Everyone remembers their first time with a certain fondness, even if later times surpass the first experience in any way. I am referring, of course, to vacations. Do you remember your first time?
My family could not afford to take vacations. I remember a trip or two to the Jersey shore, and one trip to the Pocono Mountains. As a teenager, I had some weekend trips to a mountain home that belonged to our parish priest. But that was the extent of vacations during my youth. Unfortunately, I never had the quintessential family vacation experience. Despite this deprivation, or maybe because of it, I somehow developed the wanderlust. My first real vacation experience did not involve my family, but a newly-formed family of friends. It was July, 1985; I was eighteen years old. Our destination? Rome, Italy.
Too many years have passed to remember all of the details about how it came to be, or why Rome was our destination of choice. My partner-in-crime throughout high school was my friend Lou, who was like a brother to me. He had plans to enter the seminary after high school, and he talked about one day visiting Rome. I’m sure his enthusiasm rubbed off on me, but I must have also had an interest in Italy of my own since I chose Italian for my language requirement in junior and senior year.
The idea must have begun between Lou and me, but I took the lead to make it happen. My history teacher was Mrs. Campbell, a fun-loving, wise-cracking lady who loved to travel and loved to teach her students about those places and their history. Towards the end of junior year, I remember asking her, “So, Mrs. C., how about taking a bunch of us to Rome after we graduate next year?” She looked at me for a few seconds, then smiled a sly grin and said “Why not?” If it wasn’t for her, our trip would not have happened!
Our merry band of travelers began to form. The group consisted of eight teens and four adults. First, I asked two girlfriends from school, Sandy and Mary Frances. Lou asked one of his classmates, Dennis, who I also knew from grade school. Mrs. Campbell obviously asked her husband. Also included were their daughter, Mimi, who was two years younger than the rest of us, and their niece, Alexis, who was the youngest of the group at 13. Mimi asked her friend Lisa, whose mother Liz also came along. Finally, Lou and I asked an adult that we knew from our church, Tom, who readily jumped at the chance to visit Rome (apparently because Lou mentioned something about a private audience with Pope John Paul II…fifteen years later the now-Father Lou gave me that opportunity, but unfortunately Tom wasn’t on our second trip!).
And so it happened that my very first plane ride was transatlantic. We had turbulence nearly the entire time. Since I had never flown before, I thought it was all quite normal – similar to riding a bus on a bumpy road. We were all giddy with excitement – especially those of us sans-parents because of the feeling of adventure and freedom. We didn’t necessarily know what to do with that freedom, but the mere thought of having it seemed monumental at the time.
“Can’t you try it for just one night?” ~ Marinella
If events were only judged by their beginnings, our trip was doomed from the second we arrived. Whatever could go wrong, did. Our group booked the trip through a company that specialized in student tours, and they joined us with two other similarly sized groups – one from Connecticut, and one from New Jersey not too far away from our home in Philadelphia. When the large group arrived at the hotel, I guess you could say they weren’t quite ready for us. Our first few hours were spent waiting in the hot Roman July sun outside of the hotel’s lobby. Eventually we were assigned rooms, but the rooms were inoperable and in some cases still under construction! We spent hours waiting for the adults to sort out all of the issues.
“We pulled up to this dilapidated graffiti-covered dive called the Hotel G—–. We all just looked at each other and laughed.” ~ Donna’s trip journal
It was advantageous that Mr. & Mrs. Campbell were our leaders – a building inspector for the city of Philadelphia and a high school history teacher were used to dealing with surly, uncooperative people on a daily basis, and their experience helped us resolve many of the problems. But that first day, after a very long journey and no sleep on the plane, it did not feel like we were in Rome at all. In fact, we were quite miserable. This is what we looked forward to for so long?
“So far, Rome is truly dismal.” ~ Mimi’s trip journal
The next day, our group began the official tour. Our first stop was the Colosseum . You can read about how big the Colosseum is, and you can see photographs or videos. But until you are standing next to it (or driving by it), it is difficult to comprehend its sheer size. When I saw it for the first time, it hit me – we really were in Rome!
We spent nine days at a rapid touring pace including one day in Florence. The highlights were many: St. Peter’s basilica, the Wednesday audience with a young Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s square, the Sistine Chapel, Piazza Navona, St. John Lateran, the catacombs, the Duomo in Florence. The Eternal City embraced my soul – and it has not let go since. I fell in love with Rome, with Italy, with travel. Not to mention Italian food, the hotness of Italian men, the buzzing passionate pace, and a nice little thing called asti spumante.
“By Tuesday, Lexi’s Marinella impersonation was perfect, and she had become our mascot. By Thursday, she had thrown away her shell, probably somewhere near the ‘Wedding Cake'” ~ Mimi
In addition to the wonderful and historic sights, we had a beautiful sense of camaraderie. Mostly, we laughed. I think I laughed more in nine days than I have laughed in the last nine months. Most of the laughter involved the problems and issues we encountered, whether it was our incompetent “guide”, Marinella, who seemed to know less about her city’s history than we did and only took us to guides or restaurants in which she’d get a commission, or the strange bellhop at the hotel, nicknamed Quasimodo, whose job seemed to involve silently lurking in the hallway and leaving large bundles of laundry on the stairs. Whenever Marinella led the bus tour, we were sure to drive past the Victor Emmanuel monument, also known as the “Wedding Cake”, at least six times…regardless of what direction we were supposed to be traveling.
“Let me get this straight – she’s Italian and doesn’t know the Pope has a Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square with thousands of people?” ~ Lou
Because we were so young and the trip was so monumental, it became larger than life in our memories. We reminisced afterward – and still do as if the trip only happened last year. Remember the time Louie was late for the bus? Remember when Tom serenaded the old Italian lady? Remember how happy we were to survive that taxi ride? Remember when Marinella asked Mrs. C. if the Pope could change the audience so we could go to Florence on Wednesday? Remember the songs we made up?
“Hey, they’re talking Italian on my Walkman!” ~ Dennis
Ever since, this 1985 trip became not just my first vacation, but the vacation to end all vacations. I’d have fun on other trips to other places, but the memories of this one held a prominent place in my mind. Did it take on this significance because it was my first real vacation? Or was it the location that made it so special? Perhaps it was the group of people I traveled with? Or merely the fact that I was eighteen and it showed me a whole world existed outside of my tiny life?
Despite the wanderlust it awakened in me, I didn’t take another real vacation again for seven years, and I didn’t go to Europe again for thirteen years. Not for a lack of desire, but either a lack of means or traveling companions. But since that second trip to Europe, travel is a regular, recurring, and essential part of my life. I’ve been fortunate to have visited many of the world’s cities: London, Munich, Prague, Warsaw, Paris, Brussels, Seoul. I’ve enjoyed them all, but my favorite city always shall be my first true love, Rome. I’ve been back to Rome three times in the last nine years – sometimes I visit sights I have not seen, and other times I return to my favorite places. Every trip to Rome has been special and memorable for different reasons. But the most memorable trip of all was the very first.
We left Rome and headed back home on July 14, 1985. We were exhausted but refreshed, complaining yet laughing, sad to leave but happy we went. We left Rome twenty four years ago today, but the experience of that trip has never left me.
[Written for the 76th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: How I Spent My Summer Vacation]