There are very few down sides to long term travel. One is lack of decent peanut butter and the other is that our daughter Lyla misses her friends more than Monica Lewinsky misses her privacy. Being eleven and hanging out with your parents, and only your parents, every waking and sleeping moment for seven months straight is awesome, right? My husband and I think of this journey as a rich interlude between the busy working chapters of our lives. A great big recess. She seems to think of it, occasionally, as way too long. There have been hundreds of conversations that begin with ‘When we get home…” So, to say we were all very excited when our dear friends “Family G” decided to travel the great distance to Italy for their Spring Break holiday would be an enormous understatement. We considered this a super-human effort on their part.
We were to meet in Florence, Italy. Firenze with it’s history, art, charming streets and never-ending gelato! Our family, including Grandma, would drive down along the coast from France and they would fly from Vancouver. You know, just an easy seventeen hours sitting up, overnight, with three children, two transfers and some comfy airport floor sleeping. No big deal.
The “G” girls were driving their mother as crazy as Lyla was making us as the date finally rolled into view. We were literally counting the days, hours and minutes. There were plenty of map and distance consultations, questions, text messages, emails and some gangster-like heavy bargaining to drive faster and get to Florence as early as possible. She was like a Clydesdale pulling a wagon home to the barn. A hungry Clydesdale. This rendezvous had created more anticipation than Christmas.
Finally, it was Friendsmas Eve. The night before our departure from the gritty port city of Genoa we were all given personal hand written itineraries for the next morning. We were leaving at 9:00am sharp! There was to be no screwing around. The three hour drive south into Tuscany seemed to take weeks. There was groaning, counting and some anguish emanating from the back seat. “How long until we get there?” “How long now?” “Can’t you drive a little faster pleeeeease?” She would have been happier if Mario Andretti had been behind the wheel. Once we entered Florence things became… challenging. If you’ve been there you know that driving inside the ancient city is forbidden unless you are a resident. There are fines of several hundred euros for people who dare to roll into the ‘Zona Limito Traffica’ without a permit. We had planned to park on the hill overlooking the city in Piazzalle Michaelangelo. Because a) it was apparently free parking which is unheard of and b) it was apparently free parking which is unheard of. The vantage point also offered a stunning view of the red clay rooftops of Florence and her incredible Duomo.
As we’ve learned before on this trip, the weather had other plans. Once we entered the maze-like one way road system that traversed the rolling hills dotted with villas south of town we realized something was up. But what? There was police tape strung up and temporary fencing erected. Drivers who actually knew where they were going were U-turning all over the place. Maybe Tom Cruise was filming his next blockbuster and the rest of us would just have to deal with it? In fact, extremely unusual high winds had splintered several ancient olive trees and the roads were blocked because of the continuing danger. It was so serious that schools had also been closed for the day. Gnarled old beauties that had been standing since Michelangelo carved the David were snapped off like kindling for a campfire. From the back seat came more pleading and some begging…”oh, can we please just hurry up!” A full frontal waxing would be a more pleasant sensation.
When we finally made it to the apartment, just a few hours behind schedule, and rang the elegant brass buzzer to alert them of our arrival, the shrieking could be heard for blocks around. Lyla dropped her heavy backpack and sprinted up the four flights of stairs as Stephanie, Charlotte and Georgia dashed down. They met somewhere in the middle on a wide stone staircase that echoed and chimed with their sweet greetings for each other. We could feel their bright electric energy pinging off the walls as they called out each other’s names. The tightest hugs, the heartiest laughs and most radiant natural smiles. Oh, and the high pitched squealing cascading in the stairwell! It was magical. We all got a little misty. Any sign of road weariness vanished instantly and all that remained was pure friendship. Instantly the gap had closed. Slammed shut. The miles and months had disappeared and our daughter was enveloped in the kind of warmth we as her parents couldn’t deliver. A different kind of connection she had been craving since day one. The arms of her friends.
That first night together consisted of non-stop talking. Hours and hours. Endless streams. They were making up for lost time. It didn’t matter that we were at the birthplace of the Renaissance. We could have been anywhere. They were girls doing what they do best, making up games and songs and giggling together. The adults, which now included Grandma Lois, sweet Uncle Joe, my dear friend Andrea, Cam and I could hear the laughter and chirping voices jangling down the spiral staircase from the floor above. It was like music.
For us grownups there was a big squishy reunion too. Andrea and I snuck off to sip some Chianti and fill each other in. Ah, blessed girl talk!! How wonderful to reconnect while we sipped wine overlooking the Piazza Vecchio in the last sun of the day. We chatted seamlessly about this, that and everything. Time flew. I love my husband but seven months straight is a tough challenge for any marriage. Try it some time and tell me how it goes. We occasionally talk to strangers just to hear another voice. Okay, I’m kidding, but you understand. Soon Cam would have another man around to break the female spell. Mr. G was on his way too. Argh, how about those Canucks!!
The next day we set out to do some exploring in the eye-catching city. Kind Uncle Joe wanted to see the Duomo and of course the famous David before he headed back home to Edmonton. As we began walking up the winding stone staircase inside Cuppola some of us lost our nerve. It was clear by the expression on a few of our faces that hearts were pumping (not in a good way) and stomachs were cramping with fear. Some turned back and some carried on up to the very tip top of Florence’s signature structure, Brunelleschi’s Duomo. What a view, what a triumph.
We saw Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and many more of Florence’s famous buildings, statues, monuments, galleries and piazzas… but it’s the walking that I remember most. Just strolling along the ancient cobblestoned streets with four little girls in front of us arm in arm. Their heads were bent toward each other, often touching. Who knows what they were talking about. Who cares? They were smiling, giggling and occasional fighting but they were together. In the flesh. When is the last time you missed someone so much it hurt? Those three little souls had come such a long way to recharge the deflated battery of our daughter’s heart. Sure she has FaceTimed and messaged and Instagramed with some of her dear friends at home, and Lord knows that’s been special and crucial, but this was different. There was the human touch, the body language, the warmth, the fourth dimension that an electronic connection simply can’t provide.
Delightful Uncle Joe had to go home and his spot at the table was filled by the girl’s Dad Ross. Now the travelling “Family G” was complete too. We rode carousels and bikes all over town. We created a ‘gelato scavenger hunt’ where the kids had to work together and read the map to find different gelato shops all over the city and write down their findings about the flavours, texture, service and decor in their little notebooks. Note** there is such a thing as too much gelato. We took a home cooking class and learned how to make fresh pasta and tiramisu from Chef Michele and his lovely Mama Vanna. We went to the Mercato for fresh bread, cheese, prosciutto and gnocchi. We held our noses at the oh so (NOT) delicious ‘tripe’ sandwiches stall. We crossed the famed Ponte Vecchio and ogled the expensive tourist trap jewelry. All that glamour and yet it was the walking together that was the most meaningful. The podium finish. The reason for travelling all that way. The treasure.
One glowing highlight came during our family bike tour with the jovial ‘Mario.” Yes, he finished every word with an ‘ah’ sound and wore a cute hat. We had swirled up and down hills and along back streets all over the place when we met a local artist named Aldino on a bridge over the River Arno. Not the fancy Ponte Vecchio, just a garden variety bridge downstream. He sold tiny intricate paintings of the city on rocks or small pieces of wood for 1 Euro each from the back of his rusty bicycle. In our society Aldino would likely be labelled ‘mentally challenged’ but his joy at the realization that we wanted to buy his work revealed his brilliance. He could possibly be the happiest person I’ve ever met. A sweet Italian Buddha incarnate. Though we didn’t speak his language somehow we seemed to understand each other perfectly. The children loved him, he loved them. You could just tell. His smile radiated kindness, his eyes sparkled, his glasses fogged with excitement, he tried to give us extra painted rocks and suddenly one dropped, bounced off the railing and fell into the river. He just grinned wider and offered another one. So happy. Just happy. I have thought of him often since.
A couple of fine resto’s deserve mentioning. Ristorante Il Latini in a small backstreet behind Via Tornabuoni with its shee shee Prada, Pucci, Ferragamo and Gucci flagship stores offers family style platter dining and warm, fun hospitality. Plate after plate of simple hearty antipasti arrived in fast succession washed down with a tasty house red until you can’t really move. Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori was recommended by a friendly server in a busy lunch cafe we all squeezed into. We asked for the best restaurant she knew. This was her pick. No menu, just a sheet of hand written paper taped to the door. Always crammed full. Rich Tuscan flavours that make you moan and eye roll at the table like when Meg Ryan was trying to prove a point to Tom Hanks. We tried the tagliatelle with duck ragu, simple homemade spaghetti with tomato and fresh basil, slow roasted melty short rib stew with wine gravy reduction, truffle ravioli, crisp salads with fresh buffalo mozzarella and grana padano and service that makes you feel like best friends or at least close cousin. Mama is in the kitchen, Papa is behind the bar and the cute, charming, sons are waiters. We came back for another dinner and were not disappointed as can sometimes happen when you have high expectations. It’s tucked in the side street by the entrance to the Gucci Museum. You’ll need a reservation.
Our group of nine headed south to Rome or rather to a storybook town nearby called Bracciano with its fabled well-preserved medieval castle Castello Orsini-Odescalchi. The one where Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes before she came to her senses. Here we had space to spread out. The girls had grass to cartwheel on, trees to climb and daisy chains to construct. The heating was expensive so we curled up by the well tended by (Ross and Cam) fire and enjoyed some big family meals around the big dining table. We played charades and took naps. We enjoyed day trips to Rome on the train to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Coliseum, Piazza Novella, the Pantheon and many other marvels of ancient Roman civilization. Oh, and to eat more gelato and sip the vino rosso.
Through all of this adult oriented wining, dining and history gazing the girls kept on walking elbow to elbow, step for step. Though they were exhausted they were troopers. We would occasionally find them slumped in a heap but they never complained. They chased bubbles in piazzas, window shopped, got asked hundreds of times if they wanted to buy selfie sticks (the new rage), fell down laughing, ate a LOT of gelato, took a LOT of photos and basically partied like rock stars.
Traveling is wonderful and enriching in so many ways and we don’t miss much from home. Our son Holden and our Vitamix. That’s about it. Friends are a different story. So much of why we love our home is because of the community we are blessed to live in and be a part of. Those relationships and connections. That’s where the gold is. You can’t find it anywhere else.