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In planning for my Mom’s 65th birthday, she shared with us her desire to treat us to an all-expenses paid trip to Italy. She and her husband reserved a villa in Tuscany to share with my brother and sister and me and our families, if we would so oblige.
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Despite a few hairs standing straight up on the back of my neck, I couldn’t imagine a more generous, wonderful offer. As my Mom proposed the gift, my husband’s knee-bouncing habit seemed to accelerate, as did the severity of his pale complexion.
I just kept nodding and sending him a reassuring smile.
In our therapist’s office I masked my outrage, expressing my “surprise” at Ben’s less-than-excited reaction. He gently enlightened me that Ben’s response proved not only normal, but actually what most men might feel when told they would endure an overseas journey with their preschooler and baby, only to arrive at a secluded destination in Italy full of their in-laws.
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Fast-forward to our journey’s beginning. Great pains have been taken to pack and prepare us, and in this way our trip is quite successful.
We spend the flight keeping little passageways open, and moist and fed, swiftly changing and discarding various refuse, comforting and entertaining. Occasionally I wake from a brief and disturbed slumber to see myself partially, if not completely exposed from nursing Jonah.
Ordinarily this might embarrass me. Little did we know this would be the easy part.
Despite our considerable organisational effort, we never gave much thought to navigating in Italy. Our detailed plan consisted only of a couple [easyazon_link keywords=”Italian/English phrase books” locale=”US” tag=”tbelles-20″]Italian/English phrase books[/easyazon_link] and plans to meet my Mom and Doug (who had arrived earlier) at the airport. We waited for a couple of hours with no sign of them.
We decided to set out on our own, hauling our exhausted children and mountain of belongings through pouring rain to our rental car. Ben went for directions and then we took turns watching the boys and wrestling with the rented car seat. Once situated it took us another 45 minutes of utter confusion just to leave the airport parking lot.
We finally emerged onto A1-Roma with our four-word directions in hand. This is rural Tuscany. It is raining. It is growing dark. We are inexperienced travelers.
We immediately hit a traffic jam, delaying us by another hour. My Dad’s advice echoes in my psyche, “When I’m traveling in Europe the last thing I want to do is drive around unfamiliar country roads in the dark.”
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I remind myself that we are now parents and should at least look like we know what is going on. Ben stops a couple of times, pantomiming with locals to find our incredibly remote villa. He returns with “maps” – scraps of paper with illegible sketches- and tales of bridges and other vague landmarks.
Miraculously, we arrive at our Villa, only to find the entire property completely dark. Befuddled does not accurately describe my mental state; perhaps panic finally sets-in.
As we collectively deep-breathe, a grounds-keeper arrives. We fail to communicate with him for half an hour, when at last the caravan that is my family enters the villa gates.
We settle in to the gorgeous, but almost completely function-less Villa. The appliances don’t work, and while we have a huge basket of jam and Nutella, no kitchen towels or rags exist. There is one roll of toilet paper for a house of eight. Spoiled Americans—I know, I know.
My brother and his family settle in immediately, and start effortlessly executing day trips with their 3-year-old and baby. As Israelis, they remain in the same time zone—lucky bastards.
As trained soldiers, nothing much gets to them anyway. Our transition? Not so smooth. We have hours of nightly labyrinth walking (tedious pacing) on the icy cold tile floor of the living room as the boys try to un-jet-lag. By day, we have mind-numbing, marriage-combusting exhaustion as we try to take advantage of our surroundings.
Thankfully other members of the family have studied and planned, so we can at least bumble along. We do a lot of driving – hours and hours of driving – with our 3 year old and baby. At dinner one night my Mom asked Sam what we did that day. He shrugged his little shoulders, shook his head slowly back and forth in disgust, and replied “We drove and we drove and we didn’t do anything.”
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The scenery was indescribably beautiful. The food, Divine. Gelato, heavenly. Wine, yess’m. Sightseeing, sure. Full disclosure? I barely saw anything, and didn’t get nearly my fill of local food, gelato or wine.
The boys spent most of the week feverish, mosquito-bitten, and sleep-deprived. After one failed attempt at taking the train to Florence, we finally got there for a few hours. The slightly less-agued baby mostly slept in the backpack, while we pushed Sam in the stroller.
The longer we stayed, the more convinced I became he’d contracted the plague. He had spots all over him (turned out to be these extra vicious mosquito bites—and we live in Wisconsin – we know vicious mosquitoes) and he just looked beaten. So we finally found our way to the damn Duomo, caught a glimpse of the Arno, (ok, saw it, carry on!) grabbed the super yummy and memorable lemon gelato and called it a day.
Let’s call it the half-day that caught the last stitch of my quickly unraveling feelings of competency.
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We felt a wee bit relieved to begin the voyage home.
We navigated successfully up until the last moment. We went round and round one damn roundabout after another, and finally ended up in the correct lane to return our rental car. We hauled our massive pile of essentials to the terminal. We watched our comfortable time cushion deflate, as we got hung up at every possible opportunity. Suspicious of our need to bring the luggage cart all the way to security, Ben was ordered to take Jonah’s car seat all the way back to check-in.
They had already boarded our flight. I had both kids and the mountain of travel essentials and they took my husband away. Watching him go, I feared deportation (or importation, rather). Ben ran his little tiny butt off; we got our collective rears in our seats and they closed the door. Not one extra second.
The irony? Ben took hundreds and hundreds of beautiful photos that capture the beauty and family and quality time and even some orts of joy (as opposed to Ode to Joy). We shared wonderful hours watching the children play on the terrazzo at our villa, and we collaborated on some pretty delicious family meals eaten al fresco.
So, as ill-fitting as it seems…thank you again, Mom.
*Editor’s notes: If you have any questions about traveling to Italy with family, be sure to head over to La Piazza and ask Eleonora (for now just ask in the comments of her most recent post.) She would be happy to help! Two articles that may be of interest are Visiting Italy with Children and Overseas with a Toddler: Traveling in Italy. Also be sure to check out Ann’s wonderful humor blog, Ann’s Rants. Thank you, Ann, for being our first guest writer!