Monday, December 11, 2017

Viaggare e memoria / Travel and Memory

Snap. A frame.

Snap. A memory.

Snap, snap, snap.

Last week I returned to the US for a week of work in Chapel Hill, at our annual all-hands meeting with Terra Dotta. Jason and I are now in our sophomore year of EU living, which both of us have remarked is a first for us - to have done the heavy lifting and hard work of settling and adjusting, and then getting to build on it rather than dismantle the whole apparatus and head home. I've done that more times than I can count. Jason too. To be in the second year means my perspective lengthens and deepens, and in other ways, flattens out.

My trip from Florence to Raleigh was smooth, the kind of long, international, complicated travel day that, when it actually pulls off without a hitch, makes me feel like laughing maniacally. The maniacal laughter is quickly replaced by a bizarre assumption that "It can always be this easy" in complete contradiction to my jetway feelings of relief and "I cannot believe that it was this easy." This is probably just travel mania talking.

In what ways was it smooth? Let me count them for you:
  • Easy sunrise departure from FLR
  • Quick turnaround in Paris CDG
  • Competent French de-icing despite falling temperatures and precipitation
  • On-time departure
  • Nice row mates
  • No bumps on way to NC
  • Made many friends in flight and in various airport lounges
  • Bag arrived in NC
  • Raleigh customs and immigration amusingly tranquil compared to ORD, LAX, HOU
Yayyy! That was sooo easy! I'm laughing!


CDG, so civilized. Not that I can afford it.
My week in Chapel Hill was good - good colleagues, good friends, got work done. It was socked in, weather-wise, for most of the week, which meant I was getting barely any sunlight to help my clock reset. This resulted in some wicked jetlag every night except my first. The first night of sleep is often glorious because the travel body is exhausted. Vengeance comes on night two, and beyond. 

I woke up at 3:15 or 3:30 a.m. every day, just wishing for a Carolina henhouse or pigsty to start working on. That is truly a farm hour. I laid in bed, thinking, now? now? wondering when sleep might return.

But it never did, and so my mornings actually began before 4 am every day, which made East coast afternoons long indeed. I tried to buck up and rely on my native energy source, which is unique and unpatentable, but without sleep - I am grumpy. Grum-peh. It felt a bit like newborn times again, but without the baby, and being much cleaner this time as I wasn't wearing a t-shirt soaked with souring breastmilk and whimpering as I tried to catch a sleep wave.

We stayed in the Siena Hotel, which comes close to being a little piece of Tuscany right on Franklin Street. Marble everywhere, tasteful black and white photos of the Val d'Orcia, palio flags (all fourteen of them, I counted) in the portico, beautiful rooms. Weirdly, hot chocolate every day in reception instead of just water with lemon, or a tea table. The waiter in the hotel restaurant, of course called Il Palio, repeatedly offered to mail an Italian panettone to me, even after I tried to make clear that I lived in Italy, in Tuscany, where the small pyramid of wrapped and ribboned pannetone originated. Please do not re-export the pannetone to me, I can get a fresh one at home ASAP!

Androne, Siena Hotel
Fatigue aside, here is what I culturally noticed in the US:
  • People, whoa. So friendly.
  • Everyone speaks English
  • Spanish is everywhere! Yes, that adorably accented Italian that is so easy for me to understand. We went to Los Cerritos close to the office, twice, for lunch, and my heart did a little flip listening to the staff talk amongst themselves, making me miss all my old clients at Catholic Charities OKC Immigration Assistance program. Also, much futbol on the enormous TV that featured Mondo Deportivo, subtitulado en castellano. 
  • WOW big houses
  • WOW major Christmas light madness, animations and life size Santas, why/how do we do this?
  • Traffic. This traffic sucks. Why do we all want to be in this traffic all the time in the US? Intersections the size of basketball courts, or bigger.
  • Sales associates in Walgreen's bordering on obsequious, making me feel suspicious and Italian, like "what do you want why are you talking to me so much in this context"
  • Wow, these toys in Walgreen's are so inexpensive, I am going to buy a bunch
  • FOOD. Greek, Mexican, Asian fusion, tastebuds so happy
  • What is with the ice? Excessive ice in all drinks. Even when I begged for water, no ice, I was passive-aggressively served a giant cup with 80 ice cubes in it. 
  • WHY is the a/c on in the hotel in December, are they trying to kill us? Is the hot chocolate a survival strategy?
  • Could not even handle the nonstop news on the lobby TV. Sound was off but still felt affronted by continuous insane news in US.
By Thursday the weather forecast in Raleigh had tanked. Winter mix with sleet, snow, and freezing rain was predicted for Friday afternoon. My flight was not until 6 pm. There was no earlier flight to get on; I was determined to stay on my sweet ticket that had me home to Firenze with one connection in Paris. Some of my colleagues rushed to amend their flights. The forecast changed and changed; now warmer, now colder. I decided to take my chances. I didn't really have an option anyway.

Friday morning was wet, grey, and cold, and as predicted, the rain began to freeze. Then ice pellets, then sleet. My colleague Mike and I agreed to get a taxi to the airport to arrive 4 hours ahead of departure, just as soon as I got a chimichanga lunch special with guacamole and a side of beans and rice at Los Cerritos.

The airport was a zoo. Huge, wet snowflakes zipped heavily down from low clouds. Visibility was low. Mike got checked in quickly, but I was directed to stand in a line marked Special, Special Services. Not kidding, Special Special. Super Special.
Pain, pain, pain.

I don't want to narrate the ensuing grief here - who needs the retraumatization. I'll bullet.
  • Major snowstorm in progress from NJ to ATL to Houston. ATL was pretty much shut down, and the ripple effect quickly became tsunami-level.
  • 3 hours to check in at the Special Special Services desk. No managing agent in sight. 
  • Rebooking passengers were in same line as people who just needed a boarding pass and a bag drop, like me. (Delta website would not allow me to print a boarding pass for an international flight.)
  • After about 90 minutes of this, I started managing the line by going down and talking to everyone since no Delta employee was anywhere to you know, manage things. "Who's rebooking? Who's printing and dropping? What about these two moms with very little kids, one sick one not but come ON people, let them go up front." 
  • The mom with the sick baby was a very appreciative Italian woman, so that was good karma.
  • Super grumpy and annoying older German man gave me a run for my realist/optimist money. How wonderful he was on my same flight. And I saw him in Paris. "Don't you have some other country to get to," I grumbled.
  • Managed almost uncontrolled crowd situation as Danish backpacker attempted to jump the line we'd all been standing in for 3 hours. An African-American man from Atlanta praised my diplomacy. "That was good," he said, giving me a nod. "About as nice a no as he coulda expected."
  • I called Delta 1-800 for help and was on hold for an hour. Never talked to anyone, but got the shit marketed out of me with their on-hold messages.
  • Never saw an agent other than the one I got to see after 3 hours to print my boarding pass.
  • The snow stopped.
  • My check-in process took about three minutes (rebooks were taking 30-60 each). As I ran away from Purgatory, fist-bumping the air like Rocky, I yelled "Yay!" then gave an eye roll that might have blinded a lesser eye-roller, and groaned "Gahhh!" with my most annoyed dry gargle. The crowd laughed. For a brief moment I felt like Amy Poehler. Then I remembered I had a flight to catch.
  • There's Germany, behind me talking and grousing in the security line. I start avoiding eye contact.
  • 30 mins to get through security.
  • As I got to my gate, I was notified my connection had been cancelled. No word on my rebooking in Paris.
  • Plane stuffed full of grumpy people.
  • Clueless flight attendants. ("I have a lot of people not here!" she cried, holding a fistful of vegetarian meal stickers. "Where is everyone?" "In the airport," I snapped. "Oh, in security?" "No," I said. "At the Delta check-in area.")
  • Seated in 28B between an Indian grad student and a Brahmin princess who made clear she did not love flying in economy
  • 7 hour flight featured 4 hours of heavy chop. Dinner could not be served. Stuff was flying everywhere. No one could sleep.
  • Lost my headphones.
  • Upon landing in CDG I am notified that I am rebooked for a new connecting flight ... in nine hours.
  • Kill 9h in CDG. Meet everyone in concourse 2F. 
  • Get a chair massage and mani to make up for stress in RDU and in-flight. French immersion is fun, especially when project-oriented.
Jason loaded the kids in the car and came to get me at the Florence airport. Eleanor was asleep. Victor was shy and freaked out.

The return trip was the sort of travel that makes me think, travel is the WORST I am never travelling ever AGAIN but damn my nails look good.

Regular manicure in Paris, so I like to think of this as the vrai French mani.
But that's confusing.
Not sure when I am flying again to the US. I am trying to not think about it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

La mia voce / My voice

A storm blew through last night and early this morning, pulling cold air behind it, stripping the trees of their fall color, now plastered in a solid sheet over stones and pavement. The Firenze marathon ran today, in the worst of it. I shuddered to consider the cervicale they were all actively acquiring while running in the cold, heavy rain.

Gloomy staircase in our palazzo this afternoon
gave no hint of the blue sky outside.
Jason took a phone call regarding a student whose medical crisis was first said to be "an organ infection," then clarified as varicella - chickenpox, for which Italy does not vaccinate as in the U.S. Fortunately almost all Gonzaga's 175 students are on an extended Euro trip thanks to the Thanksgiving weekend, thereby limiting exposure in their close quarters on Via Giorgio La Pira.

I've been on hiatus to battle and recuperate from what was anecdotally diagnosed by Gonzaga's private doctor (after hearing details from Jason as to the symptoms) that Eleanor and I suffered as "un virus parafluenzale." I normally require a solid writing download of 1200 words every three days or so to stay sane; in the fevered dreams, body ache, and recurrent nosebleeds (!) of this particular virus parafluenzale, as well as vomiting children and a husband teetering on the brink himself, I was barely tracking days, much less creative output.

The inward turning afforded by the European autumn always puts me back in the mind of autumns before, when I was younger, and much given to solitary, broody journaling while living abroad or traveling through parts less familiar. I think of all the journals I filled with my traveling and expat thoughts at 19, 21, 22 - I still have them all, but not here. They are in storage in Spokane - and how internal that voice was. It was also the early and mid-nineties. People were just starting to freak out about 'zines. The internet was unknown. Jason and I often muse on how we, as GenXers of a certain age, were the last to study and travel abroad with the complete air gap afforded by snail mail and prohibitively expensive phone calls. How we read paper books and wrote paper letters and rationed our words in phone calls as we watched the clock tick minutes by.

Spain? I may as well have gone to Mars that year. My journal reflected that, as though it were a ship's log ("Spain: 1993"). I remember I did photocopy a slew of paper letters I had sent back to the US from Santiago, as they filled in the gaps in my experiential narrative, and I had friends willing to lend them back to me for the purpose.

France? I was slightly more connected, two years later; that was the first year I had an email account, but I was required to reserve ahead my time in their computer lab in the basement of l'USHS in Strasbourg, with its huge, Legoesque monitors, where I would compose and hit send on emails that were easily thousands of words in length. I had saved all those emails on 3.5" floppy disks for years, but only recently jettisoned them, before we moved back to Italy last year. I figured there was no way to get the data off of them. Probably a mistake. Fortunately, my written record is rich in detail, and barely misses a day or a phase.

Part of the reason I wrote so much then was that I was often lonely and unaccompanied, simultaneously isolated if gently socialized, and I found comfort in the pen and the page. I was also addressing and processing all that I encountered, building my database of continental understanding that continues to serve me well to this day.

It is true that Europe no longer feels foreign to me. The last year that was the case was probably 1996. For all the years after, from 2001 on, each trip accrued a greater familiarity and understanding with Italian culture and sensibility in particular. We said it felt like our backyard, that Europe was no longer strange to us: the outlets and plugs, the funny bathrooms and bidets, the long door handles. The cigarettes and train schedules, the air kissing and meals, hanging laundry to dry, paying first for your espresso and showing your scontrino to the barista before they serve you, unless you were in your regular bar. The expressionless bus drivers, the toddlers dressed in tufted down in cold months. The grocery stores with their plastic gloves and weigh stations that looked like giant calculators. The patient process of making friends, of credentialing our cultural calling cards.

The downside of having written so much in the nineties as a young person living in Europe is just that - it's all handwritten, in journals locked away in storage. I read one of them not long ago, a journal for Strasbourg's wet, dark spring, and a chronicle in particular of a lunch at the restau-U close to Gallia that described the effect on my appetite of being confronted by reconstituted carrot balls floating in cream sauce. Who was that person? I'd be her friend now, if I came across her.

On the upside, I have it somewhere.

On another upside (how many sides to this coin are there?), that I have the written record at all is a boon. Both its representation, my refashioning of it, the formative chapters and those memories that continue to this day as reference points for me, by turns reassuring and startling.

I don't journal by hand much anymore. If I do, it is one of my rare long flights on my own without kids. I take a lot of notes, on things I see and hear, and topics to treat here, in the blog. I have at least 25 in a list right now. I actually prefer the idea of an audience that receives my writing, rather than locking it away in a journal for myself to further spiral into lonely moping, then borne aloft by amused cultural observations.

I might have posted publicly twenty years ago. In any case, then as now, even when I am not writing, I am writing in my mind; I see, and hear, and remember. It's just a matter of staking out the time to write it, to tune into that channel and listen for an hour or so. I'm less self-conscious now than I was then - the sharing triggers far less angst than it did. That's either normal, or I'm lucky. I vote the latter, because everyone likes to be lucky.

I often review my list of writing topics, and prep myself by mulling over topic A, only to switch horses capriciously to topic B once I get my sixty minutes alone for the discrete analog upload.

I had a lot I was going to write about here today regarding Thanksgiving, and being far from the U.S., and our alternative Thanksgiving activities. We took the train to Turin with Flavia and spent two days there, fanning my creative flames again. A minor and short change of scenery is always welcome in this world, especially when the hotel room is huge, nice, and comped (thank you Jason), babysitter is on scene (grazie Flavia), and local guide is knowledgeable and affable (grazie Federico).

I've found my voice in the last eighteen months. The writing is on fire like never before. I simply need to sit down and it's off to the races, never wondering about path or word choice or narrative line. I'm an intuitive writer, and when unblocked - which has been a continuous state for me since May 2016 - it flows, and flows. To tell a story or paint a scene is like walking a path, or mowing a lawn. There is no hem or haw - just forward, and onward, driven to the end, reveling in illustration.

I can cover Turin soon, in another 1200 words or so. Or another of my two dozen topics in mental draft should I hop horses again midstream. For the moment, thanks to everyone who is reading, and for joining me for an hour of Sunday Afternoon in Europe: Meditations.

And thank you Eleanor for falling asleep in the granny cart on the way home from Carrefour so that I could, incredibly for a Sunday, sneak in this makeup writing session. She's still in the cart, top flap open, horizontal on the bed, and snoring softly.

Minutes before she fell asleep getting rolled around town in this thing.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Italy: Caretaking Culture / La Cultura portierata

Any parent of children under five will tell you that it's a long game when it comes to family health. You cannot lose hope, or good cheer, as a barrage of microbes and viruses slam repeatedly into your herd immunity. Even as parents fight off germs, washing hands, wiping down surfaces, sanitizing grubby mitts, imploring children to not lick the floor/soccerball/bottoms of their shoes, the germs will win. Not for good, but they'll have a winning season.

In our family, last week was the only week since Labor Day that no one was sick. Truth.

We attended a birthday party on Saturday straight out of the Florentine Playbook (Saturday, 4:00 p.m., Mondo Bimbo with at least 8 other birthday parties in process.) We laugh and call it Microbo Bimbo, because the place is crawling with germs. It reminds me of that indoor play area at Sooner Fashion Mall that was practically gleaming with saliva and snot. A key difference is that all the games and areas each seem to cost a different kind of token/cash/punch card/bracelet. I counted at least 5 payment methods. This led me to wonder as to their business model, and were all these games/areas independently contracted? It seemed so, but I couldn't wonder it for very long, as the noise level ratcheted up and I was trying to visually track our two sprites.

Bouncy castle, independently contracted, germs included. 
Victor and Eleanor both enjoyed the trampolines/bouncy areas/games for a couple of hours, until Jason and I folded because we were starving and the ambient noise level was akin to a Billy Idol concert and there was not a glass of wine to be found. Victor succumbed to parental entreaties well before Eleanor, and sat glumly on a chair while we watched her zoom around the cage surrounding the ball pit like a hopped-up hamster in a giant Habitrail (TM).

I finally set my jaw, looked at Jason, and said, "I'm going in." I am always the default choice for this due to my size.

I removed my shoes and crawled into the maze. The floor was uneven and broken underneath the vinyl. I made my way to the ball pit, which Eleanor was swimming in, shouting "piscina, piscina!"
I looked at the pit. There was no other way. I waded in.

The other little kids stopped throwing their balls looked at me in shock a I half-swam through the tiny plastic balls to her, grabbed her firmly by the waist as though a lifeguard, and sidestroked my way back to the vinyl-covered diving platform. I hauled her out of the Habitrail (TM) kicking and crying.
Exhausted and dismissive of the many grandma tickets that might be written in public for us, we carried her without shoes or coat on back to the car to motor home.

By midnight she was hot and crying for reasons other than ball-pit extraction. It seemed like a short incubation to us, but it's anyone's guess what forms of superbugs are bred in Mondo Bimbo.

By Sunday night she was miserable. She did not go to school on Monday, and by Monday night was in such poor shape that we called a private pediatrician for a house call. The doctor, a kindly woman about sixty, with white hair roots and smudged glasses, diagnosed an ear infection, wrote a prescription, and left.

I saw my week crater under the schedule shuffling to accommodate a child home from school. With an ear infection and a cough, as temperatures plunged. Our regular help is unable to extend her hours into the mornings. This ad hoc arranging often requires multiple text messages and communications. Still, all told, I have given up hours this week to be at home with Eleanor while she gets over this. Which of course I am happy to do.

Amusingly, Eleanor and I are alike in that we both go crazy when cooped up at home. By Tuesday evening, she insisted she was ready to go to school and "see my friends." Yeah, me too, kid.

We are a small family hub in Firenze, our nuclear family. We do not have the extended family network enjoyed by lucky Italians, who can call on retired parents, adult siblings, adolescent nieces and nephews, and their network of verified babysitters, to assist when the smallest among their clan are down with illness, or even sadness. Every hour of help we get in our home is paid for, always. We are fortunate that we can pay for it - indeed, were we unable to do so, we would not be here. Or I would not be continuing in my professional career. Or writing, as here and now, ever. I often fantasize about what it would be like to have nonni a stone's throw away, who would take the children to the park for an hour or two, or a sixteen-year-old niece whom I trusted to play with them while I ran a couple errands.

Italy is a caretaking culture by nature. There is something so sweet, and nurturing, in the Italian impulse. Children who are raised in loving homes by patient parents will grow up to be adults who see a small/younger/weaker being in need, and will instantly want to help it. There is a village approach here that we have lost in many places in America, if we ever had it at all.

I observe many interactions in public and at parks, and here present the anecdotal results of my informal research:

"Italy: Who's Taking Care of You?" 

Babies: Every single other Italian around within earshot, until about age four, including tiny Italians aged 2-4 who independently qualify for unsolicited public aid and personal assistance.

Bambini aged 4-12: Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers, parents of friends, bakers, baristas

Teens: Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends

Young adults: Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, professors, girlfriends/boyfriends

Adults without kids: Parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, spouses, friends

Adults with kids: Parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, teachers, babysitters, sometimes tate (nannies and cooks and laundry and cleaning), friends

Middle-aged adults: Parents, children, siblings, cousins, friends

Retired adults: Children, siblings, grandparents, cousins, friends, badanti (elder aides)

Afterlife: the spirits of all your ancestors, friends, and the Holy Trinity

The network is well-distributed, meaning everyone gets about as much as they give, according to their age, station, and relative health. The network really focuses on clothing and nutrition. And the reinforcing effect is to know that your community is a safety net of both goodwill and good health.



A note about Italians with disabilities: every day I see dozens of small vans, lettered to advertise their public funding, as they drive around town picking up and dropping off people with varying needs, in wheelchairs, developmental disabilities, older people who need a ride, and more. I think it is public transportation for those who are unable to ride the bus. It is very civil. I see the drivers and helpers attending to people who are alighting or disembarking the van.

A note here too about Italians who are caretakers of children and adults with disabilities: I know a bit about this, first, because of the kids' school, and secondly, through my involvement with St. James' Episcopal Church.

As to the former, one of Victor's classmates is on the spectrum. She does not talk. In addition to the anecdotally-observed support network outlined above, Sofia has an insegnate di sostegno (support teacher) who accompanies her in every hour of the school day, so she can be with her friends and mainstreamed with them. Sofia has a clipped bob haircut and huge brown eyes. She is thoughtful, and quiet. She gets upset if relative mayhem erupts. The loving way that Victor talks about her honestly brings tears to my eyes ("Sofia is our friend who does not talk. But she really, really likes tarallini [the small doughnut crackers kids tend to eat by the handful].") I had no experience like that as a child; in the US, Special Education classes are held apart from all the other kids. The insegnante is named Daniela and is supremely professional - well-educated, mature, articulate, and highly trained. She is also hired and paid for (as best as I understand it) from the national health system. If your child qualifies for an insegnate di sostegno, s/he will have one, and it won't wreck your family, or you personally. When I find out more about this, I will share, because it seems so fair, and civilized, and unlike the culture we lived in for the last twelve years prior to moving to Italy.

And, as to the latter group, Italians who are caretakers of adults with disabilities: a woman who attends St. James in town has an adult son about my age who is developmentally disabled. There is a not-for-profit in the area that provides professional respite care for the adult child, while the caretaking parent stays on the premises, possibly being able to, for example, take a rest, read a book, and not think about their routine and all-encompassing responsibilities for at least a bit. I know that this caretaking parent spent a week or two at the casa di vacanze. She cried when she talked about it one Sunday in announcements.

In America, we say it takes a village, and Hillary Clinton wrote that kids' book about it back in the nineties. But I know from experience, and see from afar, how American culture has evolved and, in some ways, contorted, so that public policy assumes little responsibility for this type of caretaking. Families and communities have fragmented in the US, if indeed they were ever cohesive, as long-distance moves for education or work determine our pop-up communities. In other corners of our culture, the village ethos exists, but largely to care for those in the in-group. In still other corners, there is little impetus to to take care of anyone other than one's own good self. What strikes me about Italy is how no one expects recognition or reward for such caretaking, and certainly not a highlight spot in the evening news.

It just is what is done. You see the need, you meet the need. You wouldn't dream of doing otherwise.

Image result for it takes a village

Friday, November 10, 2017

Firenze: Il Compleanno d'Iris / Iris's Birthday Party

"Come on," Iris said. "We're having cake in five minutes. In front."

I was sitting in the grand salon of the language school where I have rented office space for over a year - the Sprachcaffe. The classes did not conclude until two, so a room would not be vacant for me to work in for at least twenty more minutes. My favorite is the Aula Gialla, with its French doors and balcony and view of the perpetual bustle down on Piazza della Repubblica.

View from my office.
"I have a meeting at two," I said.
"Just come!" she said impatiently.
I went and checked on the status of the party.
I asked Lara the Russian if we were doing it.
"Doing what?" she responded.
"The cake," I said. She looked at me in minor confusion. Maybe they'd already had the cake ...
Anca the Romanian scurried through the salotto.
"Come on, we're having the cake!"

My two o'clock meeting was not available and went straight to voicemail, so I went to the front office. The office birthday party is a well-known trope in America, and exists also in Italy. My rented office space brings the additional bonus of casual colleagues who greet me each day as I come in, and wish me a happy evening as I leave. From time to time they come to tell me their minor work woes, or some personal story. They brought me treats on my birthday this year, to the Aula Gialla, in the form of chocolate and a tumbler of red wine. They also invite me to staff events such as evening dinners (haven't been yet) and happy hour (went once or twice), and on this day, a birthday.

You may recall Iris from a post last year, when she offered succor and political comfort on the Black Week after the 2016 elections. Today she was celebrating a milestone birthday.
"Also, I am a Scorpio," she reminded me, which was funny, because she has told me that now at least half a dozen times, and each time she drills me with a death stare.

A large and impressive millefoglie graced the countertop of the reception office, layered with cream pudding, sprinkled with powered sugar, and crowned with an edible flying saucer of significant size, made of white chocolate ganache that said, "Auguroni Iris." As would happen in a US office, Iris was cutting the cake, which puffed and dropped not a little powdered sugar and buttery flakes, and placing generous wedges into white paper napkins.


Millefoglie
A note here about cake. Festive cake in Italy almost always means millefoglie and custard; the sponge cakes we bake in the US, and which I know also from the UK, are almost unknown here, except in the form of what they call plum cakes. Even in Italian, they are called plum cakes.

In our house we consume about 15 palm-sized plum cakes a week. There is no plum in the cake, unless it is an amusing direct loan from "plumb cake" - perhaps meaning "just cake." It is a moist vanilla cake, eaten by all of us at all hours. We might go through 20 a week, actually.
I remember a conversation in Arezzo with Massimo at Bar Stefano, years back when I learned there were, in fact, no plums in plum cake.
"Then why do you call it plum cake?" I asked him.
He wiped his hands on his black apron. "No idea, it's just cake."
That was when I thought maybe it was "plumb" meaning "just." Etymologies on the fly are my specialty. I once taught a houseful of Spaniards how to say "plumb tuckered out," and was so sick of hearing it after a few months that I deeply regretted my "Hee Haw"-flavored linguistic caprice.

I do miss the Anglo/American sponge cake format. Every now and then I want a chocolate layer with chocolate buttercream frosting, or a white or yellow cake with coconut frosting. I will never find these pastries here.

Sree made us a huge plum cake for Eleanor's birthday, in a round pan. There were chocolate chips on top. It was gorgeous and delicious but so big I had to give a sizeable chunk of it to Cassidy the artist downstairs. The day I came home from work and she was baking it, on Eleanor's birthday, it smelled so good I could have cried.

I spied a wax 6 and 0 in a plastic cup.
"Oh, e un compleanno importante!" I exclaimed. It's a milestone birthday. Iris blushed through her perma-tan. As most Italian women do, she looks great for her years.

Small plastic spoons were on hand, but everyone gave them a pass as we ate the millefoglie standing in a loose group in front of the front reception desk. The millefoglie was superb, from our friends downstairs and across the street at Pazskowski, which I have often written about and Instagrammed as my home away from home. It did not disappoint.

Lara uncorked a bottle with a pop.
"Opa," I shouted, because I cannot help it when I hear that sound. The Italians chuckled.
It was a bottle of Lambrusco, which until now I have associated with hot summer dinner outside in Mantova, the fizzy chilled red wine the best antidote to stone-soaked heat.
All the Italians thought this was a very interesting choice of libation, The go-to option here would have been prosecco with the millefoglie.

In the US, we would have had a two-liter of Pepsi, or orange juice. Absolutely no alcohol in the workplace. Campus rules.

A young Italian woman whom I did not recognize, and who had arrived late, seemed to have choked up. "Oh! It's Lambrusco!"
We all looked at her. I was evidently not the only one who did not know her.
"I'm from Modena," she explained. "Even just seeing a bottle of Lambrusco makes me miss home."

Italians often greet edible regional specialities with this type of nostalgia. I have seen it more times than I can count. A cheese, a sausage, a wine, a pastry are produced in group or at a meal, and it's like a family reunion if they are consuming it outside of the territorial boundaries. I have especially amusing memories of our friend Alessio from Sardegna misting up when in the company of bootleg mirtillo sardo in a plastic Levissima bottle, or a hard pressed horn of bottarga (salted fish roe), or a line of identical small fileted sea bass destined for the grill one Easter in Oklahoma.

We all lifted our generous pours of Lambrusco, and toasted Iris's good health and continuing years. One of the older teachers asked for a second piece of millefoglie, saying with a wink he had been unable to conclusively ascertain its quality with the initial piece.

I took the rest of my Lambrusco back to the table where I was working, and where a number of instant messages and emails awaited me, mostly notifications that my two o'clock was now ready to meet.

Ah, the soft sound of sweet culture clash.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Firenze: Piumino Nuovo / New Down Coat

The seasons are turning at this latitude. Fall has set in, and thankfully it is not as drenched a fall as last year, when we were plunged into a dark and rainy night that lasted for weeks. The summer heat this year thoughtfully retired on the Friday before Labor Day.We had a superb stretch of sunny crisp days, blue sky. The leaves actually changed color rather than just being blown from the trees. I can't stop taking pictures.

Along with seasonal changes comes the cambio di stagione, which Italians take very seriously. To every season there is a wardrobe. American and German tourists are so easy to spot right now in town because they are still wearing t-shirts, shorts, and flimsy summer dresses as though they had all just deplaned on Ibiza or Corfu. Sandals. Sandals, people. It has been 43 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course) and raining off and on for days now. We are currently in a clear sun break, which I will enjoy, as the light disappears around 4:30 pm. I see it all transition from behind the tall vertical windows of the French doors in my rented palazzo where I work. On rainy days, that daylight is gone by 4 pm, even from the suntrap that is Piazza della Repubblica.
Autumn skies over Repubblica
Our morning transportation from the apartment to school is moving from bike to bus - but slowly, because the kids both love riding on the backs of our bikes. Eleanor and I had an unpleasantly crushed morning on the 6B to Piazza San Marco this week.

If the kids would bundle up more, we might be able to prolong their bike commuter chapter. Victor does alright; he will wear a jacket, a piumino (down-filled coat) and a scarf. Eleanor, on the other hand... I'll just say that we are working on educating her about layers, I finally found a pair of sparkly red fingerless gloves that she likes (now if we could just keep track of them and reliably use them), and for our Lady Eleanor, a scarf is anathema. You might as well ask her to wear a noose.

Yesterday I broke out my wool cashmere peacoat (purchased at market last year for twenty-five euros, and altered on Via Niccolini at the Chinese tailor).  It's a good coat, but requires a serious cashmere sweater layer or two underneath. No kidding.

My long red down coat (purchased last year at Zona Blu, a local outlet) had seen a tiny bit of action already, but it tends to drop tiny feathers on everything, which makes it an unfortunate choice if I am wearing anything other than white weave (which is never, because who can keep up on that kind of laundry here.) It's too bad, because I love it. But it is not well-designed for the coldest of rainy windy days, because it only snaps in front. The wind quickly finds its way in.

My standard go-to piumino which I purchased in Arezzo in 2012 from the lovely little boutique Tesoro di San Michele, run by my friend Teresa, has seen its last winter. Teresa is a petite Italian artist who now makes people look good. The year she dressed me was probably the most fashionable year of my life. Her eye for color and design were superb. She found the piumino for me, and I wore it like a cocoon for years. But now the zipper pull is broken. The snaps have popped off in at least two places. I love the fur-lined hood, but, let's face it, it's probably from a husky/retriever mix bred on a dog farm in China for its pelt, so... that's not cool. Plus, it is just the wrong length for bike riding now - an issue I was not aware of in the hilly town of Arezzo, where I never biked. I didn't even own a bike that year. Here I am typically on my bike 4-6 times per day, and the coat is just long enough that it gets caught on the back end of my bike seat, causing any number of near collisions and wrecks.

So warm. I will miss this cocoon.
Note my red piumino on hook behind me.
Jason's piumino next to it.
I was literally in the market for a new piumino.

I headed this morning to the Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, and locked up my bike, heading straight to the clothing. I quickly identified a few different piumini I liked. I tried one on. The woman said it was bello, but I disagreed. The extra zipper around the hood made me look as though I was peering from out of the jaws of a crocodile. It was cheap. It looked like I might be selling tissues and umbrellas soon under the arcades of Piazza della Repubblica.

Next. A maroon coat with a belt that I was unable to either fasten or remove due to its special magnetic clip. Its general effect was to make me look as though I had just eaten my way through a week of Thanksgivings. It had a very Finnish/Russian vibe, kind of like a pirakka pastry stuffed into a down coat.

"Go to the mirror, look at it on!" the woman called.
I went to the mirror. An older Italian woman was turning to see from all sides a coat she had on.
"Posso?" I asked.
She grumbled and took a half step to the left.
Yeah, this coat was totally not working for me.

Why is every size in Italy L or XL or more? They say a medium is a small. I almost never see a small, except in the clothes that I bought from Teresa in Arezzo. Seriously, there are never any smalls. The open market seems to be driven by a lack of size indicators, forcing casual shoppers to "just try things on for size," thereby opening the floor for a general chorus of, "fits great! Bello! Buy it!"

Yeah, I got my new piu.mi.no.


I spied a more fun coat hanging from the ceiling bar. "What's that?" I asked.
"It's sixty euros," she said.
"Can you get it down for me?"
It was dark purple, padded, with an amusing Dr. Seuss-esque fur lining.
She called her husband over, who came with a merchandise crook. He lifted it down.
"Is it small?" I asked.
"Does it look small to you?" she responded.
Sigh. I'll just ... try it on.
"Reversibile!" she said.
"Two-faced," her husband said.
I did not even bother explaining double-sided, or his unfortunate faux ami in translation.
I tried it on. Is it possible for a down coat to make one feel twenty years younger, without looking ridiculous?
In Italy, yes. The effect is mandatory.
"Your Italian is good," the woman said.
"Grazie, io provo!" I laughed. Thanks, I am trying.
She explained that her daughter lives in Buffalo with her husband and children.
I said that the winters there were serious, no joke. Good thing the lady was in the piumino business so she could send them some extra coats to combat Lake Effect.
She looked at me curiously.
Did she really have a daughter in Buffalo, and had that daughter really never mentioned winter?
"No zipper!" the husband called. "Snaps! Without snaps, it's not two-faced!"
"I'll take it," I said.
"Sesanta," she said. I did not even bargain. I bet they would have given it to me for 50.
I pulled out a fifty euro note and a five and a ten. I handed her all of them. My fingers were cold.
She handed the five euro note back, saying, too much!
"You're so honest," I said.
"Ma dai!" she protested. "Figurati." Go figure, of course, forget it.
"We live around here, we're here all the time."
"Good!" she said, "I'm here all the time too!"
She was petite, about 70. She had a long down coat on - to her knees.
"I like your coat," I said. "I like the longer ones too."
She beamed. "Me too!"
I walked out of the market humming a tune that I realized was "New Position" by Prince and the Revolution, but I was thinking "New Piumino." (This link to a cover is the only complete version I could find.)
Two-faced!
Now, I look like a stuffed animal.
I think I will keep the fur side in.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Firenze: The Australian Grandmother / La Nonna Australiana

The tourist season in Firenze is unceasing. They come at every level of expertise and familiarity with Italian and Florentine culture.

I provide below a brief breakdown of tourist type and level. I have my French class to thank for this, as it is simultaneously reeducating my sentiments while it organizes my thoughts along more reliable Cartesian lines.

Low: Large groups of day trippers disgorged by the huge cruise ships in Livorno and Pisa come to Firenze on coaches to see the city in a day.

Huge masses of Chinese tourists, guided in Mandarin, shopping in stores where the sales associates speak Mandarin, eating in private restaurants off a Chinese menu. This group is solid, voluminous tourism, year round, even when the days grow impossibly short for sightseeing, the clouds are dark and heavy with rain, the uneven flagstones of the piazze in Santa Croce and Santissima Annunziata and Repubblica and the Duomo are filled with long-term puddles the size and depth of fishbowls. (Fetch me my horse and livery at once!)

Doe-eyed student backpackers with that fresh "Hey, I'm in Italy!" glow.

Piazza dell Repubblica after a modest pour of rain.
I need a horse.
Medium: European tourists on weeklong or long weekend jaunts. Germans identifiable by ample Wolfskin Jack accessories, and a general level of wilderness preparedness. French families exclaiming loudly to each other, "ah oui!" "mais non!' A Brit here and there, typically over sixty, with a lockjaw accent reminiscent of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Anglophone tourist returnees.

High: Italian tourists from other parts of the country. Non-Italian EU expats. The American academic crowd whom we frequently see, populated by many who are familiar with Italy and Italian culture, who love it, and often speak Italian.

Our palazzo is partially rented out on numerous websites, the piano nobile in particular, filled as it is with original art, frescoes, and tapestries, evocative of the Risorgimento of the mid- and late-nineteenth century. I am almost positive that the bed linens are vintage, high-thread count sheets that are washed at the hottest setting, lined dried, and ironed in the tiny laundry room across the hall from us on the landing. The piano nobile is almost never vacant.

A retired Australian couple stays in the piano nobile each year for a month, in the fall. They are about 70, and are from Perth, which is the only city of any size and mention that is not on the east coast of Australia. I know this from years of listening to INXS in the eighties. and then backpacking in the nineties around Europe. People from Perth like to travel out of Perth often, and whenever possible.

The woman is handsome, and wearing her years well. Her name is either Dolores or Mary - the one time she told me, she was with a friend of hers, also from Australia, and they had just gotten their hair done together at a salon in town. They both had beautiful silver and white coifs, stylishly done. I told her she looked like Judi Dench. She blushed, and said that she would tell her husband since he was not a fan of her shorter hair. I've never successfully caught the husband's name, but he looks like he just strolled off a gawf course, in his tweed newsboy cap and Members Only jacket.

They have been very kind to us both years, and the grandma fawns over Victor and Eleanor whenever she sees them. It is clear that she misses her own grandchildren when she is here, but also that their annual month in Italy is a standing engagement, never to be delayed or missed. She always remarks on how well-behaved they are, and how she never hears them. (This is how we know she is not Italian. Italians exhort parents to not discipline their children to make less noise because, as I was actually told at a dinner party in Florence as my children chimped around on the chairs and the floor,  "the sound of children is beautiful.")

One morning on a weekend that I was on my own with the kids, we were walking back to our apartment from the edicola on Piazza Sant'Ambrogio where Victor now sources all of his Pokeman acquisitions. Anyone who has tried to walk anywhere recently with a two- or three-year-old and a six-year-old knows that the distance from A to B is a constant variable, complicated by housefly-length attention spans, thirst, and sore legs, as well as quibbling, complaining, comparing, and general random comments. We bumped into the Australian grandma on the sidewalk of Via Josue Carducci.

"Oh!" she said.
Our chorus of American hellos greeted her and her quiet husband. He held what I call the granny cart - a small metal and canvas carello that is indispensable to successful grocery shopping in Firenze. They were on their way to market at Sant'Ambrogio.
The grandma knelt down.
"How are you, young sir?" she asked Victor.
"Fine," he said, looking at me.
"Do you know where I'm from?"
He eyed me again, cautious of inter-adult trickery. I wordlessly shrugged to reassure him that this was not a fix.
"No," he said.
"I'm from Australia! Do you know where that is?"
I was enjoying this. She is really sweet, and that accent is just adorable. She sounds like she was a cast member in "Tea With Mussolini."
"Australia is a huge island! In the ocean, very far south." She beamed. Her hair did look great.
"Oh," Victor said, assimilating this new information.
"And where are you from?" she asked.
Victor thought. No immediate answer seemed to be springing to his mind, but I could hardly blame him, being put on the spot on the sidewalk like that.
"America," I stage whispered. "We're from America."
Victor repeated, "America."
"America!" yelled Eleanor.
"Oh, that's marvelous!" the Australian grandma said. "Very good. And do you know, America and Australia share much in common? Yes! We both speak Anglish, we are very good friends."
She clasped her hands to her chest. "And whatever America does, Australia agrees with, and Australia helps! Australia always wants to do what America does."

WHOA! Political bells started going off. Where were we going with this? Why is she saying THAT? I can think of many, many American decisions that I do not agree with, and I am American. This had a faintly military whiff about it.

Victor's brow furrowed and he looked back at me.

I was not sure what decade it was, or what might come next out of the mouth of Judi Dench. Was it the eighties? Was she going to go Reaganomics on us, or straight-up War on Terrah? Did she have a military discourse at the ready? I felt a sudden need to protect them from pop-up punditry.

This guy, again? Please tell me we're not talking about this guy.
She said it in such a smoothly enthusiastic tone, it was hard to tell her rhetorical angle. In any case, I am not a fan of lockstep agreements of any sort.

Back out back out back out! my inner field marshal cried. Retreat!

"Ok, well, it was great to see you all!" I said, putting my hands on Victor's shoulders and steering him toward the park.

Eleanor started forward. The Australian grandpa grabbed the handle of his carello.

"Have a great time at the market!" I called. The sun was shining on our side of the street, but not the other.

We walked home past the synagogue, heavily guarded at all times by Italian soldiers packing serious heat, with one always present in the bulletproof glass booth that juts out on the sidewalk, and made our way to the swings.

Synagogue side entrance, image courtesy Google Images.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Firenze: Medical Scarves / Sciarpe Mediche

You see them everywhere, in virtually every season except the hottest months. On men, on women, On babies and young schoolboys. Certainly on schoolgirls and ragazze di liceo (high school girls). On toddlers. Definitely on nonni (grandmas and grandpas). They become obligatory accessories here somewhere in late September, and remain so until summer, in June.

I refer to the medical scarf.

Very fashionable, but very safe.
Solid anti-cervicale strategy.
She should pull it a bit tighter, honestly.
Europe is a firm believer in the Power of the Scarf as a health accessory, across the continent. Strangely, I do not remember much scarf-wearing in Santiago, Spain in 1993, but I was a nineteen-year-old Euro neophyte then. My Spanish boyfriend did give me his scarf in our early flirtations, so perhaps he found me scarf deficient. It was roughly woven of wool and mohair, and so was not put on wardrobe rotation, although now that I think about it, it did bear many characteristics of a medieval penitent's hairshirt: scratchy, uncomfortable, punishing.

In Strasbourg, a couple of years later, so ubiquitous were scarves that I used to count them on the bus. As less of a Euro neophyte then, but certainly still a neophyte in many ways, I was not familiar with the Burberry signature plaid pattern, and thought that Strasbourg maintained a civic plan to distribute the beige, red, and black-striped lambswool scarves to all qualifying citizens. The scarves were always neatly wrapped and folded to cover the neck up to the ears and the chin, because of what use is a scarf if only loosely wrapped?

The "Strasbourg scarf," I called it, marveling at its omnipresence, and assuming that such a conformity could only have been locally enforced, because surely people would not choose to all wear the same scarf, unless they were fans at a football (soccer) (calcio) game. I did not become aware of the Burberry brand until a few years later, and pieced together the reason for the popularity of the plaid. I also realized that the Strasbourgeoisie, living very much up to their moniker, had likely paid about two or three hundred dollars each at the time for the scarf.

"Without a scarf, your humours are sure to become unbalanced."
Europe retains many beliefs in quasi-Galenic medical theory that are not part of American culture, unless you happen to have a Jewish or Finnish grandma in the house. (I am ever grateful for the daily relevance of everything I learned in 1993 in "The History of Science in Islam," with Dr. Ragep.) The importance of staying well covered. That no skin should be exposed to the outside elements. That you should never shiver, nor sweat. The goal is to maintain a corporal equilibrium as close to balanced as possible. Vulnerable parts of the the body that are prone to weakness and infection, such as the ears, and especially the throat, must be appropriately cared for and managed at all times in dangerous months (October through May).

Americans may scoff at this, raised to be hardy as we are. I remember times in my life when I stubbornly wore shorts in fifty degree weather, for example, in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, snowy even in July. Now when I see thinly clad tourists in Firenze, walking down Ricasoli or Servi in shorts and a t-shirt, I too have begun to mutter, put some clothes on, you'll get so sick.

Illnesses brought on by insufficient scarf usage could include sinus infection, ear infection, rafreddore (a cold), and the dreaded cervicale, a malady so particular to Italy and France that we do not even seem to contract it in North America even as we sit in 64 degree Fahrenheit air conditioning in an office in October. (France: mal de guele.) Europeans will clutch at their throat as though a sharp knife were held sideways to it, and immediately exclaim that the throat is unable to withstand a draft. Medical doctors will also disseminate this information.

In Arezzo, in 2013, I was advised by my doctor very specifically as to what kind of hat and scarf to use when recovering from an ear and throat infection. I was also reprimanded for lax scarf use. This preventative aspect of national healthcare in Italy is a general consensus. There are things you do, and then things you don't do, if you wish to maintain a baseline level of good health. When Italians advise me on these points, I feel the weight of conviction from reliable, passed-down knowledge of a hundred generations or more.

Arezzo, 2012.
Even when indoors, a cashmere scarf at the ready for a quick bundle.
Florentines love nothing more than the cambio di stagione that signals to them it is now fair game to bring out the scarves and piumini (down coats). In truth I have seen them wearing piumini in late summer, on mornings that dropped into the sixties.

Now that it is October, we are in full sciarpe and piumini season. Scarves are wound, tightly and voluminously, around vulnerable Italian necks. Piumini are out and about. Women are wearing knee-high boots. There is public tsking at t-shirts on tourists often seen congregating in front of the Hard Rock Cafe.

Failure to confirm to seasonal Florentine wardrobe norms will result in illness, and possibly, death. Grandmas will shoot you the look in the park that says, zip up, bundle up, or pay with your life. We are helpless to help you unless you help yourself by following a few basic rules.


NOT a medically approved scarf wrap.
This amendment was mandated by the photographer who was taking our pictures for the questura, since we applied to renew our permessi di soggiorno last week.
This level of scarf wrap will result in death if you are outside on a cold/windy/both day.
I did bring approximately thirty to forty scarves with me when we moved back to Italy, since I have been trained in these basic preventative care precepts. I have lighter ones for slightly warmer seasons, and heavier ones to wind around three times on days when the wind sweeps through the valley of the Arno. I buy them often. I do like a scarf. Who doesn't like a scarf, after all? I do feel safer, cocooned, protected, even if I were only warding off the malocchio (evil eye) of the nonne (grandmas). I certainly "pass" more quietly as a non-tourist when so bundled up, and that brings a peace of mind in itself.
An American family conforming to Italian winter wardrobe norms.
Check, check, check.
No grandma tickets here.