Tag: Italy

27Aug

The American Context vs. August in Italy

For the second time in a week, I’d found myself smack dab between the lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” The first time had happened the day after we arrived in the Italian Alps, after we had laced up our shoes and left the narrow walls of our hotel and picnicked on a grassy slope, butterflies tangoing with the wind around us. The second time was on our final hike of our getaway. I was stretched out in a meadow with my camera, trying to soak in as much of the place as I could before we packed up, when the miniature grasshopper sprang onto a blade of grass in front of my nose. At least I think it’s a grasshopper. It could be a cricket or a locust or a boll weevil for all I know (or, to be honest, want to know) about six-legged creatures. I did not, however, jump back shrieking in my standard Insect Encounter Dance. Instead, I watched it, fascinated and at peace while Mary Oliver filled my mind:

“Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

I had the time to understand her phrase “idle and blessed,” to take the ancient Hebrew lyric “Be still and know” to heart. Out of all souvenirs, that state of unhurried intention is what I most wanted to bring home with me this summer.

It didn’t even make it down the mountainside.

///

August is a quiet month in Italy. School is a purely September construct; no one is thinking of fresh pencils or new jeans just yet. Instead, everyone is in beach mode, moving through the steamed air like half-dressed anemones. Shops are closed. Utility companies are on vacation. No one here expects anything remotely resembling productivity.

Except for me.

Even here, in the warm laze of summer, I choke for want of time. It feels almost like a nutritional deficiency, this sense of depletion when I look at the clock. If I could just work out how to double the hours between eating and sleeping, I think, then I could keep up with the pace of online work, to say nothing of the dust bunnies that procreate like… well, rabbits around here. I would also settle for getting my brain to work twice as quickly or my body to have twice the energy. Basically, my aspiration is to become Bart Simpson on Squishee syrup.

///

I just started reading Tsh Oxenreider’s Notes from a Blue Bike, and I can so closely relate to her struggle to keep the slower European lifestyle within the faster American context that I want to look up from every other sentence and tell her, “Me too!” I know I don’t have a great deal of room to pine over the European lifestyle considering that I live here and all. Obviously, I’m already in the perfect place for slowing down, embracing simplicity, and savoring the little things. What’s not as obvious, though, is that I’m still operating in an American context. I am the American context. My work philosophy, my personal expectations, my tendency to view life as an emergency… all of it is part of the cultural package that leaves me rushed and harried even when everyone around me is in vacation mode.

And this is after seven years of adapting.

Clearly, I still have much to learn from Italy, but Tsh’s assurance that we can choose how we live is buoying me today. Even as I write this, we’re packing up for a few days at the beach with friends. My attention keeps drifting down to the to-do list on my desk, a wee slip of paper that carries enough weight to sink me some days. It’s already tried twice today. There are so many chores to squeeze in before we leave, and I need to remember the beach stuff down in storage, and I haven’t gotten a haircut yet, and the girls will need packing help, and my email inbox is going to seed again, and how can I sit here dallying with words when there is so much to do, so very very much, and so very little time in which to do it, and AAAHHHHHHHH?

The answer is with that little grasshopper above. I can sit here and write today (albeit distractedly) for the same reason that I could lie on my stomach photographing blades of grass last month—because I chose to do it. I can ignore the chaotic context within me and do things on purpose that give me life. I can throw my lopsided sense of responsibility to the wind. I can choose.

I know that vacation isn’t the typical setting for one to channel her inner Thoreau, but my hope is that if I can remind myself how to live deliberately when I’m kicked back on the sand, maybe—just maybe—it will stick around once I’m back home.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

25Jun

The Real World: Italy

I know we’re no longer partying like it’s 1999 here, but I still cringe every time I catch myself saying the words “We met online.”

Others try to assure me that there’s no stigma to this anymore, that everybody and his uncle these days have a tribe of friends they’ve never seen in person. Even the fact that we now say “in person” instead of “in real life” should be a comfort. But whether it’s because I’ve never been to a bloggers conference or because I have truly cringe-worthy memories of defending my chat room “ministry” 15 years ago, I feel the need to hem and haw and issue disclaimers in triplicate before I admit that any of my friends started out as a URL to me.

The fact is that I have connected with some dear, dear people online, soul-siblings whose words and photos have integrated themselves into my own story. I count every one of these connections as a treasure, and I wouldn’t take it well if anyone implied that they were less valid for having been forged over screens instead of tabletops. (I owe it to humanity to admit here that no one has ever implied such a thing since… well, 1999. Clearly my defense tactics are aimed at the wrong decade.)

The most wonderful outcome, of course, is when screen-friendship becomes table-friendship. I live on the wrong continent to take advantage of that very often, but this last weekend came with a triple dose of magic, beginning with the arrival of this pair:

Erika and Austin on the gondola 1

Erika is one of my favorite people on God’s green interwebs, and now I can confirm that she really is that rad in person too. She and Austin made an otherwise ordinary day in Venice (said with tongue firmly in cheek) a feast, a party, and a pilgrimage all at once. Dan dusted off his tour guide badge, and the four of us wandered some of the most mesmerizing architecture on earth with no agenda except to be there—reverently, giddily, exuberantly there. If you’ll forgive my deviating into photoblog format for a while, I’d love to show you some of the trillion (give or take a few) pictures we snapped on Saturday. Because, Venice:

Read More »

13Jun

Hiking Underwater on Fashion Week

On Monday morning, I was sipping cappuccino outside a café in downtown Milan when a woman of indeterminate age sat down at the table in front of me. I say indeterminate age because while her unsteady movements and long yellow-white hair hinted at an elderly woman, her fishnet stockings and stilettos put out a different vibe. Her face was no help either. It was a mask of surgical enhancements, a puffy and almost animatronic façade that shifted in little jerks as the woman berated the waitress. I could tell you about all the diva behavior I witnessed from one table over, but that isn’t the point. The point is that later in the day, I ran an image search for woman in Milan with too much plastic surgery and called Dan over triumphantly when I found a photo of my café companion:

Donatella[Image found here.]

I’m not sure if it’s a point in our favor or an inexcusable lapse in pop culture savvy that neither Dan nor I recognized the woman in the photo as Donatella Versace until we’d read the post. I just about choked when I saw her name. “You don’t think… Could it really have been…? I’m not 100% sure…” It hadn’t occurred to me to snap a photo of the woman at the café, so all I can tell you with certainty, dear readers, is that I may or may not have spent Monday morning watching Donatella Versace spill various beverages on our waitress and then snap at her for it.

This whole week in Milan has had a surreal quality for me. I had planned to go about life as normally as possible while we’re here, unapologetically retreating however many hours of the day necessary not to lose myself. Time hasn’t been the problem though. My physiology has. It’s as if my body has been keeping tabs on all missed hours of sleep from the past few months and decided to collect on them at once. I have slept so much this week that dignity prevents me from being more specific, yet my brain continues slumping over with fatigue. Trying to work my way back to myself right now is like hiking underwater while pulling a disobedient walrus on a leash. I feel psychedelic, and not in a groovy way.

All this rest has to be making a difference though, and I have every hope that soon I’ll be able to recover lost attributes like energy and consciousness. I’m letting myself accept this week as an unintended reboot. I’m not all the way to relishing it yet, but there is such a unique brand of relief in surrendering to a nap, in sprawling out under the ceiling fan and letting all my expectations for the next hour (or four) evaporate off my skin. I hardly ever slow down unless my body up and forces me to, so even though this week has felt surreal and disconnected and maddeningly slow, I can see how it too is a form of grace.

6Jun

Shock Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian soccer game 2

4Jun

Village Appreciation Day

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

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

…And if you don’t?

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

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

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

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

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

28Apr

Greener Pastures

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

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

Er, make that hadn’t.

Hiking Subasio - Victorious three

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

Hiking Subasio - Bethany on top of the world

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

Hiking Subasio - Sisters

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Natalie

Hiking Subasio - Wildflowers 2

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Sophie

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

Hiking subasio - Wildflowers 3

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

11Apr

Standing in “Line” LIVE!

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

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

Great! Let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10:13a – No. No, we are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

© Copyright 2015, all rights reserved.
Site powered by Training Lot.
Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.