For my long-time readers, I hope you’ll forgive the reuse of an essay that was originally published in Issue 41 of Lowestoft Chronicle. A month-long bout of Covid, XBB edition, has knocked me flat and stuffed my brain with wool. Staring into space is about all I can manage. I’ll be back with freshly-minted stories next month when I’m less muzzy-minded.
I also promised an update on the results of the “Trees for Suffield” photography contest. I’m happy to report a first place win! Take a look at the winning photo on my website here.
The Sugar Hop
On the third night of our stay in Venice, my husband, Tim, announced his plan to travel to Bologna the next day to see some college friends overnight. I tried not to show my fear. What was I going to do with the kids—Faith, 14 and Aidan, 10—for over twenty-four hours? It's not like I'm afraid of my own children, mostly. It's that we have diametrically opposed views about what constitutes a good time.
Take, for example, our first day in Venice at St. Mark's cathedral: “This church is almost one thousand years old,” I whispered with reverence.
“We've been in here almost that long, haven't we?” Faith whispered back.
And two hours later at the Doge's Palace: “This is where Marco Polo set out...”
“I know, Mom. I saw it on Netflix. Except it wasn't sweaty with a million people,” Aidan said. I felt a little deflated that they weren’t as excited as I was.
Tim suggested lunch. He randomly selected a hole in the wall pizza place called Antico Forno, a short walk away, and the best pizza in the city. He's lucky like that. In fact, things just generally go his way.
When I broke out the tourist map after lunch—there was still the Gallerie dell’Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim Collection to visit—Tim proposed scrapping the rest of the day's sightseeing. The kids cheered. As their triumvirate marched hand-in-hand back to the apartment for WiFi, I gaped after them wondering, who doesn't like eight-hour museum visits?
And there lies the crux of the problem. More often than not, our family of four is more like a family of three plus one, the triad—Tim, Faith, Aidan—and me. Tim is the apex of their triangle. He understands what they like. He's fun. I'm fun's kryptonite.
Tim set off for Bologna around eleven in the morning. The kids and I stood in the doorway and waved goodbye. As though the city itself was saddened by his departure, the sun disappeared. Dark clouds smothered the sky. I told myself, this is not an omen. I closed the door, and gathered my courage. I was determined to rise to the challenge, determined to win the affection so easily bestowed upon their father.
“What do you think about doing a Sugar Hop today?” I asked. The kids eyed me suspiciously. It sounded good, but I couldn't be trusted. It might be Mom-code for “visit something old and irrelevant.”
The idea of a Sugar Hop came to me while I was not sleeping the night before. As I tossed and turned, I asked myself, What do the kids like to do best? The answer was easy: eat dessert. At least my DNA dominated in them somewhere. I decided we would visit the five best dessert stops in the city, like a pub crawl, but better because it involved pastry.
The kids eyed the uncooked cube of pasta sitting near the stove. “Aren't we going to eat lunch first?”
I shook my head, giddy with the possibility of finally peaking that family pyramid, basking in their adoration. “Today, there's dessert for lunch.”
Gelatoteca SuSo is located in the Piazza San Bartolomeo, or so said the inverted teardrop on my Google map. When we arrived in the narrow piazza, dolloped with tourists taking photographs and eating beneath cafe umbrellas, the gelateria was nowhere to be found. The three of us stood in a clump near the fountain scanning the buildings, our clothes slowly fuzzing over with drizzle.
“I guess it's not here,” Faith said, disappointment creeping into her voice. I would brook no failure only fifteen minutes into our adventure. We stalked the perimeter, scanning each facade until we discovered an alley that led into a claustrophobic warren of shops and byways. There, SuSo waited for us with open doors.
The shop was tiny and overflowing with people. We alternated tiptoes and squats to see the flavors in the glass case between the elbows and shoulders blocking our view. Neat rectangles of gelato stretched the length of the shop. Pastel sunrise colors changed to deep purples and chocolates. We selected our flavors, menta, mango, and cioccolato, and drifted into the cobblestoned alley to savor our first treat of the day. As the gelato melted on my tongue, I indulged in a little self-satisfaction. This had been a good idea. I had a good feeling about they day.
Her foot jerked up and she held it, balancing on one leg. “Oh my God,” she cried. She covered her open mouth with one hand, dropping the plastic spoon dropped to the ground. A little mouse lay on its side, twitching in a smear of blood beneath her sneaker.
I put my arm around her shoulder and steered us away to sit on a small bridge. We let our legs dangle above the canal while Aidan and I ate our cups down to the plastic coating. Faith held hers until the gelato turned to soup. The drizzle turned to rain, polka-dotting the water below. None of us wanted to wait out the storm near the scene of the rodent murder, so we walked on, three of us huddled beneath an umbrella sized for one. The streets emptied of tourists until only puddles remained. Within minutes, each of us had one side soaked through.
“This is great, huh?” I said. Neither of the kids mustered a smile for my feeble joke.
We wound our way through the labyrinth of streets for half an hour to reach our second destination, Grom’s. When we arrived at a row of brightly lit stores, one was dark. We pressed our faces to the glass of Grom’s. Saws rested on the floor, plastic sheeting hung from the windows, and black wires dangled from the ceiling.
“Figures,” Aidan said. He's my optimist.
“Now where?” Faith asked. We flattened ourselves against the storefront for the meager protection of an overhead awning. A small river of water rushed past our feet along the cobbles. Faith pulled off her sneaker and pressed it in half like a panini, trickling water down the laces into the gutter. I didn't have that problem; I had worn sandals. Rain slid right off my pickled feet.
For the next hour, we sloshed to gelato stops three and four. One didn't exist; the other wasn't open on Tuesdays. Three hours after we set out from the apartment, we reached the last shop, Tonolo, almost too tired to care. I left the umbrella in the stand at the brass threshold, a large circle of water forming as it drained. Inside, a gleaming glass case of confections rallied our spirits. There was a carnival of choices: cakes on golden doilies, pastry with stained-glass windows of red and yellow jam, risers of chocolates, and rounds of fruit tarts. With our boxed selections in hand, we trudged home.
Once dry, we unpacked the sweets, dividing them into slivers of three.
They were delicious, true, but the five full minutes of satisfaction did not tip the balance of misery we endured to get them. And it was only three o'clock. Eight more hours until bedtime. Seven if I could withstand the whining.
I thought about what Tim must be doing—probably laughing and discovering the hippest bar in Bologna, where it was definitely not raining. I closed my eyes. What would Tim do? At home, he'd probably flip on the TV where the kids' soon-to-be-favorite movie would have just started. That was out. All the channels in the apartment were in Italian. My mind flashed to Amsterdam, the site of another family sightseeing coup. Instead of attending the van Gogh museum with me, Tim had taken the kids to a movie theater playing Transformers in English. Maybe I could do the same.
The first floor of the movie theater had a small cafe. In it, a glass case displayed sandwiches and pasta salads. Our pastry high worn off, we were hungry for real food and left time before the show to eat.
“E chiuso,” the woman behind the counter said.
I glanced at the clock, forty minutes until close. I pointed to the sandwiches again. She shook her head, no. How hard was it to reach into the case and give us the sandwiches? Aggravated, we left the cafe. I fished around in my pocketbook for the emergency granola bar, and broke it into three.
As we crested the stairs to the second floor to purchase our movie tickets, the ticket booth guy gave us the once-over. “No English,” he said, despite the theater website's promises.
“Subtitles?” I asked.
He shook his head no. My shoulders slumped. The kids said nothing as we walked back into the ceaseless rain. I scrambled for an idea, a rabbit I could pull out of this crappy hat of a day. Ahead of us, the lane opened onto the Grand Canal. The warm yellow lights of the restaurants shone on the cobblestones and in the water.
“How about dinner along the Grand Canal?” I said.
Faith rallied a weak smile. We chose the first restaurant off the Rialto Bridge. The waiter seated us inside with a perfect view of a construction wall that blocked the canal. Two hours later, our meals arrived—cold, beige, and tough as an old pizza box.
On the way home, a gust of wind mangled the umbrella, turning it first inside out, then perpendicular to the handle. I threw it in a trash can and let the rain soak my hair into licorice ropes. When we finally closed the apartment door behind us, I flopped down onto the couch, squelching with self-pity. “I'm sorry, guys. It would've all gone perfectly if Daddy were here.”
“Poor Mommy,” Faith said, seating her wet bottom next to mine. “It was a good idea.” She gave me a sympathetic half-smile and lay her head against my shoulder.
“It wasn't that bad, Mom,” Aidan said.
I gave a mirthless snort. “Name one good thing that happened today, buddy.”
Aidan stood quietly for a moment, considering. He walked over and sat on my lap, slipping a small arm around my neck. His cheek rested softly against mine. I closed my eyes and inhaled the wet scent of them, felt their warmth against me as our clothes quietly seeped a triangle of water into the couch.
“What about now?” Aidan said. “Right now is pretty good.”
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I can relate. My kids and I all have different ideas of fun, but they’re 9 and 12 and it’s just the three of us, which makes planning vacations, or even just outings, pretty tricky. Dessert is always, always involved in our plans too :)
Congratulations on your prize-winning photo, and get well soon!