Last summer, I was at a party where the conversation turned — as it so often does among writers, artists and journalists — to travel. In this crowd, people talk about Shanghai and Vienna and Puerto Rico (pronouncing it Pwer-toe, rolling the “R” knowledgeably) as easily as I might about Iowa or Wisconsin.
My husband, John, mentioned a backpacking trip through Spain that he took with his former wife, with whom he lived for a year in Barcelona; and though he is a software developer rather than an official member of the literati, this resulted in his being drawn cozily into the group. There was a long discussion about Basque food. Then a drunken filmmaker with a malicious glint in his eye turned to me and said, “So, where’s he taken you?”
You know those playground bullies who could size you up immediately and figure out exactly which insult would hurt most? This guy was like that. We’d only just met, but he’d found it. My secret shame: I’m a writer who hasn’t traveled much.
Sure, I’ve been all over the United States, and there was a study abroad program when I was 17: three months in London. But that was more than 20 years ago, and I’d returned to Europe only once as an adult, visiting Cambridge, Leeds, Edinburgh and Amsterdam. Compared with the crowd I run with, this is like summer camp at the Y.
They’ve mucked their way through Central America and the Far East. They’ve shopped in Moroccan markets and worked in clinics in Africa and slept with Thai hookers, both female and male. Many of the people I know prioritize travel above all else. I have a friend — now in her 50s — who confessed to me once that her need was so incurable, for decades she’d been booking trips she couldn’t afford to places all over the globe, then calling her elderly parents in a panic when the money ran out and begging them to bring her home.
Meanwhile, I was messing around with the kids I started having at 21 and raised alone after my first husband bugged out. Scraping and saving, putting away what little I could for their college funds, taking them on Montana hiking vacations and tours of D.C. museums and driving trips along Cape Cod all the way to Provincetown. I loved all this, don’t get me wrong. Still, I couldn’t help lusting after my friends’ adventures overseas.
Then along came this wonderful, well-traveled, bilingual man who cannot help the fact that he went to France and Egypt and Antarctica while I changed soiled diapers and went to school conferences and plays. And he wanted to raise those kids together: one who has autism and one who is going to college in the fall and one who is still in eighth grade. Now there isn’t any money to travel. Not for me, and not for John, who — until we met — would think nothing of dropping $3,000 on a weekend motorcycling trip.
A few weeks after that party, however, we received a small, unexpected inheritance. It was found money, John said, and despite the bills and the kids and the leftover debt from his former spendthrift life, we should blow it all.
“I’m making reservations for Italy,” he warned. And I, feeling the delicious thrill of the finally initiated (I, too, could be impetuous!), said, “Go ahead.”
That was back when the euro was around $1.30. By the time we left, in mid-March, it was $1.56 and climbing. I tried not to worry.
But it was hard. There had been a crisis with our older son, and I’d spent most of February transferring him from one group home to another. Twice, I had wondered aloud if we should postpone the trip; John insisted the cost to change the tickets was prohibitive. Besides, he said, I needed this vacation more than ever. He would take care of everything, reading every word of “Rick Steves’ Italy 2008″ — the guidebook that came highly recommended on NPR — and planning. All I had to do was relax.
And for a couple of days, I did. Everything was perfect, from the flight out to the hotel in Rome. I spent my 42nd birthday on a rented Ducati riding through the hills of Umbria, a strange and glorious landscape that is a mixture of palm trees and firs. This, finally, was in keeping with my image of a writer. Hemingway and his Paris, Somerset Maugham and the South Pacific, Susan Sontag and … everywhere.
Then things began to go wrong. It started with a tiny incident: a pot of tea we ordered from a small cafe near the Coliseum. The posted price was 3 euros, but when we stood from a small patio bench to pay, the barista charged us 8. “You sit,” she said and waved toward the bench. “Is 8.”
A few hours later, we left Rome bound for Orvieto, a storybook mountain village we’d ridden through the day before. We had to run for the train. Ten minutes into the hourlong trip, a conductor stopped to check our ticket and found it unstamped. The fine: 40 euros, though the station man had marked it clearly with that day’s date.
By the time we arrived in Orvieto the sun was setting. What had looked the day before like an inviting cobblestone town with castlelike buildings and winding roads now was murky, a little forbidding. We towed our luggage through empty streets. The hotel that had been recommended was closed for renovation. Finally, we located a back alley place and showed the desk clerk our Rick Steves (guaranteed to take 10-20 percent off any listed price), but he only repeated his offer: 30 euros more than the book’s high-season rate.
It was dark. The next train out wasn’t for two hours. John shrugged and handed our passports and credit card to the man.
We went next door to a wine shop and picked up a bottle of Orvieto Classico, the citrusy white wine with notes of banana, kiwi and lime for which this region is famous. In our hotel room, John poured two glasses while I brought up our bank account online. It was Day Three of a 12-day trip and we’d already gone through 40 percent of our allotted funds.
“I budgeted before the euro went up,” he pointed out. “Also, things cost more than the book said. So we’re here; we’ll just charge the overage and figure out how to pay it off when we get home.”
In theory, I saw his point. You get to Italy once, maybe twice, in a lifetime; it doesn’t make any sense to cut corners while you’re there. Those people at the party we’d attended weren’t worrying about mortgage payments while they were tramping through Marrakesh. And John had told me on our second or third date that he wanted to go everywhere — see everything — no matter what the price. I wavered.
But then I remembered the first tuition bill for our younger son’s fall semester, which was sitting in our dining room, unpaid. I pondered the fact that our older son would always need financial support, and that we had at least five more years with our 13-year-old, which translates into $6,000 worth of pizza alone. And I became exactly who I’d always been: the dull, penurious, unadventurous mom.
“I can’t do that,” I said. “We need to figure out a way to make this money last.”
There was one weepy, melodramatic moment when I offered to let John off the hook. We were, I told him, looking for entirely different things out of life. He should go on, have a great time in Italy. I would fly home and raise the three on my own — which is what I’d intended to do up until the day he proposed.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said gently, taking the wine glass from my hand. “I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
Indeed, the bottle was gone.
By the time we rose for dinner, we’d come up with a rough and severely scaled-back new plan. By cutting out two cities, we could make our original budget work. That and we would have enough to splurge on dinner. We walked to a nearby trattoria in renewed spirits, opening the door to a scented cloud of garlic, balsamic vinegar and roasted sage.
The place smelled wonderful, but even at 8 o’clock on a Thursday night, it was nearly empty. We sat at a corner table and ordered a flask of house wine out of courtesy; neither of us needed more. In fact, I was suddenly downright woozy. And after my first sip, the room began to spin.
I needed food. Immediately. The waiter arrived to take our order and set a basket of dry bread on the table. I picked up a slice and asked if I might have a plate and some olive oil. That’s when there was a clattering, stick-splitting noise — like a fence post breaking.
It was the owner, a man like Pinocchio’s Stromboli: beefy, red-faced and mustached. He stood over me, hot breath on my head, barrel stomach pushing into my chair. “You order now!” he shouted, pointing at our menus, which were entirely in Italian with no English words underneath.
I had taken only a single bite of bread, so was still on the faintly nauseous side of drunk. But I put it down and picked up our translation guide. “OK, but I need to figure out …”
“You order now!” This time it was a bellow. Everyone in the room turned to look. The man bumped my chair again and reached over my shoulder to bonk the menu with a finger like a fat cigar: antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno. He hit each category in turn. “You order. I am not in business of bread. You order now, or I call police.”
In the United States, where I work as a restaurant critic, I would have written him off as a drunkard or a lunatic. I might have stood, thrown a few bills on the table, and walked out of the place. Or, as a friend suggested later, eaten the dinner peaceably, then called my credit card company to tell it what happened and insist that the charges be reversed. But I did none of these things.
Head spinning from the wine, off my game because English words — my stock in trade — were of no use, I did something entirely out of character. I apologized. Pointing to menu items that looked right, I weakly repeated my standard Italian phrase: Sono allergia ai funghi. “I am allergic to mushrooms.”
The man sneered and nodded. Five minutes later, our food was dumped on the table in front of us, everything at once. The only sounds were forks clattering and a conversation in German at a four-top by the wall. We ate dutifully, like prisoners being watched.
That night, I awoke at 3 a.m., violently ill. The town was silent and dark. There was no one to call.
John and I spent the next week staying in small rented rooms and shopping in markets rather than going out. This saved money and ensured that we would never again go through an experience like Orvieto. And it was lovely, really: We sat on a double bed in a seaside room in Riomaggiore, a paper-thin towel spread between us, with a picnic of real prosciutto, soft taleggio cheese, fresh bread and blood oranges that dripped with juice.
Yet, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t enjoy the romance of this without a parade of niggling doubts. I was stopping in tobacco shops all over Italy to buy phone cards so I could call the kids, worried that I’d left them motherless too long. This business of trampling through ancient cities with no goal in mind seemed slightly self-indulgent. And so much of what we’d seen — around the Vatican particularly — struck me as manipulative and Disney-fied. Plaster Pietà doorstops, light-up Pope Benedicts, Jesus-on-a-stick.
Often, we would find ourselves completely surrounded by other tourists: Asian men photographing their wives on bridges, gaggles of blond women from Texas, swarming groups of high school students with bored eyes and Celtic cross tattoos. We had gone to all this expense and trouble in order to experience a different culture. Yet a huge number of the people we encountered looked exactly like us: Americans toting guidebooks, fretting about the price of the euro and looking for deals. I was still wary, but part of me began to grow angry on the behalf of Italians, even the oaf from Orvieto. After dodging slow-moving sightseers all over Florence, I was ready to poison a few myself.
Before leaving — once our return flight was within sight — we spent two idyllic days in Lucca, a sweet, little magnolia-strewn village in north-central Italy. We’d gotten to the end of our trip with a couple of hundred dollars to spare, so John and I finally let go of the budget. We rode bicycles, stayed in a quaint bed-and-breakfast, dined out on fagioli with braised arugula and roasted duck. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed like family. The owner of the B&B invited us to use her personal computer; the waiter at the restaurant demurred when we tried to leave him a 20 percent tip.
Back home this was what we talked about. Like real travelers, we raved about the beautiful trees, quaint brick-walled town and authentic Tuscan food. Then sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, we would tell the Orvieto story, too. But we made it funny rather than sinister, imitating the restaurant owner, making him into a colorful character in our own private Italian tale. It became one of those quirky, vivid memories two married people share.
Deep down, though, my doubts remained. I knew that if John were still throwing money around — as he did when he was taking exotic wildlife tours, trekking through the Arctic on a second mortgage, extending his trip to the Middle East because the scuba diving was really good — he would have been treated well throughout Italy and probably had a much better time. And I worried about what that meant. Had he stayed single, my now husband would have had the option after Orvieto to throw the Rick Steves book in the garbage, pull out his platinum AmEx, and find a fancy hotel with real linens and a bathroom en suite.
Instead, he spent much of his vacation calculating the costs of museum admissions and trains, then standing outside phone booths while I was on hold for the group-home director or negotiating with our daughter about whose house she could go to after school. Perhaps, I thought, our trip was the turning point, that critical juncture when he realized the enormity of his trade. Surely there was a limit to the value of warmth and family when unconquered countries were at stake.
After we arrived home I watched John, quietly, as we went back to what was, only two and a half years ago, my life. I was a little distant, on guard. If he was about to tell me this marriage was constricting, too much responsibility and routine, I wanted to be ready. It was during this period — at another party, nearly identical to the one last fall — that I overheard a magazine publisher sigh longingly and ask John what it was like to live in Spain.
He paused and I waited, thinking about all the possible answers he might give and imagining the mean guy from that earlier party materializing to chime in, “Yeah, what’s it like to go from that to group-home conferences and college orientation sessions and teenage girls screaming because they’re having a Heath Ledger film festival in the basement?”
I edged closer. Finally, I heard my husband’s low drawl. “Lonely,” he said. “Honestly, it was one of the worst times in my life.”
I crept away, but a few minutes later, John came and found me. Our daughter had called him on his cellphone. She and her friends were sick of TV and in the mood for Ben & Jerry’s. Could we pick some up?
“C’mon,” he said, touching my shoulder. “I really want to go home.”