When in Rome

It has been a whirlwind 2013 and I wanted to put up a brief note to let anyone who is still watching that I am still here and hopefully there will be some content going up in the near future. Obviously for those hoping to find my ramblings about living in New York will find that while Rome was a vacation spot where we traveled to visit our families and meet friends, it is now home and New York has become our vacation spot to meet with old friends and catch up. It’s been only 6 months and we are still getting settled “back” into the routine of Rome after a decade away. Hopefully I can get back into sharing my observations as my now 5 and 2 years olds are making new friends and getting spoilt rotten by their nonni.

Pinocchio’s Whale and the Hi-Tech Parking Lot

I got back from Rome about a week ago and have been looking through my travel notes (yes, people still do that). Since I decided to enjoy my holidays away from the computer as much as possible I am just getting around to transferring some of these stories from paper to bytes.

The funny thing about Italy and Italians is their obsession with gadgets. Odd certainly for an ancient culture that still holds on passionately to quality of life over relentless innovation. And yet, despite their love affair with the latest hi-tech gadget (especially cell phones), the few times they attempt to implement technology on a larger and more practical scale the following occurs.

Imagine arriving at Rome’s Fiumicino airport after your first two-child (newborn and toddler) flight during which the toddler unexpectedly behaved the entire trip and the newborn discovered he hated flying the first seven hours of the eight hour flight. Mercifully my father-in-law has come to pick you up and things start to look up as he sweeps up the newborn in one arm and toddler in the other while you chug your first proper espresso on Italian soil after an almost 9 month absence. So what if it is drizzling outside? Three adults, two children, stroller and assorted luggage pile into the Nissan Micra (slightly larger than the new FIAT 500), which is the only size car capable of navigating the city center and parking on a dime. And just as we shut the car door the sky opens up and it starts to pour. That was close.

We pull up to the automated parking attendant to leave the lot and my father-in-law quickly sticks the parking receipt in the machine to pay. The machine chirps: “7 Euros please!”. My father-in-law inserts a 10 Euro bill only to hear the chirping voice again say, “No cash at this time. Only credit cards.” Fine. In goes the card. Silence. Again. Silence. Try another card. The first impatient honking is heard from behind. Another card and still silence. The voice suddenly chirps: “Please reinsert receipt!” As my father-in-law extends his arm towards the machine, the receipt, which is similar in flimsiness to the ones they give you in retail stores, is instantly soaked. At this point he pulls back into the lot to let other through. As we pull away we see the other two lanes are backed up with drivers stuck in the front fumbling with receipts and credit cards. Why, you must surely be asking, has my father-in-law put us in this situation instead of just waiting for us at the curb? Well, the airport has decided to eliminate curb side pick up except for taxis for arriving flights so you must park at the pay-to-park lot. Cha-ching!

We look around for a human being and I spot a sign that says (in English): “Cashier”. Good a human being. I grab the receipt from the dashboard and dash across the lot towards the sign. Thoroughly soaked I look around and notice two machines identical to the ones at the exit. What the… I walk up to the machine and comically attempt to stick the limp receipt into the slot (talk about feeling emasculated) successfully mushing it to bits and rendering (if possible) even more useless. I notice an intercom button. Nah. There is no way that there is a human being at the other end. This is Italy. Land of the beautiful, yet seldom-functioning, objects.

“Yes?” crackles a voice on the intercom.

“Agh!” I let out a small yelp of surprise. Someone is at the other end and answered immediately. I look around like in a spy movie and then slowly approach the intercom.

“Uhm… the machine at the exit is not, uhm, reading the, uhm, receipt because the rain soaked it. Uhm, what do I do now?”

“Sir, please try the other machine.”

“But the receipt is…”

“Sir, please try the other machine and if it still does not work call back.”

I actually did. I took the ball of sopping pulp that was the receipt and jammed it as best I could into the other machine. At the same time I pressed the intercom.

“Yes?”

“I just called and…”

“It didn’t work?!” the voice sounded surprised and rather annoyed.

“Uhm, no… not really.”

The voice sighed a very exasperated sigh and continued, “What is you name, Sir?”

I gave him my wife’s last name because if I attempted to tell them my very Anglo-Saxon last name we would have been there a while.

“Sir, go back to your car. Get in. Drive back to the exit. Get out of the car. Locate the intercom button. Press it. Give your last name. I will let you through.”

I did exactly as I was told for fear that any divergence would set our escape from the parking lot back a few more hours.

I pressed the intercom under the pouring rain and drew in a deep breath.

“Yes?”

“I am here at the exit.”

“Hello? I cannot hear you.”

Gulp.

“I am here at the exit.”

“Oh, it’s you.” The “Sir” had been dropped altogether. “Just a moment.”

A moment passed adding angst to what was now an experience that was lasting longer than our actual flight. Finally, the mechanical arm swung open and just like that the parking lot – like Monstro – spat us out.

When in Vienna… (Part II of Series)

Vienna is a breath of fresh air for parents – at least the jaded New York kind. Granted I only visited so I cannot speak as intelligently as a local would about the city. I can say that compared to New York and Rome (cities that I know like the back of my hand and which I can critique to a T), Vienna beats the pants off of them both as far as accessibility and child friendliness. There are plenty of mean old people in Vienna, but coming from New York I really am immune to those kinds of “stare downs” when walking around with my son. In Vienna we were out and about with three kids and a baby so we got a taste of big family life in the big city. Here are the things that I found in Vienna that I can only wish New York and Rome had:

1.  Cars actually stop and let pedestrians pass even when you are not on a cross walk (tram passengers are allowed to step of between stops if the tram is stopped at a light and cars must stop to let them get to the curb!).

2.  With a few exceptions for older vehicles transportation (trains, buses, trams/trolleys and subways) is at street level for easy stroller access and with plenty of space inside.

3.  Subway and train platforms have clean and working elevators – notice I use the plural form.

4.  Sidewalks (this is mainly versus Rome that has none or they are usually used for parking).

5.  Parks and playgrounds with functioning swings and slides everywhere.

It may not seem like much, but I’m used to a lot less.

So yes in a nutshell we enjoyed Vienna as parents. I had not been back since my niece was born almost six years ago and when my son was not around. As always your vision of the environment around you drastically changes when you become a parent. You notice things you never saw before and ignore (willingly or not) others that you used to look for before. The cousins were thrilled to be reunited and I was shocked at how my new niece only two weeks old was indifferent to the commotion. She slept through shrieking children running around the living room bumping into her carriage. Our first outing was to the city center and Stephansplatz. With so many street performers the kids were entertained for a full hour moving from jugglers to break dancers and other amazing acts. We continued to walk around and enjoy the pedestrian areas until dusk when we got home to a feast of sausages that only Germans and Austrians can make. So many variations, none of them kosher and all of them delicious.

The first thing you notice when walking the city center is that Vienna’s imperial past is visible everywhere and there is no doubt it once was the capital of Europe as well as the center of important musicians, artists and artistic movements (think Mozart, Strauss, Vienna Secession, Klimt, Schiele, Hundertwasser to name just a few). And yet, despite the imperial scale of its palaces, cathedrals, gardens and boulevards, there is something very quaint about it – something that makes it less intimidating than Paris or London. The pace is Mediterranean minus the inefficiencies of their Southern neighbors. It is also affordable. A quick comparison shows that a small Italian gelateria opened recently in my sister’s neighborhood in Vienna sells a cone and two scoops for 1 Euro for which you would pay 3 Euros in Rome. Transportation is cheaper than New York and is just as capillary (an much cleaner). We shipped a wooden Stokke high chair as a gift to my sister’s place while we were in Vienna and the Austrian post delivered it in two days for just 5 Euros. And on and on.

The next day we tackled the Prater. The amusement park itself is tiny compared to your local Six Flags, but it was an overcast day and not too busy so we had free reign to get the kids on all sorts of fun rides. I had been dreaming a return to the Schweizerhaus famous for its draft Budweiser beer (the real one) and crispy pork knuckles, but alas it was closed as they prepared it for the seasonal opening. It is worth the trip out to the Prater just for that meal, trust me. I settled instead for a Cordon Bleu schnitzel and a side of kartoffel salat (the best potato salad in the world) that was not too shabby given the touristy nature of the Prater (if you are ever in Vienna find Neubaugasse and ask for directions to the Schnitzelwirt for some off-the-beaten-track schnitzels – and keep in mind they are huge so bring your appetite). After stuffing ourselves with schnitzel and washing it all down with a radler (an Austrian shandy) we had to get the kids to fall asleep before whisking them off to catch the train back to the city center. Not satisfied with having eaten ourselves silly at the Prater we headed into Demel for a visit to the dessert Mecca of Vienna (the Hotel Sacher is another one although I will argue that the best sacher torte is made elsewhere in Vienna and I am keeping that one secret lest demand increases and supply grows scarce and expensive!).

Demel is a sweet tooth’s fantasy come true with its elegant yet decadent cakes and strudels as well as a coffee lover’s delight since other than Italians only Austrians are capable of brewing Arabica as it should be brewed (go to Julius Meinl if you don’t believe me). We then let the kids loose near the Rathaus (City Hall) where they scampered across the gardens and squares until they pleaded to catch a tram home with my three years old train obsessed nephew announcing each stop at the top of his lungs and telling everyone to get on board. It was absolutely adorable and drew those grumpy mean old lady stares I mentioned before which we all ignored.

The last day was spent mainly in one of the parks nearby on a surprisingly warm Spring-like day. The kids had fun chasing each other and using the swings and slides. We attempted to eat at a Heuriger (an Austrian wine tavern) in Sievering which is a little less touristy than Grinzing, but they too were closed in preparation for the Spring season. The trip was not a total bust because the kids thoroughly enjoyed commenting on everything that went by outside of the bus window. In the end I did get to eat the crispy knuckle at one of the local markets before taking off so that I could leave satisfied from a culinary point of view having scratched all my urges. We left Vienna happy that we had seen my sister and her kids as well as enjoying the city, albeit briefly, as parents.

When kids fly… (Part I of Series)

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to visit my sister and my newest niece in Vienna, Austria and then a few days in Rome, Italy to say hello to the folks and the in-laws. Surviving a long flight is always a challenge and despite stocking up on crayons, cars, books, videos, lots of patience and a seat in the middle there is nothing that will ward of a toddler’s boredom on a plane.

The outbound flight plan was to connect through Rome enroute to Vienna so that the return trip was a less painful direct flight from Rome to New York. Praying that there were no delays that would reduce our already minimal two-hour window in Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we survived the crush of people at JFK’s security checkpoint where apparently people are encouraged to trample families with small children and the elderly. Much like in a video game, the TSA staff gets points for ripping your child’s blankie from them and shoving them through the metal detector as you juggle your shoes, the stroller, the diaper bag, the Ziploc with the diaper cream, the laptop and the carry on we had packed to avoid inevitably losing any luggage when switching planes with different airlines in Rome. I was tempted to use my belt to temporarily lasso my son as my wife and I got dressed again after the metal detector found the iron in our stomach from the spinach salad we ate the night before. “This way!” was his battle cry and it never corresponded to the direction that we actually had to go. Luckily there were plenty of take offs and landings to keep him moderately entertained at the gate until we were mercifully allowed on board first along with all the really rich people. We found a spanking new A330 with seat back touch screens and camera views of what the pilots saw on takeoff/landing and what was below us throughout the flight. My son got bored after ten seconds and switched his and mine off – ever so thoughtful. Take off was into a strong head wind and the fearful silence in the cabin as we bumped along was pierced by my son’s delighted laughter. Soon after reaching cruising altitude and as the stench of airplane food overtook the cabin we took out our packed dinner that was met with shocked looks from our fellow passengers (emancipation always seems to evoke jealously from others, but I digress). When people started settling in to their routines and the lady next to me decided my shoulder was more comfortable than her pillow, a flight attendant showed up with a female passenger and indicated the two empty seats in front of us in the central row of four seats with both aisle seats taken. They then left and as if electrocuted Sleeping Beauty (more the former) bolted from her seat and settled in next to what turned out to be her husband occupying one of the aisle seats in front of us. At this point I was savoring the empty seat that was left next to me and the possibility to stretch out a bit, until the flight attendant came back with the passenger and her young daughter. The exchange went something like this:

Flight attendant: “Madam, I had promised these two seats to this woman and her daughter.”

Sleeping Beauty: “But this is my husband!”

Flight attendant: “I understand, but this little girl is sitting several rows from her mother and is very frightened. Do you mind moving back to your assigned seat.”

Sleeping Beauty: “But this is my husband!”

Flight attendant: “I am asking you ‘please’”.

Sleeping Beauty: “But this is my husband!”

Turning to the man sitting in the other aisle seat the flight attendant asked if he would not mind moving back one row to sit next to me leaving two empty seats for the mother and daughter.

S.O.B.: “No. This is my seat.”

Visibly taken aback by not one, but three inconsiderate schmucks, the flight attendant looked around for other solutions.

I offered that the daughter could sit next to us and the mother could take the aisle seat diagonal from her daughter, but the daughter clung tighter still to her mother’s leg (mental note: shave before talking to kids so as to appear less menacing?).

The mother said: “Some people do not know what it is like to have children…”

“Amen!” I said out loud raising my arm a bit like a reverend.

Sleeping Beauty actually turns around, looks us both over and says, “But this is my husband!”

Luckily a few other good Samaritans volunteered to play musical chairs and finally the mother and daughter were sitting side-by-side.

The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful other than my son falling asleep with only an hour left in the flight and having stripped his seat down to the aluminum frame.

The switch in Rome was surprisingly painless and we got to our gate for Vienna with an hour to spare before boarding. This, of course, gave my son an opportunity to display to the world what a toddler on one hour of sleep after an eight-hour overnight flight and with no afternoon nap the day before can do in an airport. I’m sure many of you have seen it or can imagine.

We reached Vienna after a brief one and a half hour flight and my son’s favorite uncle (my brother in-law) was waiting to take us home. We gladly released our overly excited kid into his arms and even endured a brief tantrum when he left us in the car to pay for parking and my son told us to get out and that he only wanted his uncle. My wife and I were very tempted to comply.

 

(Next Post in the Series: When in Vienna…)