It was profoundly disorienting. I had grown up in suburban New England and nothing about the landscape, from the smells to the colors, was in any way familiar. And yet, there I was, completely immersed in the oldest part of the city, wandering around with no Italian to my name, eating gelato and ogling the necklaces in the windows on the Ponte Vecchio. When I think about it now, I realize that I probably learned more about adapting to the unfamiliar in those few weeks than I had at any point during the preceding nine years of my existence.
When my mother finally found us an apartment, it wasn’t convenient. It took two public buses to get us from our apartment on the sleepy Via Fratelli Dandolo to ISF’s lower school, which at the time was located near the Porta Romana. For the first week my mother asked me to pay close attention to what the numbers on the buses were and where we got off. I very obediently did so, and at the start of the second week she took me and my sister to the bus stop, kissed us good bye, and waved as the bus pulled away. I carefully got off at the correct stop and caught the second bus. Only I got on it going in the wrong direction, which I didn’t realize until we got to the end of the route without crossing the Arno as we should have. We had no telephone in the apartment and I spoke no Italian. The driver offered no assistance.
So I did what any good traveler would have to do in that situation, which was to take out the map my mother had placed in my book bag. I looked at where she had carefully circled both our street and the Via del Ronco where the school was located. I looked at the street sign, figured out where I was standing, took my sister’s hand, and walked us home for twenty minutes without a wrong turn. I didn’t start to cry until my mother opened the door. She comforted me, gave me a cookie, and then took me and my sister back to the bus stop and told me I had to take us to school. So of course I did. And I never got lost doing so again.
I offer this story not because I really expect that anyone would do what my mother did. (Although I do wonder what else could she could have done. She was a single parent and most mornings she herself had class.) My intention is simply to illustrate the kinds of lessons that are on offer for children who live abroad. Moving to a new country requires things of a person that staying at home does not, but there is great benefit to this. For example, since that time, I have never been afraid of getting lost in a strange city. And I always carry a map with me.
Certainly many of my other memories are much happier and more romantic: chasing pigeons by the pink and green confection of the Duomo, the taste of roasted chicken skin flavored with rosemary and olive oil, peering at the silky water of the Arno from the Ponte San Trinita, and staring through the branches of an olive tree at a deep springtime sky.
And then there was the experience of attending an international school. Academically, the school was fine – I learned everything I was supposed to and then some about reading and math and history and science. My class was small, and we got lots of individual attention from the teachers. But this isn’t what I value now about that school year. Instead I think about taking recess most nice days under the linden trees in the Boboli Gardens right around the corner. I think about our weekly drives up to the Villa Torri di Gattaia that housed (and still houses) the upper school where we would have gym class in an ancient garden or browse for books in the paneled and tiered library. The villa is ten minutes from the Piazzale Michelangelo and has a similar view, a view that tourists travel to see, and which every week was mine.
Of course, the school was very diverse. I had one classmate whose father was a British diplomat; their weekend residence up in the hills was an old villa and when I stayed over we spent hours wandering the surrounding olive orchards. Another friend of mine had escaped Iran with her family during the recent revolution. I didn’t understand exactly why they had to leave, but her house was a solemn place where her mother and grandmother waited daily for news of her father who had remained behind. Knowing these children and my other classmates gave me a sense of the size of the world and also an awareness of international politics that has stayed with me to this day.
The Italians were also a source of wonder to me, with their gestures and their speeding motorbikes. I will never forget the cries of “Bella, bella biondina!” that followed me through the streets of Florence like a benediction. Or the old woman who lived below us and who would come out with her broom as my sister and I ran up the stairs so that she could sweep away our very footsteps as we passed. Occasionally, she would call me into her apartment, which was full of dark furniture covered in starched doilies, to give me thick slices of fruitcake. I always murmured thanks and slid the cake into my pocket so I could feed it to the pigeons later. I also remember communicating in a kind of semaphore with the children who lived in the adjoining building. We’d stand on our balconies, gesturing. Periodically, one of us would run inside and return with an especially precious Barbie or book, waving it about to convey its importance.
I hope that your child leaves Italy with these kinds of memories (and a better grasp of Italian, which eludes me to this day although I studied every day in school while I lived there). He or she will have his or her own experience in Italy and in all likelihood it will be safer, more controlled, and more organized than mine was. But as you worry and plan and try to find answers to every question before you leave, remember that part of the joy of moving to a new place is the discovery of a million new questions – and their unexpected answers.
Even as a child I understood this pleasure of discovering the beauty and newness of an unfamiliar place; my appetite for travel was permanently whetted. As a direct consequence of that year of expatriate living, I have always loved to travel. I spent my junior year of college in Paris and have collected other places and experiences like lovely beads on a necklace: Venice, Bath, Santorini, Mumbai, to say nothing of a long roster of cities in the United States from New York to Chicago to San Diego. There is virtually no place that does not appeal to me: I’m one of those people who reads the travel section of the Sunday paper avidly, with a sense of genuine opportunity.
Because the Italians were almost always kind, because even in their clucks and tsks, they clearly were looking out for me and my sister, our blond hair shining like beacons from a boat that needs rescuing, I have a basic faith strangers will help me, even when we don’t share the same language. This faith has been borne out again and again as I traveled first on my own and then with my family.
Maybe my mother was onto something after all.
Mara Gorman doesn’t know when or where she got bit by the travel bug – perhaps it was in Italy when she was nine? In France when she was nineteen? Or India when she was twenty nine? But having children has done nothing to cure her of it. Her philosophy is that every day is an adventure and that traveling with kids doesn’t have to mean long hours in the car or transatlantic flights.
An award-winning writer and editor who lives in Delaware, Mara spent over a year traveling with her son Tommy when he was one. Her book, The Mother of All Trips: 13 Months, 8 Stops, 1 Toddler is as-yet unpublished, but you can view portions of it on her blog The Mother of All Trips, which was recently named one of the top ten family travel blogs by TripBase. She loves nothing more than to hit the road with her two boys, who are four and seven, and her husband Matt.