Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Florence: Turning a page / girare la pagina

This whole post is about my new workspace!
As many of you know, I work remotely for Terra Dotta, a software company based in North Carolina. I am going on six years now with the company, and find my work engaging and fulfilling on many levels. It is a boon that the position has been remote since they hired me for the second time in 2013 - good for me, good for my career, good for our family, and frankly, good for Terra Dotta, as I remain deeply involved in our product development from Oklahoma and Italy, in way that would be impossible had I been issued an ultimatum to relocate to Chapel Hill.

It has long been a discussion in our marriage that I am easily employed, with a wide latitude in my career encompassing immigration, marketing, writing, editing, publishing, software development, testing, end user documentation ... the list goes on. Foreign language teaching. Branding. I fall quickly into often fruitful employment situations: freelance, contract, full-time. A random conversation many times has turned into income for me.

This hasn't always precipitated pleasant discussions in certain years in my marriage, when Jason felt stymied professionally. He has a profundity of education and a level of specialization I don't; he is supremely qualified for a handful of positions that turn over infrequently. So it worked out well that when Jason was offered the position in Florence, I was able to bind up my roots and transplant my work to Italy with relatively little churn or burn. Happily, my position continued, and continues, to grow and change and expand in ways that remain interesting and engaging for me from abroad.

However, Italy is not San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland, in the sense that jobs are very rooted to a sense of place and the Roman concept of gens - who you know, and who is in your network, and who your parents are, and where your clan has lived for the last, oh, one thousand or two thousand years. The job market in Italy is tight and sewn up. Publicly posted positions are almost always mere formalities, as they were filled some time ago in name, and now only the details remain to be completed.

Italy is not also San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that remote work is barely an idea here. If an Italian asks me what I do, and I explain it to them, they are usually astonished. The entire concept of full-time remote work is so far beyond their hermeneutic horizon that I am met only with disbelief.

And, most importantly, Italy is not San Francisco, Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that, more often than not, the lack of reliable internet here is a constant source of stress. I think of the places listed here as places with awesome internet! Fiber! superfast speed! Very reliable, and new networks. Italy does not really have that. They try. Oh, they try. They place paper flyers on the doors of buildings, "La fibra vi arriva!" I no longer believe it. It is like trying to wire the Colosseum to be a tech incubator. Italian infrastructure at times can seem truly hostile to modernization. Can't drill a hole... walls will crumble, stones will break... historic building ... not to mention every time they rip up a street or piazza it seems to be that some very suspicious bundles and braids of blue and yellow ethernet cabling are snipped, and carelessly tossed about with abandon.

And so it was that my rented office situation in Florence began its quick, explicable descent. From my office balcony since March I have watched the commune tear up Piazza della Repubblica, digging holes and planing old flagstones. The ruins of the razed Jewish ghetto under the piazza merited further academic investigation, and an anthropologist wearing a white sunhat was soon seated at a desk in a pit. My internet got worse and worse, and in the old building, there was nowhere to plug in. I did not have an option to wire. My afternoons were frequently fraught and gave me minor chest pains as I failed to complete call after call and meeting after meeting with any kind of grace or success.
When I asked why the wifi was not working, the staff in the building insisted it was my laptop, that the wifi was fine.
But the wifi is not fine, I said. I want to wire in, I begged.
You cannot, they said. All these outlets are non-functional.
Meanwhile I further annoyed my colleagues with an audio that sounded like the aliens from the movie Mars Attacks, and no video.

So I went home to work for a week.

I should mention here that Jason is in the US for work and the kids are home on summer break. Working from home has been touch and go at best. Even with sitters, and we have many, my life at the working parent switchboard is like a military CentComm.

In a midnight moment of insomnia, I remembered the pleasant lunch I had had recently with one Maria, a marketing manager and host of a co-working space a bit out of centro. Maria and I had been introduced by Megan, another remote tech professional whom I met a year and half ago on Piazza della Repubblica. Megan had since moved to Turin, leasing office space that was hosted by Maria and her company, The Student Hotel.

The Florence location opened this month, I  remembered. I had missed both of the events to which I had been so kindly invited, due to scheduling conflicts. I had not seen the space yet. Maria is colleagues with another person we know, Andrea, a mom of kids at our kids' school, whose bambini are roughly the same age as ours. Why didn't I email Maria? What was I waiting for? 

My loosely structured gens, such as it is, could be put to work for me here.

I contacted Maria the very next morning. She immediately responded and invited me to come look on Friday at lunch. It's a quick ride from our palazzo on the bike path.

What's the internet like? I grilled her. I would like to remain employed, and to not have a cardiac in my remote position due to my lack of connectivity.
It is good, she affirmed.
The building is newly gutted and renovated - it is a former HQ of Trenitalia, the state rail system. They maintain a very pretty office building next door.

Trenitalia HQ next door.

Can I wire in?
Yes, Maria said. It is a LAN too. Bring a wire. 
She took me around. New furniture, functional air conditioning. Office space, social space, classrooms and cafes. A juice bar. A deejay booth, I am not kidding, for a nightclub that seems to start at a later hour, like 10 or 11 pm. A recording studio which I will be using to rehearse. A rooftop gym with a sweeping view of the Florentine skyline. A rooftop pool (can't use) and bar (can use). Laundry and kitchens. Restaurants. A bike shop. A salon. A retail design store. Big swings.
A LAN I could wire into.
This place was off chain. The Student Hotel is a Dutch enterprise, and it shows. Design is thoughtful. Spaces are clean and inviting.
Maria and I passed Andrea in the hall, and soon we were three for lunch at the fancy restaurant, which is leased by La Menagère, which is a high-end eatery in centro.

I said I would return on Monday for my free trial day to work. But my mind was made up the minute I unlocked my bike from the pole on Friday. This would be my new, reliable office. With a wired LAN. I was so excited I could have screamed.

My new office building.
I came on Monday with my work backpack and got down to it. Wow, it is so easy to work when you have internet and a tiny bit of air conditioning! It was nice to have an ambient cohort also all working and doing their things in the vicinity. I struggled in Oklahoma and Florence with feeling isolated. I do not love to have people on top of me, but I appreciate being around professional people if they're not eating stinky leftover food they've just heated up in the office microwave.

Seriously, people. I got so much done with minimal stress. Wifi was awesome. Wired LAN was dreamy. I cannot overemphasize how stressful this was on Repubblica. Then I hung out in a little nook and got even more done!

Work nook!
This morning I messaged my rental colleagues on Repubblica to let them know I was not coming back to work, and that I would bring the keys back. It feels a bit like a breakup (sniff). I started working there the second month after we moved here. Through all four seasons, the vagaries of that grand palazzo, the thin heat in winter and the stifling rooms in summer. The Evita Peron balcony from where I spied on all the activity below each day. The six months of Italian language classes that I took. The clipclop of the carriages carrying tourists. And oh, all my friends at Caffe Paszkowski, which is fortunately on my regular route home from St. James on Sundays after I sing at mass. The buskers in the piazza below, and my easy access to the bustle.

I've got a new neighborhood now to explore, though, which isn't Piazza della Repubblica, but is still plenty full of caffes and restaurants. Plus, the fact that I will be able to ride a bike path for the full commute is wonderful - no more playing Frogger (TM) in centro with aggressive Florentine taxis.

Up and away! Turn the page.

Fresh fruit, fancy water, keycard. Feels like old times in Seattle.

Friday, June 29, 2018

La Certosa di Galluzo

It was very late in the morning by the time we drove out of Florence, and wound our way up into the hills to the south of the city, where the Ema and Greve rivers meet at Galluzzo. The rivers this time of year are slow-moving, and green. Galluzzo is a sleepy town with a Tuesday market, but is the gateway to the Certosa di Galluzzo, which holds court as it has for centuries from a hill high above town.

We were with Jason's Italian colleagues, Elsa and Susanna, medievalists all three of them. This was a very special visit to the Certosa for them, as Jason's associate Don Alessandro, a Catholic priest with all the keys, was to meet us in the courtyard. His order, San Leolino, are the newest custodians and residents of the Certosa. They plan to eventually grow it into more of a retreat center.

Don Alessandro says Mass at Gonzaga in Florence on a regular basis. He is a very friendly man, with a wide smile and blue eyes. A youthful priest in the best sense, we are on warm terms with him, having even been to his local parish at Panzano in Chianti a couple of times for Mass (followed by an amazing pranzo at Cecchini.)

Elsa and I sat in the back seat and worked on deriving the etymology of "Galluzzo" - "gallo" means "rooster" in Italian, but the ending brought another shade to the definition, which we debated at length, much to the amusement of the professors up front. Was it a big ugly rooster? Or just an ugly rooster? or a strange, ugly rooster? Maybe a weird rooster.

Jason and I had been to the Certosa (the Charterhouse, as in the Stendhal novel) before, but had only picked our way around the parking lot, and seen the courtyard, as we had arrived too late to make the final guided tour. This time, as we pulled in the car and got out, a squinting attendant asked us our business, and Jason was quick to inform him that we were meeting Don Alessandro. The attendant quickly desisted and ambled back to his small table and chair under a canvas lean-to.

The midday sun was strong, and bright white. I kept to the shadows of the buildings. Olive groves lined up in martial formations in the hills around the Certosa. We waited in the courtyard, admiring the distillery and the gift shop, the front of a smaller chapel, until Don Alessandro strode up in a clerical collar, smiling and gave each of us a strong handshake. Elsa and Susanna wanted to make a few purchases in the gift shop, so Don Alessandro called a couple of his companions to attend to us. I perused the books, noting that none other than Oriana Fallaci had historic links to Don Alessandro's Order of San Leolino, based in Panzano in Chianti. I also scrutinized the many monastic remedies available to purchase, of contents both herbal and alcohol. Susanna selected a small wall ornament designed to hold holy water in the home, for her mother in Viareggio.

Pick up your medieval liquor here.
We paid for all our small things (bottles of liquor, books, postcards, ceramics, honey, rosaries), and walked with Don Alessandro up the long flight of stairs to the adjacent Palazzo Acciaiuoli, where the founder and namesake Niccolo had imagined all manner of humanistic erudition would take place. Today used as a conference center, the two main halls adjoin in an L-shape, with vaulted ceilings and enormous oil portraits of assorted patron saints and leaders, chief among them San Bruno and San Lorenzo. The palazzo itself was never intended to be a sacred space, but rather a sort of college appended to the Certosa in which learned study might take place.

A few quick historic notes here for non-medievalists. The Carthusian Order was founded by San Bruno in 1084, in Grenoble, France, where it remains headquartered. It is a hermetic order that maintains vows of silence. The brothers remained in seclusion, and even received their meals through a specially-designed cupboard with offset openings so that they never saw the faces or hands of those who waited on them.

Boccaccio is a special figure in the Certosa, as Niccolo Acciaiuoli was his patron, and so his personal history closely intertwined with that of the institution. Indeed, the Certosa's geographic location (high on a hill, fresh air, sewage runs downhill) made it an ideal escape from which to ride out the bouts of plague that so often swept through Florence.

Boccaccio was a signatory on the document that established the financial gift from Acciaiuoli to begin the project. About 10 years later, after Boccaccio fell out with Acciaiuoli, he made fun of the Certosa, calling it a pile of rocks on a hill that would never bring everlasting fame to its patron Acciaiuoli. But history proved him wrong, and let that be a cautionary tale for readers here.

From the Palazzo Acciaiuoli (very successful! historically noted!) we stepped out onto a grand piazza, in full sun, crowned by the facade of the church. 

One big piazza, check.
The inside, like almost every building in Florence, was surfaced in an amount of fine marble sufficient for a thousand luxury bathrooms. Don Alessandro explained that the foyer of the church was for the public, and lay monastics, whereas the interior of the church remained closed to the public to maintain the Carthusian seclusion. We went into the main sanctuary. The ambient temperature progressively dropped. Don Alessandro kept up his knowledgeable patter, supplemented by the exclamations of the medievalists who offered facts or confirmation here and there. I hung back to look at the wooden choir stalls, with their bare, buxom mermaids leaning out as though from the prows of ships.

Choir stalls, Certosa.
We followed Don Alessandro into the sacristy to see the liturgical treasures: chalices and tabernacles, votives and relics. He unlocked and opened an enormous set of cupboard doors that reminded me of my recent trip to the Great Synagogue, and where the Torah is kept. Around the walls of the sacristy were frescoed, in a kind of wainscot, images in single-tone of what England did to Catholics in the early seventeenth century. "The English were incredible," Don Alessandro smirked. "If there was a way to torture a person, they would do it without hesitation." The depictions on the wall attested to this, as Carthusians were shown being drawn and quartered, beheaded, crucified, burned, and more. Farm carts were piled high with torsos, legs, and arms. A calligraphied narrative clarified the facts of the scene - quite a counterpoint to the serene icons and portraits of saints, and the gleaming gold in the sacristy's cupboard. Oh, England, I thought.

We twisted through a maze of halls, down an unlit two flights of stairs, to reach the crypt of Acciaiuoli family. Cells phones with flashlight apps came out. The medievalists were beside themselves. There in a small chapel at the end of the crypt were Niccolo himself, and his wife, and a sister and brother, in their marble tombs since the fourteenth century, their long fingers clasped in silent, eternal prayer. It was cold. I began to shiver, but after the heat and the sun above, it felt good. A voto was set within the wall, with more remains in a vault.

Wife of Niccolo Acciaiuoli, Margherita degli Spini.
She's been resting here now for quite some time, since the fourteenth century.
No telling where his mistress Catherine of Taranto is laid.

Outside of the Acciaiuoli chapel were laid what appeared to be every member of the Ricasoli family who passed to eternal rest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their marble lapidaries attesting to the enduring one or two basic facts of their life ("distinguished solder," "long and painful illness," "grieving wife," "epilepsy.") A few more altars were tucked here and there in dark spaces, and one more tomb of a Bishop of Florence, gleaming in white marble with a small rope hung around it like a hapless fence.

We climbed our way back up the dark and dusty staircase, until it became warmer and warmer. A small gallery with wooden seats set into the wall was situated between the sanctuary and the courtyard. This place, Don Alessandro said, A sign at the end of the hall over the door read "Penitentibus" (for penitents, plural ablative, thank you Peggy Chambers) and I imagined what sins a secluded monk under vows of silence might confess. Had unkind thoughts about another brother? Perhaps caught a glimpse of his weekday waiter through the offset windows in the wall?

We passed into the courtyard preceding the refectory, which was situated like another set of cloisters, with a massive stone lavandone that had three metal taps, and bore an inscription about washing off iniquity.

The grand cloister of the Certosa is huge, like a residential college at Yale or Oxford. The doors of the monastic cells open onto its cloistered path, shaded from the sun, looking out onto a massive garden of grass and lavender. A huge well was sunk into its center. The green space in front of the cells was matched by a private garden, with lavender and oleander and a bench, a place to sit and contemplate God's works. I mentioned their dinner cupboard above, but also, next to the cupboard, was bored a small opening above the monk's bed. This, Don Alessandro explained, was so that the good health - or not - of the monk might be verified if he had not been seen or heard from in more than a day or two. When the questioning knock came, he was to reply, "Deo gratias" - thanks be to God.

Outside in the cloister, along the main wall of the building and the low wall surrounding the garden,  were more tombs, hundreds of them, seemingly of parish members. I was struck by a memorial for a baby who died at three days old, and the many tombs for the laity, again with the one or two remaining facts of their lives chiseled into marble plaques. A smaller, sectioned off cemetery contained the graves of nameless monks, whose extreme abdication of the ego brought them closer to God even in death.

Grand cloister.
We made a quick final loop through the refectory, which looked much like the choir stalls. A dais at the east end of the room was, presumably, for the abbot, and a lectern set high into the corner to the left of the abbot's place ensured that the lectio divino read out by one of the brothers would be heard by all the monks, chewing carefully and in silent contemplation, with their one or two possibly sinful thoughts pushed away for the moment.

Our tour complete, Don Alessandro again shook hands warmly with each of us while Jason and the medievalists continued their conversation about the conference they planned to hold on the grounds next year. The monastery had taken on the midday hush of Italian midsummer, save for a lone woman speaking loudly into a cellphone, who was greeted by name by Don Alessandro, after which she seemed to pipe down. Don Alessandro got into a small car outside the Certosa walls and waved goodbye from the window as he departed down the gravel road.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Choices, and Their Lack: Mendicants of Santissima Annunziata

I routinely transit la Piazza della Santissima Annunziata each morning when I accompany Eleanor to preschool, and again when I return home to the palazzo where we live.

Perhaps at midday, bringing a critical but forgotten item back up to the kids' school - a lunch ticket, a felpa (hoodie), a change of clothes. Or meeting Jason for lunch in the blocks around Gonzaga in Florence, most often la Trattoria di San Gallo, or Il Giglio in a pinch for their four-euro fresh pasta plates, consumed next to office workers in suits and workmen in jumpsuits, their hands white with plaster or chalk.

It is a space I now know well, and have come to love: the Brunelleschi arches of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, stretching in uniform conformity along the eastern side of the piazza, each little swaddled putto slightly different than the one next to it, as though to underscore the humanity of orphans and lost children. The western side of the Loggia dei Servi di Maria, and its apartments overlooking their own set of steep steps. The arcades of Michelozzo's church of the Santissima Annunziata, on the north side, where I often duck in to make a quick petition to God, or any god, or any presence (I fold fast) who might be willing to receive it. The two walrus-man fountains in bronze reign in the middle, and hotels and restaurants line the south side, at the intersection of what I like to call the Gateway to the Molten Tourist Core of Florence. Via dei Servi begins at the south side of the piazza, and its crowded pavement extends all the way to the duomo, visible in slices between tall buildings crowding the narrow street.

Walrus fountains, Santissima Annunziata.
And yet, for all these flagstones and fountains and architecture, what captures my attention is the name: the most holy annunciation. What has not been chosen, when the lots are drawn. Mary, learning that she's bearing none less than God's only begotten Son. No choice there for a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl headed into an arranged marriage.

Tiny tokens once attached to a foundling.
Thousands of Florentine orphans and children of impoverished families passed through L'Ospedale degli Innocenti for hundreds of years, from 1445 to 1875. The museum inside maintains all the records of the babies, and while some of them did grow up and go on to be productive members of Florentine society (artists, statesmen, orphanage administrators), many met an early end as they failed to thrive, shuttled as newborns between city and country, and paid wet nurses. Giovanni died at 13 days old, one tag read. Annamaria died three days after arriving, said another. The tiny tarnished bit of a broken medal on a frayed piece of ribbon all that remained to remember them by. The hope that the two pieces might be joined again one day.

Not all babies met such a quick end; many survived, and indeed, thrived. This was a boon to the Silk Guild, the underwriters of the orphanage budget. There is always a reason. There is no simple charity. What was in it for the powerful silk guild, the owners of not only the bronze statue of St. John the Evangelist that graces one of the outer niches of the Orsanmichele Church, but of the entire loggia of the Orsanmichele itself and the statues of all the other thirteen Florentine guilds, wealthy and working class alike? There is always a reason. Think. Think hard. What could a guild of wealthy and powerful silk merchants want to do with a seemingly endless supply of small, young, nimble hands?

Carding silk. Weaving silk. Being apprenticed to the many textile workshops in the city.

And so the mutually beneficial, if lopsided, arrangement thrived for years, as the child labor of the orphans benefited the business pursuits of the wealthy and powerful silk merchants who funded their home.

So, they had a social safety net, but no child labor laws... win some, lose some. Still, light years ahead of their time, and frankly, a revolutionary concept.

The women who had been met with ruin as unwed mothers and fallen women were consigned to a disturbing fate within the Ospedale, giving up their own baby and being stationed in a wing for newborns, where they would lie in bed, a baby on each side of the bed under the curlicue of a mosquito-netted cot. The women would breastfeed around the clock while a medical nurse attended to them. Having recently returned from six years myself in the Land of Breastfeeding, I mentally uttered a firm nothankyou upon viewing those archival photos.

An aged nun makes her dogged way down
to Santissima Annunziata.
I always see priests, monks, and nuns in these blocks, walking up and down the sidewalks in sensible sandals and habits and robes as they have done for centuries. I thought also of the religious orders, and how getting thee to a nunnery was almost never a free choice, but rather an option of last resort for women without marriage dowries, women from poor families, and orphans. Perhaps the suor was the tenth of twelve children, in a merchant family down on its luck, and the next-eldest sister scraped the last of savings for her marriage. Or more rarely, a wealthy young woman who wished to continue an unusually profound education, but was barred from doing so via the institutions available at the time, so probably begged her father to deposit her dowry in a convent and went there to study and read, or write, or write music.

All these people, all these forced choices. I suppose when a forced choice is termed something along the lines of a most holy announcement, it goes down a tiny bit easier, or much more easily for the faithful. After all, God's choice. Who are humans to presume to choose the lot they'd like to receive in this life?

Another cast of characters that give me pause for thought are the mendicants of Santissima Annunziata. Staking out a post at the well-trafficked entrance to the church virtually guarantees a profitable day of begging. There is a fairly standard set I see in the arches and the portico.

An African mother who has been separated from her three daughters by Italian immigration authorities (as best as I can tell from her literature and her science-fair-esque poster display, which is heartrending) hands out flyers and asks for help to pay a huge legal bill that might resolve her issue and reunite her with her daughters.

The Rom women, in their mismatched print scarves and long skirts, socks with cork sandals, and gleaming braids.

A man who looks like he could be Rom, but also possibly a college student, with a level of grooming far too fine to really seem down on his luck.

Another man who truly is down on his luck is frequently seated on the step at the entrance of the cloister, to the west of the main church entrance. His grubby hands and rheumy eyes speak to a lifetime of suffering; his clothes are layered and poorly patched. He watches the street, and one morning, months ago, I accidentally dropped Eleanor's gingham string bag with her extra change of clothes. I was on my bike, and did not notice until I was at her school. I returned to the piazza, and the beggar had darted out in the street to pick up the bag, and was waiting for me on the step with it in his hands. I thanked him profusely and gave him a euro. A few weeks ago he was perched on his step with two breathtaking black eyes that made me inhale hard when I saw him. He looked as though someone had beaten the crap out of him on a dark street, and they probably had. His injuries were awful, but I see him every day, and he is slowly returning to his normal. The nuns and priests always give him coins, even though he does not position himself at the entrance of the church to preen and curry favor with the faithful like the handsome Rom/not-Rom youth.

I empty out my coin purse to this cast, whether just walking by or opting to duck into the church for a quick five minutes with the thousands of lit taper and oil lamps. One day, I gave the Rom/not-Rom youth a euro on my way out. One of the Rom women (clearly not a friend of his) saw me do it. She quickly sidled up to me on the marble floor under the arcades, following me closely, her entreaties growing louder and more agitated as I repeated, mi dispiace (I'm sorry) until she finally devolved into a few profane threats, and I crossed the street.

The Adnkronos, Lampedusa, Italy.
Another group that drifts through the space are the African immigrants. They are clearly those with the least choice. Even the Rom are swaggering and confident next to the nervous glances of the Africans, toting their trays of tissues and umbrellas from corner to corner, or, if they have just arrived, simply holding out a cap - literally. The situation between Africa and Europe is always in the news, and getting worse; the recent refusal to permit first one, then two, then three migrant boats from landing in Italy while Matteo Salvini crowed that he was somehow taking back Italy. Make Spain and France take those boats! The young men, always under twenty-five, it seems, break my heart. I can see and smell the white salt in their tears, their hands and hair, and I don't know what to do to help them. The Italian government gives them homes, I am assured, none of them sleep on the street. Yes, but what of their days on the street, on the sidewalk, the utter lack of dignity? The looks and comments they endure? What choice did they have to stay or leave where they came from? I always say buongiorno, and I always feel their resolution to not show weakness, to keep that stiff upper lip, to hold strong on their corner. Can we allow dignity to those who have had no choice?

And to those who say, but they had a choice, I invite you to get out of your comfort zone and try their "choice" on for size, for a month or two, and come back and tell me if it was true choice or a forced choice. Because these are my former immigration clients stateside, and I know all their stories, in both type and detail. What poverty, what violence, what want they experienced where they were born. Go somewhere, if you haven't been, to see for yourself. See what circumstantially forced choices feel like, look like.

The choices we have, and the choices we do not have, are cast in high relief on the Most Holy Announcement (hilarious and businesslike in English, with little of the Italian solemnity), its church and its piazza. I reflect on my choices and my forced choices in this life - my lot, my inheritance, if you will.

I am fortunate in this life to have accessed a wide array of actual choices - and also fortunate to see when my forced choices were neither good nor bad, but simply a path I followed because it opened up to me, like Via dei Servi between two fountains, down a narrow shaded street, meeting the massive orange cupola of the cathedral as the Piazza del Duomo lays out its grey flagstones on the other end.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Spain on the Brain / Spagna nella mente

Twenty-five years ago, I was wrapping up my first European foray. Spain, where I'd spent the semester in intensive Spanish language and literature classes; Santiago de Compostela, to be specific, that rainy northwest corner of Spain whose American counterpart Seattle stole my heart five years later.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that I undertook such an endeavor at nineteen. I was naive but trying hard to be brave. I was fortunately armed with a decade of Spanish language education. I insisted for years as a teenager on going to summer camps out of state on my own, so had mustered what skills I could in the American Midwest and on domestic flights, long roadtrips, Greyhound buses, and more.

It was my first transatlantic flight, and I deliriously journaled in my seat about my perceived shared affinities with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, headed over finally for my own continental chapter. No wonder my mother cried in the Oklahoma City airport, as I practically ran down the jetway that January. I had little room for sentiment and nostalgia. My view was full forward.

But I was ill-prepared for the mechanics of that trip. The flights were not good, the connection ridiculously short, then suddenly long, because I missed my short domestic flight to Santiago. I was waylaid in Madrid Barajas for twelve or fourteen hours, and berated by a frustrated Iberia customer service representative at a desk for my crappy Spanish. I was alarmed by the military atmosphere in the arrivals hall, freaked out by Spanish soldiers in camouflage uniforms pointing semi-automatic weapons down at the trudging travelers. The acrid smell of black tobacco stung at my nose. I am pretty sure I cried in the airport bathroom.

But I collected myself, and arrived in Santiago at midnight on a pouring January night with my overpacked bags. I was promptly ripped off by an exorbitant taxi fare thanks to the late hour, resulting in a loud dispute between the taxista and the hotel manager. I fell asleep for sixteen hours and the manager's wife woke me up at four the next afternoon, nervously asking me if I was bien and did I need to check in with anyone, ¿tal vez tu madre?

There followed an adventurous, studious, joyous, and highly amused five months. Santiago embraced me. I quickly made friends and in no time was being shuttled to various Spanish homes for the weekend. I dated the eldest son of six children, Antonio, his sister Virginia my hallmate in the residencia, and became friends with the whole family, remaining so to this day.

I learned how to drink coffee, the value of a fresh-squeezed orange juice, porto and orujo and chupitos. The lemon curd pastries on the way to class, merluza a la romana - I ate so well that semester. The seafood! My midwestern palate prior to Santiago was totally unschooled, but I learned to crave octopus and mussels and oysters and clams, and especially the sweet long quadrangles of razor clams. Fresh shellfish that tasted of the sea and its salt. The dark tobacco that all the Spanish puffed then, boxes of Gitanos and Lucky Strikes that I tried unsuccessfully to socially smoke. (That "sticky gene" for smoking? I do not have it.)

I hitchhiked around Galicia with my boyfriend, I fell in love with the wild costa gallega with its rías altas and rías bajas - the high fjords of the northern coast, and low fjords to the west. I was very glad for my years in Spanish class. I experienced very little language or culture shock - I was simply delighted and amused, and learning. I went home to Oklahoma, throttled back to first gear, and hit a slump so hard that only campus overachieving would restart me.

I returned to Spain in 1995 for three weeks, in 2005 for six weeks, in 2013 for a week. But, still when I hear a peninsular Spanish accent, I wheel around to see where it is coming from, so great and deep was my exposure to the language that semester in Santiago. I know now that the peninsular accent sounds to latinos like a thick Scottish brogue sounds to Americans, "¡Venga! ¡Gracias! ¡Hasta luego!" But I heard so much of it that the immersion made its deep imprint.

I harbor a particularly warm allegiance to Spain and Spanish culture, and to my Spanish friends. So when I learned that, by some stroke of luck, my return trip from Philadelphia included a nice solid layover in Madrid Barajas thanks to serendipitous routing, I anticipated with pleasure this little Spanish culture hit.

I immediately sussed out my seatmate in flight. He was a Basque pharmacologist from Bilbao about my age who had just completed a three-month research project in Philadelphia at one of the teaching hospitals. Although I slept most of the flight, when I was coherent he was more than happy to chat Spanish politics (the prime minister Rajoy had just been forced out hours earlier), American culture observations, and compare travel stories with me. I laughed about the exuberant Spaniards in the row in front of us, and mentioned that Florentines would never be so unfiltered, preoccupied as they are with maintaining la bella figura. "Yeah, we don't have that preoccupation," he chuckled.

I stumbled through my italospagnolo with him, but like all Spaniards, he admired Italian culture, and so my grammar errors and fumbles were met with patience. I did not get a chance to say hasta luego and gracias for the welcome conversation and company on that transatlantic haul.

All the international flights that arrived in the early morning hours were emptying their passengers into the long terminal halls of the airport. The soldiers on camouflage with semi-automatic weapons are gone. The airport is now no-smoking. I did not feel like I was arriving on a military base in Afghanistan, scrutinized with suspicion. Madrid Barajas is now beautiful, and shines with the best of Spanish design, all wood and curves, in a sensual yet spacious welcome.

Pre-dawn concourse, Madrid Barajas.
We eventually made our way into the arrivals hall to be processed for immigration. A Spaniard in a blue suit stood at the top of the line, calling out "¿pasaportes europeos? ¿Venga aqui vale? ¿Vale? ¿Vale? ¿Pasaportes europeos?"

I chuckled and remembered of the blind ONCE lottery ticket vendors omnipresent in Spain. The man sounded just like them, plus the clipped "¿vale? ... ¿vale? ... ¿vale? .... ¿vale?" that the Spanish insert frequently into their chatterstream.

I stood in line with approximately half of Perú and a good part of the Yucatán, picking out the pale Yankees among the crowd. A group of four Mexican abuelas from Merida at the start of their European tour struck up conversation with me, and asked, "were all these people on our plane?"
No, I said, estimating the crowd in the enormous hall to be at least one thousand to two thousand people.
"How many people can each airplane hold?" they asked me with curiosity.
I don't know, about 275? I said. Maybe more? "Estos dias los aviones son muy grandes! These days planes are huge!"
They nodded and agreed. "Our plane was really big!" they said. Yes, but not 2,000 passengers big.

Toward the end of my half-hour wait, I found myself next to two young American students. They were extremely clean cut, and well-fed. I heard them talking and asked them where they were from.
South Carolina, they said. We go to school there, ma'am.
Really, where? I asked.
The Citadel, ma'am, have you heard of it?
I said, yes, I certainly had. I have a handful of seminal sad memories tied up in the Citadel that I will not detail here. I kept my cultural comments and memories to myself.
Where are you going? I asked them.
Ma'am, we are headed to Santiago de Compostela.
I lit up. Really! Were they serious!?
Yes ma'am, serious as a heart attack.
They did look extremely serious.
Are you doing a one-month language program? I asked them.
Ma'am, how did you know?
I studied abroad in Santiago in 1993! I crowed. Before you two were born, probably.
Yes ma'am! they said in unison.
I proceeded to pepper them with questions and give them advice about ground transfer to the city, and where to stay, and what to eat, and Santiago culture. I told them their good manners would serve them well in Spain. They beamed at me like I was some kind of American fairy godmother, breaking into wide smiles.
Ma'am, we are so glad we talked to you here. We have no idea what we are doing, and we do not speak Spanish.
I reassured them that they would be fine, and would soon be welcomed by the locals of Santiago into that most historic of hospitable cultures, a destination for adventurers and voyagers since 1100!
My heart warmed to see that Santiago was still a desirable destination for naive nineteen-year-old Americans.

At the window, the immigration control officer flipped through my passport, frowning.
Where do you live? he asked me.
Florenthia, I said, and flashed my Italian permesso di soggiorno.
Vale, vaya, he said, and stamped me in, waving me onward. Go on then, you! I snickered because now I always mentally translate the Spanish of the Spaniards into the English of the Scottish. Snort. Very inside joke, audience of one.

I wound my way through the airport labyrinth, opting at every chance to walk and take the stairs after the long hours in flight. My goal was to find a café con leche and a medialuna and a fresh zumo de naranjjjjja, then any type of salon where they would wash and dry my hair. I peered at a store full of Spanish shoes, glanced into an enormous Zara, drooled over the arty jamón stand.

Don't ever accuse me of failing to love jamón serrano, but I am looking for an open salon.
My hair was beyond grungy after the flight and travel, and the NAFSA week. Neither sexy Spanish shoes nor apparel nor jamón serrano could dissuade me from my mission to find a salon that would give me some post-flight TLC, stat.

These shoes are extremely cute, but I got plane hair to get washed.
I found one at 7:15 am, and they still looked plenty sleepy as they were just opening. I opened my mouth and poured out some lazy Italian mumbo jumbo about needing a piega.
They regarded at me quizzically.
I apologized and said, I am sorry, I am so tired, normally I do speak Spanish.
They laughed, ¡no hay de qué! We will fix you right up!
I consulted their listina prezzi and saw that, surprisingly, Spanish does not seem to have a word like piega in Italian, or blowout in English. "Lavar y secar," the listina indicated.
A young woman led me back to a chair, tilted me back, and started washing my hair with warm water and a shampoo that smelled like handfuls of crushed rose petals. I was in heaven, and almost asleep. She kept up an amiable chatter while she worked, and said she was from Romania, where work in a salon does not pay like it does in Spain.
I said appreciatively that her haircut and color were very becoming, which was well for a woman who works in the aesthetic industry.
She gave me a great scalp massage. I pretty much forgot the airplane and arrivals hall.
She asked if I would like a massage too.
Oddio si! I exclaimed in Italian. God yes! More of this please! This was the best use of a Saturday morning connection ever. Five hours to kill and this adorable little salon is just buzzing over me at the start of their day.
When she finished, I felt like a Kerry Blue ready to be shown in Westminster. It was a very good piega.
Her colleague came to get me. He read my intake sheet and said, "oh! you wrote it in Spanish!"
I laughed and replied, "I have no problems writing in Spanish, but speaking it, these days, on the other hand..."
He worked out all my cricks and kinks, again chatting amiably in Spanish, about Slovakia, where he was from, and how Slovakian culture is so unhealthy "on account of all the beer they drink. Good god, I moved to Spain and lost 15 kilos!"
I walked out a new woman. Long haul, what long haul? Ninety hour work week, who me? I felt magnificent.

a tiny bit bleary but feeling grand
Over to the cafe for el menú desayuno - the breakfast menu. Spain, which like Sicily enjoys a year-round surfeit of oranges, loves a fresh squeeze. Out came the café con leche grande with its generous portion of scalded milk, a medialuna (cornetto/croissant) more savory than sweet like they bake them in Spain, with a tender center, and a generous glass of Spanish zumo de naranjjjjja. 

(Side note: It took me a while to learn how to say naranjjjjja correctly in Spain. The waitstaff in our student residence and at the university building where I took my my classes drilled me mercilessly on the dry Ummayyad gargle that is a J or a soft G in Spain. I had such a soft Mexican J from my years in Spanish class in the U.S. By the middle of that spring or so I could dry gargle my Js with the best of them, and so was able to publicly order orange-based items free of mockery for the remainder of the term.)

Breakfast down the hatch, check. Spain, you are sorting me out so sweetly!

By this time my gate had been posted on the list, and I headed down another long concourse to board. Two ridiculous American college boys in the vicinity were living some Che Guevara dream with red bandannas and helmets. They gave me serious side-eye and sniffed when I took a seat next to them in the lounge, asking them if they were Florence-bound. I inadvertently wound up in the middle of a pack of chattering of Chilean high school girls, and with my backpack momentarily passed for one of them, to my enormous amusement, thanking the gate agents for the compliment.

Buckling in to my seat for the flight across the Mediterranean from Madrid to Florence, I mused at how happy the tiny slice of Spain had made me. Granted, I was able to access services and commodities that are well-documented people pleasers, like good coffee, warm croissants, fresh orange juice, rose-scented shampoo, and massage. But there was something else too about the openness and relaxation of Spain, and floating about in one of my language heavens, able to read and understand everything perfectly even if the words coming out of my mouth sounded more scrambled. In some ways it was so relaxed and so far from my Italian experience.

Gracias, España, por esa mañana perfecta de sábado. / Thank you, Spain, for that perfect Saturday morning.

Bye-bye Barajas!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Viaggio di lavoro in America / American Work Trip

Work trip to the US last week in review. Philadelphia, the NAFSA conference, a quick Sunday jaunt up to northern New Jersey, and Matthew Broderick's priestly sister!

My annual week of NAFSA conference work concluded last Friday - this year, in Philadelphia, whose gloomy weather and cobbled eighteenth-century streets gave a true feel of England. I have been to Philly once before, in 2004, for the massive MLA conference with Jason; we were in the Club Quarters in a room the size of a shoebox.

I stayed my first weekend in Cedar Park with my friend and colleague Liz, whose home looks like a set backdrop for Lemony Snicket. She had just been our guest in Firenze for the preceding week, and gamely retrieved me from the airport and whisked me off to buy some shoes for the week since my selection was skimpy and uncomfortable. We got our Ethiopian spice and injeera on at Gojjo - my fingers smelt of wat for days. Her turret guest bedroom looked out onto St. Frances de Sales, calm and hulking in the Philadelphia humidity.

Liz's genteel home, channeling Thornton Wilder for reasons unknown to me.
I spied on the street below from the top turret.

St. Francis de Sales, seen from Liz's guest turret.
I took advantage of the Sunday to take an Amtrak regional train to Iselin, New Jersey, to catch up with a dear friend and her family. Quick note here - Philadelphia's 30th Street station, what a gem.

30th Street Station in Philadelphia, gleaming Art Deco insouciance.
It rained so hard that day that the flash floods in Maryland took out the small town of Eddicott for the second time in two years. The train was peaceful and clean, the windows streaming with rain, impromptu ponds filling up in the fields as we slipped quietly by. I read a recent New Yorker, enjoying my Atlantic seaboard morning. My friend picked me up at Metropark, and we went straight to St. Peter's Episcopal in Morristown for 10:15 mass. The music was superb and that choir was huge! Also, Matthew Broderick's sister Janice is the rector there, and employs in her role all the charm and presence that clearly runs in that family.

St. Peter's Episcopal, Morristown NJ
Betsy and I repaired to her home next to the Deserted Village Watchung reservation for lunch and then headed to that most international of American experiences - the weekend salon for pedis. I felt so at home among the many Spanish accents. Plus my sparkling gilt fingers and toes garnered comments and compliments the moment the woman finished, and through the rest of the week. I slid back down to Philly in an easy 45 minutes and went straight into work mode.

NAFSA is a ninety-hour workweek every year, and one I enjoy for its annual occurrence, because I could not do it with any greater frequency.

Terra Dotta represent!
GoAbroad awards reception, May 31.
Eight to nine hours on the floor with 13,000 attendees, company meetings after, leavened by strings of evening receptions with clients, colleagues, and prospects, frequently at genteel venues. Two highlights -

The Creative People reception at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts museum. (I just love that NAFSA has a home for creative people of both professional and sidebar persuasion). They put on a calm, high-culture respite from the nuttiness of the expo hall just across the street, although I forgot to switch my Google map to "walking" from "driving" and so we took the extra-extra-long route. I giggled when one of the hosts informed me that the Academy was "so old!" as it was founded in 1805. Oh America, the innocence... I ran into a few people I knew, made a handful of new friends, and made one very shy videographer very uncomfortable with my well-meaning but possibly too-straightforward conversation (sorry shy guy) while a colleague who knows me well looked on and good-naturedly rolled his eyes. (In my defense, I was genuinely interested in what he was doing and how he got to be doing it, but understand that a person whose career has included screening documentary film submissions alone in a room for hours, for months, on end may not be the most prepared person to discuss much in public.)

The AIFS dinner aboard the Moshulu, moored in the Delaware River, was the ideal cap to the long week, summer night on the water in good company. Local colleagues filled us in about Camden town across the way ("full of hurt and pain"), and later, I bizarrely found myself in a minor dispute with an American late in the evening about whether or not the Oltrarno was, in fact, part of Firenze centro (Me: of course not. Him: pulls up map on his phone to press his point. Me: I know where the Arno is...) And now I just read the history of the ship, which includes Astoria Oregon, Bainbridge Island, and Finland, plus the history of the name, well, I like it even more ... I have the soul of a sailor, I swear. My heart thrills to the sea.

Aye cap'n! I'll gladly be shanghaied onto the Moshulu!
Philadelphia's pre-Revolutionary streets, side streets, and alleys were festooned with foliage in this late spring season, and although I did not get out of the conference center much to see it, one long evening walk from Town Hall to Penn's Landing via Spruce Street and I was smitten. Past medical residents swarming about the sidewalk at UPenn Med, brick stoops with boot scrapes and flower boxes overflowing with sweet pea and violets and ranunculus. Paned windows with pewter candlesticks, perhaps the better to airbnb by?  I hoped not. A duck into the amusing Varga Bar with its retro and homage pinup art for a beer (many medical residents noted in bar and in scrubs). (I am tempted to post a picture here, but my colleagues might stop talking to me). Brick walls incorporated dates into their designs - 1701, 1770. For the US, this is old. The entire quarter was like Georgetown, but an arterial.

Philly, you so pretty.
The gloomy weather all week was rough - it did little to ameliorate my jetlag. Philadelphia is not Los Angeles, obviously; last year's conference was sun-soaked, backed up by the La la Land soundtrack. But I always appreciate these trips back for the anchor they give me to the US, the more so since we are not returning this summer as a family to Spokane. Jason will make the work trip much shorter this time and on his own. Philadelphia, you made me miss the US.

Coming next: five dreamy hours in the Madrid airport where I explain why this travel and cultural connection rendered me so verklempt. And the Italian cultural adventures continue unabated - 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Italian Elections

It may be of use for our friends and family in America for me to chronicle the outcome of the most recent Italian national elections, as best as I understand it. My understanding is certainly imperfect.

Italy voted on March 4 in national elections. It's a parliamentary system here, which is still opaque in certain ways to me ("What do you mean a 'no confidence' vote dissolves the government?"), but the most important aspect to remember for Americans is that Italians vote for parties with platforms, not for individuals. This is the inverse of the US, where we vote for individuals with ideas, and the RNC and DNC lurk in a shadow background of massive funding and string-pulling.

I sometimes bemoan our American, personality-driven election cycles. I remember as a wee university runt interning in the US Senate in 1994, hearing august senators bemoan in public the gridlock in the American political system, and others citing a parliamentary system as a way to require political collaboration. But these days it is hard to say which system breeds more gridlock: parliamentary or ... the US system... whatever we call it now.

For much of the old guard progressives, the March 4 elections were nothing short of a disaster. The PD (Partita Democratica) posted its worst result in perhaps forever. These are the old school, post-war liberal democrats. The party of Matteo Renzi, and big neo-liberal ideas that just don't even begin to address the even bigger problems that Italians perceive in their society.

The Lega and Cinque Stelle parties posted a huge portion of votes between the two of them, but neither of them earned enough to have a majority and thus appoint all their own ministers to cabinet positions. So, parliamentary fun! This is where I am always either amused or quickly lost: It's Coalition Time!

The Lega party arose in the Po Valley some decades ago. It is widely known as an Italy First party that promotes Italian sovereignty, but the ugly flipside of that platform is a lot of xenophobia, outright racism, and hatred for anyone not meeting a narrowly defined idea of Who Is Italian (Thanks, Risorgimento! Those mid-nineteenth century nation-state ideals are really paying handsome dividends in the twenty-first century).

The Cinque Stelle party started about ten years ago, headed by a well-known comedian who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter before he started the party. This man, Beppe Grillo, is an agent provocateur. He has no real ideas other than to provoke and to say that "government is bad and should be different," and he is ineligible for public office due to that unfortunate incident. When his five-star (luxury non government? what does Five Stars even mean) party began, it attracted many young people and untried politicians. The first elections were exciting. People under 80 getting elected in Italy! who woulda thunk it!

Cinque Stelle started behaving as a group though in faintly alarming ways, if one ever read and remembered one's twentieth-century Italian history. These tendencies! They stayed in a sort of Roman dorm together when the legislature was in session. They got checked in and on to make sure they were up to snuff for the platform (does this happen in other parliamentary governments? Feel free to weigh in, Brits and Spaniards.)

Jason joked once to a friend of ours, who is an elected Cinque Stelle official on a smaller town's city council, that all they needed were matching shirts, perhaps in a tasteful black and tan? The friend was not amused. We have not made a similar joke since. They are touchy about the political tack the party has taken, to the right, anti-EU and anti-immigrant. Because what has the EU ever done for Italy! Well, Italy, aside from the fact that you are a founding member, and also those two most unfortunate world wars that started and ended here and elsewhere, and also some breathtaking genocidal incidents. But, you know, screw the EU!

Then Turin and Rome voted in mayors from the Cinque Stelle party, and that has not gone so well. Both mayors are young, smart women (Chiara and Virginia, respectively) who have been fed to the metaphorical woodchipper, and will soon be fleeing their proverbial burning cities. Rome is now widely judged to be ungovernable, a chaotic melee covered in bags full of trash, and Turin, who knows? It used to run pretty well, a stronghold of the left, and still seems like a nice place to live to me, but I am not Italian. It's really polluted too, in that valley, so much so that it looks like you're schlepping through London, ca. 1880.

So, as far as I understand it, la Lega and Cinque Stelle are populist parties with some fairly typical platform overlap. And Cinque Stelle has a 31-year-old leader who looks like he's in high school, keepin' it youthful, y'all! He actually reminds me of some Trumpsters who have lately found themselves in hot water stateside. Better than the Lega leader, who has been known to take personal action against the presence of immigrants in his local area up north. And after almost three months of polemic, there emerged yesterday an agreement and a formal coalition between the two parties: they will govern together, for as long as they can all stand each other, and their leader is Giuseppe Conte of Cinque Stelle, an attorney from Puglia who lives in Florence where he teaches on the law faculty. He looks, it must be said, a lot like Renzi. They must get these guys out of central casting, but then again, they are Italian. Dimples, HWP, tailored suit, nice smile, not much grey.

Here's a side by side. Uncanny, no? We got a replacement, Italy! It's gonna be okay! He's wearing a suit - a nice one - you won't even notice the difference! 

Conte.

Renzi.
They say he is discreet, a man of measure, passionate about the law.

(I gleaned all this from reading the headline article in Le Monde this morning on my phone, and I was amused at the very French compliments, seemingly in diametric opposition, of a man at once both discreet and passionate. For heaven's sake, he sounds like a Parisian Lothario, but we'll leave that for later speculation or revelation. "Tell me what you know about Conte, because we know nothing!" my dentist chirruped at me this morning as I presented myself for yet another appointment.)

Conte is passionate, again, about Italian law. That must be a great deal of passion, because Italy has a LOT of laws that seem to have taken root in Roman times and grown and accrued until today (and also, thanks Napoleon, for that sweet sweet code), and now they have so many laws, you'd better be passionate about it if you think law is the right career choice for you!

This breaking news today is on every Italian mind. As I was walking into my office on Piazza della Repubblica, one of my rented colleagues cornered me. I have mentioned Iris before in these posts, and her political explanations. Today, of course, she wanted to cover this development.

"Who knows who this guy is!" she said. "But Italy is so broken, we have to try something."

"Spain had no government for over four years, and no one really noticed, Spaniards included," I said. "Maybe this is the natural conclusion of all G-7 countries, because Spain, the UK, Italy, and the US all have the same problem. The country cannot calmly be led, but meanwhile there is lo stato profondo underneath that is still working away and functioning." I was pleased I got all this out in Italian.

"Well, we will try this," she said, rolling her eyes. "Who knows how long it will last."

"France gives it five, no more than six months," I said, neglecting to mention the article had quoted Italian insiders.

Iris looked taken aback. "Well, who cares what France thinks. We have to try! Nothing works here. And anyway, if this doesn't work, in four years we will change it to another way that also doesn't work."

I laughed out loud on the stairs.

"You have universal healthcare," I said. "And a lot of vacation time."

"Yeah, so what!" she replied. "Our real income has not increased in decades."

I pointed out no one in America had recognized any real income increase either, and that GenX and GenY were making less than our parents even when both parents worked, in terms of purchasing power. She conceded my perspective.

I am always amazed at how Italians think Italy is broken, and then attempt to good-naturedly indict me on grounds of my purported rose-colored (surely American) glasses.

Note: work on projecting more grumpy in Italian public.
"Italy is like heaven for Americans," I thought, mentally ticking off all the safety, and good food, and affordable healthcare here.

"You are so American," she sighed, as we walked in the door.

"You need your own television show, or podcast, and call it Parla Iris, and you can explain political topics like this to, uh, foreigners like me."

She rolled her eyes at me and sat down at her desk.

Thinking about it now, what concerns me most about the recent result is the lack of diversity in leadership. Italy is more diverse than they admit, or want to be. Everyone at the table in this conversation is an Italian man out of central casting.

Twelve Angry Italians.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Italian Healthcare

The doctor had been a very handsome young man once, it was clear. His large eyes, easy smile, and grey hair betrayed a fidelity to style unchanged since his time in liceo in the sixties. I had been referred to Dr. Mastrolorenzo by my gynecologist for a short list of dermatological complaints related to a lifetime of living inside a thin suit of fair, sensitive skin.

I had a small lump here. A nubbin there. Another thing on my temple. An annoying rash on my torso that had been coming and going for a while now, even through both pregnancies, but which I had never managed to eradicate. He held my hand a few minutes into my explanation, looking at me with calm eyes. I am sure I was oozing historic anxiety about my questions.

My doctors in Oklahoma had been either too lazy or too uninterested to care much about any of these complaints, beyond shrugging, telling me "just don't worry about it," looking it up on WebMD in the office as I sat on the exam table, or measuring one lump with a tiny pair of calipers in attempt to at least apply some methodology and diagnosis (thank you, female doctor - truly). A well-meaning nurse midwife told me to try essential oil on the rash once when I was hugely pregnant with Eleanor in the summer of 2014. Of course the oil did not resolve the skin fungus I had picked up on the mats in the student gym where I used to routinely work out.

In the context of the US medical culture, out of pocket costs skyrocket, insurance expenses increase disproportionately to income as employers offload higher premiums to employees, and a good primary care physician can be hard to find. Even more so in a red state, as we were for years. It's bad enough in the US in a sane city. No good doctor really wants to stick around the third-largest town in Oklahoma with its transient university student population, making it very difficult to create a reliable patient base. The ER and assisted living centers seem to be busy enough in those parts, but the middle class squeeze, and our cultural reluctance to seek timely medical care, or to access reasonable preventative care, makes the doctoring prospect an overly challenging one.

I had an excellent physician for less than a year. After the usual uninspired care I received in Oklahoma, Dr. Wani was a breath of fresh air. Pakistani, intelligent, calm, confident, she ran her own office on the west side of Norman. She immediately put me at ease. She definitely had not drunk or slept her way through medical school. She did not open up her laptop to consult medical MD. She listened to my questions, silently nodded, and examined me as carefully as an valuable object connaisseur might prior to making an appraisal. Her nurse staff were all equally competent women, mostly African American, doing good work in a small office in a medium-sized Oklahoma town.

Dr. Wani moved to New York the year after I became her patient. I cried when I got the letter in the mail. I had finally found a sane, smart doctor, and she left. The letter offered to refer me to another doctor in the area. But who? I thought. Who. I trudged back to the university student health clinic, where appointments were booked for three weeks, and I was stuck in a ten minute phone tree just trying to make one. The healthcare culture of Oklahoma was exhausting. So many assumed premises, so little actual care, so much cost.

And, so much ingrained sexism, as with my regular well-woman appointments in Oklahoma. It's not like I am crazy about an annual exam, but when you've had two kids in four years, you tend to be very, ah, aware of your health. I've had irregular results before, so am very careful about checkups. I understand that it is recommended only once every three years now. One doctor recoiled when I simply asked him if he would be able to manage my well woman care. "No!" he said, recoiling, a look of distaste on his face. "We refer those out." In another, different doctor's office in Norman, I waited in a small exam room for an hour while the nurses outside argued over who might examine me, if anyone - no one ever did. They sent me home and said they'd reschedule me for a different day, or maybe next year. In a year sounds good. I received a reminder card for twelve months' hence, and left wondering why no doctor in Norman would acquit their professional responsibilities.

So, after childcare, healthcare was a major push factor for me to leave Oklahoma and the US for Italy (followed by, roughly in order, food, wine, nice people, gun control, non-fatal weather, good aesthetics, quality of life, scenery, language, literature, film). Our first year here was one of settling in, and so my short list of medical questions was placed on hold. This year, however, I found a handful of doctors in a practice on Piazza della Indipendenza that it turns out I really like, and it is a breath of fresh air.

Piazza della Indipendenza
The obgyn thoughtfully listened to my list of concerns. She was smart, patient, competent, and personable. I felt like crying to even receive such careful attention in a medical office. When I said I also had a short list of dermatological concerns, she immediately referred me to her partner in the practice, which was how I came to meet with Dr. Mastrolorenzo. The doctors here did not dispense the refrain of medical advice so beloved in Oklahoma: "Just try not to worry about it. Ignore it." I am not kidding.

Dr. Mastrolorenzo, like the obgyn, was pleased that I had brought a neat list of concerns. We covered each one of them at his desk.

"Step back here," he motioned me, back to the exam area, which was demarcated with an old-fashioned white fabric screen.

I showed his this lump, that nubbin, the other big lump, and the rash. I was self-conscious but relieved to be accessing a competent diagnostician. He was very clear on each of my concerns. They each had an actual medical term, and the term was not "you worry too much." He wrote out two prescriptions for my rash, which disappeared within a week (thus retiring my Human Cheetah moniker). He labelled and discussed the thing and the nubbin, which turned out to be a small cherry angioma (annoyingly sited on my left temple, just behind the bow of my glasses) and a sebaceous cyst on my thigh (sounds gross, doesn't hurt, easily removed with the cherry angioma, he assured me). The back lump was a small lipoma, which is common enough, I suppose, in people my age, along with the other two complaints. He referred me out to a clinic close by for an ultrasound to determine the nature of the lipoma, and a course of action.

I obtained an appointment at the clinic easily enough for the following day. Cost: 111 euros. My exam was completed by the clinic's namesake, a lugubrious radiologist who was efficient and kind. (Result: inert and fine. Do not mess with it without a good reason.) I picked up the results that week and shared them with Dr. Mastrolorenzo in his offer afterward.

"This is fine," he said, after reading the paper copies. "We will not touch the lipoma. What do you want to do about the other two things? And are you reading The New Yorker?" he peered at the magazine I had been reading idly in the waiting area.

"I am reading The New Yorker," I said -

Followed by a ten minute aside about his famous friend in New York.

New York, where the Italian doctor's doctor friend lives, and apparently reads The New Yorker.
"- And I would like to remove these two other things. They bother me. If it is easy to do - "

"Oh, very easy!" he boomed. "Very easy. That little angioma, 30 seconds. The cyst, twenty minutes, but I must stitch first on the inside, then on the outside."

This sounded fine to me.

"Are you going to the beach anytime soon?" he asked me.

I actually am. "Yes, the first week in July."

"Well. Put surgical tape over the sutures, or use a very good sunscreen."

We set the surgery date for June 7, and he made to conclude the appointment. I hesitated before I stood up.

"There is one thing I must, ah, ask you," I said. "I do not have great health insurance. The deductible is very high." I felt my American panic response to medical offices start spinning at high speed. "It is four thousand dollars."

"What?" he said. "You are not on Italian healthcare?"

"No," I said. "We do not qualify now, my husband and I are both on American payrolls, but I am paying Italian income tax now, so that could change." His eyebrows wiggled up. I continued. "But for now, I am on private American insurance."

I really wanted an estimate, to prepare, or brace myself. How much was this going to cost me, since my insurance will cover, in all likelihood, none of it? Four hundred euros? Two thousand euros? a hundred euros? I quickly calculated mentally my cash savings against some additional important health and dental needs I will be covering this year and next.

"Ah! Do not worry. I will write an excellent letter for your insurance company." He tilted his monitor toward me. It looked like an excellent letter, for sure. Long, and full of long words.

"Right. But they ... this won't matter. The letter will not force them to cover this procedure."

He looked at me blankly. This lovely Italian doctor had no idea what I was on about.

I wanted to shout, how much is it going to be, but that felt like a vulgar impulse. I was embarrassed by my anxiety about it, and still very relieved that this doctor was so competent and proactive. I did not want to suddenly seem to him like a neurotic American who was more trouble than she was worth. I took a deep breath, and left.

I still have no idea how much it is going to be. But the costs of Italian healthcare are all held down by the universal participation in their healthcare system. So far, my nervous medical estimates in Italy have been radically high, and I have been surprised by how low the cost has been, having been seen in an ER, for a regular obgyn appointment, various dental procedures, at a radiology clinic, and having taken Victor to the pediatric cardiology appointment last fall. All bills were shockingly low. One or two hundred euros, about, every time.

In the US, it was the opposite. My very nervous estimates were exceeded on an order of magnitude, and cleaned out our savings a few times for major but fairly common family health crises.

I think it will be less than a ... thousand euros. I will report back after I am stitched up.