In January 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to Naples, Italy for four days. It wasn’t a personal vacation, rather a work-related trip. The best part about it was that I was stationed at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and any excuse to get out was a welcome one.
As the embassy’s lead for NATO affairs, NATO’s International Staff was holding a lessons learned conference at the NATO base in Naples to discuss what went right and wrong with the NATO Training Mission-Iraq, which had departed Baghdad about a month earlier.
I booked my hotel next to the base, which was about five or so miles from downtown Naples, and attended my meetings each day. On the second to last day of the trip, my colleague from NATO Headquarters, Amanda, who happened to be, strangely enough, a classmate of mine in high school, and I decided to get dinner in the city.
Being as we were in Europe, we did as the Europeans did, and had a very late dinner. (This was nothing new for Amanda as she lived in Brussels). At around 9 p.m., we took the light-rail train a few-minute walk from our hotel, even though we knew the trains weren’t going to be running when we were to head back. We’ll just grab a taxi, we thought. No big deal.
We found a very cool looking restaurant in a space that looked like a kiln or perhaps a large pizza oven. Having been seated, we ordered an excessive amount of food and wine and ate and drank to our hearts’ content.
At around 11 p.m., we paid the bill and walked outside, hoping to find a taxi stand nearby. When we did eventually find one, we found plenty of taxis, but no taxi drivers. We kept walking toward the water and found another taxi stand. Again, there were cars, but not drivers.
We started to get concerned. What was going on? This wasn’t like the United States. You didn’t hail a taxi by sticking up your arm on the side of the road. Italy didn’t work like that.
But by this time it was midnight, and we were hoping that at least for this night that Italy would work like that. We walked further toward the water, to the main street that hugs the coast, and I put up my arm.
Taxi after taxi passed us. Yet none stopped, not even slowing down. One taxi driver even shook his finger at me as he drove by. What was happening? Why did they not want to pick us up? Is it because they could tell we were American? Was it something else? We had no idea.
At around 12:15, I called our hotel and asked for assistance.
“Oh, yes, sir. We have a shuttle that can pick you up.”
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” I said back excitedly. I started to give our location, until the man started speaking again. “Our shuttle starts at 6 a.m., so it can pick you up then.”
“What? No, you don’t understand. We need the shuttle now. We are stuck in the city.”
“I’m sorry, sir. The shuttle starts in the morning. Goodnight.”
I was in disbelief, and now even more hopeless than I was a minute before.
And now it was almost 12:30 a.m., and Amanda and I were stuck in downtown Naples, and this was the Italian city known for its “baby gangs” who had gained prominence in recent years after the city had basically been run by the mafia for decades. I was starting to get very nervous and was struggling to think of ideas of what to do. Amanda was drawing blanks, too.
I used my Blackberry phone, provided to me by the State Department, to use its rudimentary map feature to find out where we were and try to locate a hotel. If we could find a hotel, I thought, I was sure they could find us a taxi or at least give us refuge until we could figure out how to get to our own hotel. Worst case scenario is that we’d get rooms at whatever hotel we could find and get back to the base in the morning.
But hotel after hotel I found (and we walked to) turned out to be small boutiques that had closed up for the night. There was no Holiday Inn or Hilton. No place with a lobby to give us safety. It was now after 1 a.m. and I was scared. I would have just walked (or ran) back to the hotel myself, but Amanda’s shoes weren’t conducive to a five-mile trek.
At around 1:30 a.m., after what felt like two hours of trying to find a way out of the city, I saw a taxi cab pull up to a small newsstand. A passenger from the right side of the car jumped out of the front seat and moved quickly to the newsstand. Without missing a moment, I sprinted up to the driver’s side of the car.
“Hello! Hello! Good evening!”
“No work! No work!” he yelled back.
With no other choice, I pulled out my wallet, and took out a 50 Euro bill, holding it between my hands right outside his window. His eyes grew wide and fixated on the bill. He rolled down his window slightly.
“Where are you going?”
I gave the name of our hotel. He licked his lips, briefly.
“Okay. Get in.”
“Amanda!” I shouted to her. “Come on!” She trotted over and we got in the back seat, me behind the driver and Amanda behind the passenger in the front seat, who had finished buying cigarettes from the newsstand.
After a few breaths of relief, I asked the driver about what had happened and why there were no taxis available.
“Starting at midnight,” he said in his very thick accent, “We go on…” He trailed off as he started speaking to his friend in Italian, seemingly asking how to say a word in English.
“Ah yes!… We go on strike!”
“On strike? For what?”
“We want to retire early…at 52 instead of 55!” (It is possible he might have said 62 and 65, but I couldn’t be sure.)
“You mean like a pension?” I asked.
“Yes! The pension!”
As this man, in a sense, had our lives in his hands, I didn’t want to press the issue further as I thought it absurd to receive a pension for driving a taxi. About 15 minutes later, we arrived at our hotel. At close to 2 a.m., I fell asleep, safe and sound.
For more European craziness, check out the story I wrote on almost getting stuck in Europe because I didn’t know a fine-print rule about air travel, or if you’re interested in NATO, you can read what I did to reestablish the organization in Iraq.