Tag: Italy

7Apr

Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).

Trevi

We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

2Apr

Stories to Bookmarkare

I don’t often write directly about the whole residing-in-Italy aspect of our lives. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but my best guess is that Italy has woven itself so thoroughly into the fabric of our days that I forget to single it out. This isn’t the same as being tired of the place. On the contrary, I love our weird little Italian life more every year. I still run into an invisible wall of wonder every time we walk downtown; the old stone palaces and fountains and archways stop my feet until my eyes can catch up with them. It’s also a special kind of delight to experience the language and culture as friends rather than obstacles. When we moved here nearly seven years ago, my only real point of connection was the food. Now, I’m taken with the local idioms, the Mediterranean rhythms, the way our Italian friends can spin conversation from straw, the geography of this country, its richly layered history, and the wealth of bilingual jokes now at my disposal.

Fornarina
(And the food.)

This is in no way a deep post, but I wanted to share a little of why Italy charms my socks off. The following are all recent news stories that have been simultaneously cracking me up and warming my heart. Enjoy!

1. Sister Cristina Scuccia belts out Alicia Keys on The Voice of Italy and snags rapper J-Ax for her vocal coach.

(English subtitles can be turned on at bottom right.)

Everything about this story is my favorite—Sister Cristina’s jubilant performance, the cheers of her fellow nuns backstage, and J-Ax’s emotional connection to the whole thing. If you’re not familiar with J-Ax (and unless you’re into Italian rap or married to someone who is—ahem—you probably aren’t), he’s a gritty and hilariously irreverent performer whose hit titles include “Ohi Maria” (a love song to marijuana), “L’Italiano Medio” (a play on words referring to his middle finger), and “Voglio Una Lurida” (a tribute to dirty girls that involves the line, “I want to intimately caress her hair… On her arms, I meant!”). Ergo, he’s not the kind of guy I would ever have imagined tearing up over a nun’s performance, much less teaming up with her as her vocal coach. Just… awesome.

2. Roman mobster Enrico Terribile breaks house arrest 30 minutes early for… what else? Pizza!

First things first: Is Enrico Terribile not the most fantastic mobster name ever? True to his moniker, Terribile helped terrorize Rome as part of the Magliana gang in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I probably shouldn’t find this news story as delightful as I do. But going back to prison because his passion for pizza wouldn’t let him wait a single half-hour longer? That just slays me. (In another recent story, a man in Livorno broke house arrest on purpose so he could go to prison and thus escape his wife. Maybe not as good a reason as pizza but still highly entertaining.)

3. A team of amateur Sicilian scientists launches cannoli into space. Because… Why ever not?


(The best parts start at 2:30 and 6:03, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.)

Bonus: The whole mission only cost €350. NASA, eat your heart out.

4. Italian dictionaries have recently expanded to include the following super-awesome verbs:

  • Bloggare
  • Bookmarkare
  • Googlare
  • Sharare
  • Twittare
  • Upgradare

(Source)

Now tell me that doesn’t make your day at least a few percentage points better. It’s upgradando mine!

P.S. – Two of my favorite posts so far about our expat experience: No Morale of the Story and Moving Home… On Purpose.

17Feb

The Things I Forget to Instagram

On Monday mornings, I wake up slowly. I’ve always done a clumsy job shifting between weekday and weekend mindsets, and no matter how straight I aim my Sunday night intentions, I tend to wake up in a dead stall—engine cold, momentum at zero, the week’s potential out of view beyond a right turn. I’m working on showing myself grace this year, so I accept that morning pages will not get written first thing on Mondays. Neither will inspirational reading be absorbed. I will not be jumping up to hit the track, nor will I be performing sun salutations on the yoga mat I keep forgetting to acquire. The only thing I am capable of doing when I wake up on a Monday is settling back into my pillows with a cappuccino and scrolling through Instagram while I wait for the caffeine to loosen my mental gears.

Now, I love Instagram. It feels like the least needy of the social media conduits, rarely snagging at the threads of my attention with links, surveys, or political commentaries. The comment sections can get a little dicey, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone post a Willow-filtered snapshot to illustrate their outrage over the latest hot topic. By and large, Instagram inspires users to curate the beauty in their daily lives. People appreciate and preserve little moments through the act of sharing them, and others appreciate and share in return, and say what you will about our narcissistic culture or the ascent of selfies, but I love the whole construct. I do.

That said, I myself post photos sparingly. Part of the reason is that I want to avoid the habit of detaching from beautiful moments in order to crop and filter and caption them, but the other part is that I simply forget. It doesn’t occur to me to document the majority of my daily circumstances, even as I extract pearls of gratitude from them, even as I notice their unique and lovely hues. My “hey, I could Instagram this!” gene must be recessive.

I spend a kid-free Sunday afternoon wandering medieval streets, fingers woven through my husband’s in the most blissfully unFebruary sunlight, and forget to document a second of it.

I give the girls as a Valentine’s gift a packet of coiled paper streamers that they blow into a giant pile of pink insta-wig, but I forget to capture the hilarity.

I peek in on them as they sleep, my heart catching tight in my throat as it always does to see them so relaxed, so safe in their vulnerability, small elbows cradling beloved stuffed animals.

I look up from my own dregs of sleep to catch Dan bringing in a deluxe Saturday breakfast for me. Still, after eleven years, this.

I hang wet sheets on the balcony and breathe it all in—the Mediterranean sunlight, the quiet symphony of our neighborhood, the cypresses whisking pollen into the air and teaching the world to sneeze, our Italian way of life.

I make us this day our daily pasta. I lift weights (got to burn off all that pasta somehow!). I coach the girls with their piano practice. I dial up my sister’s sweet face on Skype. I discover that if you run out of polenta and try to substitute fine-ground cornmeal, you will end up with a pot of yellow Elmer’s glue. I switch between flip-flops and winter slippers like the uprooted Texan I am. I read Romans and Gabriel García Márquez. I cheer and groan and formulate Thoughts on the Olympics. I kiss friends on both cheeks in greeting. I use the last of the midnight blue nail polish. I kick my feet up next to Dan’s while we discuss whether we’re more in the mood for Firefly or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I water my “poor kid.” I burn the pizza.

Life pulls me straight into its kaleidoscope heart, and I ride the color from second to second, pattern to pattern, and each one is worth memorializing in some way. I forget to Instagram most of it though, and this finds me on Monday morning scrolling through proof of my friends’ beautiful weekends and wondering where mine got off to. It’s not that I think an instant of life has to be posted online to mean something—goodness no—but I still miss undocumented moments as if they were old friends moving out of state. How long until we lose contact? Until they stop coming to mind? Until I forget that they were ever in my life?

I’ve been afraid of forgetting ever since I was a 10-year-old journaling what I’d eaten for dinner and what I’d studied in school that day. Anne Frank’s diary made me wild to record every second of myself for posterity. Years later, I’d write at red lights or in empty parking lots because I couldn’t wait until I got home; I might forget too much.

And I do. I forget too much. Dan will try to reminisce with me about our early years together, and I’ll ask, “That happened?” I can watch the same movie twelve times and be surprised twelve times by the ending. The fingers of my mind hold memory loosely, as casually as if it were a handful of gravel, and pebble-sized bits of my life slip through before I remember that I could be documenting them.

An ongoing lesson in my life, however, is how to let go. I’ve written about it here before, how I struggle with letting good things come to an end even if they no longer have a place in my world, but I’m getting better at it. I’m learning to sink back against my trust that if a tree falls in an empty forest, it still makes a sound, and if a swath of delight cuts through my day undocumented, it still serves its purpose. Sometimes living in the moment means grasping it with both hands, a smartphone, and an armada of hashtags… and sometimes it means quietly enjoying it and then releasing it into the care of the universe. Both ways are valid. Both celebrate the beauty. (Repeat to self daily, twice on Mondays.) And it’s possible that forgetting to Instagram might just be the most Zen choice I [n]ever make.

3Nov

Pulling a Pheidippides

I’ve never quite been able to forget that the first person to run a marathon, the Greek hero Pheidippides on whom the modern day race was founded, DIED FROM IT. This fact has concerned me on more than one occasion, but never did it seem more relevant to my life than last Sunday afternoon as I lurched over the final bridge of the Venice Marathon and stumble-sprinted toward the finish line. I was more than exhausted, my muscles already pushed a full hour beyond their former limits. All four limbs and the top of my head were tingling as if ice shavings had replaced the blood in my veins. My heart was beating so quickly that it finally achieved liftoff and flew ahead without me, and at a mere two hundred meters from the end, one thought crystalized in my mind: I was about to pull a Pheidippides.

They say that completing a marathon is largely a mental effort, and in retrospect, I think that my finish-line-death-sprint experience had more to do with the sensory overload of the day than it did with physical strain. You can only dig your nails into your mind with excitement and awareness for so long before reality starts to blur around the edges. I’ve already admitted that calm-and-collected isn’t my jam when it comes to running, so I have no additional dignity to lose by confessing that the second our 5:55 wakeup call came on Sunday morning, I jumped into carpe diem hyperdrive. Let me tell you, no one has ever put on athletic socks as fervently as I did that day.

Every minute pre-race was duly seized and catalogued in my mind as wonder. The fog outside our hotel as we walked to the bus station primed my imagination so that even our cramped forty-minute ride to the starting line, during which I was repeatedly stepped on and elbowed in the face, felt like the beginning of some epic adventure. Once we arrived, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among all 8,000 runners made even standing in line for the porta-potties an engaging activity (and made the pee-gauntlet of men who didn’t bother with the porta-potties an object of understanding laughter… though later, after I’d spent an hour waiting in the start canal guzzling Gatorade, my laughter had developed urgently jealous undertones). I paid attention to the pearly cast of the sky, the mismatched shoes of the guy stretching behind me, and the exact position of my armband; everything mattered in the larger context of Marathon Day, and I wasn’t about to let any of it slip my notice.

Marathon - D and B

Getting one last marital hug in before the starting gun.

The race began around 9:30, though it took several minutes more for those of us in the nosebleed section to make our way up to the starting line. Once we were there, however, it was as if a tidal wave rolled up underneath our running shoes and lifted us all in a cresting rush of energy and direction onto the road. I’ve never felt anything quite like that communal forward momentum, and I didn’t encounter it again during the race. Almost immediately, the marathon changed for me from a group exercise to an individual challenge. I found my stride within the first kilometer, and my focus narrowed to a small bubble around my own head. I concentrated on breathing evenly, navigating the road (which hugged the plentiful curves of the Brenta River for the first 17 kilometers/10½ miles or so), and maintaining appropriate levels of shock and awe that I WAS RUNNING A MARATHON.

Refreshment tables, many of them accompanied by live bands and cheering spectators, were set up every five kilometers, so the race naturally subdivided itself into half-hour increments for me. Just about the time my strength started to lag, I would round a bend into Partyville—cups upon cups of Gatorade, cookies and bananas given out by the handful, little kids waiting to give high fives, the occasional bystander adventurous enough to try pronouncing my name. The encouragement of strangers made more of a difference than I would ever have thought. Each new chorus of “Brava!” drew me out of the intensity of my own headspace and reminded me that I wasn’t alone on the road. You could almost see the change in atmosphere where crowds gathered to cheer; every single runner on the road picked up speed. Weary athletes who I had seen slump into a walk only seconds earlier caught a second wind. Grimaces turned into smiles… or at least grimaces with a facelift. Even rubberneckers who had clearly shown up to watch out of curiosity with a generous side of WTH?! provided boosts of incentive to do what we had come to do and run.

Marathon - First 5K

Stay tuned for my exciting new e-course on taking cell phone pictures through your armband while running AND looking like an off-balance penguin while doing it!

The race got very real for me around kilometer 32/mile 20. That was the farthest I had ever gone in my training runs, so I had no empirical evidence to suggest that I might be capable of doing more. Until that point in the marathon, my mind had been able to kick up its feet with the assurance that my body could handle its task. Now, however, with each new step marking the farthest I had ever run in my life, the race became as grueling psychologically as it was physically. And this was when the bridges started—17 of them, the second being the 2½-mile-long (read: interminable) Ponte della Libertà taking us over open water to the islands of Venice.

My carpe diem drive went into desperate mode once my feet reached the cobblestones alongside Venetian canals. This was it: the last stretch, the true test of my endurance, the magic of running through a floating Medieval city coupled with the pain of pushing my body beyond its limits. My focus shifted constantly with my mind scrambling behind trying to keep it in line. My mental dialogue during the final 5 kilometers/3 miles went something like this: Ow ow ow can’t do this anymore CANNOT, hey look at that basilica! Wow, I’m in Venice, this is horrible, must remember all the encouraging comments and emails people have sent me; they think I can finish, so I must be able to. Oh God, another bridge. I can do this, I can’t do this, I CAN do this, look at me passing three semi-ripped men in a row, I hate existence, no I don’t, I’m carpe-ing the *expletive* out of this diem right now, I’m going to die. What a pretty canal!

My favorite thing about that last insane stretch was a fat old Venetian woman leaning out of her window and shouting, “Come on, what are you wimps slowing down for? You’re basically at the end by now!” At that point in the race, I was in no mood for live music or high fives any more; the thought of lifting more limbs than absolutely necessary had become unthinkable, and I was pretty sure I hated everyone in the world who wasn’t struggling up those bridges with me. However, that old lady’s crusty pep talk was just the kick in the pants I needed to keep running. Plus, it got me smiling just long enough for the photography team to catch me looking [inaccurately] like a congenial and capable human being as I crossed the Canal Grande into the final kilometer of the race.

Bethany's first marathon

Yay! I hate you all!

It wasn’t until I crested the seventeenth *double-expletive* bridge and saw the finish line straight ahead that I lost whatever psychological control I had been using to hold myself intact. My veins flooded with icy tingles, my heart left my body, my vision began swarming with tiny Disney bluebirds, and my mind shrugged helplessly and said, “I got nothin’.” I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be thinking about. I definitely couldn’t remember why I had signed up for this. I was about to faint and/or die right there in front of the Doge’s Palace, but I didn’t really mind too much because at least then I could stop running.

Something about this line of reasoning tugged at me though, and I slowly realized that I was so eager to stop running because… [and you might want to brace yourself for the profundity of this statement]… I was currently running. Without any conscious input from my brain, my legs were still moving forward. Some instinct had taken over when energy and intention had crashed and was keeping me in motion. Frivolities like discernible heartbeats and motor control were no longer part of the picture; there was only the pure, inexplicable reality of me, running.

Granted, the victory of crossing the finish line was tempered by the fact that I was basically a decapitated rooster at that point. However, my mental faculties returned once my legs stopped moving, and I realized what I had just accomplished about the time someone hung a medal around my neck. I had done something that, up until that very moment, I had never believed myself capable of doing. I had run 42.195 kilometers without stopping, giving up, or pulling a Pheidippides after all. My final time of 4 hours and 38 minutes wasn’t too shabby either, especially for a new runner. I wasn’t merely a runner anymore though; I was a marathoner. 

Marathon - Finisher

Yay! I love you all!

A friend asked me the following day to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how inclined I was to run another marathon in the future. I had difficulty nailing down an answer. If you had asked me during the first hour and a half of the race, I would have ranked my willingness at a 10; during the final hour and a half of the race, I would probably have answered something like negative infinity. Even in the thrill and buzz immediately following the finish line, I don’t think I would have given you more than a 2, and when my friend asked me the next day, I finally settled on an uncertain 4. A week later, however, my post-race aches and pains have dissipated, and the memory of accomplishment has far outstripped the memory of effort. For various reasons, I haven’t been able to go running since the marathon, and I find myself antsy to lace up my shoes and hit the track again. I’m not planning any long runs for the immediate future, but there is a part of me that wants to see what I could do with this challenge in the future, knowing as I do now that I am strong enough. I’m not ready to stop surprising myself yet, and given how very much the marathon asked of me in the end, maybe the biggest surprise would be deciding to do it again.

We’ll see. I’m only now at a 6 on the would-I-do-it-again scale, and other challenges have caught my attention for the time being. Still, the value this experience held for me seems only to be increasing with time, and if you asked me to rank from 1 to 10 how glad I am to have done this first marathon, I would have to go with something in the neighborhood of, oh, say, 42.195.

4Oct

A Daily Dose of Truffles

I lost my voice in Texas two months ago. Within 24 hours of stepping out of DFW International into my sister’s arms, my laugh had developed a smoky rasp. Another day, and I was passing myself off as Keith Richards on the phone. By Day 5, I could only do a bullfrog’s rendition of a whisper, and I had to eat throat lozenges like M&Ms for the next few days in order to [audibly] deliver the toast at my sister’s wedding. It was awesome. Between grown-up slumber parties with my sister, long drives with my cousin, dinners out with friends, shopping marathons with my mom, and game nights with my brothers, I was in good conversational company for about 21 hours a day. (Related: Sleep, schmeep.)

This trip back to my hometown marked the first time I’ve really gotten to know many* of my siblings as adults, and every one of the eleven days I spent with them was a spadeful of sand unburying treasure. My voice box was simply the conduit for years’ and years’ worth of conversations delayed by age gaps, stage-of-life gaps, and geographical gaps. Goodnights took two hours and a shared tub of ice cream to finish saying.

* There are eight of us, plus assorted spouses, kids (mine), and dogs (everybody else’s). 

And then there were the sales clerks—women with ready Texas smiles, men with hilarious anecdotes at the ready—and I talked with all of them. I chatted with the gas station attendant, the intern behind the front desk at the Y, the mom whose toddler ran over my foot with a tricycle. It was such a thrill to be speaking American English, to be using terms like “the Y” and “fixin’ to.” I wondered if they could tell that I was from those parts (which I am) or if I came across as a foreign species visiting from distant lands (which is equally true). I reserved my secret life in Italy for my family, who I’m sure loved having me point out a new cultural difference every five minutes. (“Whoa, I’d forgotten that you can actually pay at the pump in the U.S.! LOL. Things are so different where I live, haha. Oh, and have I ever told you about speedometers in Italy…?”)

Returning to that secret expat life, however, I found my throat blocked by a lump the size of the jalapeños on my honky-tonk nachos. I’d never really experienced homesickness before, so I couldn’t be sure that’s what it was. It was something, though, and that something propelled me to the corner of our house farthest from the front door. I sent Dan to the store for milk. I let the phone ring itself hoarse. I lay in bed with my mind ping-ponging between jetlag and insomnia and my mouth tightly closed.

It’s just so hard here. Can I say that? Can I tell you honestly that this beautiful life I’ve been given with its ancient cathedrals and its bowls of pasta and these two little bilingual daughters traipsing across castle grounds on a Saturday morning can be too heavy for me sometimes?

I feel like an ingrate for it, but at least I can be an honest ingrate. Here it is: Every interaction in Italy, no matter how small, requires more than I ever feel comfortable offering up. An acceptance of lost dignity is the main prerequisite, and I cannot think of a sensation more exactly opposite of the thrill I felt speaking Texan among Texans. Any time I open my mouth here, I advertise the fact that I am a foreigner (aptly, the term is “stranger” in Italian), and even though the person I’m speaking to has already seen my freckles and knows I am not a local, speaking aloud feels like zipping up a sore thumb costume and launching into a set of jumping jacks on the street corner.

So, there is the psychological effort of un-belonging, and then there is the mental effort of the language itself. The words still come to me slowly, like doddering old men reluctant to leave their rooms, and the worst part is and always shall be choosing the correct subject-verb endings to accessorize the things. Italian is a language that must be spoken with confidence and spice, completely unlike the gently sloshing Spanish I studied growing up, and I regularly trip over my false teeth trying to infuse my words with Mediterranean spirit.

In fairness to my Italian friends, I need to make clear that no one ever disparages me for speaking imperfectly. All of this drama takes place within the confines of my own head. Still, my head is a rather significant part of my life, so “ciao” is never just “ciao” for me; it’s emotional and mental strain followed by a very special like-it-or-not brand of humility.

And so my post-Texas self clammed up for a while, the difficulty of interaction here contrasting too sharply against all my fresh memories of hometown and kin. I wanted to get right back on an airplane to the States and savor the easy cascade of words for another few weeks. My goodness, but I wanted to greet a friend without having to button up my courage first. I found myself grieving, honest-to-goodness grieving, over this gorgeous adventure of an expat life.

I know the world’s tiniest violin is playing right now in mock sympathy for my plight (“Privileged Woman Chooses Fairytale Life, Whines That It Is Hard”), but this is real life, compliments of the real brain in my real head, and I believe that we allow grace to exhale pure ambient relief around us when we’re real with each other. Plus, I found a way out of my clamshell, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love while running a few weeks ago, and though I had previously read the book and watched the film (and re-read and re-watched and then re-re-watched if we’re going for full disclosure here; I do love a good spiritual/travel/gelato-themed memoir), and though I thought all of the relevant parts had already made their impressions on me, something new jumped out:

“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me… The words made me laugh in delight.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, referring to Italian, and once living in Rome, she actually drops out of language school so she can have more time to enjoy trying her vocabulary out on shopkeepers, seat mates on trains, postal clerks, soccer fans… basically everyone I most dread having to speak to when I go out.

My mind immediately drifted away from the book, and between the usual mental soliloquies that take over while I’m running (“Ow.” “Hate. “Why.” etc.), I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of language learning as delight. It was hard at first. I’ve lived here for six years now, and my perspectives have become worn to the point of shabbiness with daily use. There is nothing particularly glamorous about daily life, after all. Take out the trash, walk the girls to school, do a few linguistic slapstick routines while saying hi to the other parents. This is no Julia Roberts flick.

But consciously relishing each word as it leaves my mouth is something I can do without the least disruption to my routine. I don’t have to do anything different, in fact, except remember to enjoy my free daily language practice. My daily dose of truffles. It’s incredible how something as insubstantial as the concept of delight can reshape the mind’s topography, turn canyons into playgrounds, turn long afternoons at the pediatric allergy clinic into extended word games. It’s changing so much for me, not necessarily for the easier but certainly for the happier. I even picked up my old grammar book the other day and read a few verb conjugations out loud just to feel them melt on my tongue. Voglio, vuoi, vuole, vogliamo, volete, vogliono. Like chocolates, like throat lozenges, cures for a lost voice.

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?

7May

Respectfully, No

We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.

I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.

Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.

But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.

Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyrannical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?

Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?

Dan and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.

However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Dan that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.

Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…

But then Dan brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?

No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.

The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Dan and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.


Photo: Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi

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