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December 4, 2008

The Return Trip

Filed under: Italy Rome-Sicily 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 12:51 am

Breakfast on the Ambasciatori rooftop deck

Breakfast on the Ambasciatori's rooftop deck

At this point I usually write something about an uneventful return journey and recap the trip. On this occasion, it seemed like United Airlines was intent on extending our trip. Unfortunately, the extension wasn’t going to be in Italy.

It all started innocently enough. After breakfast in the warm and bright morning sun on the Ambasciatori’s roof top deck, we took a taxi to the Palermo airport. A short Air One hopper dropped us in Rome. Lufthansa decided to upgrade us to Business Class and on our way to Frankfurt. Life was good.

Fresh fish at the Vucciria market

Fresh fish at the Vucciria market

Somehow the worm had turned, however. There would be no more upgrades and our plans for beer and pretzels in the Frankfurt airport would go unfulfilled.

In Frankfurt our connection was convoluted. We exited the terminal area and passed through immigration to the ticket counter areas. After a long hike, we found the route through to the United Airlines Gates. Getting to the gates involved passing through Immigration. The agent seemed to contemplate asking me whether I knew Bill Schmelzer, but paused at the last moment realizing that the whole Bill Schmelzer thing would be a real hassle and that it would be better off handled in the States and not in Germany.

It was now time to pass through the dreaded German Airport Security. I quickly lost the fantasy of being search by a beautiful female agent when it became clear that the searches were being segregated by sex. My last time through the German security check went smoothly with no body search, so I wasn’t too concerned. I loaded up the bins with all my personal items I was carrying along with every piece of metal I could detach from my body. With the wave from Hans, the Germany Airport Security agent, I stepped confidently into the metal detector. The alarm on the detector immediately screamed its alert.

A church dome in Palermo

A church dome in Palermo

“Shit!” I thought to myself. Not this again.

Hans, with one hand gloved ala Michael Jackson, waved me over for a more “personal” search.

“Spread ‘em,” or something close to that, commanded Hans. I quickly learned why Hans was better known by his “clients” as “Al Hans.” Al Hans’ search with his one latex gloved hand was thorough, very thorough, and perhaps even too thorough. At one point, I prepared to turn my head and cough expecting the request to come. Somehow the search ended I was on my way with some minor unidentifiable portion of my dignity intact. At least this time, Al Hans didn’t reach the pain threshold of his predecessor and I didn’t feel the results of the search for hours afterward. I’m still expecting flowers and a card in the mail from Hans, though.

I was sufficiently distracted by the encounter with Al Hans to forget about our plans for beer and pretzel tasting in the Frankfurt Airport. Soon, we were on the plane and ready to go. The flight was packed and everyone was in their seats. But the plane just sat there. After 15 minutes, the pilot came on and said that they were checking out an issue with the plane and he expected to depart in another 10 minutes. Forty minutes later, he came back on to say the problem was being checked out in San Francisco and we’d know in 15 minutes. Forty-five minutes later, he was on the speaker telling us the flight would be canceled due to a bent rotor in the engine. Hard to see why that would matter. There are two engines, after all.

Details from the cloister in Monreale

Details from the cloister in Monreale

Off the plane and back in the departure lounge, we eventually learned that we weren’t going anywhere until tomorrow. We quickly scrambled to make a Nick rescue plan (thanks Patty) and Becky gleefully canceled her work engagements for Monday.

Next thing we knew, confusion broke out it felt like we were back in Italy. We love Italy, but sometimes things devolve to chaos in crowd situations. You don’t expect that sort of thing to happen in Germany, but, hey, United Airlines was in control. With only infrequent conflicting announcements, it was extremely perplexing to figure out what was going on. Eventually, it sounded like they might put us up in a local hotel. The highlight of the confusion was when the United Airlines personnel announced, in English only, “If you don’t understand English, please come to the counter.”

Eventually it was time to be bused to the hotel near the airport to spend the night. We were still not quite sure about this whole thing. We just tried to stay with the spreading group as much as possible as it went through immigration comingling with passengers from other flights (our passports are now half full of Frankfurt Germany immigration stamps). The harried German immigration agent didn’t even contemplate asking about Bill Schmelzer. Instead, the standard questions were asked, “What is the reason for your visit?” and “How long do you plan to stay?” We didn’t have good answers, but they let us into Germany anyway. Clearing Immigration, we somehow found the gaggle of passengers from our flight that was waiting for the hotel’s bus.

Palermo on the morning of our departure

Palermo on the morning of our departure

The large, international hotel that United put us up in was largely empty until the crowds from a couple of canceled flights came in. Our dinner was free in a buffet that made us long for the food in Italy or even at Denny’s in the States. Soon the idea spread amongst the stranded travelers that they would serve beer with dinner and a clamor for beer arose. Eventually, the hotel’s staff delivered with a tray full of beer glasses. Becky was quickly practicing her German in the hope that we would be able get additional beer. Unfortunately, however, we were all cut off at one beer. Even Becky’s threats to drink the more expensive Coke tap dry went unheeded.

img_7923Becky was pretty put off by the dinner beer fiasco and was determined to get all she could from United. All of our cloths and toiletries were still being held hostage on the plane, or at least so we thought, so Becky headed to the front desk to get replacements. She asked for toothbrushes, toothpaste, a change of underwear, massage oil, and lube at the front desk. The workers at the hotel’s desk didn’t admit to understanding what “lube” meant, so Becky went back up to the room and returned with the gorilla pod in hand to explain. On seeing the Gorilla pod, the crew at the front desk crew all gave knowing nods in amazement, almost in unison, but was unable to offer any lube.

The next morning we learned that our flight had been rescheduled for 1 pm. They didn’t serve beer for breakfast (we weren’t in Bavaria!) so we had a casual start getting to the airport. On the bus to the airport, the stark realization hit me that I’d have to transit immigration and Frankfurt Airport’s Security yet another time. I really wasn’t looking forward to seeing Al Hans again.

At the airport there were no instructions on what to do. We found the Lufthansa help desk which covered the United flights and they explained that we’d have to wait in the nearby line that seemed to extend a quarter mile. Fortunately, Becky’s Premier Executive status got us into a shorter line. At security, our run of luck continued. I passed through the metal detector with out a peep and I escaped the personal attentions of Al Hans’ nasty looking brother, Big Hans, who was looking rather eager to meet me.

The take from the trip

The take from the trip

At this point, we rejoin the story about the usual uneventful return journey. That is except for our luggage. Somehow, even with a 20-hour layover in Frankfurt, our bags missed our flight. When our bags finally were delivered to us a half week later, they looked fit and tanned and coated with fine grains of sand. We were more than a bit suspicious of what our gear had been up to. It is so hard to get good luggage these days.

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