Thick walls surround the medieval city where the first Popes were chosen and announced by colored smoke billowing forth from the sanctuary. I was not in Viterbo, Italy, for religious reasons. I was there to see my daughter, who was doing her senior year of high school with School Year Abroad. Parents were encouraged to visit at Christmas, not before.
Three tickets to Italy is prohibitively expensive. Grandparents gave money for our Christmas presents that year, however, so I could take the other two kiddos, but since Thanksgiving flights were cheaper than Christmas ones, the school made an exception and let us come early. We had never been across an ocean.
In small towns, we quickly learned, people do not speak English. We did not speak Italian. This was before Google translate and Skype so I’d not had conversations with my daughter about what to expect or how to get around. Luckily I had an English to Italian book that indicated we were trying to speak Italian and people respected the effort.
The school was mid-field trip when we arrived, and so we did not first visit my daughter’s school. We had to find the group in Florence, which after landing in Rome and taking several trains meant we’d been traveling almost 24 hours straight. We’d been tired at the 12 hour mark and were approaching incoherent. When we walked from the train station into the streets of Florence and it was pouring freezing rain, we tried to laugh, but it was not yet the funny story we knew it would one day be. Our luggage wheels and the cobblestone streets did not get along and after circling streets for an hour unable to find where we were staying and anyone who spoke English who could direct us, we stopped across from a long line of people and tried to pick out an American. At that point somehow we realized from our hand held map that we were only a few blocks away from our room. Once inside, we checked in and dragged our luggage up the thousand flights of steps to our room and we all fell onto the bed and passed out. I don’t think we even changed into dry clothes.
The next day we learned the line was to see Michelangelo’s “David.” I could’ve stayed in Florence for a month. But my son was weary of “Too much art” by the third day.
“Someday you’ll look back and think how lucky you were to turn 13 here,” I said, as his sisters and I sang Happy Birthday to him. He doubted he would ever want to come to Italy again.
But five years later, he was begging to spend his senior year there and I found myself in front of the sacred Papal chimney once again.