Les Miserables

October 13, Sarasota, FL. For over a year, a group of friends have been planning this trip to Italy. It started with a promise made years ago by Marianne to her grandfather, that she would visit his hometown in Rocca San Felice. And so last summer she started investigating options and discussed the idea with several friends. (She & Bruce have since moved to Tucson.)

After a rough plan was formed, a deadline for commitment was set, and five couples agreed to make the journey. During the ensuing year, the plans kept evolving with changes to dates, length of stay, destinations, travel arrangements, local transportation and more. But the ten friends remained committed, despite disagreements on some of the decisions. And the betting odds were that we would go to Italy arm and arm, and return vowed to never speak to each other again. (Peter had pegged the over/under for the breakdown at Day 1 at the departure terminal.) All this sage thinking was based on the fact that here were 10 strong personalities, most with leadership experience and without a follower in the group. That’s a formula for disaster. Well, here’s the way it shaped up.

Tom did extensive research on many aspects of the trip and came up with important information and recommendations. Although most of his ideas were accepted, I’m sure he was disappointed that others were rejected. And even on the trip, Tom shared his vast knowledge, often pontificating on his (humble) opinions. Maggie would often interject following one of Tom’s sermons by mimicking him in a deep voice, “In my humble opinion . . .” and the crowd would roar. Her entertainment value was not to be underestimated, as she more than made up for Tom’s medication issues. Tom also did much of the driving, using his GPS for guidance and “trusting no one with his life in the balance.”

Chris and Bob have traveled extensively throughout Europe, and Chris had lots of insights and suggestions about destinations, attractions, restaurants, etc. Her ideas were usually accompanied by stories from her honeymoon trip to Italy with Bob. But since we were equal opportunity doubters, we often rejected her ideas, as well. While she might have been disappointed, she pouted briefly, smiled and carried on. Bob, for his part was our wine sommelier, selecting the best of the cheap stuff to meet our budget. A couple of times he selected a better bottle for the first round and the house wines for the follow up. Based on the quantities we were consuming at dinner (7+ bottles the first night’s dinner), we couldn’t afford premium wines on a regular basis. But in Italy, the lower-priced local wines were all good. And if we happened to get a poor selection, Bob heard about it from the irreverent crowd.

Bruce and Marianne were in awe of Italy. Every turn brought a new visual that dazzled not just them, but all of us as well. Bruce, who back in the beginning was lukewarm at best about going to Italy, took over 1,000 pictures. Marianne’s big day was the one spent in Rocca San Felice, where we were overwhelmed by the beauty and charm of the town and the warmth of the people. The euphoria carried over to that evening when we met Sara’s family in her hometown for a dinner feast at her cousin’s mountain resort.

Trish had the most difficult time on the trip, as her inflamed knee prevented her from doing extensive walking, or climbing stairs and hills. However, despite the health issues, she managed to include herself in most of the activities, overcoming her pain to enjoy the sights. Bill was his usual impulsive self, running out to a store to buy food items no one thought we needed, and making some interesting dish with them. Also on the trip to Capri, he quietly slipped into his bathing suit and dove into the water inside one of the grottos. Bill engaged everyone he met in conversation (translation was difficult at best), sharing untold volumes of minutiae with us. And although we worried that he would not be on time for every deadline, he didn’t miss one. Bill also split some of the driving time with Tom, and although he claimed he was an experienced stick-shift driver, the burned out clutch and bald rear tires proved otherwise.

Throughout the trip, Sara proved to be our security blanket. Her fluency of the language overcame many problems. While it’s true, that nearly anyone in Europe can communicate in English, the interpretation and amount of information can vary tremendously. Waving your hands and talking loud and slow gets you a limited response. “DOOO VAYY TOYY LETT?” may get someone to point to the bathroom door, but asking for directions to a mountain town 50 miles away, or information on birth records over 100 years old requires more subtle conversation. Sara also played the part of the teacher, correcting everyone’s Italian pronunciation and grammar. Like most students, we did not always accept this in the right frame of mind.

I was the main driver of the second van, and shared the duties with Bruce. I was also responsible for chronicling the trip, so I spent a lot of time observing (mis)behavior and putting my observations in the computer. I also tried to interject my sarcastic sense of humor into our daily routines in order to keep the inmates from getting restless. After two and a half weeks, the fish begins to smell, so I tried to keep it fresh. I think I sometimes annoyed people as I was always up, even when they thought the situation called for cranky. However, I will say one thing about this band of renegades, they sure gave me plenty of material to work with.

And now that we’re back home, the naysayers are dying to know if the ten of us are still friends. Well despite everything I did, the SOBs are still talking to me (and to each other). Go figure.