Italian Police on Lookout for Eric Stern!
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Wednesday, Sept. 13th
Bologna to Viareggio via Postoia, Lucca and Montecatini - A beautiful day turns bad....

We left Bologna at about 1 pm on Wednesday the 13th during another scorching day. Beautiful ride through Poretta on to Pistoia and Montecatini. We were finally out of the city. Several tunnels, some low mountains. Lot of twisty roads as they wound around the hills.

At one brief rest stop in Sambuca, a tiny town up in the hills, as I was taking my helmet off, I got stung by a bee right between my eyes. I quickly ripped off my glasses to get at the offending creature and in doing so, bent the frame quite badly on the left side. It lay out at a 30-degree angle from what it should have been. Made my glasses tilt to the left -- a nerdy look, to be sure ("Just adds to the effect," says my sarcastic son).

The bee sting was not serious, and Eric put the poor insect out of its misery after I had half-swatted at it.

Our goal was to reach Lucca, which had a beautiful walled city. We arrived there about six pm, ready to crash.after riding most of the afternoon. We were exhausted and our wrists were speaking to us. However ….

Did you know that in the tiny walled town of Lucca there is a festival to honor the "Volto Santo," a wooden crucifix reputedly carved by Nicodemus at Calvary and said to be in the true image of Jesus? This festival takes place only one day in every year, and yes, that day is September 13th. Locals come from miles around, as do tourists, to watch the procession with the statue. It is very exciting.

What this meant for us as we rode into the walled city, however, was that there were mobs of people, closed-off entrances, and crowds of traffic. Even worse, it meant that there were NO hotel rooms available anywhere in the town. A visit to the local tourist office confirmed that quickly.

It was getting late, light was beginning to fade as we pondered what to do. We had tentatively planned to head west to the Mediterranean, to the seaside town of Viareggio, only 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. We decided to take the Autostrade for that short distance. But we couldn't find the Autostrade entrance to take us to Viareggio. Mindful of the near-disaster from two nights before, we were determined not to get on the Autostrade going the wrong way. I didn't mind seeing Firenze (Florence), but not tonight.

Traffic was at a standstill, though, there was an accident with a fire truck on the scene, and we kept going around and around to the same set of streets. Street signs were NOT helpful. We were getting exhausted.

And then disaster struck...

I made a quick right turn and Eric was trapped several cars back in traffic and couldn't make the same turn. I rode on several blocks before I realized he wasn't behind me, then stopped for 15 minutes to wait for him. He never showed.

The frustration level was rising. I hadn't eaten, I was getting dehydrated, my bladder was getting full, and now I couldn't find Eric.

Knowing it was near dark, I decided to push on to Viareggio by myself and hope that Eric would do the same thing. The only problem was, we hadn't made any hotel reservation, nor did we have any emergency plan on where to meet up if we got separated.

To make matters worse, Eric only had about thirty dollars in cash on him and his credit card had been getting denied the last several times he tried to use it. Plus I had all the maps. Naturally we hadn't planned on being separated. Not smart.

But I knew he was a resourceful kid and that he would manage somehow. It was just a question of time to find each other.

I decided to forget about the Autostrade and take the local road to Viareggio. By now it was completely dark, about 8 pm; the road was fine, the traffic was local, and it wasn't bad. At one point the road passed under the Autostrade and I could hear the trucks roaring by above me. Maybe Eric was up there, I thought.

Then as the road descended from the hills down to the sea, came a quick challenge -- several hairpin turns, with traffic behind me. I had been concerned about these because the turning radius of the Ducati was less than that of my old Honda and I had determined to practice sharp turns sometime before we hit mountainous areas. But there was no time to practice - only execute them without thinking. I did fine. Two points for me!

But I was ready to stop for a beer (well, potty break, then beer).

The road wound down into Viareggio; I had no idea where to go; pulled into town, at the first hotel, I stopped. "Completo" was the sign. But did they have a bathroom I could use? YES! Be thankful for small gifts.

Then to a phone booth across the street, with my guidebook which listed three places to stay in Viareggio. The first one, Hotel Albachiara, had a vacancy!

Things were looking up.

Got directions to the hotel, dumped the luggage from the bike in the room, then went out for some food (OK, beer first). The restaurant was completely filled with German students for some reason. No problem.

I sat outside in case Eric rode by. He didn't.

Went back to the room, took a shower, and crashed. Tomorrow's job would be to find Eric.

 

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 14TH -- in which an APB is put out on my son

There were several things I was concerned about Eric. Not his well-being or his motorcycle ability - I assumed he was holed up somewhere. But I was worried that he might run out of money; that would mean if, say, he was stuck in Pisa or Firenze, he wouldn't be able to buy gas. He had told me he was having trouble with his credit card.

So the first thing I did was to look for a CitiBank so I could transfer money into his account. No go. There was no CitiBank in Viareggio. How dare they not have a branch here?

Then I found an Internet café (one block from the hotel) and sent a short note to Eric's Yahoo mail account, telling him where I was. If he checked his email from anywhere, he could find me, or call me.

The next thing was to move the motorcycle to a prominently public place so Eric could spot it if he were cruising around looking for me. I rode it over to the Promenade (main drag) next to the sea and attached a note to the gas cap with a business card of the hotel I was at.

Then I grabbed a copy of the International Herald Tribune, checked out the baseball scores, and settled down at a little restaurant with a clear view of the motorcycle and the main street beyond it. Every motorcycle and scooter riding by got my attention.

Eventually it got too hot, so I moved across the street into a nice shady park. Took out the laptop, worked on some digital photos, but still scanned every two-wheeled motorized vehicle that passed in either direction. Lots of white helmets (which Eric wore) but no red Ducati 900. Mostly scooters.

After 2 pm, thought I should try to get accustomed to Italian time, so went to take a siesta; it didn't work, I was too keyed up. Where was Eric? If he had been in another town, he would have had time to get here by now.

I decided to shift into proactive gear instead of idly waiting around for him to show up. I went into an electronics store and purchased a cellular phone, with voice mail. Once I was assured that it worked, I wrote down the number and marched over to the Office of the Carabinieri - the local police. There I wrote down on a piece of paper the crucial information the police would need -- name, height, weight, model and color of "moto," and "targa" (license plate, which were Illinois tags). When I gave further information such as helmet color and how the motorcycle was all piled up with camping gear, they replied, "Please, how many red Ducatis with Illinois license plates do you think there are in Tuscany?" Point well taken.

At first they thought this might have been a simple family argument and not a serious matter. But I prevailed and explained, "We were riding together, there were no arguments; I went left and he went right. I'm afraid he might have gone the wrong way on the Autostrade [chip off the old block] and ended up in Florence. I have NO idea where he is."

One of the policemen with the very un-Italian name of Mark Holmes (pronounced "Ol-mess" in Italian) spoke very good English; in fact, his father lives in Phoenix and he had attended one year of high school in Casa Grande between Phoenix and Tucson (there were some lighter moments comparing the Arizona State Sun Devils vs. the University of Arizona Wildcats).

But then it got serious. As a parent, sometimes it gets so frustrating not knowing where your children are and why they don't call. I had always half-dreamed of putting out an All Points Bulletin on my son, just to end that frustration. I never thought I would actually be doing it. But I was tired of sitting around passively.

I listened as Mark called the Autostrade Police, then the police in Pisa, then Lucca, then Viareggio. I could clearly understand the Italian "uno ragazzo americano…Ducati 900 rosa…targa Illinois 517-546…padre ... Viareggio."

"Every policeman in three regions is now looking for your son," Mark told me. "Don't worry, we'll find him soon."

I had visions of Eric being pulled over somewhere and being angry with me for putting out an APB on him; it didn't matter; I had to know where he was. I left the police station feeling much better, knowing that I had done the right thing.

I went back to my hotel room to charge up the cell phone, then went back to the Promenade to get my motorcycle. The note for Eric was still sitting on the gas tank.

I parked the bike in front of the hotel and went into the room, prepared to settle in for a long evening of waiting.

Three minutes later, Paulo, the manager of the hotel, knocked on the door loudly. When I opened it, he told me, "The police have your son! He is here!"

"He is HERE? In the hotel? Is he OK?" I asked.

"Yes, yes, he is fine!"

I ran to the lobby and there was Eric, standing next to the two cops I had been talking to not twenty minutes before. We gave each other a big hug, then I pretended to punch him out for giving me such a scare. "The police in half of Italy are out looking for you, you know," I told him. "You can't get far the rest of this trip."

"I've already cancelled the search," interrupted Mark.

Like everyone else, I had heard horror stories about the Italian bureaucracy but I had never expected such efficiency, so fast. I was impressed and told them so. Talk about great service!

It was the second policeman riding home on HIS motorcycle who had passed Eric stopped on his bike five blocks away, talking to a friend he had just made. He immediately recognized the red Ducati with the distinctive Illinois plates. "Stern?" the policeman demanded, holding up his police badge.

"Yes," replied Eric.

"Your father is near. Come, we will take you to his hotel." And that was that.

It turns out that Eric had been in Viareggio from last night, just as I had, had found a pensione with the help of a local Italian guy, and had been cruising around town all day looking for me, using a "grid search" as in the search and rescue missions. Our paths had not crossed, unfortunately. He had never noticed the blue motorcycle parked on the Promenade.

He was thinking of checking his email but had not been able to find an Internet café and was intending the next day to go to the police, as I had done. So our thoughts were the same.

He WAS getting a little short on cash, and was prepared to wash dishes in the local pensione until I turned up. Knowing him, I sure that's exactly what would have happened.

We now have a battle plan of where to meet in case this happens again. I have a cell phone and he has phone cards to call me. Also a bit more cash.

This trip was supposed to be relaxing and exciting. I'm looking now for a little more relaxation and a little less excitement.

On to Genova tomorrow.

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