Summer Travel

More gelato, please

June 17, 2011
Vineyard in Tuscany

Cultural differences first-hand in Tuscany

When I dreamt of visiting Tuscany before, I imagined cruising in a snazzy convertible through picturesque Chianti hillside vineyards with my husband behind the wheel. Or taking long bike rides through numerous medieval towns and ancient castles. I pictured stopping along the way to sample delicious, regional cuisine and enjoying a glass of Italian wine. In other words, my imagined trip seemed ideal for a couple without children. Yet, when we decided back in December to make time for an early summer family vacation in Italy, I was thrilled.

Our children, like most, are naturally curious about different cultures, languages and customs encountered while traveling. From previous trips through Europe, I’ve been surprised when they’ve pointed out small differences I might not have noticed myself. For example, in Austria, bathrooms with turnstiles for paying also have a small “free” door for children to walk through. Neither Radek nor I had time to plan an elaborate itinerary for our Tuscany trip. We booked our accommodations in a guesthouse a few kilometers from Siena and agreed to take day trips according to our moods and the children’s energy levels.

The 1100 kilometer drive took us more than 13 hours, which included frequent stops for the children to stretch and play. Driving through the Dolomites, the breathtaking scenery made me wish, for a moment, that we were returning to Garda Lake where we’d spent a long weekend touring and biking two years ago. The rugged mountains, some still snow-topped, were striking in contrast with the lower fertile regions as we drove past countless vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards. When we passed a turn off to Verona I reminded Anna Lee of the story of Romeo and Juliet, she delightedly began to reenact it with Oliver. At a rest stop in Austria, Anna befriended another similarly snaggle-toothed girl, and after a brief moment of shyness, the two communicated in English/German until it was time for us to move on. Oliver found his rest stop buddy in Italy, and though the two didn’t talk, they chased pigeons together, shrieking in delight.

When we finally arrived at our guesthouse, the children were so excited by the pool that almost immediately they jumped into their swimsuits for their first swim, despite a slight chill in the evening air. Several fully-clothed Italian children stopped their football and ping-pong to watch in mild astonishment as our children squealed loudly in glee. Throughout the week, with the exception of some French teenagers, we were the only guests who seemed to use the pool. On our last day, the guesthouse employees finally readied the outside bar for use, so I imagined we had arrived just a week short of the typical warm Italian summer.

The website pictures had presented our guesthouse as an upscale establishment, and indeed the main brick buildings and walkways gave the place an authentic Italian air. However the surrounding grounds, including the flower beds and grassy areas, were in need of some serious attention. I don’t know if it was because our visit was pre-season or if it was just the Italian approach to gardening, but I would guess the latter. From what we saw of the landscape on the car ride, there were many functional manor houses in similar condition to the one we’d picked.

Our apartment was furnished with massive, antique furniture and Italian porcelain, which contributed to the authentic character. I particularly appreciated the white linen tablecloth, bread basket and Italian percolator, which were stashed in an oversize chest along with the other kitchen utensils. Those “extra” touches, considered as basic to Italians as a potato masher would be to a Czech, countered the facilities downsides, such as low water pressure in the shower and an overflowing toilet. Our hosts were laid-back when we announced our plumbing difficulties. Throughout the week they treated everything, from slowly bringing out the coffee at breakfast to cutting the grass without bagging the clippings, with a similarly breezy attitude.

Since the weather wasn’t ideal for sunning by the pool, we took daily sightseeing trips through the region. We had prepared the children that we’d be walking through medieval towns and visiting castles, and had promised to buy them at least one gelato a day, if they ate well and behaved. From our previous trip to Italy, we’d learned that we could get a fair amount of sightseeing in while the children slowly licked an ice cream.

I hadn’t realized how much pleasure I’d get from watching the children interact with Italy. They chased pigeons through the town squares, threw coins into wishing fountains, lit candles in memory of a dear friend in two of Siena’s historic churches, ate tomatoes and mozzarella and spaghetti with tomato sauce slurping up the noodles and debated the merits of various flavors of gelato every chance they had. They made instant conversation on Italian playgrounds, where we found other French, German and English families also giving their kids a break from sightseeing. We spent two of our most pleasant days in the Chianti wine region. The landscape had such a sense of space and the wine was delicious. When we arrived at the Brolio Castle 45 minutes before closing, we’d missed the final tour, but for a reduced fee we got to walk through the grounds on our own. From there we had a bird’s eye view of some gorgeous vineyards in the distance and the children had free reign in the castle’s gardens to create their own imaginary medieval drama.

During a leisurely dinner toward the end of the week, Radek asked the children about the differences they’d noted between the Czech Republic, Italy and the US. They both thought hard for a moment, and then Anna Lee noted that she had spotted different architecture, such as the common use of brick on buildings and houses. She also noticed different plants, like the palm and olive trees, and different toilets in restaurants (she experienced one of the hole-in-the-ground ones). Finally, along with pronouncing that she got to eat a lot of gelato, she was also happy that she got to stay up later than usual. Oliver’s list of differences was purely food-based, and it made my mouth water to hear him recite all the different foods he’d enjoyed tasting.

Although the trip wasn’t exactly the romantic adventure I’d once imagined, I was pleasantly surprised by how much, even the long car drive, helped the children understand about traveling in another country. They were enthusiastic, if a bit shy, about saying buongiorno (good day) and grazie (thank you), and more than once I had to retrace my steps because I’d accidently walked away while one of them had stood open-mouthed listening to a group of Italians speaking. But now, even a week later, they’re still talking about the gelato.

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