I've flown across the Atlantic so many times that I've lost count, so often that the journey is second nature, like my early-morning stumble from bedroom to shower. But I remember the first time. It was 1985, and I was 5 years old. I held my mother's hand as we boarded the plane at O'Hare, and the stewardesses (still stewardesses back then) smiled at my Laura Ashley dress and patent leather Mary Janes. My sister Lorna was 3 and dressed just like me. On that journey we were happy and well-behaved. With good reason -- we were moving on up, abandoning the gray suburbia of Arlington Heights, Ill. for Rome ("Ro-ma!"). Dad had landed a job with the U.N. after answering an ad in the Wall Street Journal, which apparently used to run a classifieds section for all kinds of work.
My sister Alessandra was born in Rome six months after we arrived, and our lives in Italy lived up to her elegant Italian name.There were international schools and embassy parties. My father's office had a view of the Circus Maximus. No more chariots, but joggers kicked up the same dust on the same path.
"You are walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, girls," Dad said.
At school our classes were half in English and half in Italian. Within months Lorna and I could prattle away with our Italian babysitter Emmanuela in her native tongue. I went to kindergarten with two sisters named Aurora and Andrea Celeste, the daughters of Claudio Villa, a bald old man who, it turns out, was an Italian singer as famous in Italy as Dean Martin was back in "the States," which is what we'd learned to call America. Villa's classic hit was "Arrivederci Roma," which name-dropped a restaurant (Squarciarelli) our school bus passed every day. My hilltop elementary school stood on the grounds of a former vineyard and counted three Borghese scions as members of the student body.
Six years later, when my parents split, my sisters and I moved back across the Atlantic to Kalamazoo, Mich., with Mom (Kalamazoo was her hometown). By then, it was the States that felt like a foreign country. We were different in many ways that mattered, from our too-short pixie haircuts down to our Superga sneakers, so out of place amongst the stampede of Nikes. We spoke funny, our English interspersed with Italian -- instead of ouch, we said "aia." We measured our height in meters and our weight in kilos. Though we knew other kids whose parents were separated, no one's father lived in another country. My classmate Henry Beam threw paperclips at me.
"Go back where you came from!" he snickered.
It didn't help that as soon as summer arrived, instead of hanging out with the friends we'd made during the school year, my sisters and I did go back. My father fought for joint custody and won. So even though Dad lived in Italy, we were expected to spend a good amount of time with him each year. And we were expected to travel alone across thousands of miles to do so. Every summer, and every other Christmas.
Because I was the oldest sister, I was, by default, in loco parentis for each of these trips. But no one told me one key fact about traveling with young children: they puke. Each time a flight took off, and right after it landed, Alessandra, six years younger than me, threw up. She puked while we taxied on the runway in Frankfurt, while we took off in Brussels, and while we idled on tarmacs in London, Chicago, New York, Venice and Milan. She'd often puke right into my lap. She announced the puke's imminence with a quiet "It's coming," as though it were a check in the mail. It was my job to have the sick bag ready. It was also my job to hand the bag, full and dripping, to whatever flight attendant (we'd learned the proper term) made the mistake of checking in on us. A few times I was too embarrassed to hand it to anyone, so I tucked the bag and its brimming contents into the seatback pocket, behind a magazine. After those flights, we hustled quickly off the plane. If caught, we denied responsibility.
The trips became routine, and we sleepwalked through them. In Kalamazoo, Mom took us as far as the American Eagle gate at the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport, and then waved goodbye as we boarded a puddle jumper to Chicago. We'd board another plane at O'Hare, which would carry us to an anonymous European hub. Once in Europe, we would connect to our third and final flight of the journey. Dad would meet us in the arrivals lounge at Fiumicino.
"Hello, girls," he'd say, like he was picking us up from school. Safely in our father's custody, we'd yank off the packets hanging from our necks, which stored our passports and announced to the world in big bold print that we were "Unaccompanied Minors."
Best airport for unaccompanied minors? Fiumicino. Think of the Anita Ekberg arrival scene in "La Dolce Vita." It was like that, minus the flowers. We told the Italians charged with meeting us at the gate that Alessandra, the cutest of us all, had an Italian name because she was born in Italy. This fact, along with the beautiful irony of her name, "Alessandra Macfarlane," made the Italians coo with delight.
"Wett? Ehrrr nemme eez Eee-TAHL-leeahnn! Brrah-vey! Brrah-vey!"
Alitalia, the Italian national airline, was especially good to us. In Rome, Alitalia would let us hang out in the first-class lounge with Dad until it was time to board, no matter that we always flew economy. Then a young man with very little authority but a lot of pent-up energy, someone who was often named Massimo, would take us to an elevator that landed on piano terra (the ground floor) and opened magically onto the tarmac. Then Massimo would load us into a Fiat with the Alitalia logo on the side. He'd zip between airplanes, joyriding to our 747. If we'd cried when saying goodbye to Dad, Massimo hit the gas to help us forget.
During the "every summer and every other Christmas" era, my sisters and I stayed with Dad at his bachelor pad in Trastevere, a bohemian neighborhood that hugs the Tiber. You orient yourself in Trastevere based on which bridge you are near -- the Ponte Rotto (the "Broken Bridge"), the Ponte Sisto (direct access to Campo de Fiori and Italian teenage boys), or the Ponte Inglese (the "English Bridge," because traffic flows in the wrong direction). Every corner of Trastevere was a postcard, its cobble-stoned vie lined with pizza and gelato. We'd sit on the steps of the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria, gobbling ice cream out of paper cups and staring at the teenagers draped in elaborately knotted silk scarves. They looked good.
Dad's place was on the fifth floor of a building near Santa Cecilia, whose bells rang each morning at 7. There was no elevator and, for a few years, no dining table. Not the ideal place to host little girls. There was a sense of anarchy to the months we spent there, and Dad imposed no rules to govern the daytime hours he was away at work. Instead, he encouraged us to explore Rome on our own. He'd give us some lire for food, and that was it.
By the time Lorna and I were teenagers, we decided to stockpile the food money. We'd figured out there was no drinking age in Italy. On the last day of our visit, we'd scamper to the liquor store on Via della Scala and blow all the lire on Absolut. The store stocked mostly grappa and sambuca, drinks to digest with, and the shopkeeper was confused by our orders. Italians aren't much for vodka.
Lorna was pushing six feet by then, and she and I looked less and less like girls, which meant that our carry-ons might be inspected at Fiumicino. Or worse, at the customs checkpoint at O'Hare.
"My backpack is really heavy," Alessandra complained while we stood in line at the Fiumicino security check. She was 9 the first time we used her to smuggle booze.
"Shhh, Ale. Be quiet," Lorna growled. If the plan worked, only Lorna and I would be asked to open our carry-ons, and little Alessandra and her backpack full of vodka would sail through unexamined.
Did it work? Every time. For a few weeks we were heroes back home, and the vodka flowed freely in clandestine basement parties across Kalamazoo.
But it was no great feat to smuggle it in. Alessandra, gap-toothed and pigtailed, looked every bit the innocent. No one wanted to examine our bags, to bother us. They seemed to know, instinctively, that kids traveling such long distances alone are shuffling from one parent to another. We'd get sympathetic stares and pity-filled nods from the flight crew and fellow travelers alike. Every summer, and every other Christmas, we marched through one gate after another, soldiers of separation, casualties of a difficult divorce.