01 December 2011

Rise & fall, rage & grace

"If you’re going through hell, keep going."
-- Winston Churchill


Before Mom & I set off for the city of Siena, we dined on the Hotel Della Signoria’s sunny rooftop terrace. Like déjà vu, the elderly woman with the warm smile greeted us sweetly with "buongiorno". Streganonna (not her real name, she just reminded me of the character from my childhood) was the only server and brought us the same "continental breakfast" which consisted of rolls, condiments and a carafe of arancia rossa juice.

We returned to Stazione di Santa Maria Novella (Firenze’s main train hub) in search of SITA – the regional bus depot. As reported by Lonely Planet it was located "on the western side". On Via Luigi Alamanni we passed a flower shop and a closed general store, but only found another platform – this one for electric trains. Nothing on this road resembled a bus depot. Mom & I wanted to solicit help but after the fiasco in Roma at Stazione Termini we needed to choose a person wisely. We could not ask a tourist (equally clueless), a full-blown Italian (language barrier) or a business man (too busy/usually on a mobile phone). I waited in the shade next to a scruffy man in a wheelchair as Mom approached a rather young, hairy guy. According to him, if we crossed the train terminal we would find the busses on the opposite side.

When we arrived at the opposite/Eastern side we spotted just uno a.k.a one bus and its sign did not read "Siena". Perhaps this too was the depot for the SITA busses so I asked the solitary driver what bus number drove to Siena. I didn’t comprehend much of what the employee said but I gathered from his gestures that we needed to head back to the original/Western side since he kept pointing away and pushing his right arm outward similar to the way someone might gesture "leave me alone" or "get away".

Once again Mom & I crossed Stazione di Santa Maria Novella’s concourse. In our confusion we thought it wise to double-check that the SITA station (or at least a place to purchase SITA tickets) was not located inside the actual terminal. Through process of elimination we wandered around the swarming complex, but found only souvenir stores and magazine kiosks. So, we relied upon Lonely Planet and the local bus driver’s accuracy and retrogressed to the western side. Back on Via Luigi Alamanni and frustrated, Mom waited to speak to the flower shop employee since he was tied up with a customer. I too wanted to get a second-opinion or – at this point -- just a general direction so I diverged further north. I waited by shaded dumpsters and eventually three businessmen strolled by but could not understand my English.

Ten minutes later Mom and I reunited none the wiser. Desperate, we transversed Via Luigi Alamanni/the electric train rails and headed directly toward the only café in sight. I bought a Coke Zero for us to share since the midday heat was intense. To our dismay no one in the café (staff and patrons alike) spoke a lick of Inglese a.k.a. English. Lost beyond belief Mom and I stood outside the café, feeling irritated and defeated. We had scoured everywhere and inquired of everyone within a block radius. If Stazione Termini was my first circle of hell, this misadventure was my second.

Yet, we still did not secede. I was getting pissed off which only made me want to find the SITA station more. We decided to branch out even further and wandered aimlessly in the western vicinity. On a particular road with more dilapidated houses [than the tourist area of Firenze] I saw a lot of people hanging around on the sidewalk. Thinking it may be a bus stop, Mom & I made our way toward the group. We entered a small convenient store where people loitered and asked the first attendant we saw if she had any information. In very broken English, the young woman attempted to explain the bus depot’s whereabouts but neither Mom nor I could decode her Italian. She may have sensed this because she set down a box and lead us onto the sidewalk where she again attempted to relay advice. The woman tried so hard (using gestures and by repeating key words) Mom & I both faked comprehension and thanked her because up to this point, she was really the only person we encountered that was willing to aid us.

Mom & I walked in the direction the lady pointed and agreed that we were still incredibly befuddled. Perplexed and in a funk, I tried to get my bearings as we crossed a side-street. I felt a tap on my left arm and immediately became aware of the tan, dark-haired man who was touching me. I looked at his face as his eyes looked to my right. He waved his right hand outward and gave me a simple nod in the same direction as his eyes/hand. Instantly it dawned on me that he was showing the way to the SITA depot. I was so euphoric for finally receiving a morsel of information I could have kissed that man! I never noticed him nor had I approached him for help but I was so grateful for his unexpected kindness even though he never uttered a word. I smiled and repeatedly thanked him (in Italian) as he continued on his path and we veered right.

Turning right per the man’s directions meant Mom & I were now walking through apartments that swallowed the sunlight and this unassuming driveway. The one-way side-street opened up into a courtyard that was completely enclosed by buildings and there were the SITA busses lined up in a row! Apparently when Lonely Planet published "on the western side [of the train station]" they meant "four blocks away off a secluded driveway". Relieved, I assumed everything from here on out would be all downhill...

Ninety minutes since Mom & I first arrived in the area, we purchased tickets and headed to the tiny waiting area of the sidewalk for bus #6 a a.k.a. to Siena. Except the waiting area was full so we followed the queue to the very end, past waiting areas #3-5 which were scheduled for San Gimignano, Lucca and Pistoia. Go figure, today everyone wanted to visit Siena!

Mom asked the tall, gorgeous backpacker with shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair if he too was in line for a bus to Siena. Why did I have to wear my ugly khaki shorts today of all days? We stood around for another half hour. The SITA depot clearly couldn’t handle the myriad of tourists: the ticketing queue overflowed onto the sidewalk; the waiting areas could probably contain 25 people max; the attractive, blonde male in front of us was nearly run over as bus #4 pulled in.

All the SITA busses were tour busses, meaning they could store luggage on the bottom and had two seats on each side of the aisle. I did some quick computations and told Mom the bad news: there may not be enough room for us on the first bus. We would be pretty close to the cut off point.

When Siena’s bus boarded the line moved for the first time in 30 minutes. Everyone scooted forward like herded cattle. As we drew closer, a SITA staff member closed the door to the stuffed baggage compartment and the Dutch-looking backpacker commented that he would not be making this trip (since he was traveling with a large duffel and shopping bag containing a puzzle). With only five passengers ahead of us, the bus was completo a.k.a. full. A brunette, young woman approached the driver and asked him quite a few questions in Italian – I guessed she was trying to squeeze on because the staff member continually said "no". The bus door closed and I suspiciously watched as the Italian lady non-chalantly lingered by the front of our line. Oh I had my eye on her. Over my dead body was that shyster cutting in front of me!

The number of people that loaded onto the bus was less than the number of people wanting to visit Siena that day so the line continued to grow. Mom & I settled in for another wait. After 30 minutes I became aware of commotion as a bus da a.k.a. from Poggibonsi pulled in behind me. Unannounced, the bus’ sign changed from Poggibonsi to Siena before my eyes. Immediately a mob of people converged at the door and I found myself in a shoving match against everyone else. All of the sudden, Mom & I went from being 6th and 7th in line, to the outskirts since the bus pulled into spot #5 (not designated #6). I was outraged! When traveling I’m typically more relaxed and polite, but I had earned my spot in Siena’s queue!

I grabbed Mom’s hand and commanded "come on" as I started thrusting through the crowd with my shoulder. There was validity in the adage "nice guys finish last." I made a little progress but the army of people barely moved since everyone was bottle-necking at the bus’ door. I could feel the adrenaline surging through my body because – again using mental math – I knew we weren’t going to make this journey either! Like hell I was going to give up now without a fight! Panicking I looked around for an alternative (like running around the backside of the bus to avoid the massive crowd approaching the door head-on). To my left I saw a SITA employee wearing a navy blue blazer with red piping amidst the sea of bodies. I screamed for him and – as concisely as possible – yelled how we (and I circled the 6 people ahead of me in the original line) should be first on the bus but that we were now last. The employee turned away.

I had no idea if the man understood my English or even heard me but he was my last resort. Other riders – with the same "every man for himself" mentality – continued to fill the bus as Mom & I inched our way closer. As we rounded the corner of the bus, I saw the SITA worker shove himself into the horde with arms extended. People continued to climb onto the bus but the employee helped stop the flow just enough so that a few of us at the corner could propel ourselves toward the door. I watched the tall backpacker emerge from the masses as he made his way toward the luggage chamber. We were so close to the threshold but I knew the bus would be at capacity any moment so I extended my left arm, grabbed the interior railing, and made a clothesline with it. Using my appendage as a barrier, and for leverage, I hoisted myself onto the steps and pulled Mom behind me even though the crowd was squishing together, swallowing Mom and making it difficult for her to move forward. Still, we were aboard.  Relieved, I plopped down in the second available seat next to a quiet man probably in his early 50s. Mom rested next to a young Italian who looked like a college student.

Sweating, I put the air conditioning above me at full blast. Two rows ahead of me the student turned on Mom’s and his air-conditioning. Then I watched him redirect the two vents that belonged to the passengers in the front row onto Mom and himself. His sneakiness made Mom laugh and he smiled. I sat there and watched only sei a.k.a. six more people load the bus, the last being the mother-daughter duo who was first in the original queue to Siena. I felt sad that the blonde backpacker didn’t succeed in his efforts and thought it was probably because he had to leave the line to stow his possessions. I became livid when I recognized the shady punk who tried to butt in earlier. She obviously had acquired a seat before any of the six of us did. I thought it very unfair that she had a seat but the handsome backpacker had to wait for yet another bus. With my eyes, I shot daggers into her back the entire roadtrip.

The SITA bus winded its way through the tight turns of Firenze, which eventually opened up as we escaped the city limits and sped down the Raccordo Autostradale. The bus had only made two stops thus far, at which the slinky young lady and the student exited so I moved up to sit next to Mom. Back on the highway I read a sign that stated we were only 13 kilometers from Siena. However, the bus turned off at the next exit en route to Poggibonsi (the bus’ initial destination). It weaved through the small, lackluster town with tall white buildings which started to make me nauseous. A few more riders disembarked then we set off again. The bus swerved around two roundabouts as it returned to the highway. By now I was holding my head, massaging my temples and trying to breathe to quell my sick stomach. I just wanted to be in Siena. I imagined this was how Mom felt a week prior on the curvy descent from Mt. Vesuvius.