Posted on March 18th, 2013
I hate planes and suitcases, so I’ve never been much of an international traveler. But I did see the better part of Italy and Greece on a whirlwind Mediterranean tour back in the 1990s. When I tell people this, they usually share tales of their own travels: their honeymoon in Rome, sightseeing in Florence, a memorable walking tour of Pompeii…
Of course they also talk about food: the arrabiata from a back alley trattoria, the little cafe with the flaky sfogliatelle, the beauty of a classic margherita pizza.
I smile politely and nod, but I wouldn’t really know. Sadly, I went on the french fry tour of Italy.
The trip was organized through my high school and run by one of those educational touring companies that offers all-inclusive trips abroad. Everything – from the plane tickets to the meals – was included in a single fee, paid for with money I saved from my summer waitressing job. Our tour group was made up of a ragtag group of 15 tenth graders, three teacher chaperones, and an Education First (EF) tour guide.
Education First was founded on the principle that the best way to experience a distant land is through the window of a high-speed bus — with the strict goal of seeing (and photographing) 10 to 15 monuments each day.
From the very minute we boarded the plane, a cloud of bad luck seemed to follow us. Inclement weather forced our plane to circle the Heathrow Airport strip for hours. EF’s completely inflexible schedule meant that, after 36 hours in transit, we would have to immediately begin a jet-lagged walking tour of Rome. To make matters worse, two of our teacher chaperones discovered their love for each other on the flight across the Atlantic, transforming the rest of our group into the world’s largest third wheel. It was up to the remaining chaperone, a sweet but inexperienced young teacher with a reputation for breaking down in tears, to manage a group of teenagers in a foreign country with no drinking age. The situation was less than ideal.
And I haven’t even gotten to the food.
Our first meal was in the hotel in Rome which, like the rest of the places we stayed, was chosen primarily for its low cost and bulk room availability. And it wasn’t cheap in a cool, European way – more like a Days Inn with weird bathroom fixtures.
The restaurant seemed normal enough when we checked in, but by the evening it had magically transformed into the cafeteria from Oliver Twist. The tables were pushed together and covered with plates of identical gooey food (something like chewy Chef Boyardee). My roommate fared a bit better; indicating that she was vegetarian on her application had resulted in receiving a non-canned vegetable. We hated her for it.
Vatican City wasn’t much better. Our tight schedule didn’t allow for enough time to venture out for a meal at one of the open-air cafes, so my friends and I ate in the basement cafeteria of the Vatican Museum. The curly fries were not particularly memorable.
Mid-way through the trip our chaperones promised us a special night out, which turned out to be dinner at Rome’s very own Planet Hollywood. A plate of soggy french fries later, we were rushing back to the hotel.
The bad luck continued. One of the kids managed to lose his passport while we were on a ferry in international waters, necessitating an unscheduled trip to the American Consulate. A student in the tour group traveling with us suffered a mental breakdown and had to return home on an emergency flight. In a rare moment of spontaneity, a dozen or so kids decided to take a swim on a rocky Mediterranean beach. Moments later, the first one came running back out and collapsed on the beach. I turned to see four large sea urchin spines emerging from his heel. Soon the beach was full of high schoolers receiving impromptu urchin-ectomies. It was like a real-life Bad Luck Brian joke. Cute girls ask you to go swimming on a beach in Athens. Sea urchins.
The stress and sleep deprivation wore on all of us. My roommate eventually cracked under the pressure to photograph every classical treasure in the ancient world. On the sunny streets of Florence, after yet another night of 4 hours sleep followed by the 5 AM hustle and bustle to board the tour bus, she gleefully flung open her camera and exposed two days of photographs. I put away my camera and the rest of our day in Florence was, thankfully, peaceful and picture-free.
Our trip was coming to an end and I had no memories of pasta, pizza, marinara sauce, risotto, or antipasti. But it wasn’t all bad – I did enjoy one excellent Americano (which remains my favorite espresso drink) from the hotel in Rome. There were also the juicy white peaches, purchased by the bag from street vendors, and the many, many cups of icy gelato on the Isle of Capri.
I braced myself for a plane crash on the way home, nervously watching the wing slice through the clouds in the air. We landed safely at JFK and I breathed a sigh relief. We boarded the tour bus – an American one this time – for the final leg of the journey back to our upstate high school. I had smuggled three remaining white peaches from Italy in my carry-on. As I reached into the bag, a funny sputtering sound emanated from the rear of the bus. We pulled off to the side of the highway and the driver got out. He returned a few minutes later and announced that we had broken down and would have to remain parked on the shoulder until a replacement bus came, which should only be a few hours. Someone called the parent contact to inform her we would be late. I believe she laughed.
I bit into my peach, and it tasted like Italy.