Travel Horror #3 – 1st day in Sicily

I’m not sure if it beats the Hong Kong typhoon or the Caribbean cruise ship near ban, but arriving in Sicily on the first day of my European tour last September was pretty horrendous.

I was to meet my old uni friend Ray – an adventurous and well-organised traveller – at Catania airport.  I would come from a long, 2-leg flight from Melbourne via Dubai at 12 noon; he’d arrive from somewhere in Central America via Rome on a flight due in shortly thereafter.  How clever were we – well, Ray mostly – to arrange that synchronicity?

I had decided not to go for mobile roaming or local SIM cards but to rely on public wifi in airports, hotels, cafes and so on.   This is how I’d done it on recent past overseas trips but according to Rob, the IT sage and tech guru who built and maintains my website, that’s the digital equivalent of swimming naked in a lake full of piranhas.  So despite having not previously been attacked by any digital predators and mindful that my travel agent agreed with Rob, I took their advice and downloaded a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to my smart Apple devices.  A VPN provides security when you’re connected to public unsecured networks.   (I chose Nord, which is very good and costs $20 a month.)

The system worked (mostly) well EXCEPT the one time I really needed it which was the day I arrived in Catania in Sicily.  I collected my baggage easily enough and figured if for some reason I missed seeing Ray come through the arrivals door I would be able to connect with him using WhatsApp.  We’d used it once before a few years ago when we were both in the Middle East – Jordan, Lebanon and Israel (or Palestine, as Ray prefers to think of it) – so if it worked there, OF COURSE it would work in Italy, right?

Wrong.  The iPhone wouldn’t connect to the airport wifi.  Maybe the iPad would work better.  I dived into my backpack and … couldn’t find it.  I looked again.  No luck.  The terminal being very small and crowded there was nowhere to sit down and tip everything out, so I went outside to find a spot to do that.  It had to be there!  How many times had I found the damn black thing lurking in the black depths of my black backpack?  But not this time.  I had another more frantic go but a horrified awareness began to dawn on me that I must have left it on the plane.  What to do?  I couldn’t look up Ray’s flight number and I didn’t even know the name of the hotel he’d booked us into downtown; all that info was in emails saved on my devices. 

I supposed I should try the Lost Property office, if there was one.  I had no great hopes for that:  years earlier I had failed to retrieve my brand-new Bose noise-cancelling headphones from my business-class berth on a Scandinavian Airlines flight, even though I managed to speak to airline staff while the plane was still on the runway.  No go, they said.  Too bad, your responsibility.  When I left a Kindle on a flight to Santiago in Chile a year or so later I didn’t even bother to ask the airline about it; I just switched to the Kindle app on my laptop.   

But I had nothing better to do right now, did I?  But what if I missed Ray coming through the door while off on a probably futile quest?  What indeed if I’d already missed him while I was outside?  It was hot and crowded and I was near despair. 

Eventually, noting on the arrivals screen that there were no recent flights in from Rome and none due in the immediate future, I stopped dithering and went looking for the Lost Property office. 

This involved stopping and pestering several folks who wore uniforms or insignia or even just hi-viz, and who were in no hurry to drop what they were doing and help me.  I wasn’t even sure anyone had understood me and I spent long agonized minutes waiting for some kind of response.  Eventually, after being waved outside, then inside, then back outside again, a uniformed woman directed me to a dingy office up the back of the terminal and around a gloomy corner.  It was a glassed-off space behind a wall.  Two exasperated, Scandi-accented young men were standing in front of it apparently not making any progress with two Alitalia staffers behind it.  ‘We were told to come and pick up our stuff today, and now these fellows say they don’t know anything about it’, they explained.   As I despondently awaited my turn, faint hope growing fainter by the minute, my gaze strayed to the desk behind the glass.  There lay an iPad – a black iPad just like mine.  And yes, it was mine!!  Oh bliss, oh joy!  I had to go through a certain rigmarole to get it – show passport, boarding pass and so on – but soon I had the coveted object back in my possession. 

Not that it did any better at connecting to wifi.  Being reunited with my iPad had restored my will to live but it didn’t solve the other immediate problem of trying to communicate with Ray. 

I resumed my attempts to activate roaming or somehow get online.   These included going upstairs to a scuzzy MacDonalds and buying a scuzzy juice from the scuzzy fridge to see if their wifi would be more co-operative.  It wasn’t.  Eventually, after what was now nearly four hours of psychological torment, I bought a local SIM card from a booth staffed by a young girl with astonishingly long polished fingernails who nevertheless was able to winkle out the old SIM and winkle in the new.  Bingo!  Down came a series of messages from Ray explaining that his flight from Rome had been delayed for four hours by a strike and advising new flight details and ETA, and asking repeatedly had I got his messages and why hadn’t I replied?   I checked the arrivals screen … there was a flight due in from Rome round about now!  I’ve never been so relieved in all my life, except perhaps when he actually came through the arrivals door.

We went off to find the car rental people, and that was a job in itself as the only instruction they’d given him as to their location was ‘inside terminal’.  They weren’t.  Nor were they visible from anywhere outside the terminal.  We had to ask three different lots of official-looking blokes where they were.  Eventually we found them, way over there, but just locating the joint had taken 30 minutes.  Then there was another long wait while they went off to get a bigger car, because Ray’s brother and his wife were to join us on the road trip.   Then there was another long wait for one of the staff to come along to inspect and note pre-existing damage, of which there was quite a lot and of which I took meticulous photos.  

By now it was about 6pm, 6 hours since I landed at the airport.  And then the fun started.   Even with the GPS and the voice guide it took us an hour to cover the 7km between the airport and our little hotel in the heart of the old city.  Siri – speaking in broad Aussie and hideously mangling the Italian place names – took us up blocked-off lanes, onto pedestrian malls and into blind alleys back up which we then had to reverse.  She was evidently unaware of the Catanian practice of closing off streets at night to set up outdoor eating areas.  It was just ghastly.  I began to think we’d never get there, literally. 

When we did think we might have found it, Ray had to prop the car in a busy thoroughfare while I hopped out to see if the Hotel Gresi’s location on the map matched the one on the GPS phone screen.  Aha!  A sign above this door flush with the street says, in faint print, ‘Hotel Gresi’.  Again aha!  But how to get in?  The double doors were shut.  I knocked, I shouted.  Nothing.  Eventually, a woman across the street came partway across the street and pointed to a contraption mounted on the door frame.  A buzzer – hard to see in the darkening twilight.  I pressed it.  An Italian voice answered.  I gave Ray’s name, and said we had arrived and where might we park the car?  In [the street where Ray was], apparently.  I advised the disembodied voice that I’d have to go back to ‘my husband’ in the car and wait while he parked whereafter we would both return to the hotel having schlepped our heavy bags about 200m over the cobbles to the front door.

We get there, we buzz again, the doors open, we go into a small lobby at the end of which is a tiny lift next to a sign pointing up to Reception.  Hot and bothered and sweaty and puffing we take the lift to the first floor and announce our arrival to the glum-looking padrone behind the desk and a younger man I presume was his son.  He’s just as glum-looking and, unusually for Italians, apparently not disposed to issue a friendly welcome or offer help with our bags.  They hand us huge door keys on knobby tags.  Then it’s more puffing and sweating and panting as we struggle up a narrow flight of stairs, bumping our luggage behind us, to our rooms on the floor above.   

It was about 7.30 and dark by then, still warm and humid, but at least the Hotel Gresi had aircon, and a respectable amount of freshening up was possible.  It was also in that same part of the old town where the cafes, bars and trattorias spilled out onto the streets at night, thwarting the progress of car-borne tourists but allowing unimpeded access to strollers, whose blessed ranks we now joined.  I had only slept for 6 of the previous 36 hours but no way was I going to miss the payoff – the whole reason I came here, dammit!   A short amble through nearby narrow lanes taking in the vibrant nocturnal street life, a nice little outdoor trattoria strung with lights amid the sun-warmed ochre-hued stone buildings, a cold beer, a bowl of pasta and a couple of decent local reds and ecco!la dolce vita at last. 

Then sleep, blissful sleep.  Ray slept well too, he informed me, as yet untroubled by the knowledge that our hire car had acquired a parking fine.  That came later.  As did the adventure of collecting his brother John and sister-in-law Nannine who you will recall were to join us on our Sicilian jaunt.  The plan had been for Ray to meet them at the ferry from Malta the day we all arrived, but the sheer difficulty of driving in and through old Catania (and new Catania for that matter) put the kybosh and that and he texted them to take a taxi to their (nearby-ish) hotel from whence we would pick them up in the morning. 

Did that pan out alright, and was that the end of our logistical Sicilian difficulties?  No sirree, but that’s another story….

Nannine, Ray, John, me.