My calendar says I’m at work teaching businessmen the future tense right now, but in actuality, I’m stretched out on our living room couch with a post-cappuccino buzz and a glowing sense of… survival? victory? impending insanity? Whatever it is, it’s much more pleasant than I would have anticipated Friday afternoon when this all started…
Our trip had been going almost too well. The girls and I had pulled out of the driveway a full minute ahead of schedule, ready with our individual lunchboxes and sun-dappled tunes, and the traffic gods had smiled on us. I’d been nervous to do the 4 ½ hour drive solo with the girls, but just past the halfway point, I was finally relaxing into the easy rhythm of the road, daydreaming about my upcoming date night.
That’s when the alarm went off. I didn’t even know our car had an alarm until it was shrieking at me and pulsing bright red letters on the display: “STOP! STOP! STOP!” I stopped. Hoping it was just a glitch or maybe something easily solved with violence, I consulted our car’s manual. “Low oil pressure—Do not turn on the engine!!!” Well poo.
I had never arranged for roadside assistance before, much less in a foreign language, but two hours, twenty-five phone calls, and one entirely justifiable crying jag later, the girls and I found ourselves high atop a car carrier exiting to The Middle of Nowhere, Emilia-Romagna. “We’re having an adventure!” I cheered while secretly wondering if we’d have to spend the night fighting off wild boars and vagabonds in the surrounding forest.
“All the mechanics are closed for the weekend,” the roadside assister chided as he deposited our car in a parking lot, strongly implying that a more responsible driver would have broken down during normal working hours. “I’ll take it somewhere Monday,” he concluded, taking off his work vest and getting halfway into his own car before pausing. “Want a ride to the train station?” Oh yes, thank goodness, yes.
The train station was tiny and already emptied out for the weekend, but I had enough coins for the automatic ticket machine, and the girls nearly launched themselves onto the tracks for joy. I have to admit, trains are fun. They’re relaxing and exciting all at once, and passengers have no responsibilities apart from reminding their overly delighted daughters to tone down the shrieking and jumping please for the love of all that is holy and sane. We read stories and ate chocolate muffins and weren’t stranded in the forest, and for the entire duration of our ride to Bologna, I felt nothing but optimistic.
I might not have been so glib had I realized that the Bologna train station is basically a mile-long zoo dotted with ticket machines that don’t work and shifty-eyed loiterers and train conductors that slam the door in the face of desperate mothers running up with two young children, four bags, and assorted accessories. Thanks in part to Ms. Conductorzilla, we missed our connecting train by a matter of seconds, and in the process, I mysteriously cut my hand and managed to strew objects all over the platform. It was not the brightest moment of my life to date.
However, I pulled it together, found a bandage, purchased tickets for the 9:45 train to Milan, and took the girls out for a leisurely dinner at McDonald’s. Date night plans were pretty much shot at this point, but at least the girls and I had plenty of time to relax over Happy Meals and maybe do a bit of sightseeing before catching our train. We settled down at the table with our food, and Natalie asked me to check the tickets. I obliged, but they said exactly the same thing that they had every other time I’d checked: “Arrival – 9:45.”
Oh no oh no oh no oh no. There on the other side of the ticket, the side I had somehow managed not to see up until that point, was clearly stamped: “Departure – 8:40.” I didn’t breathe as I checked the time on my phone.
Well damned if we were going to miss a second train that evening. I dumped everything I could from the table into my purse without bothering to zip it, grabbed every bag and child in sight, and began to run. Mercifully, the restaurant was only a block away from the station, but once we got in, there were crowds of people to navigate (while shouting “Excuse me!” in whatever language came to mind) and then two separate flights of stairs. I was dragging Sophie along at top speed and trying not to cry from desperation when it suddenly registered that the girls were laughing. Not just laughing but guffawing. Sophie was laughing so hard that she doubled over, and that’s when I realized she had lost two rather important items on our dash down the stairs: 1) pants, 2) underwear.
Both girls promptly fell over from laughing so hard, and I couldn’t tell whether I was laughing or crying as I sprawled on the floor trying to get Sophie presentable again, and it felt like an eternity before I had collected both children and luggage (my bearings being long gone), and we lunged onto the closest train without checking, and it hurt to breathe, and I didn’t see how I’d survive if we had gotten on the wrong one after all that.
Miracles were on our side though. Not only were we on the right train—and with a generous thirty seconds to spare—but we were on the right car and standing directly in front of the right seats. The entire way to Milan, the girls and I dissolved into giggling fits while I fished individual fries out of my purse and reminded my brain to stuff the What Ifs. We got plenty of looks from other passengers, but when one has just done the impossible and gotten her hysterical, semi-clothed children and their dinners from a restaurant onto a train in two minutes and thirty seconds, one doesn’t tend to value dignity quite as highly as she otherwise might.
I dropped the girls off with their beloved Uncle Mike and caught the last train of the night up to Lake Como, arriving at the banquet just after midnight in smudged jeans and who-cares hair. It wasn’t exactly the Cinderella evening I had envisioned.
But then again, I hadn’t envisioned how deliciously relaxing it would feel to hold hands with my husband under the stars with a good glass of wine and the whisper of water over rocks… or how luscious it would feel to sleep the next morning away in a king size bed… or how perfect a simple carpaccio would taste for breakfast lunch on the waterfront… or how complete I would feel the next evening when the four of us were together again, walking hand in hand along Milan’s navigli.
The only thing that really cast a damper over my weekend was knowing I’d have to get up ridiculously early this morning to take public transportation to work. It felt especially overwhelming last night around 1 a.m., having just arrived home and wanting nothing so much as to put a hold on responsibility. Here too, though, the chaos of upended plans rearranged to reveal miracle, because when an all-day bus strike was announced for our city, being car-less and reliant on public transportation got me exactly what I went to Lake Como to find in the first place: a day of rest.