We have this routine where my husband asks me why I stopped writing this blog. And I just shrug instead of saying because traveling with kids can suck. Because there’s puke. And temper tantrums. And puke. Because I’ve joined those Facebook groups with shiny happy families extolling their perfect trips with their 8 well-behaved kids who all taught themselves to read and speak 5 languages and are now running Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. I tell my husband I stopped writing the blogs because I lost my sense of humor.
But maybe it’s because I still hold out hope we’ll have the perfect trip. That I’ll plan a weekend where everyone is happy and no one cries and I feel like I’m a good parent. But the actual enjoyment of our trips are inversely proportional to the square of the sum of my excitement and the hours spent on the itinerary. This is science.
I spent a lot of time preparing for Pompeii. I had always wanted to visit the place where tens of thousands of people were buried under 16 ft of ash for centuries. Plus, the kids love volcanoes. We got super cheap flights and picked an AirBnB with a great view of Mt. Vesuvius. We read and reread our favorite volcano book, explored Pompeii with DK Findout, and watched YouTube videos. Goose even spent an entire afternoon singing the refrain to Bastille’s Pompeii.
“But what else could we do in Naples?” I asked one of the travel FB groups. Usually they’re all sunshine and recommendations. This time only one woman responded. “I will never go back, or take my kids to that city,” she warned like the Cumaean Sibyl cursing us. “Just a heads up,” she wrote. What, no smiley face?
Could it be that bad? Sure, there was a five hour plane delay, but there were also free drink tickets and a playground. And wifi for Netflix.
Our Airbnb was in a neighborhood that could best be described as communist Naples with abandoned buildings outside the train station. But the view.
Ok, and the train that took us to Pompeii the next day may have been hot, crowded, and covered in graffiti. “21 stops?” my husband grumbled repeatedly. “Did you know it was 21 stops?” Not really. But it was 18 euros round trip versus 250 for a car. And no one puked. That day.
At least the tour of Pompeii was amazing! It was supposed to be a semi-private tour, but ended up being just the four of us. The guide gave the kids a hand-drawn map of Pompeii, and she was so very very patient with them when at first they were only interested in rocks. But she played games with them, showed them the Temple of Jupiter (which Goose kept asking about), and had an iPad that showed before pictures of the city. We learned so much from her (just look at those faces!) and I was so proud that the girls recognized the major buildings and could even write their Roman numerals like I had taught them!
But, it all went from “Ah-mazing” to “oh-no” in 0-60 as Goose got hangry. Even after lunch, no one wanted to climb Mt. Vesuvius with me. So we got back onto the hot, packed, graffiti covered train.
“Things aren’t going to be perfect. So why make things difficult?” my husband tells me constantly. As in “Why climb an active volcano when you know you’ll have to carry the three year old just because you spent all this money to do it and it’s been on your bucket list since you were kid?” Defeated, I was ready to go home. My husband insisted we go one more train stop and get a taxi. Let someone else tell us where to go instead of figuring it out. He found the Umberto Galleria. There was ice cream and wine. There was smiling again. Everyone was happy.
We should have gone home. But we were brash. We thought we had figured things out. We walked up and down the streets of the Spanish Quarter. We found a carny playground with a bouncy house where I’m pretty sure Goose picked up Fifth Disease.
We got dinner, and afterwards, while Goose was playing in a piazza, a 13-year old ran up screaming to her and scared her. And that’s when I learned I did’t give a damn about being polite anymore. I’ve spent the last year as an ex-pat getting yelled at for pretty much everything, whether it’s making a doctor’s appointment or just crossing the damn street. In Naples, every time I engaged a waiter or a someone at a store, someone else butted in. One of the waiters at the ice cream store mocked me when I asked about service. I was tired of being apologetic for being in a place that wasn’t home.
“You,” I yelled, pointing my finger at the kid who tried to hide behind his friends. “You,” I yelled again as I marched in his direction and his friends scattered. I yelled at him in English. He responded. In English. No one scares my kid. “Wow,” my husband said. “Let’s get a taxi home,” he kindly suggested. Fine. “I’ll get one,” I said. And after stepping out in traffic with a sun-burnt and weary three year on my hip to hail a taxi, a dude in a suit tried to steal my car. Go ahead, MFer, just try me.
At the apartment, no longer forced to march up the hills of Naples’ Spanish Quarter while dodging ten-year-olds on motorbikes (I shit you not!) the girls were happy again. They played with their Pompeiian rocks and excitedly relived the tour. My husband and I had some more wine on the deck after bedtime and talked extensively about how to be better parents. Staring at a mountain that has caused the deaths of thousands and was overdue for its next explosion seemed like a fitting backdrop. Maybe it was going to be a positive trip.
I should have known better. I had arranged a private car to drive us to a volcanic crater where there was a dinosaur park. It had rained the night before so it was closed. Cue crying. Cue car sickness. Cue the driver veering over the middle line. Many many times.
We still had the caves of the Cumaen Sybil on the list. Cumae was lovely and relaxing. The caves were cool. And I had planned on getting lunch nearby and then going to the beaches just to relax and let the kids pick up shells. It would be ok.
Except our driver told us there were no restaurants nearby, but he could take us to his friend’s restaurant closer to Naples and then a beach. I should have spoken up and demanded something different. But I was polite. So there was more puking as we passed several open restaurants. At least the pizza was good. And we still had the beach to look forward to.
The beach was meant to be our final stop to relax, because I know that after being hemmed in by itineraries, my family needs a horizon to look out at, to dream about. But the beach our driver took us to wasn’t a beach so much as sewage run-off into the bay. So after five minutes, we decided we’d return to the Galleria for more ice cream, and then we just called it quits. Naples had indeed done us in. And with an early flight the next morning, it was ok to give up and just relax. Tomorrow we’d be going home, back to our routine of my husband asking me why I don’t write my blog anymore and me shrugging. “Happy Mother’s Day!” Squirrel exclaimed happily as we marched back to our building with take-out food. Indeed.
At 5 am we were up. The kids had slept in their travel clothes and were packed. We were going home. But we forgot we were in a compound. The huge iron gate was locked. And we left the keys in the apartment. We couldn’t figure out how to open the gate, so we did the only reasonable thing we could think of in our sleep deprived state. D hopped the fence to freedom and I lifted the children up to him. “This is what it means to be a family,” I thought I as climbed up afterwards. Sometimes you have to break out of routines. Sometimes you just have to break out.