“Dear passenger, this is to inform you that your flight with us tomorrow has been canceled. Thanks for your understanding.
–The Alitalia team.”
The email reached me during a break on my last gig in Paris. A warm Wednesday evening, I was standing outside the club, absorbing as many of the sights and smells as I could before my imminent departure. It wasn’t so much the content of the email that bothered me– flight cancelations are a frustrating part of the deal– so much as its nonchalance. For an upheaval of this magnitude, I want heart rending apologies, desperate appeals for forgiveness, promises of ridiculously disproportionate reparations. But seeing that Alitalia seems finally to be going out of business, and “the team” is about to be out on its arse, I should consider myself lucky they told me at all. I shrugged, put my phone away and went in to finish the gig– this would have to wait.
Later that night I peered through my post-show blurriness at various travel websites, and eventually found a flight to Rome that would get me there in time for the following night’s gig. I spent a bit extra to fly with a German carrier because I wanted to leave nothing to chance and, well, they’re an organised people, aren’t they?
“We have rebooked your baggage on flight LH1872. Please contact the local baggage tracing desk.”
This rather blunt text from Lufthansa lit up my phone as we landed in Rome, and I groaned. “Rebooked??” They didn’t say, “for your convenience,” but it was implied. Or, “we thought your bag might appreciate some extra time to explore the facilities of the Munich Airport baggage hold, so we managed to find it a later flight. No need to thank us– it’s all part of the service.” I spent an hour in line at the Rome airport baggage tracing desk- a collection of words I hope never to repeat– and had to choose from a laminated card a picture of the bag that looked most like mine– like picking a suspect out of a police lineup. “Take your time, sir… No sir, the bags can’t see you.”
Unburned by pesky possessions, I made the trek to my hotel, washed my socks in the basin and attempted a shower. Shower stalls in cheap hotels are much the same throughout Italy: a tiny shadowy glass box standing forlornly in the corner. To operate, simply slide the door open as far as the juddering complaining rails will allow, then squeeze yourself in sideways. The shower head will be one of those handheld types, mounted on a vertical railing that was once adjustable, but now sits permanently at chest height. The tiny, rough, waterproof puck on the soap dish is the soap. Now the fun starts. This glass phone booth in which you’re now trapped was not built for dancing. Or any movement at all. Your only hope is to stand perfectly still with hands by your sides and think clean thoughts. Any active attempt at washing will send elbows and knees crashing into the shaky glass walls, the thunderous reverberations sure to send hotel staff in to investigate. At least five times throughout the ordeal, you’ll bump the faucet with your lower back and shut off the water; and if you drop the soap, the only way to pick it up is to slide down into a grotesque squatting position and hope nobody walks in. This particular evening, bruised and chafed, I foolishly tried to adjust the shower head and pulled the entire mounting out of the wall, sending it clattering to the floor. I sighed and gave up, squeezing out and towelling off the soap. I got dressed again in my travel-worn clothes, half-dried my socks with the hair dryer, and squelched off to the gig.
I peeled my eyes open to a bright clear Friday morning in Rome. After several hours trying to contact the airport, it became clear that they had no intention of delivering my bag, and the only recourse was to schlep back out there and pick it up. My Italian contact, guitarist and all-around good guy, Daniele Cordisco, was due to drive us to the next town and agreed to make the detour, an hour’s drive in the wrong direction. A couple of miles short of the airport, traffic slowed to a standstill and Daniele’s head drooped. “Protest,” he said, with the air of resignation only an Italian jazz musician can muster. It seems my friends at Alitalia weren’t entirely thrilled with their looming unemployment, and were letting their feelings show by blocking access. Like our fellow travellers, we turned the car off and got out, as the vans of SWAT teams started arriving. I left Daniele at the car and took a stroll up through the gridlock to see hundreds of chanting protesters sitting on the freeway, banners and flags flying, while throngs of cops in full riot gear stood around and checked their phones. I went back to the car and we listened to music for an hour or so, the baking Roman sun leading to a case of Cordisco in Forno (thank you.) Traces of jet fumes gave the stagnant air an unreal shimmer as we watched prospective travelers abandon cabs and shuttle buses and wheel their bags the final miles to the airport. Eventually a path was cleared through the protesters and we edged through, giving signs of support so they wouldn’t egg our car. At the airport, the expected lines, paperwork and gormless employees did their best to impede progress, but finally I was reunited with my lonely, scared little bag. We hit Friday traffic on the way out, and a three hour tour turned into 7½ hours in the car.
Backstage at the venue in Potenza, some 200 miles south of Rome, I changed clothes for the first time since Paris. Feeling like a new man, I accepted a celebratory glass of the local red wine, and dumped it immediately down my shirt front. I took to the stage looking like a stab victim, but the gig went well until halfway through a ballad the roadside mortadella sandwich I’d had for lunch took its undeniable and urgent revenge. I motioned to Daniele to take a solo– “and stretch out, baby. I mean really stretch out…” –and ran for my life. But I made it back to finish the set with a smile, and if you look at my social media, it’s like none of this ever happened…
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