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.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Firenze: A Different Life, Part I

We've been living in Italy for a little over a year now. A lot has happened, and much has become clear. I have a series of cultural observations in mind that have been percolating, and today is the first one in the series.

I am not afraid of being shot in Italy.

We moved here from Oklahoma in 2016. Oklahoma is a very gun-friendly state that has allowed open carrying of guns since 2012, and which recognizes as valid any gun license from any other state. It was a common enough thing when I was growing up in Oklahoma that people had guns around, or went hunting.

I will confess here that as a teenager I had an episode on the banks of the Cimarron River playing with firearms north of the county line that I'm frankly surprised I survived (sorry Mom).

We never had guns in the home, and my family are not hunters.

I heard a lot of rhetoric from my male peers in Oklahoma, especially in high school and college, along the lines of you don't understand, Monica; guns are a part of my life. They are a part of our life. You think guns are bad and they're not. In my high school there was a senior who had to have been about 19 who sold guns, including sawed-off shotguns, from the back of his truck in the school parking lot. He was never arrested or asked to stop selling guns in the school parking lot; he just did it. This can't have been legal and yet it was something we all joked about.

In the eighties and nineties, however, what you didn't see in Oklahoma was people openly carrying guns. In public. In completely unnecessary situations, like picking up a toddler from daycare. In a store. At Starbucks. This made me feel unsafe. To me, carrying a firearm seems a bit like drinking, in the same way that drinking impairs a person's judgment about their judgment. After a second glass of wine, or when you're toting around your gun, you think your judgement is fine - but it is not.

If you find yourself in a dispute, the gun is at the ready for you to pull on someone, as a parent did recently at a Target store in America over school supplies. As a man did to the wife of one of our former faculty colleagues in Oklahoma at a Starbucks. You're just going through your day, and then a gun is in your face, and the person holding it has not thought things through very far, in either direction.

It was a significant aspect of the dominant culture in which I chose to not participate. And yet, I was forced to participate in gun culture, on many levels and without my consent, due to the participation of so many people who create and foment gun culture.

The daycare guns were what killed me. The staff in Oklahoma laughed when they told me the stories of mothers picking up their children from Victor and Eleanor's daycare, patting their pistol on their hip, and reminding their children, Don't hug mommy on this side, it's her gun side, it is loaded.

People. This is madness.

I asked the daycare to please set a policy that parents could not carry guns into the school unless they were a uniformed officer. I stood in the office and asked them repeatedly and calmly. I followed up with an email. They avoided the question for a while, and then returned with some "research." The school refused to do so since state law permitted it.
But this is private property! I said. You can make your own rules!
But it will upset the parents who want to carry their guns to school, they said. We follow state law here.
I said, but state law does not say they HAVE to carry their guns everywhere.
But parents want to, and they can. We won't make the rule that you propose.
This was in our top choice daycare, in a town where the waiting list lasted four years to get in, where there was no other place for our kids to go. I was beside myself. In a culture that does not recognize or support working mothers, childcare demand outstrips supply many times over. (More on that in a later post.)

Three times that year before we left, our children's school or Jason's campus was in lockdown for gun-related violence. Each time, I spent the day with sweaty palms, the taste of adrenaline thick on my tongue, to get them or not to get them? But in a lockdown, you cannot get them. That's the point of a lockdown.

This was not like a tornado, a menace from nature. The gun menace is made by humans, those lockdowns and the violence and loss of life.

I reject the logic that says I should have bought my own gun, and trained on it.

Uh, no. That is the last thing I want to do. I do not want a gun. I do not want to carry it. I do not want it in my house. 

To many people in Oklahoma, this seemed like a logical choice that I stubbornly refused to accept. Actually, y'all know what? We could leave this place and move to ....

Italy.

Guns are sensibly controlled here. Getting a firearm license is akin to getting a driver's license, with a medical exam, eye exam, insurance. It expires regularly. There is no conceal or open carry for citizens. I do not know that I have even seen the carabinieri (federal police) armed, although they do have smart uniforms featuring white leather accessories. But I am never, ever worried that someone is going to get out of hand in Italy and pull a gun on me. I have been able to completely put this fear to rest.

This results in a civil society. I feel so much less like a lab rat on a stress test. Shouting matches do not escalate into death, at least not on the streets of Firenze. No one is going to pull out a Glock because I grabbed the last copy of a new book in Feltrinelli. No one is going to point a gun at me because I said something about his dog in a coffeeshop.

The gun culture in Oklahoma was killing me. Every day, in every way, I was reminded how my right to live in a safe and civil society and without fear of harm was trumped by the rights of others to openly carry their weapons wherever they pleased. It's governed by macho, and might makes right. They are no trophy hunters in Oklahoma, either; not like up north, in Michigan or Wisconsin, dead bloody ten-point buck tied to the front fender, staring blindly ahead. I disagree with sport hunting too, but at least it's a sport. Kind of.

There is nothing at all sporty about getting drunk and driving your pickup truck around, aiming a gun out the window to shoot at mailboxes, or to shoot beer cans off a stump, or to shoot aimlessly into a choked red river. What a constitutional right to protect. What idiocy.

My transition from open gun culture to controlled gun culture plays out in amusing ways on the playground in Italy. The first few times I saw kids with toy guns in Piazza d'Azeglio I thought I was going to have a cardiac. My cultural conditioning screamed, get down! Those are real! But of course they weren't. Yet my amygdala did not know that. Of course in Italy toy guns for children may look as realistic as possible, because the alternative reality of actual children holding actual loaded guns is impossible. The Italian children happily ran around the playground with their very realistic toy guns, and not a single parent twitched. I remembered all the specialized vocabulary that some parents friends of ours had - we call it a shooter, not a gun. The rules - do not ever point it at anyone's head, or at anything with eyes, no guns for birthday presents, no play guns when they visit.

In a perfect world, kids would not have toy guns at all. But in a decent world, there is no question about the realness of the guns. I'll take a decent world anyday. That world in Oklahoma, with all the open guns? That is a mad world. It is uncivil. And that is a part of Oklahoma that I am not at all sad to have left behind.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Firenze: Controllati per ATAF/Busted by ATAF

Florence, you can be such a cruel mistress.

This past weekend our old friends Alice and Jonathan were visiting us from the UK, where they live. Fun! Friends! Dinner! Fines.

(Italian: "controllare," "to check" - also the verb for what the ATAF officials do when they board the bus and ask you if you have a ticket, then fine you if you don't.)

After two hours in Saturday market and unsuccessfully searching for the green heart of Moana for Eleanor amongst all the southeast Asian sparkly bangle tables, we contrived to wind our way up to Fiesole on the #7, a favorite pastime of Victor's. It sits on a hill north of centro, topped by a tower, ever serene. Jason purchased an ATAF CartaAgile (10 rides on a magnetic strip) at the news kiosk in Sant'Ambrogio and we set off.

Our destination: Fiesole

Our children, however, were not serene that morning. The original plan was to all take the city bus. Then certain little people indicated that that was not at all in their plan. So we tried to put the little people in the car. The smallest one immediately protested and insisted on boarding the bus. The 6B was rounding the corner.

Let's go, let's go! I said.
What, Jason responded, I'm going to carry her for the next two hours?
Just come on, I wheedled. I had sunshine and Fiesole on the brain.

The bus stopped and we all got on. Victor held the CartaAgile and beeped it on the machine. We stepped to the middle of the bus. Alice and Jonathan were at the back. Jason and Eleanor got on behind us. The bus pulled away from the stop, and we began bouncing our way down Via della Colonna.

How many times did Victor beep it? Jason mouthed.
Just the one, I mouthed back.
Jason beeped the card three more times. Beep beep beep.

At the next stop, the controllers stepped on. Navy blue uniform, official-looking small hip bags, headed straight for Jason. Jason showed them the card, and they said we would all be receiving fines and that we should get off with them at Piazza San Marco.

An actual ATAF poster. "No ticket, don't go!"
It was a beautiful day. A woman on the bus tsked and shook her head at me as we rattled past Santissima Annunziata. Not that we had done something wrong, but that we had such terrible luck as to be picked up in a ticket control. Italians almost universally have a distaste for officialdom, even as they grudgingly respect Someone Who Does Their Job. A job, after all, is a job.

I will tell you now, in my months and months of bus riding in Firenze, I have never seen a controller on a bus, nor have I been controlled, even though I never ride without a ticket.

The controllers took all six of us off the bus at Piazza San Marco, where they also happen to have their controller hut on the other side of the piazza, adjacent to the Galleria dell'Accademia. Victor whimpered in the strong sun. Jason held a sleepy Eleanor on his shoulder and stared ahead. I squinted. Alice and Jonathan were rightfully confused.

Lovely place to receive a ticket.
The controllers immediately started in and informed us that we had broken the rules by attempting to use the CartaAgile for more than one person. We all stood there and looked at them. I looked at Jason because I knew what was about to happen - I had seen it before, although infrequently.

Jason kept staring at the sun with his sunglasses on, straight ahead. Eleanor had her head on his shoulder. Jason was furious. I could feel it. I sensed him gathering his medieval anger and verbs to unleash a volley of public dispute against officialdom such as these two official controllers had never heard before. So you all think you caught a big fish today, hmm? Good job, guys. Well done. His nostrils flared as he inhaled.

We catch the fish every day, the older one said, it is our job. He looked simultaneously depressed and offended.

Jason was just warming up. We tried to do the right thing! We bought a card! We beeped it! It was an honest error, he said. The bus driver said nothing! If he had said a word, of course we would have bought tickets. We buy your tickets all the time. We buy single tickets and monthly tickets. We always validate. We were not trying to cheat ATAF! he shouted.

They were having none of it. Everyone who's getting written up now, give us a document, all of you, they said.

Alice and Jonathan furrowed their brows. I produced a Washington state driver's license, which is the easiest to locate in the front pocket of my wallet. Jason gave them nothing, since of the four beeps, at least one was legit. Alice and Jonathan gave them UK documents.

Jason continued to dispute with the two officers the whole time they were handwriting the tickets. They asked me for a different document, and I fumbled to give them my tessera santiaria - my health system card. The older official was genuinely shocked.

But ... but you work here! he cried, looking at me.

By this time Jason and the two men had been shouting for some time, while our two stealth Brits and the kids and I kept to ourselves. Best to leave this in the hands of a disputational professional. Jason loves to rise to the occasion when Italian outrage is involved. Someday I will retell here The Story of the Huge Dispute in Milan Malpensa.

Yes, Jason said. Yes, we work and live here. Did you think we were tourists? Because we have guests? Did you think you could bully us? Just take us off the bus and charge us 50 euros cash, each, for this? Do we look like tourists to you? Do I sound like a tourist? Here, tell me to my face right now that I look and sound like a tourist to you. Go on, tell me. Tell me now.

The man did start to look a little rattled. It's my job, he said. Signore, just doing my job here. Jason relaxed slightly.

They finished writing us all up, and we combined the contents of our wallets to pay them the collective 150 euros.

No one wanted to go to Fiesole anymore.

Jason looked like he might punch one of the nuns nearby in front of San Marco.

Eleanor was almost asleep, and Victor was quickly turning pink in the sun.

Alice and Jonathan decided to meander down Via Cavour to do tourist things. We went to our local fish and chip stand to get some fries. Victor said he just wanted to go home.

Don't beep the card again, Jason grumbled. It's good for 90 minutes.

Victor and I caught the #14 back to our palazzo. On the bus, Victor examined the back of the AgileCart and helpfully informed me, look, Mamma, it says right here on the back that it is good for one person only. It is the head of one person with a number 1. Do you see? Even I can understand it, Mamma.

Grazie, Victor. Tante grazie. 

Jason arrived home soon after and left on a bike ride to go work it out.

Friends since then have remarked to us that the ATAF drivers are trained to use their controller call button if tourists get on the bus and look like they haven't paid. The bus driver likely heard the three beeps in succession and pressed his button.

I was a bit surprised afterward that neither the driver nor the officials attempted to extort us for a lower cash price than the official fee. That bus driver could have easily said, pay me 40E or 100E right now or I'll press this button and call my friends the controllers to come write you all huge tickets. The controllers could have said, 40 to us right now each or we write you tickets for 50. But that didn't happen.

It is, after all, Tuscany, not some less savory or law-abiding zone.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Firenze: Per Mala Fortuna/More bad luck!

Yes, friends, it is no longer funny. Our stretch of poor luck continues.

But before we talk about the bad luck, as though that were the only theme in our lives - which it is not! I will favor moderation by talking about all our good luck too of late. Indeed, we have had large amounts of great luck.

To begin, no one has been sick. School is open for business, and Eleanor began preschool today at I Scolopi, in the same room and class as Victor finished last year, with the same teacher, who was also promoted to direttrice (director of the school) over the summer.

Eleanor with her security detail in piazzetta.

So delighted was Eleanor to finally get this big kid gig going that she kissed Jason and Victor arrivederci, as instructed by the maestra. I stood there unsure what to do - I had been told to be prepared to remain in the classroom with her for up to two hours while she acclimated. Plenty of her peers were shyly holding back and literally hanging on to their mother's skirts. Italians want to make so many accommodations for our Eleanor, reluctant to believe when we tell them the child was born acclimated. I was at the door for all of two seconds; Eleanor did not look back, and gave me a reverse wave while running toward the group of kids - many of whom were Victor's classmates last year, as it is a mixed ages school.

Go, go, go, Sabrina la maestra motioned to me. Just wait in the piazzetta! She shooed me down the hall.

The piazzetta is what they call the small assembly area after the front entrance, and which has become even smaller now that they have added a fourth bilingual class (Italian/English) by popular demand.

I sat in the piazzetta for about ten minutes, watching the other families and parents and children, and, yes, nonni come in - Italian grandparents are a critical component of this equation. Some familiar faces. Lots of new clothes. Very cute backpacks. A few minutes later Sabrina emerged, laughing, and said that Eleanor was having such a good time, I should just go. I reassured her I would be around and about on my bike, and would be back if there was a need. We exchanged telephone numbers, and I was out the door like a flash to hop on my bike and enjoy the cool morning in town.

People. Today is Labor Day. I am finally on a flipped schedule where everyone else is working! and I am not! I can't believe it! The approximate frequency of this is 1:20 where 1 represents my vacation days and 20 represents the vacation days of everyone else in Italy, on Italian schedules, such as my kids and husband. Our babysitter is at home; the kids are happy; the sun is out. It is not roasting and I. Am. Off.

I spent my morning tooling around on my bike, crossing to Oltrarno and stopping off in Santo Spirito for a good half hour to calmly look at every cappelle and picking up a few saint cards, including a Santa Monica.

Oltrarno garage

I meandered through the ultra marked-down designer clothing market where I picked up three tops for two euros each! and they're lovely. Wow! Oltrarno! So much to do. Then off to Silathai to make a massage appointment, and to Sugar Blues to pick up some semi-sparkly organic German face powder.

Florence without filter, looking at Ponte alla Carraia from Ponte Santa Trinita
I zipped back to Jason's office on my bike (more good news! not stolen!) and found Victor slouched onto a loveseat, his beady red eyes glued to his new tablet. After some cajoling and a bribe, we headed to I Giglio bar for a snack. I messaged our friend Susan in advance to meet us there.

Victor selected a huge coppetta di gelato, slathered with chocolate syrup and nested into a chocolate covered cone. Yep, I let him eat that before lunch.

Hmm, looks like pranzo.
I had a macchiato and a small prosciutto sandwich, because, why not. As we sat down to tuck into our giant gelato and mid-morning sustenance, I heard a familiar voice behind me - friends of friends whom we'd met at a dinner hosted by the Dutch family up on Via Bolognese, and whose eldest daughter Delphine will be forever fixed in Victor's heart as his first childhood love.

Eleanor: Victor loves Delphine!
Me: Victor, do you love Delphine?
Victor: (long pause to consider) Yes... I think so.

Delphine remains up on the top floor in materna with Eleanor, but in a different class.

The father and son whom I'd recognized were Cristian and his son Diego, a year younger than Victor. We chatted for a bit, then Susan arrived. Victor by this time was wearing the better part of his gelato. "I'm going to go wash my hands," he announced, standing up. He returned five minutes later to announce that the sink was not functioning. We brought chocolate Charlie Chaplin back to Jason's office, then Susan and I returned to Eleanor's classroom to pick her up.

Eleanor was beaming. She'd received a medal for her first day, and had made a bas-relief seascape out of homemade playdough involving glitter, a whale with red peppercorn eyes, and embedded seashells. She almost fell asleep walking back to Jason's office. We all rode home on the bikes - the two kids on Jason's bike (with the new baby bike seat we purchased for Eleanor), and I on mine, riding behind with various bags and ready to pick up anything dropped by the circus bike in front of me.

The afternoon setup in place, I headed back out to Oltrarno on my bike. I consider it a sign of feeling more at home in the city that my routes are becoming more direct and consonant with one-way streets. I stopped for some pictures on the bridge.

Lungarno - late summer color
Yes, I did return to Santo Spirito, to hang out in Pop Caffe and write, then back to Silathai for my appointment.

It's been a perfect day. My one day a year where I get to drop of the radar and do Everything I Want to Do.

I'll conclude this now as I enjoy my glass of red in our garden. Our neighbor Cassidy has recently purchased a new outdoor seating arrangement.

I can't even remember our bad luck now.

WAIT. I bet Jason remembers it.

Well, we've had a ton of good luck too, and for that, I am grateful.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Firenze: Stolen Things/Le Cose Rubate

I was so engrossed in my work that I did not even hear him open the door. "Signora?" he said softly. "Signora, mi scusa."
I was sitting that day right where I am sitting now, impervious to the tactile world, lost in my remote work and meetings.
"Signora?"
He was about twenty-two, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, tattoos on his arms. He was not unhandsome.
It quickly became apparent that he spoke neither English nor Italian fluently. He spread an enormous map on my work desk with some incomprehensible blue ink lines. I could barely understand him, and he seemed confused. Very confused.
It often happens in the Sprachcaffe that there are new students starting. I am here all the time; I am almost my own institution here. Monica that American who seems to work a lot. I assumed he was a new student.

He wanted to go where? To the other end of the Lungarno? What, was he walking to Pontassieve? Why?
He didn't understand where to go. He needed to go somewhere.
I took him out to my Evita balcony as we surveyed Piazza della Reppublica together, the map still out.
By this time, Helpful Monica had a pen in hand and was explaining which bus he might be able to take to his improbable destination.
Are you sure you're a new student? He nodded his head vigorously. But the front desk won't help you? He smiled a broken smile that signaled his ever-deepening confusion. No, no, no help.
I took him back to my desk. He asked if he could use my laptop. He opened a new tab and found the Google translate interface. Suddenly we were typing in English and Romanian.
I need a place to stay, he typed.
I need money, he typed. Can you please help me?
Look at my son, he typed. He is in a room upstairs but we have nowhere to stay tonight.
Your two year old is upstairs alone? I asked. Alarm bells began to faintly sound.
Please help me, he begged. We have nowhere to stay. I do not know this city.
He produced a worn and dirty image of a toddler.
I fumbled for my wallet. When I opened it, a five-euro and a ten-euro note each fell out and fluttered to the parquet floor. I was embarrassed but gave him just the five-euro note.
Thank you, mamma bellissima! he started to kiss my hand.
By this time, the afternoon at the improv had been going on for at least fifteen minutes. I watched my chat windows ping and open again and again.
Come with me, he begged. Let me show you my son.
I am sorry, I said. I must work. I must work.
I walked him down the hall and to the door.
I closed it and heard it latch, and walked back to my desk. feeling very funny. What had just happened?

I went back to my desk and sat there for a few minutes, responding to messages. I got up and went to the WC to wash my hands.
On my way back, I stopped in at the salon where two wan French women lounged. The ginger one said the brunette one was very ill. They were taking a train tonight. Sssshhh, the friend was very very ill. See? She was covered in a rash. Uh, well, ok, gross. I had a conversation with Ginger. Had they seen the man? Ginger said no.
I returned to my desk. My phone. My new phone was gone. My $400 LG6. I had bought it the week before. I looked everywhere. Phone phone.
No phone.
Phone gone.

I went to the front desk to explain what happened. I was very pale, and felt shaky. How in the world could this have happened, on my second-floor euro, third-floor US office, in this ritzy address, overlooking my familiar sunny, tourist-filled piazza?
The front desk was shocked.

The next day the Romanian woman who works here apologized on behalf of Romania. She then asked me if I knew the map trick.
The map trick?
Yes, she said, they take a map and lay it on the table where you are working, then they steal everything underneath it.
A map.
She continued, they usually do it at outside cafes.
Nope. I was definitely not on guard for the map trick from my locked office high above the city.
I honestly thought he was a student.
Who tailcoats into a hotel to talk randomly to people and steal their valuables while they are talking to them?
I could not believe that I had also given him a five euro note.

Yep, looks like this should just about cover four wallets and six phones. Let's go.
By my accounting, we are averaging at least one incident of fraud or loss every six weeks in Florence. Or in Spokane.

Jason's bike was lifted from its parking space on Via Nazionale last fall. To be fair, he had not locked it. Everyone knows Via Nazionale is Florentine argot for Hustlers' Alley. Shooting out perpendicular from the train station, it is a thief's banquet of confused tourists sullenly hauling rolling suitcases along uneven flagstones, and arguing amongst themselves.

Via Nazionale
My bike lock (an expensive one) was cut and my bike stolen last December from the rail in front of our palazzo, on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (being a child of the 80s, it is really hard to not type "Collection.")

My debit card was scammed in March, at the ATM machine next to my office that I always used. Two hundred euros. It was restored thanks to USAA, but also a very otherworldly experience. I actually stared at the paper receipt for a while and wondered why I did not have the cash in hand. Did I dream it? I had a confirmation. Where was the cash?

Our Spokane VRBO was cleaned out in July of all valuables, resulting in a police report and a significant claim. That was huge. And rattling.

And then this, with the map trick and my phone being carted off by a beggar whom I took to be a student because he was standing in my office in the language school.

I wonder when USAA is going to start asking us more questions.

I swear, years of boring life in Oklahoma and nothing was ever stolen. I bought one bike in 2004 and another one in 2007, and had them both every year we lived there.

I feel sometimes like I need a personal assistant to keep up with all this crap.

I do have a new Italian cell phone now, thanks to the helpful assistance of my husband. My T-Mobile replacement continues to wind its way through a logistics puzzle. I might have it back in hand by mid-September. If I am lucky.

We are also so careful in airports, train stations, rest stops. It rarely, if ever, occurs to me to be careful in my office. In our residential neighborhood. In a tony historic rental in Spokane's South Hill neighborhood. At my closest, most frequented ATM.

Topics next up: Late summer's weekend day trips. The rientro scolario (back to school) song and dance for the kids. Tuscan drought. Any preference? I am happy to treat all of them.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Firenze: Gelato - Quanti gusti? (How many flavors?)

Thursday afternoon was toasty. I had been working in my office on Repubblica for hours, without air conditioning, and for reasons complicated to explain here (but I will in another post soon) I was without access to my vending machine of water for all that time. I had been craving gelato, citrusy Italian gelato, cold Italian gelato, for hours. Nothing would deter me. Gelato gelato gelato.

We had made an appointment to meet up with a small group of colleagues and friends on Piazza Sant'Ambrogio. I wiggled my way through the packed streets of centro, cursing as I followed large packs of ambling tourists down Via dei Neri and Borgo dei Greci. I pulled into Piazza dei Ciompi and saw that Procopio was open for business, so parked my bike close to where we planned to have our aperitivo, and walked back to it.

Chilled bliss. I always know eactly what I went, in gelaterie and typically in most other things as well. A young woman stood behind the counter.

"I'll have a small cup," I said, "two flavors. Of limone e basilico and lampone."
"How big a cup?" she said.
"The small cup," I responded.
She held up a small cup. "This cup can only accomodate two flavors."
"I have asked for two flavors," I said, reading the tiny tag again, "limone e basilico and lampone."
"Those are three flavors," she responded. "You cannot ask for three flavors and receive the small cup. The small cup is for two flavors only."
"But I would like limone e basilico and lampone."
"Those are three flavors."
"I am reading the sign for limone e basilico and it is two words on one sign. The store has written the sign."
Inside I am thinking, what a ruse! Name the flavors with two words, and then tell people they cannot have a second flavor. What kind of forced choice is this? You may have one of our combined flavor gelatos for the small cup price only? Because your second flavor is what we count as a third?
Her coworker next to her had been half listening and said, "Ma che scherz'. (What are you on about?) The name of the flavor is limone e basilico."
"Ah, mi dispiace tanto," she said, with a crooked smile. "Hai ragione. It is the heat that is making me unable to think."
She scooped up a generous serving each of limone e basilico and lampone, and squeezed them into the small cup, chuckling. I walked up to Sant'Ambrogio and enjoyed every bit of it.

Something very close to this. Bliss.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Le lingue, cont.

I now wonder if I front-loaded too much language in my life, prior to 32, and now, like old data on floppy disks that are now kept in one's top right desk drawer, their access becomes an increasingly remote possibility. "But all that email from 1995 and 1996," one thinks. "It's practically a book, and now I'll never be able to read it again. I know it's in there. If I saw the files, and read them, I would recognize them."

I know that working full-time remote in a position like mine keeps me tethered to English, and unable to snap and enter a truly Italian orbit. I love English. I am writing a lot. I'm a verbal person. English is a transparent user interface to this superuser. Spanish has come very close to that for me, in my life (a bow and a sincere thank you to all my Spanish teachers ever), especially when living in Spain or traveling in Latin America. French has been close. Everything lower than those three on the list have been mere flirtations of my frontal lobes, in Broca's area. La Discoteca Broca, late at night, dancing to EDM with foam and an extra roll of duct tape in the hours just before dawn - okay, that never happened. Well, maybe it did here.

The four-week hiatus from Italy was interesting, from a linguistic point of view. Jason headed straight to Spokane for work, and so Flavia was traveling with me and the kids. The kids know her so well and always stick to Italian with her. The first and second weeks Flavia and I were all Italian, all the time, and I would break into English with the kids when I was in a hurry, revising into Italian if I needed them to really listen to me. When we met back up with Jason in Portland, the family lingua shifted to English, with occasional dips into Italian a cinque. If the five of us were in the same place, the kids were more often yammering on with Flavia in Italian, while Jason and I sorted out logistics in English to the side.

That's normal - he and I both grew up monolingual. We have no childhood memories associated with chatter in other languages, save the exception of my estival migrations to Upper Michigan with my mom and brothers, where conversation, especially in the evenings as guests arrived, and all day Sunday, moved into Finnish. Especially if they were over fifty in the seventies. In any case, no one was giving me any orders in Finnish. It flowed as a small stream of language on a distant border of our childhood field, where I was free to dip my toes in or not. I often did, for the sheer pleasure and shock of those syllables, watching people's faces as they chatted. When I explain my affinity for foreign language to people who don't know me, I frequently cite those seminal experiences as sparks to my tinder. I had to learn a code. I simply had to have new sounds and new words. I wanted to speak to someone who understood my alternative sounds and words. What new heights might we explore together! what different person might I be with new words and new thoughts running through my brain! what might become clear to me that was now wholly unknown! It would be like sailing a ship to a new land, with a rough paper map drawn from dreams alone.

church in the U.P. where I heard a ton of Finnish as a small child -
my grandfather interpreted at the services
(I digress on this point because I am so often surprised when people ask me if Jason and I have given up English at home. How? I want to ask them. How? We speak a lot of Italian at home, but English is the reversion language of clarification and confirmation.We both grew up with two English-speaking parents in the US; we cannot rewrite our early years, or where we went to school, with teachers who probably all spoke English only, save the foreign language teachers.)

On the flight from Seattle I flipped through the movie options in my in-flight entertainment module. There was a ton of content in other languages, many Asian - Chinese, Japanese, Korean original cinema. O were I to have binge watched everything in a mini-SIFF festival, high over the Atlantic.

I oped instead for two junk-food documentaries: one on Brangelina, the other on Oasis, plus two episodes of Silicon Valley, season four. But I paused on one title in particular, which must have been Argentine, I thought: "I Married a Dumbass." For "dumbass" they gave "boludo." I looked at the word again, and again, and thought, holy crap, Spanish slang I have not heard or used for at least nine years, and maybe sixteen. The back of my brain started heating up. (It's my eyebrows that feel hot when I am learning language - I am not kidding. And I don't think it's because I am scowling.) I was whisked away to Argentina.


Like a key to memories, 2001 was suddenly unlocked. I suddenly smelled the heated flagstones of Plaza Dorrego, saw the street dancers' shirts stained with sweat as they tangoed for tourists in front of tables piled high with dusty, rust-covered chandeliers and candlesticks. I felt the heat of January sun at noon as I scurried for shade. I remembered half a dozen new friends, and our shared hilarity.

Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
I saw the face of the young man talking to me in a bus station in Mendoza, who said, incredulously, "but you speak Spanish with no accent."  It must have seemed so to him, as Spanish was transparent to me then, and I wielded it with calm joy, as though a lifelong friend were always accompanying me on my adventures, keys at the ready. I think I responded something along the lines of, "my accent is a complete mix, but thank you." I had gotten to the point by then with Spanish that I cared less and less what I sounded like, and so rambled on, and in my insouciance (and acquisition) became more fluent. My palms didn't sweat. I didn't taste adrenaline as I skirted among verb tenses. I wasn't even thinking about the grammar. I just thought it was fun.

I was surprised at how much Italian I understood yesterday on the bus as the chatty driver caught up with an old friend, or perhaps a sibling, or an amico coetano, on his hands-free from the driver's seat. Italian did seem more like an old friend to me too, in that moment. I am regarding that Italian orbit with a new energy and perspective.

Is this the feeling of my brain breaking, or being rebuilt? or both?