A few days ago, we returned from a trip to Italy where Ray Ray and I celebrated our ten year class reunion with the friends we made in Bologna. More personally for us, it was a return to where we first met and to a place that helped inspire Luca’s name. In addition, two of our classmates got married in Tuscany the following weekend, which for us, meant an extended opportunity to trace the footsteps of our younger selves.
Getting to Bologna included a 19-hour layover in Madrid that we planned on purpose. We thought it would help Luca adjust to the time change. It did not, and I will explore all of the downsides to this trip later. However, it did give us a chance to meet with some friends for a nice dinner and see a bit of the city.
Like many European capitals and metropolitan areas not destroyed by 20th century warfare, Madrid is a scene of old architecture with modernity swarming all around it. It was May 1st, May Day, International Workers Day, a holiday in most countries, and therefore bustling with people – locals and tourists alike – being leisurely.
Our brief stop over, we made our way to Italy to reconnect with friends and reminisce about our dedicated window of time spent in a hidden gem of a city that is often little more than a brief strain stop for tourists shuttling between Florence and Venice. A word to the wise: don’t sleep on Bologna. Its miles of portico-covered walkways, architecture, and food envelope you to the point of almost forgetting the larger world beyond its ancient surrounding wall. Italian came back to us unevenly and we often substituted a Spanish word when we were at an absolute loss.
For this trip we rented an apartment with three other families, each with a child around Luca’s age. We have been going through the parenthood adjustment together, for a time in DC and now virtually via apps and video calls. Once we were all there, we took to the streets and spent the first few minutes dusting off the mental maps made of landmarks and streets so we could get around. Re-acclimated, we then took to the apps on our phones to meet with other classmates at large piazzas still familiar: Maggiore, Santo Stefano, Minghetti.
We balanced the weekend with impromptu meet-ups and school-sponsored events. Reconnecting was instantaneous. Thanks to modern technology, they were also shortened because we were mostly aware of life’s major muscle movements: weddings, children, jobs, etc. Still, the stories, memories, and wine flowed in equal measure. Unfortunately, the weather did not fully cooperate. I don’t recall springtime in Bologna being that gay, rainy, and cold. Then again, it had been ten years. At times we were forced to duck under a portico and wait out the rainfall. Gelato is good for that.
Regardless of how we spent the time, we were all carried ten years back, posing for pictures with old roommates and walking past the houses and apartments where we lived. Ray Ray and I stopped by a pizzeria that became a standby date routine for us. Throughout the weekend we stalked the streets, often crossing paths with a group of classmates sitting outside a bar or restaurant, multiple tables pushed together that always had room for a few more, all of us wishing for a few days more. Sadly, we all had to part ways once more.
The week that followed was an extended re-visit for Ray Ray and me. After school ended in May 2009, I joined her (and her mom and uncle) for an exploration of various corners of Tuscany. This time, we made Castel San Gimignano our base as we popped into Siena, Volterra, and Lucca for day trips, each of them with their unique sites, histories and winding streets. It was a decent re-creation, aside from the fact we now carried a 17-pound baby with us. But that did not stop us from exploring. At one point while roaming among the public market that is the anfiteatro in Lucca, we popped into a shop to find decorations for Luca’s room and came across a photo of the same market in the 1950s. Back then it was more of an outdoor market for produce and everyday items. If you stared at it long enough, you would be, for the briefest of moments, transported back.
Our exploration continued as we made our way to the small town of Popi where our friends were getting married. We spent a long weekend with some very close friends, celebrating another couple who, a decade ago, made more of a life-altering choice than they then realized. For a brief window in the not-too-distant past we were all (well, mostly) in Washington, D.C. Life choices have splintered us to London, Vermont, The Netherlands, California, South Africa, New York, Singapore, and San Francisco. In short, we were treated to a type of second reunion on top of a wedding celebration.
Earlier I mentioned the downside to this trip. To this point, I assume our time in Italy sounds picturesque and elegant, full of ease and happiness. Rest assured, it was tempered by the reality of trans-oceanic travel with a baby. As I wrote in a social media post: if you’re ever thinking of taking such a trip, don’t. I add the following not to garner sympathy. As an adult I have often been the scorn – sometimes the envy – of people traveling with children as I effortlessly came and went. This is my just deserts, ask my sister. No, what follows is meant for balance and a dose of reality.
The Madrid layover gambit failed so spectacularly that Luca woke up at 2:00 a.m. screaming in a way we had never heard before. We were already exhausted because 70 percent of the flight to Madrid was standing near the door bouncing him repeatedly because any other position was apparently unacceptable. We were at our wits end when he launched into a bloody murder scream in the darkness.
We were taken aback by this because it was not Luca’s first time on a plane. When he was first born, we took him to the Northwest to meet Ray Ray’s family. Shortly thereafter we were on a flight to El Salvador. Each time he slept from takeoff to landing. This time, however, the world was in sharper focus and he had a sense of agency. Therefore, every light, sound, and person he found interesting had to be explored.
In addition, Luca caught his first ailment while in Italy. Pink eye that evolved into bronchitis that he eventually gave to Larina. Add that to the jet lag and it made nighttime touch and go. The colder-than-we-were-told temperatures only made nights more tenuous as we struggled to regulate room temperature with inefficient radiators.
Then there is the tyranny of the clock. Babies – if you want to keep them from becoming barbaric monsters – should be fed around the same time each day. Lunch hours can vary from city to city, or in a city itself. Finding a place to eat that doesn’t mind a little destruction was not always an easy task. Nor is it easy to stomach watching your child throw bits of $45 pasta on the floor.
Did I mention it was gray, cold, and rainy almost the entire trip?
The flight home was marginally better than the first. Luca slept more, but that is like saying one is more than zero. Ray Ray was at peak of sickness, so racked with pain she had trouble sleeping. We had nothing left when we finally arrived home. The journey from our hotel in Bologna to our front door was a full 24 hours. Rest was further denied us because the trip home was a jet lag reset. The jet lag rule of thumb is one day for every time zone crossed. Just as Luca had acclimated to Central Europe Time, we put him on a plane to do it all over again and are currently paying the price.
In addition, and as a coda of sorts, we are now using a nebulizer so Luca can inhale medicine to treat his bronchitis. Slipping on the mask is like wrestling a greased pig. Larina is on the mend but I can feel that the bug has been passed to me. One last souvenir of our family trip.