War in the Piazza


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. Music was playing, potted flowers were blooming, laundry was hanging, and I waved to our curious neighbors, and then closed the long green slatted-doors. “There’s only three hangers in this stupid thing they call a closet. And I just can’t believe that the lift is broken. You know I can’t walk up and down four flights of stairs, so you’d better let them know it.” Totally fed up, I looked over to Spence, but he’d already mastered the fine art of tuning us out. Yep, he was deep into a book, so I’d get no help from him. Oh, thanks so very much.

“Pat, here’s my hangers, okay? I don’t need ‘em. And they already know about the lift. Someone’s coming out tomorrow. They promised. I even requested a fan for our room. They said no problem. So relax. Let’s just get some rest. We can start fresh tomorrow.” Spence and his Mother fell fast asleep, but I sat up with my trusty guidebook and my notes, then began the painful process of elimination. Things that I now realized my Mother-In-Law couldn’t handle on this trip, I began marking off. No Baths of Caracalla. No Catacombs. No Cathedrals. Except for the Vatican, and even that was going to be a challenge. No trip to Sienna. No San Gimignano. Yep, scratch scratch scratch, went my pen. It felt like a fork scraping over my heart, because these were places that I wanted to share with my mate, and I could feel the resentment begin to build.

I retired late, and rose early, so that I could take a jaunt by myself over to Circus Maximus, which was now a modern day running track. It felt good to get out and away. The air was cool and crisp, and it seemed to clear my head. “Is everybody ready?” I asked upon my return. Spencer was, but his Mother wasn’t. She was locked in our room, doing her breathing machine. An hour passed. It was 9:30 a.m.

“It’s going to take her another hour to put on her makeup and fix her hair,” Spence warned. “So stop doing that tense jaw thing, darling, and just relax.” Oh, he knew me so well.

“Well isn’t this just lovely,” Pat said, as we left our apartment situated in the multi-ethnic neighborhood called Esquilino. “You certainly never told me we’d be staying in the hood,” she sniped, as two Nigerian immigrants crossed the street in front of us. My body tensed, but I kept it zipped. “Where the hell are we going?” she continued.

“We’re going to the National Museum, Mom, and then to the Galleria Borghese, so you can see some art,” Spence said, squeezing my hand. His version of thanks for shutting the hell up.

“God, these streets are dirty, but I guess you can’t expect much from a third world country.” This time, Spencer blew.

“Mom! Italy is not a third world country. Why are you being like this? I don’t understand you,” he said, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Seeing that her Son was now upset, she pouted for a few minutes, and then apologized.

“I’m sorry, Spence. I can be such a bitch. I’ll try to relax. It’s just that I’m missing The Price Is Right. I’m used to a routine. It’s hard, you know?”

And I wanted to shoot myself.

What it all boils down to is this. You have real travelers, and you have arm-chair travelers. Real travelers get out there and actually do it. They get their ya-ya’s from all the pain involved in traveling around this crazy world. They stay anywhere. Eat anything. A real traveler will hobnob with strange people, pigs, monkeys, bugs, life-threatening diseases, and then do their damnedest to make friends with them. Arm-chair travelers, on the other hand, sit and dream about traveling. They romanticize about it from the comfort of their own home. What people in other countries might be like. What the food might taste like. What illnesses they might catch, but won’t, because they’d never dream of taking such a foolish risk. Not when they can watch it all on television. I mean, thank goodness for the Travel Channel, and Discovery. Now you don’t have to do it for yourself. Unless of course, you’re a complete masochist. Oh, and not to forget. The Organized Tour types. Arm-chair travelers who’ve morphed half-way into real travelers, sans the pain. But you have to have big bucks for that sort of travel. Probably the reason why only 20% of Americans hold passports.

And my Mother-In-Law lived her life in a very small town near Olympia, Washington. Like she said, she was used to a routine, so being tossed into this chaos must have been very intimidating and frightening to her. Unfortunately, I was having my own difficulties understanding what she was going through. Experiencing other cultures was my passion. It’s what I lived for. So it was impossible for me to comprehend how someone could be in a wondrous place like Italy, and be pinning away for Bob Barker. Made me want to fire off a letter, just to let him know.

Hey, Bob? Thanks so much for ruining my freakin’ vacation, you rat bastard! How am I supposed to compete with you? Huh? What am I supposed to do? Say, “Patricia Howard! Come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price is Definitely Not Right!” Well, Plinko on that. I feel like I’ve had the ol’ Switcheroo done on me, the ol’ Flip Flop. Pass the Buck, because there’s going to be some Cliff Hangers on this Golden Road. No Safe Crackers here. It’s time for Squeeze Play, and then we’ll be paying the Danger Price.” If we manage to survive it all, that is.

“Oh, what a beautiful building,” she said, as we walked up the path to the Borghese Gallery. I’d had my fingers crossed on this one, because she’d been slightly under whelmed by the National Museum, with its plethora of ancient artifacts. “So what are we going to see here?” she asked, seemingly awestruck for the first time since we’d arrived, and my heart swelled.

“Well, Pat. Spence and I are here for the Bernini sculptures. But I think you’re going to enjoy the paintings more. Raphael. Correggio. Titian. Rubens. Bassano.” And for once, I was right. She was oohing and awing for two whole hours. I had finally won her over. Hoo-yaa! Take that, Bob Barker!

“I’m getting hungry,” she said, as we departed the museum and headed back to the hood. “And I’d like some real Italian food, please.” What this translated into was, ‘I want some Americanized Italian. Something familiar.’ So I pulled out my trusty guidebook and found what I thought would be an appropriate choice. But we were soon back to that place of no pleasing her, as she plopped the menu back down on the table in disgust.

What ensued next, I like to refer to as Pasta’s Last Stand and The Meatball Massacre. I took aim, and fired.

“What did you think you were going to experience, Pat? An extended version of The Olive Garden? I sent you books. I talked to you over the phone about it, numerous times. This is not America. This is Italy. These people are Italian. I warned you. Don’t bring your American expectations with you, or you’ll be miserable here. But you didn’t listen. You obviously didn’t take me seriously, and that hurts my feelings,” I cried, slamming my third glass of wine. Spencer was red faced, as we waited for our food, his arms crossed tightly like he was trying to keep his angry heart from exploding out of his chest. He was mad at us both, and embarrassed, because we’d been going at it non-stop since ordering our meals from the poor, confused waiter. Then she shot back at me.

“You’re such a damn know-it-all. You’ve been hurting my feelings ever since we left the states. Dragging us all over the place. Why do you always have to be going going going, Goddamn it? You’re crazy. All you think of is yourself. I’m tired. Spencer’s tired…”

“Hey, don’t drag me into this,” he warned. “I’m just fine. My only problem is the two of you.” And the battle raged on. Then the pasta came.

“Can’t we have some extra parmesan cheese? There’s hardly any on here. And these noodles are too tough.”

“It’s called al dente, Pat. It’s the way you’re supposed to eat pasta.”

“Well, it’s not the way I like it.” And with that, Spencer picked up his plate of raviolis, held it at face level, and proceeded as fast as he could, to shovel the lovely little lobster-filled dumplings right down his gullet. Both Patricia and I were speechless for the first time in thirty minutes, as he finished off his meal in thirty seconds, slammed his empty plate down, and stormed out. “Now where the hell is he going?” Pat asked, tossing her napkin. “See what you did?”

“See what I did? Oh, that’s it. This is over. Forget it. You can get right back on a plane and go home, Pat. I don’t care anymore.” Tears were burning trails down my face, as I glared at my husband’s mother from across the table. And she was red-faced like me, as she slammed her fork in the middle of her plate, sending an innocent meatball rolling for cover across the table. It hid somewhere between the Chianti decanter and the Rosemary bread sticks. The waiter was coming toward us with a water pitcher, but he did an immediate U-turn to avoid the up-coming onslaught. This time, she charged.

“You just wait and see what happens if you send me home,” she cried, and I clutched my wine glass. Her words were plain and simple. My relationship with the family had been precarious over the years, to say the least. And she was insinuating that if I sent her home, I’d be an outcast for sure. Yes, that’s exactly what she meant. So I counter-charged.

“Are you threatening me, Pat? Because if you are, that’s it. I’ll never speak to you again. I’ve been doing everything I can think of, to make you happy here. But this is my trip, too. And your Son’s. Now he’s left us both sitting here, fighting and crying. Can’t you see how ridiculous this is?” And we carried on, swearing at each other in the misty rain like a couple of sailors, all the way home. At one point, Patricia tripped on the curb, and I grabbed her to keep her from going down. We laughed together, and she thanked me, then the bombardment started all over again. By the time we reached our apartment, neither one of us had any word-ammo left.

“Spencer’s not here,” she gasped. “Where could he have gone off to? He doesn‘t know this city.”

“But I do,” I said, drying my eyes. “I know exactly where he’s at.” And I left her there in our room, to search for my angry mate. We were mere blocks from Termini Station, where there just happened to be a great big bookstore. And my Hubby loved to look at books. “There you are,” I said, finding him, just as I knew I would. And we went together for a gelato and a talk.

“I don’t know what to do,” Spence said, taking a big bite of his chocolate and hazelnut ice cream. “She’s having a really hard time, hon.”

“Ya think?” I asked, licking at my melon ice. “I hate to say it, but…”

“But you’re going to anyway. My favorite words. I told you so. Is that it?”

“Sorry, but yeah. I don’t think she can hang with this, Spence. It’s only going to get worse, believe me. Tuscany is full of hills, museums, history, and walking walking walking. And Italian-Italian food.” That made him chuckle. “If she keeps on eating nothing but cheese and bruschetta, she’s going to be so stowed up, she’s going to burst. Hell, if the stress doesn’t make her sick first. I’m really worried. As you should be.”

“I am worried. But let’s just try to keep it going, hon. Maybe she’ll settle in. Let’s give her another chance, okay?” he asked, with big brown puppy-dog eyes. Of course I would give her another chance. I wanted her to have the time of her life. I just didn’t know how to go about giving it to her. We were the proverbial strangers in a strange land.

After a wonderful, near stress-free day visiting the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Navona, we dropped a satisfied Patricia back off at the apartment to rest, and my Hubby and I slipped off for a romantic dinner, across the Tiber River, in Trastevere. Afterwards, we walked the streets of Rome by night, sipping on Campari and sodas, and people watching. We ended it with high hopes at the Spanish Steps, because tomorrow we were Tuscany bound.

“So what do you think of Cortona so far,” I asked, as we freshened up in our share-bathroom. We were at an old monastery hostel called San Marco, our first dorm-room, bunk-bed stay.

“I don’t know why we have to stay in these places with other people right on top of us. What do you have against nice hotels with private rooms?” she asked, as I brushed my teeth. And I nearly swallowed my toothbrush.

“Pat, we’ve been getting on so well the last twenty-four hours. Let’s not ruin it.” But she couldn’t seem to help herself.

“Well, I just can’t understand why we can’t stay in nicer places.”

“Because nicer places are about €250 a night, which is out of our budget. So I’m sorry. I told you how we travel, and you said that you didn’t have a problem with it. If you’ve changed your mind, you can go get yourself a luxury suite down the way.” And I walked out. Spence was waiting patiently in our room. Six bunks, twelve beds total, but we had the whole space to ourselves. No one else would be sharing it with us, and it was clean, comfortable, and roomy, so her argument was absurd. We finally left the hostel in a dull silence, and headed out for dinner at a place called Antica Trattoria situated in the lovely Piazza Signorelli, about a fifteen minute leisurely walk away.

“Here we go. Another menu where I only recognize one damn thing. I guess I’ll be having the bruschetta again,” she said, and I rolled my eyes, then signaled for the waiter. She agonized onward.

“I miss my little Grand-daughter. I sure hope everything’s fine at home. I‘m so worried…”

“Mom, come on. We’ll get you a phone card. You can call and check on everybody, okay?” Spence reassured, taking her hand. But she pulled away, and picked at her white linen napkin.

“Oh, I’m so mad. It’s Jeopardy Challenge Week, damn it. I could be watching right now.” And that was the final bread stick. As if competing with Bob Barker wasn’t bad enough. Now I had to contend with Alex Trebec?

“I’ll take ‘Things You Should Never Do’ for $1000, Alex.”

“Congratulations! It’s the Daily Double! For $2000, here’s your answer:

"Taking Mother-In-Law out of her comfort zone, for a month long vacation in a challenging and foreign land.”

And that very famous jingle…

Dum DEY Dum dum…Dum DEY Dum…

"BEEP!”

“What is…the biggest lapse in judgement we’ve ever made?”

“That is correct. You‘re now in the lead!”

Oh, damn you, Alex. Damn you!

“Face it, Pat. You don’t want to be here. You’re miserable. The food’s not what you expected. It’s too crowded and noisy. And here we are, in one of the most enchanting piazzas in Tuscany, and all you can talk about is how much you miss your game shows and your Granddaughter…”

“Just because you like dogs more than kids,” she howled, then started to cry.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. But I already knew. The torrential flood of culture shock and travel fatigue had finally saturated the dark cesspool containing her resentment and discontent, causing it to overflow with a stink that had been hidden just below the surface. Nasty thoughts became reality, as she spewed her toxic invective.

“You’ve always tried to keep Spencer separated from his family. If it wasn’t for you, Spencer would be married to someone who wanted children, with a house near the family, and he wouldn‘t be traveling all over the damn place.” Oh, thank goodness she was saying these things so that he could hear, or he’d never believe me, I thought, as I looked over at him. “And now you want me to go home,” she went on tearfully. At that, Spencer took her by the arm.

“That’s enough, Mom,” he warned. “You’ve crossed the line this time. What a bunch of nonsense. This is my Wife. This is the person whom I chose to spend my life with. You have no say in the matter. And none of it has anything to do with the way you’ve been behaving.”

“No, Spence. Leave her be,” I defended. “Your Mom’s finally going to tell the truth. She’s going to let me know what a disappointment I’ve been to her. So come on, Pat. Let me have it. And when you’ve had your say, it’ll be my turn.” But she remained silent, pouting over her plate, like a child. And I was no better, as I made circles on mine with olive oil and a chunk of rustic Tuscan bread. Spencer finished his Caprese salad in silence.

With the Antipasto painfully behind us, we poked at our Il Primo gnocchi dish, barely touched our Il Secondo chicken and Il Contorno broccoli rabe, and sweet Dolce was definitely out of the question. We left the piazza and went straight back to the hostel, to finish what had been started.

“Look, Pat,” I said, seizing the moment to display my feelings, trying to push the words up over the thick lump in my throat. “I know that I’m not your idea of the perfect Daughter-in-law. But you’re not exactly my idea of the perfect Mother-in-law, either. Did you hear that woman at breakfast this morning? The one sitting behind us? She was about your age, and she’d just finished up five weeks on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She’s resting here in Italy, before heading across the Mediterranean to Tunisia, in Africa. All I could think when I heard her story was, why can’t she be my Mother-in-law? Sorry, Pat. But it’s true. So there you have it. We’ve both been short changed.” I said, sobbing wretchedly. “I mean really? Isn’t it high time we just accept each other for who we are, rather than wishing for something else?” And I buried my face in my hands. There was a length of silence. Spencer was on his bunk, listening with eyes closed. After a few moments, I looked up to see my Mother-in-law wiping her tears. She then walked over and put her arms around me, and with heartfelt sincerity, she apologized. And I apologized in turn.

Amazing, what a little brutal honesty can do to bring people together. After nineteen long years, we finally came to an understanding, and agreed to disagree. We didn’t have to be perfect. We just had to love each other with grace and acceptance. It was simple. Her life was about hearth and home. Mine was about adventure and exploration. And both were okay.

With all that said, she subsequently decided that foreign travel just wasn’t for her, and after a three day grand finale in Florence, she departed Italy, via Milan, to be where she really wanted to be, which was home. Spencer and I completed the trip and we were pleased with the outcome, but saddened as well, because everywhere we went, we saw beautiful sights that we knew she would have enjoyed, were it not for the actual pain of getting there. So we took lots of pictures, and chalked the whole thing up as a valuable learning experience, with a sublime and profound revelation - that some brilliant ideas are better off left alone.

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