When I planned the trip to Italy with Nico, I asked him what he wanted to see above all. Without hesitation, he said Venice. Little did he know that Venice is one of the places dearest to my heart, and sharing that with him was on my list too. I decided to save it for our grand finale, 4 days on the canals and islands of Venice.
We left Cuneo and drove across the top of Italy, taking a good part of the day. I decided to drive by way of the Barolo area. I’m a big wine fan, and while I’ve drank my fair share of Barolo, I’d never actually been there even if it’s very close to my friend Lisa’s house. We didn’t have time to stop, but let me say that I’ll be going back. The scenery along the road towards Torino was breathtaking. It reminded me very much of the Napa Valley, rolling hills and scenic vineyards. I could almost smell the latest vintage baking in the sun. This will be an adventure in my near future, methinks.
Along the way, I was tempted by all of the lovely cities and villages we passed. Italy is truly crammed with things to do and places to go, but few tourists wander off the well-trodden path from Venice to Rome. With my little copilot at my side we took note of cities that we’d like to see in the future. Asti, Pavia, Cremona, Piacenza, Brescia…can we have more time please? The path from Torino to Venice is a trail of lovely, historic, untouristed places. Venice was calling though, so I pushed our little Smart car to get to our destination.
We dropped the car at the airport just outside of Venice. Nico gathered his bags and his beloved Woof Woofs (stuffed dogs). I know I’m biased, but he is such a darned adorable traveler- Tardis backpack, stuffed animals in one hand and Rick Steves rolling bag in the other. I was so proud watching him maneuver with his things. He never complained, just carried on and got it done, even if he was little and his bag was not. He is not known for patience, but on this trip he was as flexible and accommodating as I could have hoped.
At the Venice airport we met my mother-in-law, Nancy, who very graciously came to pick up Nico and take him back to the US. She did this same thing for my older son, Lucca, three years ago. Lucca went with me to Sicily and Rome, then we met up with Nancy in London for his return. Lucca had such a great time on that trip, just this morning he was telling me that he plans to move to Sicily some day to become a citrus farmer! He wants a farm with a big house where we can both live and have guests. What a dream!
Along with Nancy, we took the Alilaguna speed boat into the city. It’s a little more expensive than the bus, but I wanted Nico to have the cool experience of entering the city on the water. As the boat left the dock, a group of fighter planes soared overhead, trailing smoke in red, white and green. Turns out that Italy has its own version of the Blue Angels, called the Frecce Tricolori, or the Tricolor Arrows. We adore the Blue Angels, and having the Italian version fly overhead on his first entrance into the lagoon was just too perfect. Almost like a tour guide planned it.
We took the Alilaguna to the center of town at the Rialto. I was starting a Rick Steves tour of Venice, Florence and Rome in a couple of days, so we stayed in an apartment owned by the tour hotel, Pensione Guerrato. This hotel is one of the staples of Rick Steves hotels in Italy, a classic place with comfortable, central rooms and run by a lovely staff. I’ve been staying here many years and am always happy to return, like going to stay with friends. The apartment was spacious and modern, with a small kitchen and laundry machine. I’m always in favor of staying in an apartment when traveling with kids, you never know when you’ll need to wash stinky clothes or cook something familiar.
Our first day was pretty simple. We wandered a bit to get comfy. After a pizza dinner, Nico and I headed up to Cannareggio to visit my good friend Stacy Gibboni, an artist that has lived in Venice for about 15 years. We met some years ago while I was doing guidebook research, and she was running a B&B out of her gorgeous palazzo. She’s an incredibly talented artist and painter, so I wanted Nico to see her house and studio. Nico wanted to see her cats, so everyone was happy. We spent a few hours chatting, looking at her latest work, laughing, watching a movie. I saw Nico become comfortable in her house, which was great. I wanted him to feel as at home in Venice as I do.
Our days in Venice were fairly mellow. As a rule, I never suggest that anyone feel obliged to sightsee in Venice. The city itself is what there is to see. Sleeping in, wandering the streets, enjoying a snack on a piazza, taking pictures, these are the ways to enjoy the city. Venice needs to speak to each person individually, and what it says is always different depending on that person and the way they see the world.
The big project for Nico was to find the perfect cat figurine somewhere in Venice. This was serious business. Nico collects cat figurines from places he goes, and getting one from Venice would be unique, as his brother hasn’t been there. I’ve turned my nose up at those ugly souvenir stands for years, but I’ve got a new respect for them now. We looked carefully at each stand and shop, measuring prices and quality, trying to find the one perfect glass cat. Souvenirs can be very meaningful, and the way that Nico methodically chose each one and carefully treasured them makes me more sensitive and thoughtful about helping my clients with shopping. For some people it means a lot.
We decided to go to Murano, hoping that the glass factories would have the perfect cat for him. I was happy to get out to the islands. Late August in central Venice can be miserably crowded but the islands in the lagoon are always pleasant. The boat ride on the vaporetto took about 40 minutes and provided a bit of sightseeing along the way, with mama providing the commentary.
Murano is synonymous with glass, as it is the island where Venetian glass has been produced for generations. The city of Venice used to have glass production in the past, but fires broke out far too often and burned the city, so the production was moved to a smaller, less populated island. The glass business is not what it used to be and Murano is quiet with a working class feel amidst the shuttered fornace. Wandering Murano is lovely and full of surprises. I recently walked into a church and discovered that it was full of masterpieces by Titian and Tintoretto. Another church had marble mosaic floors that are a masterwork. It’s surprising that most visitors see only glass shops and go back to Venice.
Our stroll took us along the canals and shops, and Nico combed the displays to find the perfect souvenir. After a little snack for baby and a spritz for mama and Nana, he made his decision. I gave him the money to buy it and…finally…he bought his cat by speaking Italian! Almost three weeks in and he finally busts out with Italian, perfectly accented. His shyness and refusal to even try to speak the language was so frustrating to me that this small interaction was like a miracle. I’ve been speaking in Italian to him occasionally since he was a baby, it was nice to know that a bit of it stuck.
The next afternoon it was time for work. My tour was beginning and I had to meet my group and get back to tour guide mode. Tours are such a personal experience, the group often becomes like an extended family, and having Nico in town on that last day gave me a chance to introduce my group to my family and for me to introduce Nico to my profession. He joined the group for dinner and I was impressed by how friendly and chatty he was. My older son is very outgoing, he always wants to get up and help me during my talks in front of large groups. Nico, on the other hand, had never been the outgoing one, preferring to hide under my shirt. Something about my world had gotten to him, though, and as we strolled back to the hotel, he asked if he could speak to the group. I said that would be ok, not knowing what he would say. We stopped in a campo, a Venetian piazza, and stood near the ubiquitous cistern in the center. Nico got the group’s attention and explained the difference between a well and cistern and how the Venetians got their drinking water. His explanation was perfect. I was agape. Really? Was this my shy baby? Had he really been listening to me all these year when I’ve mumbled on about cool things I’ve learned? He spoke with such clarity and confidence in front of a group of 28 strangers much older than him. There’s no way I’d have been able to do that at 8 years of age. I’d have burst into flames. And speaking of bursting, I think my heart almost burst while listening to him.
Eventually, as all good things do, the trip had come to an end. Nico and Nana packed up for their leg of the trip together, a few days in London. But before they went, we had to do the one thing at the top of Nico’s list, the gondola. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Gondolas are silly. They’re tacky and touristy and overpriced. Yes. You’re right. But they are also wonderful. I would argue that a gondola ride at sunset in Venice is one of the most silly and magical things a person is likely to ever do. And every person who has done it with me, no matter how skeptical or curmudgeonly , has loved it. It’s true. So we did it, we sat in the love seat, I hired the singer, we floated down the Grand Canal and sang “Volare” because it is the magical thing to do and my kids deserve magic in their childhoods.
I have had so many people question my career choice. “How can you do this to your kids?” is an all-too common question, even from well-meaning people. Being a mother and having a travel job is something that people aren’t used to. But I’ve tried hard to make my kids a part of what I do. I have the belief that exposing kids to the idea of travel and interest in other cultures can only be beneficial. Realizing that they are citizens of the world, and lucky to have the advantages of a comfortable life and excellent educational opportunities. Yes, it’s not a conventional upbringing, but my hope is that they will take their unique situation and make the most of it. Watching my son blossom over his three weeks in Italy made me understand that this strange and beautiful life that I lead is having positive effects on my kids, just as I’d hoped. One day on the trip, Nico suddenly looked at me and told me that he finally understood why I am the way I am, that really I’m a little American and a little Italian. Creating that understanding of the dual nature of my life was so important to me, and I was impressed that a kid so young could get it and express it to me. Some weeks later, as I watch him now, I see that the trip has given him a new confidence and maturity that wasn’t there before.
What can I say? The trip was perfect. It was a success, it was a disaster. It was everything I could have hoped for because in the end, Nico not only survived but loved it so much that he’s ready to pack up and move there. He’s not afraid to travel and see new things. He’s a little freaked out seeing me speak a foreign language still, but maybe he will start to join in. As for me, I can’t wait to travel with my kids again. I’d put them in my pockets and take them everywhere if I could. Lucca is already campaigning for a WWI themed trip next summer. We will see what the financial gods have in mind first, but I hope so. There is so much out there to see in this world, I’m glad that my kids have a head start.