A wise buddy of mine named Lance once said whilst we were stranded somewhere in the northern mountains of Spain, “It’s ok. The worse it gets the better a story it makes later.”
I thought about Lance on this recent trip to Italy as I stood in a long line of angry travelers at the Ravenna train station. Lance’s motto made the situation not only bearable, but it even helped it seem more interesting than infuriating. Why was everyone so upset? One little word: sciopero.
What is a sciopero? An Italian word I will never forget: STRIKE. Strikes in Italy, we learned from a side note in the Rick Steves Italy guide, are not only frequent but scheduled. That’s right. Scheduled Strikes. They typically last 24 hours between Saturday evening and Sunday evening and affect local and some regional train traffic. You can find these schedules on the internet. And it’s not only trains…many of the service industries of Italy schedule their strikes as well. We read online that the bus drivers and flight attendants would be getting their turns in the upcoming weeks.
I can’t fathom what purpose these limited, scheduled strikes serve. I think about that line from The Princess Bride:“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” What are they trying to prove? What do they gain? It just seemed like a splashy way of getting a day off to me.
That Sunday we were trying to get from Ravenna to Florence with a change in Bologna. We arrived with plenty of time for a 3pm train, but when we got there the board read CANCELLED. Ok. We got in line to learn about our options for making our connecting train. We waited and waited. People tried to surreptitiously cut in line, but those who were caught were harshly abused in Italian by people in the queue, not that it made a difference. When we finally got to the man behind the window, the language barrier made things tricky. We eventually understood that we could change our connecting ticket in Bologna and just take the next train 2 hours later. Ok, well, I like reading books, so 2 hours isn’t the end of the world. We camped out for that time in the grass in front of the station. I should have known that wasn’t the end of it. 2 hours later, same thing: cancelled train, long lines, people cutting, Italians yelling (One person even threw a telephone at the ticket window he was so mad!). This time, however, the man behind the window looked at our tickets again and said, “Tomorrow. You go tomorrow.”
The problem was this wasn’t an option. We had a non-refundable AirBnB reservation in Florence. I had sent the owner an email saying we would be late, but I knew cancelling was not possible. Be Creative, I thought. I started listening around me. Did I just hear American voices say, “Taxi to Bologna”? Time to whip out the small talk.
It turned out the couple behind us were in an even bigger pickle. They were trying to catch an overnight train to Germany from Bologna that night. They really had no choice to wait to the next day. They weighed their options and it seemed like taxi was the best bet, but it would cost ~100 euro. I waited, and was rewarded. “Would you be interested in splitting the cab?” Heck yes!
As my Dad once told me, life costs money. This seems inane, but it has profound depth. A little quick thinking and bit more money got us out of a nasty scrape, and we were the better for it. Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Of course, but it’s just a fact of life that–pardon the phrase–sh$t happens, and sometimes it takes your money. The trick is to accept it, be slow to anger, and be creative with your options. You might just be able to save some money, meet some nice people, and sleep in the place you intended to sleep*. And hey, for some perspective, we were in frickin’ Florence.
*On a side note, a warning to AirBnB fans: I wish we had had reservations at a hotel. For starters, the address given was incomplete. Florence has separate commercial and residential addresses, so 70 Via Del’Angelo in red is way down the street from its blue counterpart. When we got to the right place, the correct name was not on the door buzzer as promised. This didn’t matter because no one was home. We had to find wifi to make several calls and send several emails before connecting with the owner, who couldn’t show up until 11pm. Then, it turned out our AirBnB host was so merciless as to charge us 20 euro for being late even though I had sent her an email explaining how the sciopero was completely beyond our control. Any hotel would have been understanding. This gal also went on to take our sheets and dishes before we were done using them on the last day. She also responded to my honest review by calling me a liar and saying she hoped that when my husband finally realized what he married that I would not return to Florence on my divorcee trip. Real nice. Is this a good story, Lance? I’m not so sure. I’m just glad I get to warn all of you.