We were fifteen minutes into a nine-hour drive from our military base in Germany to Italy.
“Last night’s chicken noodle soup,” she weakly observed after emptying the contents of her stomach into the pail.
I carefully retrieved the sloshing container and held it over the dashboard. “Ok, now pull over so I can dump this,” I told my husband.
But on he went, mile after stinking mile. Unlike most men, my husband is a nervous driver. A request for an unplanned stop is enough to send him into a state of mild panic.
As the miles ticked away, I politely suggested stopping areas. “Oh, here comes one on the left” or “Aha! There’s one just up ahead,” but all he could do is alternately jab at the gas and brake pedals, unable to make a decision as we whizzed down the Autobahn.
As my own stomach began to gurgle and ping, he finally pulled over. I poured half-chewed chicken noodle soup over the guard rail and thought, eight and a half hours to go….
But I wasn’t going to let a revolting start ruin our trip to Tuscany. Come hell or high water (or soup, as it were) we would be awed by art in Florence, wander winding alleys in Lucca, gaze at the gravitational pull on Pisa’s Tower, and trek the treacherous cliffs of the Cinque Terre.
“Hey kids, let’s learn a little Italian!” I said excitedly, inserting the first of four “Drive Time Italian” discs into the van’s CD player.
After what seemed like an eternity of introductory material, the narrator began Lesson One. At my behest, the kids reluctantly repeated the simple phrases.
“Buon giorno, come sta?”
“Molto bene, grazie.”
Twenty minutes later, the kids and I were sound asleep, and the only Italian words I could remember were cosi cosi (so so) and spuntino (snack), just because they were fun to say.
We awoke in the hills of Liguria, Italy, but the spectacular views were completely obscured by dense fog. In an attempt to distract attention from the weather, I read aloud from “Budget Guide to Italy.”
“Listen to this, kids — It says here that, in order to deter pick pockets, we should not wear attire that is ‘obviously American (sweatshirts, college t-shirts, sneakers, hiking shorts, jean jackets.)’”
“But Mom, that’s all we have,” my middle child astutely pointed out.
To perk up my travel weary crew, I sang some Italian-themed songs. Robustly belting out “Mamma Leone’s Pasta Suprema, a bit of old Italy!” I realized I might need more than a jingle to galvanize this crowd.
“Mambo Italiano, Mambo….” Hmmm, how does that go?
“We open in Venice, we next play Verona, and onto…” What the heck is next?
“Prego! Scuzi! Grazie! Napoli!!!” Wait, that’s not how it goes…
After butchering the words to every Italian-themed song I could remember, I settled on humming a depressing rendition of the Theme from The Godfather. No one seemed amused.
Finally, we exited the garbage-strewn Autostrade and headed for Camp Darby, where we reserved “deluxe” rooms at the Sea Pines Army Hotel for three nights. While the girls whined about ants in the bathroom, our teenage son snuck under the paper-thin polyester bed spread to go back to sleep (he slept the entire drive, waking only to eat a salami sandwich.)
Our “deluxe” rooms were neither de-lightful nor de-lovely, but we were still de-termined to make the best of it, so we lured everyone back to our soda-can-and-crumb-filled minivan, promising authentic pizzas in Pisa. It was too dark to take the requisite “See me holding up the Leaning Tower” pictures, so we wandered into “Pizzeria Duomo” with its plastic-covered menus and mural of the Tower for the promised pies.
The next morning we awoke to torrential rain. Pressing on, we toured Lucca’s charming walls from under our dripping tarps. A lunch of Tuscan pumpkin soup with ciabatta smothered in broiled pecorino nearly made up for the discomfort of my soggy tennis shoes.
Later in Florence, the kids stared at me staring at Michelangelo’s anatomically amazing David at the Accademia. In the museum gift shop, I decided that, as much as I really wanted the two-foot replica of the famous statue for my night stand, the refrigerator magnet would require less dusting, and explanation.
On day three, we drove to La Spezia train station to catch a ride to the Cinque Terre. Despite continuing bad weather and a precarious parking spot, I was truly looking forward to this adventure. The arguments with my husband, the dumpy base hotel, the infamous Italian indifference to trash – it would all be worth it to hike the olive groves, vineyards and alleyways of the five cliffside towns.
“The trail-a is-a closed, a-too-a much-a rain,” the local woman reported from behind the station’s tourist information desk. I felt a hot sensation in my cheeks and held back tears. In an instant, the last three days flashed before my burning eyes. The up chuck bucket, ants, fog, crumbs, wet socks, our warped soggy travel book, my tense husband. I put up with it all for nothing.
Sensing my disappointment, my husband rallied the troops, telling everyone that we would still see the Cinque Terre by rail. I indolently followed my family onto the train, drained of emotion.
In the first town, my husband discovered an alternate route to the other villages by way of a steep mountain hike. On hearing this news, my vigor returned. Our backpacks stuffed with water bottles and local focaccia, we trekked upward into the olive groves.
On the next day’s nine hour drive home, I was utterly exhausted. I realized that family travel is not always fun. Sometimes it is like a job you want to quit, but you keep getting up each day and punching the clock. I resolved to be mindful of this reality on our next trip to avoid disappointment. Other lessons learned: keep dry socks in the trunk, look up the words to the songs, and don’t serve chicken noodle soup the night before a long drive.