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Italy and France - October 1998
In 1998, I invited my mother to join me on an excursion to visit the Vatican. "Sure," she said, "if you'll throw in Paris!"

So in October, Sophie and I tackled Italy and France. Here's some of the juicy parts:

Two Romans and a Caesar

Picked up mother in DC, then headed to Rome. A tough place to start a vacation. Crazy streets in every possible direction, a taxi strike AND a bus strike, seven hills, lotsa luggage and a 78-year-old mother. Charming hotel in a too central location. With mass transit limited, those damn scooters were everywhere around us, deafening, reverberating off stone walls. Scooters completely filled all sidewalks, so we walked continually in the streets, dodging private cars. Slowly. Up and down hills. While lugging the luggage, my foot started to hurt soon after our arrival. I iced it when it periodically swelled, but I was determined not to visit a European hospital and give up a day to have my foot amputated. I waited til I returned home, where I learned at Cedars Sinai that I fractured my toe. As I write this, I'm in a cast up to my knee for three more weeks. So I had no problem keeping pace with the 78-year-old! She observed on our final day of vacation that she had managed to keep up with me the whole time!

It's true. Traveling with one's mother is a trip. After our second night in Rome, mother, in discussing the sleek plumbing in our hotel, casually observed: "Those bidets? They're not worth the effort!" That's when I knew she'd do well in France!

Sophie and the Chauffeur
at Trajan's ancient marketplace

 

 

 

Sunrise on the Arno River

With no taxis, I hired a chauffeur and paid retail (bless my credit cards). A charming, handsome, hilarious driver who gave us a private (read: expensive) tour from his Mercedes. We saw Rome as we never could with a package tour. He took us to two particularly wonderous sights in Rome.
1. Visited the astounding Catacombs just off the Appian Way, where Christians were buried after they were fed to lions and gladiators in the Colisseum. Saw early scratchings of a fish in those stones, the secret symbol of Christianity in pagan Rome, from about 700 A.D. A devastating place of 14 stories underground. We viewed small parts of the first six levels. The place was sealed and "lost" for 1000 years, rediscovered in the late 1800s, then finally opened for viewing in 1956.
2. The Borghese Mansion, a treasure-filled Renaissance palace surrounded by a huge park. Magnificent sculptures in a dramatically romantic setting. Sez Mother, the New Yorker:
"Oh, its a walk-up!"
3. Also, my LA hair stylist gave me the business card of his cousin, who owns a restaurant in a ritzy residential section of Rome (which we probably never would have seen). He gave me a small gift of haircare products to pass along to his cousin. We were delivered to the restaurant, and spent four hours eating! To say that cousin Vincenzo was thrilled is an understatement. In most Italian restaurants, we found that after ordering, a waiter would usually annex a half-sized serving table, in lieu of cluttering our dining table. Well, when Vincenzo immediately took away our menus, he simply asked me in Italian "Meat or Fish?" I picked fish. When the waiters then brought a SECOND serving table, my mother and I knew that we were in for a feast, gratis. We were very welcome Family. I bear witness: my mother and I were fed 14 antipasti! Three kinds of octopus, steamed mussels, salmon, shrimp, minnows, snails, anchovies, followed by three "Primi Piatti," the pasta courses. We started with spaghetti with tiny clams, then huge ravioli. As we ate, my mother looked around and noticed that every single patron except us was waiting for their food. Vincenzo put the entire kitchen on hold(!) while he prepared his signature crabmeat risotto; unforgettably exquisite dining. You get the picture, we ate for hours, all of it glorious, with desserts and liquors, then had to prevail upon the generous host to scrounge us a ride back to the hotel! As I left, he handed me a bottle all wrapped in silver for me to give back to his cousin Adamo, which I gingerly transported for the remainder of the journey!

An Audience with the Pope
and 25000 other Poles
in St. Peter's Basilica


In all candor, the Vatican was less than we hoped. None of the famous architecture was visible, since the Church is restoring all the masonry in time for the Millenium celebration. Our "audience" with the Pope, which required reservations months in advance, which we imagined to involve, oh 400 people or so, turned out to be 25,000 people, mostly from Poland, crammed into St. Peter's Basilica amidst the scaffolds. The Pope attempted a holy ceremony, droning prayers in every language he knew. However, since this was the week that marked his 20th year as Pope, the entire nation of Poland arrived by train, turning the event into one boisterous soccer match. While people of many languages and cultures prayed with the Pope, his people waved flags, balloons, signs, banners; they arrived with scarves, wedding gowns, even an entire marching band! Our day with Pope John-Paul II was surreal. And it took too long! We spent the afternoon in the Vatican Museum, where the Sistene ceiling's restoration is now complete, and worth the hassle. The riches on display at the Vatica are astounding; their presentation regrettable. I hope the Church fixes up the inside after they've finished the exteriors. It could have been wonderful.

The Duomo, Florence

Then we trained it to Florence. My favorite. We stayed in a tiny, modern hotel, built on the site of a bomb dropping from WWII, adjacent to the Ponte Vecchio. It's the bridge that leads one to the Medici castle: the Pitti Palace, one of the high points of Florence for me. Best of all, it was one block away from a wonderful piazza, with delightful outdoor restaurants, kids with soccer balls, strolling musicians, the Uffizzi museum, and not too many tourists, though still too many noisy scooters. Lotsa churches for mother to light candles. Judging by the number of candles, I think she saved the world this year! Did you know that Marconi is buried next to Galileo? (across the apse from Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossini, in that order) Fabulous food every night: duck, rabbit, salad of porcini mushrooms with truffles. Got to talk plainly with mother about our dark issues: my father's murder 22 years ago in Iran, and how we might begin to explain that chapter to my sister's three children who have never learned of our quiet grief. The discussions that happen face-to-face, and could never be fully fathomed by phone. Mission accomplished.

Overlooking Siena

Bussed through the Tuscan hills for a day, stopping in San Geminano and Siena. Latched onto a delightful guide, whose team just won the Palio, the town's traditional horse race since Renaissance times. She was especially good at explaining the differences between Gothic and Romanesque architecture, and why Siena's Gothic duomo is such an important architectural feat. Dined on boar for lunch.
 

Cathedral of St. Bartholomew,
on St. Mark's Piazza, Venice

 

 

Cathedral of St. Bartholomew,
Mosaics cover all walls

 

The Bridge of Sighs
which led prisoners from the courtroom (left) into jail (right)

Trained it late that night to Venice. Gorgeous train with free snacks and headphones to keep for future use. (They're great on my Walkman!) Arrived in Venice train station at almost midnight. Bought our boat tickets and waited for the vaporetto that would leave us near our hotel. I knew that getting the senior and her luggage into and out of those boats would be no joy. As we're waiting, we meet two more Americans, a mother and daughter of more elderly vintage than we. I recommended that they buy tickets, but they observed that the booth was now all closed. The boat finally comes, we board with all our luggage, but without a ticket, the women miss the boat. When we met them days later, they explained that they eventually found a policeman, who told them to just go buy a ticket. When they showed him that the sole ticket counter was boarded up, the cop rapped a nightstick on the sealed-tight gates. The gates opened. The clerk was in there the whole time, he just felt like sleeping! And that, I'm afraid is my lasting impression of Italy. Everything gets done "the Italian way," which means Italy can never be a major player in world decisions. They're so hamstrung by strikes, three hour lunches, siestas, and work-arounds, that they can never compete globally. As travelers, you learn to roll with punches, give up logic, give up maintaining a schedule, grease palms everywhere, then laugh at the idiosyncracies of that gorgeous tableau, while clerks sleep on the job when they damn well please. Italy is too good for the Italians.

Meanwhile, as we're boating down the Grand Canal at 1AM. I explain to mother that we'll need to transport our belongings to our hotel through some of the Venetian streets since the ferry will only leave us nearby. The ferry then comes to a halt, and a man-in-uniform tells us few passengers (in the wee hours of Sunday) to get off; this boat is Out Of Service. When will the next boat come? "Maybe in 25 minutes," he says. I eventually flagged down a water taxi, who gracefully (read: expensively) took us directly to our hotel's boatslip, simplifying our arrival alot. Once settled and rested, Venice turned out to be the high point of the excursion. A half-day of rain was a terrific excuse for a nap. (our only inclement weather) Mother was so enamored of St. Bartholomew's Cathedral that we visited it twice, (heavy candle-count here), even climbing up into the choirlofts and outdoor loggia overlooking Piazza San Marco. Strolled everywhere, over picturesque bridges, sat in quaint piazzas for frappes and lattes, had a real adventure. I realized that mother was more relaxed here than in any previous place, because the water makes those damn scooters impossible. It actually has quiet streets; it's possibly the only place in Italy where you can walk and not have to watch your back! Exquisite food every night. A veal chop grilled within strips of ham. (But no risotto can top Vincenzo.) Toured the Doge's Palace. Visited the glass factories on the island of Murano for half-a-day. Well worthwhile, as we watched artisans blow magnificent vessels with remarkable speed. Delightful setting for lunch too, and great for shopping. At the hotel, mother loved watching CNN, which offers surprisingly little American news, but plenty of weather reports ("Rain in Chad today"), and many brief comments from around the globe. Saw news of Parisian students protesting tuition and length of study, along with Larry King delivering his latest Monica update, like anyone cared.

The Seine
and Notre Dame
at midnight

 

The Louvre
as seen from inside the pyramid


Bid farewell to Venice by hiring another water taxi to deliver us to the airport, from where we flew to our final destination: Paris. A short distance, but a cultural shock. Skip the siestas, here are people with things to do. Orderly airport made our arrival easy. Having spoken dreadful but successful Italian for 11 days, I now switched gears to ply my dreadful French. Hailed a cab easily, discussed our destination with the driver as he piled the luggage into the trunk. Mother and I are all comfy in the backseat as the driver heads into traffic; she turns to me and quips: "I just love hearing black men speak French, don't you?" (!Mother!!) The driver took us around the Arc du Triumphe, down the Champs Elysee, past the Invalides (Napoleon's tomb) near our hotel, and directly into . . . those students, still protesting from the previous day! The street to our hotel was closed off by police, since the government agency is nearby. Traffic is reminiscent of LA's worst (only the cars are smaller), so the kind driver suggests that we'd be better off walking the final two blocks, as we note that it will take a very long time for him to extract the taxi from this bottleneck. But mother seems to like the idea of being peripherally in the town's topical excitement . . . as long as we can't hear it from our windows at night!

 

The famous windows of
St. Chappelle

I Love Paris. With Notre Dame and St. Chapelle just one metro stop from our hotel, it was our first point of interest. We spent the afternoon, lit a couple candles. (Sez Mother: "Big turnover here. Very small candles!") With two different friends living in Paris, I'd asked them to make a few plans for us, which were triumphs. First night we met Pierre, went to a delightful LeftBank restaurant (Le Mar Verte) which I'd visited with Sara and Gary in 1994. The owners welcome us back with complimentary Kir Royales, toast my mother's first trip to Paris, and thank Gary for remembering to pass along their address! Pierre is thoroughly impressed, has immediate rapport with the owners, and jokes with them all night. When they polish off our evening with complimentary champagne, Pierre vows to return again and again. Mother is as enamored of Pierre as she was of the sweet Roman chauffeur who entertained us so memorably. We decide to walk off the buzz by strolling home. Pierre escorts us along the LeftBank. When we get to the wooden bridge near Notre Dame, he leads us to the center, where he instructs us to look down at the water and make a wish. It was a magic moment of silence. As we resumed our stroll, dazzled by the lights, the food, the company, the champagne, and the sheer beauty of Paris, my mother quietly observed sentimentally: "No one ever told me that in a twilight year I'd stroll the Seine at midnight." I took her arm. I felt complete.

Quasimodo sings!
But Esmerelda is the star on the program

 

Tumbling EyeCandy

 

Opera House
en nuit

 

Opera House playbill

 

Giselle on the floor, with a very modern Albrecht mid-air

Time flies. A day at Versailles. A day for the Louvre and the Tuileries. Next we meet Jerry, an American expatriate dancer, now working for five years in Paris. Mother announces that she needs to shop, so Jerry leads us shopping, to Bon Marche, then most notably to Samaritaine, where mother scores a designer sweater for my sister, then Jerry leads us to a favorite aerie on the store's rooftop. I swear, because of its central location, this is unquestionably the best view of Paris. With all buildings roughly the same height, nothing blocks the view, as they would in New York, for example. With the Eiffel Tower at a picturesque distance, we lingered in every direction, studying a tiled legend that singles out buildings of note as the sun set. Jerry pulled me aside and told me how lucky I was to accompany such an energetic traveler, then later asked my mother what she did to remain "in such good shape." (She was so totally flattered, it was practically the first thing she told my sister about the vacation when we returned.) Then off to the Marais, to a quaint poor-people-of-Paris kinda restaurant, heavy on ambience (read: candles), Dark and wonderful, and refreshingly inexpensive. Jerry had acquired tickets for us to see the new big theatrical hit, a musical of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, "Le Notre Dame du Paris." The producers are evidently hoping to follow the tracks of Les Miserables. Well maybe. The score was absolutely terrific; the show's concept was dazzling but incongruous. The chorus is onstage most of the time, with twice as many men as women. They're building Notre Dame, so the back wall is all stone blocks with clever little pegs and an occasional rope. I can't help but note that the men, for the entire first act, are naked from the hips up, and those hips, on each of them, are tiny, while their shoulders are expressively wide. The reason is promptly apparent. Don't ask me why, but the choreographer has hired all tumblers. These guys do breathtaking feats mid-air all night, not just on the stage floor, but _choreographed_ on the pegs of the back set. The image of gorgeous guys swinging across a stage wall in unison is burnished into my mind forever. One number is staged with the ropes, while these guys "dance" with their feet on the back wall, their backs perpendicular to the stage floor. The antics of the chorus in back often upstage the action of the plot (flesh sells!), and just what all that tumbling eyecandy had to do with Quasimodo and Esmeralda was beyond me. But the audience in a 3700 seat house was a sellout on a Thursday night, with major ovations for the new hit single, and curtain calls like I saw for Nureyev in New York once. A big hit with a wonderful score and a dubious future.

Next night was even better. Pierre (who had now flown to CA for a vacation) bought us orchestra tickets to the historic Paris Opera House, where we would see the avant garde updated version of "Giselle." Similar to the "new" Swan Lake in its adventurous attack on a classic, but less elaborate to stage, this show was the ideal way to spend the final night of our vacation. First of all, that opera house is as glorious as you've heard, and smaller than I expected, to my delight. Our seats were great, and the show was mesmerizing. I hope that it too can be staged here. I'd be glad to see it again. I think mother was especially thrilled to be entertained here, among a dressy crowd, though she limited her tour of the place since those white marble stairs were polished to a magnificently slippery sheen. I bopped around all over during intermission, and even encountered a woman in the men's room! This strong-willed woman just wasn't gonna wait in line all night when there were empty seats just across the hall! (I wondered if she'd concur with my mother on the merits of the bidet.) Another thunderous ovation for a magnificent show, then off to another Sara-and-Gary restaurant, Les Olivades, for our best meal in Paris. Quail for an appetizer. Coquille made with giant scallops still attached in their beautiful shells. We took our time, dined til midnight, then strolled home. Mother, jittery in Rome, is now quite the world traveler as we wrap it up in Paris. Next morning, I took a quick spin through the D'Orsay while mother finished packing, then we flew home, celebrating our adventure with my sister's family (the Italian inlaws too), then I boarded my flight back to the palm trees.


A few days later, a letter arrived from mother. It reads in part: "I never dreamed that in my twilight years I would go to see places that I had only read about or seen on movie screens. Thank you forever."

And I guess that's why I did it.

Happy Ending


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