We returned this weekend from the most ambitious trip R. and I have undertaken since the Grape arrived on the scene almost three years ago. Ambitious because it involved a significant time change, a trans-Atlantic red eye and a good deal of in-country schlepping, by which I mean packing up and switching hotels every few nights. We moved often enough in the span of almost three weeks that when we landed at Logan (our home airport) and collected our bags, the Grape asked if we were going to another hotel.
As expected, travel with the Grape wasn't always a picnic. He screamed like an extra in a cheap horror flick for the first three and a half hours of the late night trans-Atlantic hop. And no, the businessmen in nearby seats understandably did not care that he had missed the window to go to sleep and completed a death spiral into over wrought delirium. Now that we're home, fierce jet lag is kicking us all in the teeth. The Grape is up and ready to rock no later than 4 a.m.
But the trip was a resounding success, thanks to a couple of key factors. First, we went to Italy, a country I feel fortunate to have visited many times. So there wasn't pressure to see every site. R. went out a few times on his own to see the big museums while the Grape and I took a siesta. I took those hours back in beach time, where I devoured an astounding three novels in five days while the Grape and R. napped.
Second, we built in almost a week at the beach to counter balance a week and change of culture and visits to various relations. The Grape actually applauded this decision. "This is vacation, Mamma," he told me when I procured a shovel and bucket, slathered him in sun block and dunked him in the Mediterranean.
But most important to the success of our adventure was the simple fact that the Italian birth rate has slowed to a trickle. Consequently, babies are a big deal almost everywhere you go. The Grape, while no longer an infant, evidently qualified as a bambino.
We didn't have to pay to get him into museums he found interesting for the first four minutes, since cut offs for free admission are a decade more generous than here at home. R. and I took turns viewing the treasures and preventing the Grape from destroying priceless works. While visiting churches, we marveled at his fascination with two features: painted ceilings and confessional booths. (When asked about the latter, I explained that they are kind of like toll booths on the super highway of sin. The Grape looked at me like I was a moron and pronounced them forts.)
The Grape really enjoyed looking at fountains and indulging in aperitivo hour - a nightly event during which R. and I prayed our drinks would arrive before the Grape reached the end of the bowl of complementary chips. Luckily the baby card landed us with limitless high value snacks.
We played the baby card up and down the peninsula - to score coveted beach chairs by the water, to get free stuff from room service, to get the tables we wanted in restaurants (no small concern when a typical dinner lasts close to three hours).
Which are no longer the tables we would have desired before having the Grape. We happily requested the loud ones near the non-stop show of the kitchen, or better, by the neglected seats by the entrance, where the Grape could explore between courses without interfering with other diners. In my childless days, I'd wait hours to avoid such low rent restaurant geography; now we sought it out, ate like kings and kept the annoyance of other patrons to a minimum. And really, any one silly enough to eat at the blue hair and high chair hour shouldn't be surprised to see kids at the next table, even in Italy when the aforementioned hour begins at 7:30 p.m.
For the first few days of our trip, the Grape whined that he wanted to go home and repeatedly demanded snacks not readily available in Italy.
I know I could have packed Goldfish and peanut butter, but I was too afraid that's the way those affected college kids who tote mac and cheese in a box on junior year abroad get started.
When in Rome, as they say, eat like Romans do. Or don't. It turns out a toddler can stay alive and in fairly good spirits on nothing more than milk, strawberries, apples, bread and sweets, particularly chocolate gelato.
Fortunately, the complaints dropped off after the first seventy-two hours. Even more fortunately, he conked out before dinner the first two nights. R. and I enjoyed two incredibly civilized and memorable restaurant meals while the Grape snored softly in his stroller next to our table, undisturbed as the waiters reached over his inert form to pour more wine.
We had some bumps after he acclimated to Central European time. In Naples, stressed by the maniacal drivers whose tires barreled towards us relentlessly at little kid eye level, he melted down completely in the birthplace of pizza. On the way out, deep in disgrace, he recovered sufficiently to point out a family of four traveling at breakneck speed on a Vespa. (Not an uncommon site in old Napoli - Kid A stands between dad's feet, dad drives, Kid B, often with pacifier going furiously, sits sandwiched between parents, mom rides in back.)
We had a wonderful meal our second night at the coast. The Grape ate what the waiters put in front of him, charmed the hostess, which netted a visit to the kitchen to meet the chef as well as a souvenir chef hat, and called the owner beautiful, which netted free desserts. When we returned two nights later, the Grape refused to eat, refused to stay in his chair and made several loud breaks for the beach. If we'd stayed beyond the second course, they might have encouraged us to leave.
Which really isn't all that different than what might happen if we tried to visit a neighborhood restaurant here at home more than once in the same week. Travel with a toddler is ultimately like living with one - you take the good with the bad. For anyone on the fence about taking a big trip with a little kid, I vote go. Life is short, and I've never once regretted time and money spent seeing the world.