Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 7

Dismissive Vagueness and the “Hospitality” Industry…

Searching (literally) for the Right Car…

When I asked where I might collect our “brand-new” Fiat Panda, the Europcar ragazza told us to go to the company trailer in the parkade outside the terminal, whither she gestured with dismissive vagueness. Dismissive vagueness, as I have discovered over the course of years of travel, is a special qualification and talent of those who work in the hospitality industry, who are invariably the most inhospitable creatures amongst the plenitudinous ranks of the animal kingdom.

The last time I encountered our ragazza’s expression of contemptuous ennui, it was creeping over the face of a waiter in a restaurant in Arles, at the moment when Mrs. P asked if he would remove and replace the soupe de poisson he had just served us. (The soupe had no poisson in it that either of us could discover, was covered in a congealed varnish of cooking oil, and was garnished with croutons that the waiter had parsimoniously recycled from the un-bussed table of a previous party of diners.) To Mrs. P’s suggestion, le garcon replied that there was nothing wrong with the soupe (implying that we were gastronomic malcontents), and proclaimed, like Moses revealing the Law on Sinai, that in France, if you order it, you pay for it.

It was in the same spirit of hospitality and accommodation that we were dismissed from the Europcar office and sent outside to search for the car we had (over)paid for. The “parkade” was a vast four-storey above-ground garage approached by six different ramps. Having been given no instruction as to which was the magic ramp, we tried them one after another at random, dragging our luggage behind us in the heat of the noon-day sun, until, on the fifth Sisyphean ascent, we hit upon the level and sector occupied by the major car rental agencies. We immediately found Hertz, Avis, and Budget, whose agents instructed us that Europcar was in the far corner of the parkade. Thirty-five minutes after setting out from the terminal, we finally found the Europcar trailer and presented our paperwork to the attendant. Would he bring us our conveyance, we wondered; or would we be dispatched on another voyage of exploration through the rows upon rows of parked cars to find it ourselves?

Such naivete is the residuum of the eternal hopefulness with which travelers embark on every new trip. After narrow escapes from the murderous Cyclopes, Laestrygonians, Scylla, and Charybdis, Odysseus set out cheerfully to reconnoitre the dark hinterland of Circe’s Isle, his spirit of adventure wholly undiminished. But with Homer’s and a thousand other admonitory tales to guide him, the contemporary traveler has no excuse for optimism.


The Europcar attendant tossed me the keys with the wonted dismissiveness of his vocation, recited the license plate number of our car, and told me I could find it in the Europcar section, “six rows over and nine pillars down”. Leaving Mrs. P to guard the luggage, I set out on another fruitless quest. Naturally, the “Europcar section” was unmarked; and never having seen a Fiat Panda in my life, the normal process of elimination was unavailable to me. After ten minutes’ of scrutinizing dozens of license plates, I gave up, returned to the trailer, and commenced upon a long and impassioned speech about the minimal standards of “service”, and the Christian imperative of showing compassion to homeless wanderers. Shamed into human decency by the tears that were at that moment beginning to well up in Mrs. P’s eyes, the attendant agreed to fetch the car. I importuned him only one more time: to give me at least a cursory introduction to the Fiat Panda’s instrumentation which, in the fashion of most European automobiles, was opaque and idiosyncratic. Having memorized the iconography and location of the light switch, AC button, and electric window controls (all of which were secreted in the most illogical redoubts), I inserted Mrs. Garmin into her mount, pressed its suction cup onto the windscreen—which held only after several attempts–, programmed in the address of our apartment, and set out in a mood of utter defeat for the city of Da Vinci, Bramante, and St. Ambrose.