Thursday, October 7, 2010

'It's only a five-minute walk. Don't worry.'

The Milan subway. Is there a pickpocket in the crowd?

On me trip to Italy last month, I discovered that as wonderful as Italians are with food, many of them are terrible at giving directions.

If you fly overnight from Newark to Milan, as I did, you can take a train from Malpensa International Airport to the city and a rail station called Cadorna. From there, you should take a taxi to your hotel -- advice I wish the staff of my hotel had given me.

Instead, a desk clerk at the Best Western Hotel Galles assured me in an e-mail I received before I left New Jersey that the hotel was "only a 10-minute walk" from the station or I could take a bus (this with a heavy suitcase, a tote bag and a folding chair I brought for the Formula 1 race on Sept. 12, the main reason I went to Italy).

When I couldn't find a bus outside Cadorna station, I asked a young man handing out fliers if he knew of one. He said he didn't know of a bus that would take me to my hotel in Piazza Lima, so he suggested I take the subway, and pointed to the flight of stairs in front of him.

Having flown all night and not wanting to carry my suitcase up and down stairs, I initially resisted. I went back into the rail station, but couldn't find an information window. Few people spoke English. I reluctantly carried my stuff down the stairs into the subway.

The Milan subway

A unformed subway employee helped me buy a 10-ride ticket from a machine, but first I had to go to an underground deli to get change of a 50-euro bill, which the machine rejected. I schlepped my stuff down more stairs to the platform. The train was packed. "Lima," the stop for my hotel, was five or six stops away -- hardly a "10-minute walk," as the clerk had assured me.

Finally, I arrived at the front desk and gave my name. The female employee asked for my passport. I went for a small, black-leather bag I carried in my open tote bag -- and it was gone. Inside the bag, which I have used on trips for decades, were my passport, credit cards, ATM card, driver's license, about $300 in dollars and euros, and the key to the lock on my suitcase.

Thus began an ordeal of walking around Milan for much of the day -- sleep deprived -- looking for the police station, the American Consulate and the American Express Travel Office.

 'Don't worry'

Many Italians give directions and state distances in minutes. In Milan, I heard, "It's only a five-minute walk. Don't worry." Variations included the "10-minute walk" and the "15-minute walk," but they all had one thing in common. They were wildly optimistic, but they were delivered with such authority and certainty, I often was disarmed. 

That day taught me that when an Italian tells you not to worry, that is when you should start worrying.

I was told I had to report the robbery to the police (and the U.S. Consulate would want to see a police report before issuing me a new passport).

A clerk at my hotel gave me a map, marked the location of the police and walked me to the door of the hotel. He began gesturing to something in the distance, and said I had to take a tram with a certain number. (Why couldn't he put me in a taxi, give me the address and some cash and tell me he would put it on the bill?) I went to the stop, but that number tram never arrived. 

I started asking and walking. Few people spoke English. My goal, according to the hotel, was a police office inside a hospital. When I finally found it an hour later, no one responded to my knocks. 

I asked a tall man in his 50s walking out of an inner hospital office for help. Luckily, he spoke English. He said his parents moved to Italy from Denmark after World War II. 

Instead of giving me directions, he walked with me almost the entire way to the national police on Via Moscova, where I waited for about 20 minutes until an officer came out, led me inside and had me fill out a form in English. But neither he nor any other officer on duty spoke much English.

Where is the consulate?
I asked for directions to the consulate. The cop insisted it was only two blocks away, and he managed a few words in English to say he's certain because he sees the American flag as he walks past every day. I guess he was just trying to be helpful, because it was more like six or seven blocks away and I again was lucky, this time to get directions from an African-American man who I learned later was a consular official.

The consulate was closed, but guards made a copy of my police report and an official who I spoke to by phone said I needed $135 for a new passport. I also was given a sheet listing the addresses of a dozen places, including the national police, the American Express Travel Office and McDonald's.

From there, I took the subway to the magnificent square called Duomo, site of a cathedral that is said to seat 40,000 people, and set out to find Via Larga, where the American Express office is located. A man inside the office had me speak with American Express employees in the United States to confirm my identity.

I was talking to them on a phone with a timer, and after about 45 minutes and questions from three different employees in three different departments, they were convinced I was who I said I was. One even asked me the square footage of my house in Hackensack. Thankfully, I bought the house only three years ago and could recall the listing.
But even after all of that, I couldn't pick up my new American Express card until the next day. Meanwhile, Visa was sending a new credit card to my hotel overnight after I called to report the theft.

No cash advance

American Express said it was trying to arrange a money transfer, but couldn't find a place that would give me euros if I didn't have identification.

Back at the hotel, I was exhausted and without a credit card. I went to my room for the first time to discover a "single" at the Hotel Galles is barely 9 feet by 15 feet, and the bathroom isn't big enough for a bidet. I ate granola bars and nuts, snacks I brought from home, and went to sleep around 7 p.m. 

The next morning, I  picked up my new American Express card, but the office wouldn't sell me traveler's checks or give me a cash advance, because the card wasn't  "issued in the United States." This capped the worse credit-card customer service I had ever experienced.

Still, the credit card allowed me to go back to the consulate and buy a new passport for $135, plus four euros for photos, but I was told in no uncertain terms, the consulate doesn't give emergency cash to American citizens. 

This tall building -- guarded by Italian paramilitary police with sub-machine guns and U.S. Marines -- was open only in the mornings. On the floor where I got my new passport, and where I again encountered the African-American man I had asked for directions the day before, there were only two other "customers" for consular services.

 Formula 1 -- finally

Now I had a credit card and a passport, so I took the train to the city of Monza and then a free shuttle bus to the autodromo to see the Friday afternoon practice session of the Formula 1 cars. (I had to walk three kilometers or 1.8 miles to reach the track, which is in a beautiful national park.)

As I sat in a stand on the main straight and watched in awe as the single-seat cars roared past me at more than 200 m.p.h., the sun warmed my face -- the first bit of comfort I felt since arriving in Italy.


  1. What a nightmare! As I read along, I was waiting for the gondola to tip over and dump you in a Venice canal.

  2. I had much better luck in Venice:

    A nice hotel and a great staff for half of what I paid in Milan, less expensive restaurants and no tipping gondolas. A 35-minute ride cost 100 euros -- too rich for my blood.

    Then, I learned too late you can ride a utilitarian gondola that ferries people from one side of the canal to the other for 50 euro cents.


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