Making History - Ciao Italia
© Copyright 2018 by Desiree Kendrick
This is a snapshot of three generations of women traveling together in Italy. A contemporary journey initially planned to experience our ancestral roots. It remains one of my favorite holidays. The aromas, the tastes, the architectural wonders jotted in my travel journal. However, it was the shared laughter and unexpected mishaps that made the trip memorable.
We called it our trip of a lifetime. Four women and one girl headed to Italy. Mother had recently turned eighty. Daughter Ana was barely twelve years old. My two sisters and I lay somewhere in between. Suitcases packed we unzipped our sense of adventure. A family expedition returned us to the homeland of our ancestors. In the interest of full disclosure I cannot claim any strong Italian heritage. No buongiorno’s at the start of day. I never tasted a decadent spoonful of tiramisu during my childhood. Definitely no Italian football to cheer for or soccer as we North American’s call it. It was my father who claimed the Italian birthright from an ancestor from the 1800’s. My sisters and I had simply inherited the surname, which sounded similar to linguini. My heritage was as colorful as any Canadian, but without any little Italy influences. Dad had passed away years earlier, yet we all shared his curiosity about our roots. Passports stamped. We arrive at Italy’s doorstep.
Rome’s hot, humid arms embrace me. I, in turn, cuddle my daughter. Celestial blue skies play hide and seek behind stone columns. Mum’s smiling face peeks out beneath her floppy sun hat. I watch her rub sunscreen into her aged wrinkles. How could collapsed ancient structures be considered ruins? I think not. Majestic. Awe-inspiring. Sitting in the back of a taxi streets go by in a blur. Literally. Our driver is a skilled race car champion no doubt. It makes total sense that Italy is the birthplace of Ferrari and Lamborghini. The percussion of car horns, zipping motorcycles and screeching brakes are the welcome band. Car beeps and human bleeps intermingle, with plenty of hand gestures from passing motorists. I can ignore the confrontation. Non parlo l’italiano, scusi. To the hotel we go.
Few establishments offer triple rooms, yet we have secured one double and one triple accommodation. We did our homework before we left home. The room offers the requisite safe, cage elevator and air conditioning. Of course the website failed to mention they don’t turn on the air conditioning until June. We have landed in May. My long hair sticks to my neck. I inspect the bathroom. Our room is equipped with the typical European hose in the wall for a blow dryer. In this heat I can air dry. All is good.
We avoid taking a nap. “Power through the jet lag”, my oldest sister advises. Rita is a seasoned traveler and I take her instructions seriously. “Let’s check out the neighbourhood.” Rita leads the way.
Before leaving home we each wrote a top ten list. All the things we hoped to visit. Tossing a coin into the magnificent Trevi Fountain was on everyone’s agenda. I lean into my sister Sophie, “Look, it’s an Italian stallion.” He was tall, dark and handsome. A mane so thick we all envied his gallant toss of his head.
“We’re not that far from Trevi Fountain. We should see if he will take us?” Sophie was game.
Who am I to argue? A horse drawn carriage ride was on my daughter’s list. Rita takes charge, negotiating with the horse’s master. 150 euros for the big ride - 100 for the medium. We opt for medium, confirming we will visit the dazzling fountains. My mother is helped into the seat beside our carriage driver. She’s spry for her age. I pray for her good genes. There will be ample opportunity to say this prayer, churches galore. Amazing art work and craftsmanship found under every dome and steeple. Excitement drips off our foreheads as we begin our half hour trot through the cobblestone streets.
Aromas of garlic and tomato tease the appetite. Sunshine tickles the hair on my arms. Clip-clop, clip-clop – a steady rhythm accompanies our scenic tour. When we come within view of the impressive Trevi Fountain I gasp. Water cascades over the baroque statues with the same grace and elegance as the curves and lines of Giuseppe Pannini’s brilliant architecture. Truly stunning. Not to be missed.
“Toss a coin over your shoulder for good luck. Make a wish; you will come back to Rome again.” Rita digs enthusiastically for coins, handing one to each of us like little children waiting for a treat.
Ana’s smile cannot be contained. Though capturing it on camera is an exercise in patience. The crowds are thick. As a traveler we must accept more than one unsuspecting tourist will join us in our photo albums. We giggle and jostle for the perfect group shot.
“Hey, hey, where’s our driver going?” Rita exclaims, arms flailing. She’s already acclimatized with hand gestures. Dashing to the carriage her walking shoes transform into Olympic track and field runners. Slightly out of breath she huffs, “We’re not done. You only took us for ten minutes. We paid for half an hour.”
“No, no. Medium ride. Not big ride.” Italian verses expressed with more vigor than the tired horse shaking his head. I hear the word policia and fear he’s threatening to report us. When in Roman, do as the Romans do. My sisters and I exchange worried looks. Yeah, we’re not here to conquer. We retreat. Lesson learned. Rita is annoyed. Good thing we didn’t finish at the Colosseum. Big sis might have tossed this shady tourist trap driver to the lions.
No worries. We are on vacation. Eager to explore. We venture further to the Colosseum. Sitting on a rock slab, I feel the ridges of carved stone and marvel at the arena’s enormous size. A backdrop so beautiful it’s difficult to reconcile its history with the splendor it offers. Rays of sunshine illuminate the arches; banish the gladiator stories to the shadows. I take a moment to imagine how many slaves labored to construct this wonder of the world. You can’t visit Rome without standing on the stones of the Colosseum. The site was on everyone’s top ten.
Our travel plans include a day trip to Pompeii. The train via Naples connects us to our destination. The lavish countryside gives us a glimpse of our ancestral landscape. Mum explains there are gaps in our family heritage. We all agree we need to learn more. Pompeii is a huge excavation site. 79 AD uncovered. Deep ruts in the street were likely intended for the wheels of carts. There was no indoor plumbing back in the day. Without a proper sewage system gutters would have filled with waste. Stepping stones were placed for a hop, skip and a jump throughout the street. Romans were mindful of disease, keeping the wet waste away from the hems of their clothing and feet. Ana skips from one stepping stone to the next, her lanky pre-teen enthusiasm on display.
“Make sure you stay hydrated.” Rita lectures. Under our sun hats we glow peachy pink. It’s a balancing act – do I drink water and chance needing a toilet? Or risk fainting because I’m parched?
“Ana, where’s your water bottle?” Motherly advice dispensed between sips of my own refreshment. I know Rita tossed a roll of toilet paper into her oversized purse.
Frescos, mosaics, altars and temples give us a view of life before Vesuvius had the last word. The lava mummified remains are eerily disturbing. Families crouched in fear. Human tragedy preserved in time. We pause in the heat to read from the guide book. Whispers of compassion blow in the breeze. I am saddened by the ashen statue in the glass case. The sorrow in my daughter’s face brings a tear to my eye. We instinctively bow our heads paying our respects. The mother in me explains the value of an archeology site. How history can be a template to learning. Images imprinted on our memory. We will not forget walking the streets of Pompeii.
Four hours later we board the return train to Rome. Crowds of people squeeze into the tight space. Unlucky passengers, such as me, must stand. Sweat trickles into the valley of my cotton tank top. I pull my hair into a messy bun, exposing my neck. My mother and daughter are seated. They’re too tired for conversation. The hum of the chugging train ride threatens to lull them to sleep. Ana has been taught to wear her backpack on her chest. Eyes and hands on valuables at all times. A young boy standing opposite me winks. I assume he has dirt from Pompeii in his eye. He holds my gaze. Dark pupils stare. Fifteen or sixteen years of age I guess. He’s with a group of teenagers. Rapid fire Italian rolls off his tongue, amusement and teasing exchanged with his pals. Italian boy shuffles closer to my standing spot. His arm reaches for the bar above my head. Hang on. Rita smirks. Sophie turns her head, stifling a giggle. Italian boy deliberately breaths on my neck. A soft gentle gesture yet it startles me. What movies is this kid watching? He blows in my ear. My attempt to escape his adolescent flirting forces me to face him. His fluent Italian morphs into broken English.
“What age you?”
I avoid my mother’s inquisitive stare, and my twelve year old’s curious frown. Resisting the urge to tell teen Casanova I’m old enough to send him to his room, I simply shake my head. I forgo any eruption. I wonder if his attention is part of a teenage dare. The young man is a child playing a grown-up game. I am more amused than annoyed.
Exiting the train station my sisters and I burst into hysterical giggling.
“Sampling the local flavours?” Rita suggests, elbowing my ribs. I choose to ignore the ribbing. We’re eager to change our clothing.
“I get first dibs on the shower,” Sophie announces. Dinner plans confirmed.
Seafood salads seduce us. The squid and shrimp so fresh they could have washed up straight from the sea onto our plates. Pasta so tasty I’ve forgotten what bad pasta tastes like. Tourist menus remind us we are the tourist, but we are eating local. A food experience devoured with every twirled forkful.
my daughter exclaims, sampling my mushroom tortellini. Mealtimes are
social occasions. Each course consumed,
savored and served with patience. Water bottles exchanged for glasses
of Italian wine. We need the slow walk back to our hotel to work off
the calories. Mothers and daughters stroll arm in arm – three
The journey continues to Florence. Ringing church bells push us out of bed. The Duomo basilica reveals intricate architecture. It’s dome synonymous with Florence. The biggest brick dome constructed, the tour operator tells us. A renaissance marvel included in our top ten. The detailed bronze doors bedazzle my brain. Rome was history and architecture at every corner. Florence is art. The Uffizi Gallery is on our list. We are told The Birth of Venus, Botticelli’s masterpiece, was commissioned as a conversation piece for someone’s dining room. Had the gallery been less crowded I would have spent more time examining the brushstrokes. I remain in awe of such talented painters. Stories unfold on the canvases. Cameras capture our story.
The Acadamia Gallery takes reservations. A renowned museum. It makes the list. We plan a date with Michangelo’s David.
My sisters and I circle the giant marble sculpture, oohing and ahhing. “Look at that definition,” coos Sophie.
“He must have been an athlete, or a Roman workman who posed.” Rita strains her neck, gazing upward. David stands 17 feet tall. A giant by human standards, yet Goliath was the bigger guy. “Who says bigger isn’t better,” murmurs Rita within earshot. We are all impressed by the rock solid male physique on display… and Michangelo’s skilled craft.
Ana not as impressed. “If Michangelo was such a hot shot artist why didn’t he sculpt some clothes for the guy?” She blushes. I bite my tongue at the adolescent observation.
One final train ride and vaporetta brings us to Venice. I am of the opinion there is no other place on the planet like Venice. The history, the architecture, the canals and bridges, are unique. St. Mark’s square shared by tourists and pigeons. The Doge’s Palace tour is jaw dropping. Gold – gold – gold. Once upon a time the Palace was home to the reigning Doge, a place where government congregated, and included both courtroom and jail. In 1600 a new prison was built, with the Bridge of Sighs connecting the Palace to the jailhouse. One lonely walk for a prisoner. One final sigh.
We stroll. Venice is people watching at its finest. Choosing a mask to purchase is like deciding on a favorite gelato – impossible. I settle on three. Masks - not ice creams. Having the artist autograph the back of my selection ensures it is authentic and not a Made In China factory replica. Tonight is the much anticipated gondola ride. A refined tour on the canals, we wear our evening clothes. The gondola is an elegant slim boat and we each take our turn stepping gracefully into the vessel.
“Come sit by me Ana,” my mother pats the bench seat. Sophie and Rita have sunk into the plush velvet cushion up front.
“It’s so peaceful.” Sophie murmurs. The sun will set soon. An orange sky canopy collapses into the dark glaze of water. Our picturesque journey glides past palaces, the house of Casanova and Marco Polo. The black sheen of our gondola shimmers under the Rialto Bridge. The canal is calm. No waves. Men in traditional gondola attire exchange polite nods as artisan boats pass one another. Occasionally a tourist has tipped well, with their captain offering an operatic rendition on the return trip to dock. Romance is for the couples. We are a party of five women. Family. Creating and sharing travel memories. Adventurers- writing our own history.
“Ahh, what was that?” My hand brushes my forehead. I assume a splash from another boat. Perhaps water falling from a tree branch. Maybe a local from an overhead balcony is baptizing me, ensuring my safety in Italy.
“It’s yellow!” exclaims Ana. Her look of disgust curls her lip.
My fingertips touch the wet deposit. “Ahh, it’s in my hair!” The revelation leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I want off! Now.
“Don’t bounce the boat! Miss, miss, do not move.” Our gondola master commands, “Arreto, arreto!”
“Don’t panic. Or we’ll all need to re-shower.” My mother scolds. Fantasy gondola ride concluded.
“Isn’t it good luck to get pooped on by a bird?” Rita asks laughing.
Twenty minutes later, scrubbing my hair with all the vigor of an ancient washer woman laundering clothing on a rock, I contemplate my luck. Italy is a country of immense beauty. Flavours and aromas embraced and devoured. History, culture and artwork admired. I will be back. Surely the coin toss in the Trevi Fountain will return me to the country. And if not the coin, surely the pigeon poop I endured will bring me good luck. No one wrote it in the travel brochure but I’m positive this trip will make history.
An emerging writer, Desiree draws on a cache of life experiences. A graduate of The University of Alberta she fused her Bachelor of Arts degree with a Project Management certificate. By day she’s an Event Planner. Generally found crafting business communications, newsletters and promotional materials, she embraces her alter-ego after dark. She is currently working on a novel. Though she’s never published her travel journals, mayhem and mischief have been captured in old fashioned ink.