La dolce vita Italia: Four women have one big adventure

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 12, 2009

By Susan Shinn
4 women.
5 suitcases.
7 carry-ons.
15 days.
Memories to last
a lifetime.
Funny how life works out. If Amy Belk would not have filled out that application in 1991, she and three women in her family would not have taken a trip to Italy this fall.
But Amy did fill out that application ó as a senior in high school, she and her family hosted an exchange student named Laura Cattaneo.
The women have kept in touch in the years since. When Laura visited this summer, she invited Amy to come to Vicenza, Italy, in the fall.
So Amy, along with her mom, Judy Davis, her aunt, Linda Sorrow, and her cousin, Cindy Martin, stayed with Laura and her family for two weeks in November.
Laura and Amy met when Laura arrived at the airport in Charlotte in August 1991. This was before the days of the Internet and e-mail, and overseas phone calls were still pretty prohibitive for most folks.
Amy and her family saw Laura for the first time as she stepped off the plane.
“We saw her get off the phone and we held up a sign with her name on it,” Judy says. “She looked up at us and waved.”
Judy continues.
“Her English was very broken and I thought, what are we getting ourselves into?”
Laura brought one suitcase for a year.
“It was like a Mary Poppins bag,” Amy says.
“I didn’t know how she had all that in there,” Judy says.
Laura fit right in with her host family.
“She always woke up with a smile on her face in the morning,” Judy says. “Whatever we wanted to do was fine. Whatever we wanted to eat was fine.”
“She’s just an awesome person,” Amy says.
Laura now works in her family’s pharmacy. She lives in one of three apartments over the pharmacy; her brother lives in another and the third apartment is vacant.
That’s where Amy, 35, Judy, 59, Linda, 58, and Cindy, 38, stayed during their visit. While Laura was here this summer, she and Amy made their plans.
Between them, Amy and Cindy have five children. Their husbands, Wes Bell and Nathan Martin, encouraged them to go and assured them everything would be find at home.
“My house was cleaner when I got home than it was when I left!” Cindy says.
Amy, who’s a labor and delivery nurse, had two cousins who were pregnant, so she had to work around their due dates. Cindy teaches at Millbridge Elementary School. The women also wanted to go when the weather was nice and when there wouldn’t be so many tourists.
They chose the first of November.
Cindy met Laura this summer, and was invited along.
“Who wouldn’t want to go to Italy?” she says. “It is the first time I’ve traveled with women. There is something special about it.
“You travel with women, if something comes up, you just handle it, and don’t make a big deal out of it.”
Stuff came up.
They handled it.
The women left Nov. 5 and arrived in Rome a day later.
Laura met them there. The group was there for two days, staying in a bed and breakfast and admiring the cobblestone streets and rooftop gardens.
“There were statues everywhere,” Linda says.
The women visited St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Sistene Chapel and saw the Pope’s apartments.
Since they arrived soon after the U.S. presidential election, there were Obama posters everywhere.
They translated into “The world is changing,” Linda notes.
They touched the walls of the colosseum.
Amy’s brother, Ben Davis, said that would mean they’d really been there.
They took the train to Vicenza via Florence.
Seeing the statue of Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence was one of the trip’s highlights, the women agree.
The trip to Vicenza was memorable, too ó for a different reason.
“The trains went on strike when we were en route,” Linda says. “They put us off the train in Padova.”
Fortunately, that was only 45 minutes from Laura’s house.
Their hostess dispatched two brothers and two cars to pick up the five women and their luggage.
While in Vicenza, the ladies took day trips to nearby towns.
One of the towns, Marostica, has a life-sized chess board, on which real men and horses play every two years. This tradition, Judy says, dates back to the 1500s.
The women also visited the university at Padova, where Laura went to pharmacy school.
Amazingly, it was founded in 1222.
“Galileo was on the faculty there,” Judy says. “Can you imagine having an astronomy class with Galileo?!?”
The women ate well on their trip ó but since they walked everywhere, it all evened out.
They had lots of pasta and pizza, as you’d imagine.
“It’s a lot of simple and fresh ingredients,” Cindy says. “They’re all about the freshest and the best quality.”They saw menus with veal, duck, lamb ó and horse.
They said “no thanks” to that one.
The four agree that the best meal they had was the one prepared by Laura’s mother. Her parents are Donata and Antonio Cattaneo.
On a day Laura had to work, the four women took a train to Venice, an hour away. But they got the wrong ticket, and were put off the train ó again.
“We had to wait for the ‘slow’ train to come,” Amy says.
They finally made it to Venice on a misty day.
“Venice has the best shopping in the world!” Cindy says.
The four took a gondola ride through “aromatic” canals, and visited St. Mark’s Square.
In Verona, they saw Romeo and Juliet’s castles and visited Juliet’s balcony. There’s a colosseum there that’s still in operation, hosting operas and music concerts.
The visit with Laura and her parents, Judy says, was “heartwarming.”
“It was just very special,” Judy says. “Her mom grabbed my hands, and said, ‘I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your treating my daughter like your family and giving her a sister.’ ”
Then it was time to return home ó but there was still a bit more adventure left for these intrepid travelers.
Their flight home from New York was delayed because of weather and finally canceled.
The four were happy to get the last room at the Super 8 in Queens.
Luckily, they had their carry-on luggage and a deck of cards to play “Shanghai.”
“That’s what we did whenever we had to wait,” Cindy says.