Under a Tuscan cloud on family vacation

By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: June 1, 2018

“Mom, the bucket!” Lilly cried from the middle seat of our minivan. It was June of 2010, and we were taking a summer trip to Tuscany from our base house in Germany. We were only 15 minutes into the nine-hour drive. 
“Last night’s chicken noodle soup,” Lilly weakly observed after emptying the contents of her stomach into the trash pail. I carefully retrieved the sloshing container and held it over the floormat. “Pull over so I can dump this,” I told my husband, Francis.
But on he went, mile after stinking mile. Unlike most men, Francis is a nervous driver. I politely suggested potential stopping areas, but all Francis could do was alternately jab at the gas and brake pedals, unable to make a decision as we whizzed down the Autobahn.
Only eight and a half hours to go …
Come hell or high water (or soup, as it were), I wasn’t going to let a revolting start ruin our family trip. “Hey kids, let’s learn a little Italian!” I said, inserting the “Drive Time Italian” disc into the van’s CD player. After what seemed like an eternity of introductory material, the narrator began Lesson One. At my behest, the kids reluctantly repeated the simple phrases.
“Buon giorno, come sta?”
“Molto bene, grazie.”
Twenty minutes later, the kids and I were sound asleep, and the only Italian word I could remember was “spuntino” (snack).
We awoke in the hills of Liguria in a dense fog. In an attempt to distract attention from the weather, I read aloud from “Budget Guide to Italy.”
“Listen to this, kids — it says here that, in order to deter pickpockets, we should not wear attire that is ‘obviously American (sweatshirts, college T-shirts, sneakers, hiking shorts, jean jackets).’ ”
“But Mom, that’s all we have,” Anna observed, annoyingly astute.
To perk everyone up, I sang some Italian songs.
“ ‘Mambo Italiano, Mambo ...,’ Hmmm, how does that go?”
“ ‘We open in Venice, we next play Verona, and onto ...,’ What the heck is next?”
“‘Prego! Scuzi! Grazie! Napoli!’ Wait, that’s not how it goes.”
After butchering the words to every Italian-themed song I could remember, I settled on humming a depressing rendition of the theme from “The Godfather.”
Finally, we exited the garbage-strewn Autostrade and headed for Camp Darby, where we reserved rooms at the Sea Pines Army Hotel. Our “deluxe” rooms were neither de-lightful nor de-lovely, but we were de-termined to make the best of it.
After pizzas in Pisa, we awoke the next morning to torrential rain. We toured Lucca’s charming walls from under dripping tarps. Tuscan pumpkin soup with ciabatta smothered in broiled pecorino nearly made up for the discomfort of my sopping shoes.
In Florence, the kids stared at me staring at Michelangelo’s anatomically amazing David at the Accademia. In the museum gift shop, I decided that, although I wanted the 2-foot replica of the statue for my nightstand, the refrigerator magnet would require less dusting, and explanation.
On day three, we drove to La Spezia to catch the train to the Cinque Terre. Despite relentless bad weather, arguments with Francis, our dumpy hotel and Italian indifference to trash — it would all be worth it to hike the groves, vineyards and alleyways of the cliffside towns.
“The trail-a is-a closed-a, a-too-a much-a rain-a,” the local woman reported from behind the station’s information desk. I held back tears. The upchuck bucket, the ants in our hotel bathroom, the fog, he cluttered minivan, the wet socks, my tense husband. I’d put up with it all for nothing.
Sensing my disappointment, Francis discovered an alternate route to the villages by way of a steep mountain hike. We stuffed our backpacks with water bottles and local focaccia, and trekked upward into the olive groves, stopping often to take in the breathtaking Tuscan countryside, the glittering sea and our sweet little family. 
Eight years later, I’ve learned that summer trips rarely turn out as expected. However, with a little perseverance and plenty of dry socks, even the darkest clouds can have a silver lining. 
Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com

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