Tag: Expatriating


Handful of Confetti

Culturally, expat life in Italy is the stuff of daydreams; logistically, it can be more of a nightmare. Just to apply for a local driver’s license, one first has to acquire a residence card, a requirement for which is a permesso di soggiorno—permission to stay in the country, for which one must have a visa which must be applied for in one’s native country but with documents that must be gotten in Italy. Each step in the process requires energy, patience, and a therapeutic sense of humor to keep sanity in place.

Say, for example, that you are ready to apply for your permesso. One of the documents you are required to bring is an official form certifying your housing situation, so you go ask your landlord for a copy. Your landlord doesn’t know anything about any such form. You do some research and finally figure out where he can go to apply for this form. Only he has had renovations done on the house that are not yet documented with the government, and what’s more, he doesn’t want to document them with the government because he neglected to apply for his permission to make those renovations in the first place. He stalls. You do more research and find that it is actually illegal for him  to be renting to you without this housing form. He finally relents, finds a way to work around the system (you try not to think too much about this part), and applies for the form. After a few weeks, you are called to the housing office to verify information about how many people are living with you, only when you arrive, you discover the office is on vacation for the month. When the month is up, you return and find out that your American birth certificate needs a special stamp to guarantee its legitimacy before the office will accept it. You mail you birth certificate with fear and trembling to the States where it is stamped and mailed back to you (without getting lost en route, thank goodness), and you return once again to the housing office. All goes smoothly this time, but the form you are waiting on will not be ready for awhile. “Don’t worry,” the housing officials assure you. “We will mail your landlord a letter when the form is ready to be picked up.” And that’s just for one document.

Tobias Jones describes the process of dealing with Italian bureaucracy “like trying to catch confetti: having to race from one office to another, filling in forms and requests, trying to grasp pieces of paper which always just elude your grasp.” I would agree with that except that it sounds like a whirl of activity whereas most of our experience with government offices here has centered around waiting… and waiting… and waaaaaaiiiiiittttttiiiiiiinnnnngggg.

This country has our hearts firmly in its grasp though. We willingly jump through the hoops—or more accurately, wait in the lines—to wake up to the Appennine sun luring fog out of the valley to incandesce with it in open air. We do it for day trips to Etruscan villages, for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” sung in two languages, for lunchtime chats with our favorite pizzaiolo while he twirls our pizza to perfection in his brick oven. Even Italians think we’re crazy for giving up the American Dream for a life swathed in red tape, and maybe of course we are. But this is home to us. Living here is worth the frustration of trying to do so legally.

And you know, the struggle, the confetti-grasping, and the forced cultivation of patience are exactly what make small victories like this morning’s trip to renew health cards all the more precious.


Auld Lang Syne With Frosting

Dear, neglected little blog,

It’s been so long I’m not even sure where to start. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thought of you often—while baking and decorating and wrapping, while celebrating holiday traditions with our Italian family, while toasting to the new year under a dizzy display of fireworks, even while huddling feverish under a mound of blankets unsure what month it was anymore. I had promised myself that this would be the December I found time to blog regularly, but whoops, look at that, it’s January already, and what?!

Not only is it January, but 2011 is already hurtling full speed at my head. There are some quick decisions to be made and goals (note: not resolutions) to be focused in on before my brain power scatters in fright over this mighty new year, and I’m already behind on so many things that 2012 is starting to get worried. This is no way to celebrate the untapped potential of 365 fresh-faced days, I know. I also know that stressing over a vague accumulation of responsibility is neither going to help me get well nor whittle down my to-do list… but that’s what I do. I stress. Then I write about it. Then I share it with you, and then I get back to living like a reasonably sane individual.

New years always seem to find me this way, on the restless side of recovery, bewildered, angsty, unsteady. I guess it’s sort of my post-holiday tradition. Some people make resolutions; I fumble around for my bearings. It’s not a bad practice, truth be told—sifting through perspectives and reclaiming priorities. I should probably make more of a habit of it rather than waiting for it to knock me off balance the moment the fireworks fade, but I just get busy, and weeks scurry by, and when I finally pause at the page again, I don’t recognize its landscape.

But this was supposed to be a letter, not a therapy session. So, dear blog, here’s some of what you’ve missed over the last two weeks:

  • Two small giggly girls rocking around the Christmas tree to their favorite tunes, headbanging in Santa hats, and reenacting every possible mention of reindeer.
  • Wrapping paper, ribbons, and sparkly pens taking over our living room with scissors in small hands as the four of us shared the fun of dressing gifts up in their holiday finest.
  • A friend and I running across the cobblestone streets of downtown in our high heels in an umbrella-snapping rainstorm, determined to make it to a concert on time and laughing harder and harder the less presentable we looked.
  • Christmas Eve morning spent introducing a houseful of Italians to the wondrous thing we call brunch (they couldn’t bring themselves to drink coffee with it, but it was a delicious success nonetheless).
  • Some mangled slabs of gingerbread, gobs of frosting, and four solid tons of mismatched candy turning into one of the most hilarious and happy family activities we’ve ever attempted.
  • Legos, board games, Wii (ours), Kinect (not ours), and more Legos—time spent together rediscovering the lost art of play (though I have yet to rediscover the lost art of maneuvering video game controls in a competent fashion).
  • Fireworks bursting on all sides of our balcony, too many to count, a dazzling 360° salute to a year of new mercies.

I’ve missed you, dear blog, and I’m sure any lingering hard feelings can be smoothed over with this artisan dessert:

Gingerbread masterpiece

(May or may not contain several pieces of licorice that Sophie tasted, spit out upon realizing she hates licorice, and stuck to the roof before we clued in about her building method.
Also, Management is not responsible for any diabetic comas suffered as a result of looking at this photo.)

You’re welcome,


No Morale of the Story

My Top 5 Expat Blunders (because everyone loves an embarrassing story… or five):

5) Shortly after we moved to Italy, I was trying to get to know some of the women around my age at church despite my struggles with the language. I tried breaking the ice one Sunday morning by complimenting two of them on their retro jewelry. “In fact,” I continued, “when I was young—” Immediately, they doubled over laughing. I later learned that the word “young” in Italian applies to people from ages 14 to 40, and I might as well have started the sentence, “When I was middle-aged.” Oy.

4) In the early days of life here, even simple trips to the grocery store were daunting. I had to memorize vocabulary lists just to make sure I ended up with toothpaste instead of antifungal cream, and it took me a couple of weeks before I worked up enough courage to order from the deli counter. I had taken careful mental notes when shopping with Dan though, and I knew how to specify whether I wanted mild cheese or sharp, aged or soft, sliced or in a wedge. I also knew I should ask to taste a sample before ordering, so I cleared the trepidation from my throat and ventured, “Can I taste, please?” The counter attendant raised one eyebrow and asked, “Come again?” “Um, can I please taste?” The attendant shook her head in confusion. I tried another approach: “Can I taste a piece?” Nothing. I pointed at the cheese we were discussing and enunciated carefully, “I want to taste this cheese please.” Now both her eyebrows were raising and lowering in quick succession. I finally gave up, ordered the cheese unsampled as it was, and hurried home where I discovered that I had gotten the word for “taste” confused with the similar-sounding one for “dry.” Why yes, I had just spent several minutes trying to convince the deli attendant to let me dry her cheese. On the upside, I haven’t gotten the two words confused since.

3) Once upon a time, we took a stroller, my pregnant belly, and a week’s worth of grocery purchases on a bus. You can read all the painful details here.

2) Two winters ago, we went with a large group of friends on a settimana bianca—a week in the mountains at a ski resort. The lodge we were all staying in provided meals in a giant mess hall, so I didn’t have to worry about packing anything more than my snowboarding gear. As it turns out, I should have worried about packing more than my snowboarding gear. I realized within minutes of arriving that my fleece hoodies and wool sweaters would stifle me to death in the lodge’s near-tropical heat, and that left me with only my undershirts as viable tops. And within seconds of arriving at supper that first night, sweating in my jeans, snow boots, and thermals, I realized that meals on a settimana bianca are formal affairs. Our friends were utterly elegant in their high heels and ties, and I looked like Frosty the Snowslob in the middle of a meltdown. It was a long week.

1) Today was dedicated to the girls; I took them to a special kids’ event at a local restaurant this morning, and then we had fun getting together their costumes for this evening’s school play. The theme for the play was “A world without borders,” and Natalie got to don my sparkly pink cowgirl hat to portray an “americana” while Sophie was transformed into history’s cutest wolf with furry ears, a homemade tail, and lovingly hand-drawn whiskers. Most of the children in their class were assigned the same costume—“jeans + lupetto bianco”—but I didn’t have a chance to see the other wolf costumes until Dan and I were settled in our seats and the curtains rose. There on stage was a choir of preschool angels, adorable in matching white shirts and golden halos… plus one set of shaggy lupine appendages. Sophie was the only wolf. The horrible suspicion that dawned on me was easily confirmed: “lupetto” also means turtleneck. We dashed out as soon as the play ended, but I still have to show my face at the girls’ school tomorrow. I could use a stiff shot of tequi morale right about now.

Lupetto bianco

Friends, this is your time to shine. If you value my dignity more than I do at the moment, share your own embarrassing moments and spare me the necessity of running off to ­­­Greenland and having to start this whole expat process again.


Who needs an MBA?

How to run a successful business at the open market:

  1. If your customer wants to know if the black boots are waterproof, say, “Are you kidding me? They’re made for water!”
  2. If your customer is waffling over an €8 scarf, say, “I’ll give that to you for €7. Wait, did I say €7? I meant €6. You know what, we’ll just go ahead and make it 5 for €29.”
  3. If your customer can’t find a belt in the right size, offer to punch some extra holes in one, “as a gift.”
  4. If your customers seem to be enjoying the free cheese samples, start cutting a wedge for them to buy. If they try to protest, say, “Oh, I’m sorry; you wanted more than this?”
  5. Put a cage of baby animals at the front of your stall—kittens, chipmunks, turtles, they’re all guaranteed to draw a crowd.

How not to run a successful business at the open market:

  1. Talk loudly and importantly on your cell phone. If a customer asks you a question, roll your eyes and huff dramatically before you answer, then return to your conversation.
  2. Walk around with your merchandise in a plastic bag and try to sell it to customers of a rival shop. If they decline, start asking invasive personal questions. If they mention the police, run away.
  3. Sell felted, fringed Peruvian panchos. No one wants to buy felted, fringed Peruvian panchos.
  4. Stare morosely at your merchandise, your customers, and the world at large that just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be you. Earphones are a nice touch as well, particularly if they’re blasting emo.
  5. Hang a garment that is any combination of tube top, leotard, thong, and adult onesie at the front of your stall and watch the business melt away.

The tubithongotard


Classic is Always In

Last night, I went to a concert featuring a friend of ours who is an incredible pianist. (She started with this, and my jaw was later found rolling on the floor several rows back.) Knowing how my local friends get all dolled up for casual get-togethers,  I donned a dress and jaunty boots for the concert, hoping the ensemble was fancy enough to look appropriate in a room of Italian fashionistas. As it turned out, the Italian fashionistas all wore jeans. Skinny jeans. With black patent leather pumps. I did my best to stifle the sore-thumb sensation and focus on the music, but I couldn’t help wondering how everyone else in the room knew to wear the same thing.

At least I can now add to the list of occasions for which I am aware of wardrobe expectations:
Concerts: Skinny jeans, black patent leather pumps. Note: not a dress.
The playground in spring: Skinny jeans (preferably colored), Chucks, t-shirt with rhinestones, short trench, giant glasses. Note: The only item of these I possess are the glasses, but if I pretend they are Dolce & Gabbana rather than €5 knock-offs, do they count for a complete wardrobe?
Summer weddings: Cocktail dress, shimmery wrap (essential), strappy stilettos, and up-do. Note: I almost got this right the first time, but failed to bring a shimmery wrap. Alas.
Winter weddings: A black dress. Or pant suit. Just so long as it is black. Note: not red.
Dinner at friends’ houses: For some, church clothes; for others, sweat suits. It’s all very trial-and-error and dependent on the hosts, the weather, the proximity to major holidays, and what we’ll be eating. Note: Oh, help and bother!

We are attending a graduation dinner tonight, and I am trying my best to narrow down what I plan to wear so that I can make sure to put on something else. This isn’t one of those situations where expat literature or even Clinton Kelly would be of much help. Rather, it reminds me that the classic combination of time and discomfort zones is a necessary, if inconvenient, good. What can I say? Classic is always in.

We didn’t move to Italy for the novelty, though I may never quite get over the thrill of cypresses standing sentinel around long-forgotten castles or the cappuccino breezes swirling through bars each morning. We moved here, quite simply, because here feels like home. Italy is where we breathe most freely, where our lifestyle clicks into place, where we want our children to grow up. It’s imperfect, of course—(Ask me sometime how the legal hoop-jumping is going. On second thought… please don’t.)—but even with its quirks and frustrations, this is our choice. I feel immensely privileged to have been granted that choice, to stir fresh tomato-basil sauce in my kitchen overlooking Mt. Subasio, to button Natalie in her pink school smock, to attend concerts and weddings and enough dinners that I occasionally know just what to wear.

There is so much beyond the language to learn in a new country, but it’s the best kind of learning—even the awkward fashion lessons—because each realization puts down another root in my chosen home turf. And while I am sure to show up to tonight’s event in the wrong outfit, at least I will wake up tomorrow with my wardrobe list one step close to complete.


From Doorstops to Dishes

“The dishes!” I wail, glancing into the kitchen on my way to bed. “Why are there always and forever dishes needing to be washed?”

Dan replies kindly: “Because we use them.”

“Oh. Right.”


On Valentine’s Day, 2004, I kicked my brand new husband out of the house for four hours so I could make Chicken Parmesan as a surprise. To this day, I have no idea how a pile of chicken-topped spaghetti could possibly have taken four hours, but it’s fair to say I had no idea what I was doing. (The consistency of said chicken, which could have better served as packing material, agrees.) However, I so longed to make something beyond our standard fare of Campbell’s and Kraft. Surely, surely, with a little effort and the clucking, grandmotherly help of that red plaid cook book, culinary pleasure could be found in our dining room.

We ate Taco Bell the next day.

A lot changes when one moves to a country without fast food, though. When we first arrived in Italy, I mostly fixed packages of risotto mix and frozen chicken cordon bleu, and we picked up pizza a few times a week. However, I took mental notes each time we were invited to an Italian meal. One friend taught me how to make melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi; another gave me her recipe for amazing oven-roasted potatoes. I learned—thanks to my longsuffering husband—how to make cappuccinos, and I started auditioning new dessert recipes with his co-workers each week. I made a New Year’s resolution to learn how to cook meat so that people would rather eat it than use it as a doorstop. The next year, with a tasty repertoire of brining and braising techniques, I made a New Year’s resolution to make friends with vegetarian fare. I started jotting down menus and grocery lists for the first time in my life.

This year, my attention is drawn more toward my desk than toward the kitchen, but the process of cooking still engages my heart in a way I couldn’t have imagined six years ago. There’s something sacred in the challenge of planning meals to nourish my family’s bodies and souls while guarding our time and finances. There is mindfulness in rubbing fragrant herbs into a pot of soup, serenity in rolling pastry dough. Food preparation is no longer just a means to survival—it is a classroom, a laboratory, and an art studio. A love song. A risk, an exploit, a gathering of the usual five senses plus a few more. A thrice-daily dose of beauty to share and savor.

It is also, as reluctant as I may be to admit this, worth every single always-and-forever-dirty dish.


Gelato Before Breakfast

When my alarm rocks me awake, the horizon is just beginning to bloom. The valley outside our bedroom window sparkles under the lightest dusting of powdered sugar, a gift from the sweet-toothed godmother of 3 a.m. Mount Subasio’s snowcap rounds out the purple sky. It is morning.

The horizon’s blush deepens, silhouetting familiar bell towers against a backdrop of vivid rose, and then pales as the sun makes her debut. One, then two, then fifty stufe curl feather-white smoke into a sky the color of lemon gelato. Hints of blue in the distance whisper of our Apennine guardians. This is home.

In a few minutes, I will finish my cappuccino. I will button Natalie up in her grembiule for school and give the house its morning airing (though I might avoid draping all our bedding out the windows as our neighbors are prone to do). The olive grove behind our house will rustle off its snow as the day warms marigold, and the local guild of songbirds will get to socializing. A typical day will be in full swing before I know it.

But at least for the moment, I do know it. Looking out over the cypresses of a 2500-year old city and in over the nuances of our Italian life, I am humbled. The expat experience is often challenging (if not downright frustrating) and requires a heaping supply of flexibility (if not insanity)… but it is the kind of long-term adventure that fills our hearts, remodels them for greater capacity, and fills them again. And at least for the moment, this sunrise—like the day it colors in, like the Etruscan stones gleaming from the next hilltop, like the adventure we wake up to every morning—is an immeasurable gift.

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