We met Ben & his mom in a queue forming at the entrance to the Vatican Museums in the wee hours of dawn. Luckily, we'd arrived so early that we were the 1,032 - 1,035 people in line. (Ben & his mom had the enviable 1,030st and 1,031st spots.) With nothing better to do (Ben was reading Harry Potter), these fine folks from Australia finally broke under our incessantly friendly banter. We discovered common ground by discussing shared concerns: the difficulties in working for a big company versus starting your own business, educational desires for our children and Barack or Hillary? Once everyone else in line heard that, they all moved in a little closer, encircling us, wanting to weigh in on the strengths of their favored candidate & ask for our -- as their American representatives -- votes. (McCain was never mentioned. But, to be fair, he hadn't named Sarah Palin as his VP yet...?)
Slowly (not that it seemed there was any hurry since the doors didn't officially open for two more hours and we wouldn't actually get inside for another three), Mikaela and an initially very shy Ben struck up a conversation about great world literature, uncovering that they'd both read every Just William cover and also very much liked Little Men (understandably, Ben refused to confirm that he'd either read or enjoyed Little Women). When he mumbled an explanation that nothing but a 27-hour flight from Sydney could have induced him to start the Harry Potter series, Mikaela immediately forgave him - as he had her, upon learning she'd not yet graduated from catechism classes & received first communion as he'd done just before taking this trip.
The clique had been cast... lacking a Rubicon, we crossed ourselves and then the threshold of the Vatican's hallowed halls together, mutually agreeing that continuing to share this experience would be fun. We were all a little giddy, though that might simply have been the exhilarating rush of taking 5 or 6 unimpeded, speedy steps at a time...
Now "Mikaela's little sister" was there, as well, but up to that point Katrianna had not been getting her usual amount of attention. She was also at that age when grabbing the hand of anyone you liked was instinctual. It was her way of being amie-rous, nothing more. And Ben here was her new friend. But Ben was a much older man. "Ten and a half, to be exact." He was mature. He had a rep to think of...
However, Ben was also a gentleman. So he spent most of his time trying to figure out how to subtly disengage his hand without offending the young lady. Judging by his ever reddening face and perspiring brow, the anguish & anxiety it caused him were excruciating.
What made it worse was that Katrianna was a very distractible partner-in-arms. She'd regularly release her iron grip to bound off and get a better look at displays, like gleaming, gilded cases filled with relics or the collections of those intriguing, instructive instruments about which she was so Inquisitive (she admired others' vises, too). At other times, she'd let go in order to wave her own hand with a flourish in the direction of a particular Egyptian artifact to which she wished to command his attention. As she lectured on its merits and historical relevance, he ever so subtly wiped his palm with great vigor against the back of his pants. About two to three dozen swipes and he was awash with relief.
But, just as he was lowering his hand from the job of drying the condensation built-up inside his glasses' lenses - it must have been very humid that day inside the climate-controlled Vatican - she'd seize upon it again. Then gaze up at him adoringly, likely noticing the tears welling in his eyes but no doubt attributing it to his being overcome by the awe of her expertly performed docent duties. Accordingly, she said nothing. And instead sympathetically squeezed his hand a little tighter.
It wasn't until ¾ of the way through our four hour, self-[Katrianna]-guided tour that we learned that Ben had been sick the day before. What a relief that they'd still managed to get to the Sistine Chapel after a night like that! I understood perfectly: it was especially worrisome when a child felt poorly far from the comforts of home, not to mention the disruption it created in a family vacation abroad where every precious moment counted (at an exchange rate of 2.65:1).
For our final stop, we were pressed to squeeze a time-sensitive and CO2-abundant religious experience out of the Sistine Chapel, where we rubbed elbows & just about everything else with those other 1,029 people who'd preceded us in line, as well as the roughly 8,965 who'd come later. Apparently, when I wasn't paying attention in that queue, everyone had agreed to convene there - in this 134' x 44' chapel space, about a third of which was roped off for restoration - all at once.
A captive audience! Mikaela took back the tour guide reigns, explaining Michelangelo's political misgivings with Pope Julius II and the rushed, noticeably less intricate & stylistically inferior sections of the of the ceiling that resulted. And, thanks more to the extremely detailed DK Italy guidebook than our own homeschooling studies, she told stories about the scenes and identified the various artists of each lower panel painting. When it came time to escape, I mean depart, Ben & his mom were part of the elect, I mean they elected, to skip St Peter's Basilica. Our day & dilettantes had gone on unexpectedly long and they were supposed to meet Ben's dad, all rested up from his alternate activity choice [nap], several hours ago... What a Pietà, not that I'm one to make Assumptions.
We made it to Pompeii the next day, but the morning after that Katrianna woke up with a stomach ache. Plans to see any more of southern Italy were thrown up out the window. We picked the shortest and supposedly fastest route home (our temporary quarters in France) - straight through the Alps. Certainly it was disappointing, but perhaps there was a silver mountain lining. I'd read descriptions of it before in Italian Baedekers and, sure enough, the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo was very pretty, at its height with fall color and ear-popping altitude.
And, yet, Katrianna was more and more unappreciative of all it had to offer with each and every of its hairpin turns. Too far along to turn back & nowhere to go but onward through the mountainous terrain, I vacillated between proceeding at a get-there-fast clip and, once a succession of stomach turns drove home the necessity, a painstakingly slow 15 km, g-force-reducing rate. At moments, I would not have been surprised had I looked up to see Hannibal and his elephants not only passing us by, but also having a more enjoyable trip.
Of the many renowned drives we took throughout Europe, the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo was truly the most scenic Rout of them all.