Dr. Bob's Travelogue 9- "Roots"

Part 9 – Roots

From what I know of my genealogy, I am a true American mongrel – a little bit of everything.  At least, everything northern European, with a little other thrown in.  But Nancy and her family are evidence of pure-bloods, and it became obvious on our most recent two trips.  First, we traveled to Turku, Finland, to hook up with Dawn and Anthony, where he was attending a conference. 

Finland was a joyous and somewhat surreal experience.  Joyous in hanging with our daughter and son-in-law (seeing her come across the main square at the university was one of those pure moments I’ll carry forever).  Surreal in that I was clearly in the land of Nancy’s gene pool.  (For those of you who don’t know, Nancy is 100% Finnish, all four grandparents having immigrated to the US). 

Everywhere I looked, it was chock full of close family resemblances.  The very first day, Dawn, Ant and I were walking behind Nancy on the street, remarking “There’s her long-lost sister.  There’s another.  And another…”

During a medieval street festival, Nan herself spotted the doppelganger of her brother, John.  Here are their pics.  See for yourself.

 Finn

Finn

 Nancy's brother

Nancy's brother

This Finn gentleman was one of a group performing medieval “music” on animal horns.  Think: a kindergarten kazoo band.  It was impossible to hit any actual notes on those things, and the six-part harmony between them was something beyond description.  Yet they persisted.  And it was somehow incredibly entertaining.  Who says the Finns have no sense of humor?

Speaking of breaking ethnic stereotypes, we found the Finns to be incredibly friendly and welcoming, albeit a quiet people, and nearly all we met spoke at least some English.  And their country is incredibly beautiful.  Cafes strewn the length of the river as it ran through the city, historic buildings to include a castle with an amazing tour.  Bucolic forests, rivers and mountains.  And just to fit my night owl personality, even though we were in the southern part of the country, 24 hours of daylight while we were there.

It all left a warm, safe feeling in me as we left for Italy to meet several of Nan’s family for a week-long retreat at Lake Como, in the far north of that country.

Upon our very arrival at the airport, one could tell it was a different place.  Children playfully rode atop rolling suitcases which they aimed smack into travelers, squealing with delight when they could really catch one by surprise.  Moms were right there, ignoring them, perhaps cherishing a moment of peace for themselves.  As we waited at the car rental counter, one man went berserk and laid into the staff for some perceived slight, at a volume and with an exuberance that would make the author of the most stereotypical, bad Hollywood screenplay about Italians blush.

Clearly Toto, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Or in Finland.

We had to wait a few hours for an available rental car, so we decided to eat lunch at the airport.  I helpfully pointed to a restaurant listed on an airport map, on the far top level, away from all others, hoping to escape the madding crowd.

As we headed for the escalator, we found ourselves behind a group of slightly older (perhaps 70s) French travelers.  There was one man and several women, each dragging impossibly large pieces of luggage.  They stood at the base of the escalator, looking upward at the ascending staircase, then down at their bags, then furtively about in search of a non-existent elevator, then back down at their bags.

I speak no French, but it was obvious that they were engaged in earnest discussion about whether they should try it.  Finally, one brave woman ventured forth, pushing a bag in each hand, and took the plunge.  Literally.

She went head first over both bags as soon as she stepped onto the moving staircase, but managed to prop herself up on them to right herself, and rode them to the top.  Two others followed without incident, and it seemed that they had found their groove, as we waited patiently in the rear.  I glanced elsewhere.  Then I heard it.

It was a subdued cry, unlike the gentleman at the rental counter who was still at full throttle.  Then her friends began yelling.  The lack of translation made the situation no less understandable.  I turned to see a hapless old lady flat on her back upon the escalator steps, feet flailing above her, her head down below, her massive suitcase on top of her, and a cane several feet behind her.  For some reason it was noticeable that one of her flailing feet had lost its shoe.  She tried in vain to raise her head even an inch above the step upon which it lied to protest her position, and helplessly glided toward a less than glorious arrival at the top.

Nancy dropped everything and ran past her friends, up the steps toward her.  I briefly searched for an emergency stop button for the escalator, but seeing none, followed.  It proved impossible to quickly lift her to her feet.  There we were, seconds from the top, trying to hold her head and body up enough to prevent her hair or clothing from being snagged by the teeth of the contraption.  Suddenly, someone found the stop switch and we came to an abrupt halt with her feet inches from the summit.

Have you ever tried lifting someone to their feet when they are flat on their back, on stairs, head pointing down catawampus, and to begin with, they walk with a cane?

Once the calamity was settled, we schlepped our bags to an actual elevator (at the other end of the building, naturally), searched around, and eventually followed our map to a deserted, narrow hallway lined with airport offices and decidedly uninviting signage, until finally reaching our destination.  As it turned out, it was the employee cafeteria.

Yes, all of this to reach a few tables occupied by persons in uniforms, staring at us.  But thankfully, they let us eat there.

The drive from the airport was uneventful until we inevitably reached the narrow, winding streets of small Italian towns clinging to the hills surrounding Lake Como.  Blind curves and spots that require cars to stop so that oncoming traffic can squeak by.  It was just like British country roads, except decorated with honking and the occasional “have a nice day” hand gesture.  At least they drive on the correct side of the street.

I exaggerate... to some extent.  The villages here are lovely, the villagers are mostly friendly, and the area has been a retreat destination for millennia. 

At one old church, I inspected a plaque upon a wall, dedicated to someone or something I could not decipher, but which by its Roman numerals had been placed there in the 1930s, although the church itself was much older.  I’m sure you’re familiar with historic markers that end with the names of government dignitaries at the time of the monument’s erection.  Lots of public buildings or makers in Arizona will list county supervisors, or a mayor, or the governor at the time.  I confess that in this case, it was a bit startling to see, following other names and as a matter of course, “Benito Mussolini.”

A sobering reminder that history plays out as merely a string of current events.

We walked cobblestoned hills, took boats about the lake, and took the kids on a “train” that runs upon the street between the towns.

Ah yes, the kids.  Our grand-nephews are here, Matt and Will, ages 3 and 6, respectively.  Naturally, they were the center of attention of the 8 adults there, and are really good little boys.  I was repeatedly  serenaded with “Bobo, the walking talking cat, hoo hoo,” a tune about me (Bobo) written long ago by my then 6 year-old daughter and her friends, which was shamelessly taught to these boys by my brother-in-law, who eggs them on at every opportunity.  Another generation.

Will is quite smart, as demonstrated, among other things, by his ability to outplay me in Rummikub, pronounced “Rummy Cube.”  They are both artists, which of course all children are until society beats the natural creativity out of us.

I mention this because Will presented me with the most accurate portrait I’ve ever seen of myself.  Witness the attention to detail in this work of art.  Note: I believe that the ears were drawn first.

will the kid.jpg

Of all of us, only Nan’s sister, Martha, speaks Italian.  She sounds beautiful in her more-than-passing conversation with the locals, remarkably retained from her college days.  The rest of us, for reasons that are inexplicable, assume that the language is some sort of broken Spanish, and keep trying to insert palabras de Español among our English, making no sense at all to the locals.  Perhaps it’s because the heritage of my brother-in-law, Fred, and thus of his offspring, is Italian.  So it feels incumbent upon us all to at least try.

And try he does, once intoning cheerfully to the befuddled staff of an establishment as he entered, “Buenos Aires!”

Blank stares.

One morning, he took the kids and their parents off walking in this hamlet of perhaps a thousand locals.  Being from Massachusetts, he said they were going off in search of a Dunkin’ Donuts.  Fred has a special kind of determination.  It was a miracle that they ever returned.

Fred’s initial plan for the last day was to hit every one of the “10 best things to do at Lake Como” before we all had to leave the day after.  Thankfully, our slothful selves prevailed, and more reasonable adventures were pursued.

After the final harrowing drive from Lake Como, we dropped Fred and Martha at the airport and settled in to spend a final couple of days in Milan.  Once we’d checked into our hotel that afternoon, we were desperate for food, but nearly everything was closed.  From 2:00 or so until 7:00, perhaps even 8:00 pm, nearly everything closes up shop – stores, restaurants, cafes, even bars were all barred up.

At last, we found a true hole-in-the-wall.  With a small entry and counter, you might dismiss it as some tiny convenience market but for a chalkboard menu on the sidewalk.  But if you walk in and behind the cash register, there’s this huge patio and indoor seating area hidden directly behind.  We sat inside, totally by ourselves, due to the afternoon siesta that nearly the whole city seems to take. 

When we opened our mouths to speak, one of the wait staff, who spoke only Italian, knew enough to say, “Oh, Americans,” and brought us different paper placemats than any of those on the other tables.  They were clearly directed to Americans, alright.  In English, the printed placemats read:  “Guide to mindful eating: Slow the Hell down!  Chew your food!  Put your fork down between bites!”  And then, in one corner it added: “Ignore health advice: Low fat, low carb, blah, blah, blah.”

The food was, predictably enough, good and plentiful.  We had been rescued.

Everything in central Milan seems built to impress.  Really grand structures.  At the plaza Duomo is a magnificent cathedral, begun in the 14th century and not completed until 1805, and is one of the most ornate structures I’ve ever seen.

cathedral.jpg

But immediately next to it is this other incredibly ornately decorated monument, soaring an exaggerated four stories, bearing the dramatic inscription, “A Vittorio Emanuele Il I Milanesi.”  The number of persons passing beneath its arched entry far outnumbered those visiting the cathedral itself.  What could this be, we wondered, A museum?  A palace?  Official government offices?  We searched online, and found this to be a monument to what Milan is truly all about – a shopping mall.

Seriously.  This massive, ornate structure was built 150 years ago as a shopping mall, which it still is.  You think America has cornered the market on materialism?  Think again.  At least the “food court” was a clear step up from ours.

‘Best way we found to casually cruise the city was to ride around on any of several historic street cars (San Francisco purchased theirs from Milan).  We set off to do so one day, and should have stuck to that plan.  Instead, we thought we’d hop on and off.  And hop off we did, to see another super-sized structure, Sforza Castle.  Medieval in origin, it had Renaissance and later repairs and additions, but was more massive than anything I’ve yet visited in the UK.  At one point, we sat down at a café in the center of one of its squares.  Nan had her cell phone on the table, planning the rest of our route.

Abruptly a young woman began jabbering away in Italian at us, laid a laminated poster upon our table, which seemed to be something about a lost cat.  One could not help but notice that she was breastfeeding her infant, by simply hiking up her t-shirt to provide the necessary access to her babe in arms.  She had another young friend with her, also breastfeeding.  I tried to avoid eye contact, even as we repeatedly tried to say we spoke only English.  She plaintively continued, seeming to beg for some sort of assistance, then exasperated, scooped up her laminated paper and departed as abruptly as she had arrived.

It took Nancy less than a minute to ask, “Where’s my cell phone?”

“What?”

She took it!!

I bolted in the direction our pickpocket had exited, and searched desperately, to no avail.  To one side, I noticed a patrol car.

We had already seen numerous officers during our brief time in the city.  “Polizia Locale” officers were plentiful.  They were uniformed, had marked cars, carried guns.  We had actually earlier mused about why they didn’t say “City of Milan” on their uniforms.  I sprinted toward the car and described my plight to the officer who spoke just a little English.

“Oh, I understand.  But I am not a real police officer, I am only a local police officer,” he tried to explain to his incredulous visitor.  He proceeded to give me handwritten directions to a real police station about a mile away, where I could file a report.

He was unable to take a report himself.  Presumably, had I been quicker in my pursuit of our thief, he could have used his gun to shoot her.

In hindsight, it was such an obvious ruse.  The distractions, the use of their infants to cause one to look away rather than stare and get a good look at them, the worn poster placed right on top of the object to be stolen, the sudden departure, rather than going to the next table, and the friend to pass the phone to, before they no doubt departed in opposite directions.

I gotta tell you, we both felt pretty gullible.  Shades of scams to come, preying upon the susceptible elderly, which we apparently have become.

It put a damper on our remaining time there.  We were already dealing with a hotel that didn’t have functioning key-cards, so that each time you wanted to go back to your room, you had to ask for someone to let you in, usually requiring a significant wait. 

On our flight home, our first leg was delayed.  We sprinted through the airport in Brussels, sat frustrated in a Passport Control line, and missed our connection.  After being directed to wait through customs a second time, we finally found what seemed to be the last employee of our airline in the airport, and managed to get booked on a fight ridiculously early the next morning.  We waited with a crowd of similarly hapless travelers for a ride to the hotel they’d assigned us.  When we finally got there, the hotel check-in system was down, with apparently no human intervention possible to override their “improved” automation.  All 20-some stranded passengers waited perhaps two hours, in a hotel lobby which had plenty of empty rooms, before they finally directed us to a different hotel.   

Some four hours after missing our plane, we got into our room at about 1:00 am, and had to rise at 5:00 to catch the bus back for our new flight.  Naturally, when we finally got to London, our bags were missing.  They didn’t find them for another few days.  I’ve never been so grateful to be reunited with underwear.

The travel Gods are telling us that it’s time to go home.  We’ve got one more short trip to Cornwall this week, then Dawn and Ant will be here and we’ll all close up this cottage.  We fly back to the States on July 26, but will stop in Massachusetts to hang with Nancy’s family there for a couple of weeks.  So we’ll be in Phoenix by mid-August.

By the time we get there, I’ll be very ready to be home.  It’s been a wonderful, enlightening experience.  We have new, dear friends.  But I so miss you all.  See y’all soon.