I am, over and over, glad that we as a family can keep a cool head in the most stressful of situations. We don’t complain, we don’t whine, we just keep a level head and find the best possible path forward. Getting delayed in Frankfurt would have been terrible with small (or easily bored) children.
That said, if I could go back in time one day, I would tell past self to jump out of the car and shout “that’s the wrong hose!”
Let me start from the beginning. We’re driving across Italy. Yesterday we started in Montreux and got to Turin (after taking a wrong turn). This morning we started in Turin and drove toward Genua, Pisa, and finally to Florance.
In the morning, we stopped in a cute pastry shop down the road. This was fun because the shopkeeper put up with our mangling of Italian pronounciation, and even helped us out a bit.
The road to Genua was uneventful – we slowly left the alps into the foothills into the coast up to the mediterrenean, and drove down the coast to Genova. (Genova is generally translated as Genua – it’s very confusing). We managed to get through the 2 hour drive without even stopping.
Genua (Genova in Italian – it’s interesting to see how different our English spelling of their cities is from their cities, for example Florence/Firenze) is a major shipping port for the Mediterranean. It’s where a lot of cruise ships set out, as well as at least one sailing ship.
Arriving at Genua we stopped for lunch, as it was around 1:00. Genua is, for some reason, built in layers, in a somewhat Bladerunner-esque way. Entire roads and building exist underneath distinct roads and buildings built over them.
We stopped for pizza, of course. Dad and Kayla were disappointed because there were no pesto donuts (or whatever, I’m not really a pesto person). I was fine with my spicy salami pizza (actually, half the pizza had been smooshed into a ball of mush, but other than that it was okay).
We walked down to the bridge and took the elevator to the upper layer to retrieve our car. Fortunately we hadn’t been ticketed, even though we were almost 30 minutes late.
The ride to Pisa was uneventful, if beautiful. We were driving down the coast where the Appenine mountains hit the Mediterranean. Here the Appenines folded into alternating mountains and valleys, with tunnels through the mountains and a different town in each valley.
The plan had been to stop in Pisa and spend and hour or so looking at the tower, but our delay in Genova meant we only had time for a few pictures. I had expected Pisa to be a large city, but it was not at all. It seemed almost like a shanty town built up around the tower. That, and there were street peddlers peddling various “real goods,” like “authentic” purses and Ray-Bans.
I’m sure they authentically said “Ray-Ban” on them, other than that I don’t know. But with some brands, the only important thing is the name on them, so maybe that’s okay (speaking as a pilot, some sunglasses are definitely better than others, but I’m not sure that’s true of purses).
The scene was oddly racially divided. Every shopkeeper, wait staff, tour guide, door holder, concierge, was white (or, non-black-skinned: I’m terrible at determining race). On the other hand, every street vendor was black. Not even in Austin (one of the worst in the U.S., I’m told) do we have this kind of racial disparity.
I’m assuming it’s because all the migrants from North Africa come to Italy.
Either way, we waded through the sunglass salesmen to the leaning tower. It was oddly unimpressive. I had expected it to be tall, standing above the terrain and buildings around it. Perhaps postcard pictures are just cleverly framed to give that impression.
Instead, it was hidden behind a much more impressive cathederal-dome-like building.
Ten points if you can spot the leaning tower.
The cathederal and the tower are from, like, a thousand years ago, and they’re impeccably preserved. Even the lawn is an impeccable green, better than most putting greens I would suspect.
We got the canonical tourist photo, of course. It’s interesting to see how some people are taking pictures of themselves pushing it over and some are getting pictures of themselves holding it up.
After the tower, we all piled back into the car to head out of town. We stopped for gas, the first time I’ve gotten gas in another country (or, been in a car that stopped for gas in another country).
So, a big milestone. Saw the leaning tower of Pisa, put gasoline in a car. We should make patches.
The very astute may remember that in Europe, diesel engines are very common. Our rental car had one, for example.
Wait. Or did we put diesel in the gas tank?
If you guessed green was diesel, that would be the American in you. We guessed green as well. From the fact that I’ve spent several sentences and a picture on the topic of getting gas in Europe, you can guess what happened.
A station attendant ran up to us as we finished filling the tank, asking why did we just put benzene (gasoline) in a diesel tank?
The flurry of activity started. Avis needed to be called, a tow truck acquired and a new rental obtained. The car had to be pushed out from the pump to a parking spot, since cars were starting to line up behind us into traffic on the street. Could we siphon out the gasoline, and replace it with diesel? No, the attendants either didn’t have a hose or didn’t want to help us. They motioned for us to clear the pump.
Dad flipped through the rental paperwork for Avis’ number, and called them. Kayla, the kids, and I flipped through the manual, trying to figure out how to shift into neutral and disengage the parking brake without turning the engine on.
You see, the car was a newfangled push-button start, with an electronic shifter (and automatic transmission, also). Pushing the parking brake button didn’t disengage the brake. Even worse, the manual was in French. We couldn’t read it (middle school French apparently doesn’t cut it).
Dad called me over, he was having trouble telling the Avis rep our address. I called out the street name phonetically, which is perhaps the only time knowing the phonetic alphabet by heart has come in handy outside of aviation. He gave us an ETA of one hour for the tow truck.
Meanwhile, someone who spoke both French and English was able to partially translate the manual. Enough to tell us how to turn on the car without starting the engine (turns out, you push the start button without pushing the brake. This should have been more obvious. Then you wait a minute. Then you press the brake, and shift to neutral. If you drive a Renault Espace automatic, take note).
I jumped in the driver seat and everyone pushed the car over to the corner of the lot. Now it was time to wait for the tow truck, and for information on our replacement car.
And wait we did.
We stood around the car, laughing at our luck and watching the cars come and go. Thirty minutes passed.
We called the host of our next AirBnB. We were going to be late – if the tow truck came in 45 minutes, and then the rental car took another hour or so, we’d be there by 8:30 to 9:00 in the evening.
The tow truck was almost here, so we cleared the car and packed our bags to make moving into the new car quicker.
The sun started to hang lower in the sky.
Ryan got hungry, and had a granola bar. I thought of all the times I was hungry this trip and didn’t eat a granola bar – this is when that paid off.
Ellen sat in the front seat, and played hangman with Dad and Kayla. Jason and I sat on the back of car, counting cars passing us. I counted 138. It was hard, I almost fell asleep.The tow truck still wasn’t here. Dad called them, and got put on hold. With no place to charge our phones, battery life was becoming a concern.
There was a McDonalds visible just across the highway. Jason and I went to scout it out. The gas station was surrounded by high grass, which we did not want to walk through, but if we walked back along the street we might be able to make it. We came back and gathered the gang, I grabbed my shoulder bag and 70 euros cash, and set out.
We didn’t go more than a few hundred feet, down a fence and back, before the highway was blocked by high weeds up to the street. A girl behind the station wearing fishnets looked at us confused as we passed by her again.
The sun was setting. Once it set, the cars would no longer be able to see us along the street, and going to McDonalds would be impossible. Dad and I ran across to the roundabout to try to scout a path under the highway. A different girl, leaning on the roundabout’s guardrail, watched us from across the roundabout while she slowly slipped something off.
No path to the McDonalds. No tow truck. No new rental car. Sunset in an empty gas station parking lot. A third girl had appeared at the far end of the lot, and changed into something a little less comfortable (I assume if it were comfortable, she would’ve been wearing it already).
We got a call from Avis. There was another car available! It was at the airport, about a kilometer from where we were. All we had to do was get to it. We called the taxi company.
No response. We called again. And again.
They answered, we ordered a taxi.
None came. We were hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. Counting the cars had gotten boring, playing cards on a suitcase became difficult once the hordes of mosquitoes found us, and watching people trying to figure out the self-service gas pump while the hookers checked them out lost its luster.
Boredom began to set in. It was almost 9:00, we told our AirBnB host we wouldn’t make it tonight and we made a reservation at the local Hotel Gallelei.
The rental car place with our replacement car closed at 10. We couldn’t find a taxi, it closed without us. We called Avis again, asking about the tow truck, and they said it was on the way. We weren’t hopeful.
But at 11, it did come. We jumped with glee, and the bustle started again. Unloading the bags from the car, checking all the seat pockets, making sure it was ready for the tow truck operator to take the car.
He loaded it up and had Dad fill out some paperwork. Then he asked if we had a taxi, we said we were trying to call one. He asked where we were headed, we said the Hotel Gallelei. He said okay, just jump in the car and I’ll drive you there.
We paused in tired disbelief. Which car?
The one on the tow truck.
The operator got out and lowered the car bed. We loaded our bags into the back, which is tricky when the car is at an angle relative to the ground. Then Kayla, Jason, Ellen, and I got into the car and he raised the bed.
Driving on the back of a tow truck is every kind of strange. Every bump is amplified, every turn feels like you’re going to roll over. But we lived.
Finally, at around 1 in the morning, after 17 hours awake with 5 hours in a parking lot, we went to sleep in Pisa.