My friend, collaborator, and business partner, Wyatt Waters, and I are working back in Italy this week leading a group of people through one of our favorite parts of the world.
3:59a.m. Barberino Val d’Elsa, Tuscany— I am dead asleep in the small apartment below Villa il Santo. The pizza I had consumed hours earlier worked better than any over-the-counter melatonin to put me down. I was dead to the world and exhausted from leading a group of 24 Americans on a weeklong trek through Tuscany. My best friend, business partner, and co-collaborator, Wyatt Waters, was asleep in his villa in the next village over.
4:00a.m.— The alarm on my phone goes off. I have no idea of the drama that lies ahead in the subsequent six hours. Had I known, I would have rolled over, slept through the morning, and caught an outbound flight for the following day. But I had no clue as to what lay in store, so I resisted the urge to hit the snooze button, and hopped out of bed.
Fabio, one of our drivers, was scheduled to pick us up at 4:40 to take us to the train station in Florence. We were catching the fast train that would take to Rome well in advance of our 11:30a.m. flight home. I showered and threw my belongings into my suitcase, along with the three pounds of pecorino cheese I would be smuggling back home in my luggage.
4:45a.m.— I hop into Fabio’s van. He and I head to Wyatt’s villa in Tavarnelle. Fabio mainly talks about skiing in the Dolomites and where his son— the chef— will be working next. He talks about his son a lot. He’s proud. I love that. We also talk about the transportation details of the three tours we’ll be hosting this spring, but mainly the van is quiet. We are the only vehicle on the dark, winding Tuscan roads at this time of the day. The peace is nice.
4:57a.m.— Waters is ready and waiting outside of his villa. We load his luggage into the van, get one last look at our home away from home, and head to the train station in Florence.
In the past couple of years, we have spent three months each year over here. Next year will be the same. It’s a lot of work, but if one has to work somewhere, the Tuscan countryside is a nice place to do it. We typically fly into— and out of— the Florence airport. Though this trip, based on a friend’s recommendation, we were trying something new and flying directly into Rome from Atlanta and then taking the fast train to Florence. I love the train system in Europe and the ride north a week earlier held no consequences.
5:45a.m. Florence— We arrive at the train station and board our train. It’s busy as usual, but something feels different.
6:00a.m.— We are seated and ready to go. Trains over here are almost always on time. We have plenty of time to get to Rome and make our flight. I text our friend Jesse in Rome who has graciously offered to drive us from the Rome train station to the airport. We look forward to that short visit.
6:10a.m.— The train hasn’t left yet. I notice that all of the tracks in the station are full. No trains are moving in or out of the terminal this morning. Something’s definitely up.
6:20a.m.— Through a porter, I find out that two hours earlier— around the time I was stuffing cheese into my suitcase— a town just north of us in Tuscany experienced a 4.8 earthquake. There are concerns that the rail lines might be damaged. The majority of Italy’s rail systems run north and south. Rail transportation is at a standstill.
6:35a.m.— No one is giving us any information. I begin to worry that we are going to miss our flight. I started to text a few friends in the area to solicit their advice. No one has an answer.
6:45a.m.— After trying in vain to see if Fabio could come back and drive us to the Rome airport, I make a decision to grab a cab to try and make our flight. The locals I am messaging say there’s no way we’re going to make it in time. I also wonder if the earthquake has affected the interstate roadways.
6:55a.m.— Our cab driver says it will be 700 euros to get to Rome, though he’s not sure he’ll make it, and he’ll have to stop for gas. We hop in and head out.
7:02a.m. Somewhere near the city center of Florence— I call our friend, and the owner of our villas, Annagloria to ask her advice. She offers to pick us up at a roundabout near the busy Florence toll entrance, saying she’s the only person who has a chance to get us there on time. I know how she drives. I believe her (she lives 25 minutes away though).
7:25a.m. Waters and I are standing with our luggage in the rain at the bustling rush hour roundabout. The taxi driver left in a huff realizing that he wasn’t going to make 700 euros today. Our flight starts boarding in three hours and 15 minutes. It’s three hours to Rome (in good weather). There’s still airport traffic, luggage check-in, and security.
7:32a.m. Annagloria picks us up and starts driving towards Rome. Fast. Very fast. Really, really fast. 180 kilometers per hour fast. That’s 110-miles-per-hour-to-you-and-me fast. In a Volkswagen. In heavy traffic. In the rain. Did I mention that she was driving very, very fast?
8:10a.m. Somewhere in Northern Tuscany — We are southbound, weaving in and out of heavy traffic on a wet Italian toll road. My friends are still texting me telling me that we’ll never make it in time. Waters is white as a sheet in the back seat. I am white knuckling it in the front seat as Annagloria is passing cars like they’re standing still. She’s laughing all the way. It’s just a leisurely drive to her.
8:25a.m. Somewhere (I can’t tell because things are buzzing by so fast it’s all a blur)— I am starting to debate whether I should just ask Annagloria to slow down and we’ll spend the day in Rome, and catch a flight home tomorrow. She is notoriously known as a fast driver in her hometown, and I suspect that the speed bumps that were recently installed on the road leading to the villa were placed there specifically for her. She seems to be happy and carefree.
I also start to wonder if I have enough life insurance to take care of my family and hope that my son remembers where I left the notes for the instructions for my funeral. Seriously, that is what I was thinking about. Waters is trying to sleep in the backseat, obviously assuming that if we’re going to die on an Italian interstate, it’s better to not see the crash coming. I am praying.
8:35a.m. Somewhere in Southern Tuscany— Traffic is stalled at a snail’s pace and bumper-to-bumper. There is a wreck ahead (amazingly it wasn’t us). This costs us 15 minutes that we didn’t have to spare. Odds that already were already bad, are getting worse.
9:05a.m. Somewhere in Umbria— We have to stop at an Autogrill for gas. It looks like a pit-stop scene in the Indy 500. People are running around the car and hoses and credit cards are flying through the air in an all-out panic. There’s almost no chance we are going to make it.
9:07a.m.— We’re back on the road cruising at a leisurely pace of 110 miles per hour. I am still praying.
9:18a.m.— I ask Annagloria if she knows who Mario Andretti is. She has no clue. Waters is wide awake and wide-eyed. His face— at first just ghostly— has turned a whiter shade of pale. Procol Harum’s Hammond B3 organ riff is playing in my head. I finally know what they were singing about. Waters might be praying, too.
9:45a.m. Rome— We enter the outskirts of the city. Traffic is light, but it’s likely to get busier the closer we get to the airport. We are still going to have to check our luggage and go through security in one of the busiest airports in Europe.
10:03a.m. Leonardo DaVinci Fiumicino Airport, Rome— Obviously having just set some type of land-speed record, we pull into the Delta departures drop-off. On two wheels. Still alive.
Author’s Note— Annagloria is the hero of this story. There should be no doubt about that, and we are forever grateful to her for coming to our rescue and saving the day. We thank her for taking six hours out of her life to help us out. We thank her for being an angel and driving us. We also thank her for not killing us and introducing us to actual angels. She’s awesome.
10:07a.m— We rush to the front of the line at the Delta counter. No one there has even heard about the earthquake. How can that be? My bag, that had been two pounds under on the inbound flight, was now two pounds over. It must have been the cheese. I stuffed the pecorino into Waters’ bag, instantly making him an accomplice. Though I explained that two-year aged pecorino was worth the risk. The color that had returned to his face moments earlier started to— once again— make its exit. Everything now hinged on the line at the security checkpoint.
10:20a.m.— I fly tens of thousands of miles a year and endure dozens of security checkpoints. I was readying my plea to get to the front of the long line. To my amazement, there were only two people ahead of me in the entire security line of the Rome airport. Two people! Two people in the Rome airport security line at 10:20 in the morning. I gave credit to the earlier car prayers.
10:35a.m.— We make it to the terminal five minutes before boarding started. Still, no one in line has heard about an earthquake. We are alive. We are heading home.
We are grateful. Onward.
St. John is a restaurateur and chef.