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Monday, 11 December
My Money And My Life

Well, here we are. The wife and I have returned from Italy. And it was, of course, a perfectly lovely time, full of sights and sounds--such as the Muppetlike Italian policemen who, when responding to some emergency or another, frantically wave paddles out of their car windows, as if to say "No, really, this is an emergency! We have paddles!"--but none of that is really interesting. I mean, that's what everyone asks about: "Did you have a good time?" Of course we had a good time. We had a fantastic time.

But who cares? I want to complain. So I will spend this first post back being a complete churl, and I will tell you what wasn't, well, perfectly lovely about our trip. We have lots of time for the boring good stuff that, if you're like me, you'll tune out anyway.

Let's talk about banks.

Like any smart travelers, we took precautions. We bought travel insurance (which we do on every overseas trip; we of course have never had cause to use it). We made copies of passports, drivers licenses, credit cards. I even made the happy discovery that my cell phone was of the tri-band variety, which meant that in a pinch, I could make astoundingly expensive phone calls on Italian service providers with amusing names such as "I Wind" and "TIM." And naturally, we called our credit card companies and banks in advance to let them know that we were traveling to Europe, so don't get all skittish when funky Italian withdrawals started to happen on our debit cards.

And it was fine! Upon arrival at the Rome airport--it's called Fudge-O or something--we immediately ran to the ATMs to get our precious euros. No problem! We both withdrew 200 each. I even managed to use my card to wheedle the Trenitalia self-service ticket machine into horfing up a couple of tickets into Roma Termini station. Whoopee! Fuck you, exchange counter thieves! How do you even have jobs any more?

Two days later, preparing to leave Rome for Arezzo, it was time to visit the ATM again. We were renting an apartment in Arezzo, and one of the conditions was that we needed to hand over 350 euros to the landlord as a refundable security deposit. Tra la la! I have conquered these European contraptions! At a push of a button, they speak English for me! Ha! I will simply withdraw . . .

"Your card is not valid for international withdrawals. Please contact your banking institution."

My card was spat out at me distastefully. The screen could hardly bear to keep the loathsome thing between its digital teeth: "Remove your card within 30 seconds or your genitals will be irradiated." What the fuck?

A burst of internoise, maybe. A fluke. I tried another machine.

"Your card is dropped from the assholes of swine. Please take this thing from my suffering plastic jaws."

Fuck.

We walked to the Forum while I seethed. We stared at a big old dead building, and I wished it were my bank. The wife attempted to comfort me, but all I could do was bark Italian phrasebook standards like "WELL, I GUESS WE'RE FUCKED!" and "STUPID MOTHERFUCKING DOUCHEBAGS!" Passing tourists admired my proficiency with the local language. Then we trudged over to the Spanish Steps, where I abruptly switched tactics, moving from seething to petulant fuming. "CAN I JUST HAVE MY FUCKING MONEY? YOU KNOW, THE MONEY THAT IS, YOU KNOW, MINE? THAT WOULD BE NICE!" Passing Italians would have complimented me on my excellent English, but there aren't any Italians at the Spanish Steps. For that matter, there didn't seem to be any Spaniards either. Europe is pretty fucked up.

We--and by "we" I mean "the wife"--eventually scraped together the 350 clamatos necessary for the apartment deposit and headed to Arezzo. I still could not get any machine to dispense any cash to me, and an astonishingly costly phone call to my bank--a prominent national bank that I will refer to as the Bank of the Fucking Country I Live In (BotFCILI)--only resulted in me getting an automated message that there is no live customer support for individual accounts between the hours of 11:00 PM and 7:00 AM PST. This, frankly, freaked me the fuck out, especially since I was a good nine hours off that particular time zone. No available operators at all. I noted later on BotFCILI's goddamn website that business accounts do indeed get 24-hour live operators.

(As it turned out, the landlord rejected our fumbling attempts to give him the 350 euro deposit. "You paid, I don't want it. You tell me if you break things." This was a real relief, as the 350 was the only cash we had at this point. I was ready to start giving the AmEx a real workout. We assured the guy that we did not intend on breaking things, and he rewarded us by giving us a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine.)

The next day--well, evening, since we were still nine hours up on the West Coast, and HEY HEY! BotFCILI's hours are actually different on weekends (this was now Saturday), so I actually wasted another murderously-priced call--I finally got on the horn with BotFCILI to beg them to let me have my own money. Hammering the "0" button as fast as possible, I stared at the clock, waiting for an actual human to come on the line.

"Welcome to Bank of--"

"Hello! I'm calling from Europe! I can't get money from my cash card! My account number is XXXXXXXXX! My name is Skot Kurruk! My mother's maiden name is Wangsenes! I have an innie! Who will help the widow's son!"

"Slow down, sir! That's very helpful, but there are procedures. I have some challenge questions I need to ask. In three words, please describe your attitude towards Corgis."

[Minutes bleed by.]

"Okay, thank you, sir. Let me take a look . . . oh, dear. Yes. It appears that a frog lock has been placed on your account."

I emitted a strangled cry. "What?" I heard the woman telephonically gauging my sanity in the ensuing pause. I sat and stewed for a moment, wondering what sort of nasty Gallic forces had amassed against me to deny me my money. Frog lock? Why were the French diddling about with my bank account, and why would the Italians countenance it? Moreover, why was my goddamn bank so cavalier about tossing around such nasty terminology? Nothing made sense, and I felt my feet starting to tentatively sweat.

"A fraud lock," she repeated, enunciating as if she were a color commentator for the Special Olympics.

I tried to modulate the wow that seemed to be creeping into my voice; I was still staring at the passing minutes on my cell phone call. "I called you guys ahead of time," I said. "I called to say I was traveling to Italy."

She sounded as if I were a particularly ugly infant gnawing on the cane bars of his crib. "Our computer still keeps track of your account activities. You seem to have tried to withdraw more than the allotted daily amount from your account within a certain time period. This and the fact that the withdrawals were attempted in Italy seem to have resulted in the frog lock." (I decided to go with "frog lock" at this point.)

In other words, despite my every effort to alert my stupid fucking bank about my planned financial activities, to ensure that I would have unfettered access to my own goddamn fucking money--and who would imagine that travelers would require larger-than-normal withdrawals? Crazy!--it was precisely this sort of behavior that got me flagged.

I spent 40 minutes on the phone with these people. On their schedule, at a good $.99 a minute. At one point, I made a terrible mistake and stood up, which immediately caused TIM to lose my cell signal. So I had to call back and go through the challenge questions again. ("What's in my pants right now?" "I don't know. Fish?" "Close enough. The correct answer is "sea monkeys.")

It got worked out, of course. But it sure made for a stressful introduction to a country that really values its naps.

I don't mean to be a dick. But then again, I guess I am one. I haven't even started on things like Italian MTV, which is exactly as awful as American MTV, what with its Beyonce ("Irreplaceable"), its Madonna (who no longer writes songs, just choruses: "Jump"), and of course the tirelessly odious Pink ("U + Ur Hand"). It nearly makes you hop up and down when presented with such local favorites like LIGABUE and NEK! (We kind of got to love the billions of MTV ads touting the the guys [or guy, we were never clear] named NEK! I imagined him/they having an opening soul band called EER, NOZE AND THROTE.)

We had a good time. No, a great time. A really great time. Give me a couple days, and I'll even try to say so.

And I haven't even talked about the mysterious corporate entity known as MultiAss.

I love traveling. I just hate banks.