Thursday, September 21, 2017

Firenze: French Lessons / Lezioni di francese

About a month ago, I decided that my time of intensive Italian language learning in student mode had run its course. All Italian, all the time: my brain, initially whetted by the grammatical explanations and structured conversations, had naturally transitioned to a feeling of relative calm as I moved about my business in centro. In that sense, the Italian language classes did their job: my twenty weeks of the language student masquerade had paid off.

My Spanish seems to have gone on a permanent hiatus, camouflaged among the forest of Italian trees through which I daily pick my way. It has melted seamlessly into Italian, informing my current options and accent, and providing a solid base. Yet when I am approached by Spanish speakers here, it is only Italian that comes out.

The human brain has no switch. It is organic, as is the communication it creates and attends to. If I try to steer my brain back to Spanish, the brain tacks back to Italian. There are worse linguistic fates. Thirteen years of school Spanish and living abroad were not erased, but rather transformed.

It has become clearer to me how language learning is most rapid when used daily. It is one thing to "learn" a language, but quite another to use it each day in the locale where it naturally thrives. This is why, and I am sorry to bring it up, Rosetta Stone drives me crazy. They cannot place you in Country X to learn language X. Yes, they can bombard you with conversations and touch-screen balloons and  Elmo-app-like videos, but at the end of the day, you are situated in Country Y trying to learn Language X. And that in itself certainly has its merits, giving your brain a nice workout and fracturing your perspective in new and interesting ways, perhaps. But it is not going to make you wake up one day, suddenly fluent in Italian.

For me, formal language learning has always been very relaxing. I started learning languages so long ago that a part of me just loves to be in language class. It's how some people like to do crossword puzzles, or sudoku. Show me some conjugations, discuss the theory of representing time, correct my pronunciation, have a little conversation. It's a bit like free-form, 4-D crossword puzzles.

It was with this in mind that a Facebook post piqued my interest on day - "French lessons, in group or private." I contacted the woman offering them, and, after a few long chats, we agreed to meet. Her partner owns and runs an art gallery in San Lorenzo, where she keeps a small classroom.

We met at the News Caffe, her regular coffee spot, and talked a bit outside on the terrazza, which faced the Medici Chapel and was very loud and full of exhaust fumes. She lit up, and looked closely at me as she exhaled.

Capella Medicea
We chatted in French. Halting, at times, granted. But there it was, waiving its tricolore! Rachel was clearly very cosmopolitan, creative, well-traveled. New York, Morocco, from Paris - now in Italy.

We progressed to her classroom where she completed her assessment of my French skills. She seemed to have a solid plan for me. I assured her that I had no professional motives at present to work on my French, just personal ones. I just wanted to work on a language other than Italian, for a bit. Take the focus of Italian. Enjoy another mind for a bit.

I have been thinking about it a lot in the week since our first lesson, but one thing that French gave me was a sense of solid personal boundaries. French taught me how to be less obsequious. Don't feel like smiling? Fine, don't smile. You don't know that person on the bus or the sidewalk; you owe them nothing. Don't like something? Walk away. Want something? Obtain it. When I was a student in Strasbourg, it highlighted my executive function like nothing else. Additionally, it gave me a stronger sense of self, probably due to those reinforced personal boundaries. I felt more precise and clear-headed in French. There was a social model of thought and comportment to which I aspired. I felt like up to that point, I had been bizarrely spontaneous. France helped me understand how to decide how to be, and how to decide what to say.

Rachel's instruction emphasized these same points. Uncanny.
"Tell me a story about something that happened in the past," she said. "Tell me about when you became a mother."
I fumbled. I had Victor when I was 37, and Eleanor at 41. They were born in the same hospital.
"I promise, I used to know these words," I apologized.
"I know," she said. "But you are simply reciting facts. Did you not have feelings about these events?"
Suddenly every feeling I had had in the years before we had Victor came to the surface. I felt strangely transported, and sad. What was this, a hypnosis session? Using my third language to discuss events previously only reviewed and related in my first language (longing, loss) scraped my heart down to the ground again. I blinked back tears. She did not notice how flushed I was.

How I felt
trying to explain something very traumatic to someone I had just met,
in her first language, my third.
"Let's make a list of emotions and feelings." She was into it, at her whiteboard, holding a marker. "Sadness, anger, happiness."
I struggled to come up with relevant vocabulary. I could tell she was re-estimating my proficiency.
"I am sorry," I said again. "My French is very rusty." Maybe we could talk about something less emotionally fraught, like the buses I used to take around Strasbourg, or the places I'd been to in France.
"Well," she said briskly, "let's take, as a task, the reeducation of your feelings in French. You must think about how the words you use create an image in my mind. Did you think of that?"

Actually, er, no, I hadn't thought of what words were in your mind, because I know you are French and all these words are currently in your mind, while they are not at all in my mind.

I was getting major French flashbacks. French confidence. There is nothing like it.

"Did I tell you I have published two novels?" she asked me.
I shook my head non. But I liked this fact.
I also liked the classroom in the art gallery, and this cheery, confident Parisian. I liked excavating my French, and feeling safely off-balance and uncomfortable.

I have my next class tomorrow morning, and have made my list of emotions versus feelings for our Pascalian discussion.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Firenze: Grembiule Obbligatorio / Obligatory Smocks

It's the last day of summer, and Victor has now got three full days of first grade under his belt. He did seem to even out on Friday at some point during the day, because at home that evening he was chillin' on the couch like an undergraduate, playing with his Kindle Fire. I did too, for the record, although that glass of Italian pinot grigio at lunch did help.

There are many new rules in first grade.

The first day of school Victor did not wear a smock. All the other kids had their smocks on and buttoned up.

"How cute," we said to ourselves. "How fashionable. So Italian." Some kids wore a smock in materna (preschool) last year, but it was not required. The teachers in the materna mostly prescribed and attributed smock deployment for overvigilant parents who attired their children in very spendy status labels, and who did not wish those children to come home wearing lunch on their fancy new clothes purchased by their nonni.

On Monday Maestra Alessandra pulled us to one side and said, "Where is Victor's smock?"
"We are not opting for the smock," we told her. We got this, we thought. We are down with the rules.
Her eyes grew wide. "But the smock is obligatory! It is not optional."
I shot a glance at Victor, seated in his chair at the corner desk, and remembered his barbaric yawp on Friday in the foyer, "I hate the lab coat!"
I took a breath.
"We will get the smock," we said.

We rode our bikes up a few blocks to Piazza Savonarola, where the smock store was. Maghi e Maci is adorable, staffed by two women, presumably the owner-tailors, and their little dog, Nana. It was like Etsy on Italian crack. Bars of perfect new clothes lined the walls in sizes from infant to about six or so.

"This is like my mom's alternate universe dream," I murmured as I felt the corduroy jumpers. My mom sewed all our clothes until I was in the fifth grade. She has mad textile skills as befits a thrifty Finnish-American mom with a solid aesthetic.

We explained that we needed a smock for a smallish six-year-old boy, and one of the women immediately pulled it down from the shelf for us.

This smock. I want to wear this smock. Navy blue with white trim. Natty button-up side placket, school crest, cuffs with matching buttons, faux belt at back. This smock means business. It looks like it traveled from 1550 to the present day, and has a surgery to perform scheduled for a few hours from now.

We got ready to pay for the bespoke smock. Then we thought about Eleanor. They might as well go through this Italian acculturation together, we said. It was optional for her, but she likes to dress up. She has spent the past five days voluntarily impersonating a fairy in full costume at home and around town. She might as well start getting used to the smock. We asked the owner for a little girl smock, and were promptly handed a pink-checked wonder with a faintly Elizabethan ruff. It did not seem like 1550, but definitely could have come from the late 18th century.

Their names would have to be embroidered on them, but I knew where to get this done, and the words to do it (ricamo, grembiule). We paid for both smocks and went to lunch.

It had started to rain, and I was on my bike. I had the bag with the smocks in it, and stopped by the embroidery shop a centesimo's throw from the Duomo.

Italians are crazy about embroidery. Every town you go to has at least one, probably two, embroidery shops for homemade gifts that can be monogrammed. They feature antique Singer sewing machines in cast iron painted pale green that look to date from approximately 1930. Typically, a woman is sitting out front with this buzzing bombshell, happily clicking and embroidering up a storm, moving a small knob underneath the table to advance the fabric forward as she monograms. They will often shout out at passersby, "Nome? E gratuito!" and will sew your name on the spot on a piece of paper in a cheery thread color to demonstrate their speed and skill. I have a few of these from Firenze and Assisi.

I explained to the woman what I needed, and carefully wrote the names on a piece of paper for her, since they were English. In a zip she had completed handsome monograms on each smock while I waited. As her machine buzzed, I perused their many handmade items. A very fancy apron with my name on it. All manner of kitchen and baby accessories. Shower mats and slippers galore. All monogrammed.


Then I spied a portaciuccio (binky bag). Oh my - I had to get this for Eleanor; the teacher told us that she was asking for a ciuccio during naptime, but did not have one at school. We just brought one that morning, but I actually wondered at dropoff - where is that binky going to be when she is not using it. Now I knew. I took the last pink portaciuccio and asked the sewer to monogram it too. She obliged and zipped out another monogram. As I paid, she complimented me on our choice of school for our children. We hear this a lot in Firenze. I Scolopi carries a certain cache. Prestige was not a factor in our choosing, but it's nice they all know it is a good school.


At home that evening, Eleanor was very excited about her new items. She dragged her grembiule around the house a few times, and inspected her portaciuccio in a manner very Pooh Bear (insert ciuccio, look in bag, remove ciuccio, look in bag).

We did not mention the smock to Victor, nor show it to him. I placed it in his backpack to go with him to school the next morning. Before we left his classroom on Tuesday, I told Maestra Alessandra that his smock was in his backpack. She's a professional. They are trained for this. She gave me an approving nod. I left wondering how that was going to go down with Recalcitrant Vic, who, like his father, does not appreciate being treated like some kind of paper doll to be dressed up and cooed over. Victor does not value sartorial compliance.

I did not have to wait long to see the results of Maestra Alessandra's training in action. Yesterday morning his class got to have a sample music lesson, taught by an ebullient and very musical middle-aged woman, to which all parents were invited. I stepped into the classroom, and there was Victor, seated at the keyboard, wearing the grembiule. He did not look too enthused about it, but nor was he tearing it off, shrieking. The kids played three songs the teacher had taught them in about 20 minutes, holding violins, violas, drums, and marimba mallets. Two pairs of boys were seated at each keyboard. I thought my heart would burst.

Maestra Gilda instructs a besmocked Victor on the keyboard.
This is how we know a solid education is underway.

I had a request for a picture of the kids together wearing their school smocks.
Yeah. That is never going to happen. Ever.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Firenze: A Different Life, Part 2

I always hated the produce at the Norman Super Target, and yet that was, for years, our regular grocery destination. Nothing tasted like anything. Purchasing tomatoes or strawberries or plums felt more like a semiotic exercise than a reliably positive tastebud experience. You bit into things, no matter what they were, and they were, in a word, awful. No taste at all. Styrofoam and sawdust. Horrible texture. And so, so expensive. Why did we buy it? The word was on the list, and it matched the word on the tiny produce tag in the tables. But conceptual fidelity ended there.

The bakery section. I'd like to stop here for a moment too. A decent (by local standards) but small loaf of bread would easily set you back five dollars. And it wasn't even good. And it was stale within a day. I am a baker by genotype, and early in the game after my return to Oklahoma in 2004 decided I would have to tackle the Yeast Question. Typically I trafficked in eggs, flour, butter, and sugar, but in this baker's wasteland, it was time to figure out yeast. I became expert in turning out a boule two to three times per week, thanks to the NYT recipe that was all the rage in 2006. I had a Le Creuset dutch oven, and the round loaves I routinely turned out were better than any bread that could be bought in town. Even if I upped my game and went for Fancy Flour (Bob's Red Mill; King Arthur) my loaves were still pennies on the dollar, and made mad good panini, eggs in a window, bread pudding, and sandwiches. And lasted four to five days.

Meat. Ugh. I hated meat in the US, pink in plastic. It tasted like nothing. No bones in, all wrapped on light blue styrofoam trays. Cut who knows how many days ago by a machine in a factory. At one point I told Jason, don't buy any chicken, ever. Just stick to steaks and pork please. I could not take any more of that injected MSG flavor and liquid, the weird dryness of chicken breast meat. (As any Italian will tell you, chicken breast meat is "cat food"; people eat dark meat, which tastes better.)

Jason and I love food, fresh food, and we both came to food culture as adults, through travel. As children of the seventies, we ate our share of dinners that featured Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, Durkee fried onions, Potato Buds. Casting no aspersions here - it was very much the standard of the time. (To be fair, our mothers made plenty of tasty things too from scratch, but to purchase the fresh ingredients on a regular basis for every meal was, I imagine, prohibitively expensive on one salary.)

I had a long list of food phobias when I was 19. Nothing too spicy. No bones in. No blood. No marrow. No blood sausage. I had never really eaten broccoli, or eggplant. I hated eggs. I liked starch, and a bland palate. I was a case example of advocacy for Garrison Keillor's "whitening agent": mashed potatoes with white gravy and a chicken fried steak with more white gravy, with a side of buttered corn. The semester before I went to Spain for my first study abroad program, this was my favorite thing to eat, and it was doing my heart and weight no favors.

In Spain, I went all in, determined to break my food phobias. For what is a fear, of anything, but an invitation to mastery? Forty million people can't be wrong, I told myself, and they're not at all dying from the menu, as I ate plates of liver, pigs' ears, anything and everything those gallegos pulled from the Atlantic and served on a platter: mejillones, langostinas, pulpo, merluza. I ate it all. I tried everything. I had a rule for myself that, if I did not like it, I need not eat it again. Cocidos. Tripas. Tortilla espanola a la espinaca. Everything. And less brave food too: medialunas that shattered when tapped with a small silver fork. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Chocolate con churros. Gofres. I returned home with a completely changed culinary reference.

An aspect of Seattle I always valued was its food culture. Fresh food, Pike Place Market, people from everywhere. It is hard to get a bad meal in Seattle. (It is possible to pay far too much for said meal.) (Also, the Mexican options were never good.)

But Italy. Italy and food.

In Italy, food is a right, and good food is the only kind of food there is. Americans tend to regard food as a class indicator: eating well means you're doing well. If you're not doing well, well, then you won't eat well. To eat well and organic with taste and flavor in the US means you will pay dearly for it, as this is a type of brand marker and market position that Americans have bought into. We have lost our food culture. If you fly in the US over infinite huge circles and squares of agribusiness, if you drive through Dodge City or Garden City and smell the stockyards for ten miles before and after, you see where we get our food from. How can good food possibly come out of this ADM/Monsanto world we live in, in North America? Answer: it doesn't.

Americans on the whole do not know what food tastes like, or is supposed to taste like. This is part of the reason American tourists (and many other nationalities) flip out when they come to Italy and eat: it is akin to getting into a time machine and returning to 1900 or 1880 and tasting what food must have tasted like for my great-grandparents. (Granted they probably had less of it, but what they had tasted like something.) In Italy I never cease exclaiming over the tomatoes, potatoes, porcini mushrooms, the eggplant, the tiny zucchini and the little zucchini squash balls. The eggs, the dairy. One of my favorite Italian food moments of the past year was Victor's joyful exclamations over the fishmonger's supply at Mercato Sant'Ambrogio. He just wanted to look at all the types of fish because he was blown away!

The schools take lunch very seriously too: the food education does not end at the kids' front door. Two courses plus a side, fresh bread, water, at a table with a plate and cutlery, and a glass glass. The menus are varied, and fresh, despite what the Italian mamme might say in a 148-message midyear WhatsApp tirade.

Eleanor receiving Italian lunch instruction.
Italy has never entered into the black pact of agribusiness because - well, look at a map. A narrow peninsula spined from north to south with mountains. Good luck getting mass irrigation profitably moving on that. Italy gave the world the Slow Food movement, to try to remind everyone to consider their culinary patrimony before plowing enormous monocrop fields, shutting down every family farm or garden, and heading to Burger King or Flunch or Golden Corral for a meal.

Our grocery bills in Italy reflect their value of Good Food for Everyone. A huge take at IperCoop, an Italian chain, will set us back just 90 euros. Groceries easily a third to a half less what they cost in the US. Produce even cheaper. A few examples: frozen pizza (special treat for kids at home), two euros. Brick of coffee (half a kilo), less than three euros. UHP milk brick, seventy-five cents. Cold cuts? a couple of euros for a handsome packet of prosciutto wrapped in paper. Fresh mozzarella balls? Sixty cents. A whole Italian chicken? Four euros. And on and on. It all adds up. We eat so much better here for so much less. When our friends come to cook, I keep an eye on all their tricks, and have learned a few things here and there: a bit of butter in the red sauce. Salt your eggplant. How to dice zucchini for a frittata. And more.

The prepared food that is sold in Italy is more honestly made - in the sense that Italy does not add sugar to every single thing. We always say here, you know when you're eating sugar, because you have either put it in your coffee, or you are eating a sensibly-sized pastry. The amount of prepared food in Italian supermarkets is a fraction of what you find in the US. I remember being so frustrated by all the colorful packaging, the huge freezer sections. What if I just want to make some food? I despaired. Rows and rows of frozen freezer bags of things Americans can't or won't make, or don't have the time to make.

Italians always remark on it. Our friend Flavia was floored this summer in the US. Your food costs so much here! And it does. And it doesn't even taste that good.

Italy wants you to eat, and eat well, no matter how much you make. You could eat well here as a single person on sixty euros a week, if you planned your meals and cooked at home like 99% of Italians. And they would be good meals.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Firenze: The Discomforts of Home

The longest summer break known to the whole of mankind came to an end yesterday as Victor began first grade today. September 15, people.  By this time in the school calendar I had usually already been at school for a month and had drafted a list of classmates whom I planned to invite to my birthday party.

Victor is continuing into the elementary school in the same school where he completed materna (preschool) last year, at I Scolopi, a mere hop from Jason's office on Via Lamarmora.

(Eleanor began materna two weeks ago, essentially taking Victor's vacated space in the sezione italiana, which is populated by many international families. She is fully adjusted and happy as a clam with Maestras Sabrina e Manuela.)

I hounded the kids last night to get to bed, and set the alarm clock for the factory-whistle hour of 7:15 am. We read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (Victor is obsessed with all the cats in the consecutively smaller hats, and with the invisible Little Cat Z.) Victor seemed vaguely aware of the imminent start of school. Honestly, it all seems like so long ago to him now. School? What school? There is a thing called school?

I woke up well before the alarm, and lazed until it went off. As Jason is returning today from his ten-day trip, we were all in the same bed. I shook Victor awake and said, Victor! It's a school day! 
He woke up and smiled. He really was excited. Our good Victor ate breakfast and got dressed, playing until Eleanor woke up.

We all got out to the busstop in front of our palazzo by 8 am, with an ample choice of buses (but no 19, sorry Victor!) The packed 6B stopped. "Come on, guys, we gotta get on this," I said, holding Victor's hand and heaving Eleanor onto my hip. We validated our ticket and sardined ourselves in. Grumpy Florentines were giving up no seats in spite of the two little kids. They have this strategy where they stare out the window and refuse to make eye contact.

Busy Piazza San Marco morning
At the next stop we moved back toward the middle where I herded the kids into the wheelchair space to watch them. A quick turnaround on San Marco to catch the less-crowded 1B up to school. Eleanor clutched her mini gummi bears in a sweaty palm. They both wore their backpacks like big kids. A friendly grandmother chatted to them on the way to school.

Glad I got this picture early in the morning.
We dropped off a happy Eleanor upstairs (hardly anyone in materna at that hour; she was #4 in) and Vic and I went back downstairs to wait to be let into his classroom. His teacher, Maestra Alessandra, told me on Tuesday that they would wait for all the bigger kids on the floor to get in and settle down, then the youngest ones would go to their classroom.

This is where things began to crumble. The foyer was crowded and hot, and so loud. Victor has a low threshold for tolerance of such an ambient. We see a similar reaction when we try to walk with him to the mercato Sant'Ambrogio. I pointed out the lab coats (smocks). He was not wearing one. He started tearing up. "I don't want a lab coat! I hate the lab coat!" I reassured him that it was optional. "What's optional mean!" he shouted over the din.

It got increasingly louder as parents jockeyed for positions from which to take photos and videos of their little besmocked scholars. Victor was so upset we had to go outside for intervention. Although many of the kids he knows from preschool last year are in his class, he was not interested in talking to them. His new older American friend Izzy with whom he has been playing for the last two weeks blew through the androne on her way to quarta (fourth grade).

Finally the herd started moving upstairs. The scrum continued in the hallway, then, incredibly, in the classroom, as parents continued to take photo and video of their kids like they were sailing off to new homes in South America. Victor did not want to take a seat at first, and by the time he felt he might be ready to sit down, all the seats but a back one at the corner were taken. The noise and chaos went on and on. Eventually a few parents began to filter out.

One of Victor's classmates is on the spectrum, and her helper, whom Victor knows, saw what a hard time he was having so came back to sit with him and talk to him. At this point he had been crying for close to half an hour. This is not like our Vic. I was upset that he was upset.

"This is like prom, this is insane," I growled as the parents continued to take Party Pics and mug for their cameras.
"What's prom?" Victor asked.
"This," I said. "It is in high school, and is a reason to take a lot of pictures."
"What this would be like in English," he asked.
"Probably a lot calmer," I said. "Italians can be so loud." I thought a moment. "This would be a very different situation anywhere north of here."
"I'm glad daddy's not here," Victor sniffled.
"Why?" I asked.
"He would not like this either!" Victor said.
"Yeah, this is definitely a lot of chaos for mommy too."
He sniffled some more and held back tears, but a few escaped. Like anyone, he hates crying in public. The outrage at one's own uncontrolled emotions is worse than the actual situation.
Daniela the helper motioned to me. "It is better if I just go?" I mouthed to her in Italian.
She nodded, so I kissed Victor on both cheeks, made sure one last time he had his lunch ticket in his pants pocket, and left.

Maestra Alessandra followed me out into the hallway.  She reassured me she would look after Vic especially today.
I felt like I needed a debrief. It was way too early for a spritz.
I walked home.

I think to Italians this loud and rambunctious scene feels totally normal. All the parents were motioning and mouthing to me, what is wrong with Vic? I felt like saying (but did not feel like shouting), does this not seem a bit loud and over the top to you? I mean, any reason for a party, but come on. This was like an Italian wedding, minus the buffet. It was like trying to get a few of the freshly laid out fiori fritti di zucca and failing. I could not believe how much Vic and I had gotten jostled and bodychecked waiting in the foyer and trying to walk into the classroom.

I am looking forward to getting my little guy back at the end of the day. I think we could all use a debrief.

This is clearly a day of growth and increasing flexibility for Victor.

And mamma.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Firenze: Feeling at Home

I feel increasingly at home in Firenze. The streets are slowly seeming more intuitive as I get around on bike and mentally plan my circuits through town. I know which caffes are welcoming, and which are better to just skip. I can source a good, fast meal in a pinch. The comessi (checkers) at the our main grocery store recognize me now.

I was born restless. I like to be interested in things. When known quantities start to feel overly familiar, my curiosity heads out for a walk.

Does he really have a moustache?

We moved around a lot when I was a child. At one point I counted up that we had moved ten times by the time I was ten. I never underestimate the impact this had on my ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances, to feel the fear and jump in anyway. A lingering inheritance of this childhood is that I am most comfortable when I am slightly uncomfortable. When my surroundings seem to have been slightly shifted and turned to the left or to the right. When I have only partial knowledge of my surroundings, language, food, people, customs. I love to puzzle it out and then to do it right - which is to say, like a local does. I am a parrot and a mimic. I can repeat a word in a convincing accent if a native speakers says it first. It doesn't mean I'll remember the definition for the rest of my life, but in the moment, it is a fine skill to have.

I don't like to be conspicuous. I like to go deep cover. I like to slip in and pass, wherever I am. Whatever they're saying, I want to listen. Whatever they're eating, I want to have some. Whatever they value, I too want to appreciate. I don't want the limelight. I want to be a cultural double agent, to compare and understand what I am experiencing. They don't need to know who I am. For today, I am one of them.

I read a lot of fiction in my early years - before ten. In many ways reading was my lifeline of consistency in a childhood characterized by frequent moves. The characters in the books I read were always waiting in the pages for me. I know now that all that early reading increased my ability to empathize, to see the world through other people's eyes, and to know when to choose to take the perspective, or to keep my own. For what is reading to a child but a way to get inside a character's head, to read their thoughts and to understand their motivations, to feel their fear and to get an identical jolt from their joy? In this way, I traveled as a child even when I was not traveling (although arguably, moving around at the clip we did is very close to traveling).

De Chirico always struck a chord with me.
Americans, I have come to understand, are a strange lot, but not stranger than our post-colonial counterparts in South America, especially in the Cono Sur - Argentina, Brazil, Chile. It was a shock to me when I traveled in Latin America to sense its familiarity, in contrast to my early years in Europe. In the Cono Sur, the new and the old are intertwined in ways that feel more familiar to an American. In Europe, they always liked to remind me how old and established everything was.

Our forebears self-sorted as the adventurous types, by leaving their villages and homes and casting themselves into the unknown, in the steerage hold of the SS Liverpool, as my Finnish great-grandfather did. We are the descendants of nomads and adventurers. We are the ones who feel the fear, and carry on.

A recent article out of the UK found that generational memory in lab settings lasts for fourteen generations. Imagine what we all remember, in dull pangs and pinpricks of impulse, in inherited memories from our grandparents since 1600. I don't have logical reasons for wanting to be disoriented, in a land whose language I have not mastered, ever interested in further exploring. Certainly the itinerant childhood had something to do with it, but what of the pull of my ancestral meanderings?

Or even more recently, I read another article that found, through the genealogical archive, that the reproductive population of Finland in 1690 (alternative citation, but also useful) had been reduced to just 200,000 people through epidemic famine. That is like two Ohio State University campuses. Not a lot of people! My mother is 100% Finnish, second- and third -generation, on her paternal and maternal sides, respectively. We all giggle at her propensity to save and store food as though the nuclear winter were imminent (well, in these days..) but even I have been known to hoard food or eat slightly questionable food, driving my husband nuts, to which I retorted, "how wonderful that you have never known famine or hunger." He looked at me like I had lost my mind, and maybe I had.

My carpetbagging nature helps me quickly feel at home. Kids and husband in place? Check. Kettle for tea, and milk? Check. Bed and clean linens? Check. A little trick I have is to move something to make it look better as soon as I arrive to a place to make it feel more like home. I have rearranged coffeemaker trays in hotels. I switched around all the things on our wall in the Firenze apartment and felt more at home. I appreciate a solid furniture switcharoo. Like a Basenji circling in tall sweetgrass, I can quickly make a nest.

Now, after a year in Firenze, things have been switched around and compared. Knowledge has been shuffled and rearranged. I am in my sophomore Florentine year enjoying a breathtaking surfeit of familiarity. I feel fortunate in that.

Since Jason and I met in 2003, Italy has become my second home, as we have traveled and worked and lived and vacationed here almost every year since then, with the exceptions of 2007 and 2010. Italy was the place we wanted to be, and where we built our communities and knowledge, even as we bided our time on the prairie waiting for the stars to align and the opportunity to present itself.

And now? I don't want to leave.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Firenze: Linguistic Journeys, or the Periphery of Fluency

I have been hitting some major milestones in Italy with respect to language. I am modestly proud of my progress, challenged as it is now in midlife in ways that it was not when I was a university student.

In the early and mid-nineties, my main occupation abroad was to attend class on host campuses, pick up vocab, monitor hot-spots to be seen in, crush on cute foreign boys, read literature in other languages, journal, travel, and puzzle over train timetables.


Now, I juggle language learning with parenting, diaper changing, working full-time, battling sleep deprivation, monitoring sick children, solo parenting while Jason is away, and constantly moving pieces around on our logistics board to make sure that everyone is where they need to be at the right time with the support they need. Language learning is now done quickly, in concentration, with no time for nonsense.


And, as many Italians have helpfully pointed out, my full-time remote work for my US employer is doing little to further acclimate me culturally and linguistically. I live in a little bubble of English that is punctuated by drive-bys in Italian at stores, caffes, and on the street. I am frequently rattled from my anglophone reverie by a sudden volley of Italian, and lurch as I struggle to quickly shift gears. When the kids come home we speak more Italian as they are being well-conditioned by the Italian education system, and to be fair, I leverage their language often in the service of improving mine as their vernacular is excellent and perfectly deployed.

I completed five months of Italian language class in the Sprachcaffe, and they were helpful hours of instruction, especially to benchmark myself against other Italian language learners who are not, well, Italian people, or my gifted husband.

I irrationally hoped that I would wake up one morning speaking fluent Italian, like those Rosetta Stone commercials we so openly mock, or that Facebook clickbait that has been going around lately. Intellectually I know this to be a hopeless wish, and yet emotionally I cling to it. (Clearly this is a marketing position for Rosetta Stone products.)

Jason and I have been students, at one point or another, of at least 25 languages between the two of us (not to brag, merely stating facts), and we are nothing if not realistic about the human capacity to learn and correctly use acquired language. There is no download, no tiny chip to slip in and launch.


Linguistic fluency is a continuum along which all language learners travel. We find ourselves on various points of the spectrum for reasons that are by turns clear, then obscure. Cultural fluency is equally important - it is not simply learning words and concepts, but know when and how to properly use them. For example, buon proseguimento, which in Italian might be best translated with the British "carry on, then," does not really exist in English. In English we wish people good luck a lot, and tell them goodbye, but do not have a term for "I hope you enjoy the remainder of whatever you are doing now." Frankly, I don't know an equivalent for it in French or Spanish either.

Italians like to wish each other a "buon/a [cosa]", which in Spanish or French to me seems limited to greetings demarcated by the time of day. In Italian you can be wished a happy anything. They love it. Buon asilo (day at daycare), pausa (break), appuntamento (appointment), pranzo (lunch), and so on. (Funny side note, perhaps it was more a function of life phase, but in Spain I remembered a similar use of puto/a + noun, for the adjectival f*cking.)

But I digress. I wanted to say here how I am going to leave Italian to the side for a moment, and appreciate it as The Water I Swim In and less the Language I Am Learning. I can get very intense about things, which comes as no surprise to anyone who even remotely knows me or both intense sides of my family.

I have met my milestones in the form of soloing a parent/teacher meeting with Victor's new first grade teacher, Maestra Alessandra, which I navigated with relative calm and used culturally and grammatically appropriate markers of respect by addressing her consistently as Lei with the third person singular conjugation. She complemented me on my Italian! And she is a teacher by trade!

I completed a few business calls last week entirely in Italian as I contacted and preliminarily interviewed childcare help for newly arrived friends of ours, and one of them complemented me on my Italian. On the phone! In the moment!

I am less nervous now communicating in businesses and when getting things done. (Our friend Susan always claims I receive the Vivacious Cute Girl discount at Italian businesses.) I hate feeling awkward, but I don't feel like I am going to be ticketed and deported for Substandard Communication. So I'll chalk all those up and call it success.

My next little language project starts on Friday morning. Yes, I am headed back to French language with weekly private lessons from a Parisian in centro, an artist in a studio in San Lorenzo. Why not expand on a language I was once at ease in? Why not enjoy stored expertise? It will be a relief to inventory my French magasin with a native speaker

It's all in there. I sense it lurking behind the scenes, like a stagehand dressed in black moving props between acts. It bubbles up quickly when I bump into lost French tourists in town. I could not have imagined in 1996 that French - French! - would come to feel like an old friend. Perhaps if I change my focus, and put Italian on the periphery of my linguistic gaze, it will come more easily, like when you get a hole in one at mini-golf because you weren't really paying attention to what you were doing or where you were aiming.

An obvious overlap exists, so it's not like taking up a completely new non-Romance language (although I would never say no to that either.) When my brain defaults to Spanish and French while punting in Italian, it is not to brag. Rather, like a rock climber, my brain is grasping and clinging to whatever clefts it can find in that sheer face.

It is really, really hard to visualize che instead of que. When I hear Italian che, I see Spanish que in my mind. I am not trying to; I am just so conditioned by years and years of instruction, living, and travel in French (since 1993) and Spanish (since 1983). I do not reach for a specific language; they just bleed into each other. Language, I am learning again in midlife, is not a new app to download, but rather hues and shades to mix from the palette at hand.


Next topics: Language as Software; How To Quickly Feel at Home

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

9/11 - Sixteen Years On

The 9/11 anniversary for me will always mark the end of my international innocence. When flight and travel ceased to be my chief amusement and entertainment, and became a weapon of war. When the hatred between peoples became clear. When my little worldview was, in a moment, revealed for the naivete that it was.

No caption necessary.

I lived in Seattle then, in Wallingford. I heard the news on NPR on my clock radio alarm (remember those?) and thought it was a hoax, like War of the Worlds. I dressed for work and went down to our basement living room to watch in disbelief as the second tower fell.

Flights were grounded and the normal landing patterns traced over Lake Washington to the north of Seatac ceased. Everything seemed numb and quiet. I couldn't eat or think for days. I sobbed to my therapist about smelling building smoke and tasting fear each night in my dreams. I was flooded by imaginative empathy. I moved like a robot through my new job for weeks, taking on a monumental and horrible project just to keep going. They approved of my initiative and thought I was an unbelievably hard worker.

I was wretched over it all. I didn't know how anything would ever work again in my life. Up until then, things had managed to hang together for me based on a gestalt formula of luck, street smarts, independence, and magic. But 9/11 seemed to scrape everything back to bedrock and made me start from scratch.

I'm glad my children were not alive then to see it, or me in that state.

I did next fly again six months to the day on 3/11, fearful of a redux, although that date too became the Spanish 9/11 three years later. In Seatac, I bought some courage in a bar in the form of two huge draft beers and was amused and distracted by a young and fairly wasted oil worker from Alaska. I flew home to see my parents that trip.

Such a time it was. I don't know if I'll ever fully sort out my feelings from it.