Don’t bother trying to check into an Italian hotel without a passport. Surely the intrepid reporter didn’t commit this rudimentary faux pas? Yes, just last week, I popped up to Lake Maggiore in northern Italy for a couple of nights.
I rang the ostello in Verbania to secure a room, arriving at 9pm, just in time for a glass on the terrace. Or so I thought.
‘Passport,’ says the sour-faced girl behind the desk. ‘Certainly,’ I say, fumbling in pockets. Very quicky it dawns on me that, despite a fistful of cash, I don’t even have a Tesco Clubcard on me. Everything – and I mean everything (credit cards, driving licence etc.) – is in the truck, 96 kilometres away in Milan.
She murmurs something about needing ID for the police. Oh come on, this is Italy – surely a bribe? A ‘grand cafe’, we used to call it, when pulled up at the roadside by local constabulary. She’s having none of it, though, sitting there utterly indifferent to my predicament.
To paint the scene, she has the figure of one who may once have been delicious, then curvy but fun, and now has gone to pot. The moustache adds to her allure. ‘Ring the police and I’ll explain,’ I say. ‘No,’ she replies. Ah, that didn’t quite go as I’d intended. Oh, for goodness sake, surely this is solvable.
She rings her “director”. Gabbled, rapid Italian ensues, but I do catch the word ‘perfecto’, and a barely perceptible upturn at the corners of her flabby mouth. I brighten, my spirits soaring as I emerge from yet another potential catastrophe without a scratch. As she replaces the receiver, I decide I shall drink white wine, not red this evening. ‘Not possible,’ she says tersely.
Imagine, if you will, that you’ve travelled from London on a crap, provincial train, and then by irregular bus service to a town in Northamptonshire. It won’t be an idyllic setting, straddling the Swiss border, but perhaps you now empathise.
You’ve put all your eggs in one basket, and don’t even have the car to sleep in. Do you a) sob uncontrollably or b) throw tourist brochures at infuriating, vowel-spouting receptionists? Well, I don’t do the latter – she’d squash me. We’ve reached a stalemate: I stare at a blancmange; she stares back. Maybe Namibian could send my passport number up the wire? – a telegram, with little or no punctuation would be right up his street. ‘No,’ she says, warming to me a little I think.
‘Shall I just wander aimlessly round the lake, then, collapsing on the gravel when I can walk no further?’ I ask her. She shrugs. This is the final straw. And what’s really irksome is that I have a life membership of YHA…which I’ve left in the truck, of course. Now, if you had a shred of goodwill and were in her shoes – ill-fitting unless you had elephantitis in both feet – would you not help me find another hotel?
She gives me two addresses and I begin to shuffle off, tail between my…Hang on a sec, what do you think telephones were invented for? ‘I hope you’re struck down by the lightning that’s now looming over Baveno,’ I think. A man has only so much patience.
When I finally find a hotel, using my phone – ‘you don’t sound like a terrorist,’ the receptionist says – I could whoop with delight. It’s twenty-five minutes’ walk, and it starts to rain..