On the Road in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas

Dec 27-30 , 2005

I left home early on the morning of Dec 26th (with Enrico driving, bless him) to go to Milan’s Malpensa airport – unfortunately, Milan’s only hub for trans-Atlantic flights is the airport furthest away from Lecco, it takes us nearly two hours to get there.

I was flying Alitalia, an airline of dubious quality – the standard joke is that “Alitalia” stands for “Always Late in Takeoff and Late in Arriving.” At least check-in was efficient. Other US-bound flights I’ve taken from Malpensa have checked in with extra security at a cordoned-off area at the end of the airport, but Alitalia doesn’t do this, even though the flight was direct to Chicago. Which puzzles me. Do we assume that United, Delta, and British Airways are more likely to be targeted for nastiness, even when flying to the same destinations?

Enrico and I had a second coffee together and said goodbye, and I proceeded to security. It was fortunate that I was ahead of schedule, because it took about 20 minutes to get through – everybody in Italy seemed to be anxious to leave, now that the obligatory “Natale con i tuoi” (Christmas with your family) was over.

We boarded on time, then sat on the runway for about an hour, for no reason that was made clear to us passengers. I heard one finally ask a stewardess about it, who said: “Oh, the pilot announced that, when he said we were third for takeoff. Each takeoff slot is half an hour.” (I may be misquoting her numbers, but that was the gist.)

Since all flight schedules include at least half an hour of padding, we were pretty much on time arriving in Chicago, so I had a comfortable margin to get through immigration, retrieve my luggage, and recheck it to my final destination. At immigration, as usual, I was asked what I had been doing in Italy, and got the usual blank look when I replied that I live there. I don’t know why this is always a shock to immigration agents. Some even say rather aggressively: “Well, welcomehome.” As if I should repent of ever having left. I guess they are so accustomed to dealing with people desperate to get into the United States that they can’t conceive of anyone voluntarily leaving.

I was directed to the red channel for customs, for no reason that I could determine. The reason was even less clear when they did not open my luggage at all. The guy typed on his computer for a while, then said I was free to go. ???

I checked my bag with American Airlines and took the train to their terminal, where I had about two hours to kill before my connection to Little Rock. First, of course, I had to go through security again. This meant taking my laptop and videocamera out of my backpack, and putting them in separate bins along with my jacket and my boots. Then having to put it all back together again at the other end. <groan>

I had a neck and back massage – a truly useful airport service after hauling heavy luggage around and then sitting for ten hours. I ate half a bagel (we don’t get bagels in Italy), and got on the little bitty plane to Little Rock.

My college roommate Stephanie and her mom were there to meet me. We ate, then drove to Russellville where Steph’s parents live. I met their very exuberant pair of Scotty dogs, had a shower, and collapsed.

The next afternoon we hit the road for Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Stephanie lives. I didn’t mind the ride, because Steph is good company, and the scenery was different from what I’m used to, though not intrinsically fascinating. The sunset was so vivid that we suspected something had been burning. We later learned that brush fires were raging in northern Texas and Oklahoma. The area is suffering a drought and “burn bans” are in effect in both states, meaning, I suppose, that you can’t burn your trash or light a campfire. New year’s fireworks were still on sale, although reportedly at least one of the brush fires was started by kids playing with fireworks. Apparently the states cannot interfere with trade by banning the sale of fireworks, no matter how sensible it would be to do so in conditions of severe dryness and high winds.

We spent a couple of days in Tulsa, I did some errands, including buying a cellphone. The nice man from Tracfone with whom I exchanged emails hadn’t been able to help with a fast enough alternative payment method for me to buy a phone from their website, but I found a cheap one ($20) at Wal-Mart, and bought a 150-minute/one-year card (for $90) so that the number will not expire, and this phone will work immediately on any of my family’s future visits to the US.

I should mention that Tracfone’s online activation process was smooth and easy – a pleasing contrast to so many websites which are just too damned hard to use!

Thursday we left for Texas, staying overnight in Dallas with a Woodstock alumnus and his family. I hadn’t actually met Steve (class of ’68) before, but I know several of his classmates (e.g., Tom Alter), and Woodstockers always find plenty to talk about – sometimes to the sheer boredom of those around them! (Steph bore up heroically, and Steve’s family was clearly used to it.)

Friday we made our leisurely way to Austin, stopping to shop at an “outlet mall” along the way to buy clothing, mostly for Ross. I tried to get a picture of the highway sign for “Italy, Texas”, but somehow, throughout the trip, almost everything I wanted to film was backlit.

That evening we met my brother Ian for dinner at the Iron Works barbecuerestaurant downtown – a classic Texas BBQ joint where you order at a window and carry your own food and drink to your table. I had a combo plate of beef brisket, sausage, and beef ribs, with the standard sides (potato salad, pinto beans, white bread). Heaven on a sectioned paper plate.

Saturday we had to do still more shopping, as I realized that I had left behind somewhere one of the two pairs of jeans I’d packed. I found that a regular Gap store can have better sales than a Gap outlet store. Hmm. Post-Christmas sales are a wonderful thing – practically everything I’ve bought this trip has been half price, sometimes when I wasn’t even expecting it and was already happy with the marked price.

We also went to the downtown branch of Whole Foods Market, Austin’s celebrated home of health-conscious food (and other eco-friendly products), recently moved to a huge new building with underground parking. It was very busy, and we were sardonically amused to note that at least half the cars in the crowded garage were enormous SUVs. Not what I would have expected from the Whole Foods crowd…

New Year’s Eve saw the event I had come to Austin for: a party at Spankyville, the place made famous (as far as my readers are concerned) by my video last February. Julia and Dani celebrated the completion of their new kitchen by roasting an entire pig and inviting all of Julia’s family, and dozens of other friends from all over the world. Their goddaughter brought along her boyfriend and his band, The Four, so we had good live music, tons of excellent food, and very fine company. Someday I will have to do video interviews with Julia’s amazing extended family.

On New Year’s day Steph had to return to Tulsa. My brother Ian and I drove to Aunt Rosie’s farm outside of Coupland,Texas, and had a New Year’s meal of black-eyed peas, along with ham, corn bread, and sweet potatoes. I had not known that, in the American south, you eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s for the same reason that Italians eat lentils: to ensure prosperity in the coming year. My aunt refused to let me do a load of laundry at her house, and made me promise not to do it elsewhere: doing laundry on New Year’s day means washing a member of the family out of your life. I hadn’t known that, either.

Monday I spent quietly, mostly in the hotel, resting up in anticipation of the extreme busy-ness to start the next day.

Tuesday I had to check out of my hotel by noon, but my flight wasn’t til 10 pm. I dropped my luggage at Julia and Dani’s, then went to an Indian restaurant in north Austin to lunch with two Woodstock alumni: one member of the class of ’45, one of the class of ’95. Both were great company, and agreed that it was time to restart Woodstock “curry club” lunches in the Austin area. Ruth (’45) then very kindly drove me back to Spankyville, where I wrote, read, and relaxed until Julia and her family came home from an outing, and we all pitched in to help with dinner (video of which will be forthcoming).

Ian drove me to the airport, and I was off to my next adventure. More to come…


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