The Seven Circles of Heck
by Patricia Pearson

I recently had an opportunity to tour the see saws and bee hives of Italy, which I highly recommend as a travel itinerary if you are a) insane, b) in the company of a toddler.

Traveling through Italy with a toddler is not hell, because the country is so divinely beautiful that even the many, many June bugs that get pointed out by one’s teensy tourist are gorgeous to look at. Albeit, they are buzzing around some humdrum playground in a Tuscan village, 45 minutes drive from Florence, capital of the renaissance, to which you dare not venture, because your toddler will be creamed by a scooter in five seconds flat.

But still, if you combine the beauty of the Italian countryside with the unromantic tantrums of your offspring, you come up with an experience that feels less like hell than heck.

I am now going to face myself in the mirror and concede that I just spent several thousand dollars on a trip to heck. Why did I do this? Well, before Clara was born, my husband and I had lots of travel lust, and the spending power of gnats. We drove to Cape Breton once, and went into debt on the gas.

Then Clara came along, and we took a journey into the Twilight Zone of infant colic, which was free, and after that a tentative foray to Florida, which resulted in the worst fight of our entire relationship, fueled by the huge irritability of being trapped in a beachside motel with a teething baby. So, we were feeling rather unfulfilled in the realm of romantic adventure.

“I refuse to accept this,” I told my husband, “I’m not going to drag around our neighborhood encountering the same dull vistas over and over until I’m fifty.”

Let’s damn well go to Italy. I’ll stand among the ruins and fantasize about Russel Crowe. (Of course I didn’t say that out loud.) I bought some guide books and began to plan. The first obstacle I encountered, from a mother’s point of view, was Rome. I wanted to be in Rome, city of Fellini and Loren and Michaelangelo and excellent sunglasses. But I couldn’t figure out how to be in Rome with a toddler. What’s in Rome? Priceless art, crazed traffic, mad crowds, stray cats riddled with disease, gelatto up your ass. Who would be strolling with me through the gorgeous piazzas? A witless, zany loose cannon about eighteen-inches high who would rather fling herself into the Trevi Fountain than be deprived of a fifth ice cream cone.

Are guide books useful on this point? No, they are not. In one sense, Rome is the perfect place for toddlers, because it’s the birthplace of opera. Operatic theatrics combined with indecipherable words: toddlers should write opera, I’ve always thought. The plot could go something like this:

Hero strides into the Coliseum and comes across a mangy, half-dead cat: “The kitty, the kitty, I want to pat the kitty!”

Hero’s mother: “No, no! It’s too daaaaangerous!”

Hero (streaking over to glowering animal) “But I must, I must, the God’s have willed it!”

Hero’s mother (grabbing him away in fear) “The kitty’s not friendly!” Both wail in sorrow/anger: “NOOOO/BUT I WANT TO0000..” Breast-beating and hair-pulling ensue. Et cetera.

We decided to stay in Capranica, a village 40 km north of Rome, where Clara could run around unencumbered on a hazelnut farm. Good plan. Gaze longingly at Rome from afar while small child mouths unripe nuts and poisonous mushrooms. This, of course, necessitated renting a car at Rome’s Fiumincino airport. Very bad plan.

My husband to Hertz car rental guy, upon arrival at the airport: “Good morning, here’s our prepaid voucher for $1,000.00 for the automatic car rental?”

Hertz guy (and here I paraphrase): “Ah yes, well thank you for the money, and have a nice time in Italy without your car, which we didn’t bother to procure.”

“You don’t have an automatic?”

“No, but we liked your money very much, thank you, and have a nice holiday.”

Three days, many hundred dollars and one car rental later (from the efficient and courteous Maggiore), Hertz coughed up a Chevy Opel. Good. Now it’s time to get HOPELESSLY LOST on Italian roads for ten days with a small child in the back seat whose incipient tantrum can be sensed like a darkening funnel cloud. At least there was a frisson of suspense in our traveling: ‘Can we make it to the two-animal zoo in nearby Poppi before the thunder erupts? What’s our contingency plan? A variety store in suburban Viterbo that definitely sells ice cream, for sure.’

So it was that we motored around Lazio and Tuscany, making many, wonderfully spontaneous stops in supermarkets with the occasional bold strike into towns of actual note. Siena, for instance, where Clara found and ate a piece of chewed gum with a footprint in it.

We also managed Tivoli, the lovely hill town east of Rome where the Emperor Hadrian built his magnificent country palace. Hadrian’s Villa is a huge, rambling compound of evocative rubble, rather like Rome’s Palatine Hill. It can be toured with a toddler provided that the toddler agrees to stay in her stroller. Clara opted, instead, to conceal herself in a hedge.

One notion that springs to mind, now that I’ve toured the shrubbery of Hadrian’s Villa, is that ruins and ancient monuments require a daydreamy engagement on the part of the tourist. You need to enter into a kind of reverie, imagining the emperor and his retinue striding past the marble columns. But small children force you to be highly attuned to the present, pondering the whereabouts of nettles in the undergrowth, for example.

As a result, having no time to imagine the past, evocative rubble evokes very little, really. What you need, given how split your attention will be, is totally explicit, in-your-face culture.

In other words, you need to hang out in a city like Rome.

When we finally dared to drive into Rome, which involved getting lost on the infamous Grande Autostrada circling the city and being obliged to consult with two transsexuals in a bowling alley, we began to feel fulfilled at last.

Clara still occupied herself by examining dog pooh and crawling under tables, but the magnificence around us was so vivid and continuous that it hardly mattered. Whatever she did, my daughter, I still had my feast. I could sit with her all morning in the traffic-free Piazza Navona while she pried ancient horse manure from the cobblestones, and bask in the beauty of Bernini’s fountains.

I could eat the most voluptuous ravioli in walnut sauce while she poured salt into her waterglass, and watch gorgeous Romans saunter past while she rubbed peach-almond ice cream into her hair.

So this was my lesson, which I’ll pack with me next time: surround your small child with an exotic environs, and in between the spills and breaks and vanishing acts, you need only lift up your gaze to reap your reward.

© Patricia Pearson, 2001
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