Essay : Away for the holiday
Annual rituals seem to work fine for most folks, but to me they can become stale and almost tyrannical, if they go on too long.
Since I met my wife, Laura, 30 years ago, we've gone to her father's home on Long Island for Thanksgiving every year but two, 2001 and 2002, when we lived in Florence, Italy. At times, it's felt as if I'm following the same old dated script, as if I'm part of a pageant, and I get all dozy and dull. I'm no great rebel, but I can't help wondering why - why do we keep doing this, year after predictable year?
So when Laura suggested I spend Thanksgiving this year in Italy with our son, Sam, I gaped at my good fortune. She engineered the trip as smoothly as she'd imagined it, and all I had to do was get myself to the airport and climb aboard Alitalia 615, departing Boston Logan at 6 pm bound for Rome with a couple of changes of clothes, a goodie bag of junk food for Sam, and my passport.
For once, this time, I didn't say no. It was such an obviously great idea that I let go of my usual litany of pragmatic objections. I used to reflexively turn down invitations to travel that I should have jumped at but felt somehow that I didn't deserve, even when I had the money, because I couldn't tune out that horrible, negative Puritanical bass line.
But this was Florence, and it was Sam, and it was such an obviously great idea. What else was there to say but yes, reprising the mantra we'd adopted eight years ago when we got the whacky, impractical notion in our family head to go to Florence for a year, which turned into two, when I didn't have a job, when Laura was working part-time, and when we shouldn't have...you know, blah, blah, blah. Our mantra? "Just say yes."
Easy enough, until two days before my departure when I got a call from English, an old pal, inviting me to have lunch on Friday, the day I'd arrive in Rome. With the kind of verbal smirk you can use on an old friend who shares a dialect, I said, forget it, I'll be in Italy.
Always ready to stick the needle in, he asked me if I had the right clothes, how was my Italian, did I have something profound to impart to Sam. And, "You sure your passport's OK?"
"It expires in February. I'll re-up it when I get back."
"It has to be good for six months after your trip," he said.
"Right...right. Nice try."
"Shut up, I'm fine," I told him. "It's Italy. What are they going to do, tell me in Rome I can't leave the airport?"
"You better check it out. Go on line." English is a lawyer, and he was starting to sound like one.
Three hours later - after frantic Googling and calls to the State Department and to the Italian consulate in San Francisco (it was after hours across the rest of the country) - I found out what I didn't want to. When traveling to most European countries, including Italy, your passport must be valid for three months after the date of your return. For some places in the world, it's six months. My return date was November 29, and my passport expired February 12, 2009 - two and a half months, just about but definitely not three.
Deflated now and a bit panicked, I went back online, and called the State Department again to see if it was possible to renew my passport in 36 hours. It was, and I did, but it made for a couple of short worrying nights in the meantime.
Sam's been in Florence for two months, looking for work, after graduating from Wesleyan last May with a degree in Italian studies - and a minor in soccer. He found a bit of writing work with the Florentine, an English language biweekly and had a lingering nibble for an internship in the front office of Fiorentina, the city's entry in Serie A, the top soccer league in Italy. He's fluent in Italian and an accomplished soccer player, just what Italy needs - another good Italian-speaking soccer player, but who knows, maybe he could find a lower division club in the suburbs that would treat an Americano as a curiosity. He'd pulled it off before, when we lived in Florence at the start of the decade, and he made a club team and became a star player there, so...?
Waiting for something to materialize, he's been idle too much, and a bit lonely - not an easy combo for a gregarious guy whose aunt dubbed him "Go-boy" when he was 18 months old. He was up for almost anything, but mostly for some company. We're very close, but I'm still thrilled when he chooses to spend time with me.
When he met me in Florence, the first thing he asked was, "How 'bout a coffee?" Of course. How else to celebrate my first few minutes in Italy?
And we were off, on a wonderful, almost seamless eight days together. We kept moving and we kept happy - almost always on the same wavelength. If Sam ever got sick of me, he hid it well, and I was completely content with the companionship, wherever we were heading, whatever doing. We covered a lot of territory, both in Florence and in Rome, where we spent two nights, and there was precious little down time. Our pace always felt more free than forced.
We went to two Fiorentina games, a victory and a loss, both with Jim Kauffman, my closest friend over there who works for Syracuse University and who's been a terrific sounding board and contact for Sam through the fall. We helped celebrate Jim's daughter Clara's birthday with a loud, lively crowd of her friends and family. I had a jolly lunch with Lily Prigionero, another wonderful friend who I met when she joined the writing group I started and who had gone on to win a prestigious award for a novel she published while in a graduate writing program at the University of Siena. We shared a coffee and a brioche with Niki Merlini, Sam's high school Italian teacher who made him into her star pupil after he introduced the vulgarities he picked up on the soccer field to her classroom. And we had a delicious dinner and a two-hour tour of the Uffizi with Lindsey Allison, a friend from Cambridge and Chappaquiddick who was relentless in encouraging us to go to Florence back in 2001.
On the way to this meal or that errand, we walked the streets we'd come to know so well when we lived there, and will never forget, with a shared but unspoken sense of both joy and sadness - the former because we were back where we'd been so happy, the latter because we knew we'd never know that exact happiness again.
And we saw all sorts of art, which neither of us expected. We don't naturally gravitate to museums, though we like feeling surrounded by history. From Roman ruins to Renaissance masterpieces (too flat for me, too much religion for Sam) to sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini, architecture by Giotto, Bruneleschi, Michelangelo (him again) and whoever those old magicians were who figured out the Pantheon in Rome. I introduced Sam to the genius of Caravaggio, and we even saw a couple of Rembrandts and a Vermeer, when we happened on a show of Flemish masters on our way to the Trevi Fountain. Bernini floored Sam, especially his David, which reminded Sam of his buddy Ben Gunn winding up to throw a runner out from deep short.
We bought matching navy blue sweaters on Via de Calzaiuoli in Florence and matching rugby shirts on Via del Corso in Rome. We bought a mosaic panorama of the Duomo for Laura, and lively jewelry for Lila, our daughter and sister.
We kept conversations about what he was going to do with his life, and me with mine, to a minimum, though we did talk about how we fit into this crazy world we inhabit and where it might be heading.
We noticed Thanksgiving, but barely, and didn't make any effort to find a place that served turkey. But we did call in to the family gathering on Long Island, while we stood in the middle of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.
Then we climbed up into the Villa Borghese, where I introduced Sam to Bernini's magical sculptures in the gallery there. Then, as we made our way back through the gardens and the Porta Pinciana on the way to the Spanish Steps, we passed Eden, the luxury hotel where I stayed with my parents when I was 18 and fell in love with Rome, and Italy. Which reminded me of my dad and the missed opportunities in our relationship because of his death at an early age, before I could share an adventure with him like the one I was now sharing with Sam.
Not to get all metaphorical, but I could sense something of a sea change between us, as he leveled up to me, more or less, and I let him. I knew my way around Rome a bit better, but his fluency helped us avoid a wrong turn or two. And while he once was embarrassed when I broke out a map on our family excursions, he was ready to lean into me and have a look now. By the second day, the map had migrated from my pocket to his, and it stayed there.
At the end of both days, my arthritic left knee was screaming, and I thought about grabbing a cab, or even draping my arm around Sam's strong shoulders, but did neither. Pride played a part, I suppose, but mostly I wasn't about to mess with the magic we had going, matching each other's pace and curiosity and love for where we were and what we were seeing.
Now, 10 days later, my knee wakes me up half a dozen times each night. Did the trip earn me a spot in the fast lane to a new knee? I could have stayed home, heeding the sensible voice in the back of my head. In 2001, the four of us had arrived in Florence four days before 9/11, and we didn't let rumors of subsequent attacks in popular European tourist spots deter us. Now we were in Rome the day after the madness in Mumbai. And though I noticed more Carabinieri with more guns on the streets of Rome, we weren't going anywhere.
You stay home, you miss things - like what Sam said when I turned out the light in our hotel room on our last night in Rome, "It's been awesome having you here this week, Dad."