Sojourn in Sicily Part 2: Getting There

We arrive at O’Hare International Airport, Terminal 3, at 11:30 a.m. for our 3:25 p.m. flight on Air Berlin. I know it’s absurdly early, but I’m always afraid things are going to go wrong at the airport.

They don’t exactly … but check-in takes a very long time. I ask to switch seats to the bulkhead, and the desk agent has a great deal of difficulty explaining why I can’t. It isn’t until we’re on the plane that I understand: The center section bulkhead, row 16, is reserved for passengers with infants because bassinets hook to the wall. On the sides, the bulkhead, row 14, also is an exit row, and FAA rules prohibit people who can’t open the doors in an emergency from sitting there. Rows 16 and 17 on the sides are reserved for people with disabilities, but the odd thing is that even though our printed confirmation has us in 16 A (me) and 16 C (Fred), the agent wants to put us in 17 A and C. She also insists on assigning me the window seat despite my repeated requests for the aisle. She says it’s an Air Berlin policy that wheelchair users have to have window seats. I finally give up and simply switch with Fred on the plane, despite the fact that the Air Carrier Access Act stipulates that passengers with disabilities cannot be denied or required to accept a specific seat except in accordance with FAA regulations.

The ACAA also says that airlines have to reserve space in the cabin closet for one wheelchair, so when the agent puts a tag on my chair, I mention the rule because I’m worried it is going to be sent to the cargo hold (risking damage or loss). She assures me that I’m the first person checking in with a wheelchair, so I’ll get the closet space. Our carryon luggage poses a different problem: Although our roll-ons are well within the size restrictions of other airlines, Air Berlin goes by weight – and only permits carryons of up to 7 kilos (about 15 pounds). Ours are over the limit, so we quickly redistribute stuff to our allowed “personal item” – a backpack in Fred’s case, a big bag in mine – and are able to avoid checking anything.

After a short wait for the wheelchair attendant, we get through security pretty quickly and proceed to the gate. As boarding time approaches, I mention to a gate agent that I was promised the cabin closet space for my wheelchair. She goes to check with the crew and returns with bad news: no closet for my chair, though I’m never told why. So I say that, in that case, I’d like to stow it in an overhead bin, explaining that the feet come off, the back folds down, the wheels are small, and it compresses to suitcase size. I also refer to the ACAA again: It says that all assistive devices that fit in overhead bins or under seats MUST be allowed in the cabin. She goes to consult with the cabin crew, and the determination this time is that I have to transfer to one of the airport wheelchairs and send mine, folded up, down to the plane for them to stow in an overhead bin. The wheelchair ends up in business class, me in economy. It has the better deal!

Air Berlin’s economy seats on the Airbus 330-200 seem unusually cramped, and no one bothers to tell us – until we ask later – that the aisle armrest lifts up to facilitate getting in and out. On the plus side, the individual video screens and entertainment systems are better than average, and we get little amenity bags (overnight flights only) with socks, eye masks, ear plugs and toothbrush/toothpaste. Minuses include skimpy blankets, cheapo earphones that don’t want to stay in my ear and the food. We enjoy toasting the trip with sparkling wine in twist-top splits but are surprised the drinks don’t come with so much as a bag of pretzels. No rolls with dinner, either: just a little packet of crackers. The meal, served on a flimsy tray with plastic utensils, consists of little containers of coleslaw and gelatinous cheesecake plus a choice of pasta (we skip it) or skinless, boneless chicken breast in thick brown gravy with gluey mashed potatoes and a medley of overcooked broccoli and red peppers. Breakfast – coffee or tea, choice of juice, strawberry yogurt, cold roll and butter, blueberry muffin, plate of commercial-quality meats and cheese with garnishes – is somewhat better.

The flight is very smooth, even though all the announcements from the cockpit are unintelligible. The plane lands on time – 7 a. m. on April 2 – at Berlin’s Tegel Airport, but it parks on the tarmac. When I ask the flight attendants about provisions for wheelchair users, they don’t seem to have a clue – and keep telling me to remain seated. After most of the passengers are off the plane and onto buses, a truck with a lift arrives and drives the few of us who have mobility issues to the terminal where helpers usher us through passport control and security. The security personnel don’t speak English and rummage through our luggage because we don’t show them our plastic bags of little bottles of liquids quickly enough. We get to the gate for the flight to Catania at about 8 a.m., giving us an hour and a half to explore a terminal that looks like an old airplane hangar. (A new airport is in the works.)

Boarding for the 10:05 a.m. flight to Catania, Sicily, begins shortly after 9:30 a.m., and instead of being transferred to the plane in a lift vehicle, I’m strapped into an aisle chair and bounced up a flight of steps. My wheelchair is sent to the cargo hold despite my objections, though the very nice flight attendant gives me her personal promise that it will be returned to me safe and sound. Surprisingly, the economy seats on the Boeing 737-800 are roomier and more comfortable than those on the Airbus. The food is better, too: We have the salami with cream cheese and pickles on rustic bread, and the half sandwich is simply served in a paper bag. The chatty pilot fills us in on the route, cruising altitude and weather, and two-and-a-half hours go by without a hitch.

When we land at Catania Fontanarossa airport at 12:30 p.m. or so and I’m reunited with my wheelchair on the tarmac, two wheelchair attendants whisk us out of the terminal and across the street to the little buildings housing all the car rental outfits. We don’t go through passport control or anything, and I have yet to figure out why, though maybe it’s because we were traveling within the EU.

Our car reservation, made through Travelocity, is with Thrifty, and once we find the right counter, the representative bombards us with a bunch of options that aren’t on our printed confirmation. For one thing, he tells us in a mix of Italian and English, that an 800 euro deposit is required. For another, we can buy one of several extra insurance packages to protect us more than the basic coverage and lower the deductible. It’s a lot to take in when you’re exhausted after flying more than 10 hours. Given advance advice from a friend to forego additional insurance, I take out my credit card (which includes some coverage) … when the rep tells me that, because I’m not the driver, my credit card can’t be used. I don’t like this guy and decide to do a little comparison shopping.

The Europcar booth is crowded with customers, but since I vaguely recall an announcement on the plane that Air Berlin passengers are being offered a discount, we go there first. I’m in the wheelchair, and an employee takes pity on us and helps practically right away. The upshot is I can use my credit card here, the deposit is 100 euros less and we save 100 euros on the rental, which costs 290 euros for two weeks, rather than the 396 euros for the car we’d reserved. We’re sent over to the lot to pick it up: It’s a Peugeot PG 208 DS, a stick shift that’s one category above the smallest car. Not bad, but not enough head room for Fred, and we later conclude it wasn’t the best choice because, like many people, he has trouble driving stick shift on hills, which abound in Sicily.

The next challenge is driving to our rented apartment in Acitrezza, a little fishing village a few towns north of Catania. I’ve printed out the Google map, but neither Fred nor I has a good sense of direction (that’s an understatement!), so we’re apprehensive. In fact, we get lost just trying to get out of the airport.

The road up the coast is very twisty-turny, but fortunately the map indicates we should follow the SS114 signs, and after about an hour in rather heavy traffic, we think we’re near our destination and start looking for addresses – which are nowhere in sight. A mile or so further, we sense we’ve gone too far and turn around. Then a little miracle occurs.

We see a young man walking alongside the road with a surf board under his arm and call to him to ask directions to Villa Cavallaro. The words are barely out of my mouth when he says to me, “Anna?” Turns out the person we’ve stopped is our host, Marco, and we’re literally across the street from where we’re staying, an old villa that looks like it‘s been around for a couple of centuries. He opens the gate and directs us to park in the single space down a steep hill, then lead us down a walkway to the door of our apartment. It’s everything I imagined from the photos on the web site: not luxurious, but rustic and cozy, with Sicilian-tile floors in most of the rooms, some antique furnishings, and old-fashioned shuttered double doors leading to the big terrace with views of palm trees and the Ionian sea, pots of plants and flowers and a table and chairs for outdoor dining. Marco says his sister used to live here, and he and his father built most of the place themselves, including the doors. My bedroom has a big comfy bed, dresser and wardrobe; Fred’s is in a loft over the dining area. The galley-style kitchen has a big window with the same view as the terrace. Marco has stocked it with basic breakfast provisions – espresso, sugar, dry toasts, Nutella – as well as local liqueurs, among them a 60-year-old one made by his family. A basket on the dining room table holds blood oranges and lemons from a relative’s garden.

We truly feel like we’ve come home.

Photos by Fredric Swanson