When Dad and I… were finalizing the details of this grand Asian/European affair, we originally were going to get off the boat, take a train directly to the airport in Rome, and say our goodbyes. After two weeks of desert safaris, daily bus excursions, and being cramped together in a broom closet, I was pretty sure that we would need to decompress from each other in a bad way. Thankfully, Dad disagreed. He asked “Why not spend a few days extra days in Italy?”
Well goddamn if I couldn’t find a good reason to say no! So at the onset, we changed our plans to get off the boat and go do something, somewhere, in Italy for a few days, then head back to Rome for the flights. That was settled, now… where to go?
I threw out a bunch of names, including Assisi, Modena, and Siena; maybe go back to see the Amalfi Coast up close? They had taken a long bus tour through Italy years ago so they had more local experience than me. But again, Dad had the great idea… Florence. Dad had absolutely fallen in love with the Tuscan outpost during their last visit twenty years prior. Mom… not so much. She had stepped off the bus and broke her ankle, completely missing a chunk of the tour while she argued with an Italian nurse about why she couldn’t use her American Express card for the X-rays.
I need to point out that we had absolutely no travel plans or itinerary planned out for the next five days. The previous two weeks was mapped out and timed to perfection (nearly) by me. This part, we were playing it by ear. So as the boat neared the Genoa shoreline, I paid a mortgage payment for fifteen minutes of ship-internet time and found a super cheap hotel for the three of us. We picked up our luggage, took a cab to the train station, and bought three tickets to Florence!
This would have been a great interlude into another wonderful train story, but instead we bummed around the station for two hours drinking café Americanos while waiting for the train to arrive. I don’t understand how Europeans instinctively know that their train has arrived and where to get on. I have to get to the station at least an hour before, triple check my ticket against the arrivals board, and know my exact path from where I will be to the correct platform. It seems that everyone else’s train leaves at four, and they all arrive perfectly at 3:59. After yet another maddening quick train switch in Pisa (“just get on the goddamn train!”) we pulled into the Firenze Santa Maria Novella station and grabbed a taxi to the hotel. And did I ever luck out…
|this guy earned his Euro...|
Our hotel was in a tiny little alcove overlooking the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore… aka Il Duomo! One of the most picturesque and beautiful buildings in all of Italy… and we were exactly eighteen steps from it in the middle of the old city. The hotel had two other interesting features: a gelato bar directly across the alley, and the world’s smallest elevator! The elevator could take two Europeans and luggage or me. I couldn’t get into the elevator without first taking off my shoes and emptying my pockets of any spare change. We actually had to send me up first, then the luggage, then Dad, followed by Mom, to get to our room.
Florence is the heart of art and culture in Italy. Back in the 1400’s, it was the center of European power and influence under the strong arms and deep pockets of the Medici family. Art and architecture was commissioned and created the greatest masters of all time: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Brunelleschi, and Botticelli. Most of the structures and marbles created by them still stand throughout the small inner city split on either side of the Arno River.
The tile and cobblestone streets were filled with beautiful Italian men and women gesturing wildly with their hands as their main form of communication; all wearing sweaters so fashionable I felt slightly ashamed of my Wal-Mart fleece. Any woman older than thirty was decked out in knees high boots and full-length furs. Most were carrying small dogs in totes. One block down from the hotel around a corner was the Plaza della Repubblica, one of the old squares lined with restaurants with outdoor tables draped in plastic and propane heaters. Everywhere we looked was another regional wine shop, followed by a fashion house next to a museum, followed by another gelato bar.
Florence was going to be our kind of town…
In the mornings we’d walk to the nearest coffee shop in the cold winter air for cafés and whatever glorious warm cinnamon or sugar buns they had steaming fresh in the window. For hours we would just walk down the alleys and roads with absolutely no direction or guide. Farmer’s markets popped up and we would sample homemade sausage, cheeses, and breads. I picked up a few jars of local truffle slices in oil. In Florence you’re never at a loss of things to see or do. We’d pass by an old church, of which there are about fifty, and walk in to explore. The grandeur of the edifices does nothing to describe how amazing the art and design of the church interiors, spread sometimes only meters apart. Around lunch the sun would come out and warm us up enough to unbutton our jackets, so we would search out a restaurant with outdoor seating and always eat the most sumptuous meals; and always accompanied with a bottle of a DOGC chianti classico (DOGC = Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita – only wines from Tuscany can have this designation.) For dinner we’d look for nicer restaurants where the locals were congregated and order everything we could. Afterwards, we’d walk off the calories by strolling the dark streets packed with people around ten o’clock, as the Italians all prefer their dinner meals late. We would almost always finish the day with another glass of wine or a gelato, and walk back to the hotel to crash out completely worn out and deliriously satisfied.
About the wine… I have never been a huge wine drinker. Especially reds, as the tannins make my ankles swell. But here in this city, sitting outside feeling the warmth radiating from the heaters with the smell of Tuscan air, eating truffle pasta dripping in cream sauce with a loaf of perfect crusty bread… that glass of ethereal red swirling in the glass is almost magical. To savor the taste and aroma, it always seemed to enhance whatever we were dining on, whether it was Dad’s seafood pasta or Mom’s customary lasagna… that wine became something we would look forward to and anticipate instead of wondering if it was too early or too late for a glass. There were times we wouldn’t walk ten minutes after lunch until Dad would see a nice table before deciding that we all needed another glass. I really thought it would have been the food that we found most satisfying about Florence… but it was definitely the wine.
During our days exploring we hit all the major sites of Florence. The Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno with its overhead shops and gold barkers. The Uffizi Gallery with more impressive art than a lifetime of visiting other museums could prepare you for. Of course we spent time everyday walking in circles around the Duomo and its sister baptistery, simply amazed at the beauty of how the light captures the intricate dark marble lines and the red roof tiles at all times of the day.
After a few days the walking started to take its toll, so we paid for a few days of hop-on/hop-off bus service. The route encircled the city providing history and scenic sites, including taking us to the southern edge of the city and an overlook where the whole expanse of Florence was under us. It was amazing. One day we just walked down from the overlook at the Piazzale Galileo through the Boboli Gardens and back across the Ponte Vecchio. On a Saturday night we found a dark church tucked away that was about to hold a mass. We attended the service, all spoken in a mix of Latin and Italian, mumbling our way through the prayers, trying to blend in.
The next day we ventured out and took the bus on a secondary route, one that took us out of the city to the village of Fiesole just north of Florence nestled among the hills. The bus winded up the tree lined roads while we caught glimpses of the red-tiled city below. We stopped for an hour in the charming little square of Fiesole in the middle of a giant swap-meet. We browsed the stalls filled with lacework, old Italian vinyl records, brass picture frames, and antique typewriters. The church bells from the belfry were ringing every fifteen minutes while we savored the country air. Before we left, the three of us sat at a café and ordered yet another bottle of chianti classico. We quietly sat and enjoyed our wine, surrounded by this charming village, and without saying a word, acknowledged that we were sharing a moment in time that none of us would forget; the three of us on the hillside, sipping wine on a cold yet sunny afternoon.
There was one other story that came pretty close to being as enjoyable. We had just toured the Palazzo Vecchio, the incredible palace and tower attached to the Uffizi gallery that dominates the Piazza del Signoria (if you want a long description, read Dan Brown’s Inferno, half the book takes place there.) The entire building is filled with a myriad of artworks and sculptures of every Renaissance artist ever known. During our visit the Damien Hirst “sculpture” For the Love of God was on display. The titanium human skull covered with $100 million dollars of diamonds was beautiful in its own right, but terribly out of place here in this marbled cathedral of true classical art. For some reason both Hirst and Jeff Koons just love to shove their art (not really theirs, they have people who make it for them) into classically designed buildings… and I fucking hate them for it. Koons nearly ruined Versailles for me years earlier.
Back to the story… in the Salone dei Cinquecento (“Hall of the Five Hundred”), a magnificent collection of enormous statues line the wall. The final statue was commissioned by Cosimo De’ Medici for sculptor Vincenzo de’ Rossi, and portrays one of the labors of Hercules. In the myth, Hercules has just stolen the four man-eating horses owned by King Diomedes, and Diomedes challenges Hercules to wrestle to the death. This is a statue meant to impose the strength of two brave men, both the sons of gods, in a prolonged battle to the death…
Instead, it looks like two body builders about to sixty-nine each other, while one tugs on the others’ junk.
|Hercules & Diomedes...|
Mom and Dad stared at the statue. Mom leaned over to Dad whispering in his ear, and they both started to giggle uncontrollably. Every snort and chuckle reverberated across the hall, like schoolchildren they couldn’t stop. Tears were streaming down Dad’s cheek as he tried to control himself. “What’s so damn funny?” I ask, but only to get the cold shoulder from the two of them. A while later we were drinking some wine in the adjacent square while an impeccably dressed Italian sat next to us drinking his morning cappuccino and reading the paper while wearing leather gloves. I kept bugging my parents about losing their shit at that statue, and finally Dad relented, saying “Well, everyone in the story is dead now, so I guess it can’t hurt.” The two of them proceed to tell a story about a drunken wrestling match that took place years earlier in a hunting cabin back in Michigan. Some of my great uncles and family friends were three sheets to the wind and got into a brutal wrestling match on the floor. Suddenly, a completely sloshed great aunt of mine jumped onto the pile and grabbed one of the men squarely by the nuts and pulled with all her might!
The story continued as Mom and Dad tried to explain just how out of character the aunt’s actions were, and how much the uncle’s balls hurt afterwards, all in between our non-stop hysterical laughing. We were all crying and coughing we were laughing so hard! Suddenly the beautiful Italian man next to us puts down his cappuccino, takes off his sunglasses, and says to us in that sensual Italian accent punctuated with long pauses, “Mi scusi… but I must tell you… that is the funniest story… I have ever heard.”
Mom was red-faced with embarrassment! None of us even thought about anyone else understanding this horrible story of a drunken sack-pulling! The gentleman, let’s call him Giuseppe, spoke to us about his hometown of Florence, what had we seen and where we should go next, and generally extolled how much he loves his city. Turns out Giuseppe was the scion to a very old leather fashion house on the road overlooking the Arno River. He invited us to visit his shop while we were in town, gave Mom his card, and excused himself while thanking Mom for the humorous morning… “Addio signora.” We stopped by the shop later in the day and saw through the window that a belt cost more than my flight home.
On our last day in Florence, Dad bought some bottles of DOCG for the road, and we walked north to the Galleria dell’Accademia to stand in line to visit the most famous statue in all the world… Michelangelo’s David. The line was pretty long but only took half an hour to get moving. Once inside, Michelangelo’s unfinished works surrounded us; large blocks of marble that appeared to have bodies struggling to free themselves from the rock. The statue, located under a large pergola, is much more impressive in person than in pictures. The sinews and muscle definition is absolutely amazing, you’d swear if they colored the flesh he could walk off the pedestal. But I’m not sure why they demand no pictures… it is the most famous statue in the world! Everyone knows what it looks like! Who cares if someone shares a picture with me standing in the foreground! Plus, an exact replica of the statue stands in its original position at the Palazzo Vecchio.
Later we walked to the train station to book our train to Rome. The trip was slightly sad, as we all knew this would be our final train ride together. We had one last day and night in Rome to enjoy before they left for home on their early morning flight. We had learned from our last visit to bypass the metro system and just pay for the damn cab. It may not have been worth it, as our cabbie could not find our hotel. We circled the same city blocks over and over until he finally got out of the cab and went to ask directions. When we did arrive, the hotel manager came out and with a regretful tone told me that a pipe had burst and flooded a floor of the hotel, and that they were going to upgrade us to a nicer hotel just down the road.
|I cannot remember what was so damn funny...|
Instead of getting another taxi, the porter just picked up Mom and Dad’s bags and started walking down the street. We followed for about fifteen minutes until we finally reached our new hotel… directly across from the Trevi Fountain! The one major site we never got to see, and we were across the street! We spent the morning walking around to the Piazza Colonna and the home of the Prime Minister, basically just trying to get lost in the maze of winding streets. In the afternoon, I booked us on a tour of the four major papal basilicas of Rome: St. Peter's, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. All of them were beautiful in their own way, with intricate marble floors and naves of gold and azure blue. Rows of columns and ornate tabernacles shone with the last bit of light from the late afternoon sun. In one, pilgrims were climbing marble steps on their knees. The guide showed us the four papal doors that can only be opened by the pope during Jubilee Years. To cross thru the doors is to gain a papal indulgence for your sins. Even more amazing was all the religious history and dogma knowledge that Dad knew about these places. I had never even heard of most of them, but Dad knew exactly where St. Paul was buried, why one was called Saint Mary Major, could even describe the differences between major and minor basilicas better than the guide.
As night fell, the temperature dropped and we warmed up with a few glasses of red from the café’s lining the roadsides. We ate our last of the Italian lasagna (“it’s different”) and gnocchi, and spent the night basking in the artificial glow of the Fountain.
Our coins tossed over our shoulders in the hopes of returning to Rome one day, we packed up our suitcases and prepared for the morning. We had to wake up pre-dawn to get Mom and Dad to the airport. To ease them back, I had hired a private taxi to take them all the way, bypassing the Roma train. We said our goodbyes outside the hotel entrance, and they drove away into the cold morning.
I was really worried about this trip, terrified actually. I had never traveled alone with my parents as an adult. I was afraid that we wouldn’t have anything to say, or get on each other's nerves. I was afraid I would be impatient with them, or that all of my plans would crumble around us. And dear God, what if my kitchen floors weren’t clean enough?
Instead, I got the most wonderful, interesting, funny, and beautiful trips I could have imagined. I loved traveling with my parents! My father and I were able to talk history and religion, logic and politic surrounded by the works and remains of the cultures that created these things. And I think Dad was, for the most part, pretty happy with my advanced planning and how I was able to keep us on our tight budget.
But it was the time with Mom that I came to really appreciate. My sisters have always shared that special bond with her that I, as a son, never fully shares. We’ve always had a good relationship, but as I grew older I became closer to my Dad, as most sons are want to do. But I was able to share with her my experiences in the Middle East and show her my appreciation for art and architecture. She finally understood my wanderlust and my yearnings for budget adventures. After losing her close friend when she arrived, I was really afraid that Mom would never get to enjoy our little adventure. But she did with strength, grace, and humor.
And I discovered that if your mom doesn’t smile very well in photos, the trick is to tickle her really hard…
But Mom said it best with a simple comment, “We became friends on this trip.” And she was right. On this trip she wasn’t my mother who I was trying to impress or get her approval… she was my favorite travel buddy.
It’s sad for me that I’ll never get to travel with Mom and Dad again in this way. The teasing of the oddball passengers from Mom, the ribbing from Dad regarding my ridiculous scheduling, watching them both delight in the glasses of wine at sundown… I will miss our time together so much. But hopefully, in the near and far future, Mom and I can relive some of our experiences in our own travels together. I know Dad would have wanted us to continue our exploring, and have a glass of red at the end of the day.
|Mom & Dad...|