Italians are, as far as I know, the only people on earth who worship a baby. While the adult, bearded Christ is a familiar figure around and about Italy, the baby Jesus is the deity in the people's hearts. Sadly, there is a great dearth of babies in Italy, which has an an astoundingly low birthrate, just about the lowest in the industrialized world. This baby-worship compounded by baby-scarcity is clearly and presently felt by anyone who has ever traveled with a small child to the country.
When you travel to Italy with a child, you are traveling with a celebrity, a demigod. You can hardly walk down a street without getting noticed. If an infant, your child gets swoons; if a toddler, offerings. When my wife and I traveled from Rome to Calabria with our daughter when she was two months old, we were amazed by the amount of help we received from perfect strangers. Daunting staircases leading up to train platforms became not obstacles but invitations for whichever passerby was nearest to help lift the stroller. In America, a fellow parent may come to help in a time of need; in Italy, everyone from grandmothers to teenage boys will pitch in.
Italy is rarely accused of being clean, but on the little beach where we stayed in the charming town of Scilla on the Straits of Messina, a legion of mothers and grandmothers combed the spiaggia and brought their nets into the water for anything that would harm the little ones, most especially jellyfish.
We wondered if returning this year with a two-year-old to tourist-infested Tuscany would be different. Hardly. If we didn't quite feel we were traveling with a deity, we were still traveling with a creature capable of garnering free samples of whatever she wanted, packs of candy, and even small toys, coloring books, and crayons.
The attitude is certainly Italian and not pan-European — a trip to the Alps and Paris earlier in the year confirmed that for us. But there is more to Italy than the baby-love. There is scale of the cities and towns, in tune with humans walking and not cars driving. Scooters may buzz by, but most towns have pedestrian-only walkways where you want them to be. Little cobblestone streets make a little person feel confident, as do piazzas filled with fountains and statues and folks just hanging out. In Rome, we stayed in a hotel overlooking Piazza Madonna dei Monti, a small square that is the hangout spot for the fashionable Monti neighborhood. Everything about it was to my daughter's liking, most especially the SPQR-emblazoned hydrant that everyone else had to get on their knees to drink from, but she could do with a dip of the head.
The best thing about going to Italy with a small child is, of course, the food. It is the land of the crowd-pleasers: pizza, spaghetti, and gelato. But that's not all. Instead of packing juice boxes, you can get fresh-squeezed orange juice at the caffe on every corner. And then there are the friendly waiters, whose patience with your children doesn't feel forced. My niece and her friend — American tweeners — received lavish compliments on their barest attempts at Italian.
But ultimately it is the food.
Our first day of the trip, we tried to go to a crowded little trattoria in the Roman ghetto, but our daughter was having none of it. "No like this place! Dirty!" she said after we were shown to our table, and we slunk out. But good meal after good meal built up our daughter's trust that she wouldn't be betrayed by the food in this country, and on our final day we tried Taverna Romana, an old favorite from my pre-fatherhood days. One of the specialties of the house is the sauté, a Southern preparation that they were doing that night with clams. We'd previously had little luck introducing our daughter to fish of any kind, a problem in a family that eats no other sort of meat. The waiter brought us the sauté. She ate one clam, pointed down at the plate and said, "Name?" We ordered all the other fish on the menu, and we've had a happy little pescatarian ever since.
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Via Madonna dei Monti, 79