Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

September 11, 2002:

Letter from Italy: The Rules of the Road
Traveling with Mom and Dad in tow

(Annie Ruderman is a former PAW On the Campus writer who works in Milan for the International Herald Tribune.)

After four years I had the Princeton University parental visit down pat: There was the frantic pre-visit campaign to down 2,000 pages of reading and two-weeks' worth of dorm cleaning; the misunderstood messages about where to meet; the stroll through the gothic campus to comment on tiger gargoyles; the lecture with blatantly brilliant and charismatic professor; and the trip to the U-Store to buy siblings something unnecessary and orange.

But basically it was hard to find much in the way of adventure or surprise in Palmer Square and surrounding environs. Not so Italy. Some people travel in style. My mother travels in bulk. She brought a suitcase the size of a small aircraft carrier and filled it.

Apparently she did not realize that you could buy shoes in Italy. To prepare for the trip, Mom upped the Deerfield Barnes & Noble April guidebook sales figures by a factor of three. She also interrogated every single person in the greater Chicago metropolitan area who has ever set foot on the Italian peninsula as well as several thousand who have not been to Italy, but have traveled in France (close enough). My father, for his part, bought a new toothbrush (red).

The general plan was to rent a car, drive along the Ligurian coast, dip through Tuscany, and windup in Venice before coming to Milan to check out office and verify legitimacy and existence of so-called journalism job.

My father drove and I navigated. We accidentally took the scenic route on several occasions, but over here the "scenic route," is actually scenic so no-one much minded. My mother kept her hand firmly planted on the imaginary brake in the backseat and remained unconvinced that she could not stop the car by saying, "Bob, take it easy."

For me the trip was educational as I realized that many of the places I write about almost daily actually have a physical reality attached to them.

Unlike the pizza-pasta-Metro-smog staples of Milan, cuisine and terrain in the rest of the country change markedly over (what Americans would call) a short distance. We found cliffs, valleys, and vineyards, not to mention the day's catch, Tuscan sheep cheese and chianti in the amount of time it would take you to get out of Midwest corn, even if you did not get stopped by the Interstate highway police.

Incidentally Cinque Terre (five towns) is a misnomer. If you get lost you will discover that there are actually seven towns tucked in the hills along the Ligurian coast. Not all of them are in the tour books and there's a reason for that.

If you have any sort of siblings, you know that traveling alone with your parents is an experience that simply does not occur. It's cool, especially when their level of comprehension is about 10 percent of yours. In a spectacular instance of role reversal, I caught myself constantly checking to make sure I hadn't lost them. The country's somewhat bigger than Palmer Square.

You can reach Annie at anne.ruderman@rcs.it