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Herding students around Europe’s highlights

Our tour guide told us Firenze means “fire,” and I can see why as the sun lingers in the Tuscan hills, forming a halo around the trees, the olive groves ablaze with purple-orange light. We wind through the busy Florentine streets, dodging scooters and motorbikes, our suitcases bobbing along behind us on the cobbled stones.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to remember agreeing to chaperone this group of American high schools students several months ago. At the time it seemed like a good idea. If I would agree to lead a group of at least five students, I’d get to travel through Europe for free. The itinerary was enticing: thirteen days in Vienna and the Alps, Venice and Florence, and Paris and Normandy. I could have all the tiramisu and crème brulée I wanted and afford leather and Swarovski crystal on a teacher’s salary—or so I rationalized. Had I known we would have to deal with lost luggage, psychotic episodes (leave it to a teenager to lose her Prozac somewhere in Austria), and a trashed hotel room in seaside Italy, I might have just bought myself a backpack and set out for Europe on my own to discover the pleasures of crepes sold by a greasy-fingered vendor on one of Paris’s many boulevards.

I have traveled extensively by myself before. I went through the typical post-pubescent phase of wanting to “find myself,” it’s just that I looked for myself in London or Oslo or Prague. I have never had to depend on other people to stick to an itinerary and have never been responsible for teenagers five thousand miles from home. And here I am trying to instill my love of the nomad’s life in people who had to buy underwear at Bipa, Vienna’s equivalent of Walgreens, and who haven’t had clean jeans in over a week.

When we reach Florence’s train station, we assemble into a line on the platform, awaiting the overnight train to Paris. Our guide, Rachel, shouts to us over the hum of engines and the rumble of suitcase wheels being dragged across the concrete by hundreds of scurrying travelers: “Okay, here’s how thing’s are gonna go, so listen up! When the train arrives at the platform, we have about three minutes to get ourselves and our stuff on board. So I want everyone lined up by car number and compartment number.”

Good luck trying to herd this group of cats, I think. Some of the kids get restless as we wait in a crooked line for the train to roll into the station–most notably Emily, the adult daughter of one of the other chaperones who acts more like a kid than the twelve-year-old with attention deficit disorder. She has already caused us to arrive at the station later than we had planned and now whines about being hungry when she had all afternoon to find a gellateria. A mere four years older than she is, I have trouble reprimanding her like I would the other students; her parents provide little support as it is. I take small pleasure in her addressing me as “Miss” like the other students do and do not bother to tell her she can call me by my first name. Ryan paces the platform next to Emily, stealing sideways glances at her when he thinks no one is looking. I can tell, after several of his disappearing acts to hidden corners of Europe, that he is having a nicotine fit and is trying to signal Emily, the adult, to sneak off behind the newspaper stand so he can bum a cigarette from her.

A few moments before our departure time, the train still has not arrived, and suddenly Rachel comes running from the departure screen in the main lobby of the station. “They’ve switched platforms on us! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

The students, who until now have sluggishly tried to keep up with Rachel’s European pace, dash towards the new platform, their bags thrashing against their bodies. It seems like the train is on the other side of Florence, and I don’t take the time to look behind me to make sure that everyone is still with us. When I reach the train, I hurl my bags on board and stumble up the stairs. The rest of the flurry is a blur, but within seconds the other thirty-seven of us, including Emily and Ryan, have somehow miraculously managed to get ourselves and our luggage on the train, only to learn that our tickets (and the rooming arrangements I had so painstakingly organized on the bumpy bus ride from Venice) are in complete disarray.

The boys are okay and are neatly squared away in two cabins. The men, on the other hand, have somehow scored first-class accommodations several cars down the train. Despite the fact that the difference between first class and “coach” is that one has a sink in the room and the other shares one tiny bathroom with the rest of the car, the women are slightly jealous. We fiddle with the girls’ rooming arrangements until we think we have things covered. The women are evenly spaced in our own compartments while the girls share three of their own. But something still doesn’t add up, and I realize we are missing two girls. Liz and Lesley are alone in a compartment at the other end of the car with a sixteen-year-old Italian boy. Since I am in charge, I offer to be the one to stay with them for the night. After all, I do not want to have to answer to their parents if they find out their daughters have had this type of cultural immersion.

I’m in for a long night, I think as I resituate my bags under my seat-bed. My idea of the ideal train journey is sleeping in a cabin with my boyfriend, whom I have coaxed into chaperoning with me, and sharing a croissant and a café au lait at sunrise as we inhale the sweet scent of the French countryside from our opened window. Now he’s in first class, and I’m stuck here with three sixteen-year-olds. I’m too old for slumber parties.

When I arrive in my new cabin, Liz and Lesley immediately introduce me to our roommate, with whom they have become fast friends within the last ten minutes. “This is Julio,” they say. “He’s from Rrrroma,” Liz continues, rolling her r dramatically.

We learn that Julio is headed to Paris for the summer to work for his uncle’s house-painting business. Beside him lies a thick book that I determine from the pictures of tanks and ships is about some war or another. His English is far from perfect, but the girls encourage him even when he mispronounces names or has to use some Italian when he doesn’t know the English translation. Liz, who spends most of her summers in her mother’s native Colombia, is fluent in Spanish and gets excited when she can understand some of his Italian, like when he gets flustered as he tries to ask for something, “Do you have…? Do you have… Ahh, pilas…” He points to his CD player.

“Oh, batteries!” Liz shouts. “Pilas are batteries in Spanish. That’s so cool!” Liz and Lesley, who is also Latina but cannot switch from English to Spanish as quickly as Liz can, now engage in a five minute conversation about how similar Spanish and Italian are; Julio hangs on their every word. For a moment, I wonder if maybe European boys really are more interested in the origins of words than in the pink, pouty, teenage mouths the syllables come from, but when Liz digs under the seat for a Styrofoam box and I notice Julio steal a sideways glance at the way her jeans hug her body, I am reassured that hormones do not suffer from cultural boundaries.

“Hey,” says Liz. “I forgot I had this stuff. I bought some tiramisu before we left Florence. Have you had tiramisu before?” she asks Julio.

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he says. I suppose asking an Italian if he’s ever had tiramisu is like asking an American if he’s ever had a hamburger.

“You want some?” Liz offers up her fork to Julio, and he takes a modest bite from the mass of custard and soggy lady’s fingers that has been pushed to the side of the box. He holds the fork in his mouth for a second before giving it back to Liz. Unfazed by the fact that she has just met the boy whose saliva is mingling with hers, she plunges the fork deep into the creamy mound and takes a large bite, making sounds no teenage girl should know how to make as the dessert melts in her mouth.

“This stuff is… awesome,” she says, unable to find a better word to describe it. “I just had it for the first time in Venice last night.” In fact, as she and Lesley and some of the other kids had strolled along the strip near our hotel in the seaside town of Lido di Jesolo, I had called her over from the table I shared with my boyfriend and some of the other adults at a café and stuck a forkful of tiramisu out the open window toward her. “What is this?” she asked. “Just try it,” I told her in my most teacherly voice. She opened her mouth, and when she tasted it her eyes nearly popped out of her head. “Y Dios mio,” she said. She mumbled something else in Spanish and skipped off down the strip.

“This is my favorite food now,” she says.

“That’s a good tiramisu,” Julio says, and I know he is being polite. To Liz, this tiramisu is heaven, but to Julio it is probably the McDonald’s equivalent.

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