in a tai chi class precisely as my plane was boarding.

Still hopeful, I grabbed my bag and bolted for the stairs that led to that stupid little shuttle, and watched in horror as the driver pointed to my gate as he drove by it to deposit me farther away, not closer.

Which reminds me. I have a major bone to pick with United Airlines for taking off 10 minutes before its scheduled departure time, just seconds after I arrived at the gate. Take-off time was 10:37 p.m. I arrived at the gate at 10:27 p.m. The following day I met a grandmother and granddaughter who were also in the same situation, and they ended up sleeping in the airport. They have a bone to pick with United, too.

United Airline’s customer service person listened impassively to my litany of missed flights – which, because I was so tired and defeated, I delivered deadpan, with all the passion of reciting a weekday shopping list. I’m guessing that he took one glance at me – sweating, wet head to foot from running in the rain from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3, mascara-streaked, puffy-ankled – and he decided to quickly hand over hotel and meal vouchers and get me the heck out of there before I exploded.

Good choice.

Yes, the next morning I boarded a plane from San Francisco to Redding. That flight was delayed by nearly two hours. Of. Course. It. Was.

Perhaps this would be a good time to take a few deep breaths and look at some pictures from my Italy trip. There. I feel better already.
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To those who say, with blatant sarcasm, “Oh, you poor thing, stuck in Italy!” – let me just say that I would have loved to have stayed in Italy … if money were no object, and if my house weren’t on the AAUW Home Tour on Nov. 3. My home was chosen because it’s an example of a budget remodel where I recycled liberally, a house that I’d featured in a series called the Pink House Chronicles, complete with before-and-after photos, like this one, mid-project, when Best Choice Home Improvements installed a front door at the – are you ready for this – front of the house.

And this photo of my bedroom after I’d had the former kitchen hutch moved into my formerly purple bedroom.

That hutch is now my dresser.

By the time I got home and unpacked I had less than 24 hours to get my house ready for the tour, rather than the four days I’d planned. The inside needed cleaning, but the outside needed major dealing with construction materials, as well as showing some of the details that were the brainchild of Karen McGrath, landscape designer, who’d put so much thought and creativity into my outdoorscape. Even though her plan is a work in progress, I wanted some things finished, such as the pair of raised recycled bathtub planters.

Landscape designer Karen indulged my desire to recycle this pair of bathtubs removed from the Pink House during its remodel. Superman handyman Corey Bunton created these for me, and sided them with boards salvaged after I replaced the old fence. Blueberries on the right; herbs on the left.

Here’s where I pause to give thanks to sister Shelly and friend Canda, who worked all week on my house in my absence. Canda sewed cushions to make my spray-painted wicker couch look more like a couch and less like the patio furniture it really is.

And interior redesigner sister Shelly Shively staged my house and thinned it of clutter and made it look like something from a magazine.

Thanks, also to Betty Long and Kirsten Plate, AAUWers who came to my rescue by washing windows Friday after the cleaning guy I’d hired cancelled at the last minute. And a standing ovation to two fantastic handymen, Robert Purcell and Corey Bunton, who were at a dead run from sunup to beyond sundown Friday to transform my outside disaster area into something presentable. And thanks to Marvelous Construction contractor Chris Fisher, who tended to last-minute details, like installing my closet doors and hanging a heavy-ass mirror. And thank you to neighbor Tom Parent, who dashed back and forth across the street to let us borrow special vacuums and power-washers.

It does take a village to get a house home-tour ready.

I opted out of sleeping Friday night so I could meet my Saturday home-tour deadline, which, coupled with jet lag, made me delightful company by Saturday night at the pop-up restaurant at Deja Vu I’d committed to attending. I looked and felt as if I’d been shot by a rhino tranquilizer. My twin occasionally flicked ice water my direction to revive me, and friend Canda just kept saying how sorry she felt for me.

“I’m going to call you half-mast, because that’s what your eyes are doing,” she said.

No doubt.

Six months ago you may recall I had a medical travel misadventure in Hawaii, something that might have dissuaded most sane people from booking a flight to Italy. Me? I figured I’d already had my lifetime portion of bad travel luck out of the way. That only emboldened me to get crackin’ and plan “A Harvest Sampler”, the fundraiser to help pay my way to Italy for the Slow Food Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy. Two weeks after the fundraiser I was on a plane bound for Italy. One day after my return was the home tour. Multiple hurdles? Yes. Doable? I was counting on it.

I’ll tell you more about the Slow Food conference later.

And I’ll share interviews with some of the interesting delegates I met there.

I bought some cute little knitted animals for Austin made by these Terra Madra delegates from Kenya.

And I might write about Cleo, the sourdough friendship starter I carried in my suitcase from Italy, and I’ll share what happens when one puts a small jar of warm, wet, yeasty sourdough starter in a suitcase for an 11-hour flight, though some of you might already guess.

I loved Italy. But I love being home, too.

Some people called me crazy for trying to cram so much in just a few weeks.

But I did it. I made it. And I lived to tell about it.

Now, if I could just get the smell of Cleo out of my clothes.

But first, I shall sleep. In a bedroom fit for a home tour. And I will dream of my next flight, wonderfully uneventful and totally boring.

For more on Doni’s trip to Italy, click to read about the first and second day in Venice and the first day in Turin. Click here for a video of the sounds of Italy.

 Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.