Ten Days in Europe: Final Installment

Day 7: Today began with an inauspicious start because sleeper trains are terrible. Six people in a hot bunkhouse with no moving air while rumbling along the railways of France is not conducive to rest. Not to mention the domestic dispute that went on in the hallway between two passengers and assorted other drama. Our train got stuck about an hour outside of Milan, where we were supposed to change trains, but because the train doors wouldn’t shut automatically we sat for an hour and a half while they shut them manually. This meant we missed our connecting train to Florence. We got rebooked and when we arrived in Florence, we faced a transportation strike that had shut down roads around the train station. We hiked with all our belongings about 2 miles to meet our coach.

We rode over to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the famous majestic view of Florence. I love this city! It takes my breath away. We then got back on the coach and headed to Pitti Palace to meet our guide. We are here on a Monday and all museums are closed on Monday, which excluded us from seeing the David and other famous works of art in the Uffizi. The guide gave a simple overview of Florence but everyone was dragging. After the tour ended I grabbed Stephen and took him around and explained to him some of the important attractions of Florence and the influence of the Medici on this city. We had a lunch of Tagliatelle with Boar Ragout and we ran to the gelateria Paul and I enjoyed when we were here 3 years ago. We also purchased some of my favorite perfume that I can’t find in the USA and we bought Stephen a leather wallet embossed with his initials for whenever he finally decides to get going on his driver’s license.

We met up with the group for dinner and made our way back to the hotel. Most of us are exhausted, but there is a contingent that plans to stay up and watch the National Championship which begins around 2 am local time. Go Tigers. Roll Tide. Bless all the hearts.

I’m sad that Florence could not have been a better experience for everyone in the group because it is such a beautiful city and there is so much beauty to enjoy, history to learn, food to eat, places to shop, (wine to drink) etc etc etc. Unfortunately, evil sleeper trains are the tool of the devil and they won this day. Tomorrow, we depart for Rome and Vatican City so we rest in the hope that at the seat of the Church, we will turn this thing around and finish the trip strong.

Florence is my favorite.


Day 8: Last night I slept for 9 hours so Italy is obviously my home away from home. That, and I was wrecked from the sleeper train and probably could have slept standing up in a monsoon. After a delicious breakfast and 3 coffees, we boarded the coach for Rome. We had a stop at a small Italian rest stop/gourmet grocer and everyone was able to taste and enjoy some of the “fruits” of Tuscany. Stephen and I enjoyed a cappuccino and he once again shared that this is his favorite trip he has ever been on in his whole life. My heart is full.

We arrived in Rome around noon and headed for lunch in Vatican City. Stephen and I picked a restaurant together and he had a fettuccine bolognese and I had the ravioli. After lunch, he asked me should we have an espresso like the Italians do and so I ordered us two. He said, “So we drink this black, right?” I said yes, and he threw it back like a shot of tequila. Bless. So as we sat there and I added sugar to mine and nursed it for 3 sips, he broke the silence and said, “You’re a good mother.” I was a little taken aback because it came out of nowhere, but I finally asked what made him say that. He just shrugged and said. “You are. You are a good mother.” And that moment, right there in a cafe in Vatican City, is more sacred to me than all the art and antiquities of the Holy See.

We browsed a few gift shops because Stephen has decided that buying Lindsey a little statue of Michelangelo’s (naked) David would be the best souvenir ever. Of course, Lindsey is appalled by all nudity and would even prefer men not take off their shirts at the beach. Stephen believes the David randomly appearing in her room, like a nude Elf on the Shelf would bring him joy for all eternity.

We met up with the group and our Italian guide, Marina, who would take us through the Vatican museum, The Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The museum is filled with so much art and the kids seemed to be pretty amazed by it. Everything in Rome is so old and as an American, it really gives you a perspective on how young our country is. There are things here that predate the birth of Christ and Romans consider 1776 to be modern. The Sistine Chapel brought one girl in our group to tears and by the time we got to the Basilica and saw the altar of St Peter’s Baldachin and Bernini’s The Gloria of the Holy Spirit, there was a lot of quiet awe. We finished the tour and headed out walking through Rome towards dinner and Gareth brought us to Piazza Navona. I took Stephen over to the center sculpture, The Fountain of the Four Rivers, by Bernini, and told him what it symbolized, which is a testament to my 40-something brain for retaining that information. The guide who brought us here 3.5 years ago was a low talker and her English was very difficult to understand, but I was determined to try and decipher every word because how often do you get to Rome? Maybe the things we struggle the most to understand are the ones that make the greatest impact.

After Piazza Navona, we stopped to pick up snacks for the hotel room and headed for the restaurant. Dinner was a sort of buffet and then we walked back to the coach where we boarded for the hotel.

Tomorrow is our last full day and we’ll do the Colosseum, Forum and I’m not sure what else. There will be some free time so I’m considering what I might take Stephen to see, besides just checking gift shops for the David statues.

Piazza Navona

Day 9: Today began with a bus into Rome to meet Marina at the Colosseum and have her guide us around there and the Forum.

All the kids seem to love the Colosseum and even some of the parents were buzzing as we got off the bus about how excited they were to see it all. Rome just impresses you with the juxtaposition of ancient ruins, magnificent Renaissance art, significant religious sites and antiquities, and the buzz of the modern everywhere you look. Today’s tours lasted until noon and then Gareth led us to the Pantheon where we were given about 5 hours of free time before we were to meet at the Trevi Fountain and walk to dinner.

My plan was to take Stephen to the Spanish steps, get lunch, do some shops, grab a coffee, and head over to the Trevi Fountain for gelato and to take our pictures before the group rendezvous. We did all that, but we walked in many triangles and circles to do it. Rome has the wackiest streets in the world because there are all these tiny diagonals that were probably originally made for chariots and not cars. Even using google maps, my little blue dot was waving the white flag telling me to PLEASE UBER. At one point we walked in a complete triangle and Stephen said, “Didn’t we just begin this walk 10 meters from here?” Yes, we did, Captain Obvious. I struggled to get us to the Spanish steps and then once we got there and tried to leave, we kept reappearing there. Ferdinand Magellan, I am not.

At the top of the Spanish Steps, we talked about so many things- what his favorites of this trip were, what surprised him, what he would come back to see – that kind of stuff. He said the food in Florence was his favorite but he also loved the cafe culture of France and Italy; taking time to slow down and have a coffee and just watch people go by. I could not agree more and it’s one of my favorite parts of visiting Europe. Despite the hustle and bustle to see and do all the things, there is a slowdown and enjoy element that Europeans religiously observe and it is easy to adopt.

We did some shops- Stephen wanted to hit the flagship Ferrari store so we went there as well as some shops for Lindsey. Then it was time for another coffee drink. We have both had so much espresso in Italy, we could run through a brick wall and then rebuild it.

We headed back to the Trevi Fountain and got some pictures in the daylight and twilight as the lights came on to illuminate it. It was under rehabilitation when Paul and I came to Rome 3 years ago. It is beautiful at night.

From the regroup we headed to dinner and enjoyed laughing over shared memories and the experiences of the last 9 days with our group.

I can’t believe we leave tomorrow.

Day 10: Departure day is here. Time has done a funny thing over the last 9 days. We have done so many things and covered so much territory that it feels longer than 10 days that we left. London and Paris feel like weeks ago because we have packed so many experiences into our days in Italy.

We had a fond send-off with Gareth/Gordon Ramsay at the airport, and despite his insane pace and Michelin star chef demeanor, I think we are all grateful for the way in which he handled us logistically. It’s no small undertaking to see a group of 30 around Europe and keep ahead of the plan whilst also managing safety and real-time awareness. He is snarky but good-natured and as we manage ourselves now from Rome to Amsterdam and then on to Atlanta, his absence is felt.

Before we left I chatted with him as our group was checking in and he asked me what I thought of the trip. It was excellent. So organized. So fun. So educational. And so relational. I wanted to see this with Stephen. We made so many memories together that are ours forever. Mine and his. I wanted to watch him fall in love with Europe, and I did. I wanted to see how he handled himself. He did great. Gareth asked me the big question that only this trip could answer: Would I let him come again but without me? Yes. Yes, I would. He knows what he is about when he travels. He is aware of what’s going on around him. He has a pretty good sense of direction. He shows deference and respect as a visitor. He makes every attempt at the language. He is a good traveler. That makes me happy and also reminds me how quickly he is growing up.

Watching our group has also been fascinating. This trip has been a mix of The Amazing Race, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, The Breakfast Club, and Hell’s Kitchen. The group of kids we took represent every high school grade and social group. While there were some little friend groups, the majority of these kids came autonomously, driven by a personal desire to see and experience Europe. I think that’s why our experience was so rich because they were mostly all dedicated to a deeper understanding of what they knew about these countries. I hope they see the world differently. I hope they see each other differently. I hope they are all a little changed by it, or at least they have created space in an opened mind for change to come.

Whatever the case, Stephen and I had an amazing trip.

Until we meet again.

À la prochaine.

Alla prossima.

(Travel Tip: Traveling by couchette train ranks second only to vomiting on my list of Worst Ways To Spend The Night, so consider that as you make travel plans)

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