Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Pazzo for Travel

Travel's always more fun with friends and family. (Cafe, Florence).

It was Christmas, and we were gathered at a family dinner. My wife and I were regaling our parents with tales of our personal travels to Europe.  I paused, looked at my wife across the table, and then blurted out, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us went to Europe together?” One would have thought that I was Santa Claus flying down the chimney loaded with gifts, for the resounding “Yes! What a wonderful idea!” that instantly sprang forth from my mother, mother-in-law, and father-in-law. Their happiness filled the dining room. Even my wife, Norma, beamed with approval.

I consider myself to be an educated, informed and, yes, mature individual. I generally have my wits about me and usually make wise choices when it comes to life decisions such as what color socks to wear, what channel to watch, or what to eat for dinner. So why did a sensible person like me, married to an intelligent and insightful woman, think it would be a great idea to travel to Europe with our parents? The Italians have a word for it: pazzo, or crazy. The French would say fou. Yes, crazy.

Both of us are of European descent. Norma is Italian and Hungarian, and I am a blend of Italian, French, Irish, and English. So the thought of journeying to Europe with our parents to explore the roots of our heritage seemed like an exciting way to bond with our family and enjoy some time together. We are fortunate in that we get along with our in-laws, and that our three “old ones” enjoy each other’s company. We all share common interests, one of which we now discovered, is travel.

As we continued with Christmas dinner, pouring more holiday wine, the questions came in rapid succession and with excited voices: When to go? Where to go? How do we get passports? What about medicines? Travel insurance? The question of when to go would not be as much a challenge as where to go. Now that I had opened the proverbial can of  traveling worms, the suggested places to visit stretched across the entire European continent from the Danube  to the English Channel. My English Literature professor mother-in-law, Alice, was inclined to try Shakespeare’s England, or perhaps Shelley’s Rome or even Lord Byron’s Venice. My high school principal mother, Gwen, thought it would be grand to see the Louvre in Paris, or the Uffizi of Florence, but “England would be nice, too." My recently retired yet adventurous father-in-law, Rus, yearned to see the majesty of the Matterhorn or Michelangelo’s Florence or the WWII cemeteries of France. More wine please.

The Danube River, as it passes through Budapest.

I asked myself, how do we see 2,000 years of history and 2,000 miles of landscape in a fourteen day timeframe? Oh yes, the senior members of our family decided our trip had to be at least two weeks.  What the heck, they had plenty of time on their hands, why waste an opportunity to delve into old world culture especially if I am offering to be the tour guide?

Norma retrieved the World Atlas from the study and we moved all the dishes to one end of the table, poured more wine, and swarmed over the maps of Europe, measuring distances between destinations with a nearby, uneaten string bean. After much bean positioning and stretching, we decided that the farthest we should travel in one direction was 1,000 miles or three string beans. Thus was born the rule of the haricot vert.

Our inaugural grand tour would encompass a scenic loop by car through Switzerland, Italy, and France, a mere 2,000 miles, or six string beans. This way we would please everyone and be so exhausted at the end that the thought of doing this a second time would completely vanish from our collective noodle heads. All heads turned to me, and in unison, said “So, when do we go?”

I paused because I thought it would be cool to travel to new places, visit world renowned museums, cathedrals, and historic sites and see them through the eyes of our parents. Can you imagine exploring the inner streets of old cities discussing the window patterns and architectural detail of a French neighborhood with your mother? Or sampling the local cuisine at an outdoor cafe in Rome with your mother-in-law? Or taking a gondola ride to the base of the Matterhorn with your father-in-law? Well, neither did I, until I realized that the excitement that was already expressed in their eyes and the gaiety in their voices meant that this could be a very energizing experience for our parents, at a time in their lives when they were contemplating what their next chapter was going to be. We were ready to help them write it in a foreign language.

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