Taking Him to Italy was the Right Call
Four-month-old Liam had arrived in Italy with his parents, Chad and Susie, who are professors at different small midwest U.S. universities. About ten years ago Susie had the opportunity to teach in Italy and Chad had decided that he would go with her. For the two of them, it would be their first taste of international travel to a non-English speaking part of the world. Susie would have responsibility for her students, and Chad was scheduled to present a paper at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. For a couple of professors early in their careers, it promised to be an adventure that they both looked forward to.
Liam joined the family, unexpectedly, a few months before the couple was set to head off across the Atlantic. Chad tells the story of how he and his wife ended up taking their first international trip with their very young son. “We adopted our son back in 2010 and we didn’t know we were going to adopt him until…maybe two or three months before he was born. Usually, with a biological baby, you get nine months warning; we didn’t have that! And by the time we got that referral, Susie had already agreed to teach in Italy over the summer.
“All of a sudden the baby is born, and there were already students enrolled in her class in Italy. It just sort of fell together where we thought, ‘We have to do this.’ I suppose I could have stayed back in Michigan with a four-month-old baby, but that didn’t appeal to me. We had all the energy of young parents and we were excited, so we thought we would make it a family event.”
Chad points out that, as with all first-time parents, there were preparations that had to be made. “So, all the baby stuff [for a ] first child. You gotta have a crib. You gotta get a stroller. It’s not like you have all this stuff on hand. So we had to get, not only all of that stuff, but we had to get all of that stuff that could travel internationally. We had to have a car seat that would fit in a stroller that could go down a cobblestone street. We had to have a crib that would pack small enough that we could actually take it on an airplane.”
Most parents will remember that period when they were “new parents.” It’s a time when nearly everything you know as “normal” ceases to exist. Add to that having to navigate security, airports, and foreign towns you have never been to before and don’t speak the language. Why would anyone do this?
Laughing, Chad says, “The Italians would look at us traveling internationally with a four-month-old baby and they always said, “Oh, very brave, very brave, very brave!” And we could tell what they meant by brave was something more like…stupid! More like, ‘What on earth were you thinking?’ I’ve always wondered about that word, brave. It made me more accepting of bad stuff that might happen.”
Chad admits, “It was challenging. In some ways, it was the right time to do it because when you are a brand new parent everything is new and you are dropping all sorts of balls left and right anyway. Everything is up in the air. We were used to winging it after four months. The other thing that was good was he was only four months old-not a year- which meant that when he was in his car seat, he was in his car seat. He was used to being pretty contained.”
The long flight from the United States to Europe didn’t go directly to Italy. The seven hours spent on board the transatlantic flight went pretty smoothly, and it wasn’t until their arrival on the continent that traveling with an infant finally became difficult. “The plane landed in Amsterdam and we had to switch flights and get on a flight from Amsterdam to Rome,” says Chad. “It’s not a very long flight, it’s like 30 minutes or whatever.
“Our plane was late getting into Amsterdam, so we had to go running through the airport. In fact, the plane to Rome would have left without us except we had this huge group of American students. It was half the flight that wasn’t there, so they held it for us. We [were] met at the gate getting off our plane from the U.S. by this perky, Dutch airport attendant who said, ‘Your flight is this way! Follow me!’ Then she looked back and said, ‘But you must hurry!’ We went sprinting through the airport.
“One of the things they did at customs was they dumped out all of Liam’s food. They dumped out all of his formula because we weren’t allowed to bring that in. We brought lots and lots of powder, that you just needed to add water. Given an extra twenty minutes in Amsterdam, we could have found a drinking fountain and shaken him up a bottle. But they hurried us right onto the plane and we simply weren’t able to do that. So, I entered this rather small flight from Amsterdam to Rome with this absolutely screaming baby in my arms.
“He always hated to be constrained but the flight attendant made me strap him to my body, even though he was just burning up. That was the worst experience I have ever had with Liam. He could not be quiet. He was hungry, he was tired, he was hot. I’m getting dirty looks from all these Dutch people who are used to their thirty-minute flight and cup of coffee on their way into Rome. He screamed the entire flight. That was really the only problem we had with him the entire trip, and it was only 30 minutes. “
After sharing his displeasure with the passengers on the short flight into Rome, Liam, along with Susie and Chad, needed to get settled into their temporary home and develop a routine. “ We had this heavenly place,” recalls Chad of their Italian residence. In Italy, “It was basically agro-tourism where there was this rule where Italians can get a tax cut if they have a working farm that is also a lodging. There was this guy who raised a couple of chickens but [had] this old, huge barn that he had turned into smaller vacation apartments. It was this old 17th, 18th-century barn, so all these rustic stone walls, but turned into very comfortable, air-conditioned apartments. He had a pool on the property. It really was this Italian villa where we stayed, which was great.”
For the family of three, it really only lacked in one area. The concept of baby-proofing was non-existent. “Nothin! No,” Chad laughs. “Basically, one of us had to be with him the entire time or he was in his crib.”
Building a Routine
Chad points out that one really nice thing about this trip was that his wife’s formal teaching schedule was not heavy, and that allowed Susie to also spend a lot of time with Liam during this important bonding period. “She would only teach a couple of times per week,” Chad recalled. “The program was set up at this old villa on top of a mountain, and so Liam and I would walk the grounds of that a lot. I got to know that place pretty well. It wasn’t too bad. Her actual classroom time was relatively light. They wanted the students to be out, experiencing Italy, more than sitting in a classroom.”
Chad and Susie, too, were hoping to experience Italy, but having a baby with them meant seeing Italy on Liam’s terms. “For one thing,” Chad points out, “your day is dictated by nap schedules, feeding schedules. I have changed a diaper in some of the most beautiful locations on planet Earth! So, there’s all that hassle. When we were in Assisi, there was a little funicular that goes up the mountain and we just couldn’t do that because you can’t take a stroller or a baby up there.”
At four months old, Liam was able to open doors into their Italian experience that Chad and Susie would likely not have even tried. Chad fondly recalls that “One of the things we discovered was that Italians…love…babies. They absolutely love them. We would get old ladies stopping us on the street, they would talk about 3 seconds to us, and realize we didn’t get it. Then they would start talking to Liam.
“Liam at that point, he spoke Italian as well as he spoke English. It’s just this old lady in his face, smiling. He’s always been very social and he would light up at that. And they would seriously stay there talking to him for five minutes, and then maybe a little bit with us. He brought us into conversations and situations that we two introverts would never have gotten into on our own.
“The first two words in Italian that we learned were “quatro mesi” — four months — because they would always ask, ‘How old is he?’ ‘Quatro mesi? Quatro mesi?’ They could not figure out his name, Liam. His full name was William so we would say, ‘He’s William,’ and they would say, ‘Ah, Whee-Lee-um!’ When that didn’t make sense, we would say, ‘No, Guillermo’ because that’s the Italian version of ‘William’– that they knew.”
Some of the people that they met and saw regularly even began to look out for Liam. It’s a memory that is special for Chad. “We would always go for dinner at the same restaurant and the waitress there was always looking out for ‘Wheel-ee-um.’ One time I had to take him outside to change him and she came back to the table, looked for the baby, and didn’t see him. She looked at Susie, and said, almost angrily, ‘Dove! (where), Dove? Dove Whee-Lee-um? Dove Whee-Lee-um!’
As it turns out, at least a decade ago, having a baby could also be a “Skip the Line” pass at Italian attractions. Chad laughs as he remembers, “We went to Florence. The Uffizzi is this big art museum where they have all these famous Italian masters, and to get in there is like getting onto a flight where they have a metal detector and security guards. They go through all your stuff.
“They saw that we had a baby and a stroller, and the security guards literally jumped out of line. They pushed the crowd aside, removed the rope. They made us go around the metal detector with the stroller. Automatically special treatment for these people. I mean, they didn’t check anything! The moral of the story is,” Chad says, tongue firmly in cheek, “If you want to throw acid on a Botticelli, put it in a baby bottle and bring the baby; they will let you right in!”
It wasn’t all easy, though. Chad, Susie, and Liam were still a new family, navigating their life together at the same time they were coping with customs and culture that was foreign to them. Like most travelers on long trips, you have your good days and your bad days. “We were both figuring out our parenting styles,” Chad acknowledges, “ and they are not identical to each other’s. So, there was a lot of that tension, too, and stuff got difficult at times.”
Parenting, Challenges, and Self Awareness
Take, for instance, their trip to Switzerland where Chad was to present an academic paper. “The Swiss hate babies, right?” he jokingly states. “Well, I wouldn’t say they hate babies, but babies don’t appear on the Swiss radar at all. I don’t think anyone even looked at Liam in Switzerland. The people were uptight and seemed to mostly care about their watches. They were all impeccably dressed and had wonderful manners and really didn’t care that we had a baby.
“On our last night in Geneva, we were supposed to leave at seven or eight in the morning. We woke up at three or four. Liam was throwing a fit. It was god-awful hot in the apartment. We said, ‘Let’s just get the hell out of here.’ I was mad at Susie about something, she was mad at me, and Liam was mad at both of us. So we grabbed all of our stuff, and we’re tromping through the streets of old town, Geneva. We’re not talking to each other, we’re snapping at each other.
“Our plan was to drive back into Italy because our flight was out of Rome. We had a couple of days of driving to get back. We’re driving through the streets of Geneva, and I’m navigating: ‘Turn right, here. Not there! Go left!’ That was one of the times when the tension and the difficulty had just gotten to us.”
As Susie drove along toward the Alps, the tension was thick and unpleasant in the car. Chad continues, “We knew that we were going to be driving under Mont Blanc, which is one of the big, impressive mountains that a lot of poetry has been written about. So, we’re driving around this highway and we’re like, ‘Alright, where is this stupid mountain we are supposed to see? Is that it?’ ‘No, that’s not it, I’m looking at the map, no, it’s not it.’”
“All of a sudden, we came around this corner. It was about 6 o’clock in the morning, and nobody had to ask whether that was it or not. We saw Mont Blanc at sunrise. The top was pink, and we could see the snow blowing over the top. And we all just went, ‘Ooohhh’.
“Fortunately, there was this little turnout on the highway, for people like us who just wanted to stop and look at the mountain. We turned out there. I was quiet, Susie was quiet, even Liam picked up on the vibe and was quiet. I think that morning was the worst and the best of the trip, in terms of the tensions, but then all of a sudden just, ‘Oohhh…’ Absolutely amazing.
“Everything got put into perspective. We drove under the Alps and were commenting on how glad we were to get out of Switzerland because we really started to hate Switzerland. We drove out onto the Italian side and Susie said, ‘Already it feels like we’re home, doesn’t it?’ We rounded a bend in the highway, and here is an Italian road worker in his yellow high-vis vest. No truck or cones or anything around. He’s just standing at the side of the road whacking at the guardrail with a stick. No idea what was going on there. She said, ‘It just feels a little more scruffy, doesn’t it?’ We said, ‘We’re home!’”
People who travel tend to learn something about themselves along the way and Chad was no different. “What was interesting was that when we went to Switzerland I realized, ‘Oh no, wait. This is the way I deal with people all the time,’ and I actually like the extraverted old ladies in Italy who just come up and completely get in your face and in your private space. They stick their fingers in your baby’s mouth and all this stuff that would drive me crazy. It was an interesting opportunity for self-reflection.”
Of this trip, he says, “I didn’t care that much if things went wrong. I would say that it reordered some priorities. Is your shirt clean? No, not really, but my kid is, my kid is safe! You find that various standards go by the wayside when you first become a parent. That really helps when you’re traveling internationally. You know, am I comfortable right now? Well, no, but I’m in the right situation.”
To illustrate this, Chad recalls one of his favorite memories. “That night we were at the restaurant and the waitress was interrogating Susie about where Liam was; we were out in the parking lot behind the restaurant. I had to feed him and change him and burp him. Behind the parking lot, there was this valley. It looked like a 19th Century painting. There is something about the light in Italy. It was sunset, in this valley. It was misty. There were these greens and there were these golds and these oranges. It was completely peaceful.
“That’s the memory I always come back to when I think of being with him in the middle of Italy. There’s the mundane burping the baby on your shoulder, but then you’ve got the Garden of Eden behind you, too. There’s the glory and the baby!”
All Photos Courtesy of Chad and Susie