Rozner: This European vacation no comedy
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, a dream come true for an anniversary celebration.
Instead, it was the nightmare of movie lore, a Chevy Chase production without the laughs, so ridiculous a tale as to be truly implausible.
Had he not lived it himself, Bill Gardner isn't certain he would believe this story.
"Not possible," said Gardner, the former Blackhawks center and Wolves TV analyst the last two decades. "From beginning to end, just not possible."
It was to start with a flight to Rome on July 17, and Bill and Monica Gardner did their part by arriving at O'Hare Airport hours ahead of the departure time.
And that's about the last time anything went according to plan.
"She got through all the lines no problem," Gardner said, nodding at his wife as we sat in the backyard of their Elmhurst home. "But I put my Canadian passport in the machine and it says I need assistance.
"I get to the desk and the woman looks at it, walks away for a few minutes, comes back and says, 'You can't fly with us. Your passport expires in less than 90 days.'
"Apparently, there's some law about having to be back in the country before the 90 days. Mine was like 78. So, turns out the expiration date is not really the expiration date.
"I hope it doesn't work that way with a gallon of milk."
Day 1 of the trip? Canceled. First two nights at a quaint hotel on the Italian coast? Canceled. The feeling that this is going to be magnificent? Canceled.
"Monica starts to cry. It's a disaster. We had Rome and the coast and all this planned before getting on an eight-day cruise," Gardner said. "So I call the Canadian consulate in Chicago and they tell me to be there at 7 a.m. the next day and maybe they can get it done, or maybe it will take a few weeks.
"We go home and get up the next day at 4 a.m. and go to the Prudential Building."
Gardner applies for a temporary passport, which cost $300, and a 10-year passport, which meant another $400. It takes six hours, but surprisingly at 1 p.m. he gets his temporary passport and they head for O'Hare and are rebooked on a 3 o'clock flight.
"Somehow we make the flight, but the first two nights are gone because we weren't going all the way to the coast for one night, so we stay in Rome for a night and now we've paid for three nights of a hotel for one night in Italy," Gardner says. "But we have to switch to another hotel the next night because that was planned for when we returned from the coast."
Now, after two nights in Rome they're headed for a different coastal region, Civitavecchia, and a cruise through the Italian Islands, Spain, France and back to Genoa.
Sounds wonderful. But …
"It's a 90-minute train ride to the port. First, we have to ride the city train for two stops to get to the second train," Gardner said. "We've got all our luggage and we're packed like sardines on this city train.
"My computer bag is over my shoulder and zipped up on my hip and we're being bumped and jostled. Can't move an inch.
"As soon as we got off the train, I said, 'I don't feel right. I think something happened.' I didn't notice anything. I just had an intuition. I can't explain it.
"I was so stupid. Someone had unzipped my bag and took everything. Both our passports, my green card since 1987, my birth certificate and all our money.
"And the receipt that says you paid for a temp passport and a new passport. You have to have that as proof to use a temporary passport."
It's "European Vacation" meets "The Out of Towners."
"We see a couple policemen and they say go that way. We go that way. Then we're told to go a different way. We go that way. Another guy says go upstairs. We go upstairs and wait an hour," Bill said. "We keep asking, 'Where's the police station?' We finally get pointed to a door. A woman cop opens the door and says, 'We're too busy. Go away.' That's it."
"Not come back later," Monica says laughing. "Just go away."
A tour guide showed them how to find another police station, but when they arrived and waited another 30 minutes, an officer told them the station was closed for two hours.
That's when they decided to take the second train to the port city and find a police station there.
Upon reaching the port city, they were told to head for the boat, so they walked several miles from the town to the port, where after getting the runaround for about an hour, were told to go back into the town where they started.
They walked about 10 miles to find a police station that was two blocks from where they got off the train in the first place.
"So we're walking and walking and walking down these cobblestone streets and the wheel on the suitcase starts to wobble, pieces start to come off and finally it just shatters. So now even the suitcase isn't rolling anymore," Bill chuckled. "We drag everything back into town, find the police station and no one speaks English.
"Finally, we get a cop that speaks English and he's great. He's doing a real police report and he stamps it with three different stamps and Monica is crying and he says, 'Don't worry. You'll get on the boat no problem. We'll take you there.'
"They drove us and we had all the paperwork. We're all set. We were excited.
"We get to the ship and they look at all the documents and the guy says, 'You can't get on the ship without a passport.' We're like, 'The police told us we could get on.' Nope."
How fitting it was that they could only stand and watch as the ship sailed without them.
"We go back to the port city, again, and get another hotel room," Bill said. "But we still need a passport, so the next day we get on the train and head back to Rome."
How at this point they didn't insist on an honorable ending in the Colosseum is baffling. Instead, they trekked on.
"We got off the train and walked to the American consulate. She went in to get a temp passport while I found a hotel -- our fifth hotel in five nights -- and took all the bags," Bill said. "She got her temp passport in 45 minutes.
"She meets me at the Canadian consulate, but of course it's lunch time and closed for two hours. At 1:30 we get in, but they say you have to have a picture. At the American consulate they take the picture. Not the Canadian.
"So they call this lady who's about to close her little photo shop and we get there and she takes the photo, but her machine overheats and won't print the picture. We wait 30 minutes and it starts back up.
"Get back to the consulate. They say it might be a few days. We sit for five hours. No phone, no TV, no luggage. Nothing is allowed in. Very serious about security. We fall asleep on the benches.
"It closes at 4 p.m., but they let us stay and at 5:15 the girl calls the consulate in Chicago and the guy who took care of me a few days ago answered the phone. He takes care of it and the girl stayed for us to get it done."
Another temporary passport, which you can't receive without applying for the long-term passport. Except, Bill can't apply for another 10-year passport because of what's occurred the last 48 hours.
"So it's another $700 for a temp and a two-year passport and in two years do it again," Bill says, shaking his head. "That means I'll have had five passports in two years for about $2,000."
That's on top of paying for a cruise they're not on and hotel rooms they've never seen.
"We thought we were done. Spend a week in Rome and go the (bleep) home," Bill said. "But in the Canadian consulate, we're sitting next to a woman who also got robbed on the train and lost her passport, and she's checking flights on the consulate computer to try to get where she's going.
"So we start checking flights for the heck of it and turns out we can get a cheap flight to the next stop on the cruise. We sleep in Rome that night -- I don't know what day this is now -- and we leave the hotel at 4 a.m. for an early flight to the next port.
"Figure we'll get on the boat early and enjoy the day. We fly to the next city and get to the port at 8 a.m. and watch the ship sail in. We line up to get on and they won't let us on our boat."
The port is closed until 12:30.
"The ship is there. We paid to be on the ship, but they won't let us on the ship," Bill said. "The guy says if you go 200 meters that way you can go to McDonald's and they have luggage storage."
This is where you must assume they checked their luggage at McDonald's and it was stolen. In contrast with every step of their journey thus far, it did not happen. Four hours and several strong beverages later, they were allowed on the boat.
If you've managed to follow along to this point, you don't want to miss the next chapter.
"We get on the ship after waiting in a long line, go to the front desk and they say just go to your room and the keys will be on the bed," Monica explained. "The keys are on the bed? It didn't make any sense, but we didn't care at that point. We just wanted to get in the room."
"We go to the room and there's someone living in our cabin!" Bill yelled. "We paid for this room and someone's been living there for two days and two nights."
No one has any explanation for this, nor does anyone seem to care.
"It takes hours to get the stuff out and get the room ready for us, and finally we were in our cabin and on our cruise, which was the whole point of the trip in the first place," Bill said. "The rest of the cruise was wonderful and all was well getting back to Rome and leaving to come home to America."
Except, not at all.
Three hours early at the Rome airport for their flight home, it took two hours, 55 minutes to get to the gate, with all the same temporary passport problems, sent from one line to another, one security expert to another, followed by running miles through a crowded airport, making their flight only because it was delayed boarding.
By now, you must have the picture.
They flew 10 hours home to Chicago, and though Monica had no issues clearing customs, do you need to guess who was held up again?
"I get to customs in Chicago," Bill recalls, "and the woman looks at me and says, 'You're Canadian. What's that all about?' I said, 'I've lived here for 40 years.' She says, 'Come with me.'
"I go in a room and after an hour they come back and give me my passport and set me free."
The nightmare was finally over. Safe and sound on American soil, stuck in Chicago traffic.
So do you ever want to go anywhere ever again?
"Well," Monica said, "I don't know."
"I think," Bill said, "we're gonna stay home for a while."
Chevy Chase would surely understand.