Earning My Hippos

Easter 2012 Part 2 (Part 1 here)

I woke up this morning feeling like a hippopotamus had plopped down on my head at some point during the night and promptly died. I wouldn’t have woken up at all had my husband not groaned for me to look at the time. The clock said 8:38—precisely 23 minutes after the final bell for Natalie’s school. I said a bad word. The hippopotamus said nothing. I never feel precisely energetic in the mornings, but this was a whole new category of tiredness. Post-vacation tiredness, I suppose. Post-THIS-vacation tiredness. In fact, I would bet that this morning’s mammalian fatigue started last Tuesday when I brilliantly decided to take the kids to the zoo. In Naples. By myself.

As with nearly all our vacations, we planned last week around one of Dan’s work trips, which meant the girls and I had a couple of days to kill on our own. Seeing as how the city zoo met my one stipulation—must cost less than a cheese pizza—and the owner of our Airbnb rental offered us a ride there, my decision practically made itself. After all, I had a lot of fiscally-rejected zoo trips to make up to my girls, and what better way to while away a free day together?

Skeptical Sophie

As it turns out, the zoo was only really large enough for whiling away an hour, an hour and a half tops. Anything beyond that took imagination, patience, and snacks. Even little Sophie, experiencing the grandeur of tigers in cages for the very first time, remained underwhelmed, and every last snack was gone by 11:00. Fortunately, we still had imagination and patience. Even more fortunately, the zoo was overrun with peacocks. I’m talking dozens of them, gloriously free-range.

Peacock introductions

We introduced ourselves to peacocks. We adopted peacocks. We chased peacocks from one end of the grounds to the other. We imitated peacocks. We probably would have provoked every other family at the zoo to wrath had we not been, well, the only family at the zoo. Come to find out, the local schools let out later than ours for Easter Break. I’m not sure if it was more liberating or more unsettling to be the only humans in sight, but we certainly took advantage of the space. When the peacocks became old news, we played hide ‘n’ seek in the shrubbery and hunted for four-leaf clovers and swept the sidewalk with palm fronds. The advertized attractions of the zoo—read: animals—barely held a candle to the fun of its vegetation.

Hide and Seek

However, by 3:00 in the afternoon, we had exhausted our combined powers of self-diversion. The zoo was set to close a few hours before Dan would be able to come pick us up, and we were a good half hour’s drive from the city center. My grand plan for the day suddenly seemed much less brilliant. However, I had a smartphone, and my husband was working with helpful souls, and a new plan was hatched to get the girls and I across the city to him using public transportation. Now, I didn’t grow up with public transportation. When we first moved to Italy, carless, five years ago, I was terrified to take the bus; something about the unfamiliar streets whisking past the windows and me without a brake pedal turned my confidence into quivering mush, and I still exhale with relief each time the G2 deposits me safely in our neighborhood. Being asked to cross an enormous, unfamiliar tangle of a city on a succession of subways and buses with two little girls in tow felt like being told to bungee jump off an uncharted cliff. But my other alternative was… um?

Driving by Napoli

Some days, being a mom requires more than snacks and a few hours’ worth of imagination. It requires bribery (Ice cream for anyone who can walk a whole kilometer without crying on their own legs at all!), speed (“The tickets will be €3.40, signora, and I believe that is your train about to depart from the farthest platform up the highest flight of steps”), and strength (not to throat punch every last man who casually draped himself over an entire row of seats while watching me struggle to balance a sleeping four-year-old on the train). It means repainting my own anxiety as adventure and letting one child swing from the bus handles while I cuddle the other back to sleep and pray I’ve understood the driver’s thick accent. It means scrounging up my last few cents for a bathroom stop, steering my girls safely around a street fight, and delivering us all exhausted but intact to my husband’s waiting car.

Public transportation

It also means waking up more than a week later to a condemning clock and a deceased hippopotamus on my skull and, instead of going for my old self-flagellation routine, remembering that I have earned this tiredness and earned it well.



We were supposed to have Wi-Fi. It was one of the two features I insisted on for last week’s vacation rental. Number one was a parking spot—every car deserves at least a fighting chance of surviving Naples intact—and number two was connection with the outside world. I know it’s healthy to unplug every once in a while, but I’ve learned a few things about myself and isolation over the years, and… well, let me just turn you over to the post I wrote last Monday. In light of the following seven Wi-Fi-less days, I’m titling it Irony.


Monday, April 02, 2012

Late-afternoon sunbeams sprawl through the open doorway and across my toes, painted a sugared lavender in honor of these first barefoot days. I’m starting to think, however, that I should have gone with orange. It’s everywhere in this Neapolitan villa—tangerine curtains, sunburst floors, goldfish prints swimming across mango walls—and I wish I were unabashed enough to do the same in our own home. This color, it’s the only invitation I need to waltz wholemindedly into Easter break.

Orange in Naples

In the absence of orange Neapolitan villas, I’m notoriously bad at vacation. This will come as no surprise to any of you, but it’s easier for me to leave my toothpaste than my productivity complex back at home. Even my usual blogging hiatus turns into a form of obligation, a must carpe every damn diem teethgrit no matter how far behind my self-awareness starts to lag. So this, lounging in tandem with the sunlight and letting my fingers stretch long on the keys, is my highest form of rebellion for the week.

Our vacation rental is nestled in a maze of farm roads on the slopes of Vesuvius, and from the living room sofa, I can see past the tips of lightly fuzzing peach trees and across the rooftops of Naples to where ships weave silver tracks in the bay. We’re high above clamor and hurry, time trilled away by birds flitting through a bower of wisteria blossoms just off the terrace. I never thought I could feel so completely relaxed in a city whose streets jolt the afterlife in and out of focus, but here I am. Purring.

 Room with a view


Oh yes, there is more to come. See you tomorrow, same time, same place?

P.S. – It’s crazy good to be back.


Cause + Effect

I spent last weekend helping my husband transform his home office from this…

Bedroom before

to this:

Bedroom after

Bless IKEA.

I have always loved working on home improvement projects with Dan, and probably nothing speaks more highly to our do-it-yourself compatibility than the fact that our marriage has survived onetwothreefourfivesixseven low-budget moves in good spirits. We both love the atmosphere of change and the symbolism of building our life together one screw at a time (::does the pun victory dance::), so last weekend’s project was right up our alley.

It’s also why I’ve spent this weekend doing this:

Post home improvement


Do you have grand weekend plans? If it’s any assurance, my definition of “grand” includes desperate day-long naps. 



This is when I know it’s an addiction—when I haven’t read a bedtime story to my girls in a week, when a friend leaves a voice mail after an email after a text message and then waylays my husband to make sure I’m okay, when I start thinking up next week’s grocery list on a Monday and run instead of walk to find a pen. My drug is accomplishment. It always has been, from the impossible checklists of my childhood to the precarious tower of college jobs, and like any chemical-inflamed dependence, it hollows out my living appetite.

Some wild-eyed part of my brain insists that when I can no longer find a single loose end to wrap up, not a single other must or should, my craving for accomplishment will finally be satisfied. However, I’ve watched through the keyhole as my own mind invents responsibilities, and I know the truth—that I crave the hunger more than I crave its end.

It’s a sobering realization that I can’t just… stop. Not without some iron-clad justification—six hours until sunrise, a waiting room lull—and even then, I only grant a temporary concession. I wake up in the morning pre-tired. I have woken up nearly every morning of my life this way.

No need to tell me that the valuable moments of life are the slow-cooked ones, the savoring of time with loved ones, the meditation melting on my tongue. I have known transcendence, but never in the scurry. It’s only when I’m still that the important unblurs. This blog owes its existence to my need for reflection and refocus, but sometimes, weeks like the last one take over and I lose sight of soul-care in my scramble to do more, always more, just one thing more and maybe it will finally feel like enough. I medicate the endless gnawing with my dust cloth.

Right now, sitting here honestly with you brings on the shaking effort of withdrawal. I can see every spill on the kitchen floor, every unfiled paper on my desk, and every shaded block on the calendar all at once, and they wage a trembling tug-of-war against gravity. My coffee is just strong enough to keep me in my seat as I fight myself on two opposing fronts. It’s every kind of unsettling.

But oh, I can feel it’s good. Deliberately refusing my compulsion to hurry and accomplish, choosing instead to stop and write and reorient, pushing back my panic at the ticking of the clock, ducking outside for a tryst with the cherry blossoms… this is my rehabilitation. It’s not easy, but it’s good, and I’m powering through the withdrawal this morning because being here does what grasping for accomplishment never can: It fills.


The Valley of the Shadow of Expat Taxes

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
~ Benjamin Franklin 

Life in Italy isn’t always a Hollywood montage of accordion-infused wine and Gucci models on Vespas. (To that point, Sara Rosso of Ms. Adventures in Italy recently summed up some of the least glamorous details of expat life in “Those Lucky Bastards…right?”) True, there is more than enough glamour and romance and adventure here to make putting down roots into Italian soil worth every bureaucratic migraine, but… well, consider these two horrifying words: tax season.

We are American citizens with residence in Italy, which means we file taxes in both countries. Now, Italian tax law is like a mile of yarn twisted into an intricate ball. While modern lawmakers recognize that the yarn has become discolored and frayed over time, they can’t begin to think how to unravel the mess, so they simply tie new wads of legislature to the outside. The universally accepted solution here is to hire an accountant and pray that he knows what he’s doing.

American tax laws, on the other hand, are laid out in such exhaustive accessibility that I can never bear to pay someone to do in one hour what I could figure out myself in one hundred… million. Plus, I get some kind of demented thrill by entering numbers into financial forms. The weeks leading up to April 15th each year are a lot like those centrifugal force carnival rides—painful, nauseating fun that is always more endurable in retrospect.

I’m not to the retrospect stage yet this year. In fact, I’m feeling thoroughly green around the edges. However, while I convert euros to dollars and look up obscure self-employed-expat tax limitations and throw up occasionally and pray harder than ever that our Italian accountant knows more about his country’s laws than I do about mine, those Hollywood montages help more than anything. A little starry-eyed perspective goes a long way here in the valley between international bureaucracies, I’ve discovered. Especially the part about wine.


How do you feel about tax season? No, really?




Well hi there. Coming back here after nearly a week of radio silence feels like exhaling after a long dive, and it’s so nice to say hello again. How are you? (Yes, you!)

Here’s what happened: Dan came home from two weeks of business travels, and the moment we finished kissing hello, I shoved the children in his direction and started writing like a feverish monk for a project I was already supposed to have completed. (Note to self: Preschoolers and deadlines don’t mix.)  I toyed with the idea of reposting some old entries on here, but then I wondered if that would seem presumptuous, and then I was sure it would. I only know how to fight off one source of self-doubt at a time, so I chose the project. Be sure, though, that I thought of you often.

I also did a bit of this:


…because some things are best celebrated with hammocks, and spring is one of them.


How did you welcome spring this year? Does it even feel like spring yet where you are? If so, are you in a celebratory mood? If not, would you like to come visit? We have hammocks.


For Blunderbuss Weeks

“I blundered into creativity as blindly as any child learning to walk and see. I learned to let my senses and my Past tell me all that was somehow true.”
~ Ray Bradbury, from the introduction to Dandelion Wine


It’s been a blundering sort of week on the creative front. I’m wrapping up one project and halfway through another, and blank lines are morphing into monsters before my eyes. It’s hard to recognize my love of writing on a week when every other word comes out kicking and screaming. (Or maybe my children are the ones kicking and screaming? Everything sort of blurs into chaos when one’s husband has been away on business for two consecutive weeks.)

It’s hard for me to do this, to care deeply for my work while taking all the little demands and frustrations of life in stride. I want to WRITE, damn it!, and devour novels and watch TED talks and do yoga to meditations by Anne Lamott and immerse myself fully in the artist’s life… but every few minutes, it’s supper time again, and we have no instant food in the house (curses on nutritional menu planning), and my husband is three countries away, and the girls are murdering each other in the next room, and the house is a natural disaster in and of itself even though I just finished cleaning it, and I’m shaking with what I can only assume is hunger which makes no sense because I could swear that we in this house eat without ceasing, and once we do manage to scrounge something edible into our mouths, it will be time for the hour of brutal physical labor known as Putting The Girls To Bed, and afterwards I will be too tired to remember that I, too, need sleep, and I will stay up far too late writing emails and worrying about everything I can get my mind on, and the entire next morning will be doomed to a kind of zombie torture experience.

(I blame the horrifying length of that sentence on just having proofread a business plan. My right brain needed to stretch.)

Here’s what helps, both for my own future reference and for anyone else chafing under the interruptions of Real Life:

Permission to leave the dishes in the sink.
Forgiveness for missing the deadline.
An extra hour on the alarm.
A third coffee. With cream.

When it feels like life is pulling at me from all directions, the best thing I know to do is to cut myself some slack. Grace has a filter-down effect, you see, and the girls are much less likely to wring each other’s necks when their mother isn’t wringing her own. Along with the domestic murder rate, wailing and gnashing of teeth drop significantly when we have a package of possibly-fish sticks in the freezer. And more often than not, when I remember to let creativity down off its pedestal, it has a way of blundering straight into truth.

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