Tag: Home

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? 

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?

10Jan

Anti-Anxiety Meditation

This is what we opened our front door to when we arrived home after a family Christmas in Milan.

Our Christmas tree shoved to the floor, the window frame behind it ragged with crowbar marks, and every top drawer in the house pulled open. Our house, along with several others in the neighborhood, had been targeted by burglars while we were away.

After a panicky inventory, we were dumbfounded to discover that the thieves hadn’t taken a single thing from our home, not even Dan’s expensive work computer. (Let me tell you about gratefulness…) However, the post-home-invasion experience isn’t as much about what the intruders take as it is about what they leave: their invisible fingerprints on our underwear, their shadow-selves around each corner when the lights go out, and their harmful intentions toward us lingering in the air.

This is the first house that I’ve felt safe in, ever. I’ve lived in fifteen different homes to date, and this one—this gated, shuttered, dog-guarded, and triple-locked third story refuge—is the only one that never pricked at my fearful imagination. Until we got home from Christmas break, that is. Now, I am noticing the odd creaks and squeaks of our house as I have never noticed them before; the groan of a radiator is an intruder, the rattle of wind against the shutters is an intruder, even the spin cycle of our washing machine is an intruder (brandishing a weed whacker, perhaps?). Everything from our coat rack to my rocking chair catches my peripheral vision at night with an icy splash of fear, and even as I’m checking the locks for the fifth time before bed, I know they offer no assurances. Our safe place no longer promises safety.

My mother-in-law, who’s been through this herself, shared the comforting perspective that the burglars now know we don’t have what they’re after (gold, jewels, cash, anything that would look right on the set of Downton Abbey) and won’t be back. From a rational standpoint, we really don’t have anything to worry about. Yet anxiety doesn’t always see things from a rational standpoint. It sees things more from the standpoint of Oh God it’s dark outside and bad guys could be hiding below our balcony preparing their grappling hooks right now and we’ll probably all die in our beds tonight.

Anxiety is clearly not helping the situation. It offers no constructive advice, only helplessness and an unfocused panic, and I know that my task is not to indulge the anxiety by barricading our house or stocking up on defense weapons or living in suspicion but to counteract it—to refuse to hold onto the shadows and harmful intentions left by our intruders.

In light of this, the girls’ perspective is pretty awesome. I was worried how Natalie and Sophie would react to seeing evidence of thieves in their own bedroom. I’d braced myself for tearful bedtimes and nightmares and wondered how in the world I could assuage their fears when my own were so pronounced. However, I’d underestimated their generous little hearts. “If the thieves come back,” announced Natalie, “we’ll just invite them to stay for breakfast.” “And then give them two euros!” piped up Sophie. Not a trace of fear. In fact, I think they’re sort of hoping the thieves come back.

While I do not share that particular hope, my girls’ idea of repaying harm with kindness is straight out of Jesus’s teaching. I told them that yesterday, and Sophie grinned. “I love Jesus,” she said. “Me too,” I grinned back, getting the first hint of an inkling how perfect love really might be able to cast out fear.

27Nov

O[ur] Tannenbaum

Last weekend, the fog drew around our house like a heavy silver curtain. Sophie was sick and Natalie’s school was on strike*, so we had the deep-settling thrill of burrowing into our own little world for a day or two. The girls had been reverberating for weeks with pent-up holiday cheer, and even my no-carols-before-Thanksgiving resolve had crumbled in the home stretch, so it was clear to everyone how our hibernation weekend should be spent.

* Clarification point #1: Kids here typically go to school six mornings a week and get out at lunchtime; it’s inconvenient and awesome all at once. Clarification point #2: Schools go on strike in our district about twice a month, each one formally announced ahead of time. Again, inconvenient + awesome.

Our Tannenbaum - 1

We bought this tree seven years ago for Natalie’s first Christmas. At the time, the three of us were living on a single graduate school stipend, and fresh-cut pines were up there with cable TV and new shoes on the Hierarchy of Unnecessary Expenses. However, the Martha Stewart Holiday Collection went on sale at our local K-Mart, and our baby’s squeals of joy right there on Aisle 5 decided for us. It was nothing fancy; we knew our tree would never evoke nostalgia for either Appalachia or Anthropologie, but the point was that it was ours.

And is it ever ours. Though our collection of ornaments has grown steadily over the years, only two of them—a set of crystal love birds from Dan’s grandparents—actually match. Ours is a tree of keepsakes and fingerprints, cross-stitching and salt dough. We have a wooden bell that Dan colored with markers when he was in preschool and I blotched with melted candy canes a few years back. We hang it anyway. There are the two cartoonish and slightly disproportionate Loch Ness monsters I coaxed out of modeling clay for the girls to remember our summer in Scotland. Natalie hangs hers next to a pony she once made out of pegboard beads and strung up via a hair ribbon with an artist’s pride. Meanwhile, Sophie chooses a single branch for a series of paper hearts displaying a four-year-old’s scissor skills and enthusiastic joy.

These now-dusty limbs sport chocolate lips and jingle bells, felt daubed with formerly-hot glue, a couple of miniature storybooks shellacked into submission, and a rocking horse that may or may not have been through a war… and each year that goes by gives me greater satisfaction in declaring that what our tree lacks in fashion sense, it more than makes up for in memories.

Admittedly, I still pause every time I wander into the Christmas section of the party store. I can’t help scanning the shelves of baubles and lights and blown-glass snack foods—seriously, why are those a thing? and why do I want them so badly?—and imagining our living room transformed into a magazine spread. It’s easy, far too easy, to envision how a cartful of decorations would change our lives. Don’t we want our holiday pictures to reflect perfection? Wouldn’t our daughters’ experience be improved with icicle lights or topiaries or at least an identifiable color scheme?

Last weekend, as the fog wrapped us tightly into the warmth and music of our living room, I remembered as I do every year why I always leave the Christmas aisle with an empty cart. This tree of ours, with its missing PVC needles and mismatched lights and homemade ornament parade, holds a magic all of its own—a magic all of our own. It glows with our family stories and preserves evidence of our personalities, our creativity, our thumbprints. The girls reminisced about each ornament as they chose the imperfectly perfect spot to hang it, and when we were done, it was like someone had hung a sun in the room; all we wanted to do was bask. 

Our Tannenbaum - 2

~~~

Do you ever struggle with holiday-decoration-envy?

7Nov

Cinnamon Steam

Right now:

Open windows

Pumpkin spice latte

Diamond-cut air

Fall daisies

~~~

Every window in the house wide open to the diamond-cut morning air.

Pumpkin spice latte with cinnamon steam.

Tendrils of wood smoke and the rustle of olive nets, hallmarks of November in Umbria.

The new Mumford & Sons—soul-shiveringly good.

Daisies, orange and fuchsia.

Facebook closed.

~~~

What is your “right now?”

26Oct

Coffee-Stained

Friends? Meet my blog’s namesake:

An ode to espresso

Espresso is darker than you might think underneath that caramel cloud, bold, bitter-rich, and supremely confident. If you add as much sugar as I do, it goes down like a burnt-umber glaze, and you could feel its intensity on your tongue for days if you were willing to forego toothpaste. Sipping it roasts your tongue and sends after-shocks down your throat, a bolt of liquid electricity… and then your mind begins to unfurl.

I learned this over Sunday dinners with friends our first year here in Italy. After the vermouth-soaked olives and the melting mountains of pasta and the veal and the salad and the pears and the tiramisu, after the children bounded away from the table and the chatter slowed to a contented lull, after the dishes were cleared and there was nothing left to do but relax, the tiny porcelain cups would come out. The espresso machine would croon its guttural love notes, the sugar bowl would give up its bouquet of silver teaspoons, and we would sip the last few steps to total tranquility.

Five years later, I can’t tell you whether or not I like the taste of espresso… but it’s not the taste that hangs my afternoons on this small pleasure. It’s the liturgy of contentment. It’s the infusion of courage and caffeine, the slow rhythm reset, and finally, the clarity. 

~~~

How do you take your coffee? And what significance does it hold for you?

3Aug

Prioritizing for Mummies

Our kitchen sink is piled like the discount bin in a store at which only desperate masochists or alley rats would shop. We have mismatched coffee mugs, pasta bowls stuck together with parmesan, cutting boards clinging to last night’s watermelon seeds, empty olive oil bottles, take your pick! Although I could swear I had it spotless at this time yesterday, the only proof that civilized folks occupy our kitchen is the vase of freshly-picked African daisies… sitting cheerfully in a pile of crumbs.

Shall we move on to the living room? Here, you can find the ruins of several Lego empires, dismantled by four children in the space of an hour and arranged strategically so as to be tread on by bare feet when least expected. While removing plastic palm branches from your soles, you can observe my mending pile which is second only to my ironing pile, the abstract art that is our formerly beige rug*, and what’s that? You need a tissue? We have one in every nook and cranny of the room for your convenience, and most of them are only slightly used!

* For the record, beige rugs were never meant for use by children, dinner party guests, or people with feet.

Bolts and nails and who knows what else is scattered on the floor around our bulimic tool box in the utility room—the same room that mysteriously accumulates bird poop and produces spiders the exact size of my fleeing dignity. Every single toy with the ability to hold water or to stir water or to be dunked in water without electrocuting anyone is drip-drying above the tub in our bathroom. Papers waiting to be sorted into overcrowded filing cabinets are covering every sit-able surface in our bedroom. Dust bunnies are shacking up with cobwebs anywhere they think they can get away with it (which is pretty much everywhere these days).  I’m trying not to think about it.

Of course, trying to block out the din of Messes, Messes Everywhere only makes them squall louder.  The ever-annoying shoulds like to join in too: You should be scrubbing the dishes! In fact, you should have done it already! We shouldn’t even be having this conversation! I’ve always found the shoulds both logical and persuasive (in their ever-annoying way), but I can’t give in to them this afternoon, and here’s why:

My children are napping.

Did that sentence read with the weight of a divine decree? If not, try reading it again. Slower this time, maybe in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

My children are napping. In about half an hour, they will wake up and ask me to snuggle the sleep away and then clamor for shows or snacks while I say no, no, and bluster around getting supper together and changing for work and getting the girls presentable and fed and all three of us out the door on time to pick up their dad so I can hand over parenting duties and win a little bread myself and return home to kiss sweet faces goodnight and then plop down on the nearest available surface. And as the day’s energy slowly ebbs out of my toes, it won’t matter to me whether or not the kitchen is pristine; the dishes will likely survive until morning. I won’t care that our living room has been taken over by Legos; it’s instant playtime for the girls tomorrow. The feral utility room won’t even register; who needs to do laundry anyway?

I’m discovering that at the end of each day, my delusional drive to be June Cleaver evaporates, and the only thing left is a pulsing, present need to be me
a mama who treasures her daughters’ imaginations and sleep-drenched hugs
a wife who loves undistracted time with her husband more than just about anything
a friend who can’t wait to write back, call back, come over
a soul-searcher who meets the sacred in unexpected ways
and
a writer who feels ridiculous even considering the title but who begins shriveling as a mama, a wife, a friend, and a soul-searcher when she doesn’t allow herself the gift of words—
which is why our kitchen will have to live in a squalor for a little while longer.

My children are napping.

 

 

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