This week, we had the opportunity to take our first vacation outside of Romania. We chose to go to Italy, which is something I’m still trying to process, sitting in the Milan airport writing this.
My mother’s family comes from a small Italian village near the Austrian border; we talk about our “Italian tempers” when they rear their ugly heads, and we’re always trying out new pasta recipes. But I never thought I’d actually go there, much less while I was still in my twenties.
Our first stop in Rome was the Musei Vaticani. I saw more beauty in those three or four hours than I have my entire life. The statues were my favorite. It’s amazing to me how an artist can put the folds of fabric and the cast of features into a medium as unyielding as stone. I may have cried a little at the Sistine Chapel. The figures painted by Michaelangelo still looked fresh, and he has such incredible skill that they look three dimensional, as though they’re jumping out at you from the ceiling. It’s a narrower room than I was expecting, dark and temperature controlled to protect the paintings. You aren’t allowed to take photos, so I had to soak it all in in thirty minutes.
My sorrow was quickly washed away, though, by the delicious taste of Italian food.
I don’t have a developed palate. In elementary school, I thought the cafeteria food was fantastic. I don’t see a difference between Pizza Hut and Little Caesar’s pizza-I mean, it’s all food, right?
Wrong. Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s, and even the higher-end Italian joints (in my case, Olive Garden), have been ruined for me forever. The first meal I got in Italy was lasagna, which has always been my favorite food. I’m used to the American version, a blanket of noodles, meat, and cottage cheese piled high. What I got was a huge, flat square of homemade pasta, seasoned with a delicious mixture of beef, melt-in-your-mouth ricotta, and Parmesan. Also-and I can’t emphasize this enough-every meal includes the freshest, juiciest tomatoes, absolutely choked in olive oil. Here’s a picture of the wonder of that first moment:
Have you ever seen anyone that happy about food? That plate was licked clean, I can tell you. But I didn’t need to worry; there were many more such moments to come. I tried gelato flavored like my favorite candy, Ferrero Rocher, delicious apricot jam tarts, and of course zeppoli, the sugary doughnuts Italy is famous for. I could go on and on for days about this, but I’ll just say that everything people say about Italian food is true.
When my stomach was full, it was time to fill my senses. The first thing I noticed about Rome was the incredible architecture, even on apartment buildings-a welcome sight after the gray Communist leftovers in Romania. Almost every street we passed looked like this:
There were statues and lovely old churches everywhere. That’s the thing about Rome: you can head in any direction, and on the way there, you’ll find surprising little pockets of sculpture and forgotten piazzas.
After a full day in Rome, we took the train to Salerno. We accidentally confused the time it left, and after a frantic taxi ride, we ran onto the platform just as the train was leaving. I literally had to shove the train door open as an Italian man screamed something unintelligible in my face, but there was no way I was getting left on that platform.
Salerno turned out to be a mostly undiscovered gem-a quiet little beach town where we spent all day lying on the sand and visiting places like the seaside park where I climbed an orange tree to get us some fruit and ended up almost choking to death on a very bitter citrus that was clearly not meant for human consumption.
That night, we ate the best seafood I’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying, where the proprietor taught me how to use both a spoon and a fork to wind up my pasta. When we were done, he offered us a nightcap. We explained that we didn’t drink because of our religion, so he brought us more bread, which we ate while using Google Translate to try and overcome the language barrier. Everyone in Italy was like this, friendly and open, always happy to help five American girls who spoke very little Italian.
Back in Rome, we spent a very relaxing last day exploring some more of the big sites-the Pantheon, the Fontana di Trevi, and the Piazza Navonne. The latter was my favorite, only because the Fontana di Trevi was so crowded, although the sculptures were magnificent. I cursed myself for not knowing much of the history behind these places. I will definitely brush up before visiting again.
I can already feel my world starting to expand from these experiences. I’m understanding that the different ways that people do things make this planet a fascinating place. I want to sponge it all up: the languages, the customs, the food.
But right now, I want to get back to my kids. I was surprised by how much I missed them over just four days. I’m starting to see their personalities shine through, and best of all, I’m starting to know how to get all of them to smile. There’s one little boy you have to tickle in a precise spot on his right collarbone, but it’s so worth it when he finally looks at me. A lot of them are in pain a lot of the time, so it’s incredible to me that they still love being sung to and comforted and tickled, just like any other child. I’m sure they make me much more happy than I could ever make them. They’ve already taught me to be grateful for what I have, to smile more, to enjoy the simple things. I want to make every day that I have here count.