Thursday, October 07, 2010

Beginning At The End

Better get yourself a cuppa, this could take some time!

Let me start at the end because indeed the finest 4 weeks in recent history have been enjoyed in France and northern Italy.


The end however is dramatic.

On Saturday 3rd October, we headed off, backpacks on like a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to hire a little car and venture into the Tuscan countryside for our last weekend. The hire place, in the posh part of Florence was a tiny office (cars kept in a garage down the street).  There were two middle aged Spanish ladies being served, three outwardly gay Chinese men and a Slovak couple who had just received the keys to their rental.

We divested ourselves of our backpacks and put my camera bag and Clare's bag on a seat and sat next to them waiting our turn.  I took my ID and credit cards out of the camera bag to pay for the car.

We approached the counter which was just out of arms reach of our bags and packs and the nice man asked me for my passport. I spun round to grab the camera bag which had the passport tightly wedged beneath my 50mm lens . . .(some cash and of course my mobile phone) . . . not there. Seriously, in the space of 3 minutes with my back turned, someone had snatched the bag and nobody had seen it. This! From me! Mrs Cautious personified and she who travels a lot. I'd even slept with the thing tied to my arm!

Besides the initial disbelief, the car rental man, very apologetically, declined to hire a car to us without the passport and since Clare's wallet had been picked on the Metro whilst in Paris she also  was ineligible to hire a car since the credit card and passport needed to be in the same name. Devastated about losing our weekend and over 2G of photos (thankfully Paris photos were uploaded after the first week but the balance of the holiday was all in the bag).

So as tears poured, people were challenged, customers asked if they saw anything and me racing frantically down the street in case the perpetrator was still around or had found no cash in the bag and dumped it . . . .the drama began.

Ironically, the car hire office was only 50 metres from the Florence Police Headquarters. We picked up sticks, wiped our tears and plodded down to the police station to lodge a report. This in itself was a drama with the reporting officer not speaking English and us having to wait for an English speaker to translate only to be 'interrupted' whilst a dramatic arrest was made - no not us sillies! Once done and with report in hand, we had to find accommodation. 

Not easy it seems and we ended up in a dump of dumps with no window, no common room no kitchen but hey, it was a bed for the night. We ditched the bags and left the hostel for the afternoon to lick  our wounds. This we did by getting mightily pissed and enjoying fine Italian food.



The next issue was the passport. Resigned that the camera bag is probably sitting in a Florentine dumpster or waiting to be traded at some pawn shop (the police were a little confused as to our questions about the nearest pawn shop in the event the item had been 'fenced' and thought it an odd time for us to be seeking salacious material at a porn shop).

The nearest Australian consulate was in Milan and the Embassy in Rome.  Of course, this happened Saturday morning, Europe closes all weekend and most of Monday morning and our flight from Florence to connect in Paris was at 7am on Monday morning so . . .either forfeit the flights and go to Rome or take our chances.

We headed to the airport for some advice from Air France and Customs but Florence is a small provincial airport and after 3 hours of trying, the booking desk (not Air France but a general travel agency) could not secure flights for us until 10th October. Bear in mind we were both due back at work on the 7th! Devastated, we sought help from the police who assured us that we could fly to Paris where there was also an embassy and that we might be able to secure a temporary passport prior to our Departure for Hong Kong at 1:45 on the Monday.

Relieved, we got drunk again, dumped the dump we had been forced to stay in due to our Tuscan break being cancelled and went back to our favourite hostel in Florence, Emerald Fields for some tea, sympathy, hookah action and a Marengo with our fave Dominican (story for another time).

We were unable to contact the embassy thanks to a 'push one for . . ' routine that eventually had them hanging up. Our travel insurance 24/7 hotline number only operated Monday to Friday 9-5. To make it worse, all the contact numbers for emergencies were 'toll free' or 'collect' which meant that we could not use public phones, internet cafe phones, Skype, mobiles - in fact these numbers only work via land lines and our lifeline had become a  strange communication triangle between Jeffscape in the US and Adam who had decided to go camping over what was a long weekend in Australia and his fiance Amy to provide us with assistance and copies of my passport.

After a hugely stressful day, we slept soundly thanks to white Frizzante and a few Peronis and left for Florence airport at 4:30am. We had no problem boarding our Plane for Paris since there is little border control between EU countries and as long as there is photo ID they let you cross freely via plane.

Paris however was another thing. In order to be sure, we decided before hitting the consulate located miles away near the Eiffel tower and a good hour from the airport, we'd check with Air France to see if I could travel with my passport copy, police report and my Aussie drivers' licence. At first our spirits soared as 'information' said there would be no trouble and that we should check in early just in case. Then shit hit the fan. Firstly, the Air France girls barely spoke English. Eager to help, they provided us with a number that would grant us a "Government Override Visa" which would allow them to enter me on their system but they weren't sure how it worked and didn't have access to international phones so we'd have to call the number ourselves of course it was in Australia. Four phone calls later, testimonies from flight assistance we were allowed through customs, despite Paris being on terror alert and the airport full of soldiers. Grateful, we breathed a sigh of relief and ventured into Duty Free . .  .this had taken a total of four hours and gave us 20 minutes before our flight boarded. We shared some sushi and the best tasting Rose in the world until . . . .

I noticed my name flash on the screen near the boarding gate. Reported dutifully to the Air France rep and was told that I could not board. Despite having been cleared by customs and being issued a boarding pass. It seems whoever checked us in had not correctly entered the temp passport number and a "do not allow passenger to board" alert had been issued. Back to the public phone again (bitch to use) and finally, someone at the consulate named Debbie, gave verbal approval for us to travel.

Back to that number again and Aussies, if you're ever stranded, this is a life saver:
61 1 300 36 126 

These guys can give an instant Aussie Visa number over the line but be warned, they will expect a rep from your airline to talk to them and to have your passport details correctly entered on their system. 

So all is good. Half the flight done across Russia and all the '. . .ezekstans' and down through  China and we arrived in Hong Kong 11 hours later.

Just to be sure, we went straight to the desk and told the Chinese that we did not have a passport but did have ID. Another heart-in-throat moment as they said they couldn't let us board but had a Consulate Official who would assist. This girl was a gem, knew exactly what she was doing. Rang THE number and received all the relevant information.  Cleared and ready to go then Clare was stopped for trying to carry on 2 bottles of Duty Free alcohol. Normally, this would have been put on the flight in cargo but because of our trials had travelled in the cabin with Air France but the Chinese were having none of it and repacked it quickly and put it in the hold. Of course we were the last people on the plane but still on time.

Trust me getting on that flight, seeing the Gulf of Carpentaria 10 hours later mark our entry into Australia and the relief is something I have never ever felt before. Despite 32 hours of flying and transit, I was awake, refreshed, rejuvenated and so grateful that we hadn't had to change flights or be further delayed.

So despite a quick customs check upon my return and being given the OK, we arrived home, exhausted, relieved, faced with the prospect of a lengthy insurance claim but alive, well and happy . . and to a letter from French Police saying that they had found Clare' purse (minus the 100 Euro cash) and would forward her cards to her forthwith.
 

So, here's me with my remedy for depression. . . when devastated just eat pasta and get pissed.

More boring travelogue to come .  .with stories about hash splifs, crack dealers, Peep Shows and Organic Veg,  dogs called Woppa, Gypsies and Ferals and more gastronomic delights. Its good to be home but it was wonderful to be away.

41 comments:

Brian Miller said...

good to see you back helen...and hopefully the drama in the end did not overshadow the rest...

kj said...

aw hells, i'm hugging you long and wide and close and tight. i'm glad you're home (holy shit!) and i can't wait to hear about it all.

what a story. the story is worth the story.

can't wait. with love ♥

i really missed you!

Vicky said...

Well that was dramatic ending to a holiday.

Can't wait to hear the rest of your travelogue :)

Roy said...

Welcome back, Helen! Ouch on the story of your travails. Between you and Dot-com I'm becoming convinced that I never want to travel out of the US!

Colette Amelia said...

Wow! I felt bad leaving our "chat" but the bylaw officer came to my door...and my problems with the neighbourhood yappy dogs seem very small compared to all your trauma that must have happened after we signed off of Facebook!

glad you made it home...sorry you lost your pics...I bet they would have had lots of stories attached!

Nancy said...

Oh, my poor girl. Such adventures.

You will be invited out to dinner for years to come to tell these stories.

Can't wait to hear the rest.

Welcome back! We missed you.

e said...

Welcome back, and I can't wait to hear more!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Are you ever going to travel again!?! Still, makes for a good story and lots of memories - it is amazing how really bad experiences make really good stories...... looking forwad to hearing more.

Robyn said...

What's a european holiday without a little drama.... Welcome home and pleased to read that you arrived safely.
Glad to read that you enjoyed Northern Italy as that's where a lot of my relatives are from.

Look forward to your future holiday posts.

xx robyn

Isabella Golightly said...

OMG, this makes Mr Golightly's wallet-lifting in Rome extremely trivial by comparison. Lovely to have you home again!

nick said...

Jeez, what a nightmare of an ending to your holiday. But glad you enjoyed the rest of it and I look forward to some entertaining stories!

Mim said...

about a million years ago I had my passport pinched in Florence while on a semester abroad - what an experience! had to get a new passport along with questions like "who are you and how can you prove it". "I'm me and here's my drivers license" " maybe you stole that drivers license, and you really aren't you". and on and on.

Took MONTHS to get a new passport. Meanwhile, the police actually found my passport, and sent it back to Brooklyn by BOAT. Complete incompetence.
When my computer was stolen this year in Italy, I felt as if I was the criminal while in the carabinieri office. Plus they filled out about a million forms. And the police office was painted a sickly green and there were about 3 crosses on the wall - I'm so not used to that.

Glad you're home safe and somewhat sound.

Ropi said...

Your "ezekstans" are actually Kazakhstan, Uzbegistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajukistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I still hope that despite the final inconvenience your trip is still memorable and not only because of that event.

tony said...

Welcome Back.Happy Trails Indeed! Looking forward to the Spliffs,Cracks And Peeps To Come!

Grannymar said...

What an ordeal, thankfully you survived it and are home to tell the tale. I look forward to the next instalment.

River said...

Welcome home! Sad about your camera and passport, but welcome home!
Could I suggest having your passport tattooed on your back for future trips?

kylie said...

major bummer on the camera!

i j ust have to say what everyone else did: smooth sailing doesnt make such good stories

great to have you back in blogdom

Candie Bracci said...

OMG!

Perpetual Chocoholic said...

I like the fact that they thought you were asking for porn shops. That gave me a giggle. The rest I'm sorry to hear, but glad you made it back safe. With the luck you had I'm suprised you didn't have a terrorist on any of the planes.

RA said...

Good to have you back! Can't wait to hear more.... :)

Janice said...

Welcome home! Your trip certainly ended with a major adventure. Do tell us more about your travels!

Carolina said...

WELCOME BACK!!!!

So sorry shit happened to you. You should have come to the Netherlands. We don't have criminals, hash splifs, crack dealers, Peep Shows and certainly no dogs called Woppa ;-)

Glad to see you back here again and can't wait to read all about your adventures.

steph said...

HURRAY! Baino's back!

I'm so sorry your holiday ended like that but as you say, you're both alive, well and happy and it could have been much worse.

You had me on the edge of my seat reading this. I can't wait for the next episode.

I missed you a lot. It's brill to have you back!

Kath Lockett said...

You're baaaaaack! There's quite a few of us 'down here' wondering just how it all went...

....and I hope that the end dramas don't mean that you feel like you need another holiday!

Pam said...

Yay! You're HHHOMMMME!!!! Welcome back! Loved your photos - especially the happy "eating and drinking up big" ones. My first recourse in a crisis also!
You now join my list of friends and relations who've had similar travel tales overseas. One friend was collided into as he alighted from the cab, by a fellow pedestrian, profusely apologetic as he brushed by friend down, all concerned, checking for injuries. It was when he went to check into the hotel that my friend realized he'd been completely fleeced in that short fraction of time by Mr. Concern!He then had to set out on the time-consuming trail you've described.
At least you saw those fabulous cities and tasted the wonderful food.

Bimbimbie said...

Tsup*!* on an upside look at all the creative writing material you have at hand now ... so when are you going back?

Kate said...

Good God lady - you don't do anything by halves do you?

So glad you got through it all, healthy and happy (not to mention pleasantly pissed)!

An adventure not to be missed eh?

Looking forward to the next installment!

JeffScape said...

The girl in the blurry pic is friggin' gorgeous. Who is that?

Alan Burnett said...

A classic story Helen. So good to have you back. You make life in Blogland that little bit more interesting.

Thriftcriminal said...

Well, a bit of adventure adds a new dimension to the proceedings, pity about the photos though. Hope it was all good after all.

laughingwolf said...

well crap! glad you made it back, though...

Tom said...

crud crud and more crub. you must be exhausted. Looking forward to reading of happier adventures!

oh, and glad to have you home again, too!

blackwatertown said...

Terrible. Very sorry to hear about your ordeal.
Glad you made it back. Looking forward to reading about your more pleasant adventures.

Annie Ha said...

Glad you made it home. Waiting to hear more about the good parts of the trip!

car hire belfast said...

The post you have made over here is really nice and it is interesting as well. I have gone through your whole post and I found it really interesting.

Dot-Com said...

Oh dear what an ordeal! Must me the time of year for passports to disappear or something. At least you were able to get pissed - when I stranded in Paris with no bed, the bar closed at midnight. No matter how many tears I produced (and at this point it was many), the wouldn't give me more drink. Glad you made it home!

Anonymous said...

OMG. Yep, that's enough to make one glad to be home, hosed and pissed, haha, just eat pasta. Rowe

Ropi said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention that in Turkish Hungary is also an -istan (Macaristan).

Jay said...

Oh no!!! What a nightmare. I'm so glad you got home OK in the end, but I'd have been soooo devastated about the loss of the camera and photos. I lost a card once with about half dozen pictures of the dog and moped for weeks.

I'd been warned about pickpockets and bag snatchers, and yet twice managed to leave my handbag unattended in a busy area. Once was when we were stopped by the police and I had to get out and interpret. I just walked away from the car leaving the door open and the bag on the floor. Boy, did I feel lucky when I got back and it was still there! So sorry you weren't so fortunate.

Jill said...

CRAP! I am anxious after reading this! So glad you made it home safely! WHEW!

Now, time for some Italian food! Wow the photos of your eating adventures are making me ravenous!

PattiKen said...

oh, la. Such an adventure. At least you got a good story out of your brush with crime and near permanent status as "women without a country."