The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Whirlwind Trip to Italy Part 1

If the upcoming week held the promise of a three day concert in one of your favorite cities, say Austin, TX, featuring some of your favorite artists of the past 40 years or so, including say Iggy and the Stooges, Jack White and The Black Keys, not to mention the debut of a couple of your favorite television shows that featured, say zombies and haunted houses, and a big game for your football team, would you trade your plans for a free trip overseas to some place like, say Italy? A trip built around wine tasting and food eating in Puglia, Sicily and Tuscany?

Of course you would!

How about if you had a crystal ball that foretold your luggage would be lost, you would get sick, sleep would be almost non-existent and much of your time would be spent on planes and buses or in line to board a plane or a bus?

Makes the choice sound a little more difficult, doesn’t it?

Having lived through it once already, I would have no difficulty making the very same choice again. Book that flight, set the DVR to record (something I actually forgot to do, dammit!), and pray that the Stooges tour again sometime before Iggy needs a wheelchair.

Recently Amy and I, having already divested ourselves of tickets to the Austin City Limits Festival, admittedly with more than a little twinge of regret, boarded an Air France flight that would take us to Paris. In Paris we would transfer to an Alitalia flight to Rome, then another transfer that took us to Puglia. The last we would see of our luggage for the next few days would be when we checked our bags in Houston.

Blissfully unaware of the fact that our luggage had some alternative travel plans that didn’t include us, we found a burger joint at the airport. Experienced Air France travelers have probably spotted our first mistake. I ordered a larger burger than I needed because it was only a buck more and we had a very long flight ahead of us. You Air France veterans can stop laughing at me now, I’m still crabby from the jet lag and will think nothing of coming over there and kicking someone in the jimmy. Don’t even try me!

The food arrived and was pretty decent for airport food. As we had plenty of time before our flight, Amy and I took our time eating and conversing. The conversation, as is typical of us, meandered among a wide range of topics. Somewhere around the time the discussion of whether the Lions could beat the Eagles (apparently they could) turned to whether Mittens could fix the economy (apparently we were smart enough to not let him try) by employing magic underwear and the same tactics that his party used to break the bitch in the first place, tragedy struck!

Have you ever been in a situation, like a car accident or watching an unexpected fist heading for your face or even *GASP* knocking a really expensive bottle of red wine onto someone else’s even more expensive carpet, where it seems like time slows way down yet you are helpless to do anything about the situation? This was one of those moments.

Having just dipped a delicious crispy fry into a cup of mayonnaise, I was transporting this example of the spud in one of its finest form to my lips when, seemingly in slow motion, the french fry broke right in the center. It hung on a fulcrum of unbroken deep fried goodness frozen somewhere between my plate and my mouth that also coincided with the front of my shirt. I stared in horror, trying to will it to hang on for the three more inches to my open maw, as it swung one way and then the other. Physics overruled my mental powers, as it is wont to do, and much swearing and greasy staining ensued.

Oh well, Houston is a large metropolitan city, right? How hard can it be to find a decent shirt in the International Terminal? Apparently hard enough that I failed miserably. Choices were limited to outrageously priced “cowboy” atrocities for those who like to pay through the nose to play dress-up, or a few Houston souvenir tees. I chose a NASA shirt because, hey, when you get a few days off work why not wear clothes that remind you of it? No big deal, Italians don’t care much for fashion, do they? Plus I can change as soon as we get to our room. Uh, yeah. I head off to the restroom to change shirts and we board the plane with no further incident.

At this point, let me tell you about Air France in case you’ve never had the pleasure. The people are nice, the planes spacious, and everything looks clean. All of the seats have a pillow, blanket, and packaged set of headphones and a sleep mask. Those things alone would be enough to set them apart from most other airlines, but not this one, they are just getting warmed up.

Each seat is also equipped with a personal video monitor and a large library of movies ranging from new releases to classics, most available in a variety of languages. As I sat comfortably watching Dark Shadows a friendly flight attendant cheerfully interrupted Johnny Depp to offer me a menu with my meal choices. I perused the delicious sounding offerings thinking, “Yeah right, sounds good but this is freakin’ airline food. You expect me to believe that the cuisine will match the well-written marketing prose?” I selected what I assumed would be a bit of dog food that was being passed off as braised veal, only because since our flight took us over water, I couldn’t bear the thought of some extremely overcooked pasta floating in a vaguely tomato-ey sauce reminiscent of the ocean right after the shark in Jaws munches a snack of nubile drunken tart. Oh, me of little faith!

The menu said it began with an aperitif, and the tasty glass of Prosecco definitely qualified. I was still skeptical that the food would live up to the menu’s glowing description, but the red wine I asked for to go with my meal was a very drinkable Bordeaux, and I did have that big burger back in Houston. The food came soon after wine and it smelled good, it even looked pretty decent. I took a tentative taste and was impressed, this stuff was good! Mmm, anemic baby cow! Afterwards, along with dessert, coffee and cognac were offered (and accepted). Contentedly returning to my movie, once again I was interrupted by that pesky smiling flight attendant who asked, “More cognac, Monsieur?” Are you fucking kidding me??? I need to have Dark Shadows interrupted again to answer that question? Hell yes I want more cognac! Merci bien, Air France!

Isn’t travel supposed to suck? This most assuredly did not suck. How is it we accept so much less here in America? This wasn’t service that we paid extra for. Our tickets were not First Class or even Business Class, we were seated with the rest of the unwashed masses. We didn’t pay a dime for the drinks, not even the extra cognac. It was almost like these people actually wanted our business! Can you imagine? If it were possible, I would only fly Air France from now on. I wonder if they offer Houston to Austin service?

There was another meal that was more of the same type of great before we landed. Not knowing that our luggage would not be joining us and dismissing the tiredness and tickle in my throat as merely the result of travelling so far, I recall thinking that this was a very good beginning to an adventure.

Up next: Part 2, Dante Was Definitely Italian

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