Rome: Day 7: Thursday: The Long Ride Home

John Denver once wrote in his song "Starwood in Aspen", “It’s a long way from L.A. to Denver.  It’s a long time to hang in the sky…”.   I’ll tell you what, after making this flight three times in three years, Denver had nothing to complain about. 


I was talking to one of my trade show clients once, and he was complaining about how much he hated participating in shows in Hawaii. I couldn’t believe my ears, until he explained that he’s from the east coast, so you fly all day over the US, then just about the time you’d like to land and get off the plane, you have to fly even more across the Pacific.  For me, living in Los Angeles, Hawaii doesn’t take any longer to get to than New York.  I remarked that it must be the same deal for him, as our flying from L.A. to Europe.  “Exactly!”, he answered.


Round-Trip from Los Angeles to Zurich, it is 11,866 miles, then from Zurich to Rome, another 860, for a grand total of 12,726 miles in seven days.    Now, that’s a long time to hang in the sky.  The funny thing is that that short flight between Zurich and Rome seemed the most difficult.  I guess because of the stress of our tight connection (about 1 hour both ways), and the wait to board taking longer than the actual flight. 


In prior years we had taken less expensive flights between Los Angeles and Paris, then taken the train down to Rome and worked our way back up to Paris during the course of each trip.  That had its good and bad points as well.  The best feature of that trip is the time in Paris itself, which is a delight.  On the minus side, you have the extra sleeping expense, extra travel time and added train cost expense.


Probably the only thing I’m really sold on avoiding for future Europe trips is leaving L.A. at night and arriving in Europe at night.  I’d rather leave L.A. in the morning and get there the next morning.  Even if we need to take a nap, we still would have all afternoon and evening to do something.  When you show up at night, you pretty much want to go to sleep for the night, which means you lost one day flying, another sleeping, and only start the vacation on the third day.  This isn’t a great scenario for a 7 day trip, since you lose one more day traveling home, leaving really only 3 full days, less than 50% of the total trip time to enjoy the destination.    I still mostly blog about my trips for my own information so I won’t make the same mistakes twice.  If someone else happens upon this and gets value, I’m happy.  It probably wouldn’t have been quite as big a deal if we had two weeks to spend.   The only way we could compensate for this was by running ourselves ragged, and we did that, and I have to admit I enjoyed it.


On the morning of our 7th day, we woke up at the Rome Airport Hilton.  Regardless of some of the bad reviews we read on various travel sites, I’d consider this again.  True, it’s a Hilton and you have no idea you are not in the United States, but it takes a lot of stress off knowing you just have to wake up, get dressed, pack, and walk over to the airport.


This time we didn’t even have to walk.  When we exited the hotel, there was a driver standing by a Hilton van who asked us if we needed a ride to the airport.   He helped us load our luggage in the back, and within a few minutes we were heading to Swiss Air check-in.   If I had known about the van, I probably would have called them that night and avoided the long and confusing walk from the gate.  However, that walk did acquaint us with things like where the train station was, so looking back, it was probably a good thing to walk the first time there.  Next time, I may try to call the shuttle to come and get us.


We exited the shuttle, and headed in to the Swiss Air check-in desk.  Nobody was at the desk, which is typical these days.  They tell you to be at an International flight 2-3 hours ahead of time, but if you are on a morning flight, they never seem to be there to check you in.


We had done online check in the day before on the hotel internet computer.  Since we were going on an international flight, this didn’t really mean we were checked in, it just gave us the right to do actual check-in at the Business Class counter rather than economy.  We were the first people in line at business class, while Economy was already crowded with dozens of travelers and their luggage.


After what felt like a long time, a guy appeared behind the counter.  He looked grouchy, and like he had rolled out of bed late.  The Swiss are usually very efficient, but they aren’t known for being the most friendly people in Europe, especially when you’ve been in Italy all week, where everybody loves you, and either wants to take you home, or feel up your wife.  This guy didn’t have so much as a “Grutsi “in him when he motioned us over to check-in.


I’ve learned to really watch these guys, especially when they appear to be asleep.  What tag they put on your luggage is absolutely crucial.  I kept an eye out to make sure the tag said the luggage was going from ROM to ZCH to LAX.   I asked him if we were checked through to Los Angeles, and he looked at me like I must be stupid to ask such a silly question, snapping open our ticket folder to show me that we had two boarding passes each.  The main purpose in making sure we were checked through was the luggage.  If not, we would have to find our luggage from the one flight and get it on the next flight ourselves.  Checking it through made it the responsibility of the airline to get it from the Zurich flight to the Los Angeles flight.


I’d definitely say that of the two airlines I have flown to Europe, Air Tahiti Nui was the more friendly.  I wouldn’t avoid Swiss Air in the future if they had a better price, but all things being equal, I’d pick Air Tahit Nui out of Los Angeles.


On the flight from Rome to Zurich we were able to see the beautiful Alps from the air for the first time.  On the flight over it had already gotten dark.  I’ve vacationed in the California Eastern Sierras every year since I was a little boy, and always heard people compare it to the Alps.  When I saw them from the ground on our first trip, I thought it was a fair comparison, but seeing them both from the air does not compare.  The Alps seem to go on forever, and are stunning from an airliner.  Nationalistic pride put aside, I don’t think that any American mountain range really compares.


The change of planes in Zurich was uneventful.  We did have to go through security again, which wasn’t too bad since our luggage was already checked through.


The entire trip home had no night time.  The entire 12 hours, I was able to look out the window and see amazing things.  We flew near the Artic, being on the north side of the plane I could see the earth curve over the polar ice cap.  I wondered about things like global warming, and what this area might look like in twenty years.  It was stunning.  When we were farther north, it was all white.  Farther south, you could see massive icebergs, and gigantic rivers cutting through the ice.  On our other trips, I had never seen this, as we were probably on the south side of the plane.


We were served two meals and one snack, all were fine by airline standards, nothing that really stands out, except the snack.  It was yogurt, and just before leaving I had learned that I was on the borderline to becoming diabetic.  I was trying very hard on this trip to watch sugar and carbs (a hard thing to do in Italy!).  I noticed that the yogurt tasted like almost pure sugar to me.  I couldn’t imagine how I had thought something like this was healthy in the past.  Since changing my diet, I have since lost 20 lbs, simply being careful about what I eat, when I can.  I was really shocked at how quickly my taste had changed.  I was the kind of guy who would order a cappuccino, and stand there with the sugar dispenser and let it just pour into the cup.  Now, one package of Splenda or other sugar substitute is okay by me.


Jane and I tried to get up every hour or so and walk around the plane.  In the back, they usually had snacks and drinks available, and there were almost always fellow travelers standing in their socks ready to socialize.  It is important on long haul flights to get up and move, since you can develop life threatening blood clots from sitting so long.  It also helps break up the monotony of the trip.


Another nice thing that has been available on all our flights to Europe is the entertainment system.  Swiss Air had a large number of current films available to be viewed on a small screen installed in the back of the seat in front of each passenger.  There were also video games, and an “Air Show”, that usually had a map showing where you were in the world, altitude and speed.  There was also two cameras you could watch, one at the front of the plane, and one on the bottom.


Eventually, we landed at LAX.  We had flown 12 hours, and it was just the middle of the day.  We went and got our luggage, then headed for customs.  I always claim close to the legal limit for miscellaneous souvenirs and gifts.   Both of our suitcases were actually almost busting with items we were bringing back, including the two hunks of Parmesan Regianno for ourselves and our daughter Erin.  We had bottles of La Cryma Cristi wine.  Jane had an unknown number of the little chocolate eggs containing small toys called “Supresas”.  I had a new Italian leather jacket and a raincoat bought in Rome.  It was pretty ridiculous. 


We came up to the customs officer with our bulging luggage.  He glanced at it and kind of rolled his eyes.  “Are you bringing back any food?”, he asked.  In my mind, I’m thinking, “What? Like McDonalds?”.  “NO!”, I answered.  He stamped our forms and our passports, and we wheeled our belongings back into the United States.


We caught the Bus back to Parking Lot B, and slowly wheeled our luggage back to our Suburban that had been dutifully parked in the same spot for seven days while we trotted the globe.


I paid the parking by credit card.  It was expensive, but less than any other method we could come up with.  There is no real meaningful public transportation between our home in the San Fernando Valley and LAX.  A cab or limousine was even more money, so we just let our massive gas hog sit and wait for us.  We loaded our luggage and it started right up.  It seemed strange that in the same day, we had been in Rome, stopped in Zurich and now under the same sun we were back at our own car at LAX.


It is always the worst part of the trip getting from LAX back home.  It is actually only about 30 miles, but the 405 freeway is so often like a parking lot, and by that time, you just want to be home.  


When we arrived home, it was very cold.  I tried to kick on the heater, and it wouldn’t work.  Of course, cold for the L.A. area is anything under 70 degrees.   But, I started to notice I wasn’t feeling well.   Something on the airplane must not have agreed with me, and I started making frequent trips to the bathroom.


All night long, I shivered, and ran to the restroom.  It was a horrible way to come home after a wonderful trip.


Christmas was coming in only a few days, and luckily, we had thought far enough ahead to get ready before we left.  The Christmas lights were already on the house, the tree standing in the living room, and gifts all wrapped around the trunk.


Our 12 year old, Casey, had spent the week at the home of Jane’s sister Sue, in San Diego.  We were due to drive out and pick her up (part of the deal) the next morning.  I had spent all night running between my freezing room and the WC, so Jane was kind enough to offer to make the nearly 300 mile round trip without me.   I felt guilty, but I was so worn out that I accepted her offer and spent the next night at home alone wishing the heater would kick in.  Eventually, it did.  It’s some kind of occasional problem that we are still having months later as I write this.  Every time we get a heater guy out, it works, so they can’t fix it!


Not long after Jane and Casey got back from San Diego, our oldest son, Christian flew in from Baltimore for the holidays.  I picked him up at LAX, where we had just been a few days before.


Erin came over to pick up her hunk of Parmesan Regianno.  We both gazed at these two big hunks of cheese with their price tags still on in Euros, and tried to guess how much they would cost at the local “Whole Foods” Grocery store.


The next morning, I got up to make some breakfast, and almost screamed when I looked into the refrigerator.   Apparently, in the night, Christian (a lacto-ovum vegetarian) had gotten up looking for something to eat.  He had unwrapped the Parmesan Regianno and bit a hunk off the end.  I’m sure it tasted repulsive in that context, so he sat it back in the fridge, unwrapped.   I probably would have had a more low-key reaction if I had found a human head in the ice box.   Nearly in hysterics, I rewrapped the cheese and hid it in the crisper.  I never told Christian about it, because I just couldn’t figure out how to explain how I felt about this hunk of cheese I had smuggled 6,000 miles wrapped in a t-shirt.


It has taken me four months since the trip to write this chapter of the story, but we still have a pretty good hunk of this cheese left.    I did receive a message from a lady who runs the local Italian Deli. She was reading my blog and wanted to assure me that she could get this cheese anytime we wanted it.  That helps.


I, of course, forgave Christian for mutilating my cheese, and we went on to have a wonderful Christmas, filled with gifts from Italy.  This was one of the nice features of the trip, because we were there during the season with all the shops and street vendors in full force. It was fun to give these gifts that we had just brought home from so far away.


So, what’s next?   We do not have a trip to Europe planned for 2007.   Instead, we are planning a trip up the California coast to the redwoods.  


HOWEVER… 2008 marks our 25th wedding anniversary, and we are already planning to celebrate in Europe.  The idea at this time is to spend part of the time with just Jane and myself together, and then have the kids join us at some point.


As always, we learn a lot from traveling abroad.   Here are some of the finer points:


  1. When you look at the water faucet,  they don’t have them backwards.  The “C” doesn’t stand for “Cold”, it stands for “Caldo” (Hot).  Beware.
  2. Don’t let your wife go behind the counter of a coffee bar to pose for a picture with an Italian over 50 years of age.
  3. While in Naples, take the Circumvesuviana to Pompeii.  It’s much less terrifying than hiring a stranger out of the train station!
  4. If you are staying more than 2 days, get an apartment.  They are cheaper and get you into a neighborhood rather than a tourist trap.
  5. If you hear English being spoken at a restaurant, keep moving until you can’t understand a word anybody is saying.  The food is better at these places.
  6. Get a multiple day pass and take the subway and other public transportation.  Never attempt to drive in Rome.
  7. When crossing streets in Rome, stick close to a local.  The traffic lights don’t mean a damned thing.
  8. Bring back a big hunk of Parmesan Regianno in your luggage.  Four months later, the wine and coffee are gone, but the cheese remains!
  9. Never pass a random church.  Go inside, you’ll never be disappointed.
  10. Travel and have fun!  When you travel, please write about it.  If you don’t have a website, use a free service like 


This is the end of a trilogy of stories that began when I ventured to Europe for the first time.  My wife lived there in the 70’s and it took her 24 years to convince me to make the trip.  I only did it the first time to please her, but after that I was hooked.   In three years, I have gone from seeking out the McDonalds at Termini Station, to avoiding anything run by, or containing Americans.  I feel completely comfortable and welcome in the cities we have spent time at in Europe, even Paris!


Probably the single most important tip I can share, if you have never been to a foreign country, is to at least learn key words and phrases and don’t be afraid to use them.  Hello, Please, Thank You, Goodbye.  If you just know that much, it goes a long way.


I enjoy reading your comments about our travels, and I always answer people who take the time to email with questions.  I can be contacted via my website at


Our short trip to Italy is over.  We look forward to returning to Europe in 2008.  In the meantime, one more photo!


Here I am at the Flavian Amphitheatre.  Some people call it the Coliseum.  I’ve stood here three times in as many years, and it’s always a thrill: