Students discover the splendor of Italy (...and its pigeons)

A group of parents and children get together with a geography teacher

The photos I had just picked up from the store told me everything about my children's view of our trip to Italy.

Flying off their Kodachrome memories were pigeons - dozens of them, from all over the country. Harlan and Matthew, my kids, had been especially enthralled in Venice by the thousands that descend daily on Europe's finest drawing room, as Napoleon called St. Mark's Square, in search of tourist-supplied corn.

My children and I were in Italy as part of a student tour. For a high-speed week in April, 24 of us clambered in and out of our bus, climbed cathedral stairs, glided down canals in gondolas, and admired famous sculptures together.

Many of us met for the first time at the airport in Boston. We had a common link: the organizer of the tour, Richard Jensen. Some of us knew him as our child's seventh-grade teacher. Others knew him through their church.

This year, like many others, he had arranged a tour through one of the major companies - in our case, EF Educational Tours - that craft itineraries for student groups and make travel and guide arrangements.

Typically, he traveled with his wife, Joanne, the students, and occasionally a parent or two. But this year, several parents came along, most with the goal of sharing a special and relatively planning-free experience. And it worked: As Mitzi Gilbert, a mother, noted, "It was a winning combination of the ease factor and having my daughter with friends." Caitlin LeBlanc, a seventh-grader, echoed that: "I liked having a parent along - but being with friends was great."

As we introduced ourselves, we laced our comments with disclaimers. We were not "tour types." The "If it's Tuesday, this must be Rome" holiday was not for us. But that's in fact the experience we were headed for. And with kids, many of us decided, it was exactly the right way to go.

We landed first thing in the morning in Milan, where our Italian guide, Santo Sammartino, joined us. Our tour began in earnest right then, and we headed to Verona, home of Juliet's balcony, among other things.

From there, the whirlwind never stopped. In a week, we passed through Verona, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Assisi, Pompeii, Sorrento, Rome and the island of Capri.

Still, we all found quiet moments where we could savor the surroundings or enjoy - again and again - a gelato. And for such a quick trip we accumulated a surprising number of these moments.

In part, that was the result of traveling with many adults who could trade off accompanying children to various sites. I was able, for example, to slip off by myself in Florence for a few hours -visiting the Ponte Vecchio, climbing to the top of Brunelleschi's Duomo -while my children went to Pisa. Other times, parents would go off with their children to see a site giving them "just family" time.

Stops ranged from a few hours to a day-plus. Sometimes the perpetual call to go ("Andiamo!" ) - especially after enjoying the sun on the island of Capri, or meandering

through the well-worn streets of Pompeii - came way too early, prompting grumbles.

No question: On a student tour, bringing along flexibility and good humor is key. Leading the list in this regard for us was the food. If we needed reminders that this was a budget tour, the dinners served us well. Good food was generally found on your own at lunch - if there was time for a leisurely meal, which was rare.

Students and adults alike would have liked to have had more discretion to slow down in spots, even though they understood that this was a preprogrammed tour. The rushed pace occasionally contrasted sharply with a couple of days of long bus rides, adding to frustrations.

The other area demanding good cheer, of course, was operating in harmony with the 23 members of your family-for-a-week. As with any such experience, we all had our pet peeves - the hotels were really creaky (Rome) or the food hit rock-bottom (Sorrento). But those were outweighed, we agreed, by the general good cheer.

Another bonus was our guide, who stayed with us from start to finish. Santo (which means saint) lived up to his name. A substitute teacher waiting to take the national teachers exam, he told us he'd heard all the complaints before and had concluded that a key quality in a guide was "lots of energy." His geniality as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of Italy helped smooth rough moments, and we all appreciated the ease of working with him and getting to know him personally.

Along the way, students enjoyed learning about Italy, occasionally making that exciting leap of recognition when they saw something, like the Sistine Chapel, that they had only read about in school.

In the end, no one seemed disappointed that the Italy of our student tour was not the Italy of gourmet guidebooks. For the parents, it had been a week of connecting in a special way with their children: walking through the quiet streets of Assisi - a spot we all loved - and sharing in the fun of rowing around the Blue Grotto, a cave on Capri. We'd watched as they'd seen significant sites in the company of peers.

At our last dinner as a group, in Rome, the mood was right. Mr. Jensen rose to his feet, fting the group in comic verse. Another adult got up and sang. Guide Santo joined in. Soon, one of the waiters produced his keyboard.

We had shed our American reserve. Sure, the palaces had gone by too quickly. Maps were too often in short supply. This was not a trip for the rigid or high-end traveler. But our last night, in a funky restaurant with babbling fountains and Poseidon sculptures, we were enjoying some of the best Italy had to offer.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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