We baked a cake, prepared a feast, and settled to unwrap his presents.... and just at that moment the boy was felled by a stomach virus that put him to bed with a bowl at his side for the next few days. As he recovered the bug took me down; we were both still too ill to travel as we boarded a plane to Italy.
The children, inspired by The Thief Lord and A Little Romance, have long clamored to visit Venice. In fact, the request predates even the first hint that we might move to Europe. But despite this, and the fact that my trip to Italy after 9/11 convinced me that I wanted to live there, it has never proved convenient to trek in that direction. Why? Because I literally never travel for pleasure. All of my various adventures are organized around work: if I pop up somewhere it is because I am performing, or lecturing, or attending conferences.
But this half-term Byron had meetings in Venice and Trento and I decided to be in the city at the same time. The boy and I were wan and nauseous but still thrilled by the vaporetto ride from the bus station. The girl, normally persecuted by tricky food allergies, was delighted to be able to eat in regular restaurants - until she too was taken out by the virus as we boarded a train to the Italian Alps.
We didn't see much of Byron but, once the three of us had all recovered, we had an absolutely idyllic time. Both children bought gorgeous handmade Italian boots; the girl (as is her habit) started to learn the language by purchasing and translating comic books. They graciously indulged my love of ferry rides, even going along on a pilgrimage to an island cemetery where we stared at the grave of Ezra Pound as I delivered a lecture on fascism.
I let them watch glassblowing on Murano, telling them that two of my uncles were journeyman glassblowers before they died too young in horrible circumstances. This turned into a discussion about how, despite appearances, we are not wealthy. We are instead profligate. Moving to another country, traveling constantly, the careers, are symptomatic not of elite status but rather of a cracked restlessness.
One of my fundamental worries as a parent is that my children are too sheltered, that they do not know how hard it is for most people to get through the day. While I cannot give them the lessons I learned as a working class kid, I can at least attempt to inoculate them against the prejudices of the upper classes. My brief rant on the subject came to a halt when we rounded a corner to hear a posh British woman say My friend has one of these chandeliers at her castle in Scotland. We all agree that it is simply hideous!
We had to hurry away stifling our giggles.
We fed pigeons in San Marco, took a gondola ride (at a reduced price through extensive haggling; Byron and I are at heart used car dealers), explored the Doge's Palace, wandered through countless churches. We ate gelatto and walked along canals and had, simply, the best trip ever.
Recently my son was asked to write his memoir for school. The document starts with:
I was born five weeks early because I was drowning in blood.
It has been ten years since that frightful day. The baby slashed out of my body gasping for oxygen has grown into a strapping lad who will probably be taller than me before his next birthday.
The intervening years have seen him through various schools and adventures, singing in the chorus, writing his Lego zine, moving away from his beloved home in the states, making good friends in a new country, traveling the world. His perspective is always measured and accurate; he is the most sensible person in my entire extended family.
He is sweet, and brilliant, and eclectic, and one of my best friends.
I am a careless correspondent and only intermittently reliable when it comes to the standard tasks required to maintain friendships; this is most clearly evident when someone has an infant. In the year and a half since Amy Joy and Dishwasher Pete had a son I've been to visit them in Amsterdam exactly once. When I feel haunted by this fact I remind myself that I have visited friends with babies here in Cambridge about the same number of times - and they are just a five minute bike ride away.
I know from experience that it is hard to find community when you are the parent of a small child - hence the ten year commitment to my day job - but the fact that I know this does not make it any easier to arrange visits. Even if I had small children about the place this would likely be true (and in fact, might prevent any visits at all - my infants always provided awkward challenges in these situations). Families are notoriously difficult to schedule.
Given too many constraints I often just stop thinking about the subject. But Amy is very organized and she finally managed to pin me down on a date for a visit. This weekend it was a tremendous delight to welcome their small family and show them around Cambridge. We went for walks, and lingered on playgrounds, and went punting, with our boys laughing and splashing. We talked about the past and our expat present.
During the rush to pack before going away I neglected to write about a similar meeting with another Portland friend - Lli - in London. We were first introduced via HM when our babies were not yet crawling; she was the only person who braved a winter storm to attend my first-ever grownup birthday party. Our children are both extremely tall and blonde, and this was true even in their toddler years. Lli and I were friends through many major upheavals in our social and work lives, including her move to Pittsburgh and mine to Seattle. The fact that we can meet and go to a carnival in a far distant city, after nine years of camaraderie during which we see each other only rarely, is extraordinary.
The fact that there is continuity between my old life and this one is quite surprising.
The other night as I walked to meet Rachel at Clare College I tripped (or perhaps fell off my flat orthopedic shoes - hard to say) and hit the worn stone floor hard. Of course, I was wearing my last unripped pair of black tights and they were shredded. This was more painful than the bloody bruised knees and hands.
I've been working furiously to offset a month of imminent travel but found time to do a bit of shopping in London, where I caught up with Iain. He took me to the New Piccadilly, where I watched the owner and his mates drink several bottles of champagne in the time it took me to drink a cup of tea.
At the weekend Iain and Xtina went to Margate to watch the Exodus and generously loaned me their flat. Since coming back to England I've mostly reverted to my uniform of old tattered black clothing, but I elected to wear a dress for city adventures:
I went to drinks and dinner with David. One of his friends asked how we met and I had the thrill of replying Standing on line at dawn to buy tickets for the first ever Madonna Like a Virgin tour show in 1984 - with the Beastie Boys opening. David added And they were booed off the stage!
Now, I attended countless concerts as a teenager, many of which were no doubt of great musical importance. I did come of age in the NW in the eighties, after all. But for some strange reason the people I met that cold morning at age thirteen are the rare few I am willing to know as adults. The concert itself is also more memorable than any of the seminal punk shows, though for a reason I never talk about: it coincided with the worst bit of my cancer treatment, and I spent the evening with my head pressed against the guard rail, wretchedly ill.
Later David showed me one of the shops he owns:
Then we walked over to his other store, housed in a building constructed in the 1650's. We wandered about admiring the wares until David said Would you like to see the cat? He grabbed a screwdriver and started to prise up the floorboards:
Apparently when the place was built there was a tradition of burying a live animal on the premises for luck.
In the week before Rachel moved to Montreal she called several times trying to arrange meetings, failing to remember that I do not use the telephone. Even though it was critically important that I answer, I simply could not - I just stared at the screen and hoped that she would follow up with a text message.
But if I hate anything, it is weakness. There are some constraints in my life that are necessary, but others are just deranged. Yes, talking on the telephone generates an instant panic attack. But sometimes it is important. When I realized that I had nearly missed the last chance to see a good friend I resolved to answer the phone from then on.
Of course, since I did not state my intention, nobody called me.
Seven weeks later, standing in front of the Bus Stop in the middle of the night, I told this story to Mark. He decided to be mischievous and call me periodically through the rest of the trip.
And I answered.
The phobia is still just as strong, but I persevere. Old friends are used to the fact that I do not use the device, but Jean is innocent of that knowledge, and so has become one of the rare people to hear my demented voice at the end of the receiver. In the states I used the cursed device to interact with Gordon, Ana, and Sheila. I've even talked to my agent on the phone about good news - something else that makes me panic.
Who knows. Perhaps I will place a call myself one day.