I was just out picking up a few groceries. I didn’t expect the bookstores in my neighbourhood to be open; all non-essential businesses had been closed for months. (Though how bookstores can ever be considered “non-essential”—especially during a lockdown—is a mystery to me.) But there it was: a used bookstore with the door propped open and customers inside. I slathered my hands with sanitizer from a pump at the entrance and went inside. This will sound melodramatic, but tears blurred my vision as I scanned the shelves. It felt so . . . normal to be inside a bookstore. Though I’d done a prodigious amount of online book-shopping during quarantine, I hadn’t realized how much I missed the hunt, missed being physically surrounded by imaginative and intellectual possibility.
Italy is my favourite place to be, and a bookstore—practically any bookstore—is my second favourite place. The pandemic had kept me from both of these beloved places, and now I was at least getting one of them back.
But like most things we’re returning to as lockdowns ease, this wasn’t quite the same as before. I was hyper-conscious of everything I touched (was it ok to flip through books?). I was annoyed by a woman and her teenage daughter who were not only talking loudly (droplets!), but also seemingly oblivious to the whole notion of physical distancing. The biggest change, however, was the pressure I felt to buy something. Normally, if nothing strikes my fancy, I’m fine with leaving a bookstore without making a purchase. (This is a rare occurrence, but it has happened once or twice). This time, leaving without buying anything wasn’t an option; the owner was no doubt hanging onto his business by a thread. Hoping I wouldn’t end up spending money on something I didn’t really want, for the first time in my life I felt my anxiety level spike in a bookstore.
That’s when I spotted Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy by Jane Christmas. Slap the words “grand tour of Italy” on anything, and I’ll probably buy it. I read the back cover, but didn’t bother to flip through the pages before heading to the cash register. It turns out that though this book calls itself a travel memoir, it’s really an examination of a fraught mother-daughter relationship.
This is not a subject I enjoy.
In its guise as a travel memoir, Incontinent on the Continent does talk about a trip to Italy, and it does give the reader insight into another person’s experience and impression of a place. The trouble is that it doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about that place; indeed, Christmas’s experience and impression of the bel paese is nearly as fraught as her relationship with her mother.
To me, one of the great pleasures of reading travel literature is those moments of recognition, of familiarity with places you’ve visited. Christmas’s Italy, though, is like nothing I’ve experienced in my dozens of visits over the years. In fact, if I saw Italy the way Christmas does, I’d be saving a small fortune by never going there again.
Instead of a sense of familiarity, nostalgia, or wanderlust, my overwhelming sentiment while reading this book was irritation. I was irritated with Christmas for her negativity and for the way she treats her mother.
But most of all, I was irritated with her for wasting a perfectly good trip to Italy by failing to plan properly.
Surely when you’re travelling with an elderly person with disabilities, a little extra planning is in order, right? A student backpacking alone may be able to wing it, but given the circumstances of Christmas’s trip, I can’t imagine why she didn’t bother to thoroughly research destinations and plan accordingly. Christmas and her mother dine in one crappy tourist-trap restaurant after another, complaining constantly about how awful Italian food is. They show up at a vacation rental only to discover that it’s inaccessible for people with disabilities. They drive for hours to reach attractions that are closed for the season.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, but when you don’t bother to do your research and make plans, you have only yourself to blame when, as Christmas whines, “There are so many disappointments for the off-season traveller.”
Look, no trip is perfect—ever. Managing the unexpected is part of the thrill of venturing far from home—and in Italy, you do get plenty of opportunities to experience this thrill! Even so, there was no real reason for Christmas’s trip to be such a complete disaster. A bit of research and some thoughtful planning may not have helped much with the drama between Christmas and her mother, but it would have greatly reduced the tourism-related misery these two experienced. Yes, misery—so much of it that they cut their 6-week trip short and came home early.
Unlike some other reviewers who couldn’t get past their irritation with Christmas and finish the book, I did read it to the end (but I was glad when it was over). If nothing else, Incontinent on the Continent provides a great example of how not to conduct a trip to Italy. It inspired me to write “Ten ways to make sure your trip to Italy sucks.” (Start by not planning anything, and be sure to travel with someone you can’t stand—but even then, it takes talent to be utterly miserable in Italy.)
Incontinent on the Continent also got me thinking more than ever about accessibility in Italy, a not-very-accessible country. Things are slowly improving, and there are some great resources (like this one) available online for wheelchair users and people with other types of accessibility needs travelling in Italy. But there’s no question that navigating Italy is a challenge for anyone with physical limitations.
I once saw a young man in a wheelchair being carried up some stairs to a Venetian footbridge by two older people, presumably his parents. I remember being deeply moved by the eager, resolute expressions on their faces; it was clear that despite the difficulty, this experience was incredibly special to all three of them. I also remember feeling pained that they should have to work so hard to experience the magic and wonder of Venice.
As someone who grew up with a severely disabled younger brother, this is a topic near to my heart, so I’ll be writing more on accessibility in Italy in the future. In the meantime, you should know that I shied away from travelling in the bel paese with my granddaughter until she was able to walk for fairly long periods of time without complaining. I didn’t have the guts—or the physical endurance—to try navigating all those cobblestones, stairs, and hills with a stroller. (If you have the guts and endurance to travel with very small children, Natalie at An American in Rome shares some great tips for navigating Rome with a stroller.)
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me from Christmas’s book: TRAVEL WHILE YOU CAN.
When Christmas and her mother return home (early) from their hellish trip, the older woman says that she’d like to go to Italy again soon. Christmas knows that isn’t going to happen, and it brought tears to my eyes to think of someone never again going anywhere exciting and new. Worse: never again going to Italy.
There will be a last trip for each of us—that much is guaranteed. Most of the excuses we make for delaying travel are just that: excuses. We’re too busy with work. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the right travel partner. We’re afraid to travel alone. All of these obstacles are fully surmountable if the desire to travel is strong enough. But physical infirmity presents a real and sometimes insurmountable barrier to travel.
So travel while you can, ok? Research and dream and plan—and as soon as this pandemic permits, get out there and experience the world.
If you haven’t been there, I recommend Italy. If you have been there, I bet Italy’s always already on your list.
Jane Christmas, Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy. Greystone Books, 303 pp. 2009.