Instead of trekking through Tuscany in a tour bus, take the more sustainable route and try biking your way through the region. In the July-August issue of National Geographic Traveler, writer Joyce Maynard treats her youngest—and most independent—child, 23-year-old son Wil Bethel, to just that: a bike trip through the sun-dappled landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria. Her intention? That of any parent: to bond with a fully fledged offspring. She shares with readers the ups and downs, both physical and emotional, of pedaling her bike over hills and through dales while learning anew how to be with her free-spirited son. Here, IT shares Wil's version of the trip—mom and all:
At Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan a crowd gathered to watch a young man and a middle-aged woman engage in verbal warfare. Screaming, recriminations, lots of tears. That was my mother and me a couple of years ago, face to face for the first time in months, and just 30 minutes into a lunch date. I don't recall how the fight started. It finished, unresolved, when my mother walked north and I walked south. Par for the course.
We didn't communicate for several weeks. When she finally called, my mother launched into entirely unexpected territory.
"This may sound crazy considering our recent history," she said, "but I want to propose a trip. Just the two of us."
"You and me?" I asked, incredulous. "Are you kidding?"
"No. A bike trip. Anywhere in the world. You and me."
I thought about it...and finally acceded, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and figuring that, at the very least, I'd get a free trip out of it.
My mother and I are similar in many ways: proud, emotional, independent-minded. We are both storytellers with an intrinsic flair for the dramatic. As individuals, these qualities have served us well: We regale friends at dinner parties. We function effectively as mediators and advocates. Generally, I think people like us and like to be around us.
That we can't stand to be around each other (or so it sometimes seems) is a matter of some consternation to both of us. My mother believes it is because we are too much alike. I think it's simply that she is too much herself—a hyperbole, too loud, too emotional, too dramatic. When she sees me, my mom doesn't just hug me; she jumps up and down, she wriggles, she squeaks. She tends to make a scene. Right now, at the age of 23, perhaps more even than as an angst-y teenager, I feel a particularly low tolerance for her potent brand of individualism.
I spend much of my 14-hour train ride from Paris to Rome—where my mother and I are meeting up for the start of our bike trip—steeling myself for the gestures, habits, and mannerisms that bother me in no one else but her. I tell myself that my exasperation is warranted, natural even. Mothers are just difficult; everyone knows that. But if I am going to survive the next two weeks, I have to try a new plan.
I decide I will pay strict attention to how I respond to her and her idiosyncrasies. Are my responses fair? Was I right to be impatient here, embarrassed there? Would I roll my eyes at anyone else doing precisely the same thing she was doing right then?
During the three days we spend together in Rome before joining the bike tour, nothing happens. Nothing really bad, anyway. There is the occasional awkward silence at dinner. And, okay, I recoil when Ma tries to communicate in Italian. Then there is the evening when a waiter stands patiently as she changes her order no fewer than four times. (Having waited plenty of tables myself, I am particularly critical of this.) Still, these were minor things. And I found that much of the discomfort I felt with my mother wasn't stemming uniquely from her; often, I discovered, it stemmed from me.
With this realization, our two weeks together on the biking trip turn out to be anticlimactic. I mean, Tuscany and Umbria were pretty and all, but I had braced myself for something apocalyptic: an emotional conflagration in the countryside, my mom and I throttling each other with our bike chains as shocked villagers struggled to separate us.
Maybe it was the setting. Tuscany's barrage of postcard-perfect villas and vineyards flowed into the understated grace of the Umbrian landscape, where hills rolled, wheat stalks rustled, and fields rippled with bobbing poppies. The subtlety of the beauty around us seemed to echo the unspoken contract between my mother and me: Simplicity first, and let the rest fall in around it. We had no monumental Dr. Phil moments. No lachrymal confessions or gushing apologies.
But there was the occasional challenge to test my new plan.
Toward the end of the trip, I wake one morning to find that my mom has used my toothbrush. She has left lipstick smudged on the handle, crusted toothpaste in the bristles, and, as a final touch, placed her knotty hairbrush on top of it. This kind of thing is typical of her. But I decide it will be no big deal. I leave a jocular note, with a smiley face: "No more stealing, Joycie!"
The next morning I wake to an almost identical scenario. The note, it seems, has been ignored, and the toothbrush bears all the signs of another violation. Two weeks of bottled emotion grow inside me. I become furious, and storm out to find her. Exiting the hotel, I almost collide with her. I take a step back and glare at her. She...just smiles. And it dawns on me that she probably hasn't even noticed. Mom or not, that's just the kind of person she is. I take a breath.
"Ma, try to be more careful about the toothbrushes," I say.
"Okay, honey." And without a pause she starts in about how sore she is from yesterday's ride.
Check out National Geographic Traveler's Umbria Photo Gallery for more pictures from their trip.