Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Le Bleu et le Blanc (apologies to M. Stendhal)

As everyone knows, before being brought under control the cancer did substantial damage to my spine, with the result that I require the use of a cane to walk any distance. Consequently, I am in possession of an official blue-and-white handicapped parking pass, property of the State of Delaware. I would give anything to get my pre-cancer physique back (not that it was any great shakes, but I miss it just the same), but I have learned over time that my "cripple card" is the key to previously unsuspected benefits the world over. So now I always make sure I have it with me whenever I am traveling, even if I have no expectation of driving or parking in the course of my sojourn.

When I arrive at the airport, I have my card handy, because if I have to check luggage, and there is any kind of line for economy ticket holders (I am always one of those), if I wave the card around then typically I, along with my entire "entourage", will be directed into what is invariably a much shorter line for first class customers. I have never discovered the card to be in any way helpful in the security line. But at the gate, if I make myself known to the agents ahead of time, they will instruct me to join the priority boarding group. I have even had the experience of a gate agent rounding me up just prior to the first boarding announcement, and escorting me personally to the boarding pass check machine. How sweet is that?

In France, a ticket seller at a museum or other attraction has only to catch the merest glimpse of the blue-and-white card to immediately punch out, without further ado, two free tickets, one for myself and one for Huong. If there is a temporary exhibit requiring distinct tickets then I can get a couple of those as well.

The French are reputed to have practically invented the modern concept of "bureaucracy", and to have granted us the privilege of incorporating into our language the term unaltered; whereas the Italians are alleged to be intentionally lackadaisical towards (actually quietly contemptuous of) bureaucratic rules and procedures. Yet in this small area these nations seem to have exchanged their stereotypical roles, because in Italy, unlike in France, the blue-and-white card was occasionally carefully scrutinized, and certain of its details, along with those of the supporting Delaware ("The First State") driver license, were entered into one or more Italian databases. I have no idea why, although I speculate that this represents some attempt to head off the potential abuse of the card's substantial benefits, which were much the same in Italy as in France.

To me, the true advantage of the card has to do, not so much with free tickets (as attractive as they are), as with the ability to skip long lines of weary, sweaty tourists. Approaching the Colosseum or the Uffizi on a hot day at the height of the summer tourist season is a daunting prospect. The very long line of people seeking tickets makes the siren song of the tour guides ("skip the line") seem irresistible; but not to me, because I simply march past all of them directly to the Reserved Ticket window (or the Guided Tours entrance, or whatever it is), where eventually I am duly handed my free tickets, and then I... walk in. My companions may have to pay full price for their tickets, but they are at least spared the wait as well.

Incidentally, in some other respects the Italians lived up to their reputation for administrative carelessness. In the course of our recent visit we rode Italian intercity trains three times, and our tickets were checked only once (Typical occurrence: Conductor slouches into car, checks a few tickets, receives cell phone call, wanders off, is never seen again). We used the water buses of Venice for several days, and I was checked just once. In Venice the blue-and-white card was the only artifact I needed to use the water buses; there was no need even to parlay it into any sort of free pass or ticket. I think I'll be going back.

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