Position: 41°12’57″N 13°34’23″E
After spending the summer reconnecting with our friends and families on America’s west coast, we had exhausted both our 90-day ban from Schengen countries and our hosts, Lauren and Wade (thanks guys!). It is time to return to the sweet life in Italy. It is also time to reset Aleta’s VAT clock by taking her out of the EU for a spell. Long enough to prove she had left by collecting a receipt for something. Something like fuel, or marina fees, or an ice cream cone.
Taking a Pass
Re-entering Italy was not a given. Several roadblocks lay in our way. The first was my lack of an American passport. I naïvely assumed renewing my current one would take 12 weeks or less, as promised by the State Department. Unfortunately, eighteen months of lockdown followed by sudden freedom meant everyone else had the same idea. Overwhelmed by demand, the passport authorities gamely let me know that my request was approved, and to expect the new one on or around July 31, 2021. My old passport was returned with a couple of holes punched in it, so at least I had proof of citizenship. But the issuing sub-contractors either failed to hire enough staff to keep up, or were waiting on a shipment of blank books from France*. Or both. Whichever, my passport still hadn’t arrived by the time we left.
A dual national by birth, UK inherited and USA thanks to the 14th Amendment, I had an ace up my sleeve: a shiny new British passport. Her Majesty’s Passport Office has shaken off its 18th century processes and gone digital. Now you apply online, submit your paperwork, and within 10 days your new passport is returned by overnight mail – even to the United States. A decade ago it took over three months for the Brits to do the same thing. In July 2011, an immigration officer at Heathrow airport examined my American passport, then peered at me and said, ‘Where is your return ticket?’ ‘I’m driving a car to Mongolia, so I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks via the Eurotunnel,’ I replied. ‘and, by the way, I’m a British subject and the passport office has had my documents for over two months now.’ A flurry of keystrokes and a look of incredulity that I interpreted as validation ensued. Wordlessly, she issued my visa with a firm thump, lifting her hand with a dismissive flourish.
One day before our flight to Rome, the EU formally issued a ban on non-essential travel from America. Next, 12 hours prior to departure, Italy piled in by requiring both a negative Covid PCR test (taken within 72 hours of travel) and proof of vaccination. Previously, they had demanded one or the other. United said we could rebook our flight if we wanted to. That meant losing our non-cancellable flat in Gaeta, extending our rental car, and the endless faff of changing plans. Luckily, I discovered Newark airport has an onsite Covid testing facility. For $250 each, the so-called clinic scans all your identity documents (for later misappropriation), swabs your nose, and hands you a negative result within an hour. We are (dib dib) non-binary scouts, so we duly engaged in the charade. At these prices, though, there must be an active market for phony test results. We saw all kinds of dubious medical paperwork while waiting to board.
One of my rewards from United Airlines for helping initiate climate change is permanent Premier Gold status. On international flights that gets us access to United’s Club lounge, with the benefits of free coffee and (anti)social distancing from the hoi polloi. Fifteen years ago a million air miles was a thing. These days I only rank fourth among United’s frequent traveller programs. Top tier Global Service members earn permanent status when they fly at least 4 million miles, and at 5 million they’ll ink your name on an airplane. In this era of Covid lockdowns and Zoom conferencing I expect multi-million-air-milers will go the way of free trip rebooking and smoking in flight.
From my observations, flying in the States is currently dominated by rank amateurs. The TSA’s PreCheck line was mercifully free of businesspeople jostling for poll position. Meanwhile, Carol avoided long waits behind sweaty families by leapfrogging the queue thanks to her (inherited) Premier membership.
Bentornato in Italia
On arrival the Italians never checked anything Covid related. And arrive we did. Just in time to beat the summer crowds and enjoy the cooler evenings of early fall in the Med. Our expat friend and former race car driver, Pat, met us at the airport and dropped us at the marina. We offloaded a couple hundred pounds of boat spares and walked along the quayside to our apartment in old Gaeta. The warm sunlight danced brilliantly on the deep blue/green waters of the harbour. In that instant, through my jet-lag fog, the last three months simply vanished. Like skipping a groove on an LP record. If Marlon were with us I could have sworn we never left.
Our next steps include refitting Aleta’s sails, relaunching her, provisioning, then heading to Albania for at least a week and an ice cream cone, or two.
*(US passports are produced by a French company, Thales, thanks to its acquisition of Gemalto, a Dutch company, in 2019.)