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?

Friday, August 11, 2017

Firenze: Cityhoppin'

Victor and I had been staring out the window of the small jet from his window seat in row 7, wondering what we were looking at. I wasn't sure where we we were. It wasn't Firenze. A small brushfire burned white smoke pluming toward the sky. The pilot's voice came over the intercom:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the wind is too strong to land in Florence, so we are diverting to Pisa."

He provided some additional meteorological information. I quietly groaned - heaven help me should I ever be able to return from Amsterdam to Firenze on the KLM Cityhopper connection and actually land in Firenze. This happened last November too, when I was unceremoniously deposited in Venice due to thick fog, brought to a hotel for an hour and a half, and found my own way home on the first fast train out of Venice to Florence.

The plane was full of mostly American and Dutch tourists, and one Italian man who immediately began hissing, "cazzo, cazzo." Later, when we were on the ground, he called his mom right away to discuss the diversion.

The plan circled out over the Mediterranean, glittering blue and flecked with whitecaps. The cold front rolled in on Thursday, breaking the heatwave they dubbed "Lucifer," and the wind still whipped at the coast. We approached a first time. No luck. Back out to sea. It was no smooth ride either. This repeated at least four more times, with no further comment from the pilot, fighting that buffeting wind. Pisa lay spread out below us with its clay roofs, the mouth of the Arno slugglishly pouring out to sea. Finally, he went for it, and took us around the south and east sides of the city as the plane creaked and rocked to and fro. The wind was stiff. Get down, get down, get us down, I muttered. My palms were wet. Victor whooped a few times, buckled into his seat; six year old boys have no fear whatsoever in these situations. We finally landed with one bump, then another, and some hard braking. Right after we landed another plane came in, and immediately took off again without ever touching down.

The scene outside was chaotic. We were not the only flight that had been diverted due to wind. KLM said a bus would be waiting for us, and one was, but it was far too small for all passengers. Jason snorted and bought us tickets on the private Autostradale bus, which pulled out of the parking lot on time at 5:30 even as many of our fellow passengers from the flight waited in the sun for the second coach to arrive. The bus driver characteristically responded to a few of our basic questions before we left with the Italian frown and upturned palms. I was greatly entertained by a personal phone call he took from his hands-free, chatting loudly to a friend all the way to Florence. "Yeah, I put money on that horse too, it was no good! Didn't pay out! Hey, the hairdresser is right next to the caffe. Did you go grocery shopping yet? What are you doing later? Ok, what about in 60 minutes? 90 minutes?"

The bus deposited us outside of the Fortezza, behind the train station. Jason quickly collared a taxi to drive us home. In the newly cooler air, everyone expressed their relief at the change in weather. We drove across Florence with our two smaller travelers, who cooed at Piazza San Marco. Even the light seemed softer, and San Marco seemed to be a gently glowing peach. It was good to be home.

One day, two small children, three airports, four cities. Two tired parents. And now, the 3 am eastbound jetlag, which Eleanor recommends you best address with yogurt, breakfast cookies, and an orange popsicle.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

L'estate spokanese/Spokane Summer


We have a handful of days left in Spokane before we return to Florence on Friday. We've found our pace here - Flavia has made some friends in her generationally-appropriate cohort, the kids love the splash pad and the cat next door, and a small family of five Indian Runner ducks waddle quickly up and down the sidewalk multiple times each day, chattering amongst themselves. We've made good use of the grill in the garden, where I have also appreciated the rare solitary moment in its quiet, sun-warmed patches.

Garden


South Hill gentility

A child of the American Midwest, whether I like it or not, I find that accessible green space is so critical to my sense of balance. All the Florentines ooh and aah when we tell them our address; Piazza d'Azeglio is widely acknowledged to be the most sought-after green space in town. But you know what happens when your town wasn't really planned for development between 400 CE and the present? There are almost no public green spaces, and so the ones that are available to all disproportionately bear the burden of public demand.

And the dogs. Oddio, the dogs. I mean, I love dogs. But I do not want all my outside time to be so shared with their, er, waste. The park on Azeglio has been pretty much given over to the dog population; they are well-kept, these Tuscan canines; they are collared and leashed, but their owners do not always curb them, and the earth is soaked with dog pee. It is not conducive to relaxing or playing to be in the park that feels like a Seattle off-leash, inside the fence.

In Washington I have reveled in the parks, from Volunteer in Seattle to Manito in Spokane, Hurricane Ridge in Port Angeles; even the small but majestic park across from our rental in Port Angeles, which was used by a few dogs and owners each day, was the same size as Azeglio but much fresher. The Olmstead brothers never went to Florence to sketch out their public plans. There are, indeed, private gardens that are magnificent; our friend Tommy told me once in the Stibbert gardens at Easter that if you flew over Florence, it was a carpet of orchards and gardens and groves. I was surprised, but then considered how, on foot from street level, all these tranquil spaces are shuttered behind high stone walls, inaccessible to all but their owners and guests.

We've gotten our Mexican cuisine on once at Fiesta Mexicana ("Mexican Party!" the kids yell); I've had sushi now three times, accompanied by Jason's colleagues, always to the same place a short walk from the office.

We have eaten a lot of ice cream here. The kids are quite partial to Brain Freeze. It's a very American set of flavors, with some local color thrown in, as with the Palouse Red Lentil. It's expensive though; we can't get out of there for less than $12, which is about double the prices even in Florence, where universal access to gelato is regarded as a basic human right.

We nicked over to The Scoop on South Hill a few nights ago and agreed it was a better option for us - better portions, fresh waffles, friendlier outdoor seating not next to roaring arterial traffic. Critically, they also have a homemade bubblegum flavor, which the kids are crazy about. Eleanor got a baby cone which she loved, and which looked so kawai as to be almost Sanrio. Victor was accosted by a much larger boy who in no time brought up Minecraft, and the two were holding a Minecraft congress such as this mother had never before witnessed. Even as we were buckling Victor into his booster seat in the car, the red-haired boy had his head in the window, saying, "Do you want me to tell you how to get to the stronghold?" and blurted some rapid instructions. As we pulled away, Victor bemoaned, "But he did not tell me whether to go left or right!"

The requisite trips to our storage unit and Target have been completed. I found almost everything on my short list, with the exception of Brown Bear, who was unceremoniously left behind last year in our haste. And Target, whoa do I miss it, and I am even a little embarrassed to admit it. Everything at hand! Kid Neosporin! Paw Patrol bandaids! Post-It notes! Sharpies! Sonicare toothbrush heads. Wow. I just could not believe how many things were there that I feel like I am so often looking for and failing to find in Italy. Replacement washi tape for the two rolls that were stolen when we arrived in Spokane, along with my entire work backpack.

A key from our old house in Norman; I scooped it up from a box of loose things, and pocketed it for the poetry.

Our insurance claim paid out for the theft loss; we always appreciate USAA efficiency. I really could not care less about anything that was stolen, with the exception of my two slim, handwritten journals; one was full and the other was just begun. Irreplaceable, but also the complete one served as a staging page for so much of what I have written here since March.

Some of you may know that I am in the process of turning this blog into a book, and perhaps more. My draft was also saved as a Word doc on the work laptop, and I had foolishly failed to back it up anywhere. Stolen. It's probably in a garage now, or at the bottom of the Spokane River or worse. I still have my original material for it, now in gdrive, but it had been lovingly edited with stolen time of about 10-20 hours, which I am not able to find again with our work and travel and kid schedules. I'd told the agent whom I'd queried (and who responded so positively) that I would have a draft to her by August 15, four days after we return to Firenze. Next Tuesday. I don't know how or when that is going to happen, years of pulling all-nighters in college notwithstanding. I've got a lot of balls in the air, and feel like my heart will crack open.

A dear high school friend told me to not obsess about a book, that the writing is good, but this whole tale could convert into a franchise. I laughed when she told me, then started shopping for a better camera, and have settled on a GoPro to take all of you along with me through Italy and the greater world, as I meander in my half-disorientation and observations.

I just don't know what to do now about this artificial deadline I have created for myself. Is it an opportunity squandered? Little inner voice saying, This is crazy, etc. I welcome your input; if you have an idea, or encouragement, or advice, comment away.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Proseguimento a Spokane

We've been back in the US since July 11, with our little roadshow, and with the exception of two minor hiccups, the schedule has been manageable. I actually dreaded it before we came here; just looking at the calendar, I thought - we are never going to be able to make this Napoleonic march happen. 

But it has, with a ton of help, from Jason's parents and from mine, as we kept to our calendar of Seattle to Port Angeles to Seattle to Portland to Spokane.

Evening light at lower Manito Park, Spokane.

Our family friend Flavia is along for the ride, on her first trip to the US. She's plenty traveled, and comes from a traveling family, but had never made it this way yet. We are delighted to be showing her our favorite corner of the US, sharing tall trees, big sky, golden grass, Pacific breezes, ripe berries, espresso kiosks, American coffee (strange), and air conditioning (strong) with her.

I am particularly enjoying her reactions to the last two, because they affront her Italian sensibilities on a daily basis. She guffaws every time we drive through an espresso kiosk, and we order a double shot (me) and a double shot with a splash of soy (her).
That's all? the baristas say, shaking their heads as though they fear they might have missed something, a confused, slightly crooked smile creeping across their faces.
That's all? No ice, no milk, no flavor, no whipped cream, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MILK?!
No, that's all, we affirm, just the espresso, please, ma'am.
It's like they are serving coffee to aliens. They do not like it one bit.

This afternoon when we came home from work there was a melted coffee in a plastic cup with a lid and a straw.
Madonna! Flavia cried. All I wanted was a double shot of espresso with soy, and they kept saying, ice, ice, and I said, no, hot, hot, and they gave me THIS! Her expression floated between amusement and disgust. The siena-colored liquid sloshed to and fro in the cup as I shook it and held it to the light to examine its contents.
How much ice did they put in this coffee? she asked. I could not get the to top. How does 'hot' sound like 'ice'?
Fa schifo, I said. Disgusting.
Molto! she agreed.

Flavia is also struggling to understand the American concept of a thermostat set below 70F. In an ice cream shop, or in a home. I can't eat this in here, she said in Brain Freeze this evening. Monica! You are not bothered by this cold?
I kind of shrugged. Um, not really, I don't know, I grew up with this idea of walking in from 95F into 65F and thinking it was normal.
Do you feel sick? I am probably getting sick! she said.

I laughed. But then I started sneezing vigorously. I think it is from the dry air here, as the inside of my nose is about to crack.  Look, look, I said, I am getting the cervicale! I laughed, invoking the name of the Worst Illness in Italy that comes from having an unprotected neck or breathing inappropriate air. It is a positively Galenic concept, one that most Americans do not believe in. The cervicale may also be contracted following a shower, if one refuses to use a hairdryer (which is me, always), or if, on the beach or by the pool, one insists on continuing to wear a wet swimsuit as though said swimsuit had a right to dry itself right there on your body. No, one must travel with multiple dry swimsuits and change out of the wet one immediately, lest one tempt fate and contract the cervicale. I love Italians, but I am also glad that I do not have Sicilian in-laws who sit in a stuffy salotto all summer long, refusing to open the windows in the house for the same reason, because, you know, the cervicale lurks on a draft. And, like Liam Neeson, it will kill you.

Coffee without milk? Washington recoils.
Air conditioning this strong? Italy might stop talking to you.

It is strange how life in Florence from afar, and with the benefit of a few weeks already seems remote and dreamlike. It is hard to believe, from here, that we are doing all that, there. And yet moving through the days here almost feeling simple verging on boring, although I am enjoying the lack of language barrier, and driving, and Trader Joe's, and vintage shopping, and Huckleberry's. And I purchased cupcakes with buttercream frosting, three mini ones, in fancy flavors, and ate them all over the course of two days. (They were mini.) There are a few small things I miss about America, apart from our families, of course, and that's a small list there. I would add to it a bagel with a plain whipped schmear and a plate of Mexican cuisine.

Can you see the sunbrellas to the right? Si, it is the Mexican party.

We did hit the Mexican restaurant on Sunday afternoon; across from Brain Freeze (expensive but delicious ice cream), Asian Ginger (eclectic fusion), and 27th Heaven (my cupcake source), it is called Fiesta Mexicana, and I bought lunch for five there to go for $23, which was incredible, and they put in a huge sack of fresh chips and two containers of salsa! What is this heaven! We have been calling it Mexican Party as we have often gazed at it over our ice cream from Brain Freeze. Eleanor cries, Mexican party, Mexican party every time.

I chatted with the waiter who took our order on Sunday and Victor asked me, Mommy, was he speaking Spanish? It sounds a bit like Italian. You said pollo with a Y, but I know it is pollo with an L. And I thought I would explode with pride.

I mention here that Victor is not yet reading by any stretch, but has cultivated the Palace of the Mind like Sherlock Holmes, so neatly does he tuck away his observations for later use.

We have another week, about, in the US; we return to Florence via Amsterdam next Thursday. I am thrilled to report that we will also be staying the night before at the Summit Inn at Snoqualmie Pass, a personal first, although I have driven by there at least two or three dozen times.

I am glad that the America we return to is our home in this corner of the continent.

Snoqualmie Falls in needlepoint, I am so tempted to take this home and leave $25 for it.