A couple hedges a bet in the early days of the pandemic, moving their little kids from China to Italy — just in time to escape one lockdown for another. When one dad finally gets the chance for a parental break, he goes big before going home.
ITALY – It’s almost two years into the pandemic and like just about everyone else, I feel I’m overdue for a vacation. A real vacation. It’s a privileged feeling to be sure, and I’m grateful to have my health, but in the last two years I’ve moved from China to Italy, changed careers, renovated a house, and had my third child via surrogacy in the United States. It feels like a lot.
As the co-founder of a food tour business based in Shanghai and Beijing, and having lived as an expat immigrant in China for ten years, I have had more than my fair share of travel experiences with tricky logistics. When our first two kids, twins Henri and Lucile, were born in the U.S. via surrogacy in 2018, the main point of travel stress was figuring out how long before the birth to touch down Stateside — we knew we absolutely could not miss their births. (We arrived a full three weeks before the due date and ended up with plenty of time to spare.) With the birth of our third in July 2020 with the same wonderful surrogate, everything was radically different, just like the world around us.
By late January 2020, the Covid situation was becoming increasingly alarming with more and more Chinese cities going on lockdown. Even with so much uncertainty, it seemed clear that Shanghai would eventually lock down, too. We took the opportunity to leave while we still could, buying tickets and departing within 48 hours. We recognized the privilege of our situation, but knew that a forced, China-style lockdown could mean missing the birth of our child — a distant but seemingly increasingly possible outcome.
We chose Rome because we’d been plotting a future move to Tuscany; it seemed like a good chance to have a few weeks to get a head start on paperwork and plan for the residency process. What an opportunity! And a complete delusion! Italy would become the next hardest hit. (Later antibody tests would show that we never had Covid, so I promise we were not patients 1 through 4.)
So as I embark on my first semi post-Covid vacation, I have a lot flying through my head. I’m headed out to the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence to pick up one of my oldest friends from university (also named Kyle) who is flying in from London for the week, and I’m struck by what a big deal this feels like.
We’re staying one night in the brand-new 25hours Florence, a quirky, German boutique hotel brand with a LOT of personality. It’s been so long I barely remember staying in hotels at this point, but this feels very different. Imagine if the W Hotels had an older sister that was really, really into art history, culture, and contemporary design. This particular 25Hours has a Divine Comedy theme and they lean hard into the over-the-top heaven and hell-inspired decor.
Half of the 171 rooms are decked out in a soothing, fluffy white cloudscape experience with clean lines, a stone pedestal sink, and bright cherubic design elements. An oversized T-shirt on a sliding rack hides the flat-screen TV, and the walls and ceiling are covered in a satisfying, repeating white tile pattern. There’s a whimsical terrarium jar with a faux taxidermy bird on the desk, and a stuffed mouse adorns the bed (the hotel’s mascot) — you know, that kind of place.
The other half of the rooms are a full-on, blood-red hellscape that verges on a classy, Hollywood set red-light-district dungeon. Everything, from the wallpaper to the headboard and curtains, is a patterned velvety red zone, mixing textures and lighting to exaggerate shadows and depth. It’s trippy, but treads a fine line of luxury/fun/cool, and it would be impossible to forget your one night in hell here. We got randomly assigned a heavenly room at check-in.
I flash back to my family’s first night in Italy. In the haste to leave China, my husband Charles booked an Airbnb near our favorite destination: Montepulciano. We arrived at 2 a.m. after 24 hours of traveling with two very cranky two-year-olds and rummaged around under the flower pots, where the key was supposed to be. Of course, we failed to adjust the check-in date back one day and were now 12 hours early for check-in. After searching for a hotel with an all-night reception to no avail, we spent the next few hours sleeping in the parking lot of the famed San Biagio Cathedral. Charles woke up every 20 minutes to run the heater for a bit so the kids would stay asleep until light came pouring in the windows. He felt guilty, but I didn’t even have the energy to feel mad. That was actually hell.
Back in Florence, Kyle and I go down and enjoy the Companion Bar in the 25hours lobby for my favorite drink — a Negroni — which was reportedly invented in Florence and is a fixture of any good bar in town. The space is chic, a contemporary take on traditional Italian design, like a classy, mid-century modern speakeasy. Despite the late night drinks, the next morning I’m up at 7 a.m. as usual: The parent’s body clock curse. I head out for a run. The hotel has a special runner’s corner with tiny portable maps, towels, and water. I take their suggested loop along the Arno river and through the Parco delle Cascine in an attempt to work off the Negronis.
The run brings my mind racing back to the first hard lockdown we lived through shortly after arriving in Italy. Anyone who says lockdowns don’t really work never experienced what lockdown looks like in China or Italy. Enrolling the kids in pre-school shortly after our arrival was a pipe dream that lasted about six days until the government announced the closure of all schools and universities, followed by a complete national lockdown on March 9, 2020.
Italy was officially the new China, and while we were happy to be in a place with more outdoor space for the kids, the lockdown itself was no joke. Any trip out of the house required carrying a permission slip of sorts that you filled in with the time and destination, in case you were stopped by police. We did this even for grocery store and pharmacy trips, which was pretty much the only reason you possibly had to be out.
As the lockdown entered week three and the weather got nicer, we started running in the forest that directly abutted our countryside rental. There was a lovely network of paths that snaked around the oak forests. Typical in Tuscany where the area is protected or too steep for vineyards and the wild boar, deer and porcupine have free reign.
The running excursions abruptly stopped when Charles got a 180 euro ticket from a carabinieri forestale (the forest police), who happened to be patrolling the completely deserted paths. So back inside we went with only a 200-meter radius around the house for walks. Like just about everyone else on Earth, we put in an order for more in-home exercise equipment, cognizant that this inside life may last longer than we cared to admit.
Now that Kyle and I have the freedom to explore with Covid cases in Italy low, vaccination rates high (with mandatory QR scans to check for indoor dining and cultural spaces), and mask-wearing near universal, the anxiety about being around other people has never been lower. We decided to drive north to the Piedmont region, famous for truffles and nebbiolo and Barbaresco wines, to check out a newly opened resort away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Nordelaia.
We pass the carved-out marble hillsides of Carrara, wind through the narrow freeway overpasses of Genoa before exiting to the tranquil area of Cremolino, a commune in the province of Alessandria located about 60 miles southeast of Turin.
As we pull up to the hotel, it’s clear we’ve entered the 100 percent heaven-themed portion of this vacation. Their vibe is natural relaxation and their perch at the top of a ridge amongst a 180-degree view of rolling forests and vineyards suggested that this might just be exactly what tired parents needed.
We’re greeted by Alfonso, the dapper manager who immediately invites us to take a drink from the reception honesty bar as we check in. It’s just the start of our White Lotus-esque stay as our needs are met before we even realize we have them: fluffy robes, slippers, and tea as we watched the sun set over the distant Alps; a hot bath in a clawfoot tub at the end of my bed; an indulgent, ten-course tasting menu after said bath.
Did we need to do a full wine tasting of the hotel’s range of dolcetto wines produced on site before the paired tasting menu? No, that we definitely didn’t need, as my morning self would later realize, but I still wouldn't do anything differently. I’d been fantasizing about what a post-Covid vacation could look like, but I hadn’t even been able to conjure up such a wonderfully relaxing tableau.
The impeccable infinity pool was one week away from having the scheduled heat turned on, but we went in anyway, eager to get our blood pumping after four hours in the car. The temperatures and views are equal parts exhilarating and breathtaking. (Okay. Maybe a little too breathtaking. Brrr.)
Nordelaia was peak relaxation. I wish I could have had that feeling while planning for the arrival of our third child in Portland. With tickets booked to leave on July 6, 2020 — well in advance of the due date – no one could have predicted that countries would be so isolated from each other. All spring, I watched our flights disappear from the schedules: May, canceled. June, canceled.
In the end, our July date ended up being the first flight out after the airline re-opened the route. At check-in, the attendant looked our crew up and down incredulously and actually said, “Are you sure you want to be traveling right now?” There is literally no other option but to fly today, I wanted to scream. We made it with just enough time to quarantine for two weeks before the birth of our beautiful daughter, Ida.
Getting back to Italy less than a month later with passport issuance wait times approaching a year ... well, that’s a story for another day. Getting back into travel mode with three kids under four with Covid restrictions lifting? That’s a new story that we're increasingly ready to write.