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O solo mom: my Italian adventure

By Cathleen Ann Steg / September 28, 2000

"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!"

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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.