Travels with family: It’s a real trip


A view of the village of Vernazza from the Blue Path, a walking trail that winds along the cliffs that connect the five towns of Cinque Terre, Italy. (Cara Kelly/The Washington Post)
September 7, 2012

I knew it was only a matter of time before we’d be stuck in a traffic circle. I didn’t think it would be so soon, but there we were — Mom, Dad, my brother and I — spinning around a roadway in Interlaken, Switzerland, falling back into our familiar roles.

Dad: “I’m 90 percent sure it’s that street.”

Mom: “Do you want me to pull out the map?”

Michael: “Traffic circles were designed to let you bide your time.”

Me: “I’m pretty sure the goal is to only go around once.” 


(Mary Lynn Blasutta)

It was the first day of our two-week family vacation to Europe, an idea that had developed a year earlier as my mom approached her 50th birthday. She wasn’t interested in parties, new cars or lavish celebrations. She wanted to travel.

But wanting to take Michael and me, her adult children, with her? That was radical.

Of course, my brother and I beamed when she proposed the idea. Michael, 23, was finishing up an engineering degree. And I was facing a new mountain of student loan debt after completing a graduate program in communications. We weren’t going to be able to finance a trip like this on our own for quite some time.

Obviously, we thought this was the best idea our mother had ever had.

But as our departure drew near, the reality of traveling as a 25-year-old with my parents began to set in. The phone calls and e-mail reminders from my mother arrived with increasing regularity.

“Don’t forget to make copies of your passports.”

“Make sure to call the bank.”

“And seriously, Cara, pack sweaters. You’re going to be cold.”

It had been seven years since I’d lived at home. And aside from the holidays, the four of us hadn’t spent much time together in close quarters in ages.

Although I’d been living, working and traveling on my own, I was still my parents’ child. Would they worry if I ventured off by myself? What should I pay for, or should I allow them to pick up every tab? How early would they expect me to get up in the morning? And most importantly, how would I maintain my sanity for a full 12 days?

It wasn’t long before I learned the golden rule of traveling with close kin: Just roll with it.

I figured this out on the first leg of our trip. The plan for one day was to go up the Jungfrau, one of the major peaks of the Swiss Alps. But as we headed out, it became increasingly obvious that the pesky cloud cover we’d awakened to was going to be sticking around. The Jungfrau was bound to be socked in.

Mom wanted to stick with the plan, anyway. She had her heart set on seeing what brochures labeled the top of Europe. But the rest of us thought it was a bad idea. It would cost the four of us roughly $880 to go up to the summit — and probably see nothing. Dad suggested that we go up a lower adjacent peak instead. It would be a shorter trip, and $400 cheaper.

But when we arrived at the base of the mountain, monitors with live video from the top revealed a dismal view filled with snow and freezing rain.

We were bummed. Secretly, though, I was less bummed than everybody else. After all, I’d been to this part of Switzerland before. I was looking forward to the next phase of the trip — Italy’s Cinque Terre and the beach. I’d been dreaming of the sun-soaked shoreline for months.

But that evening, we had dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Hotel Metropole in Interlaken. The clouds had finally cleared, revealing a whole new world of mountaintops that had been invisible earlier in the day. And suddenly, there was a new decision to make.

“I know you wanted to get to the beach,” Mom began, tentatively, “but we could get up early and try it again.”

“I used all of my vacation days for this trip,” I countered, trying not to whine. “There’s no way I’ll see the coast again until next year.”

“You’ll see the beach again,” Michael argued. “When else can you get to the top of the Swiss Alps?”

I’d miss a whole day of sea and sun, I thought. But then I envisioned their sad puppy-dog faces as we drove out the next day. So I took a deep breath — and rolled with it.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s give it a shot.”

At 7:30 the next morning, the sky was completely clear. At the top of the mountain, we found what we’d been looking for: indescribable views of peaks and valleys that stretched for miles.

Right decision, I thought to myself.

So far, so good. But on the second leg of the trip, the differences in our personal schedules and routines cropped up. By the time we reached Monterosso in the Cinque Terre, we were beat. We’d been driving for seven hours, including a two-hour detour for road closures.

We were also famished. Still, I pleaded for time to shower before we headed out for dinner, although I knew that my parents weren’t keen on waiting for me to primp. In my day-to-day life, of course, this is a non-issue. If I take two hours to get ready, I eat dinner at 9 p.m. and no one’s worse off. But when you’re traveling with three other people, it can be a problem.

Nevertheless, everyone waited while I showered; then we headed down to dinner.

My mother and I are both petite, so our moods are directly tied to our blood-glucose levels. We’ve been known to have epic meltdowns caused by sugar crashes. While waiting for a table at the packed Ristorante Miky, we were close to flat-lining. Mom hovered by the door, watching for leaving patrons. I was urging her not to be pushy. It got a little testy.

Mom: “Where’s the hostess? We’re never going to get a table.”

Me: “You’re going to annoy her. They’ll call us when they’re ready.”

Mom: “Don’t snap at me, honey. I just don’t want them to forget about us.”

Right, Mom. Be quiet, Cara, I mentally admonished myself. Soon enough, we were enjoying appetizers of stuffed shellfish and fresh prosciutto, and all was right again in the Kelly universe.

After the three-course meal and several glasses of wine, my usual night-owl tendencies were squelched, and I fell asleep immediately after wobbling back to the hotel.

The mornings were a different story. As a nurse, Mom is used to setting the alarm clock for 5 a.m. After decades of working in hospitals, she’s incapable of sleeping past 7:30. I, on the other hand, typically refuse to rise before 10 unless forced to do so.

We shared a room during the trip, assigning the boys to the smaller of the two rooms in each hotel (even though, at roughly 6-foot-1 and 6 feet, they’re nearly a foot taller than either of us). Dad and Michael seemed to have a similar schedule. But in our room, Mom was up showering and using a blow dryer as I hid my head under a pillow. Luckily, she didn’t force me to get up with her, although I knew that I had only about an hour before she’d be back from breakfast, flinging open the shutters.

My dreams of lounging on the beach in my bikini were quickly dashed by Italy’s overcast, 68-degree weather. I stomped around our room impatiently.

“I don’t have anything warm to wear,” I moaned, knowing that I was acting like a brat but unable to stop myself. (Yes, I know, Mom had warned me to bring sweaters.) “I thought I’d be sunning myself on the Mediterranean. Why did we have to choose May again?”

Mom just looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I recognized that look. “Are you really throwing a temper tantrum?” it screamed.

Oh, right, I remembered. Roll with it. I agreed to a hike along the jagged coastline that led to the other fishing villages. The spectacular views and quaint vineyards raised my spirits, and by the time we reached Vernazza, the sun had fully emerged. I decided to take the train back to Monterosso and try to get some beach time, while my parents and Michael pressed on to the next town.

The sun had warmed the white sand to a comfortable degree, and I reveled in some alone time, happily flipping through fashion magazines and staring at the spectacularly blue water. 

Late the next afternoon, we left for Florence. My mother insisted on traveling to at least one cosmopolitan city to expose my brother to a few art museums. I was excited to see the architecture and to soak in more Italian history. Plus, I knew what shopping opportunities awaited me.

To my family, shopping while traveling is akin to eating fast food in the birthplace of pizza. Still, somehow I managed to drag them to the Scuola del Cuoio, a living museum in the Monastery of Santa Croce where artisans craft leather goods while you watch.

I purchased a few leather bracelets, and Mom ogled the stunning ostrich-skin clutches. The guys were getting antsy, but the history of the building and the monks’ tradition in leather work kept them entertained until we headed to the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia.

That afternoon, the time came for me to head out on my personal mission: to buy a leather handbag. The others bade me a cheery farewell and set off to climb to the top of the Duomo, Florence’s famous cathedral. We agreed to meet in two hours.

For a dedicated shopper like me, two hours is nothing in a city like Florence. But darting around the streets, I managed to pick up the perfect locally made bag, plus a pair of leather ballet flats, leather sandals and a screen-printed silk scarf. I was happy to be alone; the rest of them would have slowed me down and probably guilt-tripped me about unnecessary purchases.

Meeting them for dinner, I felt heady from my haul and offered to pick up the tab. But my dad declined. “We wanted to do this,” he said. “And you’re broke.”

Okay, I admit, it was hard to argue with his reasoning.

After dinner, Michael and I decided to check out a few bars on our last evening. Our parents happily let us wander off while they went to bed. After a few beers, though, we were drained, too. The hotel room was pitch-black when I got back, and Mom was fast asleep. I was sort of surprised. I figured either her days of waiting up for us were over, or sheer exhaustion had won out.

A day later, we were back in Zurich. As my dad dropped me off at the airport for my flight back to Washington, I felt a twinge of homesickness. A flash of the feeling I’d experienced when my parents had left me at college for the first time washed over me.

I missed them already.

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