"Be brave, Mom! I'll guide you through every step," began my daughter's e-mail, the "subject" line of which read, "Sorry: Can't meet you at airport!"
Brave? I didn't need courage. I needed her at Rome's Fiumicino Airport. This was my first time out of the English-speaking world, and I had not expected to go without some pretty extensive hand-holding.
My daughter, a Latin and Greek major, picks up languages as regularly as I pick up her brothers' dirty socks - admittedly, her picking up is done with a bit more gusto. My Italian-language skills, however, were limited to 37 choice phrases, learned with great effort. In the car, via audiotape ("Get By in Italian!"), during the boys' twice-weekly soccer practices and thrice-weekly marching-band carpool.
Chaos upsets me. Bad enough that I'd only known about my Rome visit for three weeks. But to be forced to find my way alone, from the airport, to a taxi, to the ancient harbor town of Ostia Antica? With only 37 choice phrases? When I'd expected Keeley to do all the hard parts? It was too much. If I'd been told up front that I would have to become an intrepid solo traveler, I wouldn't have accepted the ticket.
"Think of it as a scavenger hunt," Keeley's cheery e-mail continued. Easy for her to be cheery: She takes night trains to Venice, and quick weekends to Slovenia to visit buddies. I stay home, flip compost, and make sure her brothers make it to their music lessons on time.
She proceeded to give me Web-site addresses where I could see pictures of all the important landmarks in Ostia, from the view at the entrance to the archaeological site, to the proper path to follow within the site ("it will be teeming with German tourists," Keeley explained helpfully), to the steps of the Capitoleum (capitol), where she would find me during a break from her all-day field trip.
"And remember, Mom, don't accept a ride from any taxi driver who wants to drive you. Only go with someone in a white taxi, who doesn't want your business, because he's official and can't overcharge you!" Fine. Bene.
So for six hours in the plane, while the other passengers watched "Mission: Impossible" on the little video screen, I wrote out new phrases I might need under my changed circumstances. I studied my lovely Italian bank notes, practiced making change, buying my own ticket at Ostia, tipping the cab driver.
I arrived to a glorious, sun-drenched November day. Palm trees actually swayed alongside huge, broccoli-shaped umbrella pines all over the outskirts of Rome. Fairfax, Va., seemed very far away.
Armed with Keeley's travel hints, I sagely waved my head and said "No, grazie," to the throngs of entrepreneurial cabbies who offered to carry my little bag to their taxis.
Diffidently, I approached a gentleman in a white cab, resting under his hat.
"I want to go to Ostia Antica," I enunciated in Italian, much the way a classical actor might declaim in the amphitheater.
"Ostia Antica - you mean the archaeological site, not the modern town of Ostia?" he queried, way too fast, in his native tongue. I could follow him, but just barely.
We sped away at what seemed like 90 miles an hour, past a blur of palm trees and pink buildings. And then I came out with it: my beautiful paragraph of conversation, crafted and memorized with great care and pride somewhere over the Atlantic in the wee hours.
Without flaw (and with rather a decent accent, I must say), I explained that my daughter was studying classical history in Rome as a Duke University junior, visiting Ostia Antica to study the ruins with her class. I noted that the site was closer to Fiumicino than my hotel in Rome, making it the perfect meeting place.
Oh, was I pleased with myself! Just like a native, I thought smugly. Then, horror of horrors, the kind Roman assumed I could actually speak Italian, and casually tossed an equally long, but totally incomprehensible, pile of spoken words back to me. They landed like a lump of cold spaghetti noodles in my lap.
My next word should have been "idiota," then "americana," but I tried to brazen it out by using phrase No. 16: "The weather is lovely today, though a little cool."
The rest of the trip was rather quieter.
My abysmal failure was countered by one small success, at least. My driver did stop at the site of "scanned photo of Ostia Antica entrance" from Keeley's Web-site selections, and I did pay him correctly. Well, I know I didn't underpay him, as he smiled at me when I waved goodbye. Er, ciao.
As ruined cities go, Ostia Antica offers just about everything: Mithraic mosaics, cisterns for the fire brigade, even a Roman-era 7-Eleven. But to me, all roads led to "being lost."
Quickly I referred to Keeley's instruction about taking the path "teeming with Germans." Tourist season was at a low ebb in November, but I finally spotted a stone road with one blond gentleman striding purposefully along. He spotted me and said, I'm absolutely serious, "Guten Tag!" Hardly "teeming," but the shock of my daughter's accuracy must have made my jaw drop. He continued auf Deutsch.
After my halting German sentence in reply (learned at Grandpa's knee more than 40 years ago), he took a new tack and tried Italian. Well, ha-ha, his Italian wasn't much better than mine, so I admitted my national status, and we carried on a delightful conversation auf Englisch.
My confidence was buoyed enormously after that encounter. After all, if my daughter could predict the ethnicity of the only other tourist on my pathway, she could easily find me on the steps of the Capitoleum.
And she did.
Moments after I said "Auf Wiedersehen" to my Teutonic pal and found a seat on a sunny step not already occupied by lizards, a group of students appeared 100 yards before me. Suddenly, one of them - tall, stately, with long blond hair reflecting the sun, and a very smart brown-leather belted Italian jacket - left the group and hurried over to meet me.
Was she surprised to see me? Of course not! And after surviving the series of tests on my quest to find her, I began to realize that it's not really that tough to travel by yourself, after all: In fact, it's kind of fun, kind of, well, an adventure.
I think I'll bring my mother to Europe next year!
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society