Sit up straight

by Deborah J. Smith

One of the more interesting things you can do with your life is take a child on an overseas trip. It’s a real test of all you’ve accomplished as a parent.

For example, spend 10 hours or more on an overnight flight with someone who watches the movie instead of sleeping. Or look at your child’s ‘Kid’s Meal’ to find the airline chefs think a whole candy bar is a nutritious addition to dinner. The last minute, bulging-eyed delivery of, “Mommy, where’s the bathroom?” propels you and junior down the aisle to see a line stretched halfway around the plane.

As they get older, kids get savvy about travel. It’s easier to convince them to see the movie on the way back and snooze on the way out. Jet lag, though, inspires antics that will make you squirm.

My 12-year old son, Conor, and I went to Italy to see the ancient ruins he was studying in 6th grade. Pretty good on the flight, he endured the two train trips and a bus ride from the airport to the hill towns. The next evening we ate dinner in a nice restaurant with linen and glassware. The kid suddenly decided it was too late and he was too tired.

“Sit up straight”
“I’m tired.”
“Get your head up off the table. Be polite.”
“Why? It’s boring”
“Be quiet, will you? You won’t think it’s so boring when your food comes. Want some water?”
“I don’t like fizzy water.”
“Look, it’s Italy. You drink the water fizzy here.”
“I don’t drink fizzy water. I don’t like olive oil. And I’m not eating pigeons.”
“You don’t have to. But get your head up off the table and decide what you do want to eat. And close your mouth when you chew. Do you want people to think you’re an American with no manners?”

Conor soon understood jet lag wouldn’t rescue him from polite society. I made it clear every dinner wouldn’t be pizza by the slice in our room. I was having cappuccino in the morning and wine with supper, like it or not. If he didn’t want cappuccino, there was always blood orange juice and pastries.

My edicts never cramped his style. My son’s priorities were toys, watching cartoons on Italian TV, chasing pigeons and an occasional gelato. Good behavior earned Euros for the toy store. TV is for after sunset. Gelato’s edible even in February. Pigeons he chased around the piazza in the morning while I ate them for dinner at night.

And soon, Conor began to discover Italy. My friends the nuns had a wrought iron doorway that swung open when you rang the bell—as mesmerizing to him as a castle bridge. On the Assisi bus he found his seat: up front, window view, the magnificent Umbrian Valley visible ahead. We hiked Vialle Albornoz, the road that skirted the perimeter of Assisi until light faded behind the mountains and the steep, sweeping descent of the valley below dissolved into blackness.

My son took photos of the cats in Spello and ate chocolates through Perugia. He tried panini and bought Italian sweets for his pals at home. We gazed at the skyline of Rome from the Gianicolo hill, golden in the evening sun.

When we entered the Pantheon, we both looked up at the hole in the dome, the clouds of night slowly drifting across the expanse of the opening.

“Oh wow…” Conor’s mouth dropped open.

“It’s something isn’t it?”

“Look at that…”

“And there’s the drain holes in the floor for when it rains.”

He was wide-eyed with amazement. Score two points for Mom.

Afterward, we went to Giolitti’s, a shining brass and marble gelateria and patisseria, offering well over 60 flavors of gelato. My son pondered it all and soon pointed out the two he wanted. Not really paying attention, I got chocolate and coffee gelato con panna (whipped cream).

Strolling down the street, Conor’s gelato looked far more adventurous than mine. I pride myself on fearlessly trying new things. But tonight he’d picked English Trifle and Sicilian cannoli flavors. The trifle tasted like the fruit-and-cream based dessert popular in Britain, while the second gelato resembled ricotta cannoli filling. Both were wonderful, complex tastes that beckoned the eater to have more.

My flavors were great, dense chocolate and rich coffee, but Conor surpassed me in picking out gelato. I went with tried and true, while he found something unique. My son had come to appreciate, lick by lick, the taste of a different culture.



© Deborah J. Smith

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem