Atsa Matta For You!

            Those of you of Italian heritage may take offense at the title of this entry, but given the tremendously bad treatment I received by the continental boot dwellers who appropriately smell like feet, I’m not much inclined to care. In any event, it has been my experience that all personages of Italian descent have an overriding biological imperative to identify themselves as such at every opportunity, not matter how inappropriate, and no one has yet done so here. For example, “Hey, sorry I ran over your foot! It’s something I would know about though because I’m Italian”. I always thought the Jersey sub-species was the worst of the lot, that is until I got to sunny Taranto; a poorly named city no one heard of except to confuse with Toronto, and located on the inner heel.

            Similar in origin to my last travel story, this one also began with Dick Betz in need of a rube and me fitting the bill quite nicely. My successful trip to Geilenkirchen saddled me with the distinction of being the Amherst AMES guy; a distinction I’m sure no one else coveted. The result was that I found myself bee-bopping around the country and world 75% of the time addressing problems with poorly documented pieces of crap. In the time since that first trip Dick managed to first cultivate allies in Queens to get technical assistance and then proceeded to enrage and alienate them with unreasonable requests to such a degree that our whole department was forbidden at the vice-presidential level from even asking these delicate geniuses a question without receiving express written permission.

            This particular trip began with me being not so much asked, but informed.

 

“Hey, I just talked to Tim and he said you were going to go to Italy for me.”

 

“What? When? What’s the deal?”

 

“Oh, I think next week. We delivered a new system there a year ago and the thing hasn’t been able to even boot up. Been banging on it ever since with no luck, so they bought a trip to have you come fix it.”

 

“So wait, it never worked?”

 

“Yeah. They are plenty mad about it too. Better book a one way ticket!”

 

            This was just typical. Piss off the customer for a good long time until they threaten legal action, then fill them with unreasonable expectations and send me in and hope for the best. Fortune had smiled on me before this, so my cockitude remained unblemished. I’d show these greasy Guido’s how it’s done!

            I flew into Bari from Rome on a hot little turbo prop with no environmental control and people who were morally opposed to bathing and then had to fight for my baggage in a claim center the size of my dining room. It was decidedly unpleasant. The rental car agency stayed true to continental tradition of giving the American asshole the weirdest piece of shit car in inventory that will guarantee the most difficult drive possible. I ended up in this mini-van looking thing with a standard transmission that was located atop the dashboard, necessitating an uncomfortable lurch forward every time I needed to shift.

            Looking down at the directions my customer sent, one would expect and exceptionally easy commute to the hotel. Verbatim, “Take road to Taranto and keep going on it. You pass bridge and 2 castle looking things and Grand Hotel Delfino on the left by the sea.” Given that one would expect this place to be max 5 or 10 minutes away, not 100 miles in a completely different city. To make matters more exciting upon entering the highway, though no warning was posted, I found myself in a self serve toll plaza and forced to take a ticket. I had not yet changed any money over and wondered what I was going to do on the other end.

            The highway to Taranto was uneventful and during the ride I literally passed hundreds of bridges and “castle looking things”. The highway suddenly ended, branching off in 6 directions. At the toll plaza I had my only piece of good luck in the fact that I located some Euros in my laptop bag from a previous trip. It was just enough to cover. For lack of better options, I picked the fork that looked most right; why I don’t know, it just did, and was really, really wrong. Two hours later I was completely lost in the Italian countryside with no inclination where I came from or where I was going. The first two gas stations I stopped at were useless. No one spoke any English or had any knowledge of there being a Grand Hotel Delfino or Taranto for that matter.

            Finally the third one I stopped at was a lucky break. I launched into my spiel to the vacuous looking counter girl and received the same disinterested lack of comprehension I was accustomed to when an old man came out of the back. As it turns out, he was a field engineer himself back in the day and ran into the same situations. He patiently drew me a map to the hotel. I misinterpreted the map and a half hour later returned full circle to the same establishment where he happily corrected me.

            I was tired, hungry and pissed when I pulled into the tiny parking lot in front of the hotel. As I brought along tools and manuals and whatnot, it was a struggle getting my gear through the front door. The concierge watched my frustrated effort with a bemused expression, never stirring from his perch a mere 5 feet away holding down the podium with his chin cradled in the palm of his hand. This bastard was stepping on my last nerve and he hadn’t even said anything yet. I rolled up to him and after a moment of staring each other down; he cool as a cucumber and I flushed with sweltering rage. He said something in Italian, to which I gave my best American confused “huh?” To which he rolled his eyes and said, “Can I a help you?” Yes, they really do put that “a” in there.

            The check in process was as infuriating as the drive up. Although the place was billed as a 5 star joint with the luxurious trappings to match, their organizational system was right out of the 19th century and he spent a good half hour looking for the ratty piece of paper my reservation was on. To his obvious dismay, he found it, and I got the impression from his looking me up and down in my comfortable travel clothes that he preferred his guests to be in top hat and tails with a monocle thrown in for good measure. I inquired about food and he tersely indicated a room service menu could be found in the room. Being a 5 star establishment, I expected to be able to exchange money there as I had at every other foreign hotel (aside from the Geilenkirchen pub). He was further irritated by the request and after looking half assed through a drawer or two said he didn’t have any Euros.

            The smarmy fuck finally handed over my key, which was attached inextricably for some reason to a solid piece of brass the size of a door knob. The whole deal weighed at least 8 lbs and threatened to take my loose fitting shorts right down when placed in my pocket. Any larger and it could have passed as the key to the loo in a Kentucky gas station.

 

“Do you have a copy of this key that isn’t attached to one of these things?”

 

Long sputter of Italian, some of which I was sure was cursing, “Eh. No.”

 

            He resumed his bored stance as I struggled with my bags to the elevator while holding up my shorts against the oppressive weight of the big brass knocker. When I got to the room I decided it was time to make some calls. First order of business was to get some food. The promised menu did not exist but I found the extension to the kitchen. I called up, explained I didn’t know Italian and wanted to know what they served. This initiated a long string of loud arguing between the douche on the phone and the kitchen staff. After listening to these greaseballs yell in Italian at each other for a good 10 minutes, they finally just hung up the phone. I called back and only got an exact repeat of the same; a whole lot of yelling and no damn food. Looks like I was going to have to hit the streets to find some chow.

            My second call was to figure out how to get to work the next day. After the spectacular directions to the hotel I just didn’t feel comfortable that “go from hotel down the road to Grottaglie to the base and come inside” was as straightforward was one would think given the elegant simplicity of the language. I had the number to the shop I would be visiting and thought for certain that I had accidentally called the kitchen again. Puzzled doofus answering followed by loud arguing in the background and finally an unceremonious hang up. What the hell? I mean they knew I was coming the next day, so should they really be all that surprised that someone was calling and speaking English? Fed up I pulled up the number for the commander of the whole shebang – some Colonel or another and actually managed to get him on the phone. He gave me serviceable directions at least and I felt more comfortable for the next day.

            Before hitting the streets I decided to freshen up and found I was out of toothpaste. No big deal I thought, how hard should it be to get a tube of toothpaste? I approached lovable Luigi at the front desk again in the hopes of getting satisfaction in at least one area. Do you have any cash yet I can exchange? Maybe tomorrow, who knows? Is there a bank where I can do this? Yes, but a all closed for the day. Does the hotel have toothpaste? No, you gotta go a to the store? Finally, can I leave this giant key thing with him and pick it up when I came back as it had the uncomfortable tendency to clang against my balls as I walked?  No a, there’s a no a guarantee and a the liability blah blah blah. This asshole was just one big pile of go fuck yourself Charlie. I began to miss the Germans.

            It was hot as hell in Taranto that summer; Europe in general undergoing the worst heat wave in decades, and I moseyed around town sweating looking for food and toothpaste. The first piece of good news I found was that only tiny mom and pop groceries existed (that I was aware of at the time) and none of these took credit cards nor American money. After hitting up about 8 different places I decided to concentrate on dinner. I was close to the hotel and rather than look for a restaurant, I decided to try the one in the hotel that the concierge neglected to mention, but was advertised in the lobby.

            I entered the joint; pretty classy looking and was greeted by a flamboyantly enthusiastic maître d. “Bonjourno!” I replied with a good old American ‘hiya’ after which his facial expression transmuted from delight to bitter rage fueled disgust. Wordlessly he led me to a table facing the window, which I initially thought was nice until the sun set just a fraction more leaving me staring right into it slowly cooking as I ate. The menu for such a swanky place was decidedly underwhelming. Spaghetti and meat balls, steak, hamburger, chicken nuggets; it read like the children’s menu at Denny’s. I asked the waiter what there was to drink and he seemed thoroughly annoyed with my brash imposition.

 

“We gotta water…. Coke… I dunno.”

 

“You got beer?”

 

“Harrumph… Yes, fine, we got a beer.”

 

            He brought me one without asking further questions regarding brand or whatnot. I thought it was all they had. I decided to go with the burger, disappointed as I was hoping for something authentic like a frutti di Mari or osso bucco or something. Apparently the much vaunted reputation Italy had for food and drink was a carefully market myth created by the powers behind Olive Garden; German’s do doubt. The burger was overcooked and genuinely sucked. No wonder I was the only one in there!

            The following day I made my way to base and was brought to the commander in charge of the facility I was visiting; the subordinate to the guy who gave me the directions. The guy looked EXACTLY like James Gandolfini’s character in ‘The Last Castle’. I almost had to laugh as I had seen the movie just the week before. He expressed first irritation that I had called his boss for something as mundane as directions, and then happiness that I had come. He joked that he was going to keep me there until the system was fixed and I laughed. He replied in full seriousness that he was not joking and I was forced to take him at his word. He took me to the lab where I met Caputo and Fersini; both of whom now spoke great English leaving me wondering if it had been them on the phone the day previous.

            I came into the lab, took one look at the system and announced they had set the key radiofrequency generating modules up backwards which is why it didn’t work. This made me considerably more comfortable about leaving on time as I wanted to spend as little of my summer in this unfriendly town as possible. I will, however, categorize that by saying the guys on the base were actually very nice even after I pointed out what could only pass for incompetence in missing such an obvious problem for over a year. They simply didn’t care.

            As it turned out, my finding the problem at the get go turned out to be an even bigger help then I had first imagined. Despite the finding, there was still plenty of work to be done in verifying full operability; a task in no way enhanced by Frick and Frack here. For starter, they were on “summer hours” and only inclined to work from 9ish to 2ish; the former leaning toward the late side and the later the earlier. On top of that, they insisted on hourly coffee breaks. This didn’t sound like such an interruption until it was revealed that the only place to get espresso was clear across base. The morning became a swiss cheese of 10 AM go for coffee, 10:10 get to the coffee, 10:15 finish the coffee, 10:25 get back to the shop and work until… 11:00 AM go for coffee. Work time also included at least 1 smoke break and preparation talk about going for more coffee. By the end of the day I was wired.

            Lunch was also a serious affair. I found out the first day that we would leave for lunch promptly at 1:00, eat, and then return to the shop with just enough time to lock up and leave for the day. As I calculated it, perhaps 2 full hours of actual work were done each day, but potentially less. Lunch on base was better than the hotel fare and boasted something you don’t see in most American military cafeterias – a giant metal urn filled with wine; pretty decent wine to be honest. Probably better no one went back to work after.

            I asked the boys about my toothpaste/ cash dilemma the first day and Caputo promised to take my money the following day and have his banker brother exchange it if I had no luck. Good deal there. When I got back to the hotel I begged the surely concierge to exchange some money for me. He grew exasperated and claimed there wasn’t much. I begged just enough to buy toothpaste and he momentarily capitulated by hunting through the newspaper for the exchange rate. After an exhaustive search of almost 20 seconds he angrily threw down the paper and referred me to the bank.

            I hauled ass over to the bank, which was significantly father than I had been told and made my way in. After waiting in the long line I strode up to the counter with a wad of cash in my hand. The teller took one look and before I could ask, “No a exchange”. Son of a bitch! It had been 3 days now without brushing my teeth; the Paula special. I slunk back to the hotel in defeat; my plans to eat elsewhere foiled by the impression that most places preferred not to take my company issued AMEX. I looked forward to yet another uninspired burger or perhaps the fantastically exotic spaghetti. Instead, I was treated to a big plate of vitriolic rage coughed up from my own throat and bitter as the tears of a tight rope walker with the jimmy legs.

            I received the same rough treatment as the previous day, but this time there was one slight change; a couple at the restaurant seated fairly close by. Into my hands was thrust the poor quality menu, from which I decided to try the steak, ordered rare but served as shoe leather. As I munched away at crap, I began to take note of the treatment the couple was getting. Very attentive service, presented a whole cart with wine, different beers and liquors, and given menus that seem to differ considerably from mine. Before I finished their meals arrived – great steaming bowls of mussels and other seafood seated above fragrant strands of perfect pasta swimming in a delicate sauce. A basket of fresh baked bread and rolls was placed between them and giant goblets of evanescent white wine were refilled with every sip by the attendant sommelier. I gnashed my teeth in rage and retreated to my room.

            Caputo made good and got me my cash the day after next. At the same time he informed me of a nearby grocery store that was like the ones we have here in the states and take credit. Wonderful. In any event, brushing my teeth was just a little piece of heaven. Caputo also warned me about the hazards of getting back to the airport and revealed that even he had a hard time finding it. This was not good news; if the locals couldn’t find the dame place, what chance did I have? Unlike everywhere else in the world, the Italians didn’t see the need to put the little plane signs on the highway and relied on people just knowing where it was.

            I was ever so happy to finally check out and give my gigantic heavy key back to the smarmy ass behind the counter and lug my bags, unassisted as usual, out the door. I was able to find the airport though the airline was so kind as to lose my bags for almost a week, though fortunately on the right side of the trip. I took great pleasure in leaving a blisteringly bad review of Grand Hotel Delfino on several travel websites and was actually contacted by people who had considered staying there and changed their minds after reading my input. Heh. They say the best revenge is living well, but I’ve always found it more satisfying to make sure they don’t.

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5 Responses

  1. “I struggled with my bags to the elevator while holding up my shorts against the oppressive weight of the big brass knocker.” you sounds like you are writing porn.

    There travel stories sound as if they where written by Dan. MY own writing skills have improved, in no small part, to this blog. I had a recent work writing activity, and I received a few complements on it, of course several of my co-workers wrote their entries in the car, on the way in.

    Another stunning tale of travel. You should have an account on tripadvisor.com.

  2. Are you saying I should moonlight as a porn writer? Hmmmm….. done!

    Honestly, your writing skills have improved remarkably since this blog egan. Nothing like peer review to really step up your game!

    Actually during my travels the thought occurred to me more than once, “this seems like something that would happen to Dan, but with less sex”.

    I do have an account on tripadvisor but haven’t done anything in a really long time.

  3. “Taranto” sucks. End of story.

  4. sorry – didn’t mean to be so abrupt – but really, doesn’t that city stink like a wet dog? good story though.

  5. If you can’t be abrupt here, I mean come on, this place is nothing but free-for-all!

    As I have a dog that frequently manages to get wet and eminate a stank for the ages, I must say that it is a delicate floral perfume compared to Taranto.

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