122. Travels with Mama

I just finished Jane Christmas’ book Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy. Ms. Christmas, a Canadian writer of physical and spiritual “journey memoirs,” decided to take a six-week jaunt through Italy with her elderly mother, with the not-so-hidden agenda of settling long-held scores and growing closer. Both she and her mother gravely overestimated Mom’s physical condition and stamina, and much of the book entails her exasperation with her mother’s inability to navigate cobblestone streets with her walker, tendency to doze off anywhere and everywhere, bouts of incontinence, and desire to spend whole days in bed. Jane’s impression of Italy is that the people are rude, the food is bad (!), and it’s impossible to navigate with a disability.

For my own mother, transatlantic travel was the greatest thing you could do. Long before study abroad was “a thing,” her older sister Rose studied painting in Perugia. All the seven younger siblings would gather round when a letter arrived from Italy, wanting to hear every detail. Finally, in the summer of 1951, my mother quit her nursing job and headed there herself, along with her sisters Rose and Gloria. On the ship, she met my father, headed home to Gaeta for the summer, and by amazing coincidence, they were on the same ship going back. They got married a few months later.

My Aunt Rose, returning home from studying art in Perugia, 1931

Over the next thirty-five years, we only went abroad one time, in 1965. Even aside from the cost, going to Europe just wasn’t a thing. I can remember overhearing my seventh grade teachers tsk-tsking about how terrible it was that my family was going to Europe when there was so much in America to see. Where and when I grew up, it just wasn’t done, for reasons of money, but for personal preference, too.

With my mother, father and Aunt Gloria in Rome, 1965. My aunt took me to see the Beatles there. How cool is that?

Fast forward another 30 years, when my kids were old enough to be able to drag them overseas. We started to go every year or so. My father had passed away at this point, but we always made sure that my mother came along. We usually coaxed her with the fiction that she could spend half the day resting in the hotel if she needed to, but that it would just be fun to soak up the atmosphere. Of course, once we got there, she would be so energized that she would walk ten miles a day; I don’t recall her ever staying behind to rest. Her final trip with us was at age 93: New Year’s in Paris.

With my mother at the beach in Sperlonga, surrounded by my father’s relatives

So clearly, my mother was lucky to be better able than Ms. Christmas’ to endure the strains of travel abroad. But I would also differ with her other impressions, too. I can say I have never had a bad meal in Italy, ever. The people may not have that American constant smiliness, but I would never describe them as rude. And they treated an elderly woman with infinitely more respect and helpfulness than one would ever find in America.

At the Vatican

In his Christmas letter in 1987, my father told his cousin Tonino that we would all come over when his first grandchild, expected in April, was two years old. I think, with his vision problems, he was nervous about feeling responsible for everyone in his home country, but having his new son-in-law along would somehow share the burden and responsibility. But he died suddenly a few weeks later, never having a chance to see my daughter. Every time I hop on a plane to Fiumicino, as if it’s no big deal, I am filled with regret that I didn’t insist on taking him back home to Gaeta when I had the chance.

Breakfast at Hotel Serapo in Gaeta

Jane Christmas’ journey with her mother didn’t turn out like either of them planned. They changed their itinerary, had day after day of rain, and cut the whole thing short by a week. There was very little by way of heart-to-heart talks. But in the end, her mother said “Let’s go to Italy again.” They must have done something right.

Now it’s my turn to be the tag-along Mama. At the Vatican with Maria, 2019

8 thoughts on “122. Travels with Mama

  1. Buongiorno Gigi, when I started reading your blog this morning I thought “Oh, no. How can anyone not love Italy.” Thankfully after a short summary of the book Incontinent on the Continent, you invoked the images of your own family’s love of travel and Italy. True we are all different and traveling with someone with a less than strong constitution would be a challenge. The reasons the author stated to do this seemed small and a little mean “…settling long-held scores and growing closer.” You could do those things in a more familiar environment. But I’m glad you reviewed it. The pictures of your family are wonderful as are the stories. Thanks for sharing those. In the photo from 1965 everyone looks so elegant. I used to love to dress up…even packed long gowns on my first trip as everyone dressed up for dinner. What fun it was and still is. And the food in Italy is the best including anything from a street stand to a 3 star Michelin—you can find it. In twenty-five years, we’ve only had one meal that didn’t meet our standards. And the Italian people I dare say invented the word hospitality. I always hate it when someone has a bad travel experience instead of an adventure. But your ending was helpful if the mother (who had to have been in misery the entire trip) said to her daughter, “Let’s go try Italy again.” then something about the trip must have been remarkable. Again thanks for sharing such a great blog


    1. Is Jane Christmas sure she took her mother to Italy? Her impressions certainly don’t reflect mine at all. And I loved the story about how your parents met, and the photo of your Aunt Rose aboard ship returning home from Perugia in 1931 looks like it’s actually a photo of you.

      As for your aunt taking you to see the Beatles while you were in Rome in 1965, you ask “How cool is that?”

      It doesn’t get any cooler!


  2. I have actually come across just one person who had the same feelings as Jane, but when I discussed his trip, it appeared to me that he did all the the things that I advise people not to do when in Italy. It happens. Your photo of Sperlonga is great; we spent a couple of very nice days in a nice hotel on the beach between there and Terracina, an area where almost no Americans venture, while we were meandering up the coast from the Amalfi Coast to Rome several years ago. We go to Italy every other year or so for the last 15 years and we always try to wander to areas that are not tourist havens for at least some of the time


  3. This reminds me of the time I was doing a junior year abroad, and my parents brought my grandmother along to visit. She still remembered enough Latin to communicate that she wanted ice with her scotch in the bar, and one afternoon when she stayed behind to rest, we came back to find her wolfing down a huge cheeseburger in the restaurant downstairs. She marveled at everything she saw that trip. One evening, I had everyone over to dinner with my roommate, a young woman from Germany, and her boyfriend, who was from Japan. There is my WW2-era grandmother, seated between the two of them, former enemies, graciously making conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

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