Are We There Yet? At 46, I Take My Parents to Italy
By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor
Traveling with my mother and father to Europe has been a lifelong dream. Since moving away from their New Jersey home as a sophomore when I left for prep school, I’ve never spent more than a few days in their company.
I haven’t been on vacation with them since 1971, fighting with my sisters in the backseat of the station wagon on the long, arduous drive to our grandmother’s house in Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve always wanted to walk down a 15 th century lane and talk history with Dad, and choose the best tomatoes in a bustling town market with Mom.
But what would a week with my parents in a foreign country be like? How much accommodating would be needed in order to make seventy-somethings feel comfortable and at home? Would we need to sacrifice the things we’d want to do, the active and youthful activities, in favor of long naps and early bedtimes?
Such fears were barely realized. First of all, we’re not extreme sports enthusiasts. We don’t go mountain biking, extreme hiking, ice climbing, or whitewater kayaking.
We prefer to cook big meals, enjoy cocktails on the veranda, read our books and write on our laptops. We’re already as old as them, in our relaxation habits at least.
We did find ourselves yearning for a long walk after the two and a half hour lunches, but were limited because my Mom can’t comfortably walk farther than about 500 yards. This was the only physical limitation we would feel during the trip.
“Ohh-Kaaay,” He Sneered
As the plane trip got underway and we sipped our first glass of Italian wine, I sat back and thought about the week ahead. When my girlfriend, Cindy had told an acquaintance that she was going to Italy with her boyfriend’s parents, he replied with a sneer:“Oh-kaaay.’
I guess many people have this feeling about parents: they put up with them, or tolerate them, but don’t go on trips to faraway places in their company. Is it because the parents are self-absorbed, judgmental, and not interested in their children’s lives? Maybe it’s a combination of all this plus an assumption by the children that they would not enjoy a week in close proximity with their parents.
Brief Glimpses of Lives
My visits back home to New Jersey are usually short trips, a weekend here, perhaps a few days at the beach, but never, ever longer than three days. This is just the way it is living as I do, more than four hours away in New England, and I long ago accepted that I’d only get these brief glimpses into their lives, not the day to day visits, babysitting, and the pop-ins that my sisters enjoy by living nearby.
But we’d have them all to ourselves during our week in Italy, and we relished the thought. Why? Because my mom and dad are conversationalists, they engage you in conversation and share their lives, their thoughts, and best of all, they are truly interested in our thoughts and they want to hear the details of our lives. This makes conversations easy and interesting, and they never dissolve into a monologue or speech. Best of all, they are free of judgment about the adults we’ve grown into.
Think about it: In our multi-tasking, do-it-all-at-once world, the one thing many of us crave more than anything is focused attention. To have someone’s full attention, to get the entire focus, not just the part left over while you send instant messages, check emails, glance at CNN, check your stocks or do the dishes.
Attention is the drug of choice in the 2000s, the one thing we all crave and yet the hardest to obtain. When was the last time someone sat with you and asked you to tell them about your life? And who truly cared enough to listen to your whole story?
Finding Le Marche
In 2002, I bought GoNOMAD and my dad helped me with a start-up investment. His loan allowed me to buy the equipment I needed to run the business. Over the years as our revenues have grown, (we now have three full-time employees), I have thought about repaying that loan. At this stage in my parent’s lives, money is much less valuable than memories, so I thought that a special trip would be a better way to repay them than a check.
A friend had written a story on GoNOMAD.com about a week he spent in Ascoli Piceno, in the Le Marche region of Eastern Italy. After much research on the web we found a house there through an agency called Le Marche Explorer. This region lies northeast of Umbria along the Adriatic coast, not far from too-popular Tuscany. Yet it is still far below the radar of most American and British tourists.
We’d email my parents, Nat and Val, with photos of potential Le Marche rentals and most of the time they would say, ‘You decide; we don’t know anything about this place.” The only criterion they suggested was a bathroom on the second floor and a place that wasn’t too far out in the boondocks.
We picked up espresso coffee and milk and cookies for the morning. We knew not to stock up too heavily as we would be coming back every day for our provisions as tradition here dictates. Mom tried to convince us to go shopping every other day, but we assured her that daily trips would provide the best experience and freshness in the Italian fashion.
Our choice was Casa Fontanelle, in Sant’Angelo in Pontano, a medieval village surrounded by hillsides and lush farm fields. Though we were out in the country, we found that the green hills, vineyards, and gorgeous lushness of the property, complete with a pool, was perfect for our week. The outside terrace with a slanted ivy-lined roof, was where we took our meals and sat with cappuccino every morning.
All around us were farm fields and in the distance are soft round hills with other stone and brick houses perched upon them. Up the lane is a farm where chickens stroll the grounds, and the driveway is gravel and steep.
Sant’Angelo in Pontano, population 1400, did not disappoint us either. Our first walk into the village we found the tiny green grocers shop and picked out green cauliflower, yellow peppers and local plums. Then we walked further to the “supermarket,” which was a tiny mini-mart stocked with everything we’d need for our week. Men stood around the square and at the café tables, enjoying the late afternoon tranquility, and children ran about playing.
Casa Fontanelle is a 17th century farmhouse which was completely renovated in 2000; it’s made of terra cotta brick, located down a hillside on a plateau. The walls are about 18 inches thick, nearly everything is made of brick, and the combination of tile, terra cotta and dark wood gives it a sturdiness that is satisfying–like the sound of a BMW door closing, a satisfying “thunk.”
My father asked if we would spend our time differently if we had come here without parents. I couldn’t think of anything, but his question gave me pause. Would we want to travel to further reaches of this unexplored region? The distances and the curving roads through the hills made me think we’d probably prefer to stay close to the little village.
Everything we’d need is right here and the house itself is so sumptuous and inviting, we doubt we’d be out and about any more than we were. Cooking in this gourmet kitchen and sitting by the pool looking out over the hillsides is blissful, no matter what your age.
“Batteries. We need batteries,“ my dad said in a panicky voice. Cindy and I couldn’t see the need to buy them, as we didn’t plan on going outside in the pitch black night. “If we have to change a fuse, we’ll need batteries for the flashlight to see out there,” Dad speculated. We paused, wondering why he would be preoccupied with something that had not happened, and seemed unlikely to. What if? he thought. We say, why bother? It must be an age thing. We made a shopping list and prepared to go into town. Trips with four people involve just a bit more waiting and planning, we realized.
Mom was upstairs in the bathroom. Dad still seemed preoccupied with the batteries for the flashlights, trying to open the contraption to see what kind of batteries would fit, and gazing out the window. We were getting impatient, we wanted to go to the town, and of course, that meant waiting for all four of us to be ready.
Waiting for the parents to get out of the house proved to be one of the few times we felt the tug between generations. We all needed to go together, since there was only one car and one set of keys, and the little village was located up a steep gravel driveway and another mile of pavement.
So we’d make a plan to go to town and often I’d be standing outside cooling my heels waiting for one of my parents to finish getting ready. I kept my impatience to myself, realizing that it takes longer to get organized when you’re a little older.
The third day we found ourselves settled in and enjoying a regular routine, waking up to the sound of distant roosters crowing, and faraway barks of unseen dogs and tinkling sheep’s bells.
The September days were sunny and a slight breeze fluttered the nearby bamboo at the edge of the yard. The luxury of having nothing we needed to do and no house telephone, no computer, pager or cell phone was beginning to set in. Of course I was chomping at the bit to find somewhere to check my email and update my blog, but the rest of the group were serene without these mainstays of modern American life.
Anxiousness at First
When Dad first arrived at Casa Fontanelle, his unusually quiet demeanor reflected his anxiousness about being in an unfamiliar place. He and Mom hadn’t been to Italy since 1968, and there was the language barrier as well as the unfamiliar surroundings that made him nervous. Fortunately, Cindy speaks perfect Italian, so we had a good interpreter to negotiate all of our interactions with the locals.
He was a bit neurotic when he realized he’d be out of his comfort zone, but willing to endure some new experiences here for this vacation. It would take sunshine and coffee on the terrace to bring him into his comfort zone once again.
Caution became a common theme coming from the back seat. Dad would grip the handle beside the car’s seat and suck in air going around a corner; they were nervous about which road to take and whether we could find our way back to where we’d parked the car.
Cindy and I went out one day to check email and visit a nearby village with the ruins of a Roman theater. We were gone about three hours. When we got back, Mom and Dad told us that they had talked about what they would do if we never came back.
If they were suddenly stranded here, us having perished in a terrible car crash, in this house in a foreign land, without the keys to the gate and the front door, and what would they do if something terrible were to happen? How would they get home? How would they get out of this house? How would they handle bringing our mangled bodies back to the states?
Does their age bring on these kind of scenario contemplations? It must be because I have never found myself thinking about these things. But give me a few decades I guess.
One night there was a festa in the village, and we wanted to go. Mom and Dad were going to join us but while we were watching CNN in the living room they confided that they’d rather stay home. “We already went out today, we did enough,” Mom said. “You go, you’ll have more fun without us.”
We thought about what might turn out to be a long walk from the car to the concert at the old church, and agreed they’d probably made the right call. Mom told me in a private moment that she worried throughout the trip that she would be a bad traveler. I assured her that all was fine and we had no complaints.
One afternoon when we finished our swim, we were surprised to see my parents down on their hands and knees looking at the sidewalk. What was going on? We thought they had lost something, like an earring or a contact lens. It turned out they were watching ants carry a tiny crumb all the way from one end of the terrace to the other. ‘We can’t believe these ants they are carrying this crumb all the way. Imagine how heavy that must be for them.” We too got down on our knees to watch the industrious ants, following their progress as twilight approached. The joys of vacation!
Ebb and Flow
The vacation ebbed and flowed like this, Cindy and I going off in the car to check email or to visit a nearby village, and Mom and Dad content here at the casa, hanging up the laundry, or getting food ready for our next meal. It worked out best when we didn’t push them to join us in all of our adventures, but let everyone work it out as to where they wanted to go and which activities would involve all four of us.
On our fifth day we sat under the terrace roof, Nat studiously writing in his long-hand journal every day, me itching to find out what he is writing about. We are both writers, and there is a bit of a rivalry between us.
“It’s about habits,” said Dad at one point. “I’m used to having at least three cups of coffee in the morning, a light lunch, and a big dinner. Here of course, is different, with these large four-course meals at one p.m. and then not much of a dinner.
The routines that they thrive on are different for this week, and it takes some getting used to. These, Dad pointed out, are not things that we would usually think about, but these are the types of anxieties that people of their age experience, even while on vacation.
I had never realized I had already heard my parent’s stories, anecdotes, and lessons. Yes indeed, I had heard every single story, and on this vacation we heard every tale at least twice more. This is a lesson I learned: You hear the same stories again and again, and painfully… you have to. We even devised a signal– finger to side of nose — indicating that the story had already been told!
Thunderstorm Blows In
On Friday night, as we were returning from our day trip to Macerata, a tremendous storm kicked up and we barely made it in to the casa gates before the deluge hit. The winds were strong and we ran up the stairs to close the windows that had been left open.
As we sat in the living room, the power clicked off, and all was silent. We contemplated what to do as the storm arched lightning down the hillsides. Those flashlights that my dad had talked about began popping up in my head. Cindy and I knew that those batteries would come back to haunt us.
We returned that night with newly purchased batteries and flashlights in hand, the house still dark and the electricity still off. We lit some candles to guide us up the stairs. Tomorrow we’d depart for Rome.
We had made it though the week, a little closer, a bit more relaxed, and sure that we had made the right decision to take this journey with another generation to this lovely country house.