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To Italy With Love (and Family!)

When you travel with a grown-up child, you can better see the adult your offspring has become

By Elizabeth Wray | September 17, 2012
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Elizabeth Wray writes stories, essays, and articles for a variety of publications. She currently lives in New York.

There is a brief travel interlude that beckons to parents of a certain age. It arrives in between traveling with our young children in tow and visits by those same children with their own kids in their arms. Like a raft, it eddies in the river, calling us to venture out with our brilliant, gorgeous, curious, adventuresome and finally civilized adult children. As with any travel, it is subject to time and money. But when an old friend offered me and my family free room and board for a week at her villa in Tuscany, I jumped. My son, buckled into his first job in L.A., wasn’t available. But my daughter, Anava, and her long-time boyfriend, Jake, signed on.
 
We rendezvous in Rome, in stages. My partner, Mary, and I take a red-eye flight from New York to the apartment we’ve rented in Trastevere, the oldest continuously lived-in district in the city. We wait on the sidewalk for two hours for our landlord, Mr. Honey, to show up with the key, trudge up four flights and discover that the couch is broken and unsittable and the second bathroom is missing all its fixtures. "I am sure you will understand, Madam," Mr. Honey says, in Indian-inflected tones, "that the previous tenant was a disturbed and highly destructive person." The day redeems itself in the balm of an outdoor restaurant with pasta and red wine. It’s dusk along narrow Via Manara. “Tomorrow morning,” Mary says, “I’ll go to the farmer’s market.” She is part Ojibwa and has a talent for making a home anywhere.

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The next day, Anava flies in from North Carolina. I help her carry her bags up the flights. “You know, Mom,” she says, “I was thinking: The last time we took a real vacation together was in Italy when I was 11.”
 
“No!” I protest, as I drag my old guilt up the last flight, part of the baggage of ending our family when I left her dad. She was 15. An end to family vacations too, it seems.

Inside, I help her unroll a few of her airy, shake-and-wear summer dresses. Between us, she is the veteran traveler. “Hey, what about the road trips we’ve taken,” I say, picking at the crumbs of vacations past.

“Looking for colleges?” Her glance is skeptical. (And I am hit by flashbacks to some beastly teenager-and-despised-mother moments.) “Moving me down to Durham?” she asks.
 
“That was fun!” I counter, recalling the packed drive from Manhattan, the three-day push to furnish a new apartment from second-hand stores. But it was hard too: She was leaving Jake behind to go to graduate school. I hang up a black-and-white striped shift, something Audrey Hepburn could have worn in Roman Holiday.
 
“Mom, I’m just happy we’re here together now.” She wraps her arms around me — my daughter, a woman who’s grown used to living with change.

Our First Steps
 
The next day we walk miles from Trastevere, past the Forum, beyond the old Roman walls, and down the Appian Way to the Catacombs of San Callisto. “Sandals?” Anava asks me hopefully before we head out, and I explain, “Today’s a hike, not a walk, A.”

She groans a little, forced to accessorize her dress with clunky sneakers. I remember her preteen manifesto for family outings: “I walk; I don’t hike.” Along the way, I take the lead, walking fast, gesticulating, wrapped up in reporting everything I’ve read about places we’re passing. From time to time my daughter says, “Mom, a car,” or takes my arm when she feels I’m not fully processing the wider world. When I get too far ahead, she hangs back, considerate, to accompany Mary, who is a slower, more reflective walker. Who’s the mother here, I wonder, a little ashamed of myself. Yet I’m relieved that family roles can shift and sway. I walk back toward them. Anava’s long arm drapes Mary’s shoulder like a shawl.
 
Day three: We are in Termini Railway Station, looking for Jake, who has come directly from teaching his last class at a high school in the Bronx. A streaming diaspora of many tribes reveals at last a familiar tall head, in a straw fedora. “Arrividerci, Elisabetta! Maria!” Jake calls. “Mi amore,” he croons, as Anava jumps up, monkey style, latching both legs around his waist. The family caravan is complete.

Resonant Moments
 
I drive us out of Rome, headed to Tuscany, in a rented car. People have been talking about Italian travel for centuries. What more is there to say? The paintings, palazzos, duomos; the pick-your-century ruins; the food, the sea, the views, the shoes, the cars, the emotional residents. Instead, I’d like to talk about not-touring, downtime, moments in-between.
 
Repast: We are eating dinner in the courtyard of my friend’s villa in the tiny hamlet of Pignano, with its Romanesque ramparts and restored outbuildings, which now house the small eco-artistic community who run the villa, organic farm, Montessori school, vineyards and more. Staying here feels a lot like being invited to join the life of a lovably eccentric family. Above us, in the courtyard, embedded in the surrounding arched masonry, a stone-faced clock tells us it is 9 p.m. We’ve finished the second of Mauro the cook’s many artisan courses. The sun has just set and we sip Prosecco by candlelight. No other guests are eating here tonight. We pass the time between courses playing charades. For her turn, Anava performs “the whole thing,” a family tradition where the point is to enact the entire idea, not just one syllable or word at a time (not The or Od-y-ssey but the whole experience of Homer’s The Odyssey).
 
She mimes walking up and down stairs. And I recall her youth, putting on shows with friends, her back to the family audience like a conductor — directing came more easily than acting back then. But here, now, she is open, vulnerable, immersed in the moment. The others are shouting out: “Nude Descending a Staircase! No, a book, right? No, no: The Unbearable Lightness of Being....” For their charades, Jake and Mary pick up her lead. I am in love with my troupe — their bodies in candlelight, antic in archways, disappearing and reappearing among columns — forsaking the fragmented game in pursuit of the whole thing.
 
Floating: Day Seven. Halfway through our vacation, we float in the old alabaster quarry-turned-pool. My daughter and I have hooked our arms on the pool’s edge, which overlooks a 180-degree view of rolling green and blue Tuscan farmland, granite ridges defining a hill town in the distance. I imagine the Etruscans overrunning this land, followed by tribes of Romans, Goths, Lombards and Florentines.

In the foreground we tourist invaders talk about abandoning our plans for Florence, Montepulciano and the rest of the trip to instead spend it here in the water. Jake repeatedly jumps from a rock outcropping into the pool, like an ecstatic dancing insect.

“Mom, can you teach me how to dive?” Anava asks.

How did I neglect to do that? I admonish myself. Yet, she still needs me, this capable woman who teaches mindfulness to anxiety-ridden adolescents. And so we fling ourselves from the bank into the deep end, again and again.
 
Wandering: My passengers look out the car windows as I drive us back to Rome. I imagine Jake and Anava anticipating his upcoming move to the South from his native New York, the challenges of rebuilding a life together, far away from family and friends. Mary smiles at me, and I know she is thinking she’s happy to be here now, in the family caravan, after years of running to catch up, to fit in.  
 
The next day, we are in the Villa Borghese, in a roomful of Caravaggio’s paintings. Dark canvasses emit a palpable light. I stand between Jake and Anava, feeling as if we are being summoned to life.

Later, we are in the Jewish ghetto, stooping over gold lacquered cobblestones, reading the names and the birth and death dates of some of the thousands from Jake’s tribe who were deported to Nazi concentration camps. I think of the Romans destroying the temple in Jerusalem. The July midday sun blasts us. There is nothing to say. This country keeps showing us how relentless we all are. We humans. Builders and destroyers. One tribe. We walk down Via Julia, our little band. We are somewhere beyond family relationships — fellow perceivers, our identities still forming.
 
The View: It is Anava’s 28th birthday. We have just finished eating under the stars in a restaurant overlooking the city. We walk down the Spanish Steps — a wide expanse of well-worn marble. I start to slip on the slick stone but am caught by Anava and Jake, one on each side, who grab my arms as if they’d been waiting for a cue. We walk down more steps this six-legged way, until I shake them off. “Let’s sit,” Mary says, and we do.

“I’ve had too much wine,” I say, but the whole truth is I do not want to be walked down like an old person.

“Madam,” Jake says in the tones of Mr. Honey, “calm yourself. All will be well.”

The steps fall before us in terraces, each tier crowded with the multicultural procession. Bangladeshi street vendors sell colored lights they throw high in the air; the rest of us watch as little glints of red and orange and blue float down. The English once frequented these steps and stayed in this quarter on their Grand Tours of the continent — their empire, like ours now, gasping for life, like Keats, his health failing, in a house I can see from here.

High above, the stars regard us, fixedly, pitying perhaps our constant journey. Looking back down to our marbled world, I struggle to place us in time, amid the blur of colors and voices. Anava squeezes my hand, and I return to her, us, now.
 
Returning: Italy is playing Spain in the final game of the World Cup. People spill out of cafes onto folding chairs in the narrow streets, their focus on jerry-rigged TVs. Coming back from dinner, Mary and I take leave of our two soccer fans. They want us to stay with them, but we lean toward the quiet of our apartment around the corner. “Good,” we say, “they’re on their own having fun together.” This is the first time, other than sleeping, that we four have been apart. Mary checks her email. I open a book. Knock, knock: Guess who? “We missed you,” they say. I am touched, if a little baffled. But lying in bed, I see that none of us can not-be-together in this fleeting time of traveling in between young adulthood and all that follows.
 
On American Independence Day we wave goodbye to Anava and Jake, watch them walk down Via dei Fienaroli, their suitcases bumping behind over cobblestones. They are off for a week in the Dolomites — and we are flying back. It seems right. They are the travelers, and we are home base. And yet this trip reminds me that we’re all of us, all the time, traveling together, in families and tribes — adapting, changing, merging, moving on, catching up — our hands reaching out to each other like campfires.
 
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