Jul 13 2010

I Take It All Back

Last night, I wrote an ecstatic post about my lost luggage. It had been found in Latvia! It would be delivered this morning! In my head, trumpets were playing happy songs of victory; clean t-shirts were so close I could imagine their unsticky feeling on my skin.

Oh, Catherine. How innocent you were. This morning, I awoke to find that a. I was still in my short-sheeted bed and b. there was no luggage waiting for me. Never fear, I thought to myself. Perhaps it was on the flight that left at 10. I called the Vilnius airport to confirm this. Yes, yes, they told me. 10am it shall be. So Peter and I went on a hot and sweaty walk across Vilnius, looking for bike jerseys for him, a SIM card for my cell phone carefully stashed in my missing luggage, and dropping  by the bike shop for some additional advice on the tri-country bicycle adventure that we are supposed to leave on tomorrow  morning.

Afterwards, we decided to stop by the hostel to drop off our bags and make sure that the luggage had indeed arrived.

But it had not.

And then began what has to be one of the most annoying travel experiences I have had to date: the Vilnius airport does not have the bag, but the Riga airport insists that it was on a flight at 10am. I called one, then the other, then the other again, trying to figure out where, in this direct, 1/2 hour flight, my bag had gone astray. It was clearly not in the Vilnius airport, which is the size of a rural bus station. But what about Riga? When I called, the representative insisted that it had been sent that morning at ten. Untrue, I told her. It was not in Vilnius. Could she possibly contact one of her colleagues to see if it might be still in Riga? You know, seeing as how it had been sitting outside of her door THAT MORNING?

No, she told me. No, she could not look for it, or have anyone else look for it, for at least three hours more (this was six pm; I already knew that the last flight of the day was around ten). Was there any way they could look for it a little earlier? No. No way. Then, in true adherence to the rules of customer service, she hung up on me. I tried her back. Hung up again. Peter and I both spoke to the people at Vilnius again, and they reconfirmed that the bag was not there. Peter called Riga. She hung up on him.

So, with nothing else to do, we got dinner, sitting outside since the smell of my clothing right now is enough to scare people away. Called the Vilnius airport again on our waitress’s cell phone. They told us that they had “sent a telefax” to Riga and that the bag might be on the plane at 10pm. Did they know for sure? No. No they did not.

We call at 10:45. No bag. Call Riga. No bag. Do they have any idea where the bag might be? No, because as far as they are concerned, they put it on a flight at 10am. Any further recommendations of what to do? No.

I am seriously considering traveling to Riga tomorrow and inviting their customer representatives to smell the armpits of my shirt. If that doesn’t motivate them to find my bag, I don’t know what will.

Jul 12 2010

Thank you, Latvia

Here is something Peter and I learned last night: it is very difficult to sleep next to the train tracks in a hostel on a busy street. All night we wrestled with the choice of whether it was better to keep the windows closed — leaving the room hot, stuffy, and smelling vaguely like truffle risotto because of a bag I’d stashed with my diabetes supplies — or opening the window, letting in Baltic mosquitoes and, more importantly, the sound of traffic.

We tried both and were successful with neither, so when it came time to head to the bike shop this morning to pick up our transportation for the next month, we weren’t in our finest condition. Nonetheless, we set off through Vilnius’s old town (lovely, I’ll have you know) in search of a bike shop next to St. Ann’s Cathedral, one of the largest and best-known churches in the town.

That sounded easy enough, except for one thing: Vinius is overrun with churches. The woman at the desk in the hostel, who clearly knew of St. Ann’s, couldn’t find it on a map — the entire thing was dotted with crosses (it was like trying to find something in New York based on how close it was to a hot dog stand). But eventually we succeeded, and discovered that what had been advertised as a bike shop next to an artist’s shop was actually a guy with a couple of bikes sitting *in* an artist’s shop — and by artist’s shop I don’t mean some place selling hand-crafted souvenirs. I’m talking like, paper and pastels.

The bike "shop"

Nonetheless, the owner greeted us politely — surprisingly so, given how many questions I’ve been emailing him over the past several weeks, and cheerfully began to detail — in detail that was both too detailed and yet not detailed enough — several of the seemingly infinite ways that we could get from Vilnius (Lithuania) to Talinn (Estonia) on our bicycles. As our pile of maps began to grow and his directions became more elaborate (describing particular left-hand turns we were to make two weeks into the journey) a woman popped her head in to see if he were going to take her on the bike tour he had promised nearly an hour beforehand, when we had arrived.

“Let’s go!” he said. “Do you want to come on a city tour?”

In reality, Peter and I just wanted to take the maps and go to sleep — we were working on about 10 hours over the preceding two days. But since we still had questions, we had to join them. And so we set off on a four-hour tour of the city.

Some quick thoughts: Vilnius is really pretty. There are areas where you can see traditional wooden homes on dirt roads with modern office buildings two blocks away in the background. Also, Lithuanian food is going to be diabetically challenging. They are very into dumplings here — at lunch, Peter and I made the mistake of ordering a traditional food whose name translates to “Zeppelin” — as in, the blimp — two enormous, butter-soaked potato dumplings with unidentified ground meat inside. Definitely going to stick to the beet soup.

I'm happier than I look.

After a brief jaunt up to the top of a parking garage (which happened to offer a lovely view) and a pass by the Genocide Museum (we may still visit it — but it sounds horrible), I took a shower with my pants on and got on with the process of trying to find my missing bag.

Oh, the missing bag. As mentioned in the post below, I still had my diabetes supplies, but that’s about it — one pair of pants (sweat-soaked, hence the shower), one shirt, and one pair of underwear. Not exactly the supplies one wants to have to bike across the Baltics. The office in Vilnius said they had no idea where it was — they had sent emails to Milan and Riga and had not heard back, and claimed to not be able to make a phone call because it was outside of the “system.” As anyone who knows me is aware, I do not like “systems.” And so, after thanking them profusely for trying to help, I decided it was time to go Catherine.

This can be a frightening thing to see. Thanks to years of practice with my health insurance company, I have developed what Peter might call a terrifying ability to deal with phone trees. You can try to dissuade me with automated answering services, confusing keypad prompts, hell, even busy signals in Latvian.  I am like a dog with a bone — and the more you try to shake me, the more I will not let go. I will be polite. Oh yes, I will be polite. But I will also get my way.

There was a time tonight, however, when I was not so sure. I had managed, after several tries, to successfully place a call to what I thought was the Riga  baggage office, who told me that their system was down and that they couldn’t check on my bag for at least another two hours. I then spent the next hour battling with what has to be one of the most formidable nemeses of them all: Malpensa International Airport in Milan. I had to call three different people to get the number for the airport itself, got diverted to a phone tree that wanted a code that I did not have in order to track my bag through an automated system (I do not do automated), got back on the line with an operator, convinced her to tell me the shortcut so that I could speak to a person, called that line, got punted to a holding pattern that played the first four measures of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” over and over again before apologizing that it was going to have to hang up on me, called back enough times to get someone to pick up, learned that it was not the Air Baltic number, was given another Air Baltic number, called it three times, got someone to pick up, learned from her that it was the wrong number, got a different number that was clearly not in Italy, asked her what country it was, who she was, what department I had called, succeeded in getting her to hang up on me,  called her back twice more and let it ring just to annoy her, called the main number again, no luck, waited for another hour, called Riga back, discovered that they had given me the wrong number as well, got the right number, called it, reached a woman who asked me why I had not tried Vilnius, agreed finally to go look to see if she could find my bag herself, was put on hold and . . .


My bag is in Riga. I don’t think I’ve ever considered that the sentence, “My bag is in Latvia right now” could have a positive meaning, but it does. Providing that it does not get lost again (and that they are able to find this hostel), by this time tomorrow night I will be wearing a new pair of socks.

So relieved.

These are just some of the numbers I tried.

Jul 11 2010


After spending yesterday exploring the countryside around Turin in a rental car — giving proof to my mother’s assertion that Italian drivers are “goddamn crazy” — I’ll admit, I was looking forward to today. Okay, not actively looking forward to it — it was our transfer day from Turin to Vilnius — but at least it didn’t involve us having to navigate Italy.  But that’s about all that was good about it. Here’s our rough breakdown:

1:30 am: Go to sleep

6:30 am: Pull selves out of bed, walk to train station.

7:37 am: Take express train from Turin to Milan

8:45 am: Arrive in Milan. Wander around aimlessly and irritably looking for the supposed “Malpensa Express” to the airport. Eventually learn that we are in the wrong train station.

9 am: Take Milan subway to correct station. Find airport bus.

10:30 am: Arrive Milan airport to find a sea of people in an immense check-in area, the sort of chaotic scene that actually makes JFK seem like a nice place to spend the afternoon. Discover that our check-in counter does not open for two hours.

10:30 am – 12:30 pm: Distract selves by, at least in my case, reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, drinking multiple cappuccinos, waiting in line for the bathroom, and impulse buying travel items at an airport boutique (a portable clothesline AND the world’s smallest fan? Amazing!).

12:15 pm: Get stuck in bag drop-off line behind a pair of Americans who seem unwilling to believe that this is not the line for Swiss Air, despite the fact that the counter says Baltic Air, and the destination is Riga. We point out that the Swiss Air counter appears to be — nay, IS — several desks down, and that it is too early for them to check in. “So this is not the Swiss Air line?” asks the man, gesturing toward the sign that says Baltic Air. “Where are these people going? Can we wait here? Where is Swiss Air?”

12:30 pm: Deposit bags at drop-off counter. Peter makes sarcastic comment about how the woman at the counter does not securely affix the “transfer” tag on his bag. He reaches down to fix it. I notice the same problem on my bag and realize I should fix it, too,  but it is too late; she has sent it down the chute. I think for a moment what would happen if my bag were lost. “At least I have the computer adapter,” I say in my head. “But it sure would suck not to have any underwear.”

12:34-37 pm: Fun activity #1: Make Peter pose in front of underwear ads starring the Italian soccer team.

Hey ladies.

Activity #2: Observe a phenomenon I first noticed in China: people paying to have their bags wrapped in saran wrap. Nine euros. To have your bag wrapped in saran wrap.

What are you trying to do? Keep it fresh?

2:20 – 5:45: Fly to Riga. Notice that the guy making the welcome announcement sounds exactly like Borat. Upon landing in Riga, try to figure out the exchange rate and then realize that we have no idea what country we’re in. Not kidding. We knew it was either Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but couldn’t figure out which one. This is, I might note, not the sort of question you can really ask people without feeling enormously stupid.

5:55 pm: Discover we are in Latvia. Order airport food. Learn the answer to the age-old question: how do you make a tomato unhealthy? (Answer: stuff it with goat cheese and serve it with a plate of ham.)

8:10-9:20 pm: Fly from Riga to Vilnius with a captain who enjoys banking to the right, then banking to the left, then speeding up, then slowing down. I begin to wonder if perhaps I should not have spent so much time focusing on the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, that focuses on plane crashes.

9:45 pm: Customs hall. Except, there is no customs hall. We have not had our passports stamped — or indeed, looked at — since landing in Iceland. Presumably this should not be a problem, but I don’t think we’re technically supposed to be in the EU for more than three months straight. Oh well. We’ll see how it goes when we try to enter Russia.

9:50: Wait at luggage carousel four. I am so engrossed in finishing the book (and having a conversation with a Lithuanian woman about e-readers — her dream is to find one that can translate between Russian and English on the same screen) — that I do not notice that the luggage carousel has stopped. “Well, at least we got one bag!” Peter says, jokingly, pulling his over to where I am sitting.

9:55 pm: We realize that the rest of our plane-mates have all left, and what appeared to have been a pause in luggage delivery was, in fact, the end of it. My bag = nowhere to be seen.

9:56 pm: Find a friendly airport employee named, wait for it, Zilvinas Pilypas (“I’m probably going to call you later, and I’m probably going to pronounce your name wrong,” I warn him), and tell him about the bag. I also tell him, as politely as I can, that I really need the bag, you see, because in two days I am supposed to get on a bicycle and ride to Talinn (which happens to be in Estonia, two countries away). Zilvinas, who remains polite, but unmoved, types much information into the computer, then hands me a dot-matrix-printed piece of paper containing a reference number and a phone number that I can call. Zilvinas also calls a taxi for us, a kind gesture that I will be even more grateful for if and when I ever get my bag back.

10:10 pm: Get in taxi, show map and address to driver, realize that map and address do not represent the same physical location. Driver puts on glasses, squints, looks again, shrugs shoulders, hands map back, and begins to drive.

10:15 pm: We drive past the Vilnius train tracks. “I don’t think it was supposed to be across from the train tracks,” I keep saying to Peter, as the driver pulls up in front of the correct address, which is across the street from the train tracks.

10:16 pm: Get out of cab in front of a dilapidated building with only a small “Hosteling International” sign to indicate that it might, in fact, be where we are supposed to stay for the night. Adding to the confusion, the front door — which is unlocked — leads to a dark, unfinished room — lights dangling from ceiling, unfinished plasterwork, a missing front stair, and no people. Cab driver peeks inside, looks back at us, and giggles.

10:20 pm: After some exploration, we discover that the hostel is indeed there — upstairs, in fact, and empty except for a woman named Margaret who presents us with sheets and pillow cases and returns to watching the world cup finals.

10:25 pm: I try to make the bed, and then notice something that, at first, I attribute to my fatigue: the sheets, designed for a single bed, appear to be square. I try to turn them the other direction. Still square, and about a foot and a half too short for the bed. Consider asking Margaret for other ones, but, decide that since she has just let me raid the toiletries of former guests (including a half-finished bottle of “Hangover Cure” Axe body wash), that might be asking too much. Make the bed with the square sheets, leaving the exposed part down by my feet. At least I have socks?

11:15 pm: So here I am, wearing the same pants I wore on a very sweaty hike yesterday and the same shirt I slept in last night (and which was subjected to a good deal of airport sweat as well). I’m wondering where my bag could be. Surely, it made it out of Italy. But then again, our second flight was on the same plane as the first. What kind of transfer tag fuck-up does it require to lose a bag that didn’t need to go anywhere? (This, and many other questions, will be answered in the coming days.) Luckily, I was wise enough not to check the bag that contains my diabetes supplies, and so I am happy to say that my artificial pancreas is not MIA. If only the same were true for my underwear.

Note the sheets.