After three nights in Rome and two in Florence came the budget portion of our Italian vacation: a week on the road in a rented car visiting a series of walled cities. Since my last report, I've spent five days herding the kids up endless (eternal, innumerable) flights of stone steps to stand in blazing Tuscan sunlight, admiring medieval squares and ancient fortresses. We also made a couple of stops to swim in sulfur-smelling thermal baths dating back to the Etruscans, and once, at Montepulciano, took a wrong turn at the top of the "centro storico," descended on the wrong side of the hill, and had to complete a full circuit around the city walls in 95-degree heat to locate the parked car again.
I asked Teddy for his three words to describe Siena and Arezzo, and he -- refusing to play along, near heat stroke, and dehydrated -- said, "parking difficulties."
Nights this past week were spent in an Airbnb in a small provincial town called Bettole, a dark apartment with a tiled kitchen on the second story of a brick villa dating to 1780. We put together our own breakfasts each morning -- very crumbly pre-toasted toasts topped with cold cuts made locally in Chianti and three types of pecorino cheese -- and didn't figure out until day three how to work the elaborate system of shutters, window screens, and casements. The garden at our Airbnb had bright flowers in pots and an orange cat.
I enjoyed the strangeness of the Italian mundane
-- weird "AutoGrill" restaurants in highway rest stops, where you could sample three kinds of arancini, the ham department and the laundry-and-cleaning-product aisle in the Bettole co-op grocery store -- more than the kids did, however. They grew querulous and started staying up each night till 1 a.m. watching Adam Sandler movies on Netflix in the Airbnb's living room, sleeping in each morning, and complaining when I tried to wake them, so I made the executive decision to hightail it back down the Autostrada A1 to spend our last two days in Rome's galleries and ruins.
I love nothing better than winkling out inexpensive ways to stay in ultra-fancy hotels, and I actually twisted my arm over my head to pat myself on the actual back as we rode up in the very large and shiny elevator to the sixth floor a half-hour ago, here in Rome again, having left our bags with the bellman and the rent-a-car with the valet. I booked the cheapest room in the Rome Cavalieri at a steep last-minute discount last night, but told the kids I believed I could finagle a Hilton Hotels "gold" membership and my Amex Platinum card perks into an upgrade, and this actually worked.
It may be my greatest vacation-winkling coup yet in a long career of five-star-hotel scheming that began when I was 13 years old and spent happy lunch hours perusing vacation brochures alongside my paternal aunt Mary, who suffered from the same malady, at the sales counter of her modestly priced bohemian-clothing boutique, Promised Land, on Newtown Lane. She once hitchhiked barefoot from Paris to Dubronvnik. Not long after the end of the Second World War.
I am sitting right now with my computer on a marble side table on the balcony of a gilded room tricked out in splendidly ridiculous teal velvet, mirrors, and gold trim, sipping a flute of spumanti from a bottle that greeted us in an ice bucket by the door. All of Rome is spread out in panorama before me, the surrounding hills a haze of blue, the clouds drifting over, casting neighborhoods in sun and then casting them in shadow. I can see the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican to my right and, directly below, my children splaying their arms like starfish in the swimming pool. The pool looks delicious. It might take me a week or two to cool down from an Italian vacation in the heat wave summer of 2022. Teddy just climbed out and telephoned up to the room to report that he was going to order a hamburger to eat poolside, but that it costs 28 euros. In addition to being knocked out by the view from this balcony and thrilled to be back in Rome, my pleasure is increased by the knowledge that I've raised a 12-year-old who realizes you shouldn't order a $28 hamburger.
Nettie has been bent out of shape, off and on, this entire time because, like all teenagers of her generation, she is captive to a new kind of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that has been created by the computers we carry in our pockets. Kids these days track the movements of their many friends -- friends they know in person, in the same way we used to know friends, when we were young, and friends they know virtually, who are in a slightly different category of kinship and connectivity but who still count -- via Snapchat and Snap Map.
They see their friends converge and disperse; they see them drift this way and that, like a swarm of bees, or constellations, on a live map on their iPhone. And so in 2022, a 15-year-old may be blown away by the 1960s, "Dolce Vita" glamour of the Rome Cavalieri hotel, and may be feeling pretty swanky in her bikini on a lounger right now (I see her below me, posed with one arm over her head like Gina Lollobrigida), but inside she will be ferociously fretting about a bonfire function everyone else is going to attend tonight at Ditch Plain Beach that she is missing.
On the way down the Autostrada A1, Nettie figured out how to connect our iPhones to the sound system in the rent-a-car, and for an hour we listened to pop songs composed with the aim of inspiring teenagers to pull their hoodies low over their eyes and start to cry. Then I convinced her to turn off the music and listen to a podcast on "The Daily" from The New York Times about the big cosmic questions: What is a black hole and how could everything collapse into one? Why can we remember the past, but not the future? Is time like a strip of film, with all future and past flickering moments existing, even now, although we can only see the current frame?
It does not console the 15-year-old that time expands and shrinks, stretches and constricts, but it consoles her mother. I'm not going to be as long-winded this week as I usually am. I am going to cut my usually overlong (endless, eternal) column short now, and go down for a swim in that jewel-blue swimming pool. Tomorrow I'm going to see the Pantheon! I will walk with Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, and Apollodorus, the architect!