Friday, July 24, 2015

Don't Super-Size Me: Adventures in Itay, Part 3

On our third day in Italy, we hopped a local train from Bologna to Venice. About an hour an a half later, we were greeted by the Grand Canal. Amazing. Jason and I were thrilled to finally be in Venice, but as we stood there taking in the famous city, I began to realize that the guide books we'd brought with us were hardly a match for its reality. A seeming endless stream of tourists surged towards the bridge towards a proliferation of souvenir stands.

Honestly, I was a little disappointed. Jack, however, was in heaven. Not only were there rows and rows of cheap bling, but before us loomed the ultimate sign of Western civilization: The Golden Arches. I could not believe that the zoning commission of Venice would allow fast food in this historic city, but there was McDonald's in all its American super-size-me glory.

"Mom, can I get chicken nuggets?" Jack asked.
A gondola ride is classic Venice ...

"No!" I cried. "Not here! Not in Venice! You are NOT eating at McDonald's in Venice!"

Jack shrugged and stuck out his bottom lip in complaint. I thought that was that.

Soon, we were lost in the maze that is Venice. We became tangled in the Jewish Ghetto while seeking a specific gondolier about whom I had read excellent reviews. At noon, we decided to set aside our quest for "Luca" the 4-star TripAdvisor guide and found a bakery that served all sorts of sandwiches and pastries. There was prosciutto, arugula, tomato, mozzarella, and salami sandwiches, and pizzas and salads, all beautiful, fresh and remarkably cheap. But nothing in the shop appealed to Jack. He begrudgingly selected a pastry. I heard myself saying sharply, "Eat your doughnut!" as if I were commanding my child to consume liver.

... McDonald's is not!
Having fortified ourselves with bread, cheese and cured meat, Jason and I were ready to embark on the two mile trek to St. Mark's Square. Jack, hungry for more souvenir stands, insisted he was good to go and off we went.

Venice is an enchanting city. There is no doubt about that. It is simply an amazing and beautiful collection of architectural wonders. But what the guide books fail to mention is that there are very few discernible street signs and the path from to St. Mark's (despite the fact that it is the main attraction here) is not well marked. It is easy to take a wrong turn and end up walking a long way only to find you're at a dead end and —if you took one more step — you'd be quite soaked canal brine.

Although we had a map, our trajectory was less than on target. We wended our way through the markets and past the lovely piazzas and apartments following our fellow pilgrims, some of whom were equally as clueless as we were, and therefore also very lost.
Jack learns his first Italian phrase in a Poggio,
a little Tuscan restaurant:
"Pizza Quattro Formaggio" per favore!

The other thing that guidebooks fail to mention about this city of intrigue and beauty is that — in mid-June — it is hot, really hot, with morning temperatures climbing into the 90s. Walking through the city at mid-day is not exactly the romantic stroll one might imagine when one thinks of Venice. And there we were, sweating our butts off, lost and a bit less than joyous at this point in our vacation.

We needed a break, so we hailed a striped-shirt boatman and climbed aboard his gondola. The ride through Venice's canals perked us up. It was, after all, a must-do in Venice and one of those experiences that you really can't have anywhere else. Gliding along the water between the age-old buildings, there were times when I could just look up and watch blue sky floating by with a sense of peace that is most definitely the reason why people love to ride in gondolas. 

With our tour of the canals complete, we picked up the pilgrimage trail and — despite some set-backs —finally arrived at St. Mark's Square. After traversing the rat maze of Venice, entering the famous plaza felt like a victory.

St. Mark's was indeed grander than any guidebook or photo promised. The scale is boggling to the mind. How in the world did they create these monuments? The impossible detail of the statuary perched high, high on the eaves of the great church are that much more impressive in person.
The further south you go ... the larger the pizza.

We gawked for a long time and took numerous photos before finding a nearby gelato stand to celebrate. But, for Jack, seeing the wondrous church and eating (average, tourist-price) gelato was less thrilling.

We all were hot and tired, but now he was hungry and only one thing would do. As we tracked back through the cobbled streets of Venice, he saw the (McDonald's) sign he was looking for. (Damn those Golden Arches!)

"Ple-ease, Mom," he said. "Can I go to McDonald's?"

After months of planning, we were in Italy on vacation, and I didn't want to spend my time here at odds with my son because he wanted over-priced nugget-shaped chicken.

Ronald McDonald (that sly Siren) led us back through the old city. It was mid-afternoon and very humid. We seemed to walk in circles, but on we trudged, over bridges and past shops selling glassware and t-shirts. While our fellow tourists cruised to Murano to tour the glass factories, our destination was not even remotely Italian. How does this happen? How is did I end up in Venice, ordering chicken nuggets and french fries? In the city that is a true wonder of the world, how in the world did I end up here?

They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the same way, the journey of a thousand chicken nuggets began with one desperate drive-through, long, long ago ...

Jack's enthusiasm matches the circumference
of his dinner!
I remember it well, actually, although it may not have been the first time I rounded the drive-thru to appease my child, this was certainly one that registered in my mind. Jack was 20 months old and we were moving from Grantville, Ga. to Birmingham, Ala. In our state of betwixt and between, I gave into convenience. One afternoon, rather than make my young son wait for a homemade dinner, I went through the Wendy's drive-thru and ordered up chicken nuggets.

Prior to this event, Jack ate all types of food: risoto, avocado, pasta, mashed potatoes, quiche ... you name it. But once he wrapped his mouth around a crunchy, salty, fried chicken nugget, that was that.

I'm sure we gave into convenience a lot in those months as we were slowly moved from Georgia to Alabama. The path of least resistance was littered with Happy Meal toys before we said final good-bye to our antebellum farmhouse. There would be no turning back for Jack who realized that, although the world as he knew it was changing, he could control one aspect of his life: What he did or did not eat.

Now here we were, more than ten years, later trudging through Venice towards McDonald's because it was easier than saying "no." This wasn't Jack's fault, of course. He didn't drive himself to McDonald's and Wendy's and Popeyes all these years. I knew where the problem began ... and —at last — I knew were it would end: With me.

To my amazement, by the end of our 14 day
vacation, Jack tried fried squid —
without being bribed or coerced.
"This is IT!" I heard myself growl, as we turned yet another corner only to find that we still had blocks and blocks to go before finding the mythical McDonald's of Venice. "You are not eating at another McDonald's as long as we are in Italy! You have to find other things to eat here besides chicken nuggets! I'm done!"

Jack had his Happy Meal that day, but it was a turning point for us all. As we continued our vacation across Italy, we encountered McDonald's in Bologna, LaSpezia and Naples, but Jack's requests ceased. He even found a new love: Pizza Quattro Formaggio, which is pizza with cheese only, no salsa di pomodoro  (tomato sauce.) Towards the end of our trip, he even tried fried squid and grilled fish.

Now that we're back home, I can't say that Jack has set aside his picky eating habits altogether, but I came to a new understanding that day in Venice. My frustration was not with Jack, or fast food. It was with myself for giving into a request that I knew wasn't very healthy for my child — just because it was easier.

Somewhere in Germany or Switzerland or Croatia there are tourists who —if they look very closely in the background of their Venice selfies— can see a hot, tired middle-aged Mom having a full-blown melt down about her child's eating habits. Most people who visit Venice return with fond memories of romantic gondola rides and tours of that incredible basilica. For me, Venice will always be the place that put the "I'm through" in drive thru and where the "crocchette di pollo" hit the road.


  1. I liked reading your post. I remember growing up that fast food places were quite sparse. When my dad died when I was 6 1/2, I started a strategy of finding the most expensive thing on a menu and then ordering. I also realized I had to eat what I ordered, which I did. This strategy of spending the money of others for food worked with my uncles, aunts and great aunts, but not with my mother, who had stay within a budget. (We moved about quite a bit for 3 years because of the scattering of relatives, so we weren't always getting home-cooked food). It's great for kids to have some foreign experiences. I have realized that being sent to a Bermudan school while my dad was stationed in the U.S. Navy in really something special. But, I did not truly realize this until we moved to the NYC 18 years ago and encountered lots of people who have some "island" heritage, and realized I touched that heritage too.

  2. I love Venice. I remember going to Mass at St. Mark's ... and how massive it is. Also that at high tide the water came up in front of the entrance and they put wooden planks to walk there.
    Did you know the brass horses are copies ... the real ones are safely locked away where they can't be damaged by the pollution, rain and tourists. There was no McDonalds when I was there in 1981. I remember eating the best Calamari I've ever had there -- and that the waiter and the cook in the restaurant got into a massive fight that involved throwing things (which didn't stop me from enjoying my meal, it was like a floor show.)

  3. Another great one....I can certainly identify and now I'm having that same struggle with grandchildren!

  4. I remember eating at McDonalds in Versailles and they had Indian style veggie burgers and goat cheese sandwiches. The best thing about fast food in Europe is they still have to use local ingredients so no growth hormones in the meat and no atrazine in the apples. So even if it is a US corporation you still eat local!

  5. Thanks so much for this info! That does make me feel (a little bit) better. Jack did swear that the McNuggets in Italy were superior to the one's at home, but I thought he was kidding. I do sorta regret that I didn't get a chance to try the featured item on the Italian McDonalds' menus: The McLobster!