‘What? You and Katy are bringing your three kids to Italy for three months? Are you nuts?” That was the general reaction to our plan by friends who have traveled with children. The other was, “Eric is gallivanting around Italy” and “eating at fancy restaurants” (obviously, that came from people who don’t have kids).
My wife and I jumped at the chance to live in Florence when I was offered a teaching stint there, even though it was financial folly to bring over the whole family. Escaping the tail end of a grueling winter was enough incentive, but Katy and I knew that we would be in Tuscany long enough to experience day-to-day life — including its difficulties. If we have to be around our wild, screaming children (Eilif is 10, Otto is 8, and Astri is 2), can’t we at least be around beautiful art? “You know that Italy has more masterpieces than any other country, right?” my Italian friend Roberto told me.
“Isn’t ‘masterpiece’ a judgment call?” I replied.
“No, no, these are confirmed masterpieces,” Roberto insisted.
“But can’t each artist have only one ‘masterpiece’ by definition?”
“You don’t understand. You see, where you’ll be, Florence, has the most confirmed masterpieces of any city in Italy; therefore, it is the city with the most masterpieces in the world.”
I could see my semantic argument led nowhere; besides, he’s right that no other city (except maybe Rome) can come close to the sheer volume of first-class Renaissance art. Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini noted that just the basement of the Uffizi stores enough artwork to create major shows in New York City for five years.
Lesson 1: Prepare to envy your children
Our Italian friend Carlo had warned us about signing the kids up for Italian public school: “You will spend all of your time navigating the bureaucracy, getting signatures, and signing documents. By the time you get them into school, it will be time to come home.” Instead we opt for a private art-based school called Kindergarten, even though Eilif is a bit insulted since he’s in fourth grade.
Our boys aren’t so sure this is a good idea and are visibly nervous entering a foreign school, even if they can understand much of the Italian due to their language lessons in Minnesota. The first day, both Eilif’s and Otto’s teachers open their doors and give the boys bear hugs and multiple kisses on the head. They melt with relief at the warm welcome. I soon deduce that all this hugging and kissing could be why lice is so rampant among the students.
The boys are thrilled with the free spirit of the school; no one scolds them if they run in the hall, and everyone seems to like how “vivace” they are. They’re fueled by the frequent Nutella snacks and freshly made, three-course lunches of pizza margherita, fresh mozzarella cheese balls, risotto, prosciutto cotto, etc. “They’re eating far better than we are,” Katy points out.
What’s more, their classes take regular outings to local landmarks. Our kids already missed this year’s trips to the Uffizi and the climb up the cathedral, but Eilif’s class goes to the DaVinci Museum in Florence to see models of Leonardo’s inventions. When that isn’t enough, they take a bus to the town of Vinci to see where the Renaissance master’s revolutionary ideas began.
Otto’s second-grade class has to settle for a daylong trip to Livorno on the Mediterranean, while Eilif informs us his entire fourth-grade class will travel to Turin and then to the steep mountains of Valle d’Aosta near France for two nights. Who in their right mind would take a gaggle of forgetful, know-it-all 10-year-olds to a major city and then to precipitous cliffs?
“That’s just what we do!” the principal tells me. Indeed, nearly all Italian classes beginning in about third grade take major trips around the country.
Lesson 2: The walk to school isn’t all innocence
Each school day, we traverse 2 kilometers across Florence’s historic center to take the kids to school. As we approach the Ponte Santa Trinità, I put on my professor hat and point out to the boys that this is where Dante met his beloved Beatrice. They’re more interested in the tourists who have discovered gelato first thing in the morning.
I point out the fog enveloping the bridge from the River Arno, but this haze instead comes from a gaggle of junior-high kids, all smoking and flirting out of sight of their parents and teachers.