Tag: Expatriating

6Jun

Shock Wave

On Wednesday night, the four of us had the chance to watch Italy’s national soccer team play a friendly match against Luxembourg right here in our local stadium. This felt… epic. The World Cup is the only sporting event I’ve ever really followed, and the Italian squad has reached Dream Team proportions in my mind. That the very first live soccer game of my life would be the NATIONAL TEAM, playing in my OWN NEIGHBORHOOD, felt significant enough to inspire a ballad or two. Or, at the very least, a live-blog.

That was before we got in line outside the stadium though. Do you remember this? Now picture the same scenario with thousands of people instead of just twenty-three. The crowd didn’t so much move forward as it did compress, everyone elbow-first, angry yells breaking out every five seconds or so as someone else jumped the line. We stood in that thing for an hour and a half, having an increasingly difficult time protecting the girls from the crush, and finally we had to jump the line ourselves, ducking under the barrier because it was either that or risk our children’s lives.

When we made it into the stadium, the game was already starting, and our seats had been taken by someone else, and any last wisps of humor I may have been holding blew away. I was in no mood to live-blog. All I wanted to do in that moment was move to Canada where I would never have to worry about having my face elbowed or my children squished or my seat stolen. Other unpleasant public encounters these last seven years in Italy sprang to memory as if on cue: mothers pushing their children in front of mine to use the showers after swim class, other drivers rushing to take the parking spot for which I’d been waiting, bus-fuls of comfortably seated people watching me struggle to balance, standing, with a baby and a toddler in my arms.

I hate having to play by the rules of Every Man For Himself. It makes me feel slimy and indecent, and I’ve often found myself furious with the Italian culture for forcing me into an assertive posture that doesn’t fit me. I don’t want to have to stick up for myself. I don’t want to have to confront strangers. I much prefer polite, orderly systems in which everyone follows the same code of civility and keeps his elbows to himself, thank you very much.

This line of thinking didn’t last long on Wednesday evening though. With a mix of disbelief and admiration, I watched as thousands of people who had just been shoving and yelling at each other outside came together as one enthusiastic entity. The whole stadium broke out in the Italian national anthem and then moved on to fight songs (“Whoever’s not jumping is for Luxembourg!”). They kept The Wave going around and around. Their cheering rose and fell in perfect synchronism, and no one’s spirit seemed dampened in the least by the fact that the Italian team was playing like a herd of elderly milk cows. (Luxembourg tied Italy 1-1 in the second half, and you could see the players’ shrugs of indifference from the stands. Moooooo.)

It didn’t take long for me to get swept up in the raucous, communal fun of it all. I’d been looking forward to the evening because of the chance to watch the national team play, but in the end, the fans were what made the game worth attending. They exemplified everything I love about Italians—their loyalty, their warmth, their sense of community (notwithstanding how they act in line), and their commitment to enjoying life—and reminded me that as much as adjusting to this culture can unsettle and drain me, it can also fill and delight. Sometimes even on the same night.

Italian soccer game 2

4Jun

Village Appreciation Day

Elementary schools are set up a little differently here in Italy than they are in the U.S. For one thing, kids here typically go to school six days a week but only in the mornings. This allows families to eat the main meal of the day together, and then children spend the afternoon doing homework, going to extracurricular activities, and living it up at the neighborhood playgrounds. There are some schools with a five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day setup to accommodate working parents, but most families still choose mornings-only and enlist grandparents to babysit in the afternoons if need be. (We don’t have the grandparent option, but since Dan and I both started working from home, family life has become about 2,089,573,101 times less complicated. And all God’s entrepreneurs said amen.)

Another significant difference here is that teachers are assigned to a class in first grade and then stay with that group of kids all the way through fifth grade. This can be wonderful and reassuring if you get good teachers.

…And if you don’t?

I devoted significant energy to worrying over this four years ago when Natalie was about to start first grade and again last year when it was Sophie’s turn. What if the girls ended up with someone calloused and grim, someone to whom children’s presence tasted like unripe lemons? Someone drunk on power or palest green with inexperience or prejudiced against foreigners like us? What if their teachers were the kind to tread on sensitive, creative little hearts? What if my girls had to spend five long years’ worth of school days in a classroom taut with tension and defeat?

I was reminded of these fears last Saturday morning at the girls’ school recital, but not for the reason you might think. Sophie’s first-grade class started off with a little skit about how they had once been afraid they’d get witches for teachers, and I laughed along with the other parents while reflecting that my own fears for my daughter hadn’t been so very different. I had gone into my girls’ school experience geared up to fear and resent their teachers, imagining the worst of them before we’d even met.

This was a sobering realization as I looked around the room on Saturday and saw the faces of the women who have guided and encouraged and invested in my girls over the school year(s), women who were every bit as proud of my children’s academic progress as I was. I kept sneaking peeks at the teachers during the girls’ performances, and the affection radiating from their faces was enough to untie a knot somewhere in my throat. Fear was a distant (and regretful) memory. All I had left was gratitude, so full-bodied and sweet it blurred my vision.

Gratitude for those who have made education their lives’ work.
Gratitude for the creativity and fun they bring to the classroom despite budget cuts and bureaucratic hurdle-fests.
Gratitude for the unique imprints they have left on my daughters through their insights, personalities, and talents.
Gratitude for their presence in my girls’ lives, every teacher a support column to their childhoods.

I once believed that “It takes a village” was liberal propaganda designed to undermine the family structure, and I’m sure that residual fallout from that belief helps explain why I was so afraid of the girls’ teachers sight-unseen. As I’ve experienced in so many aspects of my journey away from fundamentalism, though, fears lose their claustrophobic grip once I’m out in the spacious, grace-full open. I’m not saying that bad teachers don’t exist or that we haven’t been fortunate so far, but my mindset is coming from a different direction now—one of preemptive appreciation rather than preemptive dread. And as Saturday morning solidified for me, I am above and beyond grateful for this little village in which my girls get to grow.

28Apr

Greener Pastures

Come August, we will have lived in Perugia for seven years. This is liable to give me mental vertigo, all these days expanding and collapsing like accordion pleats in my memory. A trick of the light, and I am once again massive with child and complicated hopes boarding a one-way flight to Italy; the angle shifts, and my perspective accelerates through one baby, two visas, three homes, and the better part of a decade to where I sit today penciling summer destinations into our calendar. Time is often catalogued for me in terms of travel, and we’ve done so much of it in these seven years that my mind can’t quite grasp it all at once.

We realized on last week’s little excursion, though, that our view on travel could use some tweaking. We tend to think of travel as something grandiose and all-consuming, volumes of time propped between the bookends of journey. The farther we drive to get to a pasture, the greener it is, right? This is why we’ve spent Saturday after Saturday chafing against weekend chores and griping for want of air. This is why the idea of a staycation this Spring Break disappointed us. This is why, in seven years, we haven’t ever climbed the slopes of our own Mount Subasio.

Er, make that hadn’t.

Hiking Subasio - Victorious three

The forecast called for rain on Saturday, but we went anyway, the drive to explore our own backyard stronger than our desire to stay dry. And it was beautiful, all of it: the girls’ pride at making it up the mountainside by themselves, the clouds billowing like down comforters overhead, the wildflowers holding their own against the tide of grass and gravity, the towns laid out below us like stitching on a vast patchwork quilt. On the drive there, we’d listened to Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Two hours later, I knew exactly what that felt like.

Hiking Subasio - Bethany on top of the world

Hiking Subasio - Assisi down below(That’s wee little Assisi in the center of the photo.)

Hiking Subasio - Sisters

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Natalie

Hiking Subasio - Wildflowers 2

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Sophie

I will never stop wanting travel on a grand scope—road trips and international flights and wildly new terrains underfoot. This weekend has convinced me though that we don’t need to keep holding our wanderlust at bay until schedules and finances align. We have a wealth of beauty close to home, perhaps even enough to fill the next seven years of Saturdays. The verdancy of far-off pastures may be up for debate, but I can say now with certainty that we’ve got a green worth experiencing right here.

Hiking subasio - Wildflowers 3

What’s your favorite “destination” in your neck of the woods? Or is there a place nearby you’ve been curious to explore? Where would you take me for a Saturday adventure if I came to visit? 

11Apr

Standing in “Line” LIVE!

As with all forms of bureaucracy here in Italy, the public health system is impressively complicated. I’ve written about it before, but all you need to know for the sake of today’s story is that there is a system called the CUP—pronounced “coop,” which I find fitting on so many levels—through which people must schedule their doctor’s appointments and pay their co-pays (rather than doing those things directly at the doctors’ offices). There are CUP windows at many pharmacies and medical centers; today’s tale of trickery and angst takes place at one of the latter where I went to pay for Sophie’s optometrist visit.

Are you ready to spend half an hour in an expat’s shoes?

Great! Let’s get started.

Warning: Those of you who suffer from agoraphobia, claustrophobia, noise-triggered migraines, and/or overactive bladders should proceed with the utmost caution. Thank you.

9:59a – I walk into the CUP center and notice that the electronic number displays on the walls are all blinking zeroes. Awesome. I’d been hoping to sit and read while waiting my turn, but I suppose this is as good an opportunity as ever to work on my waiting-in-line skills. That isn’t sarcasm, by the way. Navigating lines in Italy takes a certain skill set that I have yet to master. However, the fifteen people already in line seem placid enough. I take a number just to be safe and join the queue.

10:00a – As I wait for the line to move forward, I notice that the building’s heating system must be on. It is distinctly warm in the room, at least 85°. While I ponder who would run the heat on an already-warm spring day, several newcomers take numbers and get in line “behind” me. By that, I mean that they fan out beside me like chorus girls effectively ensuring that I remain the one in the rear. I expected this, so it doesn’t faze me. I just need to hold my place, and all will be well.

10:01a – The line shuffles forward a foot, and I now count nineteen people ahead of me. More are now crowded at my sides as well. Where are they coming from? I scoot closer to the elderly man in front of me and grip my number like it is the grenade of justice.

10:02a – Subtlety Hour is over. A well-coiffed blonde woman takes a number, sniffs the air for weakness, and then makes a beeline for me. “I’m just here to pay,” she announces to the top of my head as she tries to edge in front of me. Aha! I think. This I DO know how to handle! Had this happened seven years ago when we first moved to Italy, I would have let her in and then cried about the experience later. Now, though, I am tough. I have strategies. I have perfected… The Elbow Flex. To correctly perform this maneuver, you take a deep, satisfied breath as if you were stepping outdoors on bright prairie morning. While you exhale all that cleansing air, you puff your torso and place your hands on your hips, pointing your elbows outward. This must be done casually enough that you can pretend it’s not on purpose yet deliberately enough that everyone else knows it is. Once you have armed yourself with these jutting joints of territorialism, you can look line-cutters in the eye as I did the blonde woman and say, “Sorry, but I’m just here to pay too” as you physically block their progress.

10:03a – Blonde lady is undaunted by either verbal or elbowal barriers. In a supreme move of one-upmanship, she “accidentally” steps on my foot while wedging herself between my body and that of the elderly man in front of me. A small burst of steam escapes my ears, though that could be due to the temperature in the room. It’s got to be in the 90° range by now.

10:04a – A pleasant-faced PR volunteer walks by, and I consider asking her if she can do anything about the heat. However, seven people are already complaining to her. “The number display isn’t working!” several of them point out at once. “What are we supposed to do?” “Wait in line,” she replies with an affectionate smile. “But I’m only here to pay!” protests the blonde woman who is still on top of my foot. “So is she,” the volunteer says, pointing to me. “So are they. We’re all here to pay, and we can’t do anything about the numbers, so let’s just wait in line calmly, shall we?” She walks back up the line, and I notice there are now twenty-three people ahead of me. For the love…

10:07a – Despite the fact that a good two-dozen people have arrived after me, I am still the last person in line. The newcomers are all clustered at my sides waiting for the slightest lapse in concentration or resolve that would allow them to merge in front of me. I decide to strike up a conversation with the closest of them, a young mom whose arm is literally resting on my purse. I figure that if someone is going to be that close to my wallet, I should at least try to stay on her good side.

10:09a – It is now 95°, maybe 96°. I am sweating through my spring cardigan and cannot fathom how the others are surviving in their scarves and coats. The general mood does seem a bit more heated than before. The blonde woman on my foot is huffing and telling anyone who will listen that this is a grave injustice, she only has to pay, how can they expect her to wait? The mom hanging onto my purse is arguing with someone on the other side of me about whether or not the CUP should be giving out numbers if we were going to have to wait in line anyway. “Che casino!” people are muttering from all around. What a casino.

10:12a – Behind me, genuine shouting breaks out. A man has just arrived and is eager that we all know how busy he is, very busy, FAR too busy to have to wait in line. This is a free country, he says like a soapbox preacher with an emergency. Why should he have to wait in line? BECAUSE THE REST OF US HAVE TO, YOU IMBECILE, someone informs him. A dozen people start arguing at once. Chief among their complaints is the fact that lines exist and that we are expected to use them. Why should we? What is the point? Are we cattle to be treated this way? The volunteer hurries back and forth trying to calm everyone. “We are well mannered!” she calls over the din. “We are civilized adults!”

10:13a – No. No, we are not.

10:15a – To my relief, blonde woman moves off my foot and leaves the building in a huff. Maybe I can breathe a little more easily now.

10:15a and ten seconds – A new blonde woman is suddenly at my side with her body angled so as to make it seem like she’s in front. I have no idea where she came from or what she’s here to do, but I do know that she needs to pee. I know this because she has started informing the volunteer of this at top volume. Why should she have to wait in line? She has to pee! Badly, dammit!

10:17a – The temperature is now pushing 100°, and the general volume is rising along with it. The very busy yelling man is now directly behind me, but at least that means I’m not the last person in line anymore. The mom leaning on my purse has engaged him in a shouting match about the philosophy of standing in lines. I try recording them on my phone, but the man catches me about to push start. I pretend I’m texting instead and will the embarrassed flush on my cheeks to simmer down.

10:18a – Another mom inserts herself into the fray. She is holding up a squirming preschooler as evidence for why she shouldn’t have to wait in line. Because: BABY. The others are having none of it; I see The Elbow Flex rippling down the line like a stabby sideways version of The Wave. Preschooler mom yells about the ridiculousness of being expected to wait her turn, and the volunteer explains for the nine thousandth time that lines are how we keep order and civility in just such circumstances as these. Mr. Very-Busy jumps in, alternately defending and berating the mom. Both of them berate the volunteer for a while, but she is much more skilled in the art of blocking than I, and the mom is at last obliged to remove both herself and her kicking preschooler to the “back” of the “line.”

10:20a – I am sweating profusely now. I would take off my cardigan except that I have one yelling man, one yelling mom, and one yelling blonde with a small bladder pressed against my body. One of them is touching my butt. I text angsty emojis to Dan.

10:22a – The volunteer walks within range again, and both Pee Lady and Busy Man resume their high-volume complaining. The volunteer is looking decidedly worse for wear; her hair is plastered down in the 107° heat, her shoulders are clenched, and I watch as the last remnants of sparkle in her eyes blaze out. She engages the man first. “Do not use that kind of language with me, SIR!” He starts to bluster, but she cuts him off. “Have you ever been to the theater before? That’s probably too high a level of sophistication for you, but—” He informs her that he most certainly has been to the theater, many times. “Ah, well then I’m sure you must be familiar with what they have at theaters.” “I don’t un—” “THEY HAVE LINES!” During his momentary silence, she turns to the blonde woman. “Ma’am. If you have to pee so badly, by all means, go ahead and pee. ON THE FLOOR.”

10:23a – Busy Man: 0, Bladder Lady: 0, Volunteer: 1,000,000. She walks away muttering, “We are NOT well-mannered, we are NOT civilized, we are immature and conniving, oh yes. We wouldn’t know civility if it bit us…” I think about giving her a standing ovation, but it’s too hot now to do anything but shuffle forward. To my surprise, there are only five people left in front of me. The end is in sight.

10:24a – Four people, not counting Ms. Bladder who is still angling her body to pretend she is in front of me.

10:25a – Three. I look at her hard, hoping she’ll feel appropriately abashed and step back. She does not.

10:27a – Two. I decide it doesn’t hurt to try The Elbow Flex one last time.

10:28a – One. Pee Lady gives up. A solid dozen people may have cut in line in front of me this morning, but I have prevailed over one of them! 1,000,000 points for me.

10:29a – My turn has arrived! I see a CUP window free up, and I stride forward. It’s like being released from prison. It’s like stepping onto the shores of a brave new world. It’s like—A white-haired but incredibly agile man darts out of nowhere and runs in front of me to the window. I freeze for a moment, unsure which direction my emotional current is pulling me… and then I begin to laugh. Sure, I have just been outmaneuvered by the thirteenth consecutive person in half an hour. True, I am no savvier at this cultural experience than I was at the beginning, not really. But it is all pretty entertaining when I think about it, and even if ten more senior citizens cut me off here at the end, the glorious truth remains that I’m through the line. Done. Finished. Free. You might even say… uncooped.

The end.

7Apr

Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).

Trevi

We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

2Apr

Stories to Bookmarkare

I don’t often write directly about the whole residing-in-Italy aspect of our lives. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but my best guess is that Italy has woven itself so thoroughly into the fabric of our days that I forget to single it out. This isn’t the same as being tired of the place. On the contrary, I love our weird little Italian life more every year. I still run into an invisible wall of wonder every time we walk downtown; the old stone palaces and fountains and archways stop my feet until my eyes can catch up with them. It’s also a special kind of delight to experience the language and culture as friends rather than obstacles. When we moved here nearly seven years ago, my only real point of connection was the food. Now, I’m taken with the local idioms, the Mediterranean rhythms, the way our Italian friends can spin conversation from straw, the geography of this country, its richly layered history, and the wealth of bilingual jokes now at my disposal.

Fornarina
(And the food.)

This is in no way a deep post, but I wanted to share a little of why Italy charms my socks off. The following are all recent news stories that have been simultaneously cracking me up and warming my heart. Enjoy!

1. Sister Cristina Scuccia belts out Alicia Keys on The Voice of Italy and snags rapper J-Ax for her vocal coach.

(English subtitles can be turned on at bottom right.)

Everything about this story is my favorite—Sister Cristina’s jubilant performance, the cheers of her fellow nuns backstage, and J-Ax’s emotional connection to the whole thing. If you’re not familiar with J-Ax (and unless you’re into Italian rap or married to someone who is—ahem—you probably aren’t), he’s a gritty and hilariously irreverent performer whose hit titles include “Ohi Maria” (a love song to marijuana), “L’Italiano Medio” (a play on words referring to his middle finger), and “Voglio Una Lurida” (a tribute to dirty girls that involves the line, “I want to intimately caress her hair… On her arms, I meant!”). Ergo, he’s not the kind of guy I would ever have imagined tearing up over a nun’s performance, much less teaming up with her as her vocal coach. Just… awesome.

2. Roman mobster Enrico Terribile breaks house arrest 30 minutes early for… what else? Pizza!

First things first: Is Enrico Terribile not the most fantastic mobster name ever? True to his moniker, Terribile helped terrorize Rome as part of the Magliana gang in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I probably shouldn’t find this news story as delightful as I do. But going back to prison because his passion for pizza wouldn’t let him wait a single half-hour longer? That just slays me. (In another recent story, a man in Livorno broke house arrest on purpose so he could go to prison and thus escape his wife. Maybe not as good a reason as pizza but still highly entertaining.)

3. A team of amateur Sicilian scientists launches cannoli into space. Because… Why ever not?


(The best parts start at 2:30 and 6:03, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.)

Bonus: The whole mission only cost €350. NASA, eat your heart out.

4. Italian dictionaries have recently expanded to include the following super-awesome verbs:

  • Bloggare
  • Bookmarkare
  • Googlare
  • Sharare
  • Twittare
  • Upgradare

(Source)

Now tell me that doesn’t make your day at least a few percentage points better. It’s upgradando mine!

P.S. – Two of my favorite posts so far about our expat experience: No Morale of the Story and Moving Home… On Purpose.

4Oct

A Daily Dose of Truffles

I lost my voice in Texas two months ago. Within 24 hours of stepping out of DFW International into my sister’s arms, my laugh had developed a smoky rasp. Another day, and I was passing myself off as Keith Richards on the phone. By Day 5, I could only do a bullfrog’s rendition of a whisper, and I had to eat throat lozenges like M&Ms for the next few days in order to [audibly] deliver the toast at my sister’s wedding. It was awesome. Between grown-up slumber parties with my sister, long drives with my cousin, dinners out with friends, shopping marathons with my mom, and game nights with my brothers, I was in good conversational company for about 21 hours a day. (Related: Sleep, schmeep.)

This trip back to my hometown marked the first time I’ve really gotten to know many* of my siblings as adults, and every one of the eleven days I spent with them was a spadeful of sand unburying treasure. My voice box was simply the conduit for years’ and years’ worth of conversations delayed by age gaps, stage-of-life gaps, and geographical gaps. Goodnights took two hours and a shared tub of ice cream to finish saying.

* There are eight of us, plus assorted spouses, kids (mine), and dogs (everybody else’s). 

And then there were the sales clerks—women with ready Texas smiles, men with hilarious anecdotes at the ready—and I talked with all of them. I chatted with the gas station attendant, the intern behind the front desk at the Y, the mom whose toddler ran over my foot with a tricycle. It was such a thrill to be speaking American English, to be using terms like “the Y” and “fixin’ to.” I wondered if they could tell that I was from those parts (which I am) or if I came across as a foreign species visiting from distant lands (which is equally true). I reserved my secret life in Italy for my family, who I’m sure loved having me point out a new cultural difference every five minutes. (“Whoa, I’d forgotten that you can actually pay at the pump in the U.S.! LOL. Things are so different where I live, haha. Oh, and have I ever told you about speedometers in Italy…?”)

Returning to that secret expat life, however, I found my throat blocked by a lump the size of the jalapeños on my honky-tonk nachos. I’d never really experienced homesickness before, so I couldn’t be sure that’s what it was. It was something, though, and that something propelled me to the corner of our house farthest from the front door. I sent Dan to the store for milk. I let the phone ring itself hoarse. I lay in bed with my mind ping-ponging between jetlag and insomnia and my mouth tightly closed.

It’s just so hard here. Can I say that? Can I tell you honestly that this beautiful life I’ve been given with its ancient cathedrals and its bowls of pasta and these two little bilingual daughters traipsing across castle grounds on a Saturday morning can be too heavy for me sometimes?

I feel like an ingrate for it, but at least I can be an honest ingrate. Here it is: Every interaction in Italy, no matter how small, requires more than I ever feel comfortable offering up. An acceptance of lost dignity is the main prerequisite, and I cannot think of a sensation more exactly opposite of the thrill I felt speaking Texan among Texans. Any time I open my mouth here, I advertise the fact that I am a foreigner (aptly, the term is “stranger” in Italian), and even though the person I’m speaking to has already seen my freckles and knows I am not a local, speaking aloud feels like zipping up a sore thumb costume and launching into a set of jumping jacks on the street corner.

So, there is the psychological effort of un-belonging, and then there is the mental effort of the language itself. The words still come to me slowly, like doddering old men reluctant to leave their rooms, and the worst part is and always shall be choosing the correct subject-verb endings to accessorize the things. Italian is a language that must be spoken with confidence and spice, completely unlike the gently sloshing Spanish I studied growing up, and I regularly trip over my false teeth trying to infuse my words with Mediterranean spirit.

In fairness to my Italian friends, I need to make clear that no one ever disparages me for speaking imperfectly. All of this drama takes place within the confines of my own head. Still, my head is a rather significant part of my life, so “ciao” is never just “ciao” for me; it’s emotional and mental strain followed by a very special like-it-or-not brand of humility.

And so my post-Texas self clammed up for a while, the difficulty of interaction here contrasting too sharply against all my fresh memories of hometown and kin. I wanted to get right back on an airplane to the States and savor the easy cascade of words for another few weeks. My goodness, but I wanted to greet a friend without having to button up my courage first. I found myself grieving, honest-to-goodness grieving, over this gorgeous adventure of an expat life.

I know the world’s tiniest violin is playing right now in mock sympathy for my plight (“Privileged Woman Chooses Fairytale Life, Whines That It Is Hard”), but this is real life, compliments of the real brain in my real head, and I believe that we allow grace to exhale pure ambient relief around us when we’re real with each other. Plus, I found a way out of my clamshell, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love while running a few weeks ago, and though I had previously read the book and watched the film (and re-read and re-watched and then re-re-watched if we’re going for full disclosure here; I do love a good spiritual/travel/gelato-themed memoir), and though I thought all of the relevant parts had already made their impressions on me, something new jumped out:

“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me… The words made me laugh in delight.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, referring to Italian, and once living in Rome, she actually drops out of language school so she can have more time to enjoy trying her vocabulary out on shopkeepers, seat mates on trains, postal clerks, soccer fans… basically everyone I most dread having to speak to when I go out.

My mind immediately drifted away from the book, and between the usual mental soliloquies that take over while I’m running (“Ow.” “Hate. “Why.” etc.), I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of language learning as delight. It was hard at first. I’ve lived here for six years now, and my perspectives have become worn to the point of shabbiness with daily use. There is nothing particularly glamorous about daily life, after all. Take out the trash, walk the girls to school, do a few linguistic slapstick routines while saying hi to the other parents. This is no Julia Roberts flick.

But consciously relishing each word as it leaves my mouth is something I can do without the least disruption to my routine. I don’t have to do anything different, in fact, except remember to enjoy my free daily language practice. My daily dose of truffles. It’s incredible how something as insubstantial as the concept of delight can reshape the mind’s topography, turn canyons into playgrounds, turn long afternoons at the pediatric allergy clinic into extended word games. It’s changing so much for me, not necessarily for the easier but certainly for the happier. I even picked up my old grammar book the other day and read a few verb conjugations out loud just to feel them melt on my tongue. Voglio, vuoi, vuole, vogliamo, volete, vogliono. Like chocolates, like throat lozenges, cures for a lost voice.

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