Saturday, July 08, 2006

My Nightmare Journey
or, how an utterly terrible trip ended with a great conference

I had meant to blog about this long, long ago, but many things intervened, including the Encyclopedia proofing (which is now done) and writing and recording my Rhetoric/Composition course for Recorded Books (which is done), and recording all of Beowulf in OE (which is done), and finishing revising my paper from the conference I'm going to discuss (which is now done).

In April I had the worst travelling experience of a life that has included its fair share of awful travelling experiences (including the 8-hour plane ride that came on a day when the two-year-old developed the worst case of diaper rash in history and concluded with an additional hour wait in the parking lot of the airport as the rental car people tried to find the rental car that had been lost in said parking lot).

But my trip to Udine was particularly special.

Usually, I book with American Airlines, because we have a lot of frequent flier miles leftover from when my wife was travelling all the time. In the past I've upgraded to business class with miles. But this year, American has come up with this brilliant idea that they will charge you $250 for each leg of the trip just to use your own miles. The genius who came up with that idea should be pleased to know that we'll be using up all of our American miles and then dumping them. Morons. But I digress.

Because American Airlines now sucks even more than they used to, I decided to try the fabled SwissAir (which now has a new name). The ticket was actually the cheapest I could find, and I thought that as a courtesy to my hosts, I should take it. After all, SwissAir has a good reputation, and I'd get to fly through the Zurich airport, which is nicer than Gatwick.

So, I book a ride to the airport for 4 p.m., giving me plenty of time to get home from teaching classes, finish packing, etc. Unfortunately, at 4 a.m. the phone rings. It's the driver of the car, who is sitting outside my house wondering why there are no lights on. This call wakes up the child, scares the bejesus out of me, etc. I calmly explain the error. There is much apologizing.

Next day, bleary through all the classes, I come home to find a message on my answering machine that the flight has been delayed from 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. "That can't be right," I think, and call SwissAir. 45 minutes later, I finally speak to someone who says that yes, the flight has been delayed that long. But everything is rebooked and fine for when I get to Zurich. Ok, so I get dinner with my family and get to put the kids to bed.

Go to the airport. Flight is further delayed. Finally arrives at 2 and takes off at nearly 3. Get a whole row of seats to myself (obviously everyone with sense got away from this cursed flight) and would have been fine except for the old man who got confused in the dim light and sat on my feet. That wasn't so bad. Anybody could make a mistake. Except that he stayed there. For a while. I finally woke up enough to ask him what he was doing, and when I spoke to him, he nearly jumped out of his skin. I really don't understand what was going on: I mean, airplane seats are uncomfortable, but he was sitting on my feet and didn't notice.

Get to Zurich. Rushing to get to next plane. Stand in line for 40 minutes as stupid American college student tourists try to figure out what to do after losing boarding pass. Then they find it. SwissAir desk clerk informs me that Boston never re-booked me off of the 8:30 a.m. flight. "But I didn't arrive, on your plane until 1 p.m." I say. "That flight left hours ago." But I do see that there's another flight from Zurich to Venice at 5:30. "Can't put you on that one," says clerk. "It is now full." "Why didn't they put me on that one back in Boston?" "I don't know."

Now we have a problem. There is much to-ing and fro-ing. Finally, they come up with the brilliant solution of putting me on an Alitalia flight from Zurich to Rome and then another from Rome to Venice. I have a 1-hour connection at Fiumicino (and I have to go through immigration and customs). The flight to Venice gets there one hour before the last train of the night leaves for Udine. My stupid US cellphone doesn't work, so I find an internet kiosk and email my worried hosts at Udine and rush off.

Flight is, of course, late. Get to Fiumicino and get stuck behind a Japanese tour group at immigration. Sprint across airport because even though I've come in on Alitalia, I had to go through immigration at one end of the airport and the gate for Venice is at the other.

Completely drenched in sweat (and having been travelling for sixteen or seventeen hours at this point), I get to the gate, only to be told that the thing I have isn't a valid ticket. Get sent to a counter. Wait while clerks chat with each other. Woman closes window just as I get there, and, for one of the only times in my life, I raise my voice and pitch a small fit in a public place. Get on the plane as door is closing.

Get to Venice. Find bus to train station. Bus is 20 minutes late. Run through train station. All windows closed. Find automatic machine. Go through process of ordering ticket three times. Each time machine quits just before I can insert credit card or money. Sprint to train and get on anyway. Fall asleep. Get woken up by train inspector. Get lectured in Italian for not having a ticket. Get fined 25 Euro. Get to Udine. Have not eaten since 7 p.m., East Coast US time day before. Wander through town and find hotel. Get to room. Conference gift bag included gigantic cake/muffin thing with almonds in it. Eat entire cake. Don't feel so good.

But the conference itself was amazing. Entitled Leornungcraeft, the conference examined two seemingly disparate fields of knowledge in Old English studies: the study of medicine and the study of education (and it was linked up with manuscript study and a database also). At first glance these two areas did not have much to do with each other, and the organizers didn't necessarily think that they would. But what happened, maybe fortuitously, was that each paper seemed to build on the previous one and connect up the knowledge in really interesting ways. The best part, for me, was that I discovered, thanks to the work of Prof. F. E. Glaze, that medical aphorisms were transmitted unchanged for enormous periods of time and that they developed a detailed commentary tradition because they were not able to carry their exact meanings with them. It is a perfect test case for my meme theory and, from what I have been able to gather so far, it supports the theory very, very well.

Although I have recently published an article on Anglo-Saxon medicine (co-written with my friend, Prof. of Biology Barbara Brennessel), I would never have thought to look in the Latin aphorism tradition (A-S medical studies are focused elsewhere) for replication of memes and the interpretive problems created by that replication. It was really remarkable.

The rest of the conference, and the excursion to Aquilea (and having the Prof. Maila D'Aronco help me pick out a beautiful shirt-tie combination) and the hospitality and the intellectual excitement were all wonderful. Anglo-Saxon studies in Italy is (to me at least) the perfect combination of the philological and the literary and the historical, so I get along very well with the Italian Anglo-Saxonists and very much enjoy their company.

(The trip home was also, hellish, especially the brilliant tactic of rounding up very single person going to America in the Zurich international terminal and re-checking their passports and asking them where in the US they were staying. Although this was done by Swiss police, I am certain that the Department of Hopeless Stupidity [motto: Protecting Our Featherbed Jobs by Unnecessarily Inconveniencing You since 2001] must have been involved.)

But it was definitely a worthwhile trip, not only because I learned so much (and received valuable feedback on my paper) and got a great idea, and saw good friends and bought a really cool shirt and tie, but also because I now have this story, which, really, I am not making up.


Frank said...

Ugh! No wonder all the airlines are going under, with the way they (mis)treat their passengers. But at least you got a good conference out of it. Must say, though, that the notion of Italian Anglo-Saxonists baffles me. I mean, how would an Italian even get into Anglo-Saxons? And why care?

Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

How funny - I just finished editing a paper from that conference; someone from our university presented there as well.

Now I really can't wait for the proceedings to be published!

(Sorry to hear about the travel, as well. I've had my own unfortunate experiences, which, interestingly enough, were with American.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wow, Michael! That may beat the legendary spanking story hands down!

Naahm Deplume said...

Yes, American sucks something awful. Our tale of woe came when we tried to fly from Hayden Colo, to Philadelphia. Our experience was bad enough (never got to Philly, flew to DC and drove) and the bags got home a week later. Wrote to the SVPs for service and the G.C., but no response yet. Worst thing of all? My wife had her jewelry, including a very expensive bracelet, stolen from bags that American had for a week because they said they never had instructions to deliver them.

We won't fly American,ever, and I am trying to find out how I can donate my miles to charity and get a tax deduction. We are both attorneys and experienced travelers,and there was a lot about that experience that I would have laughed off, but the sheer, moronic imcompetence, the blatant risk-shifting to the consumer, and the fact that they routinely rifle bags in Chicago and Philly pisses me off royally.

Never, never, never fly American. And if you do, ship your bags and carry anything valuable.