“I don’t know what I did wrong,” Sam says. Sam had determined the route. Home from college for the summer, he has always been good with directions. When he was little, I gave him the map to navigate our road trips. He prides himself on sizing up a town, any town, and navigating it like a local.
But on this, our last day, which we reserved for just hanging out — no Forum, no Sistine Chapel, no Palatine Hill — and enjoying a glass of wine at an outdoor café at the one major tourist site we hadn’t seen, we instead are traipsing through town under a harsh sun, a little too on edge to tell jokes.
“You know why they call Rome the Eternal City?” I want to quip. “Because tourists get eternally lost.”
But I hold my tongue for fear that Sam will blow a gasket.
“It’s OK, sweetheart,” Jessica says, a chirpy sympathy in her voice. “Isn’t that the Piazza Navona down that street? We can sit and have a glass of wine there.”
Sam would rather be thrown to the lions than agree that this mission has failed. But it’s late in the day and he senses that the group, i.e., his mom and dad, are giving out.
“Sure,” he says, tight-lipped. “Good idea.” To let us know that he has not surrendered and, at the same time, to signal his need for penitence, he adds, “I’ll just have water.” We take a table overlooking the square, watching the artists and performers in the square and the tourists and the pigeons by Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers.
I order spicy bruschetta and wine. Sam decides to have a glass of wine after all. It may not be the Spanish Steps. But it’s a glass of wine, and it’s hanging out. And we may not be doing what the Romans do. But we are doing what Roman tourists do. I decide to take a chance.
“You know why they call Rome the Eternal City?” I venture. I size up the vibe. Sam is still a little miffed at himself, but he’s getting over it. Jessica is content being off her feet, having a drink. Why risk it?
“Because, um … I forget.”
The day before our last day in Rome, we went everywhere and did everything and said “wow” a lot.
We wowed at the architecture and artwork and sheer enormity of St. Peter’s Basilica. We wowed at the majesty and barbarity of the Colosseum. We wowed at the fountains at Piazza Navona. We wowed at pizza, at gelato, at spice mixtures at the Campo dei Fiori outdoor market.
But at no point in our trip did I wow more than while in line at the Sistine Chapel. As we wait under a wilting Roman sun, it occurs to me that the reason they call Rome the Eternal City is because the lines to get into its sights go on forever.
“We should wake up early tomorrow,” Sam says. “Around 6:30. Come back before they open. The line will be shorter. It’ll be cooler.” Did you catch that? Wake up early? Sam, remember, is a college student. This is summer. College student plus summer equals sleep in — way in. He’s suggesting we wake up at 6:30?
And we do.
And he wakes us.
You never know what you are going to do to get on someone’s nerves. By someone’s, I mean a family member’s. By family member’s, I mean your kid’s.
Here we are in Rome, the Eternal City, and I am nothing if not eternal in my ability to drive Sam crazy with my insistence on getting the right table.
We’re at the small, pastel-hued, Michelinstarred Il Convivio Troiani, one of the finest restaurants in the city. Our table is in the middle of the front room.
“You want to move, don’t you?” Sam asks.
“No,” I reply.
I glance around.
“You do, don’t you?” Sam asks again.
“I mean,” I begin, then catch myself. I am going to make this a good vacation, come hell or bad table. “No.”
The waiter comes over. I order wine. “By the way,” I ask. “How many dining rooms do you have?”
“Three,” he replies. “One on either side of this room.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“You want to move to one of them, don’t you?” Sam asks.
“I was just wondering what they’re like, that’s all,” I say.
A dazzling four-hour blur of anchovy sauce and sweet-and-sour red-pepper sorbet and homemade pasta and roasted squab later, we are still at the same table.
We're breaking down a crowded sidewalk when Jessica nudges me. She nods at a slightly hunched old couple walking slowly just ahead of us, arm in arm, he in a suit, she in a dress. Among the ancient temples and the ageless ruins, the elderly man and his elderly wife, in their dignified and unhurried way, are the picture of the Roman ideal that there is nothing quite so eternal as love.
“Someday,” Jessica says, swooning, “we’ll be like that.”
Sam is several paces ahead of us and comes back to make sure we don’t get separated. I tell him what his mother said.
“Someday, yes,” he says. “Until then, pick up the pace.”
Old folks slowing down. Young man in a hurry. In the Eternal City, some things never change.