“They Were Fruitful…”, Part 1: Preparing for Europe

In my previous Update, I wrote

“I am going to Italy! This is the second piece of good news. I received an invitation to represent the BaBar collaboration on this analysis at the 9th International Workshop on Tau Lepton Physics in Pisa, Italy. This will be my first invited conference talk and my first time attending an international conference. I will be in Pisa for three days of the four day conference. Since the best deals on airline tickets bring me back on the fourth day after the conference, I will be a tourist for three days. More details and many photographs should be in my next update!”

Well, here begin the details and photographs. My preparations revolved around two things: guidebooks and fear of pickpockets.

As you can see, I may have gone a little overboard in my preparations for my three days as a tourist. I did not read all of these books; I only read or skimmed the sections on the cities of Pisa and Florence. The conference would be in Pisa, and I had decided to spend my three touristic days in Florence. I had considered travelling further, but Italian friends and the guide books informed me that Florence alone contained more than I could see in three days. They were right.

Pickpockets were the primary danger that the guidebooks (and almost everyone I spoke to about my trip) mentioned. I was quite afraid of being pick-pocketed. I was not fearful for my safety or life; pickpockets take away one’s money and possessions without being noticed. My friends (and the guidebooks) made several practical suggestions, the foremost of which was purchasing a money belt, which I did. One of my Christian friends, named Gary, reminded me of the words of Psalm 23:4 and 1 John 4:18. He went on to say,

“I probably don’t like the idea of being mugged any more than you do and I sure would love it if this (or anything else I fear) never happened again. But the things we fear are great opportunities to deepen our dependence on God and, from my own experience, even when bad stuff happens God somehow demonstrates his love.”

Honestly, the most frustrating thing about my whole trip preparation experience was that no one seemed to understand why I was afraid. I know academically that I should not fear anything except God, but you know as well as I do that feelings are often far removed from knowledge. Everyone to whom I expressed my fears seemed to have their feelings much better aligned with their knowledge and faith than I do. This aroused in me a questions that I ask far too often, “What is wrong with me? Are my emotions simply defective?”

A surprising level of comfort came from an article in the Travel section of the San Jose Mercury News of Aug 27, 2006. It was about how to be safe from pickpockets, anti-American sentiment, and security checkpoints. What really comforted me was the graphic featured in the article. It was a man carrying a briefcase who was screaming and almost mummified in caution tape. Whoever designed that graphic and wrote the article seemed to understand how I was feeling. The article gave the same practical advice that the guidebooks and my friends did. I bought a money belt, kept aware of my surroundings, and kept my valuables secure. Nothing was ever stolen, unless you count that one really over-priced gellato.
The article was also useful in that it helped me express why I was actually afraid. One travel agent said, “When I hear stories of things happening to people, it’s typically those who aren’t taking care of themselves.” I was afraid that someone would say that about me. I was afraid, not of losing money, but of the humiliation that would accompany the loss. As with so many other things in life, I was afraid of failure. I suppose that means I succeeded, and even if something had been stolen, at least I would have known that I took all reasonable and prudent measures to prevent the theft.
After I had complete the psychological drama above, I finally packed my bags and headed to SFO. The check-in and security lines were alarmingly long, but everyone moved efficiently enough to get me to my flight with time to spare. The only unexpected event on the way occur ed when someone noticed an unattended bag in the security line. Fortunately, a man quickly identified as his and received his fare share of angry glares.

In order to keep the costs for this trip at a minimum, I took a somewhat unorthodox path to and from Pisa. I flew from San Francisco to Gatwick Airport, London (with a layover in Minneapolis) on Northwest Airlines. I then took a three-hour bus from Gatwick to Stansted Airport, which is outside of London. From Stansted, I flew on Ryan Air, which is famous for its low fares, to Pisa.

Packing everything was actually easier than I expected. Physicists travel very often, so we tend to quickly hone our skills at packing as lightly as possible. I read an interesting article about this after I returned. I was able to pack everything I needed, including my camera, for my trip in a standard sized carry-on bag and a small bag from a conference in Australia. However, Ryan Air has tighter restrictions on carry-on baggage than U.S. airlines, so I had to check my bag with them. The airline also charges for each checked bag. Due to tight security on all flight between London and the U.S., I had to check my “carry-on” bag for the international portion of my Northwest trip as well. My bag and its contents arrived safely with me in Pisa.

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