A Remarkable Number
It seems these days that almost every travel article I read tells me how bad air travel has gotten. Airlines are nickle-and-diming passengers. Passengers are getting into fights with airline staff. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Airlines do nickle-and-dime passengers. The overall quality of the airline experience has gone down considerably in my memory. I can recall more seat room in my youth, and not because I was smaller. I can recall better food. I remember a cross-country flight on a DC-10 that had a lounge where one could get a drink. Alas, I was too young at the time to take advantage of that. Touring the Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Ireland last year showed just how elegant air travel once was.
The same could be said of the movie theater experience. Flying, like going to the movies, used to be An Occasion. In that sense, it is an occasion no more. Still, whenever I venture off on a trip that takes me across the Atlantic Ocean, I have to remind myself of the miracle of modern travel. This time, I put a number to that miracle: 15:33:53.
In 1778, John Adams, along with his son, John Quincy Adams, set sail from Boston for the Continent. Their trip took five weeks, involved rough seas, storms, and a battle with a British ship, before finally landing in Spain. Five weeks on the ocean, in what I imagine was not the most comfortable of settings. As Page Smith wrote in his 2-volume biography of the senior Adams:
In place of a threatening enemy, the ship faced threatening elements. They were in the Gulf Stream when the storm struck. For three days the frigate was slammed about like a chip. It was impossible to stand upright, or indeed, to lie below without being tossed and battered. Everything not securely anchored broke loose and crashed about below decks… Cabins, bedding, clothes and food were soaked with salt water. The main topmast was struck by lightning, three sailors were struck by the same shaft and twenty-three men injured by falling rigging. For three days the crew and passengers lived in chaos, catching snatches of sleep and gulping down cold meals.
The Miracle of Modern Travel
I think of this passage frequently on travel days like this one. We step out our front door at 1:40pm Eastern Daylight time and drag our five suitcases and our backpacks to the awaiting Lincoln Navigator. It is hot out, but this enormous vehicle is cool, and gets us to the airport in less than 30 minutes.
We are flying Aer Lingus to Rome via Dublin. It was one of the more exciting things for the Littlest Miss–getting to fly Aer Lingus again. We drag our luggage to the Aer Lingus check-in desk and find the only line of the day. We are 3 hours early, but so is everyone else and we wait for 20 minutes as people and baggage zigzag through the line. Once we arrive at the front, our bags are quickly weighed and swallowed by a conveyor, and we are issued our boarding passes.
There is no line at the security checkpoint. Indeed, there are more security personnel milling around than there are passengers and we zip through security in just 2 minutes. No need to take devices out of backpacks, which is new. We arrive at our gate at 3pm, and now have plenty of time to kill before our flight begins to board. We find ways of filling the time. I listen to the conversations of other passengers around me. The worry I have is the tight connection in Dublin: just one hour.
By 4:40pm, we are on the plane and in our seats and the plane begins taxiing just after 5pm. The pilot informs us that our scheduled travel time is 6 hours and 45 minutes and that we are expected to arrive in Dublin at about 5 am local time, which adds some buffer to the one hour layover.
When dinner is served, I think about John Adams’ first passage across the Atlantic (he made a total of four crossings in his lifetime). I think of the waves and the nausea. I think of the wet blankets and soggy food. I think of the dangers of the sea and that those dangers permeate the entire voyage, a voyage which lasts five weeks. I might be crammed into a smaller seat, but I am eating decent food. The kids have video screens that play movies on-demand. The cabin is dry and comfortable, despite being 7 miles into the atmosphere and tearing through the air (with push of a tailwind) with a groundspeed of nearly 600 MPH. Crossing the Atlantic takes less than 7 hours. John Adams’ crossing took 840 hours. Put another way, we crossed the Atlantic 120 times faster than Adams did in his day.
A Remarkable Number, Revisited
We land in Dublin at 5am, cross the airport to our next flight, board the plane–more than half empty this time–and are off again, this time heading southeast. We cross over London and the Channel, shrouded in clouds. It looks as I imagine it did on June 5, 1944 — when Operation Overlord was delayed for 24-hours because the channel was socked in.
The family is asleep. Modern travel might be a miracle, but it doesn’t make it easy to sleep. They are tired enough from the first flight to fall asleep, but I don’t seem capable of sleeping on planes so I keep vigil over the passing scenery. I am specifically waiting for when we cross the Alps, another miracle of modern travel.
These Alps are the same Alps that Hannibal crossed with his elephants more than 2,200 years ago. It took Hannibal a remarkable 16 days to cross the Alps. But the by the miracle of modern travel, we fly over the Alps in what seems to be about 10 minutes. From there, it is a short downhill ride into Rome.
There are no lines at passport control and our bags are among the first off the conveyor at baggage claim. We quickly find a taxi that can take us to our hotel and learned another miracle of modern travel: the taxis in Rome go almost as fast as the the airplane we flew in on. There isn’t a car on the highway that we don’t pass at high speed. I am a little nervous since one of the seatbelt’s in the van isn’t working. In preparing for the trip, I read that a taxi ride from the airport to our hotel takes about 40 minutes. We made in 20.
We step into the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, St. Peter’s at about 11:30am local time. I check the timer I set when we stepped out of our front door and see the remarkable number for the first time: 15 hours, 33 minutes, 53 seconds from our front door in Arlington, Virginia to the hotel lobby of the Crown Plaza, St. Peter’s. Fifteen and a half hours to travel farther than John Adams and John Quincy Adams traveled in 5 weeks at sea.
We learned last year in Ireland that the best way to fight jetlag is to push through. Although I have now been awake for about 24 hours, we decide to explore some of Rome on our own. Our tour doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening so we might as well push through and see what we can see. A woman at the concierge suggests we visit the Chapel of Skulls located beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.
To get to this underground crypt, we take to the Rome underground. We walk about a mile from the hotel to the Cornelia underground station. On the way, we stop at a McDonald’s for some soft drinks. I always find it a little disconcerting to see familiar restaurants in ancient places. I am reminded of a piece of art that accompanied a Harlan Ellison story. In the picture, a hiker was making his way through the mountains to the mythical Shangri-la, and just above the next rise, what do we see, but the golden arches of a McDonald’s. Ronald Coleman and James Hilton are rolling in their graves.
We descend into the Rome underground via a flight of stairs and I am reminded of our local Metro in the Washington, D.C. area. After there stairs there is an escalator and we take the escalator down. Then there is another escalator, and one more after that. Finally, we find the machines from which we purchase our tickets. But we are not quite deep enough for the trains. There is one final flight of stairs that takes us down to the track level.
We take the A line train to the Barbarini station, a ride of about 20 minutes. Rome is on holiday and the subway is not crowded. We all find places to sit. Unlike the Washington and New York subway, the cars of the Rome underground are wide open to one another. There are no doors to pass through cars and you can look down the length of the train and watch it twist and bend around curves. The train emerges once from the depths to cross the Tiber and then dives back underground.
We emerge into sunlight, bellies rumbling and find a place to eat our first Italian meal together. We sit in the back of a small Italian restaurant, Enoteca Barberini, and I eat a dish of gnocchi soaked in bacon, mozzarella and pistachio that is rich and savory. What I like best is that it is just the right portion size. I don’t feel stuffed when I finish.
The Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is just up the street from the restaurant and we take the self-guided tour. The tour takes us through the museum first, before going down into the crypt. Everyone wants to see the crypt of bones, and the curators know they have a captive audience. Fortunately, there are some amazing things to look at, especially the old illuminated books that they have on display. Unfortunately, I walk through the museum in something of a travel-and-sleep-deprived fog. Looking at a photograph of Padre Pio, for just a moment I think I am looking at Sean Connery.
The crypt of bones is the real draw. Mark Twain visited the crypt and wrote about it in Innocents Abroad in far more detail and much better than I could do even if my brain was fully alert to everything I am seeing. No photos are allowed, but the crypt is as impressive as one might imagine a crypt decorated in the bones of more than 4,000 Cappuccin friars bones to be. And yet, as I pass through each chamber, I experience the same uneasy feeling as I did years ago when we saw a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater. There is something macabre about turning places of death into tourist attractions.
After the tour, we are all exhausted and we reverse our course: back underground, back to McDonald’s (this time for ice cream), back to the hotel, where our rooms are ready, and finally we can finally rest. Our tour begins tomorrow evening, which gives us most of the day to explore more of Rome.
My mind is now fuzzy enough where even simple math seems complicated, but I work out that I have not slept for thirty hours. I suspect I won’t have any trouble sleeping tonight. How many times could John Adams say that on his five week voyage across the Atlantic? Even now he is tossed from one side of the cabin to the other in a 3-day storm that seems like an eternity.
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