Thursday, July 18, 2013

the ecksteins' long goodbye to italy

We knew it was going to be a long day. We were going from Lake Garda, Italy to Pontresina, Switzerland. Google Maps logs the distance between those two places at 145 miles and even suggests a driving route of 3 hours and 24 minutes. We expected our trip to take around eight hours. It was closer to nine. And, no, we are not total idiots.

We were up early, got the kids dressed, the car packed and were on our way out of Garda just after 630. We pulled up in front of the reception office at Hotel Poiano, I walked in, card key in hand, said hello to the clerk and said we would like to check out. "Now?" "Yes, if that's ok." "Can you come back after breakfast?" "We're not eating breakfast here, and we have a long day ahead of us (internal voice adding, "I'm not sure why any of this matters, or why it is your business")." "I suggest you come back in ten or fifteen minutes; will that work?" "Suggest?" "Our computer is not ready yet." "Oh, so you are really not suggesting anything; you are telling me that you will not be able to do anything for another ten or fifteen minutes, right?" "Ten or fifteen minutes, and all should be okay."

Twenty minutes later, we got checked out. I'm still not sure why the hotel computer was not usable before seven. I think the internal accounting software may have been closing out the books on the prior day. In any event, it was odd. Almost as odd was the clerk informing me that there was a city tax of one Euro per person per day and that tax had to be paid in cash. The city tax I find credible, but paid in cash? The city of Garda can't process electronic payments? Hotel Poiano lacks the ability to collect the money as part of its normal billing and then pay the city directly? Something fishy is going on, and I'm pretty certain it is not all kosher.

Out of Garda, we made our way west, and then north, headed to Tirano, a town on the Swiss border where we were to catch our train to Pontresina. Our plan was for me to drop Keri, the kids and the bags off at the Tirano train station, drive 25 miles west to Sondrio return the rental car, catch a train back to Tirano and then all head up together. As crazy as it seems, this may have been the best plan possible. Although Garda and Pontresina are under 150 miles apart, those miles have two important qualities -- they include an international border and a good forty miles of some pretty serious mountains.

The international border meant we would have to pay an additional $700 to drop off the car in Switzerland, so that was out. Indeed, the only place we could drop it off near this part of the border, we were told, was in Sondrio. And large mountains, it turns out, make for some pretty slow driving, particularly in the last stretch of road going into Tirano. Neither Keri nor Lauren threw up after navigating those mountain curves, so that was something.

With the Tirano train station plugged into the navigation system, all was going well. Late into the drive, things went slightly awry as our actual route and suggested route became so disparate that we were totally off the navigation system map. That ended up not being a big deal, though, as Keri had printed out directions and we knew we were on the right road and heading for the right cities on our way to Tirano. In fact, we made it by just after ten o'clock. I unloaded my passengers and baggage, put in the Hertz office in Sondrio into the navigation system and drove off. At that point, I hoped to drop off the car, catch the 1139 train back to Tirano and make the 1250 train to Pontresina.

I arrived in Sondrio on schedule, followed the navigation system's directions precisely. "You have arrived at your destination," the system said. Strange, I thought, I don't see a Hertz sign or office anywhere. In fact, this is a really residential area and all of these buildings seem to be apartments. I know I have on my reservation sheet a street address for the drop-off location: Sondrio Downtown Office, Via Don Guanella 30. Hmm. The navigation system has taken me to that street and that city, but there is no building with that number. I try Goggle Maps with the same information and have the same result.

I drive up and down the Via Don Guanella a few times, eventually seeing number 46 on one building and 20 on another. In between, I see a large nursing home complex. I walk in with my rental reservation, looking rather pathetic. I was slightly concerned that I was going to be admitted against my will. The clerk is befuddled. Fortunately, the office manager explains to me the problem. I'm in the wrong city. Excuse me? Yes, the manager tells me, the return location is actually in Montagna in Valtellina, a town right next to Sondrio. I see. So Hertz has set up a system where its Sondrio Downtown Office is not in Sondrio, let alone in downtown Sondrio. It has further created this office in a neighboring town on a street -- Via Don Guanello -- that also exists in Sondrio. To top it all off, it has told the navigation system in its car that there is a Hertz office in Sondrio at this non-existent location. Perfect.

I eventually made it to the Hertz office. I was ready to go over in excruciating detail my experience for the poor employee who was stuck working that day. Just as I was about to begin, the clerk muttered something to me in broken English. I had not a clue what he was saying. He typed into his phone and handed it to me. "I need to see the car." Sonofabitch. The only guy in this office did not speak English. I know he lives in Italy and all, but working for an international company that rents cars for a living -- most of those cars being rented to non-Italians -- I would think that a rudimentary understanding of the English language, to include such phrases as "I need to see the car" and the like, would be in order. (The author is pictured here with his smiling daughter on their train bound for Pontresina. In retrospect, I wish I had taken some photos of my misadventure in Italy. As it was, I was a bit too focused on other things at the time.)

After his visual inspection of the car, we walked back into the office and I asked where the train station was. He said it would be a moment, looked for some car keys, and then the phone rang. Ten minutes later, what was clearly not a business-related conversation ended, the clerk handed the keys to another person in the office who was kind enough to drive me to the train station (which was, in fact, in downtown Sondrio). I got there at 1143 which, I knew was four minutes after a train had left for Tirano. The next one was scheduled for 1222, arriving at 1250 -- which happened to be the exact same time as the Swiss train was leaving Tirano. Unless my 1222 train was several minutes early, I was was looking at the 140 train to Pontresina. I emailed Keri, who had been waiting with the kids and our bags since ten, telling her the bad news.

And so it was, we got on the 140 train, emotionally drained and physically tired from the early morning and long drive through the Italian Alps. We made it, though, and enjoyed two hours of some pretty spectacular scenery as we ascended up through the Bernina Pass and into Pontresina. I did not have an altimeter on me, but I imagine we must have gone up 6,000 feet in about fifteen miles.  And the scenery -- beautiful lakes, snow topped mountains, dramatic glaciers -- was incredible. Almost made the rest of the day worthwhile.

The good trend continued when we arrived in Pontresina, as the Hotel Walther sent a van to pick us (and our luggage up). When we checked in, we were given glasses of some outstanding juice concoction. And, best of all, we got to see the reason we are here -- our family -- my parents, aunt and uncle, cousins Jennifer and Katherine (and her newlywed husband, Dan). We also walked into the lounge where the hotel had out its afternoon cake service. I had a piece of the apple cake. Damn good. Minutes later, we saw on the stairs an offering of apples for hotel guests. Owen was most pleased. I think we are going to be ok.

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