salsa tartufata on the road

or Rome Fiumicino: the 7am departure story

salsatetc.jpg (152763 bytes)

bob's carry-on glassware [a full load] plus a few checked-baggage import items

Year 2000. Air France begins service from Philly. Having already accumulated nearly 90 thousand USAir/ways (name change midstream) miles since it began direct service to Rome in the 90s, bob decides to give Air France a trial run on their less convenient flight connecting through Paris and save 200 bucks for the Italian research funding agency ultimately paying the fare. bob is a notorious Eurotrash traveler, flying across the Atlantic with Euroclass frequency but financed by other people's money, which, if you think about it, also characterizes the Euroclass traveler. (bob leans left.) The downside of saving someone else's cash was the return trip. 7:05am departure from Fiumicino. (Rome.)

Ordinarily the vacant apartment address in EUR outside center city Rome where bob was staying would be ideal for a quick airport connection since it is maybe 15 minutes away from International Departures without traffic. And at 5am there is no traffic. Vacant apartments, of which there are many in Rome due to the strong rent control laws, can play a key role in the Eurotrash experience since real accommodations are probably the largest potential expense in short term temporary residence. But there can also be drawbacks, besides the lack of furniture. Top floor location (penthouse!) with no one walking on your ceiling and extra large terraces, but without AC or any active ventilation, it could be (and often was) rather uncomfortably hot (July, right under the roof). Large windows and glass doors to open for air flow but ... mosquitoes. And no screens and no stops to prevent slamming in the wind. Okay, it was the last night. Damn the mosquitoes (the city had been conducting massive insecticide warfare against them according to the paper, so maybe it would not be so bad) and let in some air.

But (lots of buts here)... no phone in the apartment. To call a taxi with. No problem. Just call in advance and reserve one (said one friend). bob makes the first call. Sure we accept reservations. When? Where? Telephone number? Exactly why I am trying to reserve in advance! Cell phone? Not yet. Sorry. The second big radio taxi company repeats the scene. The strategy seems logical to abandon. So what. bob can get up a little earlier and walk down and across the street to the old fashioned phone booth and call a taxi at 4:45am. Screw plan A, bob knows when to move on.

Fortunately the phone booth phone was actually working, itself a small miracle not because it was the nearest public phone within a half mile. Miracle since one morning a few weeks earlier on the way out bob spots a telephone company employee with a little truck actually cleaning the phone booth, not realizing that the phone was out of order. (bob checks these things.) bob politely informs him of this fact and he says he'll have it taken care of. And he did. Imagine that. (This is Italy, remember.)

However, to increase chances of success for plan B, bob decides to try the phone returning from the last pizza social encounter at 10:45pm before packing up, to make sure it is still working. And calls the third and last radio taxi number stored in his limited memory banks. Same routine. Up to the cell phone. (Everybody has them here.) Then bob says—what cell phone?!—I'm an American in Rome for a few months trying to get back to America. Consultation with a manager perhaps. Then the green light! Never give up on a good plan. Even when the Italian way of life seems to stack all odds against it. These little miracles that save Italy from itself.

Speaking of little miracles Air France never asked bob his seat preference at departure from Philly. bob never thought twice because ani had been doing the USAir/ways travel arrangements for years. Isle seat assignment at purchase time. Freedom to move at will with one less body in the near zone in economy seating. bob learns the French way is not the American way. Stuck in a middle seat for a night flight to Paris. And then learns at Fiumicino that apparently they don't do advance seat assignment. Face to face engagement just before putting ani on her convenient USAirways direct flight home. Not one to give up bob asks ani to call from the US for an isle seat. Which she does. And gets a seat assignment. Not isle. So bob goes to the web and emails customer service very politely explaining how he cannot remember the last time (before Air France) that he had to endure a non-isle seat. And that he had tried in person weeks before departure at Fiumicino with no success. And the stuff about taking the less convenient indirect flight to try them out and then not even being asked at Philly (bob's slipup from overpampering by ani perhaps but no need to explain that). And the important line in all capital SHOUTING letters to get someone's attention: "WHY SHOULD I EVER FLY AIR FRANCE AGAIN?"

The answer: Business Class.

After a clockwork taxi connection to Fiumicino in the deserted darkness of night and a little waiting around for the check-in to open, bob says nothing about the in-between seat to Paris, hoping to win the bigger battle for the Atlantic crossing seat, already given some hope by a prompt response to his e-mail roughly translating into "We'll see what we can do..." So he makes his move—ignoring the seat reservation ani had extracted from them by phone—"can I have an isle seat on the Paris-Philly flight?" And the answer was ... yes. Another success to add to the taxi story.

At Charles DeGaulle (airport), bob struggles to make the terminal transit F to C loaded with bottled consumables doubled in weight by last minute gifts from well-intentioned friends. A half liter cream of limoncello bought by bob in the new 24(?)hour supermarket under the Rome Stazioni Termini (main train station) produced by the Jubilee Year renovation, and 7 jars of 5 brands of salsa tartufata (mushroom truffle sauce) to start. Our first limoncello cream had been a surprise gift from donato the previous summer, and a big hit with friends when we spotted a special buy at the local PA State Store (state liquor monopoly) and distributed bottles at Christmas. And with us too. The salsa tartufata had also been a gift from a dear Algerian-Belgian woman friend Jamila returning from a wedding in Tuscany, complete with an in-house cooking demo of how to convert the stuff to an actual pasta sauce for fettuccine that finally hit the mark in the bob and ani thus far not so successful quest for the secret. Later ordered over the internet but at 15 bucks a pop plus shipping. So bob had to stock up while relatively cheap access was available. One jar was left from the casual Urbani find at an Autogrill cafeteria/minimarket on the road to Torino with Maurizio (where one was left as a small gift). Autogrill apparently has the national contract monopoly for the state highway system rest stops (lesser competitors have been noticed since then), and tempts travelers with upscale traditional Italian culinary products among other things. And brought to Rome Stazione Termini by Jubilee 2000 in direct competition with the State Train Chef Express cafeteria, greatly improving bob's late night solo dining experience. (And at that moment plotting with BurgerKing to flood the country with competition for the runaway growth of MacDonald's-Italy!)

While in the Torino suburbs, bob and ani do Valle d'Aosta, home of the famous stinky fontina valdaostana cheese. Rain and gloom dampen the spirits, and shut down the Mount Blanc (Monte Bianco) cable cars, but a terrific lunch is had in Aosta in a special restaurant (Ristorante Vecchia Aosta) with several melted fontina dishes. Followed by a dinner the next night of traditional pizzoccheri with some fresh fontina, and spinach and Swiss chard substituting the usual Savoi cabbage (cavolo verza). The way to Aosta (coincidentally the Pope's summer mountain retreat in exactly this period) takes us through the town of Ivrea, where bob spots a sign indicating it to be the home of the Savoi cabbage. Is this a food pilgrimage, or what?

Back in Rome, calling Milano for local Urbani truffle buying info then led to Franchi in Cola di Rienzo, a classy shopping street. And an easy subway ride from Termini to the Vatican stop at Via Ottaviano, no longer the Metro Line A end of the line thanks to Jubilee 2000 which pushed it on a few more stops. Where bob spots the Urbani target product in the window at Castroni along the way (via Ottaviano) before making it to Franchi. Noting the price, bob moves on to the original destination where he finds a fierce lunch crowd clustered in the corner where the Urbani products are inaccessible on a shelf behind the counter. Fortunately right next door is what seems to bob like the biggest Castroni in Rome, specializing in exotic food products from all over the world. But no Urbani truffle line. bob picks up some competing products and heads back to the first Castroni. To add to the 3 jars already grabbed at the supermarket across the street from the EUR apartment. Let's just say bob's hand luggage was loaded. Not to mention the lemon grappa from donato, the homemade limoncello from Gianpaolo's Zia Irene (Aunt "ee-RAY-nay") in Puglia, and 2 (large) bottles of his homebrewed beer and a large jar of chestnut spread thrown in for good measure. And those daily back exercises bob does so religiously at home? Suspended on the road.

So this was the big test. Would the lower back hold up? Crowd backup at the inter-terminal bus. A few minutes of waiting, then the big boarding push. bob makes it into the first bus. Not too bad. Finds his way to the gate. A few people sitting around. Not much action. Not even a sign for Philly. bob asks. Right gate. The television screen only says "Boarding at 9:50." bob's watch seems past that but recent evidence leads him to suspect it might be off by a few minutes. But which way? bob waits patiently. 5 minutes later bob asks if they are boarding, thinking maybe he is late and missed it...? Yes, they are boarding, although no one seems to be. bob's isle seat boarding pass goes into the boarding pass card reader and ... a glitch. A switch seems to occur. Taking back that isle seat...? ... no ... yes.

Window seat. Business class.

I think Air France made their point. bob smiles, easily bought out by global capitalism. It was a good ride.

And when you need a radio taxi in Rome, call 88177 (Radiotaxi Cosmos). Tell them dr bob sent you.


Around this same time bob was awarded Silver Preferred Frequent Flyer status from USAirways for having accidentally made too many trips to Rome in some undisclosed time period (probably somewhere in the fine print). And made the mistake of regarding the bundle of stuff sent with this news as just more junk mail. In spring 2001 they terminated his status (not enough new flights by then) until a bob-and-ani May Brussels trip to visit Jamila and Pascale put him back over the mileage-time minimum for another extended period. Another bundle of stuff arrives but this time bob looks at the contents a bit more carefully. Free upgrades! And 40 buck purchasable upgrades after the free ones are gone. The first packet of upgrades had expired by this time of course. Drat. And how much chance is there in finding a vacant upper class seat in peak travel time? But just to test out the situation, bob calls about the upgrade for the summer trip to Rome and gets put on a waiting list. Probably no chance of actually getting the upgrade, but the certificate goes along for the ride just in case. Departure time. Flight seems full. bob gets comfortable in his economy class isle seat. Then the upgrade dialog with a flight attendant comes out of the blue. Upgrade certificate? Sure. One seat left in Envoy Class. And a pleasant night flight with food "designed" by Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin.

Ani brings the extra upgrade coupon for bob's return flight, now that it was a real possibility. Unfortunately bob did not read the coupon page carefully enough, and the second coupon that he asked be brought is only for domestic flights! As the check-in person informs him politely. bob tries the "isn't there a solution to this problem?" approach, suggesting the possibility of buying an upgrade certificate, but this has to be done ahead of time is the response. And the US office that handles this stuff is fast asleep at this hour (9am Rome time = 3am EST). The manager suggests that maybe they can subtract mileage for the upgrade and goes over to the airline desk and talks for quite a while. Then returns saying she tried her best but there was nothing they could do... Famous last words. Awaiting boarding at the new island terminal C joined to the main terminals A and B by a little elevated rail shuttle, all very new and modern, bob hears his name called to report to the departure gate. Somehow the mileage-upgrade exchange went through anyway. Envoy class again!

Of course all this business class travel has its down side. The upgrade possibility is a Cinderella-goes-to-the-ball type gift that will expire sooner or later. And those electronically adjustable seats with the leg rests did not quite adjust to bob's legs for some reason, making the approximately 10 hour day flight still a bit tedious, relieved only by the abundant choice of movies and music and TV on the hand-remote-driven personal entertainment center that economy class does not get. And more good food. Although bob minimizes the wine-with-dinner option as a smart traveler choice and drinks mostly bottled water, no fizz. What a Puritan.


stotr.htm: 9-aug-2000 [what, ME cook? 1984 dr bob enterprises]