"Benjamin Button: Your life is defined by its opportunities… even the ones you miss."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
At 3:30 the alarm blared. No shower, no continental breakfast with Streganona; just brushed teeth and a fresh outfit. I put on my light jacket and backpack. We said goodbye to the front-desk attendant at Hotel Della Signoria and stepped into the night.
I was puzzled. First, why was the cobblestone road wet and shiny black? Second, why was I sweating?
In the six hours that Mom & I slept it must have rained, although we didn’t hear the slightest commotion. Oddly – but very much a blessing – that was the only rain we encountered on our three week excursion.
I suppose – like when I camped in the Tanami Desert in Australia – the same clouds that brought the rain also trapped the city’s heat. It was the most humid weather we had experienced and at 4:00, in the pitch black, the outdoors felt more like 8:00 when the sun was already climbing in the sky. I shed my light jacket (that I assumed I would need).
As Mom & I walked toward Firenze’s main train station, the city had an entirely different personality. Unlike most large metropoli I’ve visited the only person I saw on the twenty minute trek was a guy on a bicycle passing as we crossed paths at an intersection. There were no glitzy lights like night-time in Las Vegas, Nevada or Chicago, Illinois, USA. Everything was silent; all the ruckus from the bars was over. Mom & I walked down the middle (and purposefully flattest) of the road because there were no tourists. Like a house without furniture, Piazza Santa Maria Novella looked more expansive now that it was unobstructed by souvenir stands.
While finalizing our travel plans – less than 24 hours ago – Mom & I noticed the hourly trains from Firenze to Piombino had two transfers, more stops, and were two hours longer than the first commute of the day. Furthermore, we had not fared so well in Stazione Termini nor in finding the SITA depot so we decided to take the first train which had less stops and zero transfers. Yet, the seating confirmation from ItaliaRail.com clearly stated we "Must print and validate [our tickets] prior to boarding" hence why we arrived at Stazione Santa Maria Novella 45 minutes before our 5:15 departure.
Like Firenze, the station still was peaceful, relatively clean, and free from crowds in the early morning. Unlike Firenze, it was well-lit with other human beings. I went to the ticketing lobby to "print and validate" our arrangements from a self-serve machine. On almost every bench there was a person sprawled out and sleeping, using his jacket or her backpack or a shopping bag – basically their luggage – as a pillow. I followed the automated instructions, entered the 6 digit confirmation code and… nothing.
Thinking I missed a step due to my grogginess I repeated the process and received the same result. The machine kept asking me – in English – for a "CP Code." I reread the two pages of the confirmation email I printed from the internet cafe, verified the confirmation number (which you would think would be all you need) but found no other codes. Non capisco a.k.a. I don’t understand! I could not go to the ticketing windows because #1 they were not yet open and #2 there was no sign stating what time they opened. I was surprised at the lack of information inside the train depot.
Then I started panicking. I booked our tickets through ItaliaRail.com yet we were traveling on TrenItalia. Did I just spend
€40 for a ticket I would never use? I was about to be sick to my stomach from my error. I squinted to read the small text but confirmed that the tickets were for TrenItalia. So why wasn’t I able to print the tickets? I told Mom about the mishap and – like in Stazione Termini – we wandered off in search of assistance. I saw an adorable little old man in a neon yellow pinafore pushing around a big bin with the recycling symbol on it. I approached him, smiled and simply asked "Aiuto a.k.a. help?" He smiled back and hobbled to the machine with me. I don’t think he knew how to read because he was given the option to proceed in Italian or English but he did not know how to even navigate the site. Looking confused, the helpful, hunched-over man asked a tan man in his early 50s with silver hair a question in Italian. The 50 year old guy nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders without looking up from his task of setting up his magazine stand. The sweet, recycling man asked another – but different – question and this time the 50 year old magazine-store owner shooed at us with his hand. I was so put off! I could disregard the fact that the stand owner didn’t want to help me as I was probably just another annoying tourist in his eyes. But this owner just brushed off a fellow worker and countryman who had taken time away from his chores to aid me. I felt guilty I brought about the mistreatment of the friendly, older recycler.
The only way I could communicate was through my sorrowful eyes and by repeating "gratzie" a.k.a. thank you! I gave him a pat on the shoulder and he continued on his mission with the recycling bin. When Mom & I reconvened she had only asked one person but he had no idea. We decided she would continue to search the terminals for help while I would stay with the baggage and continue to toy with the machine/seek assistance in the ticketing area.
I returned to the damned machine. Next to it was a young guy with dark, frizzy, chin-length hair. I watched as the red machine dispensed a ticket to him. I asked if he could help me & he obliged. The male asked me where I was going, to which I responded. He looked a little scruffy & I was a bit hesitant to ask where he was going at 4:30 in the morning. I imagined he would answer "I’m going home to recover from this all-night drug-binge" or "Away from the polizia a.k.a. police." Yet his cryptic answer made me even more curious. He simply said "I want to go home so I can sleep."
I inquired about his name & introduced myself. Dennis went through the same process with the machine with the same result: there was no "CP Code." He slapped the machine & mumbled "that’s the problem with these things." Both of us at a loss, I leaned against the baggage and we chatted about where I was heading. Dennis asked if I was on holiday. He walked with me out to the terminal and told me to try & ask the conductor. We bade arrivederci a.k.a. goodbye to each other and split up.
Mom & I regrouped and – with 10 minutes until our time of departure – waited at our train with all its doors open. We looked up and down the length of the train but only saw three, rambunctious, young guys jump on board. With 5 minutes left I was surprised to see Dennis amble down the terminal. I remarked "You’re back" to which I learned he missed his train. He got on the train and flopped into a seat. At this point Mom & I were beyond frustrated because we had exhausted every resource to make this situation a success. We agreed that we didn’t care anymore about being fair, patient, lost tourists. We were taking our future into our own hands and getting on this train to Piombino!
We sat apprehensively in the quiet, empty train compartment. Finally, a female worker with light brown hair passed through our car and told me to take my foot off of the chair in front of me. Oops! I was going to try to win her over and play dumb but I made a negative first impression. Mom explained our ticketing problem to her and the young woman replied "Yes. I have to check them in our system with your reservation number." So all our time & worry up to this point was irrelevant because it all came down to Ms. Gatekeeper validating our reservations that floated in cyberspace! Oh the relief and agitation that overflowed from me. Why was none of that information noted on the confirmation page or the self-serve kiosk?
Finally Mom & I could unwind! The train’s stops became spaced further and further apart as we left the city and crossed the countryside of Toscana. Hardly anyone boarded or disembarked, except for around Pisa. The morning sun was low in the sky as we grazed the outskirts of Pisa. Then, the train turned south along the coast. We would stay on this route until the end of the line at Piombino and from there – according to Lonely Planet – we would have to taxi/bus/hoof it to the marina.
Along the way, the mare di Toscana a.k.a. Tuscan sea would appear, then disappear as we went through a tunnel. As we drew closer to our destination the female employee passed through our cabin again. She had valuable information and I needed it so – as sweetly as possible – I asked her how to get to the port. She told us that if we just stayed on the train, it would be turned on the tracks and lead us directly to Piombino’s port. This was great news because it would save us money, time, and energy!
Mom & I knew we had reached Piombino (since we were tracking our progress on a handy map from a travel agent) but were unsure where to get off since – like Firenze and Roma – there could be multiple stops in one city. We felt the train rotate on the tracks then restart. We reached a stop and saw a few people get off. Mom & I stared at each other, both wondering if we should depart. That was when the female worker popped her head into the car and mentioned "This is your stop." She was so helpful I wanted to hug her after the tumultuous morning we experienced.
Down the long ramp, Mom & I emerged into the sunlight and there were all the ferries. The ticketing office was less than a block away and – finally – without issues we purchased our return tickets. Within an hour we sailed away from dry land aboard Moby Love.
Mom is notorious for her instant nausea (I’m not so great myself), so we climbed to the top deck for fresh air. The trip only lasted an hour but it proved enough time for Mom to feel uneasy. The entire time she sat front & center and fixated forward at an immobile white wall. Contrarily I explored the Moby Love. I found the restroom and cafeteria inside. I sat in the warm sun and circumnavigated the top deck. It was so refreshing to look out at the Tyrrhenian Sea. From the walkway it was a tranquil ride. However, when I stepped to the rails and leaned ever so slightly outward the wind was fierce and loud – so much so that a few times I pushed my sunglasses tighter to my face in an effort to keep my eyes from tearing up and to not lose them.
Park Hotel Napoleone was a four-star hotel, built out of contrasting brick colors with beautiful landscaping. Healthy plants overflowed from rotund vases, vine-like flowers climbed the walls, and the lawn was a vibrant green. There were grand stone stairways and the fragrance of fresh botanicals.
In an effort to save money (and the majority of TWN’s stock was already rented) Mom & I decided to share a Honda 125 because it sat two. We filed the paperwork and loaded up. I planned on driving first but the motorbike was difficult to maneuver due to its weight and Mom didn’t like sitting on the sloped passenger seat. So, we switched.
Mom & I both felt unsteady on the motorcycle, so – as we pulled out of the parking lot – Mom said she wanted to do a few laps around the block. I agreed. We drove a block toward the port and Mom attempted to turn right. Yet the bike felt unbalanced and – in an effort to not tip – she gassed it. The bike reved and instead of bumping into the curb, it went over the median and crashed into a sign, almost tossing both of us.
Mom asked if I was okay. I was more worried about her because her left hand/arm had nasty gashes and was bleeding from the impact, as well as her left calf. Adrenaline pumping, she hadn’t even felt the pain. An Italian male who was dining at a nearby café ran over to us and helped us push the bike out of the way. He started with "Oh my God, are you alright?" We assured him we were fine (and for the most part we were) except our egos were crushed. We had wrecked the motorcycle in front of the store that rented it to us! Not to mention, upon receipt of the bike there was only a minor scuff on the left panel. Again, I was just relieved Mom wasn’t seriously hurt, though her left arm began to swell.
I waited outside as Mom had to financially settle up inside. I dreaded hearing the final total. About an hour later we did our walk of shame and left TWN. We were unnerved, bruised and hungry so we scoured the nearby area for a restaurant. Nothing sounded appetizing and the majority of the menus were dull, but we knew we needed something to eat so we snacked.
Mom & I inquired with locals about other rental agencies in the area – obviously we needed something with four-wheels. We found one but they were out of scooters and only rented manual cars (it turned out the entire island only had stickshift). With no other options, Mom continued to apologize and we both chuckled at the chaotic tragedy that just occurred. We bought some groceries and waited in the shade at a bus stop. Portoferraio was not bustling. Its pace seemed so slow I wanted to take a siesta. 45 minutes later the correct bus finally picked us up.
Crestfallen we sat in the lobby of Park Hotel Napoleone. The entire reason for traveling to Elba was to explore its multiple, pristine beaches. The busses did not cross the island. Adding more insult to injury, we learned that although Priceline.com advertised a "daily shuttle" to the local beach from the hotel, the shuttle left at 8:00 and only returned at 18:00. It did not run on an as-needed basis or even a schedule.
Mom was still frustrated about crashing the motorcycle but I really held no animosity, sadness or disappointment. I just wanted to decompress. We had been on the road since 4:00 and were met – mostly – with adversity. I was putting my feet into sand on Elba if I had to walk to that damn beach! We did not come all this way to sit inside, so we agreed to pay the money & take a taxi to the beach and catch the single shuttle home.
We readjusted our attitude, let go of opportunities lost and committed ourselves to making the most of this short trip to Elba… and from that moment forward we enjoyed every second on the island.