Unexpected challenges on a whirlwind trip teach writer Muffy Fenwick the true meaning of love.
It is a common joke in our family, especially when my husband’s antics are most pronounced, that I was a mere child when I became a bride and thus should not be blamed for my youthful mistake in love. But truth be told, whatever mistake (or lack thereof, as it may be) can be traced back to a trip we took after my graduation from college, a trip that ultimately taught me what love means.
Admittedly young and “in love,” my then boyfriend (now husband) and I made up for a semester of separation by planning a month-long, post college trip through Europe. He was completing his junior year abroad in London and I was a year off of mine, so we outlined an itinerary that would highlight the sights and cities we had collectively missed in our previous trips. Armed with a month long Eurail pass, we embarked on our European adventure from London with two backpacks, a good pair of hiking shoes and an armful of Eyewitness Guide books and fold-out maps. Daily we debated who was getting the most authentic experience of Europe: me with my Cannon Rebel poised on the surrounding sights or Charlie, buried in a book, reciting salient highlighted facts. Nonetheless, on our travels, we pondered The Thinker in Rodin’s garden, stood on Juliette’s balcony in Verona, sang “I am Sixteen” from Liesl’s gazebo in Salzburg, sampled every gelato flavor offered in the Piazza Navona, traversed the Olympic slalom course in Innsbrook, and scaled a Strasbourg mountain in a rickety alpine slide cart.
The question of how I first understood love, however, came during our third day in Rome, hours from our departure to Venice with two friends with whom we had miraculously rendezvoused (miraculous given 1997’s technological shortcomings). After a day of sight-seeing on the Palatine Hill and sampling Rome’s culinary specialties, Charlie began complaining of stomach pains. His friends, eager to tease him for devoting the better part of his European tour to his girlfriend (while they, alternatively, had dreams of meeting a Grace Kelly reincarnate in Monaco), quickly dismissed his complaints, abandoned him at the hostel, and convinced me to join them at the corner trattoria.
When I returned that night, I discovered Charlie huddled on the hostel bed in obvious pain. He needed a doctor but urged me to go to Venice as planned, promising that we would meet later in the day. Leaving him in Rome was not an option for me, instead I found directions to the nearest hospital.
The next thirteen hours marked a pivotal turn in our relationship. The public hospital to which we were directed did not have an English speaking attendant so we were ushered from examining room to examining room with only my high-school-level French to navigate. At one point, a frustrated doctor repeatedly uttered, “son coeur, son coeur,” suggesting that Charlie suffered some sort of heart malady. “Mais, il est tres sportif,” I argued, winning us passage to the second floor and another vacant gurney.
Hours passed, his stomach pain worsening. By some stroke of luck, an English speaking doctor appeared and willingly sat with us to try to make sense of our plight. We dubbed him Dr. Carter, an homage to our favorite character on E.R. Charlie, both very frightened and clearly very sick, begged Dr. Carter to help us get out of Rome. He relinquished his credit card to Dr. Carter’s care with the promise he would deliver two plane tickets to London for us that night. Finding a safe escape from the language barrier and the interminable shuttling we faced were our only goals.
With that promise, I strapped on a helmet and set off on the back of Dr. Carter’s motorini through the congested and rainy streets of Rome. I remember momentarily debating all the warnings issued throughout my childhood about soliciting and, worse, accepting rides from strangers. Somehow, the mock 80 mph speed with which Dr. Carter weaved through oncoming traffic managed to displace one fear for another. Miraculously, we arrived at a local travel agency where he arranged passage for us back to London.
A sense of hope and relief and, of course, gratitude helped dispel the morning’s worries, but when we arrived back at the hospital, a senior doctor awaited us. He beckoned me into his office and held out the phone. On the other end of the line was Charlie’s father who had spent the better part of his day in California communicating with the American Embassy in Rome. They had found an Italian doctor who had spent much of his career in Manhattan treating Italians referred by the U.S. Italian Embassy. The doctor now practiced in a convent hospital near the Vatican and was expecting us before nightfall.
Charlie’s father’s last words to me before disconnecting back to the Pacific time zone were this: “You are in charge now. We trust you with Charlie. Take care of him.”
The sentiment was met with much opposition when I returned the phone to the receiver. With Dr. Carter looking on, the senior doctor warned us that by leaving the hospital, we would assume full responsibility for anything that happened. We were armed with two options: get on a plane to London or travel to the Vatican hospital and hope for some remedy.
In the end, we signed the waiver, sped through Rome, and were greeted by a nun and Dr. Lollini, the debonair, white haired Vatican physician. They strapped Charlie onto a gurney and sped him through the operating doors where they quickly diagnosed him with acute appendicitis. A flight to London could have jeopardized his life.
Thanks to the efficiency and care of Dr. Lollini and his staff, Charlie was quickly operated on and given a comfortable bed. An astute, yet understanding man, the doctor took me aside and whispered, “I know your situation but I cannot let you stay in the hostel alone. However, this is a convent and you are being cared for by nuns. Therefore, it is my understanding that you are Charlie’s sister. As such, we have arranged accommodations for you to watch over him.”
For the next ten days, we assumed this role of expatriate siblings. We rarely ventured farther afield than the hallway outside our room where the hospital library was housed. Bound to convalescence until he was healed enough to fly home, Charlie and I spent long hours in his hospital room poring over Life magazine’s spread on the Clinton family and later reciting Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, strangely appropriate to our situation. We also spent hours in silence, devouring the Fountainhead and Brideshead Revisited, which we had planned to read during wine-filled afternoons in Cinque Terre. As he healed, I walked around the neighboring streets, reporting back on the tourist-filled Vatican square.
When we finally departed Rome, five days before our largely unused Eurail pass was set to expire, we recognized that our relationship had somehow changed during that fateful trip. In addition to the unique opportunity we were afforded to travel through Europe, enjoy picnics of baguettes and cheese in a hidden park or experience firsthand all the historical venues captured in the pages of our college textbooks, we also learned that together we could reason through a crisis, survive captivity (and maintain an alias), and weather an alarming health scare. Despite our youth and inexperience, we were given a gift that few newlyweds are offered: a crash course in the roller coaster ride of marriage. So, when, a year later, Charlie did propose, the idea of getting married seemed a little less daunting and the notion of love seemed a little more defined. For us, love was realized in the ups and downs of life. In our case, life within a hospital room in Rome.
On the trip home, I experienced a sign of what life did have in store, and perhaps an explanation of why I would become the target of family jokes. Just released from the hospital, Charlie received a special “handicap” dispensation that allowed him to ride on a cart through the airport while I lumbered under a pack full of every guidebook and souvenir he had accumulated on his semester abroad. When we boarded the plane, it was left to me to hoist the two-ton pack into the overhead bin while he looked on in amusement. (At this point I should mention that at the time, I was just over five feet and barely 100 pounds.) A not-so-amused fellow female traveler passed our row and, upon witnessing this show of ungentlemanly behavior, looked first to Charlie, then to me and exclaimed, “get rid of him!”
Alas, I did not. Perhaps that in itself was my first understanding of love.
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