Friday, October 20, 2017

Firenze: Compass Directions / Indicazioni di bussola


Italian directions for how to arrive at Point B from Point A are amusing.

Jason and I used to always laugh at one particular instruction, from his Arezzo days as a tour guide, to "turn where that huge old oak tree used to be, the one they cut down after the bad storm."

Here is an actual quote for where I was to meet a friend today. She's American, and has lived in Italy a long, long time:

There's a place on Via dei Neri I've been wanting to try but can't think of the name.
If you are creative in how you think about this it's like kitty corner from the Aveda salon on the corner where you go.

That is adorably Italian to me. There are so many known unknowns, in such a high-context description, packed into those few sentences. A street, a salon, a place she might like but whose name she cannot summon, in a fuzzy relational direction. Thanks to those regional dialect quizzes that burned up the internet a couple of weeks ago, I especially like "kitty corner," which I recently reflected might have an Italian origin as an American idiom in "accanto a."

Trying to figure out where my friend wanted to meet me this morning.
One way in which I am particularly American is in my orientation to space. I love a nice compass rose. I like an arrow pointing north. I like to know, in absolute terms, which direction I am facing, and in which direction I should turn to get to where I need to go. Please abstain from referencing trees that fell down decades ago when trying to assist me to get somewhere today, in a place I do not know well, if at all.

I've been complimented before on my general orienteering with a map. I have a good sense of direction. It's helped me feel confident and independent when I was deep in my phase of solo travelling, and I do not mean in an Outward Bound way, but rather in a Wandering the Capitals and Regional Population Centers of Europe and Latin America, 1993-2002.

In Oklahoma, a sense of compass direction was critical, as it is flat as a basketball court, without natural landmarks to help orient the traveler. Look for the sun - it shines 360 days a year - paying attention to the seasons, and if it is skewing north in summer or south in winter. Orient self accordingly. Alternatively, pretend you are a tornado, and track southwest to northeast, until you have flattened everything from Oklahoma City to Tulsa.

In Washington state, the Olympics hulking to the west and their quieter eastern echo the Cascades provided the frame of reference. Rainier always held down the southeastern edge of the sky. The Ship Canal ran east-west, and the bridges that crossed it, north-south. It was often cloudy in Seattle, so if the mountains were no available for orientation, the bright days that they did sparkle with snowcaps on each horizon remained imprinted in memory, so that the turns and hills of city streets reminded me of specific views even if I was not able to see them at that time.

Firenze has much in common with Manhattan, in that when I am walking along the street, I do not know which direction I am facing. This fills me with a low-level anxiety. I have an inner need to know the direction. I look around, and I see walls, and buildings, and narrow streets. Even the shadows of the sun are truncated and distorted by the tall, narrow huddle of buildings. Perhaps, down a long line of an avenue, I might see the Chrysler Building, or the Duomo.  But even this is not guaranteed.

My one direction I can always rely on is east, but only from Piazza D'Azeglio, because Via Farini runs along the synagogue and due eat to the main hill of Fiesole, capped by its own stone clock tower.

Because of the direction of the Arno, which is (I just figured this out) southeast through Firenze, northwest and up toward Pisa and out the Mediterranean Sea (ok, I DID know its outlet flows from Pisa into the Mediterranean), directions are even more confusing. Where is the river? That would be a nice point for orientation, but Firenze is flat, in a valley populated by seasonally tenacious mosquitoes, and you can't see the Arno. Also, you are swatting mosquitoes a lot.

I can competently identify, when possible, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the campanile of Santa Maria Novella. The Duomo's huge dome is, oddly, invisible from street level, except for a famous glimpse down Via dei Servi or Ricasoli. The Badia Fiorentina sometimes pokes her brick tiara up for me. But generally, I have little idea where I am - where I am, really - in Firenze. My sense of direction is gradually becoming personal and relational - more Italian.

Peek-a-duomo!
Glimpse from Via dei Servi.
However, the other day I realized, after reading a wiki article about Piazza della Repubblica, that the building where I work, next to the arch of Piazza della Repubblica, is the western side of the square. The west! The arch faces west to the Arno! This information comforts me enormously. Because previously, any direction might have been west, with the exception of straight out my window toward the Savoy and Rinascente, because that direction never really felt westerly to me. And Caffe Paszkowski is north! And Giubbe Rosse is south! NOW I am getting somewhere.

The south side of Piazza della Reppublica!
Palazzo Veccio tower poking up.

On my bike, I am usually too alert to speeding taxis and Instagramming tourists and horse-drawn carriages to care much about compass points. But my relational orientation is growing by leaps and bounds.

Via della Canonica runs parallel to Via dell Oche, and is a much safer street! 


Via della Canonica, just turn right at the light to enjoy 100 feet of bike-safe flagstone!
Via della Scala turns into Via Piazzaiuolo, which goes by Gonzaga's favorite trattoria whose name I forget, which is NOT on Via delle Belle Donne, which is instead the street NEXT to it that is not quite parallel to it, but this whole new route gets me from St. James, on the far side of the train station, to my home without having to deal with the mess, fast, loud traffic circle in front of Santa Maria Novella. Now I am sounding like my friend's message.

Coming down Via Cavour, I can turn right before Piazza San Marco, and zip almost all the way home on Via degli Alfani. No need to pedal around the Duomo unless I feel like it, and the crowds are less, or it is late at night.

I have a few more of these I am recently very proud of determining. I am also grateful for long years of fearless bike riding, tomboy-style, with my two brothers. Without these adult tomboy skills, I'd never be able to get myself around town on any kind of schedule.

At the end of the day, though, the Arno is west through the Repubblica arch, and I am biking much more efficiently around town. This is all that really matters.

But I am so glad I have figured out how the Arno relates to the compass, and the direction it flows through Firenze. You can take the woman out of the American Midwest ....

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Firenze: Di Feste ed Animatori / Of Parties and Hosts

As the parents of two small children, we are often on the birthday party circuit here, which allows ample time and opportunities for my lay cultural anthropologist observations.

In Firenze, many children's birthday parties are, in fact, the scene for two distinct parties: in one space, the children, and their activities; in another space, the adults, and their activities.

Because what is a party, really, if only a portion of your attendees are having a good time?

Honestly. Be honest, now. Do children really want to partake in adult activities? No.
And do adults want to crawl about like children, or scream like Tasmanian devils, or run around and hang out of trees? Even if they were physically able to do so - No.

The adult party features, first and foremost, adult company, with substantial snacks, wine - maybe an open bar. Recently, a DJ, of sorts (I started dancing, but then stopped as I realized no one else was really dancing, so perhaps this was more a backdrop ambience DJ.) We were situated on the banks of the Arno at Rari, and its adjacent boat club, making it feel like a mid-autumn redux of this:



The children's party involves the usual snacks, favors, activities, fun, and bickering - with one very important addition.

The animatore/animatrice.

Literally, a "host," but in Firenze, it is much, much more than a host. The animatore/animatrice is, basically, a paid pied piper for the party. The animatore/animatrice ensures that all children are included in the fun activities, if they wish to be so included. (Victor never wants any part in this nonsense, but Eleanor is into it.)

I have some examples of animatore/animatrice whom I have observed, my mouth agape, at this wonderful solution. Because, as a mom, yes, parties are fun and all. Parties hosted by Hunter and Amber in Eastwood Park are what I would fairly call a real double party. But so many parties are not like that, and as an adult, let me tell you how sick I was of Hey Day and Andy Alligator parties when we lived in Oklahoma. These venues were very fun for the kids, yet very little fun was to be had for any of the accompanying parental chaperones.

The animatori seem to me to be about college age. I have no idea what their going rate is, but they seem to be often hired through word of mouth, on moms' groups on Facebook or WhatsApp.

When I saw my first animatrice (f.) in April, I was surprised. Who is this person, who immediately turned a side room into a child discoteca? She must have been travelling with an entire trunk of fun. This was for a birthday party for siblings turning one and three, mind you, friends of our landlords who lived just around the corner in an equally historic and art- and book-filled palazzo, sunlight streaming in through the south windows. She had toys, costumes, movies and videos to project, stuff to make, and she was dressed up in generalized fairywear. She was also very pretty, which I could see initially as a liability for an animatrice, whose beauty might invite unwanted looks from fathers and side-eye from mothers. I kind of wanted to copy her look for everyday. I also maybe began participating with too much enthusiasm in her games and dancing. But the pop-up disco she'd created was more entertaining than the conversation in the huge salon.

In early July, we were entertained by a horde of at least 20 animatori when we had our "Italian Vacation: Cultural Immersion" experience at Riva degli Etruschi, on the Tuscan coast. They collected small roving packs of older children to play all day while their parents relaxed (that was not the case for us, as Victor was disdainful of such lemming-like behavior, and Eleanor was too young to toddle off in that direction on her own, even though she really wanted to). These animatori were all deeply tanned, extremely positive, and bursting with energy. They seemed to be musical theater types. One in particular must be an up-and-coming choreographer, as some of their shows seemed to exceed the expectations of the audience, and perhaps also their personal frames of reference.

Last month, the Dutch party where we celebrated Delphine's fifth birthday with a very international crowd was hosted by none other than Elsa and Anna. These women were animating like they meant it. They were dressed up and sported huge fake braid wigs. They kind of looked like Marie Antoinette meets Disney, but the little girls especially loved it. They had so much stuff! Everyone was getting facepaint and blowing bubbles, and dancing on the terrace to the playlist curated by the two female protagonists of the Disney hit movie Frozen. Extra princess apparel was distributed for those wishing to princess along. I talked to Anna in her satin yellow dress as she took a smoke break off the terrace.

"All these kids speak English," she said, narrowing her eyes at me as she exhaled. "Where are you from?"

"I Stati Uniti," I told her. I saw she was sweating through her pancake makeup, although the overall effect was still stunning.

She huffed. "Madonna. My English is awful. I live in Prato."

I suggested she try to speak English with the little kids, who didn't really care what language came out of her mouth, since her dress was so awesome.

She looked at me like I'd just suggested she move to Mars.

Who wouldn't want this pair to come to your five-year-old daughter's birthday party?
Note, this pair are the Disney professionals, not the understudies from Prato.


My fourth animatori to cite are the ones from this most recent party, last weekend, on the banks of the Arno River. This party was impressive, large, well-appointed, with the DJ. and an open bar for the genitori, and a gorgeous lunch spread.

But the animatori were truly inspired. The birthday boy was one of Victor's friends, turning seven; Lapo is a compact, energetic boy, and his parents are quite possibly the most happy-go-lucky Italian parents I know. Francesca, the mom, seems to default to an exasperated silent laugh each morning when I see her at school, like a Kristen Wiig from Massa Marittima; her husband, Marzio, has a beatific look of distance from, and simultaneous, acceptance of this earthly plane.

The animatori proposed a skate park, after Gleaming the Cube, the 1987 cult film about the forbidden fruits enjoyed by skaters (a type of which I was plenty fond myself, back in the day, so perhaps I was predisposed to being into it). The young woman was athletic, and her male colleague looked like he was fresh off the beach sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro. The west end of the terrazza facing the river had been repurposed into a skate park, with four ramps and many scooters and skateboards of all sizes, and a few helmets. The kids shouted and skated and went up and down ramps for hours since the party was from one to six on a Saturday. A few teary fights did break out over specific scooters and skateboards, toward the end.

Fortunately the concrete wall and iron pipe railing afforded a secondary, parkour-like outlet for all the six- and seven-year-old boy energy that had been further refuelled by not only cake and orange Fanta, but an open candy bar with Pop Rocks and watermelon gum, next to the adult bar and its dewy chilled bottles of white wine and brut. Another collection of red wine bottles crowded the bar. As the party lasted over five hours, the adults were having a great time.

View from the boat club/skatepark.
I really enjoy Italian children's birthday parties - and again - appreciate the cultural consideration for guests of all ages at parties. Because if everyone isn't having fun, then it's not a good party by the Italian definition.

A special thank you to the families who have included us in their celebrations in our first year here in Firenze, and for making us feel so welcome.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Firenze: Sistema Sanitaria Italiana / The Italian Healthcare System

Victor's cough had gone on for days, getting better, then worse. We attributed it first to a cold, then to allergies.

"Il cambiamento di stagione," the Italians said, sagely nodding their heads. The inevitable symptoms that arise every time the earth routinely tilts on its axis, disrupting the health of its human inhabitants. This new seasonal cough coincided unfortunately with Victor's first week of prim'anno, first grade, an acknowledged and difficult transition even for Italian children enjoying ruddy health. We were all exhausted and on edge.

But when we came home from Marignolle that Sunday of my birthday, his cough was out of control. His breath got away from him as it wracked his body. Dark smudges had begin to appear under his eyes, due to his constant coughing, and as well as to lost sleep, as the cough barely calmed overnight. Our friend Flavia, who had stayed with them overnight (our grand plan to spend a night away from the children, just the two of us, at the same time, somewhere relaxing and quiet, for no one's work reasons) solemnly informed us, when we returned, that "Tutte due sono peggio." They're both worse. Eleanor had a cough too, but it had never gotten to the point of Victor's hoarse bark, which by now sounded like an Arizona sanitarium circa 1910.

Victor was miserable, and looked it. He crawled onto the sofa and took a two-hour nap, whimpering the whole time in his sleep. When he awoke he said, "My heart hurts." I wasn't even aware that Victor had a grasp on human anatomy or internal medicine. How did he know where his heart was, much less have the skills to identify it as a source of pain? Maternal alarm bells began screeching in my mind.

"Jason, get dressed, and get him dressed - you are going to the doctor."
"The only doctor that is open is at Meyer Children's." One of Europe's premier pediatric hospitals is situated in a medical fortress on the edge of Firenze, in Careggi.
"Please take him. It is not like him at all to act like this or to say this."

We got Victor dressed. Suddenly, he had a huge coughing spell, and threw up what looked like a cup of mucus plus juice onto the rug. While I cleaned that up, Victor perked up, and spent the rest of evening watching Disney movies. Jason and I agreed that he would take Victor to a pediatrician the next day.

I did not accompany them to the new pediatrician in Le Cure, our old neighborhood. The pediatrician was a private one. This is due to the fact that we are fuori quota (outside of the quote) for their national healthcare system, for reasons still not completely clear to me but having to do with our immigration status and the fact that neither of us are on Italian payrolls, as we both work for American employers.

A private pediatrician visit runs about 80 euros; we have never seen one of the fully public ones since we arrived, since we are fuori quota. (The year that we were in Arezzo, we were not fuori quota, and so saw only public doctors. And yet in those months, we were also both on American payrolls, but our Italian visa status must have been different and allowed us to access public heath. If anyone can explain this to me, I would really appreciate it.)

Jason has the kids on his health insurance for work and has been filing claims on the 80 euro fee, for which we are reimbursed a portion. (The public doctors cost no fee at all. There is no copay, coinsurance, etc., to see a doctor in Italy, if you are in quota.) Last year we actually had an English-speaking pediatrician (the mother of one of the kids at school, as it turns out) come to our apartment one morning when both kids were sick, and she examined them both for 80 euros! That is still incredible to me.

The doctor saw Victor and quickly determined that he had bronchitis and an ear infection. Poor Victor! Antibiotics were immediately prescribed since at this point the cough had been on Victor for almost four weeks. Jason mentioned that Victor planned on playing calcetto (soccer) again this year, and the doctor said, might as well do his sports physical now, then. In Italy all sports physicals include an EKG; I was told that this is because, a few years ago, a child died in sport practice from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect that he would have survived, had he not been exerting himself.

Jason said an assistant brought out the EKG machine, but didn't seem well-versed in its use. He hooked everything up and turned it on, and told Jason, "This result is irregular." I can picture Jason's concerned look now when they said they would try again. Once more, the assistant repositioned the sensors and turned the machine on, and once more the result was ambiguous. However, the doctor did sign a release for Victor to participate in sport, which he gave to Jason before they left.

When I returned home from work that evening, Jason said they'd had the appointment, Vic's antibiotic, etc. He then added, in the nonchalant way he does when he is trying to manage his own response, "And the EKG came back with a problem."
"What!" The blood drained from my face.
Jason took out the paper printout to show me. There were four differential diagnoses in four-point Verdana font.
"We will have to take him to a pediatric cardiologist at Meyer," Jason said.
"What!" our tata, Sree, said. "That will take six months!"
But we knew that we were fuori quota and so had no choice but to make an appointment for a private pediatric cardiologist.

"Pediatric" and "cardiologist" are two words that no parent ever wants to hear. Add "private," and the mind whirls with anxiety. I was picturing open-heart surgery, and boning up my Italian vocabulary to meet that particular need in real life. I am pretty sure Jason went straight to running numbers for a transplant.

Jason called the hospital the next day, and was able to make an appointment for Victor with the private pediatric cardiologist for about three weeks later.

My mind flooded with images and fear, memories of Victor being born four weeks early, and his fine bones. He was unable to pass his newborn hearing test on his right side because his ear canal was so narrow that the equipment could not scale down to it. I thought of my graceful, athletic boy, and his energy. I tried to think if there had ever been a time that I had been worried about his ...

Oh my god, his comment the day before, "My heart hurts." But that was from nausea, right? We all feel tight-chested right before we hurl, right?

I worried like a champ for the next two days, but then everything got super busy, Eleanor was home sick from school, Jason had some work travel, Victor had no symptoms or complaints other than he hated the taste of the antibiotic. His cough receded, but boy, did he look thin. The circles from under his eyes disappeared as his sleep improved since the cough was fading.

After dinner, the evening before the appointment, Jason reminded me what was coming the next day. I had totally forgotten. I quickly blocked out time on my work calendar and notified my manager and impacted colleagues, rearranging meetings and presentations. We told Victor we would get him early from school to go to the hospital. He made a worried look.

The drive to Careggi, where the hospital is, features a mountain road that must have originated as a horse and donkey path, lined with grey stone walls, passing through acres and acres of olive groves. We arrived at Meyer, its impressive fortress facing west into a view of late afternoon sun and cypress trees.

L'Ospedale Meyer
When we entered the hospital, we took a number at reception, like the rule-following Americans that we are, and waited for our number to be called. The man at the sportello (the window) said, no, no, you come see me only after you have completed your appointment. I had grabbed a small map from a literature rack in the waiting area that detailed how to arrive to the Pediatric Cardiology department in the sprawling facility. So off we started, arriving a few minutes later to a modest waiting area. There was no discernible check-in process or desk, no copy, no one asked for our ID, nothing.

As an American, this is the part that always shocks me. How in the US, when people are sick, feeling their worst, most anxious or frightened, we put them through a simultaneous paperwork hell.

But we were not in paperwork hell. I read a book. Vic watched Masha and the Bear on the TV. Jason paced. Five minutes after our appointment was meant to begin, a patient left, and I spied a desk inside. Jason popped his head in, returning to confirm that we were doing the right thing to wait.

A couple of minutes later, a smiling middle-aged Italian man in a coat opened the door and called Victor's name. We all filed in.

Jason gave the doctor the referral from the private pediatrician, and the EKG ribbon printout. The doctor quickly reviewed them, and said, I am not worried about this, but let's have a look.

Vic got a second EKG, very thorough. Throughout the exam, the doctor narrated what he was seeing, and said, when he saw normalcy, that all looked normal. I sat in his desk chair, and Jason was in an extra chair. I kept my eyes conscientiously away from his monitor. We all chatted amiably throughout the exam. Vic's super Italian ensured he understood the doctor well, and followed all instructions.

After the EKG, a heart ultrasound. Vic was not a fan of the cold gel. A very, very thorough exam. The doctor must have taken 20 stills, and measured and listened and looked. After the EKG was done, I helped Vic wipe the gel off his chest and get his shirt back on.

The doctor said, "Everything is fine. He has a non-threatening that 40% of all children have, which he will grow out of by the time he is 12."

Jason and I each heaved sighs of relief. The doctor slipped out to write our bill.

When he returned, we took the bill and went back to the reception, and, again like good Americans, took a number and waited to the the same man again. We thought we were going to pay at the sportello. But no! The health system employee looked horrified. He does not handle the money. We were directed to a large red kiosk to pay.

This jacked-up ATM is the central paypoint for the Italian NHS (national health system). We scanned Vic's NHS card, entered some more information, saw our total, and opted to pay cash. The total cost of the visit was 115 euros. We did no intake paperwork. We did not pay a copay up front. We did not haggle about copay or coinsurance with office staff. We took the receipt from the kiosk back to the sportello man, who thanked us; the second copy we delivered to the cardiologist to show him that we had paid, and we were off, two hours later.

Victor, post-appointment at Meyer.
So, just as an American who has written before about the PTSD that all Americans have from what our healthcare system in the US has done to us:
  1. At no point were were worried about what the specialist appointment would cost us. A good friend in the US who has truly been around the inside of the US healthcare system on the east coast said, "That appointment in the US would have easily cost you $6000." In Oklahoma, that amount would have exceeded our cash savings on hand.
  2. The cardiologist appointment would have cost nothing, had we been fully integrated into the Italian NHS, but we would have waited up to 6 months for it as it was not an acute condition.
  3. I still cannot get over the personal access that Jason and I had to the pediatric cardiologist. He was in no hurry. He was reassuring. There were no nurses in and out. No assistants. And, he was not looking information up on WebDoctorMD, or some such similar website, while he examined Victor, as used to routinely happen to me in the US. 
  4. The pediatric cardiologist is a public doctor, but many of these doctors have incentiving arrangements where they see private patients, for example, for four hours a week, in their regular office.
  5. The utter lack of Italian paperwork associated with this episode was breathtaking. Jason laughed, after it was all sorted out, "the most paperwork I did for this process was for our US health insurance."
  6. Although we are fuori quota for insurance, we are still able to access the superlative services of the Italian healthcare system.
  7. If we wanted to buy in quota, it would cost around 2000 euros.
  8. The kids and Jason are covered under Gonzaga's solid health plan. Even if something catastrophic were to happen to one of us, like a ruptured appendix, the final hospital bill would still be something we could have managed to pay, because there is no gouging sliding fee scale.
America, I beg you. Everyone who is on the fence about single payer healthcare, please take a trip to a country where one is working well, which is almost anywhere else in the world, and see how supportive and reasonable it is. See how stress plummets as society has guaranteed access to true medical care. See what it feels like to actually be taken care of by a system, and not abused by it, because, my fellow Americans, that is the only word for what healthcare feels like in the US to anyone who has lived there since 2000, and especially since 2010.

And yes, we are tremendously relieved that Vic's good health is confirmed, and that the experience itself was not more scarring than the diagnosis, which is what would most certainly have happened stateside.

And we are grateful that top-flight pediatric specialists are available to us in Firenze.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Firenze: Laundry: Cultural Concessions / Biancheria: Concessioni Culturali

Laundry.

Next to food, public transportation, and public offices like the post office or the immigration office, laundry is an intense cultural filter.

As an American who has lived in Europe multiple times, in different countries (Spain, France, Italy), the early years in particular posed interesting new challenges.

In Spain (1993), a free washing machine in the basement of my residencia, and the right to hang my clothes to dry on a very linty clothesline hung over a damp floor in a persistent Galician twilight. Alternatively, I could schlep those wet clothes up five stories and hang them haphazardly around my tiny room on hangers and at the head and foot of my iron bed, hoping I did not annoy my roommate Berta, who returned to Santiago each Sunday evening and carefully put away all the clean laundry her mother had done for her at home in Lugo.

Something like this. Now, doesn't that smell fresh?
Yes, if you think prison smells fresh.
In France (1995-1996), a washing machine also in the basement cost money, but my Spanish friends taught me to engage it free of charge by means of a knife and manual dexterity.
"Monica?" Elardio asked me. "Tu sabes que es un truco? Pues esto es un truco de verdad que nos ayuda." Do you know what a trick is? Well, this is a real trick that helps us.
The other nationalities did not seem to be aware of the Spanish Knife Trick, furtively and quickly deployed by myself and the impecunious Spaniards. It also seemed to be slowly breaking the plastic around the dial.

I remember my English friend Jane exclaiming happily, in her French dorm room, "I just love the smell of fresh washing!" I also brought my own wet laundry upstairs to my room to enjoy its sweet fragrance while it dried on hangers hung about the nine square meters. That year also I had brought a travel clothesline from the US with integrated clips, and strung it up on my wall. It made a fine exhibit of those bright satin American string bikini undies from Victoria's Secret, and their knockoffs (standard in the mid-nineties), causing youthful blushes and grins when my English male friends stopped in for a visit.

Italy in 2005 saw Jason and me doing a lot of shared laundry duty, in our Florentine apartment up in Le Cure at street level. The washer was about the size of a 7-11 Big Gulp cup, and was situated next to our gas stove. The grime from passing motorini floated in and visibly attached to the lighter clothes hung on the winged rack if we were not careful.

In Arezzo in 2012-2013, incredibly, we had a washer and a dryer in our apartment, generously sized and very efficient. A dryer, people. I recall many administrative conversations in meetings back in Oklahoma on campus, where my study abroad counterparts debated the need for clothes dryers for the outbound American students. The American students demanded clothes dryers. We who had spent significant time in Europe scoffed at this.

All of Italy air dries, we laughed. They seriously want clothes dryers, those energy drains? Yes. 
Yes, they did. And yet a dryer was present in our faculty apartment. At first, on principle, I refrained from using the clothes dryer, since our  upstairs loft in warmer months was easily 90F. But as the light receded, and the months got colder and darker, I was glad for its hot, huffing maw.

As an American, I had always had a clothes dryer. I had grown up with a mother who was well-schooled in Finnish thrift and the value of the outdoors, and who hung our clothes outside on the line as often as she could, especially when I was younger, to let them bake their way into sweet freshness in the free heat provided by the sun. Even in college I paid for wash and dry. I would not have dreamed of bringing wet clothes home to hang about and dry. It's just not done.

In our Oklahoma home more recently, we were the proud owners of an LG washer/dryer pair that looked like they could centrifuge plasma. The LG washer used three gallons of water per load, or something like that, and was direct-drive, which meant we washed clothes for about two dollars a month, or something like that. The LG dryer, on the other hand, cost a pretty penny to run, but also had settings such as "Anti-Allergen," which ensured that laundry was tumble-dried at a medical grade, issuing forth microbe- and pest- and dander-free scorched sheets and pillows one month when we had a pet-based bedding/flea scare. I often slipped in a dryer sheet, particularly in the winter months, to prevent the sock millefeuille.

I dreaded taking our huge loads of laundry from the dryer to the living room at the other end of the house to fold them. Sure, they were dry, and also hot, a fact appreciated by our cat. But they tangled together like a ball of worms in an Amazon flood, and the way they came out required an almost academic inspection, re-identification, and cataloguing of items. I hung laundry to dry often in our side yard until we had kids, at which point just getting out of the house seemed to be impossible.

One time in Spain in 1993, at the urging of Berta, I used a container of fabric softener on my clothes. An early purchase, misunderstood to have been laundry detergent, it had remained on my small bookshelf for months.
"You should use that," Berta said sometime in late spring, motioning at the container.
I poured the entire container into a load of darks, all my Gap jeans and ribbed cotton turtlenecks. When those clothes emerged from the washer, they smelled good. But when they dried, oh my god. It was like wearing silken Kleenex made out of fairy wings. Suddenly the rough seams of my jeans now seemed to caress my skin from the inside out, my t-shirts draping gracefully over my shoulders, my whole outfit as perfumed as a Silk Road concubine.

I never purchased liquid fabric softener in the US. In addition to my firm moral arguments against such excess, and the relative merits of scratchy clothes (feel crisp, fresh, seem really clean, hold their shape, and on and on) I always read that the wax would plug up the holes in our washer, rendering it inefficient, or worse, useless. A nonfunctional washer is not an option with a baby. We used those fabric softener sheets, which I recently read are the most chemically toxic item you can buy for household use.

Her smile says fabric softener, but her clothes say crisp moral high ground.
In Firenze, we have a smallish washer tucked into a utility closet, and again a winged drying rack. I am appreciating ever more the value of the drying rack, as the clothes come off it half-folded and easy to organize. It's actually no slower than taking a hot load of dried laundry to inspect and fold for half an hour. Our washer is effective. With the right detergent, it gets our clothes really clean on its two-hour wash cycle.

Laundry corner.
But the day before yesterday, I washed a load of darks with at least one, perhaps two, used pieces of errant facial tissue. Victor has been sick; everyone has runny noses. I am the only one who stuffs dirty laundry into the washer. There are reasons for this I can cover later.

Calamity. My favorite black t-shirt from Cos now looked like my favorite type of cake (white coconut cake layered with coconut frosting, with more coconut flakes adhered to all sides.) This was not good.

I looked up remedies. These American websites! Their recommendations were preposterous.
Lint roll everything. 
Use Static Guard (TM). 
White distilled vinegar. 
Add baking soda to your washing machine, when it is full of water, but before you add clothes. 
None of these options were possible, given my retail product access and hardware configuration. But then I saw, use fabric softener. I can do that! I thought. But we didn't have any, of course, because fabric softener is for the weak, or the whores of Samarkand.

I messaged our downstairs neighbor. Cassidy, an affable American, arrived about three minutes later with an almost-finished bottle of fabric softener advertising a "fresh blueberry and lavender" scent. My nose and hands began to twitch at the memory of such excess. I promptly washed the load again, since I was home with Eleanor, who was clearly 0% sick.

Success! Coconut Kleenex bits vamoosed. The black t-shirts were black, the Kleenex was gone, all was right with the world. 

I told Jason at lunch, "We need to put fabric softener on our regular shopping list." I felt a tiny bit like I had crossed over to the dark side. Fabric softener to me seems to be such a first-world product. Do we really need it? My bootstrappy inner American says no. My external European says yes - and maybe my nascent internal Italian too.

Also, our house smelled fantastic, like a field of sun-warmed lavender and ripening blueberries.

One for you, Mom. Sequim.
Also known as, our apartment's olfactory twin.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Firenze: Tata Culture / La Cultura della Tata

American friends, especially American friends with careers and small children in the US and who do net benefit from a deep family network for 24-hour support, I am here to tell you: there is a different way.

Sure, this is a way that I would have gently scoffed at prior to 2016, with a dry gargle, proud of my administrative/managerial skill-set honed after years of student council, working professionally, and managing staff and offices.

"I can do it," I said. I know I said this.
"You just have to be organized."

Other pieces of advice I was given by women of all ages, before Victor was born:
"Lower your standards."
"Decide what to cross off your list of what you want."
"You are about to make some hard choices."

I am sure I gave this advice to my peers in the same boat. I gave this advice in earnest. I meant well. I am a product of my culture. This culture demands a significant amount of personal organization, high achievement, and self-blame for both the stress of daily living as well as any and all failures, perceived and real.

In the US, we did manage after we moved back from Arezzo in 2013. We went to the park, entertained, did our grocery shopping. We ate lovely dinners that we made. We had someone come clean the house every other week for a morning. I was pregnant almost all of 2014 with Eleanor, and then in the last two months of the year she was a newborn.

This was when the wheels started to come off.

Even as I was working from home, with a much more flexible schedule than I had in my prior incarnation as a middle manager on campus, we struggled and argued to get our day-to-day accomplished. The endless tide of dishes, laundry, meals, groceries, breastfeeding, diapering, sleep deprivation, poolcare, lawncare, organization. I made bread for panini, I was the queen of the crockpot and making good use of leftover shanks from our grilled meals. I was thrifty. I had a good head on my shoulders. I had cell memory of scarcity and shrewdness. And yet. With two full-time jobs, a baby, a child in first daycare, and then preschool, we struggled. And there were two of us. And we were competent. And we got along.

People advised us to not worry about the house or money, to just enjoy our children while they were little. But how? I screamed inside.

How could we do so when the kitchen was piled with dirty dishes harboring small lagoons full of indiscernible flotsam, there was nothing ready to eat in the fridge or pantry, and there appeared to be at least three, maybe four loads of laundry growing in small mounds in our hallway? When I was not wearing clean underwear, couldn't remember the last time I'd had a hot shower, had mossy teeth? Oh, sure, just enjoy everything. Enjoy this time. Yep. Enjoy it to the hilt.

Money got tight, then tighter. As our incomes stagnated in Oklahoma, we found ourselves pinching to make ends meet, dipping repeatedly into our rapidly shrinking cash savings just to make it through the months. We started completing our regular shopping runs at Walmart, when you paid online and then drive the store and they loaded it into your trunk for you while your children screamed and wondered what was going on. I bought a lot of our cleaning supplies at the dollar store. My parents helped us with a shockingly high and uninsured dental expense for Victor.

I had to do better, I thought. There had to be a way more organized to accomplish all this, I cried as I pumped breastmilk in my home office between conference calls, stuffing loads of laundry into our washing machine on breaks, shoving into the dryer on another, and folding it at some later point.

Don't even get me started on our feline situation at the time. It was not pretty.

When we arrived in Firenze last year, the first question from people who understood the lay of the land was, when are you going to get a tata?

A tata? isn't that what Mad magazine calls boobs? What are you talking about?

A tata, they said impatiently. Help. Help around the house.

Oh, no no no, I said. We are American. We can do this.

I received pitying looks in return.

Anyway, there is no way we could afford such a service. We are hardly bluebloods, on the search for a new French governness.

A nanny? Preposterous. We are hardly nobility!
A colleague of Jason's had a tata whom they no longer needed as much, as their two daughters were a bit older, and the older one in particular was now a highly competent thirteen-year-old Italian girl, skilled in the arts of toddler care with an adult close by.

"Please talk to her," they said. "Please. We will send her to your apartment to talk to you." The colleague gave me a worried look, concerned that we would even consider doing this on our own.

I was not sure what to expect. Our cleaner in the US received eighty or a hundred dollars or more for a morning of cleaning. Our babysitters received ten or twelve dollars an hour strictly for childcare. I received worried and/or scornful looks when I would beg the babysitters, if you see that the dishwasher looks full, or that the washing machine has completed its cycle, can you please just look and do the next step? I am sure I looked crazed and sounded desperate. These were the months when I skipped showers, dental hygiene, and clean undies on a regular basis, what with kid care and the other minor concern called professional employment. The division of household labor is strict and assumed in the US. A sitter sits. A cleaner cleans. A pool guy does the pool. A lawn guy does the lawn. There is a handyman. And dishes and laundry? You're on your own, friend. Only the 1% or people in Los Angeles have such help. In America, the dishes and laundry are done by the people who dirtied them, every time.

I talked with an American friend who has a tata. She has been married to an Italian for years, and they live in Firenze with their two children, of similar ages to ours. Court is a hyperorganized dynamo, and her husband is a similarly attentive stay-with-kids father who does benefit from a robust Italian intrafamilial support system.

The tata, she explained patiently, would do all that needed to be done in the house. No division of labor. The tata looks after the children first, but if that particular situation is under control, she will quickly switch to other tasks in the house, such as tidying, grocery shopping, meal preparation, all aspects of laundry (stain treatment! folding! ironing - IRONING), housecleaning. This concept seemed incredible to me.  If they need a tata, I thought - then we need a tata. I am not saying I operate in Italy at the same level as Court, but her model is clearly aspirational, and she is a person who in many ways is much like me.

We met with Sreelethika, and her cousin, Nandinka, both from Sri Lanka. They came to our house on a very formal call. Sreeleethika was warm, huge-eyed, and smiling; she had been the tata of the colleague. She lived around the corner from us with her husband and their older daughter. Her cousin was shy. The cousin was the one seeking work. After they left, we said, too bad it is not her sweet cousin with the big eyes and the friendly warm manner who wants the work.

But surprise! In fact it was the personable one who wanted the work!

We made arrangements for her to start as soon as possible.

At first, it felt awkward. For the first few months I had to put some thought into reigning back. Sree was a professional, after all. She had been performing the offices of a solid tata for two Italian families before us, and she knew the drill. Come to apartment at three, tidy up, assess grocery situation. Make note of grocery needs. Transfer laundry and dishes to the next step as needed. Pick up kids from school on bus. Bring children safely home, and install them in house with after school snacks. Tidy a bit more, perhaps iron a shirt, clean a bathroom, and prepare dinner. Jason and I typically arrive home after 6, close to 6:30, and Sree finishes dinner while we check in with the kids for 45 minutes or so. Sree sets the table, puts hot dinner out, wishes us a good evening and slips out the door.

It is incredible. It is a total game changer. And the going rate for this kind of help? 12-14 euros per hour; we have Sree on an official contract. She receives all paid holidays and paid leave. It counts toward her eligibility for Italian public healthcare. She gets paid more for more hours, or for the occasional late evening as work requires. She is often able to assist with irregular schedules due to sick children.

Sree has gone above and beyond for us. We adore her. She began to cook curries for us after we begged her; she messages us helpful hints for keeping our children healthy ("make sure they are wearing socks today; it's cold," "don't run that fan in the apartment when Victor has that cough.") She has our grocery list and dishes and laundry down pat. She messages us when the table wine runs out ("vino finito!") Did I mention she sets a hot dinner out for us every weeknight, and often makes a double- or triple-batch on Fridays to get us through the weekend. On top of that, if she thinks we are not eating enough, she has been known to drop off hot food on Sunday - chicken biryani; savory spicy doughnut-like things. Last Thursday she baked a chocolate cake from scratch and when we arrived home after work, it smelled so good, so fresh, so homey, I thought I might cry.

What this has shown me is that, in a family of four, with two small children and two careers, there is at least 20 to 25 solid hours of work to do to keep everything running smoothly. I am sure more would be nice. But 200-250 euros per week is doable for us. She does not live with us. She is not full-time. But four hours a day with a tata job list goes a long way toward our sanity. And, given our decidedly healthier financial picture now that our careers have been separated from Oklahoma, we can afford this new budget line item. (We also no longer have lawn care, pool care, a separate housecleaner, OU health insurance, Oklahoma grocery prices, or a cat unironically named Bill. And Eleanor is out of daycare now and in preschool, which means her monthly tuition has plummeted about 450 euros.) Quality of life is way up and costs are actually down.

There is still plenty to do to keep the household running. Jason and I are not fully liberated, nor would we want to be. We are hands-on parents. But to have a competent, paid professional in the service of our good health and smooth function?  Who wouldn't want this?

A couple more notes on tata culture:

I was speaking recently with an American friend of mine, another professional mom with a daughter aged 9, married to an Italian. She lives a bit out from Firenze, and when I recounted to her what we've got set up with Sree, she sighed heavily, and said, "That's Firenze. I could never get that in Pistoia." The urban population here, and economic base, and diversity of immigrants and expats, create a better market for these types of employment contracts.

Last night Vic and headed out to Santo Spirito on my bike for a playdate (Vic chirping from his back seat, "sometimes going away for an hour can feel like a holiday!") The group that met there were all American academics and their partners, here in Firenze on short-term teaching assignments for the many study abroad programs in the city, all with small children. They are all recently arrived, and still muddling their way through the transition.

Sabato in Piazza Santo Spirito.
I was chatting with one of the fathers, who was pretty Big Lebowski. It transpired that I had had a halting conversation with his wife, Sarah, on a public forum about the preposterous rate she was paying her babysitter for a very low level of service. One does not give up insider information, and especially not names and numbers. As I explained to him and his pregnant wife in person what our tata does for us (and apologized for my online reticence), I recognized the tears gathering in their eyes as identical to mine last summer.

"I need a fucking tata!" the husband said, pointing to his chest. "We need one for Sarah and the kids, and one for me!" He looked at his Negroni, then looked more closely at me. "Can you help us?"

Yes, friends. Yes, I can.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Firenze: Affittanonna / Rent-a-Nonna

Italian culture depends heavily on the participation of energetic, committed grandparents in a well-supported retirement phase to help their adult children and young grandchildren. It is a given that the grandparents will be there, and often. 

Italian culture does not support the fragmentation of families that we see in America, as people move hither and thither multiple times, so often in search of, or to meet, a new professional position, and earn more money. In Italy, the grandparents live close to the grandchildren, and boy, do they show up. We see them and pickup and dropoff at school; they are with the grandkids every weekend, everywhere, all over town, on buses, with the little ones in their house, stuffing them full of food from their kitchen and monitoring their health, like large, wise birds. The owner of our palazzo, Francesca, last weekend hosted a sleepover with six year old boys, and she laughed as she told me about it.

The kids' school routinely hosts grandparent events, appreciations, and craft workshops. The craft workshops involve grandparents coming to help the kids make some art project, in a convivial atmosphere. (One of my favorites was the workshop last year, where a grandma came and helped Victor glue felt eyes onto a brown washcloth dog, then knitted a collar on the spot in blue and white for said terrycloth canine. And put his name on it on a tiny name tag, a carefully lettered VICTOR. "She did it right there!" Victor exclaimed.)

Yesterday was the Festa dei Nonni (grandparent party). This occurs every year at this time. Last year, in materna (preschool), Victor did not have a grandparent present at the party, and so came home with his own art in hand, that was made for and meant for a grandparent. He was teary.
"No grandparent came for me! They are all too far away!" he cried. "Please invite my Italian grandma." He was referring here to Nonna Barbara, our friend in Arezzo who helped us out with Victor when he was one. But Nonna Barbara actually has a newborn grandchild of her own right now.

So when the message came that the Festa dei Nonni was happening again, I sprang into planning action. We had to get a nonna for Victor. This could not happen again.

I contacted our friend Susan, who has been living in Firenze for the past year, and said I had a favor to ask her. I did not want to insult Susan; she is not even old enough to be my mother. She was curious. When I explained it, she gamely accepted and said she would he happy to go to school to be a borrowed nonna for the party. I explained further she would have to bring a snack. It would be best to glue herself to Victor in a supportive way.

I went back and checked my phone for the WhatsApp message to make sure I had gotten the details right. I had not. Gahh! Wrong kid!

Victor is no longer in materna, he is in prim'anno (first grade). The message had, in fact, been for Eleanor, who is in materna. 

I messaged another American mom and asked her what the first graders were doing for the Festa dei Nonni, since the preschoolers would be gorging on sugar upstairs with their numerous nonni.

"They have a special Mass," the other mom said.

Gahh! Mass. Victor's least favorite thing still, most because of the Collared Shirt War of 2015-2016 in Oklahoma, as his Catholic preschool there had a very strict dress code for their monthly mass.

So now, I realized, Victor was going to go to a Mass with no special rented nonna. I only had Eleanor covered, and it was too late to get a rented nonna for Victor. I racked my brain. I had no idea. I felt horrible.

Eleanor, meanwhile, remembered on the way to school yesterday who was coming to join her for this special party. Susan. Eleanor understand that she would not be by herself. Hopefully the cultural benefits of growing up Italian in Italy with Italian grandparents would be transparent to her.

"Susan! Susan is coming!"

Yep, I nodded, Susan will be there with a dolce, I told her, and if you have made any special art, please give it to her. The building is centrally located in town, and the classroom is in a straightforward location, thus easy to find. Susan did find her way to Eleanor's class yesterday; she had been there a few weeks ago with me.  Eleanor and her nonna for the afternoon had a ball.

Eleanor's moment of shyness with her sweet loaner nonna, Susan.

Don't worry, the shy moment passed. She perked up.
I cringed to think of Victor in mass sitting next to a teacher, with no nonna to call his own.Victor really hates feeling out of place.

The report was that he was led from mass with red eyes by his soccer coach, and taken up to the top-floor gym to play ball.

He was still upset, for that and other reasons, when I picked him up at 5:30. He informed me, shirtless, flustered, and hot, on the locker room bench, that the day had been, for a variety of reasons, an epic fail.

He probably learned this idiom from watching YouTube videos of HobbyKidsTV.

Next year, I will know to get a stand-in nonna for each of them on this day.


Does anyone want to commit now to being my loaner nonna next year for this event?
I will repay you in extra Pokemon cards and Om Nom pro tips.
Meanwhile, back in Eleanor's world....


Monday, October 2, 2017

Firenze: A Different Life, Part 3

Cars.

I do not need a car in my life to feel happy. In fact, the opposite is true.

They cost a lot. Don't like shopping for them. I have bought three cars in my life - in 1997 and in 1999, as a single person, and again in 2006, when Jason and I bought the Forester. I hate buying gas. They get wrecked into, and stolen. They are rarely the transparent user interface that I long for in personal transportation.

I have not regularly commuted to work since early August 2004, when I moved from Seattle to Oklahoma. I had been confronting the commute from Seattle to the Eastside for four years - across the 90, down and up the 5, and in one insane year, across the 520 bridge, back before it had the toll.

I drove to work, stuck in lines of traffic, in the rain with red brakelights refracting, at on ramps and exits. I parked in corporate parking garages, or in huge lots. But, then, there were no tolls. I will confess I was clearly a part of the problem when I drove singly - the first two years I worked at T-Mobile corporate headquarters. A couple of other years I did carpool to Microsoft in Redmond, from Wallingford, or to T-Mobile in Bellevue from first Wallingford, and then Capitol Hill.


(Wait, now that I am thinking about it, I actually carpooled a LOT in Seattle, with Kelly and Laura, then Jen, the Genji, all in different years. Full review of historical facts complete.)

Even in Seattle, though, the life of the flaneuse was easy to access and maintain. When the weekend rolled around in the 9810x zip code, I often hung up my keys and did not drive again until Monday morning.

Seattle is a city made up of small neighborhoods, quartiere, if you will. They each center around their own nucleus of things to do, a few main grocery stores, residential housing. (I fully realize I would not be able to buy a house or re-access any of this in any kind of future, barring miraculous and very lucrative turns of events.) A main advantage of this was that, had you no plans, you could step out your front door, and walk around, to just look at stuff, buy a thing or two, and happily bump into friends and people you knew.

In short, a European lifestyle.

Never have I been happier than when living in such a mode. I had this kind of life in Seattle, briefly in Manhattan, in Santiago (Spain), in Strasbourg, in Arezzo even more recently when Victor was a year old. I could literally walk out the door with no plan at all, and come home with a small bag of groceries, a new book, three or four conversations with friends, a coffee taken, time in a park, some edifying walks around the surrounding blocks to admire houses or gardens or dogs or whatever. I did not have this kind of life in Arlington, VA, or in Issaquah, or in Edmond or Oklahoma City or Norman. In these places, one was at home and bored, until one got in a car and drove somewhere to do something with planning and forethought, and coordination with other people. (Granted, we had a bit more of that in Norman, which made those many years possible.) Now that I have had many life chapters in which to broadly compare these living situations, I will say unabashedly: I am a bit of a city mouse.

Sure, there are drawbacks to city living. And I have been known to say, from time to time, and even on weekends, I need some contrast. But let me step out more door to notice the sky, walk around, take the pulse of a neighborhood. Let my memory be jogged that I need to buy some small thing when I walk past the stationer's or grocery store, let me admire a labradoodle on a leash, and see a mom I know pushing a child on a swing. Let me notice both the buses lumbering up and down a street, as well as a wrecked bike's carcass chained to a pole. These things make me so happy.
Courtesy: Etsy
In an example from yesterday, I was going a little nuts in the apartment in the afternoon, and finally convinced Victor to go out with me, on the premise that we might find an open newsstand (edicola) where he could peruse decks of Pokemon cards for sale. His regular edicola, on Piazza Sant'Ambrogio, was closed on Sunday afternoon. This is totally normal. I knew full well that no edicola would be open in any quarter on a Sunday afternoon. I am the mom and pressed this advantage to get out of the house.

We walked to one caffe, and then to an edicola - both closed - on Via della Colonna, our street. We jogged over to Via Laura and walked up the length of it, past another stationer (closed, and probably would not have had Pokemon cards anyway). Victor thought, then helpfully suggested, "Mommy, you could use your phone maps. You could put it in Italian mode, and tell the lady ... edicola aperta ... and she will tell us which one to go to."
I conceded he had a point. I spread my arm forward into the block and said, "Victor, do you know why it is so quiet here?"
He wrinkled his nose. "It smells bad."
"It is quiet, because Italians ... do you know what Italians do on Sunday afternoon?" It was 4:30 p.m. "They do nothing. They are all sitting around, talking about the latest Fiorentina result, and the rientro headache of returning to school and work from their seemingly endless summer vacation, and what they'd like to eat this week and how the kids are doing and who has a cough. They might be watching TV. They are sitting and just talking kind of lazily and quietly about nothing."
"Boring," Victor said.
"You will come to appreciate it," I replied. "Italians know how to get ready for the week, by becoming Sunday sloths."

In America our Sundays are frenetic as we rush to complete all our errands.
In Italy, the errands are completed on Saturday, to preserve the slothlike nature of Sunday, where you are not permitted, by cultural edict, to accomplish much of anything.

We turned toward Santissima Annunziata, and ran in our American friend Susan, who was our strolling as we were. We chatted with her for a bit, then Victor wanted to see the European Food Festival that had been set up in the piazza. Polish brats, Sicilian aranciate (fried rice balls stuff with meat and cheese), Spanish paella, Dutch stroopwafels (crepes), and more all crowded our senses with the sounds and smells of cheery food. Benches had been set up in front of a few of the stalls to enjoy a beer with the snacks.
Susan had visited the Mexican booth and said they did not know the difference between a burrito and a taco, so she took a pass. We had a good laugh over this. The European interpretations of Mexican food are weak at best.
There was also a huge truck of gummi candy.

"Tiger! Tiger!" Victor said, pulling my hand toward the cheap Danish enterprise that is every kid's 4 euro dream. We entered and reviewed the latest Halloween merchandise, then selected some small items for Victor and Eleanor (paper airplane kit; air dart set) and mom and dad (face scrubber; travel pillbox set.) I threw in some chocolate, and we left content.
I was still jonesing for my espresso, so we stopped into Caffe Robiglio. It is busy at all times, due to its position within shouting distance of the Duomo. Victor selected a small pastry that he said tasted just like birthday cake (butter pastry, cream filling, red jam, sprinkles). I had an espresso and a mini beignet. (Note that Victor had just had a snack with Jason on his quartiere tour just an hour or two before, down Pietrapiana, as they had stopped in La Loggia dei Albizi not an hour before.)
We walked back through the food festival and goggled a bit more, remarking on a baby, and a coppersmith who was making jewelry on an improvised bench with a small hammer.

Santissima Annunziata was open, and I begged Victor to let me go into it.
No, no, he said. No. 
Please, I begged. Come on - I just bought you a mini birthday cake!

We went in. It felt like a scene from 1690. Mass was in progress in the twilit sanctuary. From the sounds of it they were intoning the prayers of the people in Italian. A bored-sounding priest with a very nasal voice was at the altar in the first shrine to the left, the one full of all manner of iron lamps and lit candles to the Madonna. His congregants sat in the pews facing the entrance of the church.

Santissima Annunziata, courtesy: Google Images.
That's the dreamy, almost Muslim shrine on the right, with the iron candelabras and oil lamps.
"Mama, mama! A candle!" Victor wanted to light a candle at a shrine.
At first I demurred, saying I had no more money, then felt guilty (we were, after all, in a church). I gave him a euro, and helped him light and place a candle.
"Who's it for?" I asked.
"For my grandmas," he said. "They they are safe and we love them." I swear he said this unprompted.
We quietly made our way out of the church, turning toward home on Via della Colonna as the lights around Piazza d'Azeglio began to come on.

No plan. No car. An hour of quality time, mamma and Victor. Chatted and walked. Ran into friends, ate some snacks, bought some small things, ogled at stuff, attended 5 minutes of mass, lit a candle. Walked home. Everyone happy.




Thursday, September 28, 2017

Firenze: French Lessons II / Lezioni di francese II

The sun shone bright blocks onto the uneven flagstones of Via della Colonna. I pedaled my bike as fast and as carefully as I could, trying to not chip my teeth as the bumpy ride got the better of me. I was late.

Borgo Pinti, courtesy of Google Images.
Left on Borgo Pinti, down its dark curve, the equivalent of an urban glade. Right on Sant'Egidio, squeezed between ATAF buses, past paninoteche and L'ospedale Santa Maria Nuova where Jason took me last year about this time on a Sunday afternoon, when I had bronchitis. All the way down, the street changes names a few times, until I arrived at San Lorenzo, its unfinished and rough facade hulking over tourists and cheap shoe shops. A quick serpentine through the new barricades that the city has set up in critical places, to guard, as they can, against the current truck-ramming terrorist threat. Around the back of San Lorenzo, past the Capella Medicea, right on Amorino, and parked in a small space front of the New Caffe.

I know this route well because it is how I bike home from St. James Episcopal on Via Rucellai.

Rachael was hanging out the gallery door on Via dell'Amorino, smoking and holding her phone in the other hand.
"Salut, bonjour! I called you and sent you a message," she waved.
I apologized and said I had been stuck behind buses in a sentence I had just rehearsed about ten times.
We went in to the gallery and back to her small classroom. Her partner came in, and walked back to his workshop, where his art seems focused on huge paintings featuring sexy anime women in futuristic red and blue swimsuits.
I whistled him a friendly "Saluuuut!"
Rachael's eyes widened. "Your pronunciation is better than I realized!"
That is probably a word I said one zillion times in Strasbourg, I thought. Mais merci.

She was super-prepared and had created a number of handouts for me in the service of reeducating and reawakening my emotions in French. A week had gone by since the nervous first class, and I had re-centered and refocused my attention on my goals at hand.

Have fun, enjoy a language. Roll around in a language that I have, at one point, felt more or less comfortable in. In which I was proficient. Take the focus of off Italian - it is fine. Strike the target by focusing on the periphery.

And yet over the past week, excavating my layer of language learning, and brushing off dirt, I realized something I had not seen before.
The Spanish accent and vowels are closer to Italian. There is lexical overlap. Certainly.
But French grammar lines up much more tightly with Italian. There is an almost 1:1 relationship. The verbs, the past participles, wow - how did I not see this?

In my anxiety last year, I was reaching for LL1 (my first learned language - Spanish), when I would have been better served reaching for LL2 (the second - French) to assist my LL3 (Italian).

Never mind the brainwreck.

Also, Americans quickly equate Italian with Spanish, because Spanish is our far more common reference. Not that many Americans have a working knowledge of French anymore, selon moi. It is generational. French language learning was ascendant after WWII, the Marshall Plan, and the endless advocacy of Jackie Kennedy, charming Charles de Gaulle on state visits with her handsome, linguistically hapless husband.

But wait! I think I do have some French in here - let me just get it out of this back closet.
Wow - there is so much more French here than I'd remembered. And it totally wants to come out and play.

"T'as fait le devoir?" Rachael hopped to it. Had I done my homework?
"Oui, je l'ai fait." Yes, I did it.
We got out my cahier (notebook) and she took the cap off of her dry erase marker, standing at her board.
Okay, emotions, let's do this. Let's reeducate.
Five basic emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger. These were taken to represent broader categories into which all human feelings fit on a sliding scale.

Ambitious. I like it. A very French exercise, so much culture in one hour. Pascalian in scope and content.
We covered anger, sadness, and happiness.

Mon cahier
All human feelings were examined for intensity, judged, and placed on an echelle (scale) on the whiteboard, from weakest to strongest.
We discussed how emotions create feelings, which are progressed emotions and thoughts about emotions, which can give rise to further feelings.
I took notes at high speed, scribbling a few words and expressions that I had not heard in decades. They sounded like old friends in the back room off a poorly lit pub. I loved it.
"Cette conversation me semble presque bouddhiste," I said. This seems almost Buddhist to me.

A smile curled around her cheek.
"You are my most advanced student," she said, "and I think I will also learn from you."
I flushed, clearly hungry for any positive feedback for a language not my own that seems to be originating from me.
"C'est possible," I said. Don't get your hopes up, Paris, and thank you for teaching to my level.
She took a hilarious call from her mother. Les meres sont les memes partout, I said. She laughed and agreed.
Tomorrow we are going to debate universal income and the necessity of work to be happy. I'll need to look up a few words, but this is entertaining.
With my goal at the periphery, I see the target more clearly than ever.
Gotta mix it up.

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.