How much to tip your ambulance driver and other advice when traveling with COVID

After two years of successfully evading the virus, it finally caught me 4,000 miles away from home.

Driving between sublime places like Florence, Siena, and Lucca, you can catch a glimpse of the mundane side of Tuscany. The strip malls, the car dealerships. The industrial parks with empty loading docks. The barren fields with crumbling structures festooned with graffiti. The red tiled roofs of homes that dot the side of the highway. Details that never make it into brochures or into the stories you’ll share with your friends when you get back home.

I, on the other hand, was desperately trying to memorize it all. Making note of landmarks and highway signs, as they zoomed by the window of my ambulance.

Ambulance is generous, really. With no lights or sirens, it was more of a highly sanitized church van. Instead of Christian rock, the speakers blared Italian pop music. Instead of heading to gay conversion camp, I was on my way to a COVID hotel. The sense of unease was the same, though.

With the little information provided, combined with the language barrier and my wild imagination, it kind of felt like a kidnapping. So, I kept my unblinking eyes on the road. All I knew was that we were on our way to Montecatini Terme, a place I had never heard of until that morning. It was the location of a lovely, full-service resort, with complimentary WiFi and a free bountiful breakfast each morning, with the added perk of daily checkups by a team of doctors.

(TL;DR It was not a lovely place.)

The only moment I broke my gaze from the window was when the familiar beat of Jennifer Lopez’s perennial hit, “Waiting for Tonight” came over the ambulance’s radio. Even though I was seated in the last row with a face shield and a KN95 mask, and the driver had on a white disposable hazmat suit that covered his entire body, we managed to nod to each other when he raised the volume on that banger.

Three days prior to this mess, I was taking in the iconic view of the Amalfi Coast from the window of a black Mercedes van. While no pop music played over the speakers, I was treated to the bass line of a cough from a fellow passenger that came on quickly and more frequently as the day progressed.

“You okay, Mike?”

He nodded enthusiastically.

We had only known each other a few hours. One of those hours were spent testing negative for COVID, so the cough didn’t cause immediate alarm. Allergies, perhaps. Post-nasal drip, maybe. The common cold, why not.

It was COVID, you guys.

Now he was once again sitting next to me in the ambulance. Travel makes strange bedfellows, and travel during a pandemic makes strangers hospital-bedfellows.

I leaned over to his side of the bench seat and, over J.Lo’s Oh-oh-oh, I projected my hoarse voice through my mask and face shield to ask, Do you know the etiquette on tipping ambulance drivers?

He did not.

COVID TRAVEL TIP #1: If your ambulance driver rolls your luggage to the door of a COVID hotel under the rain, show your appreciation with a small gratuity. Any amount is welcome, but I recommend you use a bill and not coins, as hazmat suits do not have pockets.

I took two years of high school Italian, which had proven useful throughout my travels, until this moment. My limited vocabulary did not include terms like rapid antigen tests and certificate of recovery. Similarly, the team at the helm of the front desk — a short, rotund man in a Kappa tracksuit and a woman with a toothy smile that could’ve been a former catalog model — couldn’t say much in English, except that I wasn’t to leave the property.

“Like the Hotel California?” I asked half-jokingly.

“This is Hotel Pellegrini,” the man in the tracksuit clarified.

It was the Hotel California, you guys.

I’m sure it was a fine place to stay at its height, but like the town its in, it had seen better days. The room was stripped down to the bare minimum requirements: Two cots, two pillows, two linen sheets, one electric kettle. Inside of a clear garbage bag were three trial-size bottles of soap with the name Opera scrawled across the front, one bath towel, one hand towel and four rolls of toilet paper. A black garbage bag covered my flatscreen TV for no discernable reason. And, as if on cue, the gongs of a church bell reverberated throughout my room.

At least I had a balcony.

COVID TRAVEL TIP #2: Pack heavy. Bring toiletries and laundry detergent with you. Throw in a full-size tube of toothpaste and Monistat in your suitcase (don’t get them confused). Carry instant noodles and instant coffee in your purse. Find room in your bag for a dish, a mug, and utensils, you won’t regret it.

The church bells helped me keep time, ringing morning, noon, and in the early evening. Between gongs, I listened for footsteps in the hallway that also occurred three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like a food Santa Claus, the person placed meals on the rattan chairs outside of the doors of every COVID infected guest. Then, chaotically knocked on all the doors while running down the hall.

“Mangiare!” They’d yell as they turned the corner.

Meals were a half-surprise, as you always knew it was pasta, but it wasn’t going to be how you ordered it. Breakfast was exempt from pasta, but it was whatever food Santa wanted to place on your chair between nine and ten o’clock in the morning. A bologna sandwich. A tiramisu. Tomato juice. Merry Breakfast!

Mike and I spent our mornings chatting on our adjacent balconies. Comparing notes on our COVID symptoms and brainstorming ways to get provisions delivered. He desperately needed a proper pillow and a blanket. I openly wept for shampoo and Nescafé. We tried to create accounts on Deliveroo, a regional Instacart-type service, but didn’t have the required Italian mobile number to authenticate it. We tried UberEats, hoping to find a convenience store, but only found one nearby restaurant that opened two days a week, none of which were the day we were on.

We activated our networks and sent a distress call to find someone, anyone who could get us at the very least a mug.

COVID TRAVEL TIP #3: Have a friend on the outside. Make sure that friend has a friend that owns a restaurant. Make a friend with an Italian phone number. Befriend everyone by the name of Piero. Get to know the women who work at the U.S. Consulate in Florence. If a friend offers to send you a microwave via Amazon, even though you have nothing to put in said microwave, say yes.

Miraculously, a friend of a friend of a friend lived nearby. We sent a wish list of items to them via WhatsApp and within the day, we had real soap, instant coffee and tea, granola bars, pillows, blankets, instant noodles, and matching ceramic mugs hand delivered to the hotel’s front desk, along with an aluminum serving tray of baked pasta from a local restaurant.

For some inexplicable reason, this caused quite the stir. Valerio, the guy in the tracksuit who was pleasant at check-in, had suddenly turned sour. His ire focused on the food. He phoned my room and demanded to know if I wanted to cancel the hotel sponsored meals.

“Is there a limit on what I can eat?” I asked in broken Italian.

“No, no. You can have ten meals a day!” He yelled, guessing the exact number of meals I have a day.

“So what’s the problem?” I said shifting into English.

“There is no problem. I spoke to your husband…”

“Impossible. I don’t have a husband.” I said cutting him off.

“Oh, sorry. Your friend that you came with…”

“He’s not my friend.” Now I was being a dick, but I didn’t like his tone.

“Well, he said he didn’t like the food and doesn’t want our meals anymore.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

He grunted a bit, before confirming that I would continue to receive three meals a day, plus whatever else I ordered from the outside, and hung up.

Right after, I called my husband Mike for a confab on our balconies where he told me that he had a phone conversation that devolved from the Italian version of “Who’s on First?” to a heated exchange that ended with vaffanculo.

“I think he took it personally when I told him that the hotel was a dump and I didn’t like the food, so he just hung up on me.” Mike said in disbelief.

Valerio did take it personally, you guys.

COVID TRAVEL TIP #4: Find an Airbnb or hotel in a major city that fits your budget. Once you become a ward of the state, you must remain in custody until they release you. It doesn’t matter what your home test says; who you are, who you know or who you’re allegedly married to. You can quote the CDC. You can email the State Department. But once you’re inside a COVID hotel, the Ministry of Health is the captain now.

On the day Mike and I received our first delivery of goods, the hotel welcomed an influx of new guests. A middle-age couple from Arizona who discovered they were positive while on a cruise moved in next door. Both had a terrifying cough that blasted through the thin wall separating our rooms. Convinced they would give me more COVID than I already had, I wore a mask during their fits. Next to Mike, an older couple from Florida took residence and somehow found reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard dubbed in Italian and cranked up the volume as high as it can go.

While Mike and I were once again on the balcony, comparing notes about our neighbors, a woman looked up at us from the veranda directly below mine.

“Hi there!” she waved.

A solo traveler on an organized land tour, she found out she was positive the day before she was meant to fly home.

“I was talking to my friend, telling her what happened, and she said, Phyllis you need to keep your white ass close to home.” After a pause, she clarified that her friend was a black lady.

From the balconies more faces and voices emerged, like a vintage episode of Hollywood Squares. After brief introductions we began piecing together the little information we knew, like ranchers trading intelligence on the Oregon Trail. Someone said that they were coming to test us on Tuesday, but didn’t know if it was a PCR or an antigen. Another person said they met a neighbor that had been there for 14 days because they kept testing positive.

I looked over at Mike and whispered, I can’t stay here for 14 days, man.

The couple from Arizona were on the fence as to whether they should have their daughter FedEx their medications to the hotel because they only packed enough for their cruise. The couple from Florida were on a month-long tour of Europe that was to culminate with a Transatlantic cruise back to their home. All of our lives were interrupted without any telling as to when we could get back on track. Almost as if there was a pandemic going on.

With the help of a friend on the outside and the blessing of the U.S. Consulate, Mike and I came up with a contingency plan in the event we tested positive on Saturday. We were to be transported via ambulance to a lovely two-bedroom home in the Tuscan hills. The owner was aware of our COVID status and agreed to do groceries for us before our arrival. The home had a washer and a dryer, which was the only amenity I cared about after stretching six outfits into 12 days. But, I was convinced that I would be doing my laundry at home on Sunday.

I was not home on Sunday, you guys.

COVID Travel Tip #5: Don’t rebook your flight until you’re absolutely sure you can go home.

I could hear the rustling of the doctor’s hazmat suit as he went door-to-door. A knock, followed by pleasantries in English, and then silence while swabbing. My heart pounded harder and harder as he got closer to my door. When he knocked, I didn’t immediately open it, even though I was standing behind it. I didn’t want to seem desperate. After a beat, I poked my head out and, for reasons that defy logic, I acted surprised to see him.

He asked how I was feeling and I assured him that I was great and didn’t have any symptoms. He nodded and said, “Don’t worry, your test will be negative,” before ramming the cotton swab into my frontal lobe not once, but twice.

“Is this an antigen or a PCR?” I asked while checking my nose for blood.

“Antigen. I give results tomorrow.”

I had to physically stop myself from being that annoying American that says, that’s not how we do it in the States. But really. An antigen test that takes 24 hours?

We spent the rest of the day trying not the think about it. Until the next morning, when all we can do was think about it. After hours of uncertainty, I received a call at around noon with the news that I had tested positive and that I would be able to retest next Tuesday.

“No, it’s okay. I won’t be needing to retest,” I said. “I’ve made arrangements to be transported to an Airbnb, so I’ll schedule my next test at the local pharmacy.”

There was an audible gasp.

“You can’t leave.” She said. “You have to stay there at the hotel.”

“But I spoke to the U.S. Consulate and they said it was okay,” I protested like a child asking a reluctant parent for permission to go to a friend’s house.

The woman’s English and my Italian only got us so far. But, from what I could discern, if I left, I would be in some sort of trouble, although it wasn’t clear what that trouble could be. I pleaded with the woman to at least let me test again in a day or two, offering to pay for it out of pocket.

She said she’d get back to me.

Mike fared better. With a negative result, he was free to leave. His plan was to head to Florence for the night and get on the first flight available the following morning. All he had to do was find a ride. A seemingly simple task anywhere else except Montecatini on a Wednesday afternoon. With no rideshares, taxis or buses in sight, we once again sent a distress call to our new bestfriend Piero, who was able to get a car out to the hotel within four hours, which is lightning speed in Tuscany.

After seven days of only speaking to each other around the balcony, I walked over to Mike’s room for a farewell hug. Leaving me behind was not sitting well with him, so I put my hands on his shoulders and told him that if the tables were turned and Lyft serviced this village, I would have texted my goodbye from the car. As we hugged, I looked around his room and realized that he, not only had a TV without a garbage bag on it, but also he, in fact, had a bigger room than I did.

So, I wished him vaffanculo and went back to my jail cell.

COVID Travel Tip #6: Repeat this mantra if things go awry: Everyone is trying their best under the worst circumstances. No travel plan is 100 percent foolproof. You’ve always dreamed of living in Tuscany. What’s your hurry? If you go home now, you can infect thousands of people along the way. At least you have a bidet.

The woman got back to me. She said I would get special permission to go to the pharmacy down the street and get a rapid antigen test on Saturday. All I had to do was rest for three days, so that my body would release the COVID and, in turn, the Ministry would release me.

The church bells gonged. The meals were delivered with knocks. The days turned to nights until the sun rose over Saturday. The church bells rang, a bologna sandwich was delivered for breakfast at nine o’clock, and an unscheduled knock on the door followed at ten.

A new doctor in a hazmat suit stood in my entryway, this time a real surprise.

“I’m here to inform you that the hotel will be closing.”

A long pause before she continued.

“Emm. We will move patients to new hotel next week.”

Another long pause. I could see she was trying to find the words in her mind.

“So, so sorry. No testing until new hotel.”

I thanked her for the news and closed the door. I stood there for a good thirty seconds, gripping the door knob. Questioning my sanity, hell my mortality. Had I died and was in some sort of afterlife loop? Wasn’t this the premise of ABC’s hit television show, “Lost”?

The trill of the phone snapped me out of it. It was Valerio. The nice variant this time.

“The doctor came to see you?”

“Yeah, what was…”

He interrupted, “Don’t worry, you still test today at the pharmacy. I take you.”

At the appointed time, I went downstairs and met the Devito-size man in the lobby. I hadn’t noticed the designated COVID elevator or the art deco accents or the automatic doors when I first arrived. We walked out onto a plaza anchored by the Church of the Assumption whose bells were quiet for once. I saw a few diners smoking on the outdoor patio of CENTRALE, the restaurant that catered my every meal. Vendors were setting up their carts for an evening market and a few teens zoomed by on skateboards.

An entire world below me and I hadn’t the slightest clue.

The pharmacist took my passport and memories when he shoved the swab as far back as my brain stem. What is with this Italian-style of swabbing and why don’t they have mid-nasal technology?

I waited for the results under the pharmacy’s green LED cross and attempted to make small talk with Valerio about the town’s history.

Years ago, this was such a big destination,” he said. “There were 400 hotels. Then the economy went bad. And from 400, we went to 100. But then the Russians came and things really started to get better. We had the first good year in a long time in 2019. And then COVID.”

When Italy once again opened to tourists, Hotel Pellegrini reinvented itself. With subsidies and following strict health department guidelines, they agreed to isolate travelers. But neither Delta nor Omicron were enough to get it through the other side of a global pandemic. Our COVID cohort would be the last guests the hotel would host. The sale of the property was finalized that morning.

“Negative,” said the pharmacist from the entrance. “You are free.”

Special thanks to Mike Susi for the photos, for the virtual tour of an upgraded COVID room, and for being such a great partner during this terrible adventure. Two weeks after my release, we met up to toast to our freedom with red wine and Pad Thai, the closest thing to pasta we could stand.

(Instagram: @MikeSusi)

Virtual Tour by Mike Susi


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