Monday, March 16, 2009

Bambini!


My father is a seasoned, sophisticated traveler. This is true now, and has been for a while, although of course it could not always have been the case. There was a first trip, sometime (a boy from Alabama battling fear and loneliness on a Protestant mission trip to Mexico in the 1950s). As long as I've known him, though, he's been the consummate travel planner. After working out flight routes well in advance and anchoring any trip with carefully selected accommodations, my father would stop at his favorite bookstore for guidebooks and other titles of local interest (whether "local" meant one state away or across an ocean), then he'd hit any store or stores that sold convenient travel items, including but in no way limited to: passport holders and money belts (for the traveler's checks he'd get from AAA), power cord adapters, pocket rain ponchos, protective bags to shield film from airport X-ray machines, mini plastic bottles for shampoo or lotion, "W.C." essentials for use in places without sanitary toilets (this could be mini "wipes" or even a roll of toilet paper with the cardboard core pulled out so the paper squashed down flat), compact travel toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, single-use packets of Woolite, and even a laundry line kit that included teeny multicolored clothespins. He thought of everything. His enthusiasm was always contagious, and I remember as a child that I loved to investigate his purchases as he brought them home. In the weeks leading up to the trip, he would work his way through books and magazines, would find all the recommended and out-of-the-way sites, restaurants, shops. He would build up excitement for the trip when my mom and I were accompanying him, sharing the tidbits and unearthed treasures of our destination. The night before departure, my father turned into the luggage gestapo. It's become family legend, how he'd drill us (me anyway) in a complex wardrobe selection and elimination process, which generally involved laying out first choices, then working on simple division: cut it in half; cut that in half again. I have learned to travel very lightly, to avoid if any way possible any bag big enough to have to check in the plane's cargo hold. It's a valuable skill—especially in an age when travel has become even more complicated (ever my father's daughter, I can now brief you on the TSA's 3-1-1 guidelines). But no matter your level of travel experience or savoir faire, the beauty of visiting foreign places is that there is still always the possibility (I would say the inevitability) that something, large or small, could be your undoing. Or if not your undoing, then fodder for humorous stories told at your expense for decades to come. My father will never live down the episode we now tag by its punch line: "Bambini!" Remember that laundry line with teeny multicolored clothespins I mentioned? In the spring of 1982, my parents and I went to Italy (Rome) and to Greece (Corfu and Athens). In Rome, we splurged: we stayed in the renowned Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps. When we arrived, having flown across multiple time zones from L.A. to New York to Rome, we were jetlagged; I'll certainly allow that as a mitigating circumstance. Our bodies and minds were numb, the flights resulting in a horrible struggle to stay awake long enough to approximate a local sleeping schedule (or rather, resulting in two-thirds of the family, my mom and I, being wide awake at 3:00 AM local time, dancing and laughing in the bathroom). Anyway, we arrived—exhausted but giddy, amazed at the simple fact of being in Rome. One of the first things we wanted to do was settle in, claim the Hassler room as our own for the duration of our stay, unpack our things, open the desk drawers to look at the hotel stationery, and so forth. My dad went to check out the bathroom. A moment later, he called out to me (or maybe I just followed him there), and he pointed to a flat, round metal fixture shaped like a cap that was mounted high on the wall above the bathtub, at shower-curtain level. It had a cord in the middle of it. "Look," my dad said, and then he went on to explain how great these grand old European hotels were, how they had wonderfully convenient amenities such as a built-in laundry line; we didn't need that travel kit after all. He tugged the cord across to the other end of the tub, looking for the hook where it would attach. He couldn't find one, so he released the cord, but then pulled it out again, and maybe even a third time. Caught up in the mystery of where we were supposed to hook the end of the laundry line, we were both scouting the wall when the door buzzer rang. My father opened it and was nearly knocked down by an ample-figured, middle-aged Italian woman wearing a starched white attendant's or maid's uniform and wildly flapping her way toward the bathroom, all the while streaming the most urgent but still musical Italian we'd yet heard. She looked at the wall-mounted cord, saw that there was no one but me in the bathroom and that I was wide-eyed but perfectly fine, and she realized what must have happened. "Bambini," she said, looking at me and smiling now. "Bambini," she said to my father. The woman gestured to me and to the bathroom cord, and somehow made it clear what the cord was for: it was a medical-emergency cord, to be pulled in case of, well, some kind of medical emergency, and apparently my father's strong tugging on the cord (three times?), triggered quite a panic among the staff. Far from being angry, though, the woman was more relieved that everyone was all right. She also seemed predisposed to find delight in a child's innocent mistake. "Bambini," she repeated once more, ready to return to some employee area where she'd probably share the story with others and laugh. Standing in the entryway developing a cat-who-ate-the-canary look on his face, my father smiled back at her and nodded happily, repeating "Bambini, bambini," closing the door behind her as she left.

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