Up until this point, we'd had really good luck with our travels. We had made all sorts of complicated transportation arrangements and nothing had been delayed or missed or cancelled. We had taken buses through the fjords of Norway and the cliffsides of Amalfi. We had flown a Spanish airline from Norway to Italy. We had navigated the Tuscan countryside and highways in a stick shift without hitting anything. We thought we were invincible. This was the day we really learned that travel is not all sunshine and rainbows. This was the day we got a flat tire.
The plan was to leave Verona and drive an easy hour or so to the Bergamo airport, return the rental car, catch a bus to the Milan train station, and then take a three hour train to Monterosso, a town in Cinque Terre where we were to stay for three nights. While it sounds complicated, the transport network in Europe is so good that it wasn't really a big deal.
Before leaving Verona, we stopped at the train station to purchase our train tickets from Milan to Monterosso. Some of the other trains that day were already sold out, so we wanted to go ahead and reserve our seats. About 20 minutes after we left Verona, the Smart Car hit something small on the highway which gave us a tire pressure warning. We pulled into a gas station and saw the flat. Typically, we'd just find the spare tire, change it ourselves, and finish the short drive to the airport. But remember, this was a Smart Car. There was barely enough space in the boot for our two backpacks, and there was definitely not a spare tire.
Our one phone capable of making calls was dead, and we tried to ask the men at the service station to call a tow truck for us. They reluctantly did, but we waited for two hours and it never came. These guys eventually decided to stop helping us and when the younger one tried, the older one scolded him. When we desperately tried to explain that our phone was dead and we were stuck, they said the only place they'd let us use a power outlet was in the bathroom, so Hirsh stood in there awkwardly for 30 minutes while it regained enough battery to make a few calls.
We tried to call the rental car company back. No answer. We tried to call the national highway assistance hotline. No answer. We tried to call AAA back home. No answer. We eventually started to get nervous and called the police. They arrived and proceeded to drive slowly past us without stopping. This resulted in Sarah screaming expletives loudly at the patrol car and forcefully throwing an open bag of Italian cheese puffs onto the ground, spilling them. This, more than anything, was the best indicator of our frustration, because those things are delicious.
We walked down the road to another rest stop and again asked if they would call the police for us. They said no and if we wanted the police, we could walk along the highway until we found an SOS call box and call them ourselves. Keep in mind, our cell phone had died again. At this point, we were looking extra pitiful and our guardian angels appeared. A very nice family from Genova had just stopped in to get a snack and thankfully one of them spoke a few words of English. They called a tow truck for us and wished us luck. Twenty minutes later, the truck appeared and we truly felt like we'd been rescued from a deserted island. We waved our arms wildly in the same manner so he wouldn't miss us. The driver, a poor man's version of Billy Bob Thornton (just picture it), had a sour attitude and spoke no more than six words the entire time we were in his presence. He took us to a local mechanic and made us sign something we didn't understand.
We were out in the middle of nowhere with no other options and the mechanic really could have taken advantage of us. He was a cute young guy and honest as the day is long. We communicated entirely through Google translate on the iPhone, and he patched up the tire and charged us a whopping 10 euros! Can you believe it!? We don't think we were charged for the tow truck. Either that or we signed away our firstborn child to Billy Bob.
We were happily back on the road to Bergamo when we received a WhatsApp from our Genova family checking on us. Not only that, but they want to stay in touch. What sweet people! Here's the smiley photo we sent in response.
We eventually got onto a train five hours after initially planned. We had to buy new tickets because ours had expired and despite our best attempt to explain our sob story, Treinitalia could not have cared less. We made it to Monterosso by 12:15am, and the key to our rental apartment was only available until 12:30am. Highly motivated by a desire to avoid sleeping on the street, we ran all the way from the train station to the bar where we were to meet the property manager's friend and pick up the key. All's well that ends well, but it was quite a day!
We learned two valuable lessons:
1) As fun as it is to maneuver a tiny car that basically pivots on its axis, never rent a car without a spare tire; and
2) The Italian police have better things to do than help tourists with a flat tire, so find a nice Italian family instead.