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Sitting it out

"We're sorry to keep you waiting", screeches my telephone with a metallic shriek full of fake urgency.  It is sitting on my desk right next to the laptop.  The speakerphone is turned on, allowing me to wait to be helped without having to jam the handset to my ear for who knows how long, risking slow fusion of the two.  It has been a few minutes already since I called Alitalia, but so far, no one has picked up.  Every minute I hear the same recorded message whose only purpose seems to be to continually distract me from reading.

"No serano possibile", reminds me the telephone.  I had initially called Alitalia because they are supposed to take me to Chicago tomorrow, on a flight I had booked online only days earlier.  All seemed to go according to protocol, except I never got an email confirmation.  Since I also did not bother to print the screen after booking the flight, I have nothing in my hands to show at the airport tomorrow morning.  I just wanted to make sure that everything is ok, confirm the flight, peace of mind, and things like that.

"An operator will be with you as soon as possible."  As it turned out, everything was not ok.  When the evening was still young, I had called Alitalia in the US because of the lowest possible language barrier.  First thing the friendly lady told me, cunningly concealed under a heavy Italian accent, is that my flight is cancelled.  Did I understand correctly?  The Milano airport is closed due to heavy snow?  "You can't do this to me.  I have to get to Chicago tomorrow.  Anything else is not an option."  She was nice, patient and very helpful.  "I can probably book you on the next flight.  Malpensa will be open by then, no worries, and you'll still have enough time to make your connection."  I was relieved – and waiting.  After a short ten minutes she was back.  Sorry is not a good way to start a sentence in a situation like this.  She was not able to change my flight because I had booked with Alitalia in Italy.  I would have to call there.  "Will they understand me?" – "Sure, they speak English."  She gave me the number, and I was on my own.

"Alitalia informa che a causa del averse condizione atmosferiche sul nord Italia", is the first thing I hear when I call the number.  It is eight o'clock by now, and they are probably dealing with a barrage of calls.  I am not the only one planning to go through Milano tomorrow and seeing his plans collapse into complete hibernal chaos from one moment to the next.  So I settle into a little routine, trying to make the best of the situation.  I get a glass of wine, turn my computer on, and resolutely start waiting patiently for the good things that are supposed to come to those who wait.

"We are expecting severe delays and flight cancellations."  I should have probably seen this coming.  Returning from lab earlier this evening, I was covered with snow like I had just barely survived summitting Mont Blanc.  What a crazy afternoon it was.  It had been snowing since noon, and by the time I left work more than twenty centimeters of fresh glistening powder lay treacherously on the ground.  The ride home was an adventure and, though I was too blind to see, an unmistakable harbinger of things to come.  My old Motobecane, a rusty, trusty commuter beater with drop-down handlebars, ten-speed gearing and beautifully functional full-size fenders mutinied and almost deserted from duty.  Its skinny tires were not made for navigating snow-covered roads, and slush and ice are not what the bike likes to move around in.  It did not occur to me that they are also not what airplanes like to move around in.

"In the Milan airport it will not be possible to either land or depart."  I am still on hold.  In open defiance of the laws of nature, the world around me has contracted dramatically.  There is the phone, my laptop, and the snow outside – with everything bad related to it.  I surf to  If Alitalia refunds my ticket, what other options are there?  As the day of departure is tomorrow, there are not too many.  British Airways has one flight that fits all requirements, even the financial aspect.  I hesitate booking because I do not want to end up with two tickets if the Italians magically melt the snow.

"Gli operatori sono momentaniamente impegnati."  Is it not curious what acrobatics a mind can go through in a difficult situation?  My plans would not be worth the paper they were written down on, if they had been written down in the first place.  And yet, plan B and maybe even C take blurry shape in my head.  I absolutely have to get to the US before the sun sets on Saturday.  But the craftiest maneuvers and the shrewdest designs will not do.  I have to wait and hear the official word on my ticket.  And yet, my brain is busy concocting scenarios, weighing options and drawing battle plans.  These schemes become more sophisticated with every passing minute and increase in complexity every time the annoying announcement is repeated, but I always end up screwed and back in Grenoble at the end of a long day at the airport.  Will somebody please get get me out of this nightmare?

"For further information we ask you…"  I am staying on the line, I am still in front of the computer, but the web is of no help anymore.  Reading is not enjoyable when you are on the edge, expecting, every time you hear a voice, that it is finally the representative who is going to help you.  I need something to do where my mind can wander aimlessly without doing much damage.  I take my phone to the kitchen, position it precariously above the sink, and start doing dishes.

"Alitalia informs that due to extreme weather conditions in Northern Italy…"  Now that all plates and knives are clean, I move on to other neglected chores.  Ironing my favorite dress shirt I remember how, the other day, the Economist compared the French and American economies.  Both have comparable levels of productivity, but America accumulates much greater material wealth.  This is explained by the fact that Americans work about 25% more than the French.  At the same time, though, and here came the interesting point of the article, are Americans much more liberal in spending money to free themselves from domestic duties they detest, creating jobs and boosting wealth.  A Guatemalan lady may come twice a week to clean the apartment, and the neighbor's boy mows the lawn.  In the end, both John and Jacques might have the same amount of money in their wallets, and the both have about the same amount of spare time, but John is much more satisfied because he did not spend hours occupied by menial tasks like ironing shirts.

"Your call will be answered by the first available operator."  I am thinking, as soon as John comes home to find beer and a burger, his advantage might melt like ripe Brie in the afternoon sun.  Another problem with the Economist's logic is that ironing shirts is not something that fully occupies.  All through the fifteen shirts I had done so far, I kept an ear on the phone where I was still on hold.  If I had paid someone to do my ironing, I would have to pay someone else to stay on hold.  And this second one would have to be able to speak English properly, which does not come cheap.  I guess I prefer the French way after all.  Somebody hand me another glass of wine, please.  The stack of shirts has dwindled down to two.

"Forti ritardi e canzellazioni", my phone is still proclaiming with a voice shrill with defiance.  This is getting ridiculous.  There is only one way out, and it is not through Milano.  The airport is shut down, and I am not the only one trying to get help.  As it is close to midnight on a Friday night, they are unlikely to have many English-speaking customer assistants left working.  Still, I do not want to give up my position on the waiting list.  So I grab my headset, log on to Skype, and call the US call center through my computer while leaving my regular phone within reach.  A representative comes up almost immediately and has good news.  After patiently enduring my incoherent stammering for a minute – one ear in Italy, the other in the US, while my body's in France and my brain off dozing – she assures me:  "Everything is under control, Malpensa will surely open tomorrow morning.  It might just be that your flight will be un-canceled.  These things happen.  Don't you worry.  Go to Lyon tomorrow morning, and everything will be fine."

"We're sorry to keep you waiting."  For three long hours I have been on hold, and what is left to do?  Should I believe an underpaid call center staffer sitting 4000 miles from where the action is, or should I keep waiting for the missing Italian representative until it's time to head for the airport shuttle in the morning? Considering the lack of options, I decide to be optimistic, despite being rather frazzled.  I end two calls at once, set my alarm and go to bed.  It is almost 1am.

April 2006