By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“What were we thinking, taking a toddler on a transatlantic flight?!” I shrieked at my husband.
I hovered on the floor near an emergency exit. My 15-month-old daughter writhed in my arms in exhaustive spasms as we barreled across an endless Atlantic Ocean sky. By 2 a.m.—Eastern Standard Time—I was feeling ready to open that exit to extract myself from the plane.
Despite best intentions, flying overnight from Boston to Rome proved extremely wearying for my family. Our daughter could not fall asleep. My husband and I cared for her in shifts. We walked up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, memorizing the backs of passengers’ heads while annoying flight attendants dispensing blankets, pillows and dinner trays. We plied our normally happy bundle of joy with animal crackers and picture books in desperate attempts to minimize her protestations over being strapped into a flying car seat. If the flight was turbulent, I didn’t notice. I was caught in an emotional whirlwind of my own at 30,000 feet.
I cringed each time my daughter made a sound, which exceeded the threshold of what’s considered “polite in-flight conversation.” Once she calmed down, all it took was a yelp, gurgle or piercing scream from a fellow toddler traveler to trigger a high volume response.
I regretted being foolish enough to think we could take our toddler on a camping trip to Italy. Kindly fellow passengers eased my pangs of guilt for disturbing others. Seatmates, from the U.S., Australia and England, soothed our familial stress, offering to hold, feed and read to our child. They were wingless angels. Our daughter finally fell asleep—as we made our final descent in Rome.
We collected our embarrassingly large trove—tent, sleeping bags, cookware, portable crib, stroller and car seat. Within hours, we showered, napped and were enjoying a stroll on the streets of Tarquinia, an ancient city on the Mediterranean Sea.
Walking through the Old Town in early evening, we visited several small parks jutting out like cozy green terraces overlooking the valley below. I remember residents playing Bocce and a remote control car race.
We were struck by the Italians’ sociability. People of all ages stopped to chat with each other. Casual meeting places, often a scattering of chairs on the sidewalk, sprouted everywhere. Residents smiled and pointed at our towheaded toddler with curls spilling about and said, “Bimba! Bimba! Bellissima!” (“Beautiful baby!”) I fell in love with the Italian people right then and there.
We left Tarquinia the next day to drive to Sienna. We pitched our tent under Tuscan skies, snagging a corner spot at the Colleverde Campground. A well-tended facility with clean bathrooms, a swimming pool, playground, general store and on-site laundry—all within walking distance of the the historic center—made this an idyllic spot for family camping.
Our next-tent neighbors were from Germany. Leah, their redheaded toddler, romped over to our site in mud boots. It was fun to see our girls engage in parallel play, muttering to each other in a German-English mélange.
One evening, as we cooked dinner at our campsite, we were approached by three young Italian men, fellow campers. Our car sported an Italian license plate, a rarity in a campground overflowing with German tourists. The young men assumed we were Italians, greeting us with a pleasant, “Buona sera!” (“Good evening!”) We explained we were from the U.S. and did not speak Italian. They proved conversant in English.
“I have a question,” I said. “Can you tell us why there are so many Germans around here?”
“Actually, what you should know is that there are NO Germans in Germany,” he said with a smile. “You go to Berlin—no Germans. You go to Munich—no Germans. The streets are empty. This is because ALL of the Germans are in Italy…on vacation!” He laughed. We laughed. Our visitors left to continue their hunt for real Italians in a real Italian campground.
Memories from that trip are of hikes and short jaunts to museums and cafes. We drove past vineyards, heavily laden with succulent red and purple grapes. We wandered narrow, cobbled streets, inhaling the aromas of locals cooking. We sought quiet—and relief from the heat—in deep, dark, cavernous churches dating from centuries ago. We found playgrounds where Italian kids welcomed our daughter into the fold. We ate pizza slices cut by silver scissors and indulged in sweet scoops of gelato.
Fifteen years have passed since our Tuscan adventure with a toddler and tent in tow. I’m reminded how fleeting time is with our children. In a blink of an eye, our daughter is planning yet another solo jaunt to a distant continent. If a baby cries aboard her transatlantic flight, hopefully, she’ll offer the stressed parents a knowing—and supportive—smile.
Viaggio sicuro! (Bon voyage!)