Boris was just released to transition from a wheelchair to a cane (after 5 1/2 months), so we are off to stay in Tuscany for a week. We planned this as a post recovery trip over the Labor Day weekend when his full recovery was anticipated in August. We could only make one postponement, so here we go wheelchair and all.
We are flying on Lufthansa. Before Continental (now United) changed it membership from Sky Team to Star Alliance, we made most of our connections for European travel (other than on Continental) through Amsterdam on KLM. This trip we leave Houston and connect in Frankfurt to Rome. Rocky drove us to the airport and with a porter with our luggage, I rolled Boris up to the gate in the lightweight, portable wheelchair we had bought on-line for the trip. (Boris is rather partial to this one as the smaller wheels mean that he can not roll it himself and I have to push him. It weights only 15 pounds.) After checking our bags and the wheelchair, Ricardo drove Boris, with me in tow, through the security process using the airport assistance service that we had requested through Lufthansa at no charge to us.
We completely by-passed the regular security lines and with minimal wait, completed the process. Ricardo handled everything for Boris and then came back and put his items through on a tray. I did the usual thing for myself through the same line. On the other side, Ricardo again helped Boris and he took us from security directly to our gate via various elevators. He was very friendly and advised us throughout the process. We waited at the gate and he returned just before the boarding process. One of eight wheelchair passengers, Boris and I boarded in the first group watching the end of the cleaning process.
We are on a brand new a 380 air bus. I was in row 51 of the multilevel plane, which was the second row on the bottom level. First and Business Class are on the upper level. The plane has 94 rows. The staircase I sat next to (which is only used at terminals with only one loading ramp) was not used, but had cool storage compartments below where guitars, walking sticks, and items for people in the first couple of rows (where overhead storage did not exist) were placed. From my seat, I could also see the screen for the camera placed in the front of the plane and watched our take offs and landings. If you walked forward from my seat and went up a different staircase, you reached the cockpit. We were told there was more than one cockpit on the plane.
New plane does not equal more room. In fact if anything, the space seemed smaller. (I am sure it is not that I am getting bigger.) I suspect you have to have a ticket to the upper level to enjoy a space advantage. New plane also does not equal more or better movies. I once flew on a (I think Singapore) flight with almost 400 movie/video offerings. This had so few. The only movie available in the drama category was The Rose with Bette Milder which came out in 1979. In thrillers, two versions of Spiderman were showing. I opted to watch a few sitcoms just before trying to go to sleep.
I occasionally see people I know on the plane, but on this flight the couple sitting next to me were friends. Well, I knew the wife and met the husband when they boarded. What a surprise. Sharon is someone who I have just gotten to know in the last year and a half and with a 9 hour flight someone I now know a little better. What are the odds? Her husband is convinced we planned this. They are also going to Italy, but connecting in Frankfurt to a flight to Florence. They are staying outside of Siena with 12 friends at a villa that sleeps 40, complete with winery.
Since Boris and I both like aisle seats, he sat a few rows back. This was most helpful when we boarded the plane and the flight attendant thought he was traveling alone and did everything for him. I just pretended I was on my own and was able to get situated before then regular fliers boarded. Boris and I are going to spend a whole week alone, so a little separate time on the plane is probably a good idea. We do this all the time to get aisle seats.
Our late offs and landings were so smooth and we reached altitude very quickly after take off. In North America, the a380 only flies out of Houston, San Francisco, and Miami. The flight was delayed one hour because it arrived in late and the cleaning of a 94-row plane takes a long time. We were a little concerned when we landed with just under an hour before our next flight, but knew we had wheelchair assistance in Frankfurt. Just before touch down we realized it was snowing outside the windows. We got a white welcome to Germany.
We were literally the first people off the plane and the assistant was waiting for us. In spite of this, all his coordination assistance and phone calls took so long that we were the last people to leave the arrival area. I kid you not. The plane parked at a new section of the Frankfurt airport, Pier A, that has only been open 15 days. It was built to accommodate the new larger planes. Our “driver” has been offering assistance at the airport for the past 6 years, but was only one day off training in the new section and we were his first passengers to assist in this area. We went through several passageways, rode on the largest elevators I have ever seen, and saw almost no other person. If we had been in Georgia, I would be thinking Deliverance. At the passport checkpoint, we were only only ones there (not counting the two passport officials and the security guard). Oddly and in spite of the fact that this is a new section, Boris’ chair (airport issued) would not fit through the checkpoint row and we went around through an exit.
Our guide did comment on the distance to reach gates saying you probably need to schedule at least a two-hour layover for getting around the Frankfurt airport. He clearly is staying in shape and I got my workout trying to keep up.
We ended up at a special lounge, again deserted except for three hostesses. Our guide left us there letting us know someone would come get us when I was time to go to the bus. There were several rows of seats with glasses and bottles of water for you to enjoy while you waited. Lufthansa is set to release another large plane and when several of those are in service I am sure that this area will be busier. After just a few minutes we were taken downstairs via elevator where a special bus for the disabled picked us up and took us to the airplane. On the bus, we met a family from Holland, Michigan who are in their first year of three stationed in Germany on business who were also going on our flight. They were leaving Rome on a cruise of the Mediterranean.
So we ride the disabled bus to the plane to find that Boris has to climb the stairs up to get in. Does anyone else find this rather ironic? I don’t know what they would have done if he couldn’t make them. Carry him up? This is one of their apron gates where you are bussed to an exterior site and enter the doors from the front and rear via staircases. You would think with the tough winter weather in Frankfurt that they wouldn’t use this type of entry. Can you say jetway? The ridiculous thing was that they didn’t direct the regular passengers to one entrance or the other so you had people entering from the rear fighting there way up to row 7 and people entering in the front who sat in the last row of the plane. You can image the bottleneck in the middle. You are also seeing all the overhead space quickly filling up and you can not get any closer to your seat with people coming straight at you. I had foolishly thought the short layover would be our toughest problem on this flight.
At one point when people were still all over the aisles, the flight attendant announced that boarding was complete. I am sure she just meant that all the buses had arrived and that people were on the plane, but she got a pretty hardy laugh from the passengers. Once everyone was seated, we were told that we would have to remain stationary so they could de-ice the wings. After that delay, we were told that there were about 8 aircraft in front of us, but we were looking at at least a half hour delay because one of the two outbound runways was closed due to wind. When we finally made it to the takeoff position a mechanical de-icer came and treated the wings. (I know that some of you think this is not a big deal, but I live in Houston Texas and was wearing shorts that day before this.) I didn’t see anything like this the first time they told us they were going to de-ice the wings, but from my window position I saw this machine with eight big spotlights spray a thin green foam on the wings. The sprayer was spastic moving back and forth, but it covered everything. The good thing about the window seat was I got to see it; the bad thing was that I couldn’t crawl over the two German women next to me to get my camera out of the overhead in time. When we finally took off most of the foam was off the wings before we left the ground. We were an hour and 45 late.
So, what was my first thought? Well, we had about 4 hours when we reached Rome before we needed to meet the agent for our apartment. It was about a two hour drive away. Oh no, no lunch!! I don’t like to eat airplane food so I was pretty hungry. Little did I know that it was going to get worse.
When we landed, I watched the wheelchair that we checked in Houston being taken off the plane. They told us it would be brought to the gate and gave us a special receipt for it. As we exited the plane, they sorted out which chair was whose and we went down to collect baggage, Boris being pushed by an airline service person. He was able to point out an ATM, Bancomat in Italy.
These machines usually give you a choice of language, but the English button didn’t do anything on this one, so after several tries the man behind me tried to show me in Italian. That didn’t work either. Finally after watching him, I figured out the first number to put in was the code and the second was the amount. You also have to know the conversion so you are not asking for euros in an amount that exceeds your daily limit. Finally after watching him actually get cash out, I tried again and actually completed the transaction in Italian. Of course, there was no line when I got there and a line of about 10 people when I left. But I did it.
When we got to baggage claim, Boris stayed with the assistant and I went and got a cart (ask for a trolley) for transporting the luggage to the car rental spot. The trolley was 2 euros. Luckily I had brought some euro coins with us because the bancomat machine gives you paper money and the trolley machine takes only coins. We were ready for our luggage which-wait for it-did not come. So in spite of that long delay in Frankfurt, our wheelchair, but not our suitcases, made it to Rome.
Our assistant took us to the lost luggage claim counter and Boris started that paperwork and trying to figure out how to explain where we staying (an apartment in walled-city in Tuscany) to the representative. At this point I knew that we were missing more than lunch. We were at the counter so long that our assistant went off shift and another person came to help us to the car rental spot. (On the overhead monitors they tell you what luggage service is handling your flight. If you have missing luggage, note the name of the luggage service which will help you determine which counter to go to.)
The good thing was that Boris, in a wheelchair, looked kind of pitiful and told them that his bandages were in his checked luggage (true). That and the fact that he was trying to communicate in Italian, helped him to secure their commitment to bring the bags all the way to Tuscany that night. So we were off to find the car rental counter. Where we found out we had to go to the outside counter. The assistant was with us the whole way. She pushed Boris; I pushed the luggage. She actually stayed with us until we got to the car itself. Amazing. Yes, someone in a wheelchair could have done this on their own. Well maybe not the luggage part.
We had a 2+ hour drive, but only 25 minutes before we had to meet the rental agent. Good thing Boris can speak Italian. He called while I drove. So on to Tuscany…
PS I promise tomorrow there will more exciting pictures. Yes, I do realize that ATM pictures are not that fascinating.