Tag: Italy

3May

Life All Around

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

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

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

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

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

Umbrian layers

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

* Re-falling-in-love songs:

* Handwritten letters addressed to me.

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

Snapdragons - 3

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

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

* Chocolate-covered grins.

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

~~~

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

10Dec

Expatriotism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21Nov

Urban Ballet

This:

Mercato - 2

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

Galleria Sciarra - 4

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

Read More »

7Nov

Cinnamon Steam

Right now:

Open windows

Pumpkin spice latte

Diamond-cut air

Fall daisies

~~~

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

Pumpkin spice latte with cinnamon steam.

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

The new Mumford & Sons—soul-shiveringly good.

Daisies, orange and fuchsia.

Facebook closed.

~~~

What is your “right now?”

26Oct

Coffee-Stained

Friends? Meet my blog’s namesake:

An ode to espresso

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

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

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

~~~

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

18Sep

Schooled

Today marks one week back at school for the girls. Summer lasts long in Italy, and I can no longer contemplate freshly sharpened pencils in the same month when all our neighbors are headed to their beach homes, or apples for the teacher when we’re still in the syrupy peach haze of August. No, the backpacks come out of storage with the skinny jeans here, and this, my fifth back-to-school as an expat mother, is the first time I haven’t been afraid of it.

You have to understand that few personalities are less suited to the learningcoastercrazyspiral of expat life than mine. Two words: shy perfectionist. I’m easily intimidated by the challenge of opening my mouth in my own language, much less a foreign one, and I desperately want to do every last little particle of life right. Moving to a new culture where I am 100% guaranteed to make mistakes every time I a) step out my door, b) open my mouth, and c-z) try to pass myself off as a confident, capable adult who knows what the hell she’s doing in line at the post office has been an ongoing exercise in recovering from mortal embarrassment and pinning my worth on something other than social finesse. (Baked goods, perhaps?)

The girls’ back-to-school transition is particularly prone to trial and error because parents are expected to know through a combination of telepathy and strategic neighborhood networking who to register with, where to order books, how to stock up on supplies, which uniform is required, and what day and time of day school starts. I am inordinately grateful each year when we manage to show up before the bell and with a majority of the right supplies. This year, however, my gratefulness was due less to beating the telepathy game and more to having a great group of friends we can hit up for details. I didn’t have to worry that my child would end up the only second-grader without 5-millimeter graph paper or that my other child would be kicked out of kindergarten for lack of a sun hat. I really didn’t worry at all, which was a welcome departure from tradition.

This lack of anxiety was significant for another reason too, another kind of cultural divide overcome. See, I was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist Christian lifestyle based almost entirely on fear. First and foremost, we were afraid of God; he was demanding, judgmental, and vindictive, and he dangled the threat of hell above our heads like a sword hanging on the gossamer strand of his patience. We were so afraid of incurring his wrath that we accepted every passing religious do and don’t at face value and left critical thinking to those damned (literally) liberals.

We were almost equally afraid of “The World,” the term we used to describe any society or person who did not share our beliefs. The World was the government who collected taxes and redistributed them as welfare and failed to enforce our country’s founding values. The World was secular media, with its television programs and feature films and news bulletins all designed to glorify sin. Most of all, The World was public school, Satan’s greatest ploy for corrupting young hearts and minds. The only times I set foot in a public school as a child was when my parents went there to vote, and despite the empty classrooms and quiet halls, I was terrified that the godlessness of the place would seep into my pores like an airborne disease.

I’m a parent of school-aged daughters myself now, and I understand more than ever what my parents feared about sending me off to school. When I pass my girls into the waiting arms of their teachers, I relinquish a very large measure of control. I no longer act as filter and gatekeeper to my children’s minds, and yes, it is incredibly scary to imagine what ideas and mannerisms they could absorb away from home. My kneejerk reaction would be to protect, protect, protect, to turn our home into a bunker of parental-approved thinking and only let in whatever wafts of the outside world won’t disturb our family ecosystem.

I know from deeply personal experience, however, that mind control is a losing game for everyone involved. Discernment can’t grow in an environment where only one side of an issue is ever presented. Conflict resolution can’t be learned where conflict is never allowed. Grace can’t thrive in a relational or ideological vacuum, nor can compassion, courage, or humility. We were designed to live in a multifaceted world full of wonderfully unique people who hold diverse opinions, and I want my children to experience the horizon-expanding beauty of this design instead of hiding from it in fear.

Beyond the fact that I would be a terrible homeschool teacher (seriously, the worst), I don’t actually want to be the only adult my girls look up to or learn from. I don’t agree with everything that their teachers and Sunday School leaders and even relatives tell them, but those differences in opinion have a way of sparking great conversations with the girls, conversations we wouldn’t get to have if they were getting a single-minded stream of information from me. Besides, facts aren’t everything. The girls also get love from the “outsiders” in our lives, and part of the joy of their return to school this year was in their reunion with much-beloved teachers and classmates.

How could I be afraid of that, I ask?

First grade done

(I can’t.)

21Aug

Metaphorically Brave

Even my coffee cup is dripping sweat. It’s a wool-heavy 97° in the shade, and the entire tray of ice cubes I plinked into my espresso have melted away. I see metaphor in this, but my four-year-old has started teetering out of her bedroom each day with a cheery “Good morning, I’m MELTING, can you put extra ice in my coffee?” so perhaps it’s time I found a new metaphor.

This coffee cup was a gift earlier this year from a soul sister who instinctively knows my brainwaves and heartbeats, and the message she painted on it could be my motto for the year if I could come to accept the poetry of it beneath the film of sweat. See, this prompt to muse, awake, and do brave things has taken on a very practical significance over the last couple of months. As the Emerson quote goes, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory,” but there is no such thing as a mere ounce of action when two work-from-home parents start pulling together a side business from scratch.

Rather, there is 1 a.m. and then 2 a.m. and then 3 a.m. for the fourteenth night in a row. There are heads pressed against desks, and it could be frustration or it could be prayer or it might just be good old-fashioned exhaustion. There is a mind-numbing amount of research, more study than I ever put into university midterms (and that was pre-motherhood!). There are a dozen moments in any given day when I catch myself reading over legal fine-print or double-checking prices or wading through PHP with a child hanging off each arm and think Who am I kidding?

Bootstrapping is like training for a marathon while you’re running it. It’s ridiculous and exhilarating and as emotional stabilizing as Tourette’s. It’s an enthusiastic brainstorm one moment followed by an overwhelmed slump the next, and hope has to take over in the absence of any guarantees. I know that some of you have gone through this too, so correct me if I’m wrong, but starting up a side business doesn’t feel brave so much as it feels… well, sweaty. We’re doing it though—ridiculous, spastic hope and all—and despite the exhaustion and constant perspective-swings, it’s been kind of fun. Especially this:

(Did you check out the site? We built it, Dan and I, mostly during late-late nights after our usual work was done and the girls in bed. By the grace of God, it does not appear to include any bleary references to will.i.am interviews or those hallucinatory kids’ shows that air after midnight.)

While we’re rooting on these gorgeous local olive wood sets to provide a new stream of income, I’m most excited to be sharing regular posts about the Italian style of home entertaining that has so influenced the structure of our days. (I rewrote that last sentence several times so it wouldn’t sound like our lives revolve around happy hour, which it doesn’t, except to the extent that we’re building a business around it and taste-testing twenty cocktails in one day, and I should probably stop explaining now.) Part of what we love so much about life here is the priority Italians place on sitting around a table together, investing in relationships and enjoying foods and drinks that are brilliant works of art in themselves, and both Dan and I are looking forward to passing along that tradition through Aperitì.

We slipped out for a two-day getaway at our favorite campground last week, and as I stood with a giddily nervous Sophie-girl at the edge of the pond, I reminded her what I believe about bravery—that it’s doing something even though it scares you. This child, who has never once agreed to enter a body of water deeper than her bikini bottom, dipped her toe in the pond, recoiled several feet, sat down, inched forward, adjusted her collection of floaties, peeked in the water, shut her eyes, opened them, shut them again, and finally, breathlessly, plunged in. I suppose that’s not too different from my own mental process this summer, and even though it might sound overly dramatic to call opening a small online store and accompanying blog brave, this might be just the new metaphor I need.

Brave

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