Tag Archives: Transportation

What I dread about returning to the U.S.

23 Oct
22 October 2016. I listed my beefs with Roma the other day. Turnabout is fair play, so here are the things I am not looking forward to in gli stati uniti.
  • Having to fly to go to Europe. How we have loved jumping on trains! 10 hours or more on a plane is not fun, even in Business Class. When we come back to visit, we will take long trips (we have time!) to make the flights worthwhile. In the meantime, I am overusing my United Mileage Plus Visa to accrue as many points as possible. I wonder if we can charge a house?
  • Incredible choice of squash, and the pumpkins--of various kinds--taste amazing, as does everything.

    Incredible choice of squash, and the pumpkins–of various kinds–taste amazing, as does everything.

    Food additives, wooden produce, and high prices. Food in Italy tastes like it should taste. Red peppers zing, potatoes require no butter for flavor, and the overall need for everything from basil to thyme is minimal because the produce is so darn flavorful. In the U.S. we wax our fruits and veggies to preserve them, and God-knows-what is done to cattle and chickens. I am hoping that between the Farmer’s Market and Nature’s Foods I can find good organic stuff. It will cost significantly more to feed us than it has in Italy. I shudder to think of what wine costs in the U.S! And good olive oil!
  • Car-orientation and having to drive again. Yes, the buses in Rome are problematic, but it is possible — even desirable — to live without a car. Unless we want to live in a 700 square foot condo in downtown Portland, we’re going to have to buy a car. It just is not feasible to depend on buses, light rail, and trains. Ric has not driven in 3 1/2 years, and I have not done so in 18 months. We may have to have our son take us to a big parking lot and give us driving lessons.
  • Few trains. Sniff.

    Now THAT's Italian...Pizzeria Al Forno della Soffita.

    Now THAT’s Italian…Pizzeria Al Forno della Soffita.

  • Pizza. Papa Murphy’s Take-and-Bake will no longer cut it. There is good pizza in Portland: Apizza Scholls and Ken’s Artisan Pizza are renowned, with wood-fired pizzas and high-quality ingredients, but you have to line up about 17:00 to get in. We can barely stand to eat before 20:00 anymore. Nostrana has great pizza, too, but costo molto!
  • Eating dinner at 18:00. In Portland, we used to go out on Saturday night and leave the house at 17:30 so we could get a table without a reservation. Now at 18:00 I can barely think about eating except on occasion a little aperitivo. We like to sit down at a restaurant between 20:00 and 21:00. Even eating at home we seldom tuck in before 20:00. By 20:00 in Portland, most restaurants are thinking about shutting down the kitchen. The afternoon just seems longer and more useful when you aren’t thinking about dinner at 17:00. 
  • Lack of social outdoor life. As much as the sidewalk traffic in Roma can make me crazy, I do love the passeggiata tradition in Italy. It is most fun in the smaller towns. Take a walk, have a coffee or an aperitivo, do some shopping or just lick the windows, as the French say. In Paris, there are the terraces and in London the pubs. In Roma, we have the tiny bars. It is an excellent pre-dinner habit to take a walk, sit with friends and visit. In the U.S., we all pull into our homes using an automatic garage door opener and settle in without chatting up the neighbors. 

    Giant cappuccino in the U.S. The Italian version costs us about €1.20, even sitting down at our neighborhood place. It is JUST RIGHT.

    Giant cappuccino in the U.S. The Italian version costs us about €1.20, even sitting down at our neighborhood place. It is JUST RIGHT.

  • Giant cappuccini. No, I did not mistype. cappuccini is the plural of cappuccino. I think I will have to order the child-size. No one needs 12 ounces of milk to one ounce of espresso. 
Maintaining our Italian lifestyle after our return is going to be about as difficult as playing darts with spaghetti. We shall persevere and let you know how it is going. Four days until we fly!!!

Plane vs. Train? No contest!

8 Mar
Flying may get you across many miles quickly, but there is nothing enjoyable about the experience. NOTHING. Trains, on the other hand, are simply a pleasure.
Not long after we had returned from our Christmas trip to Paris, London, and Switzerland, our son informed us that his company was sending him to the U.K. for work. Would we meet him in London for a week? How could we not? We had really enjoyed our time in London in December, and had immediately booked a return for April, but when your child is going to be on the same side of the ocean, you go. We don’t get to see any of them often, so this was a treat.
There was just not enough time between our Austrian adventure and an upcoming visit from American friends to allow us to take a leisurely journey by train, so we bit the bullet and bought tickets on EasyJet. (We prefer taking the train and stopping in Paris for a couple of nights.)  I popped for seats in the front of the plane and early boarding to try and minimize our discomfort. We abandoned our reliable roll-aboard cases in favor of large, uncomfortable backpacks so they would fit in the EasyJet overheads. I felt like I was going to tip over backward carrying that pack (although it only weighed about 20 lbs.) on buses and through the terminals.
EuroStar interior, photo taken on our December 2015 trip. Spacious. The TGV and FrecciaRossa trains are excellent, too. We like the configuration with the table between us, like you see on the right.

EuroStar interior, photo taken on our December 2015 trip. Spacious. The TGV and FrecciaRossa trains are excellent, too. We like the configuration with the table between us like you see on the right.

Now to the Planes vs. Trains discussion.
If we have a 3-hour train trip to Milano, we can travel door-to-door—from our apartment in Roma to our hotel in Milano—in 5 hours. We are relaxed, have been given espresso and wine on the way, we probably would have had WIFI access, and there would have been no need to disrobe and be x-rayed to prove we are not carrying anything hazardous.
Our 2-hour-and-40-minute flight to London took 8 hours door-to-door. In fact, 4½ hours after leaving home, we were just leaving Roma, taking off from FCO. I don’t need to tell you what the security experience was like, but we walked about a kilometer through the airport just to get to the bus that would drive us to the gate. On board we ate sandwiches that were 75% bread and the coffee was undrinkable.
Interior of Easy Jet airplane with passengers. Courtesy of EasyJet. Yeah, this is fun.

Interior of Easy Jet airplane with passengers. Courtesy of EasyJet. Yeah, this is fun.

We will return to London in April–a trip scheduled and partly paid for before Derek’s surprise voyage so no sense canceling. However, we will do the April trip in style: TGV to Paris for a few days, EuroStar to-and-from London, and a 3-night stopover in Dijon on the way home just because. Our roll-aboard bags will be back in service.


Trains, buses, and the Tube

4 Jan
It’s the little stories, observations, and encounters along-the-way that we remember far longer than we recall the stats we learn during a museum tour or even recall in our mind’s eye the finest art in a cathedral. That is certainly the case with our trip to Paris, London, and Switzerland during the Christmas season.
Love the double deckers. Sitting up front on top gives one an impressive view.

Love the double deckers. Sitting up front on top gives one an impressive view.

I have been trying to think of a way to blog about this trip. You’ve seen plenty of pictures of Christmas lights in Roma, Milano, and Paris (plus blogger John Henderson did a far better job than I ever could about Roma). A litany of the sites we saw is just another travelogue.
For the next few posts, I will share some vignettes, stories, and observations from our 4-countries-in-2-weeks trip. First up, a bit about transportation differences.
London Transportation Museum: Old-style bus.

London Transportation Museum: Old-style bus.

Italian trains and buses are anything but quiet. Bangladeshi housekeepers call their mamas in the old country on the super-affordable plan from TIM. Single travelers call everyone in their contact list (Sono in treno! Sono sul autobus!) to inform them of their transit woes. Families en route to their holiday travel with bags of food to sustain them and everyone is chatting ALL THE TIME. Ric’s mom came from the school of never let a moment pass in silence, but they would put her to shame. Italians are social creatures and constantly in touch. What they did before cell phones I cannot imagine, although personal conversation is still a strong suit. Texting happens, sure, but talking is far more prevalent. Who has so much to say? Ric and I can sit for an hour without speaking a word. We call it “companionable silence,” well-developed in 31 years.
Bernina Express . Just threw this one in as a beauty shot.

Bernina Express. Just threw this one in as a beauty shot.

In Paris, if you talk too loud on the bus or Metro you get the stink eye from the French. Conversations are sotto voce and cell phones are not used except to text, peruse Facebook, or other non-intrusive activity. How pleasant it is! The Swiss are similarly low-key, reserved, and, well, Swiss.
In London, we found people chatting a bit more, but in both Paris and London we saw a lot of people reading on the Tube, Metro or bus. Reading actual books, not on devices. One seldom sees a book pulled out on an Italian bus and it would be impossible to do on the Rome Metro since you are always cheek-by-jowl with scarcely room to change your mind. You cannot read on a Roman bus because most of them lack shock-absorbers and the kidney-pounding you take going over cobblestones makes it impossible to focus on a book.
The Metro in Rome is a dog pile. People are in constant motion. There is no queue. People can barely descend from the train before would-be riders crush forward. I have been pushed aside by young people and middle-aged men with no consideration for my gender, age, or the fact I might be dragging luggage. It is a free-for-all. The stations are filthy, the trash bins overflowing, and of course, the great tradition of graffiti covers trains as well as walls.
London Tube station. Excellent signage, lighting, acoustics. Far from Rome.

London Tube station. Excellent signage, lighting, acoustics. Far from Rome.

Ah, London and Paris, with your orderly queues, updated stations, and avoidance of unnecessary conversation! You can actually hear the announcements in a British or French tube station. The Tube stations in London are spotless, with no graffiti at least where we traveled. Even the older stations are well-maintained. I love the Parisian Metro stations that have the glass dividers that keep people from falling into the tracks and define the exit and entry points. Several Parisian men actually offered me their seats and no one pushed past me as though I were invisible. In London, we were able to sit down on the Tube most trips, thanks to a preponderance of trains and well-designed cars. Double-decker buses are, by the way, a delightful way to tour the city. I love how everyone is disciplined enough to get on at the front and off in the middle. Not quite that way in Roma…
Bernina Express interior. Lovely, quiet, comfy. Coffee cost us €4.50 each however. On Trenitalia you get one free.

Bernina Express interior. Lovely, quiet, comfy. Coffee cost us €4.50 each, however. On Trenitalia you get one free.

The Swiss train stations are oases of calm in a calm country. Well-signed, immaculate, orderly, no pushing or shoving (except by foreigners who carry their own habits along). The trains may not be as posh as the Frecciarossa or Italo Treno, but they are comfortable. With no discounting and no complimentary wine (sniff!), the Swiss railroad must be making some serious francs.
Italy, we love you! We love your trains and your warm-hearted people. We love not needing a car to travel all over the city, country, and continent. You do coffee better than anywhere we’ve lived or traveled, and we miss your food when we are out-of-the-country, but you could be just a smidge quieter and stand in line now-and-then.

The Great Railway Adventure

2 Jan
I love to travel by train. Even hours and hours is fine by me. Train travel beats air travel and its many indignities. Four hours in a plane makes me want to slit my wrists whereas four hours in a train is just a good start.
The Bernina Express on the famous Brusio spiral viaduct.

The Bernina Express on the famous Brusio spiral viaduct.

To my husband, trains are a religion. Not only does he enjoy riding in them, he can watch them for hours. He delights in rolling stock of all types, and thrills at seeing railroad workers address their tasks. How many thousands of photos he has taken! He also is fascinated by all types of transportation from pedicabs to delivery vehicles. There’s not an Ape 50
Action shot.

Action shot.

that escapes his camera’s eye.
When I suggested London for Christmas by train, with a stop in Paris and return through Switzerland, he had agreed before I finished saying “Bernina Express.” While we did, in fact, sleep in four countries over the two-week period, this was not “If it’s Tuesday it Must be Belgium.”
I’ll leave you at the end of this post with a few photos,  but first the route. The final plan included nine train trips in 15 days. Good thing we have time.
Roma to Milano – 2h:55m
Milano to Paris – 7h:26m
Paris to London – 2h:17m
London to Paris – 2h:29m
Paris to Zurich – 4h:03m
Zurich to Chur – 1h:15m
Chur to Tirano – 4h:13m
Tirano to Milano – 2h:32m
Milano to Roma – 3h:55m
During the last segment, the full-to-capacity train broke down and we had to transfer to a new train resulting in a 1-hour delay. We were only a little annoyed, and we got a partial credit from Trenitalia as a result of the delay.
Yes, that is a remarkable 32 hours-or-so in trains, blissfully snoozing, chatting, reading, writing, and watching the lovely scenery. I would not recommend this type of schedule for people on their average trip to Europe. One would not want to spend as much transit time as we did on a typical two-week vacation; However, we have time, a true blessing of retirement and living in Europe.
I have more to blog about in the coming days. Stay tuned! Click on any picture for a slideshow or a closer look.


Paris v. Roma – Part II: Street Scene and Getting Around

22 Mar
In Part One I spoke about the differences in gustatory delights between Paris and Roma. We also have a number of observations to make about architecture, mobility, and behavior.
Street Scene
Saint Dennis holding his head, facade of Notre Dame.
Saint Dennis holding his head, facade of Notre Dame.
When we travel we like to settle in for a long stay. No “Paris-in-three-days” whirlwind for us! We saw one museum a day, at most, and spent plenty of time wandering neighborhoods both wealthy and moderate. We rented an apartment in the 17th arrondissment, managing to stay under our goal of €100.00 per night. It was nothing fancy yet everything we needed. This approach let us observe local life: children going to school, city workers, mothers and fathers, the elderly doing their shopping, transportation systems, and maybe just figure out a little how a place works, what it might be like to live there. Thus a few words on the streets of Paris versus Rome.
Streets in Paris are cleaner than in Roma, due partly to an absence of graffiti and less litter overall. This
This little girl was endlessly fascinated by the pigeons.
This little girl was endlessly fascinated by the pigeons.
is made possible by an amazing system of street cleaning involving surging water and workers with brooms. We first feared all the crap ended up in the River Seine, but lo-and-behold found this explanation.  Cigarette butts and other small debris is washed away, and larger items are bagged by the workers.
In Roma it is a never-ending battle for city workers against messy denizens. If a trash bin is overflowing, they leave their bags on the street, never mind there’s an empty bin 50 yards further on. Of course in Roma graffiti is art (sometimes) and after all, it was invented by the Romans. Old-fashioned street cleaning trucks make their way down the street very few days and hose down the debris, sweeping up some of it.
Notre Dame, of course!
Notre Dame, of course!
Paris’ grand old Haussmann buildings are elegant and the straight streets make navigation on foot easy. The wide tree-lined avenues and boulevards allow one to see far in each direction. Cars are parked in an organized fashion and pedestrian crossings are left open for, well, pedestrians to cross. There are pleasant manicured parks that illustrate design principles.
In Roma every building is an individual, many are very pretty, and most are the same height regulated to not exceed the height of St. Peter’s. We have ancient sites preserved and visible almost everywhere and ancient walls and columns are oft incorporated into new buildings (if by “new” you can accept 400 years as “new”). But we have the ugly serrande pulled down over shops and restaurants and covered with graffiti. Not a pretty street presence, those.
In Roma, streets wind about not only in the Centro Storico and Trastevere, but also in other
The Louvre featured an installation of neon art.
The Louvre featured an installation of neon art.
neighborhoods. They may start by radiating off a piazza, but soon change direction and probably name. Finding your way is a nightmare until you’ve spent considerable time in the city. Trees are scattered, but on the other hand, Rome has some great green spaces (Villa Borghese, Villa Torlonia, Villa Ada, Villa Doria Pamphilj) and fountains running year ‘round. In Paris we did not see a fountain “on” in March.
Parking in Roma shows little respect for property or other people’s rights-of-way. White stripes in the pedestrian crossings are free parking, right? Double-parking is a constant battle for buses trying to weave through the already narrow streets. In Paris we have not seen such abuse of parking. It is very orderly and it seems there are plenty of parcheggi (parking lots).
"I love you" wall in Montmarte.

“I love you” wall in Montmarte.

Cats are absent in Paris. We did not see one cat in a week in Paris. I conjectured that perhaps they are all coddled little Fluffies tucked up in their Haussmann apartments. According to one Parisian I am probably right: they are house cats. Still, no ferals? We walked through residential areas and did see not one cat in a churchyard or courtyard or sitting on a wall. In Roma, a cat outdoors is not only a common sight, there are the gattare, women who feed the cats in the streets. There seemed to be fewer dogs in Paris than in Roma, and thus less dog poop on the sidewalks.
Military and police presence is omnipresent and focused in Paris. The patrols we saw were really
Ti voglio bene - I love you in Italian
Ti voglio bene – I love you in Italian
observing people. Good for them! In Roma, police/military presence is here-and-there and likely to involve five officers in a tight circle talking about soccer.
We did not encounter as much trouble with pedestrians hogging the sidewalks in Paris as we face in Roma. In Roma, groups of people will walk 3, 4, and 5 abreast acting indignant if they have to move for oncoming pedestrians. An old lady with a shopping bag can somehow occupy the entire sidewalk as she shuffles along weaving from side to side as if to thwart anyone from passing her. In Paris people made way as one might expect in crowded situations. If you have not encountered the difference yourself it is hard to describe, but many Romans seem to be so self-absorbed they are unaware of other people needing to pass and use the sidewalks.  I call them sidewalk hogs.
Paris delivery vehicel.

Paris delivery vehicle.

Ah the Paris Metro! It goes everywhere! People enter the buses from the front, validate their tickets and passes, and exit only from the middle. Che bello! There are seats in both Metro and buses! People stand back and allow others to exit the Metro before forcing their way on, and it is QUIET! One day as we were riding, a guy answered a cell phone call while on the bus and got the stink-eye from an older couple. Any talking is done in hushed tones.
Roma? Chaos! On the bus, enter or exit any door, validate if you feel like it. Noisy? You bet! Several loud cell phone conversations are punctuated with loud talk and laughter. Why not catch up calling your mamma in Bangladesh (pennies a minute according to the ads!) while commuting half-an-hour?  Talk loud too be sure she can hear you over the noise of the bus. In Roma it is hard to get OFF the Metro or bus as the incoming traffic is pushing their way on. Young men fight old ladies for the few seats.
Scooters were everywhere, ridden by both children and adults. Here in Luxembourg Gardens.
Scooters were everywhere, ridden by both children and adults. Here in Luxembourg Gardens.
The Parisian buses are on a schedule! A real schedule! You can go to the RATP trip planner and be told – several hours in advance – when your bus will arrive at your stop. Che meraviglioso!  At each bus stop there is an electronic feed telling you when the next bus will actually arrive. Roma has a few of the electronic signs at downtown stops, but there is nothing resembling a schedule. There are departure times posted for each capolinea, but very rarely are these schedules followed.
Velib bikes all tucked away at night. During the day the racks were empty, all bikes in use.
Velib bikes all tucked away at night. During the day the racks were empty, all bikes in use.
Where in Roma one might be run down by a motorino, in Paris a bicycle might sneak up and knock you flat. The Velib system of bike rentals is very popular. We’d see racks full with 20-or-so bikes in the early mornings and late at night, but during the day they would all be checked out through an efficient subscription system accessible to tourists as well as residents. There are bike lanes in Paris (very few in Roma) that run counter to the direction of cars in one-way streets, so while looking right to see if traffic is clear, a jay-walker might be surprised by a bicycle silently approaching from the left.
We were  unimpressed by the famous TGV high-speed train run by SNCF, except for the price.
Look at the little yellow safety vests the children are wearing! So cute and easy to identify!
Look at the little yellow safety vests the children are wearing! So cute and easy to identify!
We paid less to go from Milan to Paris than from Rome to Milan in order to catch the TGV. However, there were no courtesy beverages like on Trenitalia, and overall we felt the trains were dingy inside and out. The food was overpriced and marginal, and when you are on a train for 7.5 hours, you want need food. Still, we did not have to deal with an airport, and that is always a plus.
In summary
Food: Italy for the win! While ethnic selections are few, wine, coffee, quality, healthfulness, and price are all in the positive column for Italy. Paris gets points for baguette. The French pastries and chocolates are amazing, and I prefer pain au chocolat to an Italian cornetto. Much flakier and delicate. The Boeuf Bourguignon at one tiny little bistro we found would be reason enough to go back to Paris.
Wine: Scales tip to Roma again. Quality at every price point. In Paris we got very good wine only at a price we find unacceptable for daily consumption.
Great cappuccino at a neighborhood cafe, where locals go. This was not by a tourist attraction. We drank it at the bar and still it was €4.20 FOR ONE. I shudder to think of what they would have charged if we sat down.
Great cappuccino at a neighborhood cafe, where locals go. This was not by a tourist attraction. We drank it at the bar and still it was €4.20 FOR ONE. I shudder to think of what they would have charged if we sat down.
Coffee: Roma for price and availability; Parisian baristas pour a good shot, but the cost is at least double most bars in Roma.
Architecture: Tie. Paris for elegance, Roma for quaint, ancient, charm.
Parks: Tie. Each city has nice green spaces. Paris’ are more formal, Roma’s more casual, even a bit wild.
Cleanliness: Paris by far! The street cleaning system of Eugène Belgrand is pure genius. City workers are very prominent in tidying up as well.
Transportation/Getting Around: Paris by a mile. The Metro is omnipresent, the buses on time and predictable. In Roma even the bus app we have on our smartphones cannot always predict when the bus will come. People park where they should in Paris, you do not get run over by motorini, and the availability and use of bicycles is laudable. The narcissism of Roman drivers with cars blocking pedestrian crossings and double-parking makes it difficult for buses and walkers to maneuver. The narcissistic self-absorption of pedestrians in Roma makes it difficult to walk down the street without getting knocked into. In Roma, people will walk out of a shop door without looking right or left and run into you. They are quick to apologize, but the behavior never changes as far as I can tell. Rant over.
Park near our apartment in the 17th.

Park near our apartment in the 17th.

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