Tag: Italy

2Oct

Going Medieval

One sleepy Sunday morning two summers ago, we were driving through central Italy with friends when one of them asked to stop by a pharmacy. We pulled into the nearest town, though we weren’t sure if we would find any pharmacies open on a Sunday. What we certainly didn’t expect to find were barricades across every road leading to the town center. Our curiosity up, we parked on the outskirts and walked the five minutes to the city center (this is central Italy, after all) where we found an open pharmacy after all, plus seven hundred more barricades and a chatty barista who filled us in on what was happening.

We learned that we’d just happened to pull into Bettolle (“Bay-TOLL-ay”) on the one day each year when they commemorate the burning of their castle by a rival town and their subsequent reconstruction in the 16th century. Following lunch, the town would be gathering in the main square for a medieval parade, after which teams from the five town districts would compete in a Race of Revenge. In this race, teams of two must run laps around the historic town center balancing huge wooden urns on stretchers. Then, competitors dressed in man-tights must race to climb greased 5-meter-high poles and put out the fires burning on top.

We didn’t stick around for the festivities, but I later read the day’s results in a local magazine:

“There was a winner. Maybe two. In fact there are some who say there were three winning districts. Others say nobody won. Others, instead, insist that to be beaten is now a dried-up technicality of the rules which are too intricate and groundless and which don’t take into account the possible uncertain results that are inevitable in such a complicated race.”

A more Italian summary there never was.

Our region of Umbria is full of ancient hillside towns that celebrate their heritage with similar events, and the four of us finally got to attend one this last weekend. Friends from the nearby town of Gualdo invited us to their Giochi de le Porte on the condition that we cheer for their district and that Dan wear tights for the opening parade. (Sadly, I could not be there on Friday to see this magnificence.)

As charmed and delighted as I am by the idea of these events, I was wary going into the weekend. You may recall from previous stories such as that time the number machine at the health center broke and that time the national soccer team played in our neighborhood that crowd mentality in Italy causes a particular strain of strain for me. I am an introvert and an American; my personal space bubble is dear to me. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to spending my Saturday and Sunday getting up close and personal with strangers’ elbows, and had I known that a passerby would additionally lock me in a full-on boob grab, I might not have had the will to show up. (I’m still shuddering.) However, if I hadn’t braved the crowds, then I would have missed out on one of the most colorful and captivating experiences of our eight years in Italy.

Banners and crowds 1 Read More »

5Feb

That Kind of Week: Three Vignettes

The plumber our landlord always calls, whether due to some personal connection or plain ol’ thriftiness, came by last week to replace our crumbling sink pipes. We now have new pipes and a slow flood. While we wait for the landlord to return our calls (did he flee the country, perhaps?), we keep hanging sodden bath towels outside to drip under equally sodden skies. I think there’s probably a verse in Ecclesiastes that speaks to this.

The previous time that the plumber was here, he replaced our cracked toilet seat with one that has rusted-out hinges and slips sideways off the toilet when you’re not careful.

We are quaking over his return even as we pray for it to be soon.

/ / /

I realized during a sudden bout of filing that we were missing one of Natalie’s grade reports from two years ago. Fortunately, we live right across the street from the school district headquarters. Unfortunately, the school district director came out of her office just as the secretary was about to hand over a copy of the missing grades.

I think I can sum up the school district director in one sentence: Her first move after landing the position three years ago was to outlaw birthdays and parent participation in the schools.

This is not a woman who allows people to pick up copies of their children’s grades all willy-nilly. No, I’m only allowed to have a copy if I first go to the military police, “denounce” the grade report as missing (i.e. – stolen), and receive an official report from them confirming the theft.

I’m still not sure whether I’m more inclined to laugh myself silly over the situation or to become a cat burglar. I mean, really.

/ / /

Eleven years ago, I flew Iceland Air for the first time on my way to visit Italy. The seats did not come with movie screens, but there were radios built into the armrests. After consulting the in-flight magazine, I tuned to “Icelandic Children’s Music” because it was a genre I hadn’t even known existed. Two minutes later found me teary with laughter and Dan perplexed.

In vain did I search the in-flight magazine for the artist’s name, and in vain did I comb through Amazon MP3 samples later that summer for the song, so when I located it on Spotify yesterday, it was as the unearthing of a long-lost treasure.

For your listening pleasure (watch at least to the 45 second mark, though the 2 minute range is better):

According to the Stammtisch Beau Fleuve glossary, “The lyrics of Prumpufólkið [generally translated ‘The Farting People’] were written by the comedian Jón Gnarr, who also performed the dozen or so sound effects on that song. In 2010 he was elected mayor of Reykjavík.”

That might be my favorite thing I’ve read ever.

30Jan

When God Brought Me to Italy to Perish

You may have seen the recent announcement that Deeper Story is closing its doors. It’s hard for me to imagine the upcoming year without it, both from a reader’s perspective and as one of its writers. That site has consistently swept my generalizations and misconceptions of Christianity off their feet. It’s answered the question of why we believe what we believe through the medium of story, and I’m going to miss it like I miss Blue Bell ice cream.

Before it closes though, I’m getting to share one last story. I wrote about it here on my blog back when the events were unfolding, but they’ve grown in significance and clarity since then, picking up new dimensions in their expanding context. This is the more complete story of our move to Italy. It’s also a study in modern-day miracles.

Part 1 of 2 is up today (Part 2 will go up in a few weeks before Deeper Story closes):

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

It’s not easy for me to think about the fall of 2007.

Actually, “not easy” is a wild understatement in this case. Opening pickle jars is “not easy.” Putting snow boots on a toddler is “not easy.” Willing my mind to revisit some of the most emotionally intense terrain of my life, on the other hand, is about two degrees this side of impossible. The anxiety is still there. So are the first discordant notes of depression. Upheaval, insecurity, a sense of displacement so strong I could drown in it—they’re all there, preserved museum-quality in the halls of my memory.

But then again, so are the miracles. And that’s why I’m here again, two degrees this side of impossible, willing myself never to forget.

/ / /

My husband Dan, our two-year-old daughter Natalie, and I spent the summer of 2007 in total life limbo. We’d moved out of our home in Delaware at the end of May, fully expecting to ship ourselves and all our possessions out on the next flight to Italy. It was all set. Dan had been offered his dream job in the country we had long hoped to adopt as our own, and our bags were packed. Every step of the process so far had been ridged with God’s fingerprints. But then the paperwork we needed the Italian government to send us for our move was “delayed.” (This, as we later learned, is bureaucracy speak for “never gonna happen.”)

The documents didn’t arrive by our move-out date, and they continued not arriving over the next two months as we camped out in friends’ guest rooms and stretched every dollar left in our checking account as far as it would go. We were surrounded by grace in those two months; our friends’ generosity kept us afloat, and we were led again and again to trust that God had our backs despite the maddening bureaucratic roadblock. My pregnant belly was stretching along with our disposable income though, and we had to make a decision: We could either scrap this new direction for our life, or we could book a flight to Italy without the right paperwork or any guarantees and try to work out the details once we got there.

We chose Option #2.

Looking back, I turn green around the gills thinking about all the risks we took with that decision. So much could have gone wrong, and the fact that we arrived without incident on the doorstep of our very own Italian apartment that August is its own category of grace.

This isn’t to say though that the worry and upheaval through which my mind had waded all summer evaporated. If anything, my anxiety grew thicker, muddled by the confusion of a new language and new cultural customs and new everything down to the way we told time. (Dinner at “twenty-one minus a quarter,” anyone?) This newness was a mental barrier as real and high to me as the historic walls of our adopted city. I was petrified by the enormity of what I didn’t know.

Also, I was now squarely (roundly!) in my third trimester of pregnancy. Any mama who has cared for a two-year-old while massively pregnant can tell you that staving off exhaustion in itself can be a full-time job. My body was as weary as my brain, and I felt like I was always skirting the edges of the preterm labor that had complicated my pregnancy with Natalie. I lay trapped awake by worry every night. If I’d had any illusions about being in control of my life before that autumn, they’d certainly hoofed it back to the land of make-believe by now.

Then two things happened simultaneously to kick the intensity notch of my world up to Level Orange. The first was that Dan left on an eight-day trip back to the States to take care of the paperwork we had been unable to file all summer. The second was a familiar tightening across my lower belly that started one evening while I was eating dinner. I was thirty-three weeks along, the exact point I’d been in my first pregnancy when I’d gone into preterm labor. I began to have contractions that were sporadic and harmless, but the timing was enough to send me spiraling imagination-first into worst case scenarios.

I couldn’t shake my fear that our baby was going to be born prematurely while Dan was out of the country. And what if things went horribly wrong for him and he was denied reentry? My terror was so acute that it spliced itself onto my sense of reality. I felt stranded in this place, so far from friends and family, unable to communicate in my own language, responsible for a two-year-old who needed more energy from me than I was able to give. I sympathized with the Israelites in Exodus who wailed that God had brought them into the wilderness to perish.

Hadn’t he just done the same to me?

Abandoned, abandoned, abandoned. The refrain began at the epicenter of my fear and was soon taken up by every cell in my body. I knew I was being dramatic. I knew that basing my understanding of God on my current circumstances was not only poor theology but straight-up idiotic. I had been so uprooted by the past few months though that my better judgment couldn’t find solid footing. As I saw it in those panic-stricken moments, God had lifted us over the stacked odds and deposited us safely in Italy only to pull that sense of safety right back out from under me. This was it then, the punch line of whatever cruel joke he was playing on our dreams.

I felt more alone than I had ever been in my life—relationally, culturally, and spiritually desolate—and I didn’t have the courage for whatever was coming next.

Only, what came next turned out to be as far from what I’d predicted as abandonment was from the truth.

/ / /

[Continue to Part 2.]

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9Jan

Move It (Metaphorically Speaking)

Last weekend, we drove to an outlet mall a little ways out of town. I’d intended to use the opportunity for a nap, still feeling every bit a shadow wraith after our 4 a.m. New Year’s Eve, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery. Winter in Umbria is an unconventional beauty. They call this the Green Heart of Italy because of its evergreens—spruces nodding their tufted heads in time with junipers, cypresses straight-backed and regal—but I’m captivated by the deciduous trees as well, their line-drawn latticework against the blue, each birds’ nest the silhouette of a secret. White-tipped mountains smudge the horizon. In the foreground, tilled fields and olive groves follow the eccentric lilt of the landscape. Each town has a way of looking like it was grown here, stone towers and archways hugging the hilltops and the low winter sun fanning through. The general effect is that of a Van Gogh painting.

“Why don’t we go out exploring more often?” Dan asked me.

“Because we never have it on our schedule.”

As I answered, I thought about how easily a schedule can function as blinders, the parameters of my day confined to whatever I’ve planned out beforehand. I appreciate having a schedule, just as I appreciate lists and goal outlines and brainstorming diagrams and all manner of ISTJ-happy organizational strategies. I actually put “Apply makeup” on my to-do list for this morning, if that gives you an idea of how much satisfaction I find in mapping out every last moment. (Yes, I have problems.)

It’s easy to get stuck in a perpetual state of planning though. My focus can be so narrow and unaccepting of deviation that waking up in the morning can feel like staring down a ski chute. Did you see the “Best Ski Line of 2014” video going around a few weeks ago? Like that. The precision of it all has a way of paralyzing me, and it’s easier to keep refining my plan, adding more items to the list, and maybe going back to my brainstorming pages than it is to kick off.

Not getting things done, of course, leads to profound dissatisfaction at the end of a day, and not having space to maneuver beyond my schedule—going out with my family to explore the winter landscape, for instance—crushes. As I’ve been thinking this week about how to beat both the paralysis and the inflexibility in this new year, two words have come to mind: “Move it.” It’s a mantra, a motto, a ridiculously catchy children’s song, and a reminder. “Move it” means taking action, doing the things that I’m liable to keep putting off forever. It also means shaking a little, shimmying a lot, cultivating the art of wiggle room in my life.

I hadn’t really planned on coming up with a word (or, uh, a phrase) for 2015, but it seems like one found me all the same, my direction for the year now pirouetting like Van Gogh hills toward the horizon.

Winter in Umbria 4

P.S. – Have you picked a word or a phrase for the new year? I’d love to hear it!

8Dec

7 Years a Gentile

Come the first of December each year, our family calendar changes from a responsible and somewhat sickly matron into a party animal. There are get-togethers and game nights and recitals and celebrations, and we love winding down (up?) the year in the company of our friends and neighbors. Plus, holiday food here makes the herald angels sing. 

The holidays can be a mixed bag of emotions though (as everyone everywhere in the world knows from experience), and one particular source of mixed emotion for me is the fact that I’m so far from my own relatives and culture during a season devoted to both. December doesn’t so much pull me out of my element as remind me that I’ve been living out of it the past seven and a half years.

And I’m glad it does. The experience I have had and continue to have as a foreigner has changed me for the better, shifting my field of vision and even teaching me to read the Bible like a proper Gentile (that basically means Muggle in ancient Jewish context). More about this, including a vocabulary tip you can use to scandalize your Italian friends, over at A Deeper Story today:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

I suspect that the only difference between an expat and an immigrant is the amount of money a person brings with her into her adopted country… and I’m not entirely sure which one this makes me.

In 2007, my husband and I moved to Italy for work, but not for lack of opportunities back in the US. Admittedly, my English degree is in far greater demand overseas, but Dan turned down several good engineering jobs so that we could follow the invisible strings tugging our hearts across the Atlantic. This is where folks tend to look at us with envy (if they’re American) or with incredulity (if they’re Italian). Everyone, regardless of nationality, thinks we’re at least 65% nuts. Invisible strings? Riiiiight…

The truth is that Dan and I are weird hybrids of travel enthusiast and missionary, and if you’ll pardon a quick detour into Christianese, we feel called to this life. We find ourselves rooted to Italian soil by something so strong and so inclusive of who we are that it covers a multitude of bureaucratic headaches. Daily life is daily life pretty much anywhere on the planet, but when we stop to absorb what we’re doing on a deeper level, we’re overcome by gratitude that we get to raise our girls in the culture that brought us both the Sistine Chapel and the double espresso. We love this place we’ve chosen to call home.

Italian soccer game 2

That said, these last seven years here have stretched us. (That’s missionary code for “This shizzle is HARD.”) The fascist dictator Mussolini is quoted as having said, “Governing Italians is not impossible, merely useless,” and I’m convinced that he must have said that after going to his local DMV and seeing what passed for a line. Those bureaucratic headaches I mentioned earlier are no joke, not only because the odds of receiving the correct documents in a timely fashion are slightly worse than those of winning the Powerball but because “standing” in “line” is a contact sport here. My Type A soul needs a solid week to recover from each institutional errand.

And then there’s the language. Dan grew up in Italy, but my foreign language skills before moving here were pretty much limited to ordering from a Mexican restaurant. I learned Italian the sink-or-swim way, by diving into the deep end of dinner parties and doctor’s appointments and trying to keep my splutters on the dignified side. For an introverted perfectionist whose childhood dream was to blend in, immersion-style language learning was like running an emotional triathlon every time I stepped out of the house. It can still feel like that if I’m tired or in a new environment or if I’ve recently slipped and said “ano” (anus) instead of “anno” (year) to a new acquaintance. Why yes, my child does have seven anuses! How many does yours have? Goes over great in the pediatrician’s waiting room.

One of the hardest aspects of living here, however, has been adjusting to the idea of being a foreigner. We generally refer to ourselves as expats on social media, but it’s not the Expat Office we go to when we need to renew our sojourner’s permits; it’s Immigration. We shuffle along in a crowd of elbows and body odor, men in turbans and women in headscarves vying with us for the chance to hand paperwork over to the dispassionate officials on the other side of a Plexiglas window. We are the “stranieri”—the strangers. The strange.

And we are strange, no doubt about it. Dan and I share a sarcastic sense of humor that is zero percent funny to most Italians. We observe weird customs like fist bumping and putting ice in our water. He and I have the same last name, which confuses everyone and prompts fun getting-to-know-you questions like, “So you’re also brother and sister?” We have been known to wear flip-flops outside the home, and once I went out with wet hair to the enduring horror of every single person I encountered. Sometimes I even put butter on my pasta (shhhhhh). We’re odd and American, and that’s okay.

Foreigner has been a hard label for me to get used to though. It’s not that it doesn’t fit; it’s just that I’ve always thought of it as belonging to a whole category of “other.” Much like when I tried on my wedding dress for the first time, I’ve had to stare long at my foreigner status to absorb the fact that I am the one draped in it now. I’m the “other” now, the stranger, the splutterer, the one being stretched to fit a new context. If my life these last seven years were a game of Which One Doesn’t Belong?, the answer would be me.

Whether I count as an expat or an immigrant, the disconnect can hit close to home sometimes. Italian culture rests on a foundation of family, with people’s grandparents and uncles and fifth cousins twice removed usually living in close proximity and woven throughout each other’s lives like interlacing doilies. Someone’s always around to babysit or cook dinner or help fix what needs fixing. Granted, families themselves are sometimes what need fixing, but in a society built on interconnectedness, our stand-alone status is an additional spotlight on our other-ness.

This sense of cultural loneliness hasn’t been easy to bear. I’m grateful for it though because it’s shifted my field of view. I have at least a small idea now of what the immigrants I once regarded with indifference must go through in acclimating to a new home—every aspect of life suddenly different and they themselves considered the most different of all.

I’ve also started reading the New Testament like a proper Gentile. It’s not that I’d thought of myself as a Jew before, but I did grow up Southern Baptist, so I found myself identifying with God’s Chosen People more often than not. It was easy to imagine that the Bible was written for me, directly to my culture and worldview. Before becoming an outsider myself, I’d never considered what it would be to look in on this big happy religious family with VIP access to God and a stockpile of “Visa Denied” stamps for anyone else trying to get in. I’d never given the Gentile experience a second thought (or a first, for that matter).

I have a slim idea of it now though, which is why I can only read about Jesus’s inclusion policy from precarious footing on the brink of tears. When Jesus offers living water to a foreign woman whose culture and lifestyle put her lower than low on the Jewish totem pole, when Peter announces that God’s door is open to crowds of outsiders longing to be included, and when Paul writes to a primarily non-Jewish church in Ephesus, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” God meets me smack-dab in the center of my insecurity and isolation. He reminds me of the very real family that we have here in our church. He exchanges our displacement on the map with a borderless home base. He steps right over definitions like expat and immigrant and alien and poor and stranger and disconnected and “other”… and turns the whole system outside-in.

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24Oct

Our Ordinary (One Day 2014)

I am not an avid Instagrammer. I wish I were, but my days get busy, and I forget to be noticeful, and even when I do snap a picture, nine times out of ten I put off posting it because writing on my phone still feels to me like eating with chopsticks once did. (My fingers are creatures of habit on par with aging hobbits.) Perhaps this is why I was so eager to participate in Hollywood Housewife’s One Day project this week, documenting my ordinary, unembellished Wednesday on Instagram. The concept grabbed me both because I love being able to look back at the daily life of our family in its various stages and because I imagine some of you are at least a smidgen curious about what passes for “normal” here in expat-entrepreneurland.

Wednesday morning, therefore, I woke up and started snapping photos (not necessarily in that order) aaaannnnddd… did not manage to Instagram a one. In fact, I didn’t even have a chance to follow friends’ #OneDayHH streams, so full did my day become. However, I still have the photos, and if you’ll forgive the fact that these are coming a few days late and without any fancy filters, I’d love to share what passes for an average Wednesday around here.

Read More »

1Oct

An Expat Shops for Candy Corn

While the expat life in Italy has presented me with its fair share of struggles—bureaucracy, language barriers, and… well, bureaucracy being the top three—food is not one of them. Italian cuisine is why dinners here can last six hours. It’s why some of our Italian friends bring suitcases full of food when they travel internationally. It’s why Dean Martin could get away with mentioning bean soup in a love song. It’s why pizza IS. No, I am certainly not suffering here.

Every now and then though, I find myself craving some processed and preservative-laden treat from across the sea, something that tastes of America! and also corn syrup! This happens every October as the leaves begin to change and their bright orange and yellow hues inevitably turn my mind to the magic of candy corn. Do you remember that scene in Elf where Will Ferrell lists the four main food groups as “candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup”? I totally agree. The whole-wheat flour and broccoli I feed my family are just for health show.

The problem is that one cannot buy candy corn here, at least not anywhere I’ve found so far in our smallish city. World-class chocolate, yes. Stripey fangs of compressed sugar-plastic that look and taste nothing like corn but are somehow still symbolic of harvest season in the United States, no. Today, however, I had the brilliant idea to search on Amazon.it. We can buy Yankee Candles and American flags through it, so why not candy corn?

Search bar

Alas. It turns out that Italian Amazon does not stock actual candy corn. However, you’d be happy to know that with a single click, one can purchase any of the following substitute items:

The most dynamic cross-stitch pattern ever, in English! (“This title not available in your country.”)

Cross stitch pattern.png

This genius smartphone game, which the product description calls both “beautiful” and “eye-popping.” (Is it just me, or does Man Boobs here appear to be lactating golf balls?)

Man boobs.png

Candy Corn Duck Tape, for repairing your HVAC systems, restraining your hyperactive children, and sealing up your man boobs in the full spirit of the season:

Duck Tape.png

Candy corn-themed crochet patterns so that you too can blend in among the European chic…

Scarf pattern.png

 …AND be the envy of your local poncho club…

Poncho pattern.png

…AND add an extra element of class to your Halloween soirée:

Wine bottle cozy pattern.png

Rarelove Sterling Silver Halloween pumpkin corn candy Heart Photo Charm Beads… which might be something you smoke for all the sense I can make out of that description, but hey—it’s on sale!

Sterling Silver pumpkin corn candy Heart Photo Charm Beads.png

Some fun tunes for your neighborhood trick-or-treat party:

Music - explicit.png

What’s that, you say? You’d prefer something less psychotic suicide clown skull fun and more happy fun? Not to worry, this super non-creepy hand-goose is here to help:

Music - happy fun songs.png
(I just listened to this song’s MP3 sample in the name of journalistic integrity, and I can now confirm with 97% certainty that it was indeed played by a goose.)

Back to literal candy corn now, on which this delicious and exclamation-point-worthy party game is based! (Please note: Game pieces neither included nor available for sale anywhere things are sold.)

Bingo - Just add candy corn.png

A candle made expressly to taunt expats with the scent of wishful thinking:

Yankee Candles.png

And last but not least, this yarn, which appears to have been thrown up on by a Dreamsicle with tuberculosis:


Yarn.png
(Who’s up for a parfait?)

So no luck buying my favorite Octoberly vice off Amazon. However, the internet is full of recipes for homemade candy corn; all I have to do is track down some powdered milk, and we’ll be in business!

Search bar - powdered milk.png

Powdered milk.png

Uh…

 

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