“I could do this forever,” Ethan said.
We were inside the Bridge of Sighs, peering through the stone latticework of one of its small windows at the view of Venice below. Ethan had an arm slipped through a slim hole and was waving energetically. Every few minutes, someone noticed from a passing gondola and returned his anonymous greeting.
Behind us, an empty prison cell stood open. I thought of its long-ago inhabitants pausing to stand at that very spot and sigh over Venice’s beauty before being led to execution. Watching the sun throw its sparks on the water, I wondered if the sight would make it harder to walk to my death. Or could I trust that this city of floating palaces and majestic churches was merely my first glimpse of heaven?
“I’m innocent!” someone called out the other window, startling me from my dark reverie.
“Shall we?” I asked Ethan and we moved on, down the grand staircase of the Doge’s Palace, through its courtyard of marble guardians, and out into the splendor of the Piazza San Marco. From there we took a boat across the lagoon to San Giorgio, a little island with a single church whose bell tower is known to offer the loveliest view of the city. This was our last day in Italy and we took it in hungrily, though we’d been gorging on her wonders, along with her luscious pasta and gelato, for the past week and a half.
Our first city was Florence, where, though we’d barely slept on the red-eye, we rushed off to the Accademia and, within an hour of our arrival, stood marveling at Michelangelo’s David.
“You can actually see the strength coming from him!” said my boy, who’d resisted all school and family trips to museums.
Afterwards, we wandered Florence’s ancient winding streets, Ethan snapping photos of various doorways and shuttered windows.
“It’s so nice here,” he said and something lifted inside me. I’d been nervous about taking Ethan to a foreign country on my own and had fretted as I packed. Would I remember our passports? Lose them on the journey? Would we lose each other on the unfamiliar streets where our cell phones didn’t work and we didn’t speak the language? Still, I wanted us to have this adventure. I wanted Ethan to see the two Italian cities I’d fallen in love with half my lifetime ago when I traveled with a friend on a Eurail pass for the summer. It was my eighth grade graduation present to him and the timing seemed just right. After all, if I waited until he graduated high school he’d choose to go with someone else. This way, I got to be the one to watch his face when he saw the grandeur of the 700-year-old Duomo in Florence and when he stepped out of the Santa Lucia train station and cast his eyes on the dream that is Venice.
We found our way to a small hands-on museum that housed models of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions, and then took a cab to a restaurant near the apartment where we were staying. There, Ethan rolled his eyes in pleasure as he bit into a pillow of freshly made ravioli.
“Sorry, Mom,” he said. “But I don’t think I can ever eat your pasta again.”
Between courses, Ethan fell asleep with his head on the table. When our secondi arrived, the waiters waved menus at him like fans and sang out “Good morning . . . ” in heavily accented English. He lifted his head and smiled at them sheepishly.
For two more days, we took cabs to the Duomo, our unmistakable landmark. From there, we walked to the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello museum, and the Basilica of Santa Croce where Michelangelo and Galileo lie buried in its walls. We watched the sunset over the Arno River from the Ponte Vecchio and ate gelato from well-known, highly recommended shops like Grom and Festival del Gelato, and from a little catch-all store called Internet Phone Center Welcome. We had pizza every afternoon and astonishingly good pasta every night. Somehow, Ethan always ordered the better dishes.
“Repeat after me,” he joked. “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Daily, Ethan amazed me with his sense of direction. We’d pick a museum and a restaurant out of our guidebook, and he’d lead me from one to the other like a native Firenzian. Still, it wasn’t until our third day in Florence that we realized we were taking twelve-euro cab rides unnecessarily. The Duomo was a ten-minute walk from our apartment.
“Good job, Mom.”
“You’re the one with the GPS built into your body.”
“Yeah, well, you’re the grownup,” he gave back.
Our teasing was playful and good-natured. Navigating new territory together brought out the best in both of us. I found it easy to be yielding and flexible. Ethan waited with unflagging patience while I made my slow, awkward way down the uneven cobblestone streets of Florence and, later, the seemingly endless sets of stairs on the bridges of Venice.
Robert Bly warns in his book Iron John that boys need to first have a rift with their mothers before they can make their own way in the world. I’ve thought of that often this year as I experienced the push/pull of raising a teenager for the first time. He has to break away, I’d tell myself when Ethan would pick fights or grow aloof. It’s natural. The inevitable only road.
But when we got on that long flight across the ocean we instantly became a team. And when we arrived in Venice, I learned that there’s no such thing as a single inevitable road. Throughout the city there are street signs for the Piazza San Marco with arrows that point in both directions. Go one way and you’ll follow throngs of tourists through the wide commercial streets and get there directly. Or go the other and you’ll find yourself in narrow, twisting alleys with signs to the piazza graffitied onto the sides of buildings or made with clipart and taped to a wall. Ethan calls it the bootlegged path to San Marco and it became our preferred route. It’s longer, and a little confusing, and there are moments when you don’t think you’ll get there. But the thing is, you do. You always do.