Trevi Fountain, Rome
The Trevi Fountain.
| Credit: Andrea Wyner

The idea first came when, pregnant with my elder child, I visited Israel with my husband, Claude. We had a stopover in Milan on the way back, and while we were in the airport, we watched an American toddler roll on the floor like an animal, her sweatpanted mother and father barely registering her existence. Next to them, a French child of the same age sat dainty in a dress, contemplating a picture book, while her parents read. I guess stereotypes have to become stereotypes somehow.

“Look at the Americans,” I whisper-spat at Claude. “They are an embarrassment. We are an embarrassment.” This wouldn’t do, I told him. We needed a plan.

That was 2007, and since then a lot has changed. We had our first son, and then a second; the boys are now 11 and eight years old. The time somehow came and went, and before we knew it we’d become a family that hadn’t really traveled that much. In the meantime, America has not gotten any less embarrassing. There are the obvious political reasons for this, though I won’t go into those. But it also feels like our country has gotten more insular and more comfortable.

The danger in raising children here is that they won’t know that America isn’t the world, that it is just another country, that people are basically the same everywhere, except for the language they speak and the food they eat. Without seeing the rest of the planet, how would our kids come to understand that we’re not the only ones on it?

There was also the question of age. In our New Jersey neighborhood, everything is shiny and up-to-date. There’s nothing to remind the boys that human civilization is old and that age can hold value: that an appreciation of your own insignificance comes from understanding that the world didn’t start with you, and it won’t end with you, either. We looked around for ways to instill this value. Claude talked about his parents’ life in Germany. I spoke about my mother’s upbringing in pre-Israeli-statehood Palestine. But to the kids, these were just stories. So this past January, we decided it was time for us all to travel.

We settled on Rome because it leads with its oldness — so much so that there are ancient ruins on the streets. It’s the Eternal City; it is in many ways the distillation of European culture. It seemed like the antidote to the shininess that surrounded us, the screens and the luxury and the postmodernism and the sarcasm.

Rome Colosseum and pasta
From left: The Colosseum; mezzemaniche all’amatriciana at Santa Maria Bistrot.
| Credit: Andrea Wyner

Also, we really didn’t want to fight over new foods. We wanted to sell this trip to the kids, who did not see its intrinsic value, with a deal: What if you could eat pizza and pasta every day for a week? They looked at us like, Really?, and we made our plans.

“This sounds like torture,” said my sister Tracy. “Traveling through Europe with children will not be like when you go on one of your work trips and walk around for hours.”

But what choice did we have? It was time to introduce our children to the culture outside their culture, before it was too late. Which is a long way of explaining how I found myself counting nipples in Rome.

Something you will not read in a travel guide: if you chase your younger brother with an umbrella, trying to duel with him, you might twist an ankle on the cobblestones. And then the other ankle.

“Don’t they know about pavement?” asked our 11-year-old, who is the more practical one.

I explained to him that the cobblestones were the original cobblestones, that they had been around since the 16th century.

Then we were standing in front of the Altare della Patria, unsure what to do in the face of such extravagance—and so we took selfies. Then we stood on the traffic circle, looking up the giant marble monolith in our guidebook and explaining it to the kids: it was a monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy and a symbol of Italian patriotism.

“It’s too big for one person,” the eight-year-old said. Yes, we said, but look at the eternal flame. Look at the columns. Look at the vast expanse of real estate right in the center of the city. “Why don’t they redo it?” he asked. “It’s too old.”

We tried to explain that the oldness was the point, that the oldness is one of the greatest lessons of Europe. That you could be somewhere with constant reminders of history, where you could gaze upon vast monuments erected to commemorate one person—just one person—and that you would feel small in a way that modern American culture, with its participation trophies and its cup holders and its overnight shipping, never really lets a person feel small.

Roman Forum
The Roman Forum.
| Credit: Andrea Wyner

We trudged toward the Colosseum, which hangs out in the city center as if it’s just a regular building. We passed the Roman Forum and other ruins, but what impressed us most were the statues of emperors, several of them, all in a row, as you walk down the boulevard. Imagine that. Imagine being surrounded by everyone who ever ran your country, imagine never being able to escape the context of time and place into which you were randomly distributed.

In the Colosseum, we climbed immense, uneven stone stairs and stood above the fighting platforms. Look how many people could gather here, we said. Look how many people could watch slaves and prisoners fight each other, or fight animals. Finally the eight-year-old understood: this was the place you would go to fight with your brother, since doing
it on the streets was an existential threat to your ankles.

Another thing we did not read in a travel guide: there would be a lot of statues, mostly of men, lining parks and museums and piazzas, and They. All. Would. Be. Nude.

“That is a lot of penises,” my younger son had said the day before. We’d been wandering toward the Colosseum from our apartment off the Campo de’ Fiori, and got sidetracked at the Capitoline Museum, which had a line of white marble men whose marble faces did not express any shyness about the fact that their nether regions were exposed.

The older one didn’t need a travel guide or an art degree to propose an explanation: “I think it probably cost more to have a sculpture of you done with clothes.”

The younger seemed to think this made sense. So they began to count the penises. Why did some of them have hair around them? Why did some of them not? (“Hair cost more, too.”) Good God, why were some of them broken off? (“That’s how they punished you back then.”) And how many nipples was that? (“Twice as many as penises but exactly as many as testicles.”)

To be honest, I was happy for the distraction. They had just seen, for the first time, truly violent renderings of Jesus, in a church we’d wandered into called St. Ignatius. My children stood before a crucifix with all the crucifixings, their jaws hanging off their hinges. What can I say? When we go to the Met, I always take them to the Egypt rooms. We’d somehow missed the ultraviolent manifestations of Christ on the cross.

“Why would they do that to his hands? There are nicer ways to kill someone,” said the 11-year-old.

“Oh God oh God, look at the feet. They did it to his feet, too.”

It seemed like there was no art that didn’t include brutality or holy war. There were hanging Christs at the Pantheon. In the entrance hall of the Galleria Borghese, we gazed up at a scene of heaven. “Look,” the older one said. “They’re stabbing each other in the neck!” The younger one loved this but the older one didn’t. He didn’t understand why you couldn’t have a godly picture without having a picture of violence.

It was the same at the Capitoline; it was the same at any church that has a war scene on its frescoes, which is all of them. “These people are being sent off to war because they think they’ll get a monument,” the older one said. But they would, I told him. “Not all of them,” he said. “Just enough of them to convince the next few.” He was onto something.

In the Galleria Borghese, Claude and I stood peering up until our necks hurt. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the prodigy who had created half the sculptures and ceiling paintings, which, we learned, weren’t technically frescoes because frescoes have to be painted as the plaster is drying. Our younger son cried because he felt disoriented, and, staring up at Apollo and Daphne, both of them found the idea of a human turning into a tree way too gross. (A disgust reflex at the personification of trees is something of a family trait.)

Claude took the children downstairs to get hot chocolate, but I stayed and stared at Bernini’s David. They say that it’s a self-portrait of Bernini himself, David right in the throwing position, twisted and sinewy, steely in his determination against Goliath—Goliath! Bernini made it in 1624, when he was only 25 years old. It took about seven months. These sculptures, they weren’t clay made into something. They were figures of incredible specificity ground down from a single block of marble, whittled down to something that I could find myself in. Each one a life’s work. Each one something that would endure long after the artist was gone, and long after the model’s exemplary body had crumbled into dust. Life, then death.

Yes, penises, too, but life and death.

When I looked away it was because the guards told me that our time was up.

We had waited too long to go to Europe. That became clear to us as we came and went through the parks and museums and down the alleys of Rome—that this way of life was so alien to our kids that it was also anathema.

In Rome, we couldn’t do more than one thing a day, reliably, without the kids wanting to go back to the hotel, or get more gelato, or just give up and not walk any more. It was a lot to ask of a child, to introduce him not just to a new city but to a new city that I wanted to learn about the way I normally learn about cities: by walking it endlessly, from breakfast to bedtime. A child, I immediately realized, needs a goal and a direction.

So we relented and took some cabs. We got on one tram headed for our neighborhood, but I’m pretty sure we stole our fare, since there was no discernible way to pay it. (And what was the fare? And why wasn’t anyone else paying it?) The result is that I can’t quite picture the layout of the city. I sit here now, writing this, unable to picture anything about Rome that Ididn’t see very close-up.

Which is not to say that this trip wasn’t a beauty. We ran up the Spanish Steps in the rain, then down them, then up again, because when you’re with children you do things that you didn’t think you’d ever voluntarily do. We ate fried artichokes in the Jewish Ghetto. Per the recommendation of everyone, we had dinner at Hotel de Russie, with its barrage of floral arrangements and pink portico and waiters who called the children signore. We discovered that if you get to the place by 7 p.m. you’ll be literally the only customers, since it is beneath Europe’s dignity to eat before 9 p.m.

Rome: Coffee and Spanish Steps
From left: An espresso at Ciampini Bistrot; the Spanish Steps.
| Credit: Andrea Wyner

The food at Hotel de Russie was good. But was it as good as Santa Maria, the cheap place with the TVs near our flat? After not very much deliberation at all, we decided that the restaurant, which you won’t find in any guidebook or Michelin list, had the best cacio e pepe in all the world.

But wandering with the kids wasn’t the same as getting to know a city—not really. I can’t tell you anything about Rome other than how it looks through my children’s eyes, other than how life looks when I am distracted by the internal monologue that usually takes place while I’m parenting: When will we eat and how fast will the food get there and should we sit inside because everyone is smoking outside.

I can’t tell you anything about the topography of Rome because my eyes were trained downward, watching for cars down alleys and making sure we had the asthma inhaler and looking at the time because they are going to get hungry soon, and this ain’t America, sweetheart. The food is going to take a while to get here and we’ll look over and the children—the children will do what they do, which is behave either perfectly or terribly, and it is hell to wait it out and see which.

On our last night in Rome, we went to the Olympic Stadium to watch a soccer game in the rain—Cristiano Ronaldo himself, right there a few feet from us. In front of the stadium was, bafflingly, a Mussolini obelisk and a line of statues of, yes, naked men, participating in sports.

“These are the most giant statues we’ve seen so far,” the older boy said.

“The penises are also giant,” the younger one agreed. “Look at the nipples. They are gigantic.”

This was before we entered the arena. By the time we left and I was administering asthma treatments for him, I realized he would smell like smoke for weeks.

We had waited too long to go to Europe.

People had told us that a week in Rome is too much. We agreed at first. We made arrangements to do a day in Pompeii, then stay overnight in Naples. When we booked, my husband and I told each other stories about the times we had taken day trips from other European cities. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, pretending we were people who ever got to where we were going lightly and efficiently. “We just need a change of underwear and that’s it.” But the day before we were set to leave, we canceled. It wasn’t that traveling with the kids was so hard, though it was. It was more that it seemed unfathomable to leave before we’d gotten our bearings in Rome.

As it turned out, we never did. We walked through neighborhoods that were recommended to us, we ate at restaurants our friends told us to eat at. On every corner I stared at the statues. It is generally true that impressive things become less impressive as the days go on, but for me the statues became more and more.

“Slow down,” the eight-year-old called ahead. “Mommy stopped again.”

“This one looks just like the last one,” he told me. The children couldn’t understand why I had to look at the statues. How could they? How could they understand a life’s work when they couldn’t even understand a life? I don’t know. I guess you have to start at the beginning with them. You have to start with the most basic understanding of what is immense about the thing you see before you. You have to drag them through the streets and feed them what they want. You have to hope that one day they will have a memory of being annoyed and waiting, and maybe I’ll still be here and maybe I’ll be gone, but maybe they will interrogate that memory and know what was happening to me in those moments.

“The oldness is the point,” I said again, but they’d already turned away.

There was a hotel we stopped at to eat when the rain was too much as we walked from the Bioparco (the zoo), where we saw animals more up close than our litigious country would ever allow. We were the only people in the dining room. We all ordered spaghetti. Mine was cacio e pepe; the kids just had red sauce. Claude had one with seafood. He and I drank wine and we all played a card game while waiting for dinner, which was being made just for us. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life. “I love it here,” my beautiful younger son said. “I just want to eat spaghetti for every meal.” I said that maybe we would. When people ask how our trip to Rome was, this is the first thing I think of.

When we got home, we settled back into our routines. At night, in bed, I scratch my younger son’s back, according to his demands. I notice how like a statue his musculature and bones are—yes, not that the statues are like him, but that he is like the statues. The statues were, after all, there first. As my son drifted off one evening, I stopped scratching and turned onto my back, and thought, This was why they needed to see the world. You tell them, “The oldness is the point,” in hopes that they will understand that this too shall pass. That their childhoods will pass. So will we, so will they. The ground beneath our feet will remain. These are the lessons we want our children to know.

And we should repeat them as often as we can, so that we remind our kids that this world matters, that it will be here long after we are, that our values will become a monument to us, and our children will carry them, that every inch of this world belongs to us, and we should love it and its people and take care of it. That is what the gladiators knew as they went down screaming. That’s what the soldiers who got stabbed in the neck defending their territory knew. That’s what the kings who are honored in vast swaths of the city knew. They knew that something would outlast them. That we are only here for a little while. “The oldness is the point,” I repeated to him. He was long asleep, but I whispered it again anyway.