Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 6, 2009

Loving Lugano and Umbria… But Milan and Visa911 Not So Hot

Friday, July 3

 Disappointment, frustration and near disaster today, practically since we got out of bed. We started by trying to pre-book tickets to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper fresco in Milan in two days, only to be told they were sold out for the entire week. Oh well. Plenty of frescoes and other DaVinci work in Tuscany, Florence, and Umbria.

Now if we can only figure out our lost credit card problem… Discovered I had misplaced it about an hour before we had to leave for Lugano by bus. So we search the bags and pants pockets and room again, no luck. Then we try the Visa so-called international 800 number, only to be told on a recording it can’t be called on a cellphone (is it me, or is that ridiculous in 2009 for a major international corporation). So lacking a good 800 number, I went to the Visa internet site seeking a Swiss number. Sue made this call, and was then bounced around from department to department (by limited English speakers, and upstairs to their supervisors) for 46 minutes (at .99 per minute) before we were convinced the fraud and security threat was eliminated. They were more interested in sending new cards to us in Italy (so we would keep spending) than they were in assuring the account was secure. The conversation lasted all through me searching our former room, and loading bags into the hotel van, and during the drive to the bus/train station, and for at least 15 minutes once we arrived. Still not clear if we will order a new card from Visa (a Target Visa), or tell then to go to hell. But we’re safe now.

However, by the time our bus was about to start loading, I realized my backpack (with my passport) had been left back at the hotel in all the confusion. Time to panic yet? While Barbara found out what an alternate route and method might be, I jumped in a taxi and quickly ran up to the hotel, grabbed the bag from the lobby bench, then back to the station in time for a sandwich and then onto a train 2/3rds of the way back north toward Zurich. So now it’s train-bus-train to reach our destination, with just minutes to spare on each change of transport. I sure hope the reputation of Swiss and German buses running on time holds true for our present train, or it’s back to Zurich and missing out on Lugano completely.

I put The Freewheeling Bob Dylan on my Blackberry and hide from my own stupidity for awhile. Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (listened to this one twice) . Nothing like the nasal Midwestern voice of an old friend and some fancy fingerpicking (with no backup band on the entire record) to cheer one up a bit. But we still might miss this bus. Don’t think twice, it’s alright. Okay, Bob. Here we go…


3:24 Wed.

 Made the Thussis bus (I’m on it now), though it was so packed there was no room for our luggage underneath. So in the bus it came. When we came out of the tunnel from the train platform, there was a man playing a sad Italian song on his accordion. I’d have stayed to listen or snap a photo, but we were already late. I’ve also moved up 40+ years to Dylan’s Love and Theft album (2005?) . Scratchier voice, great backing band, and Bob’s 40 years wiser by now. In San Bernardino, just outside my bus window, buildings and people and signage are all starting to look vaguely more Italian. This area strikes me as the Wisconsin of Switzerland: lots of dairy farms and hay-making (much of it still hand-raked), yet clearly there were enough hotels in town to suggest healthy summer and winter crowds of tourists. On the way here, Aunt Barbara got a travel buddy –another older woman — to whom she most likely told the tale of our crazy day. I’m glad, though. I’m sure we’re a burden to her this week. But still more a blessing than a burden. She has so little family (one cousin), and it’s nice for her to spend time with Sue, who knew her when she was younger.

But don’t get me wrong: she’s anything but old and doddering. She’s quite fit, with an agile mind and a very direct way with waiters and clerks. She’s not openly angry or whiny, but clearly gives the impression she is NOT to be messed with. We couldn’t have a better guide even if we were paying someone. Just passed thru little Mesocco, with enough visual charm that I could move in tomorrow, live there a few years, and still not get bored. I think some family had even converted the old train station into an adequate home. Highway runs along a river valley, just like the trains did. And after the snowiest, roughest winter Barbara can remember, the rivers full of snowmelt in the Alps are running fast, white and loud ’round here. 

Barbara also told a scary/funny story about traveling up here this past winter, and the train to get home in a blizzard was so packed that she got to ride partway home as a guest in the engine car. Beats being a sardine! Those “act of God” moments are the times when a community pulls together and helps each other get through. Even when it’s just our little community of three. NOT that me losing a credit card, losing focus, and making us miss a bus is an act of God. But we’re making it work, and I’m still having fun.

Four hours later, I’m also mostly recovered from the shame of being the zit on the face of our trip thus far. Plus I think it has given Sue and her Aunt more time in closed quarters (across the aisle from me) to bond. Even if it’s telling stories of past auto accidents and travel woes. But the passing scenery outside this window is too good to be staring at a two-inch LCD screen. So for now, I’m OUT.

Wed. Nite:

Lugano: how did I not know about this joint?! Great town.  Such a blend of Swiss and Italian culture, in a cosmopolitan way. Arrived to find that the Jazz Fest was on. In the bar of our hotel, I watched big’time Israeli performer Idan Raichel doing an interview in English on camera. Afterward, I asked what his name was so I could look him up (I liked his way of thinking in the interview). He had his publicist bring me a demo CD, and said he had just played House of Blues in Chicago earlier in June.

Graubunden : State in which St. Moritz setz  (°gray° + °communal cooperative°)

Ticino – State Lugano is in.

Ecstatic= state I am in. —

Sat morn thru Sun morn:

Did my first powerwalk for exercise around 6:45am. Took on about 800 stairs at the front end –almost killed me but offered a grat view of Lugano and the lake from just above our hotel. Breakfast with Aunt Barbara was time for goodbyes. She was in good spirits, talked about sailing on Lake Zurich with her parents as a girl, but no wind, so she was bored silly. Also told some camping/hiking stories. Then Sue told her camping story about my leaving our clothes behind at home the only time she came on a group camping trip (the name of this album: “More stories about what a flake I am when I travel”.) We said our bittersweet goodbyes after taking a group picture in the lobby. Then our patron/hostess went up to pack, and we took our last walk by the lake, in the less developed direction.

On our return, stopped into the oldest church in Lugano … St. Maria di name only in a photo…, built around 1477. Columbus had not even “discovered” America yet.

Craftsmanship in the church: so carefully done, with a gorgeous fresco on the mid-point wall. Its scenes from Passion Week might rival some of what we see in Italy by better known artists –gotta look it up later. Found a prayerbook by the altar and read a prayer of petition to John the Baptist in Italian. Somehow this felt right: a unique prayer in a holy place, to “prepare the way” for our entry into Italy and the seat of Catholicism. Make “the rough places into plains”, Big John.

But we had to go, to catch our train to Milano (can’t stop thinkin’ of those damned Pepperidge Farm cookies). No left behind backpacks this time, no missed buses. Instead, shockingly, a chance to talk with South African jazz great and human rights activist Hugh Masekela for a minute or two, as he awaited his train to Stuttgart for the next big summer jazz fest. I thanked him especially for his song from last night written for his countrywoman Miriam Makeba (who I saw with Dizzy Gillespie, when Danilo Perez was in his United Nations orchestra, around ’97). Hugh was gracious and funny. I said “It’s good to have the work, keep going strong.” His reply was very much like something my late father would say: “Well, if we don’t travel, we don’t eat!” Both men were born in 1939, when hard work and balanced, pragmatic thinking were the norm instead of the exception.

Train to Milan was quiet & uneventful. I had fun flipping thru Donna’s Italian dictionary. Strangely, I kept randomly stumbling upon words whose sole use is as part of an insult, words like stupido, and puzzolente (stinking), and others I had forgotten, like stronzo (turd). That’s the Italians for you: a hundred ways to run you down, but in an hour we’re going to want a hug, and let’s forget the whole silly argument ever happened.

Coming into Milan, the signs of real city life and industrialization increased significantly. And when we got into Milan’s Central station, it was much like what Chicago has, in size and general hubbub. Probably bigger, given the higher use of train travel throughout Europe. Our hotel (the Amadeus) was just around the corner from the station, but we followed the directions on Sue’s GoogleMap gadget and still managed to walk an extra eight blocks out of our way into Little Turkey (or so it seemed, given the food, signage and clientele in half the shops).

Meanwhile Sue had read in our British travel guide that some hotels in Milan double as low-profile brothels, and she was increasingly concerned we’d booked ourselves into one. Now that we’re here, it seems unlikely, but for a three-star hotel affiliated with Comfort Inn, it has some other problems. Like no shower curtain, and a tub so skinny even my smallish wife felt cramped. In the small dining area at Sunday breakfast, I sit facing the door, in case anything goes down, just like my Uncle John taught me. (He knows people who know people, in Chicago anyway. . . he also texted us from Mom’s house yesterday, re  the one restaurant not to miss in Roma… tell ya later).

As for Milan, we don’t like it much, given what we saw last night. The huge Duomo cathedral is gorgeous and well-restored, but seems more like a tribute to Milanese craftsmen and powerbrokers than a tribute to the God they were supposed to be honoring. And the high-tone shopping district that grew up just on the edge of its piazza –with Louis Vitton and other fashion giants pulling out all the stops –makes it clear that money and prestige have run the game around this town for centuries. Fun to people-watch, like the fifteen year old, spike-haired boys with large-lensed glasses trying to stalk some prey. Or the fifty-year-old mother returning from shopping, wearing the same all-white frilly outfit as her thirty year old pregnant daughter –and both of them trying not to look like something they obviously are (old and/or pregnant).

We had a fairly lousy (7pm-ish) meal at a restaurant near the opera house… And as the rain threatened and the staff changed the outdoor seating over from lunch to late supper, we were literally sitting at a table by ourselves, no more umbrella overhead, no other customers (or even tables) within fifty feet of us.

We clearly don’t fit in here, with our humble desire for a simple $1 bottle of water, and our glued-together sandals (my GOD these people are well-shod!… Even the pink Crocs have rhinestones on them…) Saw a German father shouting down his preteen daughter on the sidewalk at 9am. Had a drunk drop about €30 in coins in line behind me at McDonald’s (one of two in our area, just about 75 ridiculous meters kitty-corner from each other… And before anyone gets on my case, I was getting take-out coffee for Sue, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in there). The drunk (a young guy) missed a 1 Euro coin about six feet away from him, and within a minute a McDonald’s employee just coming onshift had picked it up and pocketed it (which I also would have done after the drunk left, if I hadn’t been beaten to the punch). This city -maybe any city– makes most of us a bit uglier and meaner, doesn’t it?

 This morning, maybe a trip to the old fort of Milan or a museum of history or art, then pick up the car after lunch and we’re out of this bully of a city for good, on to quieter, greener, kinder Umbria. Arrividerci, Milano. Personally, I prefer the American cookie named in your honor.

Mon July 6

Otium Et Serenitas – sign above spa/ wellness center at La Casella, our RCI time’share resort in Umbria ”central Italy.

Due to big problems with Visa’911; and the car company renting us our pre’paid !!! car, we almost got stranded in Milan for an extra day or more. Had no good card for the rental place to swipe ‘ for a gurantee, insurance, etc… Discover not accepted in Italy… so we ran up huge cellphone bills trying to get Visa to step in. They were miserably bad at following up or getting us unstuck, or letting us talk to anyone with the power to help.

Finally, of all things, we had to call in the U.S. Army.

Sort of. When we went back to our hotel, where our bags had been stored all day as we worked on the problem of renting a car with no credit card, a second leiutenant on leave, fresh out of West Point in May, overheard us explain our problem to the desk clerk. He asked for more info, and eventually went with us to swipe HIS card and thus vouch on our behalf. Only risk to him is if we crack up the car, his name is on the rental agreement. So now I drive like an old lady. Lets hear it for 2nd Lt. Andrew Thompson, people!!! And for God, who answers prayers in really odd ways sometimes. In wake of 4th of July, when us pacifist-progressives couldnt get Target Bank or Visa corporations to recognize us as humans with a problem, we got a fresh faced Iowa kid on leave to step up and be a hero. I paid him a little something for his trouble, but I am certain he would have done it anyway.

Probably more on this little horror story later. But this is SUCH a long post. Thans for sticking with it, those of you who have.

Now we are in Umbria, and I think I gotta pay for computer time, so posts may be limited again.

But we are fine, starting to relax, ready tomorrow for Assissi and Perugia, a walled medieval town.

Donàt let the bastards drag you down. Viva Italia……….. And Target Visa… YOU SUCK!


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