Sometimes, guidebook research doesn't feel like work at all. A sunny day spent tooling around Lake Como, touring sumptuous villas and sprawling gardens? That's not work.
But on one particular day in Milan, I really had to work. I packed about three days of sightseeing into one very busy day. It was interesting, and fun at times, but exhausting. Especially this exchange.
I walked into the ticket office for Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Spaces are severely limited, and reservations are mandatory — and book up weeks in advance. We devote nearly an entire page in our guidebook to explaining this system, and I needed to confirm everything with the woman at the information desk. She greeted me with a permanent snarl, close-cropped, died-blonde hair, and steely, cruel eyes. Before I opened my mouth, she didn't like me. (I don't take it personally. She doesn't like anyone.) After I explained I was updating a book, she allowed me to continue talking, which is probably her version of tacit approval. Here are some highlights of our actual conversation. (I am not making this up.)
"So, we explain here in our guidebook that you need a reservation."
"Yes, that's correct. You can call or go on our website."
"And we say that you can make a reservation three months ahead."
"On our website, you can reserve three months ahead. At our call center, you can reserve, maybe, ten days ahead."
"So tickets are available online three months before, but by phone only ten days before?"
"Well, you can get tickets anytime you want."
"Yes, but if someone wants to book very early, they can try three months before?"
"On our website."
"Not by calling?"
"No! Of course they can get a ticket by calling. Ten days before."
"So by phone, tickets are only available ten days before?"
"Well, we say here you can start trying to get a ticket three months before. More or less. Is that about right?"
"Online and by telephone?"
Phew. "OK, so we also explain that if you don't have a reservation and really want to see The Last Supper, you can try to come on the same day to see if there are any cancellations."
"No! Not possible."
"Oh, so you..."
"Reservations are mandatory!" [Holds up sign that says "Reservations are mandatory"]
"Yes, I understand that. What I'm saying is, let's say someone did not make a reservation. And now they are in Milan and they really want to see The Last Supper. We say that sometimes there may be a few cancellations..."
"No! You must reserve." [Eyeing me suspiciously] "Huh. Do you write in your book that you don't need a reservation?"
"Oh, no, we do explain that very carefully!" [Showing her several paragraphs in the book explaining that reservations are mandatory]
"But you write in your book that you do not need a reservation!"
"No, we don't say that. We say that in case you do not have one, sometimes it's possible..."
"It's never possible!" [She's really starting to blow up now] "People come here, all day, and complain to me because they do not have a reservation! And you are telling them to do this in your book!"
"But I...no, wait, look. It's the opposite. You see, I'm trying to help people understand how this works. I want to make it very clear so people are not disappointed."
"So if you can help me now for five minutes, I can try to make sure it's very clear in our book, so those people won't bother you anymore — so they will understand how it works."
"I don't care!"
"You don't care? You mean you don't care if people are disappointed?"
"No! I don't care. People come here all day and are disappointed anyway, so what does it matter what you say in your book?"
"Yes, but I'm trying to reduce the number of..." [I decide to give up on that point] "OK, sorry, I'm almost done. I just want to confirm that it is not possible to buy tickets on the same day."
"No, it's impossible!"
"So you never have any cancellations and tickets that are available last minute?"
"No! Well, maybe one or two tickets each day. But almost none! It's very difficult. You must take this out of your book!"
"OK, I'll take that out, if you say it's not possible."
"Yes, not possible." [grumbling to herself] "I don't know why you tell people in your book they don't need a reservation..."
"OK, well, thanks for your help. By the way, I know this is very unlikely, but do you maybe have any tickets available for today?"
"You want one ticket?"
[Checks computer] "OK, we have a reservation available for 5:15."
By the way, The Last Supper was magnificent...well worth the painful conversation.