War in the Piazza

July 1, 2007

 

It seemed like a good idea at the time. My Husband and I were sitting in a hotel room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, planning a romantic getaway to Italy, when together we brewed up an oh so brilliant plan.            

 

Let’s invite Mother along.            

 

His Mother.            

 

My Mother-In-Law.

 

Oops. Yep. Our Bad. 

 

“How the hell am I supposed to get all my clothes in one carry-on suitcase,” Patricia asked me over the phone, followed by an abrasive silence. Pick your battles, I thought. This one's worth fighting.            

 

“Listen, Pat. I’ve been to Italy. I know what it’s like. You have to walk everywhere. You have to be able to get your luggage through crowds, and onto buses and trains. Please be reasonable. I can show you how to pack.”

 

“I was in the Army. I know how to pack. My clothes will get all wrinkled.”

 

“Not if you roll your clothes. We can bring along a little steamer.” Right then and there, I should’ve known that it wasn’t going to work. My Husband and I were of the backpacking ilk, 1 star max. My Mother-In-Law was accustomed to 3 star travel at the least, plus she’d never been out of the country, except for short trips to the touristy parts of Canada and Mexico. European travel was a different ball of wax. “Please trust me,” I begged, until she relented. One battle down. Five hundred to go.            

 

“Spence, we agreed, damn it. One week only,” I cried, storming around our rented room. He was sitting on the bed, a goofy apologetic grin on his face. “She’s not going to be able to handle an entire month in Italy, damn it. She’s 69 years old, she doesn’t do a lot of walking, and she’s not been feeling well lately. You really do need to rethink this.”            

 

“Sorry, hon. The one month thing just slipped. I can’t take it back now. Besides, she wants to see her Motherland.” At that, I totally flipped out.          

 

“I know your Mom’s Bohemian, but she was born in Sioux Falls, for heaven’s sake. Not the Czech Republic. She really said that? Her Motherland?”

 

“I know it sounds dumb. But didn’t you go to the Netherlands with the same idea? To find your roots? How many more chances is she going to get to do this? Besides, I know you’d like to see Prague. And you could show us Austria, too.” And I watched as my planned romantic trip to Italy was shredded into tiny bits.            

 

Being a typical Pisces, my heart went with the flow of denial, even as my optimistic mind swam against the current of truth, and my darling Hubby worked to convince me...my two sister-in-laws worked to convince me...even Patricia herself worked to convince me, that all would go well. When walking became too hard for her, we would rest. When she needed to find a toilet, we would find one. If she needed to do her breathing machine, we’d hunt down an electrical socket, and plug it in. She could handle it all. Even the hard stuff, like staying in dorm-rooms with shared-baths. All the different authentic foods. Cobblestone streets and hills. The language barrier. Crowds. We discussed it all. Whatever it took. Together, we’d succeed.            

 

“I never told Spencer that I was flying into O’hare,” she said, as I picked her up, after circling Chicago’s International Airport ten times, swearing up a storm, and then raging down the highway to find her at Midway Airport, instead. Nice start, I thought, hoping it wasn’t a sign of things to come.            

 

“Our seats aren’t even together?” she asked incredulously, as we boarded the plane for Europe. For some odd reason, they’d separated our seats, but we all settled in anyway, and tried to get some sleep.

 

The big plan? Once off the plane, we were heading directly to The Beehive Hostel to leave our bags. We needed to make the most of our time, seeing how we only had three days in this city; we would set out on my very own personal tour of the ancient metropolis of Rome.            

 

“Well? What do you think?” I asked, trying to break the already mounting tension between us. It was June, and torrid. From tarmac to terminal, we were sweating our asses off, all the way to The Beehive, which had been a tedious fifteen minute hike from Roma’s Termini Train Station. Patricia had repeated over and over that she needed to do her breathing machine, because she was coming off a pretty serious illness, doctors’ orders, so I did my best to find her a quiet spot in the bathroom at the hostel office.

 

“I can’t do it in here,” she complained. “Someone might come in.”            

 

“Who cares?” I asked, confused. “You’re doing a breathing machine, not taking an enema, for cryin’ out loud.”            

 

“No. Forget it. I’ll do it later. Let’s just go touring. Even though I didn’t get a Goddamn bit of sleep on that plane.”            

 

And thus began our saga, a brand new take on a very old play called, ‘Something Funny Happened On The Way To The Forum’...            

 

Only it wasn’t that funny.            

 

“Can you believe this Goddamn traffic?” my Mother-In-Law squawked. This would become the oppressive and reoccurring theme of our time here with her, and of all that was wrong with this crazy place called Italia. “Can’t anyone speak English, Goddamn it,” she swore, whenever someone had the audacity to address her in their native tongue. Reminding her that we were in their country made no impression whatsoever. She was getting more hostile and obstinate by the second, and it wasn’t even straight up noon. “I need a cup of coffee,” she whined, and I cringed. She was not a Cappuccino type gal. Nor an espresso girl. Nope. Folgers all the way. One part coffee, four parts water. Lots of luck finding that here. But I did what I could. And it was nary good enough. “I can’t read this menu,” she barked, sitting at a nice street café, so Spence and I both did our best to translate. “Guess I’ll have the bruschetta,” was her adventurous choice. Then I attempted to get her to try some good Italian Chianti. “Yuk! It’s bitter and warm. I just don’t know how you can drink that crap. Do they have any Cold Duck?” Ha! Good news, though. She did like the Gelato, thank God-oh, I mean, who knew? Frangola and pistachio, a clever cure for the crankys? It saved us more than once, that’s for sure. “It’s too hot to be out here,” she complained, standing next to Trajan’s Column. “And I don’t know why you have to walk so Goddamn fast.” Oooh, and I wanted to scream - To get away from YOU, you silly old nag! But I didn’t. I managed to hold it in for about five more minutes. Then I blew.            

 

“Damn it, Pat. You said you wanted to come here with us, and that you could handle it, so what’s your freakin’ problem? Why can’t you just relax and try to have fun?” And poor Spencer. Both Husband and Son. Stuck smack dab in the middle.

 

“You two just cut it out, right now,” he yelled. But like a couple of female gladiators, we were unstoppable, and we finally squared off on Palatine Hill.

 

“You have to control everything. This is your tour. Well maybe I don’t care about all this. It’s just a bunch of ruins. I came here to see art. Walking around all this in the heat is just too much for one Goddamn day.” And then came the waterworks.            

 

“Pat, I asked you before we left, about what you wanted to see. I based all of our plans on what you said. So come on, be fair.” But she waved me off, and wouldn’t talk about it anymore.

 

All the way back to The Beehive Hostel, I had time to reflect, and there was a lot to consider. Like the fact that she was on several different medications that could have been affecting her. Not to mention the culture shock and travel fatigue. Hell, Spence and I were both exhausted, and we were young and fit. And yes, what she said was true. When it came down to the trip planning? I was a total control freak. Travel was my passion. But it wasn’t hers. So really? Was I being fair? I resolved right then and there to treat her with kid gloves.

 

“Well, this is a real dump,” she scoffed, as we entered the charming, three bedroom share-apartment. And the kid gloves came flying off.

 

“This is the Millefiore apartment, Pat. It used to be the art studio of the Polish-born painter Kokocisnky. It’s costing us $125 a night, and it’s the best I could do. But of course, it’s not good enough for you.” And I stormed off to the bathroom, and slammed the door. It was a gorgeous place. Eclectic with antiqued walls, plaster cherubs peeking through the fading paint, and candle sconces in gold. Rustic unmatched furnishings with bright, colorful linens and bedding. We’d be sharing the bath and kitchen with whoever rented the two other bedrooms. Our sleeping space was large, with three single beds, a nightstand and lamp with each. Most importantly, it was clean. It was hardly a dump.            

 

“Those people can see right in here,” she said, then asked me to close the tall shutters of our room. There was no AC, so without the outside air circulation, it would soon be stifling. I looked across the inner courtyard.