When I was a little girl either working or watching mom work, I would have elaborate daydreams about my “other” fantasy family life. These dreams would include exciting twists like Barry Gibb being my stepdad (what can I say, I love disco and he’s the sexiest Bee Gee); I had magical powers and I could fly; and mom didn’t have to work twelve hours/day, six days a week or at all; we would take amazing trips all over the world, stay in fancy places and eat delicious food. So now at 42, when I find myself eating handmade pasta steps away from Il Duomo in Florence with mom and Sylvia, it’s like my fantasy life has become my real life — sorry Barry, we couldn’t wait for you any longer.
We started our Italian adventure in Venice, a city of water taxis, canals, streets purposefully designed to get you lost and a feeling that you’re somehow transported back in time. It could be the absence of cars on the streets, the walking up and down cobblestone streets and bridges that lead you to nowhere/everywhere, or the fact that I still did not have a working phone, but there was something about the city that makes you feel like you’re living in a different time in history.
We stayed in a gorgeous apartment in the heart of Venice in the Jewish quarter where you step outside to see the canal and the street is lined up with merchants selling everything from household cleaning items to leather goods to freshly caught seafood. We had an awesome assortment of cafes, restaurants and bakeries and each meal continued to feel like a feast. The downside of living in a city of water is that the mosquitoes are abundant and aggressive. It didn’t matter how much or how frequently we applied repellent, they too took part in the feasting.
One of the most exciting aspects of this trip for me was that it was my sister Sylvia’s first time in Europe and we both anticipated that she would be particularly inspired by the history and magnificence of Italian art. Sylvia is an artist, she is mostly focused on character design and has worked on video game and graphic novel projects that will someday become available to the public. From my earliest memory of Sylvia, she always had a pencil and paper in her hands, opting to sketch characters over pretty much anything else. I know that I am completely biased when I say this, but she is so fucking talented. From an early age, we could see that her doodling was so much more than that. And like many artists, she’s incredibly sensitive and uses art as her primary means to communicate her thoughts and imagination. And despite the fact that I was always the “high achieving” sister, I have never doubted that she is so much smarter than I am or ever will be. In fact, she has this rare brain (like Da Vinci) that can synthesize science and art and for her the two are completely symbiotic. When she draws fantasy characters, their bodies and musculature must always be accurate and she is constantly citing the Latin terms for each muscle group when we have regular conversations about mom or my various aches and pains. And if you think my previous statement about her talented is solely a sister’s love, her work was actually featured in The Washington Post a few years ago for her sketches that included the aforementioned anatomically correct subjects. My dreams for Sylvia are both unlimited in potential and as simple as just wanting the world to see how beautiful her work is. And she really soaked it all in in Italy. She was as inspired by the constant stream of paintings, sculptures, frescoes, and ancient buildings — we were literally surrounded by the masters of the art world.
In addition to enjoying the beauty of the city and strolling San Marco Square, I was also dealing with an incredibly persistent cold that became an ear infection and all of the flying and trains around Europe seemed to only exacerbate the situation. My left ear was completely closed and I was feeling really worn out. Mom was terrified that I was going to become partially deaf and insisted that I find a doctor. For those who have ever experienced being sick abroad, it’s an interesting part of the travel experience. I found an “emergency” medical clinic located within San Marco and they have a doctor who speaks English, but to be completely honest, it’s not the place to go for thorough, quality care. He was perfectly nice and prescribed some antibiotic drops and decongestant, which I pretty quickly discovered was not going to cut it and ended up visiting a specialist in Rome.
Mom, Sylvia and I soaked in the beauty and confusion that is Venice. No matter how lost we were, the three of us managed to find pleasure in wandering the narrow streets and discovering new shops, cafes, bakeries and much more. I’ve seen a lot of sub-par souvenirs in my travel, but it seemed like everything in Venice was beautiful, even the small trinkets that I would usually categorize as “junk”. Mom and Sylvia loved shopping — leather bags, leather art notebooks, leather luggage, clothes… when in Italy.
We left Venice after five days and headed to Rome where mom’s younger sister Jemma would meet us from Germany. Sylvia and I referred to this part of our time as the “Sisters Trip”. It’s funny to see that sisterly dynamics are not that different in your 30’s/40’s as they are in your 60’s. Your sister is the person you love most, but also drives you insane. Mom has lost 3 of her older sisters in the past few years, so it was really special for her to spend time with her only younger sister and I know that my aunt who lives so far from her siblings also was grateful to be with us and enjoy some rare family time.
Rome was a totally different kind of chaos than Venice, much larger in scale and scope. It’s impossible to see “everything” in this big bustling city, but we did a fair job of it. While I can see why Rome falls under many of my friend’s “favorite cities” lists, I found it overwhelming. It’s hard not to appreciate the incredible history and absolutely gorgeous architecture, the food and the culture and I absolutely did. But I also found it exhausting and being progressively more ill while I was there didn’t help. (Side note: the worst place on earth when you’re about to faint is inside St. Peter’s Basilica.). It’s challenging to relax in Rome, perhaps because there is so much to see and do, and perhaps because like many other large cities, there’s a frenetic energy that can either feel exhilarating or exhausting. Sylvia even managed to stop a young woman from trying to poach stuff from mom’s bag and then her own. I was so unnecessarily worried about Sylvia being able to handle international travel — she was a total BOSS.
We saw many of the “must sees” in Rome and Vatican City: The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Vatican Museum (which for me was kind of a nightmare due to the crowdedness and my ear infection), Spanish Steps, Trevi, the Pope, the list goes on and on. One of the highlights of the trip at Sylvia’s suggestion was going to see La Traviata at St. Paul’s, a beautiful 19th century church where they perform the famed opera inside the church. The music was transcendent and we were seated right next to the orchestra. My mom and I were both completely transfixed by the conductor as our seats were facing him and watching the maestro at work, full of passion, excitement and pushing his musicians and singers to perfection was truly inspiring. Mom was so smitten that after the show, I asked him if he would mind taking a photo with her and I can honestly say that I have never seen mom so excited (even more excited than when I took her to see DOLLY PARTON)!
We left Rome and spent our last week together in Florence, my favorite of the three cities. Although the weather was probably the worst for us in Florence, it didn’t matter because it’s just so stunning. I also tend to enjoy these small to medium sized cities more than the larger ones, the pace is slower, you feel like you get to know the city after a few days of wandering the streets. We had the best food, easy sightseeing, even spent a day just chilling in our gorgeous Airbnb apartment and cooking, playing cards and just being “normal” which in itself is a gift. And miraculously, I was starting to feel a little better!
We spent our last day doing a short day trip to Sienna, a small town just an hour from Florence and enjoyed seeing the Tuscan countryside on the way. Sienna is a gem of a small town with one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I’ve seen in all of Europe. And mom and my aunt also really enjoyed the shopping in Sienna as well. The “Made in Italy” thing really has a significant effect on a woman who wants to buy clothes, bags, and shoes.
When it was time for all of us to say goodbye, I couldn’t believe that we really just spent a MONTH together in Europe! And we did it the right way — we laughed, we were there for each other, we pushed through brief spats and annoyances, we were grateful and we had a blast. I was so anxious about how we were going to get through a potentially stressful month of logistics, tons of walking and close quarters, but my family pulled together as we always do and we made it something that none of us will ever forget.