Tag: Globetrotting

17May

Moving Home… On Purpose

Our rental contract is up in July, and we’ve been talking houses, cities, square meterage, our girls’ childhood anchor. They’re at that age now where location starts to send its root-tendrils into identity, and we’re all too aware that the next place we choose as home will become capital-H Home to our children—its landscapes and idioms and styles wrapping them in a mantle of familiarity for the rest of their lives. We moved here six years ago for a job rather than for the city itself. That job has since receded into our family archives, and now that our work commute consists of walking from the espresso machine in our kitchen to the desks in our bedroom, the luxury of choice is open to us. Where in the world do we want to go? Where can we afford to go? Where and with whom do we want our girls to spend their formative years? Where do we, as a family, want to unpack our nomadic lifestyle and settle down on purpose?

Several months ago, Dan and I narrowed down a few possibilities, but we didn’t reach a decision until earlier this week when everything started slipping into place like keys in unseen locks. We found the house—our­ house, our next installment of Home—and it’s right here in our neighborhood. When we got the confirmation, I let out a huge breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. In fact, I was completely caught off guard by the depth of my relief. I’ve always been more attracted by fresh starts than by permanence, and if my heart was ever going to latch onto a spot on the map, it wouldn’t be here.

Except that it is. Without consciously intending to, we’ve lived in this city more than half our married life, and it’s gotten under our American skin all the way through to our minds and mannerisms. Our bodies have adapted to the weather, our schedules to the culture. We’ve made dear friends here and become part of communities that we couldn’t leave without significant pain. More than ever before in my life, I understand the term “uprooting,” and I’m unexpectedly, deeply grateful that we won’t be doing it anytime soon.

Now that we’re moving here on purpose, I think it’s high time I introduced you to the city we’ve called home these last six years.

Friends? Meet Perugia:

Perugia - Skyline

She’s not the kind of Italy that frequently comes up in chick flicks or travel guides. In fact, her recalcitrant train schedule pretty well ensures that Perugia will never become a tourist hot spot. She doesn’t sport the chic bustle of Milan, the gritty grandeur of Rome, or the romantic otherworldliness of Venice, and you would never end up here without meaning to. That’s something I like about this place though; it’s small and comfortable, and we can explore its Old World marvels without having to fight the crowds (or just give up and escape for the summer, as friends in more touristy cities often do). We have shopping malls and olive groves, roundabouts and medieval fountains. It suits us quite nicely.

Perugia - Gelato on the grass

By way of introduction, here are some of my favorite things about Perugia—things that I would try to show you if you came to visit, things that make me glad inside and out that we’re not bidding this place arrivederci after all:

The underground city. We didn’t know about the Rocca Paolina before moving here (okay, so we didn’t know anything about Perugia before moving here; 100 points for spontaneity, 0 for preparedness), so it was quite an experience that first day getting on an escalator headed up to the city center and stepping off inside an ancient fortress. I grew up in a country where everything of historical value is roped off as a museum exhibit—you can look, but don’t touch, and no cameras allowed!—so discovering that those cobblestone streets and houses holding up the base of present-day Perugia are used regularly for artisan markets and children’s festivals was like being set loose in the White House. Perhaps with another six years, I’ll be able to take it all in stride, but I can’t yet get over the thrill of sampling chocolate cheese or making origami kittens in some medieval family’s living room.

Perugia - Via Bagliona

The above-ground city. We don’t live in the city center itself (the panorama earlier in this post was taken from our balcony), but we often walk around it and gape and point and pose for photographs and act about as unlike local residents as humanly possible. It’s just… where else can you take leisurely walks on an aqueduct built from the 13th century? Or drive through an archway built by the Etruscans? Or eat chocolate gyros on the steps of a medieval government building? The history in this town is simply, unobtrusively present, and it’s so accessible that we’re not likely to stop acting like tourists anytime soon.

Perugia - Walking on the aqueduct

The festivals. So you might notice that chocolate has come up twice now in as many points. There’s a reason for that; Perugia is the home of Perugina chocolate and hosts an annual Eurochocolate festival in which the samples alone are worth battling sudden crowds. (The Gianduja of 2011 will forever live on in my taste buds’ memory.) However, it’s hard to say whether or not it’s my favorite of the local festivals. Umbria Jazz is hosted here every summer, and even though we’re not the type to turn our wallets inside out for Dave Brubeck tickets, there are plenty of funkadelic marching bands and public reggae concerts to keep us swinging. In fact, most weekends of the year offer at least one free citywide event, and we’ve had a blast at everything from old-fashioned game days to specialty beer tastings to family races to dance parties in the piazza. Party on, Perugia!

Perugia - Dancing at Umbria Jazz

The familiarity. We were showing friends around downtown a few years ago when we spotted a character we immediately dubbed The Worst Undercover Cop Ever. He was wearing what looked for all the world like those fake eyeglass-nose-mustache disguises that have delighted children for decades, and he was darting from the police station to the newspaper stand where he ducked conspicuously behind a magazine while the newspaper vendor calmly went about his business. Watching from across the street, we were equally amused and perplexed. Who was this guy? 

Perugia - Mauro the Prophet

Later, with the help of a funny online guidebook, we found out his name (Mauro) and profession (prophet), along with those of a few other personalities we had encountered from time to time… such the ZZ Top Santa Claus who sings Jingle Bells with terrible pronunciation but great enthusiasm every December and the accordionist from Amelie who makes me feel like I’m walking into my favorite movie. 

Perugia - Pigeons in Centro

Perugia may technically be a city, but it has the soul of a small town, and we never go out without running into people we know. One of my favorite ways to spend sunny weekend afternoons is heading to the enormous park below our house where the Perugini congregate as if by some unspoken rule to kick soccer balls, push their children on the swings, and socialize with all the friends and neighbors who are sure to walk by. The close sense of community here means that we as outsiders have a harder time fitting in, but it also means that the time we put into our friendships is warmly reciprocated. We would never have hand-picked this place to be our home when we first moved to Italy, but we’re picking it now. We’re moving Home.

Perugia - Percorso Verde

~~~

What are some of the things you love about where you live? What would you want me to see or experience if I came to visit?

3May

Life All Around

We’ve had an odd schedule lately. Italy celebrated a national holiday on Thursday last week and another one two days ago, and it seems like weekends keep popping their heads into our lives and then backing out again, mumbling apologies. We’ve spent more time with friends over the last week than we have in months, and it’s felt like coming back to ourselves even as work piled up around our ears, even as the haphazard routines in our life gave up altogether and ditched us to go out for commiserative drinks.

This is an odd season of life, actually. We’re never quite sure if we’re on the verge of change or if we’re putting down roots into our version of normal. Those things that make us feel most alive—traveling, spending quality time with friends, writing (for me), playing music (for him)—have taken a back seat to the sheer madness of trying to establish ourselves as self-employed. We know the work we’re doing is valuable, but we don’t know when we should stop, what shape the big picture is taking, whether we’re in a sprint or a marathon.

One day, I’m sure I’ll look back on these in-between years and see every pattern and nuance through the clear vision of hindsight. I may even develop nostalgia for this time when our lives revolve around possibility (nostalgia-speak for “How the hell are we going to make it??”). For now, though, I’m trying to focus on one bite-sized day at a time and on the snippets of loveliness that carry me through the crazy:

* The drone of lawnmowers all across the city on Sunday afternoons. Even though I know that the tiny wild daisies that I love are being cut along with the wild allergy grass that I don’t love, lawnmowers sing the surest tribute to sunshine I can imagine.

* The quaint ruckus of Umbrian architecture, pink limestone houses and terraces and arches piled up on top of each other like a Medieval slumber party. We’ve lived here almost six years, and I still can’t get over the layers of our landscape: the base of silver-dusted olive trees posed like elderly modern dance troupes, the jumble of sun-warmed stone climbing out, and the Mediterranean sky pooled above. I still can’t stop pulling out my camera, a tourist in my own home.

Umbrian layers

* Coffee, in the social sense. I’m always amazed at the kind of long, easy conversation that can be carried by something as small as an espresso. Don’t try to tell me there’s no magic in that dark liquid.

* Re-falling-in-love songs:

* Handwritten letters addressed to me.

* Baby apricots, cherries, and figs in the backyard we share with our landlord’s family. (We live on the top floor of a “family condo,” which is a vastly more common living arrangement than standalone homes are here. I adore how this setup allows me to have fruit trees without my having to do any work whatsoever to maintain them.) Seedlings, snapdragons, and an explosion of strawberry buds in our balcony garden. Flowers on the kitchen table again. Little growing things, life all around.

Snapdragons - 3

* Sleeping on freshly washed sheets that have spent the afternoon cavorting outside with the breeze. I remember the luminous Mollie Greene commenting once on Instagram that washing your sheets “makes all the difference in everything,” and I’m inclined to agree.

* Tolkien with the girls before bed. After enduring series like The Faraway Tree, which the girls enjoyed but which made me want to stick forks into my own eyeballs, I’m thrilled to be reading good literature as a family. Also, I’d forgotten how funny The Hobbit is. (And what a bad-ass that Gandalf is!)

* Chocolate-covered grins.

Chocolate grin
(Picture by Dan, outfit by Sophie, decoration by gelato)

~~~

Tell me about the snippets of loveliness carrying you right now. Ready, set, go!

3Apr

Wonder by Proxy

I knew I deserved a chorus of eye rolls even as the words were leaving my mouth, but I was helpless against the logic-altering clutches of Mom Instinct. Like generations before me, I was compelled beyond all reason to say it: “I hope you girls appreciate what you’re getting to do right now! When I was a girl, I would have loved the chance…”

I fully realize that no child in the history of the human race has adopted a sudden awe for his or her circumstances based on that premise. Wonder by proxy just doesn’t work. However, I felt sure that I would be required to turn in my mom badge at the end of the day if I didn’t at least try to impart a little perspective. I mean, this is where we were walking:

Easter in Rome 2

And this is what the girls were saying about it: “Myyyy feeeeeeeet huuuuurrrrrt! I’m tiiiiiiiiiiiired of walking! Can we siiiiiiiiiit now?” (Never mind that we had been walking a grand total of half an hour, twenty minutes of which had already been dedicated to sitting breaks… which the girls used to play hopscotch, because no child in the history of the human race has ever voluntarily sat for longer than 2.5 seconds.) Their feet were fine; they were just bored, which is why I launched into my eye-rolling speech about how they were getting to explore Rome, an epic historical treasure trove that people from all over the world would love to see, and empire this and SPQR that, and—“Mooooomm, I’m hungry again!” Reductio ad absurdum.

Easter in Rome 3

This is absolutely a post for those of you who had thought we were some kind of family travel geniuses whose children channel equal parts Rick Steves and Von Trapp (ha! and again I say, ha!), but it’s also a post for me. I need the reminder that it’s okay—good, even—for my kids and I to experience life from different points of view. While I’m all but hyperventilating over how cool it is that the girls get to grow up in Italy and speak two languages and eat cornetti alla marmellata for breakfast and skip down to Rome for Easter weekend, they’re absorbing the same circumstances as matter-of-factly as they do the shoes on their feet. My wow is their normal, and it can bum me out to realize we’re not celebrating on the same page. What I forget, though, is that their normal is happy. They’re happy. My trying to hype up their experience isn’t going to change that happiness, nor should it.

Easter in Rome 4

When I take a step back from myself, it’s easier to remember that my girls’ individuality is a gift here as elsewhere. True, they’re not bowled over by the significance of playing where chariots used to race, but they’ll remember their dad teaching them how to throw the Aerobie and their mom demonstrating her terrible aim (“That was better than usual, Mommy!”), and even if the Palatine backdrop doesn’t make it into those memories, they’ll still be gold. And no, they’re not especially concerned with the historical intricacies of the castle we spent all afternoon exploring, but I doubt they’ll soon forget jumping on the wooden trapdoor or locking each other in the dungeons, and I wouldn’t trade their belly laughs for all the intellectual reverence in the world.

Easter in Rome 5

10Dec

Expatriotism

I just got back from an overnight getaway in Rome, and this entry may be less coherent than usual due to the excruciatingly early hour I got up to chauffeur my business-tripping husband to the airport and our less-than-responsible bedtime last night. I’m running on three hours of sleep and approximately six espressos right now, so you may want to read this post with one eye closed and the other twitching violently. At least consider yourself fairly warned.

Even after five years in Italy, I still get a speechless shiver each time I catch myself saying things like “I just got back from Rome.” It sounds like someone else’s exotic life, as plausible as a weekly brunch date with James Bond. It’s come to my attention that some of you feel a little disconnected as well when I write about our travels, so I wanted to take the opportunity today to share a more fleshed-out perspective of what our life here entails.

First, keep in mind that daily life is daily life, no matter where you call home. Even the Pope, nested above the bewildering opulence of St. Peter’s, puts on his slippers and shuffles into the routine of his day like the rest of us. The human mind simply can’t sustain a state of wonder long-term, though I feel like I’m betraying a collective fairytale in admitting that. After all, I live in Italy, a land flowing with family-recipe wine and artistic genius. If the mundane ever stepped back in deference for a place, it would be here. However, our socks still need washing, our landlord still needs cajoling, and our drivers licenses still need renewing…

…which brings me to Point #2: BUREAUCRACY. This one deserves capital letters both because it is a capital pain and because it is such a huge part of the expat experience. Every year or so, our life is fed into a gigantic bureaucratic machine where it is immediately pulled in seven different directions, investigated, ignored, wrung through committee meetings, entered into multiple related yet un-networked computer systems, lost, found, lost again, put up for adoption, taxed, misspelled, misquoted, mistaken, misinformed, and finally returned to us with a bill for the equivalent of two months’ wages. There is no principality or power that can force the Italian government to work more efficiently, and we are still mastering the spiritual discipline of Not Pulling Our Hair Out. Living here [legally, that is] can be mind-shreddingly hard.

The question we are most often asked by Italians is “WHY?” As in, “Why are you here? Why are you putting yourselves through the bureaucratic migraine machine? Why in the world would you leave your easy life in the States?” It’s a valid question, and I’m glad we’re reminded so frequently to examine our motives. It can be all too easy to slip into the groove of daily routines (when we’re not trying to reclaim our life from the system, of course) and forget that we aren’t here for the pasta or the travel opportunities or the bilingual daughters.

We’re here because these are our people. This culture is where our heart is, where our sense of home is rooted. We’ve been accused by homesick expats of loving everything about Italy, and I can assure you that’s not the case; however, the community we’ve found here is worth every frustration, inconvenience, and empty hair follicle. It’s the why.

The speechless shiver of getting to spend a night in Rome is just an auxiliary wow.

21Nov

Urban Ballet

This:

Mercato - 2

The morning sun scattering particles of color off of apples, handbags, and Vespas, the sky-drunk windows above, the passersby pausing to browse.

Galleria Sciarra - 4

Sudden art around every corner, hanging on the pause between footsteps; beauty so extravagant it leaves its imprint like sun-stars on your mind.

Read More »

15Nov

Recon

We lean against the kitchen counter with our espresso cups, the delicate painted porcelain ones he brought back from Sweden with an apologetic smile. He knew only too well that I would have rather had the trip than its souvenir. Travel was one of the first topics to draw us into each other’s orbits a decade ago, and now the scrapbook of our shared memory is fat with airport sprints and linguistic rodeos, not to mention the foreign hospital trips that are as good as guaranteed when globetrotting with young children. Still, my heart makes a habit of packing light, always reconnoitering our next big adventure.

I know his does too. Right now, he is dreaming aloud about next summer, and I thrill at the way his ideas leap like salmon up the rush of our present reality. My husband’s mind is never intimidated by the pushback of probability, and I’ve learned not to underestimate the survival skills of these rainbow-finned dreams (just as he’s learned not to bring them up without first offering caffeine).

Scotland, Slovenia, China, Brazil… the words dissolve like pillow mints on my imagination, leaving behind traces of pastel sugar and reckless hope. I wonder if one of these flights of fancy will solidify next summer or if we will just continue to catch glints of them in the moments before they re-submerge. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Dreaming and scheming and scribbling carefree lines across the map is as much part of what makes us us as packing the car to the gills and turning the key is, and I know that our leaning against the kitchen counter right now, coffee cups and possibilities in hand, is all part of the adventure.

~~~ 

What do you daydream about with your significant other?

6Nov

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

~~~

At first, I saw only the string of miracle-buoys in our wake—the friends whose windows of hospitality had perfectly coincided with our needs, the airport officials and new olive-skinned neighbors who had made our move as smooth as choreography, the precious immigration documents issued like stepping stones just as we needed them, and finally, her, our Sophie-girl, born as plump and serene as a Budai the day after the local maternity wing opened.

We had followed our heart-pull across the sea to Italy, and I knew we were living the stuff of story with a brilliant Narrator whispering plot twists into being. I could have gone hoarse tallying up the good in our lives. I knew how much I had to be grateful for, I knew with all my might, but that wasn’t enough to stop black water from spilling over the sides of my mind. In retrospect, I realize I should have expected this, made some kind of provisions. After all, there was the toll from mothering a two-year-old throughout an exhausting pregnancy, the depletion from several months of suitcase-living, the strain of our move, and the cultural obstacle course I faced every time I left the house. Once postpartum hormones swept in with their rusty machetes and guerilla raids, I fell straight down a year and a half of the darkest mental dark.

There are many kind souls in my life who would have helped me had they known, but the bars trapping me at the bottom of my own mind were so very thick; I simply couldn’t reach beyond them to ask for help. To this day, I still don’t know what I could have asked loved ones to do for me short of a lobotomy. I felt isolated and unlovable, incompetent and crushingly sad. I knew that my own un-wellness was hurting my family, and the guilt magnified my sense of hopelessness. I could almost taste how completely my faith had abandoned me.

While I would never want to relive that year and a half, I can now see the fairy lights projecting their faint, ethereal ballet through the deep of it. I was never alone; I just hadn’t met God-is-Love yet, didn’t know to recognize the flickers of peace and beauty as gifts rather than flukes. That recognition would come in time, gently, free of the urgency or harsh exactitude I’d always associated with religion… and in the meanwhile, I had her.

The beginning of cannibal kisses

This wonder-baby of mine, she started smiling on purpose at three weeks old. I can’t tell you what that did to my heart except to explain that I was on the last precarious edge of overwhelmed, home all day with two tiny children and next to no energy. I was reeling from the impossibility of mothering two little girls well, their needs and fledgling complexities cupped like live minnows in my hand… and then my newborn grinned wide into my eyes. I’ve never met a person in my life with such uncontainable joy, and when she would nestle up against me, all milky contentment and round-cheeked delight, I could breathe again.

Sophie didn’t heal me—that was never her role—but she lifted me out of my own heaviness more often than I can remember. From the very beginning, she lavished affection on her big sister, assuaging some of my mother-guilt and forming a sweet sibling bond. She brought laughter back into our home, cultivated silliness, and adored without reservation, and not to cheapen her personhood or individual significance in this world, but I can’t help seeing her as a gift.

Sunbeams in the darkness, love when I felt unlovable.

Grace.

Sophie turned five last Wednesday, and I still can’t wrap my brain fully around the idea of my baby in kindergarten, chattering a thousand Italian words a minute with her best friends, trailing golden hair like a comet on the swing set. I still snack on her cheeks before bed—our own darling and slightly disturbing Cannibal Goodnight—and she still hugs wholeheartedly. However, she has grown so thoroughly herself that I can’t lay claim to her the way I did as a drowning mother five years ago. I no longer need to, which is a gift for us both. Now, I’m simply grateful for these years we get to coexist, to imprint our unique brands of struggle and beauty on each other’s lives, and when I look back, I see her babyhood as a miracle-buoy floating in our wake.

Five-year-old smiles~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

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