Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Italian Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sounded fine to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Il pettine d'oro / The Golden Comb

As an American abroad, and with my particular identity and experience, I am frequently drawn to patronize immigrant business in the towns where I live. I am reminded of that Indian grocery store on Asp in Norman that put out fresh hot samosas at 4 pm. Pretty much everywhere I have ever had a pedicure. And likewise, many of the places I like to eat, up and down the West Coast.

I remember especially New Year's Day 2013, in Himalayas, the Bangladeshi grocery store in Arezzo, which was the lone shop open on that day. I needed a toothbrush; I do not remember why it was urgent. But I walked into the store - not the first time - and immediately felt so relaxed and so at home with the group of Nigerians and southeast Asians perusing the produce and dry goods that I did not even stop to think to myself, Am I really going to fry these plantains when I get them home? or What would I do with a quickly softening jackfruit? 

I wandered the three aisles, cataloging the packets of curry and curry spice and curry powder, neem oil and tamarind paste, endless rice options, sandalwood soap wrapped in paper and tied with twine. Coconut milk in powder and liquid, in both UHP tetrapaks and cans. Tofu and baby bok choy, edamame and pappadums. Tins of masala. Soft drinks - unknown to me - in Sanskrit and English, their bright metal cans beckoning and begging an impulse purchase, next to the powdered laundry soap and bars of naptha. And a toothbrush. And subcontinental toothpaste.

How can I explain to you that this scene triggered no nervousness or confusion at all for me, but rather a sense of deep relaxation and calm - ahh different lovely things, these are my people.

The man at the till gave me a quizzical look when I bought my toothbrush and toothpaste, a few cans of coconut milk and a bag of dried chickpeas and a small can of tahini. The aretini local to town regarded Himalayas as a curiosity, but would never step foot in there or shop there. I am as relaxed in a new place as many people are in a familiar place. Some combination of genes and a life lived everywhere means that a slightly musty grocery store in a third country is a major serotonin trigger for me. Had those aretini spoken English, I am sure they would have exclaimed to me, in a bourgeois assessment, but it's not proper Italian food! 

I can still hear a certain group of Englishwomen in Strasbourg, when I lived in France, schooling me on the "proper" nature of things: proper flour, proper sugar, proper food. "Proper," to these young Englishwomen, meant not just "it is the right thing," but "it is the expected thing," and further, "anything different than what we expect is therefore improper!"

How I snorted and laughed even then, to their confused reactions, and how I still snicker to think of a certain English woman in particular personally importing five-pound bags of "proper flour" on her trip back to France from the UK at Christmas.

"Becky!" I howled, laughing. "Do you really think the sugar and flour are any different here?!"

But yes, yes she did. And she was quite happy to make crepes with her proper flour, and since I was eating them three at a time with sugar and lemon, and getting quite plump that year, I ceased my interrogation.

"But, darling, it is just not proper flour, I can't even."
Smaller European cities can be broadly characterized by their homogenaeity. Florence is an exception to this, and in any case, it is not so small, but has found itself the master of a trade route and crossroads for millennia. I suspect that veri fiorentini, true Florentines, wish to patronize only "proper Italian" businesses for their needs; meanwhile, a significant immigrant community and infrastructure has grown up over the centuries, and in the last fifty years in particular.

This immigrant infrastructure is a boon to incoming immigrants such as ourselves - I hesitate to apply the "expat" label; it smacks of privilege and a closely guarded inequality to the benefit of the speaker. "Expat" implies you have a desirable home to return to; "immigrant" whispers doubts of the "proper home" from which you came, and the purposed pressures, economic or political, under which you must "have escaped." An expat escapes with money and retains options; an immigrant flees with nothing, and has no options. But I digress.

I love Italian salons. I have a lot of hair; I need hair help. My Finnish heritage has ensured that I have a thick mane that, even at my age, and after kids, requires strategic thinning and layers cut into it so as to make me look slightly less like a troll baby doll. On the plus side, my hair does recall a kilim rug in its dry wooliness, a human single-coat terrier, if you will, and I can go one to two weeks between blowouts. Definitely more than one. Two weeks with dry shampoo. So for me, a piega that can be regularly scheduled is worth it, since I do not immediately wash it out ... but rather wait ... and wait... and have hairstyle strategies ... dry shampoo... pins and clips ... and ponytails.

Maybe some layers would help?
I had a great salon in Arezzo, Gocce, that was all Italian, all the time, with Mayra and Lucia. They were around the corner from our building, just off the Corso. They were the best. Their owner was Italian, and busy expanding his brand globally to Costa Rica, the UAE, and Los Angeles (business planning ...) The two women stylists were deeply provincial, with an accent I struggled to parse, and committed like no salon I'd ever had before to make sure I felt like a million euros every time I finished an appointment there. Their prices were affordable, at twenty euros for a shampoo and blowout.

Returning to the US in 2013 with my unruly, genetically Arctic mop was difficult. American stylists either did not take the time, or you couldn't get an appointment, or when you did get an appointment it would be six weeks out, and would take three hours, and cost $180. Your hair would look fantastic, but at those schedules and those prices, it could only happen once every 18 months. Ykes. Too long!

A regular and affordable piega was very much on my list of things I looked forward to returning to, in 2016, as we made our preparations to come back to Italy long-term. I had a salon here in Florence that I found through the network; it was recently shuttered. Another one that I also really liked was recently sold. A third one was ok, but with such high tourist-target prices as to be laughable. Plus I walked out of there looking like Elizabeth Taylor at the senior prom, which is not problematic in and of itself, but ... for everyday? It was a bit much.

Couple this to the fact that, perhaps due to the nature of tourists and the tourist economy, I found it difficult to find an appointment in my morning. Salons seemed to say they opened at 11, but then really opened around noon, and then were ready to greet you at 12:30, and maybe start on your appointment by 1 - I do not have this kind of time to dally around. I want a piega, and I want one regularly.

One day in Italian language class last year, our instructor Franco diverged into a long dissertation about Italian salons, and how they were suffering due to the influx of Chinese businesses. That Italians were, lamentably, become more and more hurried, and less able to spend many euros on an Italian salon, where the chitchat and the process is also part of what you pay for, in addition to fantastic hair. But how a Chinese barber or stylist would get your hair done in two snips and a fluff, and out the door you'd go, when in the same amount of time in an Italian salon they would have just gotten you an espresso and covered the potential life threats inherent in that day's weather (too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy, too cloudy, etc.)

Hell yes, I whispered to myself, I am going to find a Chinese salon!

I had often passed one on my circuit around our neighborhood; it was always busy, with a constant stream of Italian clients. It is directly across from an Italian salon that specializes in the three-hour appointment and large bill. I have friends who go there regularly and so have heard firsthand accounts. Italy, I love you, but mamma does not have time for that.

The Chinese salon did not have a discernible name, but it did have a price list poster out front, with a small pleather-upholstered stool. I felt so relieved about my solution that I walked in about a month later.

The first piega was less than a success. The stylist curled my hair with a curling iron for about 20 minutes, and I looked like I was headed to the junior prom forthwith. I do not love extensive heat styling anyway; the burning hair smell is a total past life witch trigger for me.

I continued to also frequent my two Italian salons (before they shuttered and changed hands). But it was a challenge to work in a regular appointment for Arctic mop care when I have this much hair. I am like a Hungarian puli getting groomed. It is a real commitment. And no, I do not want go straight up Sinead or Annie Lennox. But I do hate washing my own hair, because there is so much of it that it is hard to get clean. Is it clean? and then, how am I going to dry all this? I know I have friends who understand, who are also from the Thick Hair club.

I am not really into dreads for myself, but Hungary is rockin this look.
Plus, the sheep? They never even notice him.
Then, about a month ago, after I had been trying to chase down any kind of an appointment for weeks, and had called and gone into a salon when advised to do so, only to be advised in person that they were too busy and to go home again, I realized that it is impossible to obtain a piega on a Saturday in Florence. Just don't even try. The salons are beyond full. They can't even take a walk-in, not even in a granny salon, and if they say you have an appointment at noon to mollify you, you will be hanging out in said salon til three until it is your turn.

I went back to the Chinese salon on Borgo La Croce. They were gracious, and fast. They are very like the Vietnamese nail salons in the US. An older woman sat me down and gave me a vigorous, three-step shampoo and massage that restored my mental clarity. I asked for a piega liscia, just a straight blowout, to avoid the pitfalls and burnt hair of the junior prom curling iron. The shampoo matron's colleague (possibly her daughter?), had me dried and ironed out in about 15 or 20 minutes. The cost? Ten euros. I tipped them two more, out of joy, which they tried to refuse, until I insisted that I felt I had to do so because I was American, and I could not escape my cultural habits.

Two weeks later, I went back, having not washed my hair since the last piega cinese. They were happy to see me, and greeted me before grandma got down to scalpy business again at the shampoo station. Their Italian is so accented that it is hard for me to understand, and I suspect that that is the case for all their Italian clients. But in a place where everyone in charge speaks Italian as a second or third language, I feel like I can relax. There is no greater startle for me than an unexpected volley of language when my thoughts are focused elsewhere.

A much shyer young woman in a green gingham-checked jumper dried my hair. As she worked on me, I heard an older Italian woman to my left berating her stylist for failing to achieve the proper lift in her bangs with the blowdryer. She went on and on. She dried it herself. Personally I have not been that concerned about the lift of my bangs since 1986, so it was interesting to see this sixty-year-old nonna in a leather jacket schooling the stylist. The nonna eventually called it good, and went to pay, where she continued to berate the staff for having gotten water in her eyes at Shampoo Station. She paid her ten euros and left. They all were quiet as they watched her leave. Not one of them smiled.

I, on the other hand, was most satisfied with my clean, ironed hair. I paid my ten euros (total time: 25 minutes) and tipped the Chinese Laura Ingalls Wilder a euro, which she was too surprised to try to hand back with any conviction.

Interestingly, this time they issued me a handwritten receipt, showing that I had paid the ten euros. The name of the salon was printed at the top in red: Il Pettine d'Oro, the Golden Comb. Which struck me as so appropriate for its wide allusion to both Greek (Jason's golden fleece) and Chinese culture.

I am pleased with my Pettine d'Oro solution and will continue to patronize them, and glad too for the immigrant ambiance in Italy. Xie xie, Pettine d'Oro.

Friday, April 27, 2018

How Italians Relax / Come si rilassano gli italiani

Today I'd like to address a topic that inevitably comes up with Americans in Italy, one that is deeply embedded in culture and cultural expectations: how does one relax?

This issue is brought to the symbolic fore by the most American of furnishing institutions, the sofa (divan, couch), which ironically makes me think of Greek dinners with Socrates and the vast storied banquets of the Roman Empire.

Socrates at dinner, right before he downed that goblet of hemlock.
I preface my discourse by saying this: the Italian cultural expectation I will explain is deeply traditional, steeped in centuries of agricultural subsistence farming, but also the urban bourgeois - think either farmers in the countryside, or well-to-do Italian merchants in well-off city X in some bygone century.

Italians have three main modes of relaxation, available to all on a daily basis: the dining table, the public park, and the passeggiata, or daily stroll each evening before dinner through your neighborhood.

Upon entering an Italian home, you may note that the dining table is the largest visible feature. It is huge. In our modest apartment, the table is enormous, and can easily seat eight or even ten in a pinch. Our owner's table in their dining room upstairs has been known to seat 24 or more family and guests. Italian culture values the meal, and the pleasure in relaxing around a table, over leisurely apertivi and wine, enjoying the courses that come our from the kitchen as they are ready.

This is a chief relaxation strategy of Italian culture (and Mediterranean culture in general, I'd wager, as a former resident of France and Spain, and lay anthropological researcher into, the French and Spanish cultures). Mediterranean culture will never give it up. There is no television to distract. Laptops or tablets at the table are rude. Smartphones are often forgiven if not obtrusive, because work, and also, you got a life to keep going at your personal socio-logistics switchboard. It is relaxing for Italians to gather over food and drink and chat, with no definite beginning or end point. The more anxious among us may mark beginning and end points, if desired, with the polite production of a glass of prosecco (beginning) and, hours later, the equally polite production of a cordial or espresso (end).

The cordial (in English) itself, as a sincere offering of cordiality (cor, from the heart), gains semiotic heft when it is considered as a nonverbal way to say "your time here at the table is drawing to an end... as soon as you finish this tiny, sweet jigger." In Italian, it is more accurately called a digestivo. As in, "drink this, and go happily digest, but not at my table."

But a meal is not even necessary to enjoy the relaxing mode that a large table in an enclosed community can offer, a place to pay bills, read the paper (laptop, tablet), catch up on the news of analog people living in the home, fold laundry, assist with the stream of compiti (homework) if children live there, planning trips or vacations to see the extended family community in the generous holiday periods that are enjoyed by Italians. Simply being at the large table is relaxing, because things happen in an unhurried way. It is impossible to run around like a headless chicken when you are seated at a table. For heavens' sake, sit down, have a coffee or a glass of juice, and thoughtfully consider what you need to do next.

This is the first way in which we may note that Italians relax. This may also link back to a deeply Catholic culture, the familiarity with the Lord's Supper, and the general popularity and significance of a scene at a supper table. In addition, the long roots in monastic tradition that continue to inform Italian education and higher education may still be sensed in this tradition - think refectory table, long meal, and calm. Prayer and community, interaction, and bond-strengthening. I always notice the dining scene in a home because we very rarely ate together as a family when I was a child. It was something I missed then, and is a value that I actively sought to discover, and cultivate now as an adult.

Greek Orthodox monks in a refectory,
deep in thought over pita bread and probably a lot of other delicious things.
Makes up for that male wimple.
Secondly, the public park. Imagine a huge and well-kept public garden, generously furnished by the community with benches, leafy plane trees spreading their branches overhead. You need not mow the lawn, or plant and weed flowers, or wade into an algeous fountain to clean the pump mechanism. This point of relaxation could also be a on a piazza with stores and perhaps parking spaces around it. In the park in front of our building, Piazza D'Azeglio, there  are easily 80 to 100 benches, which can fit five people each (as I learned in Ognissanti in January when one Florentine nonna politely reminded another Florentine nonna of the official Italian cultural marshall seating capacity of each church pew.)

It is relaxing to be outside in pleasant weather, on the bench with your paper, or doing a crossword, or simply people watching (cute kids, what people are wearing, the progress that little boy has made on his bike, or that little girl riding her scooter). It is relaxing for Italians to be in community and to see other people, and to be acknowledged as a member of community. This provides a deep assurance and a sense of rest and well-being.

The drawback to this second option? Weather does not always cooperate, but fortunately this is Italy and not the Arctic, so we have many many months of pleasant outside park time in which to relax.

Row of park benches, Piazza D'Azeglio.
This is such a true to life and lovely picture that I am reposting with credit.
(c) Juls' Kitchen
In all seasons excepting pouring rain or snow, Italians will get dressed to go outside for a stroll, thereby calmly and casually encountering all their friends, neighbors, and often family without needing to make any specific plan to see people. This is the third mode of Italian relaxation. The passaggiata is more diffuse in a city the size of Florence, just because it is so big. But people will still get out in their nice clothes to go run a couple of nominal errands (pick up a bottle of wine, get something at the pharmacy), and enjoy an ice cream or a cocktail before they go to dinner. This was very noticeable as a custom in a much smaller town like Arezzo, where we lived in 2012-2013. Arezzo has just one main drag, the Corso Italia, and literally, with no planning at all, you could walk out the door around six in the evening and run into 8 people you knew and have a few nice chats. The flowing throng of people filled the street, up to its narrow banks of tall buildings. The passeggiata is still on in cold weather, but if it is raining, nope, no way. Being social is fine and all, but under no circumstances should you ever court death.

(Note: if you are an older Italian, the park bench in #2 becomes the passeggiata in #3, as your younger compatriots fulfill their cultural expectation of parading by for your review and appraisal.)

Back to America, and American culture, and what it means to relax and be at home. In general, American culture is much more homebody and privacy-driven than Italian culture. We return in the evenings and weekends to our house on lots with yards we mow and gardens we work in. We sit in our houses and eat dinner quickly, unless we go out to eat. We watch TV while we eat dinner. The dining room table is not a place to gather so much as to eat, and quickly. I think, for many Americans, it is not relaxing to be in public in community, as opposed to Italians. A passeggiata cannot exist in the US because there is no culturally agreed-upon set time for it, and anyway, we're all driving around. (I am suddenly reminded of 'cruising' in high school on the weekends, endless loops up and down Broadway in cars in Edmond to yell things out the car window at people, but, uh. Not really similar.)

Where do Americans want to relax? We want a nice, comfy sofa in our living room from which to watch a really big flatscreen TV. Italian apartments often do not have such sofas. There are small hard loveseats with springs. There are old tiny loveseats with blankets thrown over them. But they are not big, they are not comfortable, and they do not face a TV.

All this being said, it is true that all three apartments that Jason and I have lived in have had large, comfy sofas. I do not know why. They have all been filled with down, generously cushioned and thickly upholstered. In our apartment now, it does face a TV that we put there, but which we rarely watch. In Arezzo, five years ago, our very comfy sofa faced a TV that we purchased for the purpose. I watched a lot of Italian news that year and it really helped my language. In Florence in 2005, in that adorable apartment up in Le Cure, we had an incredible yellow sofa stuffed with the feathers of a city of geese, and the sofa faced the dining room table, an amusing arrangement in itself, suggesting that the meal at hand was the actual show.

Meanwhile, so many other locales that we have found and rented, or that we have stayed in ourselves, had the hard, springy loveseats that remind me of the bench in our old VW van that my parents used to unbolt for long roadtrips, or to move something across town, like a new purchase - perhaps a sofa. These VW-type benches are not comfy. But you know, should you find yourself in such uncomfortable circumstances, it might be best to scope out your closest dining room table, park bench, or ask around to learn when and where the passeggiata happens.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Firenze: Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella: Baroque Charm, Post-Industrial Customer Service

We are fortunate to receive a generous gift box from the Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella each year from an Italian business associate of Jason's, stuffed with lotions, potpourri, soaps, candles, and more. I have been a fan for years. I love the stuff.

The tea room is tucked away, behind a warren of small rooms, hallways, specialty dedicated rooms with marble counters (dietary supplements, room fragrance). We stopped first in the small chapel to the right on the way to the tea room, admiring the medieval frescoes up close.

Free art with your purchased hedonism.
I had brought my friend Nahyeli to the officina profumo when she was in town last week, and staying with us for a few days. I'd never been to the tea room before, but had heard and seen a bit about it, and marveled that I had not yet been in for the tea and cake. We agreed that we were in no shape to shop premium fragrance and skincare until we fortified ourselves with tea, cake, and medieval liquor.

After we had carefully examined as many historic flasks, pipettes, and huge bottles as we could stand, we waited for a bit for a table to clear. The tea room was bustling at all six of its tables. We were ushered to a tiny marble-topped bistro table, where the capable hostess took our orders for tea, cordials, and cake. It all came out moments later, the tea steeping in beautiful tiny porcelain teapots with matching cups, the cordial in tiny vessels of pressed glass, a generous slice of cake atop a saucer with two silver forks. I felt like I'd stepped into one of my beloved Russian classics, perhaps Gogol or Dostoyevsky on a grand estate, minutely detailing the habits of a landowning family.

I ordered one loose tea for Nahyeli, and another for me (cinnamon and spice), to go with our almond sugar cake. Both cordials glowed russet in the afternoon light that filtered in through the windows looking onto the courtyard. We sampled each other's teas, as both of us are dedicated tea aficionadas, and shared the cake, then sipped on the cordials to finish - I had the stomatico, and Nahyeli the traditional Medici alkermes. The latter is no longer being distilled from the rosy carapaces of some desert beetle, but none the less surprising in its taste.

Tea, cake, cordial. Missing only a dowager duchess.
I love how in Italy I am still able to taste (and smell) completely new things, and have added alkermes to my short list of "wow! totally new Italian flavors!" (Kaka mela, sun-warmed ficchi, castagnaccio, grifo, biettole, valeriana, and now, alkermes.)  As we paid, the comessa complimented us on our mix of Spanish, Italian, and English, saying that she was Russian. We compared notes on language and language learning, and deploying acquired languages in situ. Our nerves relaxed, our bodies hydrated, we made our way into the dietary supplement room.

I took a few more pictures and admired the lawn of the cloister.

The lush lawn of the Dominicans.
We had carefully perused the product list over tea, and so had a few specific questions before we made our choices. Nahyeli selected a draining supplement, while I opted for a borage-based skin supplement that purported to also be useful for fair skin when exposed to sun (hand shot up). I have many fond memories of picking borage flowers for the dinner salad on Lummi Island, in Washington state.

The esteemed farmacia antica is less antica now, in that you receive a tessera, or a small card with a magnetic strip, which each comessa (sales associate) swipes at each of their grand marble counters to add your items to your shopping list. You take the tessera to the cassa, when your shopping feels as complete as it can possibly be in such an emporium of time-tested luxuries, and they have your bag waiting for you. Only there do they swipe your credit card to pay the unholy sum that is your ransom fee, worthy of the Medici themselves.

After the apothecary/dietary supplement room, we progressed to the main attraction: the grand foyer where the perfumes, soaps, and skincare are arrayed, underneath frescoed ceilings, the mahogany woodwork buffed to a deep shine. Innumerable commesse stand at their posts, ready to dab or spray you, or to proffer samples to sniff at. They are impeccably attired in smart blue suits with the SMN stemma, or logo, on the breast pocket of their blazer. It is impossible to overstate how busy this place always is. It is a Destination for every female tourist over the age of 14 who is visiting Florence, and many a father and husband in tennis shoes and cargo shorts trail behind, looking awkward and/or bored while their womenfolk make their selections. It is also popular with tour groups, and frequent groups of 30 to 40 or more (often Asian) file through, swiping their credit cards before they leave. This place has got to be so profitable. The commesse, in addition to being suited and beautiful, must also be hired on the basis of their prodigious language skills, because it feels like the UN in there.

Nahyeli and I approached the perfume dais, where the high queen of profumo that day was a striking young woman from Buenos Aires, with skin as flawless as tiny teapots we'd just served ourselves from in the tea room. Her stylish, owlish glasses perched perfectly on her straight nose. Her poise was commendable, and I am certain that that post for a commessa is a pole position for only the most professional associates with steel nerves, since the perfume dais is the most mobbed of all counters. Nahyeli and I spent a good twenty minutes spraying and sniffing. I'd bought a bottle of the profumo vaniglia in 2005, and enjoyed it. I'd been following their Instagram account for a few months to make sure I got all the public input on their profumo, which comprises at least 50 or 60 single note and blended fragrances. As soon as the commessa heard Nahyeli's Spanish, she switched too, and we dominated her time a bit longer before we made our decisions. Nayheli took a pass, but I was moved to purchase a 100 euro bottle of the Tabacco Toscano, about which I had read so much, its popularity well justified.

One more stop, for tonic water for the complexion, because what could be a more medieval and  solid choice in such an institution. I chose one that was promised to make my skin smooth and supple (yes please), and it too was swiped onto my tessera. Under normal circumstances I am an impatient and very decisive shopper, but it was pleasant indeed to be there with a fellow member of the Tea and Fragrance Appreciation Society. We beelined into the cassa room where they swiped our credit cards, and left the officina profumo with our heavy white bags of gorgeous traditional products.

(Important: I was chatting with Nahyeli in Spanish most of this time, and read none of the fine print.)

I returned home with my purchases and applied the perfume. What? What was this smell of wet dog? Steely wet dog. Maybe my nose was wrong.

I recapped the bottle and put it aside. The next day I smelled it again. Come again? what was this smell? This made no sense to my nose. I am a very nosy person. I could not believe I would have bought this.

I checked the bottle but did not see the name of the perfume. In the small bag, the receipt remained tucked into a paper flap. I lifted it up to read it and was shocked to see I had gone home with a nice, big bottle of Wool. Liquid wet wool. Hence the doggy smell. There is no way I was ever going to use this fragrance. I carefully replaced the bottle in the box with the receipts, put everything into the bag, and returned with it to the farmacia on my bike yesterday morning.

I know this part of town better now, as it is halfway between our home piazza and St. James Episcopal. Not wanting to brave the one-way traffic coming up Via della Scala, I chained my bike on an iron pike at the south end of the piazza, and took my bag to the officina profumo, feeling confident an even exchange would be quickly effected.

The cassa room was packed, so I returned to the perfume dais, where the commessa held court. She was the same one who had dabbed me with various tonic waters and serums the week before. I explained my concern. She was unmoved, and quickly went into legal defense mode.

"It is written in numerous places that we will not exchange or refund. All our products are handmade; we cannot accept them back, even for an exchange."

I was floored. Really? I did not want this bottle of wet woolly dog, no matter how prestigious or medieval the fragrance.

"But the Lana fragrance was formulated for Valentino. It is a designer fragrance."

I stood there, not knowing what to say, in the High Court of beautiful smells. "I don't like it," I said. "I did not mean to buy it. I wanted to buy a bottle of the Tabacco Toscano."

"You must check when you pay," she insisted. "We are not responsible for incorrect selections."

I like perfume, and a lot, but even for me a hundred euros is steep for a nice smell. It is way too much for Soggy Wool in a bottle. Maybe I should stick to L'Erbolario, where a mistake at the cassa would cost just 20 euros, and in any case, I can select and verify my own product before I purchase.

"It is a winter smell," she forged ahead. "It is not meant for summer. Perhaps that is why it does not appeal to you."

"But I did not even select this fragrance," I said. I remember telling Buenos Aires that the Lana was not for me, and her reassurance that all fragrance is so personal, there is no math or logic that can be applied.

"Wait until winter and use it," the commessa suggested.

I continued to stand there not knowing what more to say.

And, finally, "You can spray it on all your wool coats and scarves in winter. It is very nice."

Of that I have no doubt, but that season is now six or seven months away again ... wait, did she just tell me to spray the Wool perfume on my wool items in six months to mitigate their mistake?

Yes, she did. I entertained for just a moment a threat of a verbal tell-all blog post, or to say I was done tagging them for free advertising on Instagram, or bringing visiting friends by to load up on their product. I thought I'd say how I might advise our business associates to purchase our gifts from the competing farmacie antiche in town - Santissima Annunziata, or Inglese. But I could tell by the look on the commessa's face that she didn't care. The tour buses would come and unload more tourists who would pay and leave and never come back.

At that point, I sighed, and said, "Then please give me a bottle of the Tabacco Toscano, because that was the only one I wanted when I was here last time."

She sighed back at me, pursing her lips, put the request on a tessera, and I went back to the cassa again to stand in line behind three middle-aged American women who were bemoaning their luggage weight limit in light of the impressive heft of the glass bottle containers of the Officina Profumo. I did spy at least four placards in six languages of their stern exchange and refund policy. Sigh.

At lunch a few minutes later, my falso italiano husband suggested many things I could have said in the very French l'esprit de l'escalier to the commessa, or to anyone who would listen to me. (The French spend a lot of time living in past conversations, formulating perfect retorts that will come in handy the next time such a conversational configuration occurs.) My Italian is not up to his level, though, and I certainly do not boast his steely nerves. Come to think of it, he would be a great Dio di Profumo for the dais, if he liked fragrance as much as I did. The man is unflappable. He could give that Argentine a run for her money.

"The client care is as medieval as their product recipes," I said, spooning the broth of my pork ramen.

He thought a moment. "No," he said, "that kind of a defensive response is very industrial. Anyway, they don't care; they cater overwhelmingly to tourists they'll never see again. They probably had too much Wet Wool fragrance on hand as they moved into summer months. Perhaps they were advised to discretely move the Wet Wool onto some tourists to make space for the summer fragrances."

"Actually," I added, thinking, "I think the response was very postindustrial. Profit over client." He nodded. "I don't know if I can bring myself to return."

"You probably will," he said.

"For the tea," I said. I made note to bring our daughter Eleanor and Jason's mom to the tea room.

He took home both the bags with the perfumes after lunch for me.

This morning, I applied the Tabacco Toscano, and it was as pleasant and multi-levelled a fragrance as I remembered from the week before. I carefully put the Wool perfume away, for the colder months that will start again in November, to use on my woolen scarves and coats to make them smell more woolly.

I will work on making more positive associations for Wet Wool, since it is not going to appreciate sitting in its box in my perfume cabinet. (Yes, I have one of those.)

Now that I think about it, it does smell a bit like a terrier who's been out for a walk in a gentle spring rain, and that is a nostalgic smell I do love.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Firenze: Concert in Palazzo Tornabuoni

Sophie had first mentioned it in a fairly offhand way.

"Can you come to a concert on Monday? It's free."

"Sure!" I said. The timing was perfect for my workday, and the Palazzo Tornabuoni is just around the corner from my rented office space on Piazza della Repubblica.

Sophie asked me if I would like to invite Jason too, along with Claudio and Francesca, our upstairs neighbors and the genteel owners of our palazzo.

Yes, I would like to invite them, I said, but given logistics and perpetual prior commitments, they were very likely unable to attend, or worse, would confirm first but then have to bow out the day of, with short notice. Let me just come, I said. I can promise I will be there.

Superb, she said. The Palazzo Tornabuoni is next to the Bulgari shop, across from Palazzo Strozzi.

I know it well, I responded.

I have come to learn that Firenze is first and foremost a city of constellations, with the large piazze interconnected stars, and the smaller piazze (Peruzzi, Pier Maggiori, as examples) and named palazzi smaller dotted stars among them. D'Azeglio, Liberta, San Marco, San Giovanni, Repubblica, Signoria, Indipendenza, della Stazione, then Santo Spirito and Tasso in the Oltrarno. Donatello, Michelangelo. And on and on. The streets change names so frequently, every tiny block or so in some places, that it is easier on my bike and on foot to simply plan my route by piazza-hopping.

The day of the concert was Pasquetta, literally "little Easter." The Monday after Easter that is a federal holiday in Italy. All Italians were off work, strolling on sunny streets and eating gelato in the warm air. I was not eating gelato in the warm air; like an American schmuck, I was holed up in my second-floor office overlooking the festive piazza, watching the world swan by. But I was sustained by the prospect of a live concert. My singing with St James has quietly opened up for me a network of live music and musicians, dilettante though I might be, and I find myself here and there about town for performances as they come up, which I love. They are most often classical music with vocals and a few instruments. I do not think I am truly a symphony or philharmonic type, or even grand opera. Give me a small venue, let me feel the chords in my chest, let the singers hit their notes in close proximity. I need to be tucked as solidly into the middle of the music as possible.

At the entrance of the Palazzo Tornabuoni I realized it was a hotel managed by the Four Seasons, and a timeshare. Hundreds of such entries exist in Florence, and you never really know what they are until yo are invited and can legally snoop. A liveried doorman stood at his podium, "Nome?" and let me in after confirming I was on the short list.

A palazzo? A timeshare? A luxury hotel?
A locale of historic operatic import?
All four.
Lost to Florentine history are a few political events and turns of fortune in the 14th and 15th centuries that resulted in families changing their names so as to ensure a fresh start on the PR - what some of our less savory political families in the US might prefer to be called, and in two or three generations, no one would remember the crimes of their antecendents, in fact believing the conceit of a positive-sounding last name. (Think of Javanka renaming their kids "Goodpeople" or something like that.) When I find the original name of the Tornabuoni, I will post it back here, because I remember this was a very funny fact.

I bumped into Sophie's parents, visiting from England, in the elevator, and we made our way upstairs into a grand salon where we were immediately offered flutes of prosecco by the hostess, an ebullient blonde Brit with a beautiful piega (I always notice, and Italians do too). Her mother and I caught up on the month prior when I had last seen her, in early march

Sophie's parents and I all settled into the leather-upholstered furniture and admired the space as more and more people trickled in. As it happened I knew quite a few people at the event, so the small talk did not induce in me its normal anxiety. Despite being a social person, small talk gives me hives, as I am thoroughly allergic to disinterested, prescriptive banality. Sophie was nowhere to be seen, but I did meet her amiable pianist, Martyn, also from England, and out of central casting (see: Young Musical Prodigy).

The high ceilings were covered in bookcases, a hearth glowed with candles in hurricane lamps, and we remarked on two urns so oversized as to be vulgar, and possibly stash holes in plain sight for contraband and people. A well-groomed bartender was busy pouring more prosecco.

Lovely venue for an after-work prosecco. The bar in Palazzo Tornabuoni.
Check out those urns. Got anything to hide? Better be big.
"You know," Sophie's mother said sotto voce, "the Four Seasons got in a heap of trouble with the commune after they remodeled the space, because they scraped it down to the stones and boards."

I looked around, and agreed with the comune. The space did carry more than a whiff of Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn, especially with those gigantic cement urns, which seemed so out of place. There was very little of the dusty, formerly brightly painted woodwork that is so often seen in historic palazzi here in Florence.

The hostess came back and brightly announced that it was time to come through to the recital hall. I trotted in with the group, which also included, as I came to know, many residents of the palazzo, also out of central casting (see: Well-Heeled August European Petty Nobility), offered cultural events in the palazzo by the Four Seasons by way of in-house Florentine entertainment.

I gawked at the symbolic hat of the Belgian woman, worthy of the Windsor Derby, a huge ivory affair held to her forehead with a headband, and her giant owlish glasses with ivory frames. She was accompanied by an older gentleman, and a younger man with a waxed handlebar mustache over a three-day beard, clad in kneesocks and knickers.

I took a seat in front of Sophie's mother, who thanked me for doing so, as we are roughly the same size. The room glittered in glass and white marble, and a photograph of the larger hall through the doors behind us gave the impression of an even larger space. The hostess welcomed everyone, and noted that we were in the same room where the first opera was performed ever, in private - "Dafne," by Jacopo Peri.

Copy of original program for Dafne.
Sophie and Martyn came out and set to making their music. Mozart and Poulenc filled the air first; then Martyn owned that priceless grand piano as he furrowed his way thoughtfully through Chopin's "Raindrop" - "Prelude in D Flat Major" (breathtaking).

Sophie came back and sang more! Debussy, a beautiful operatic excerpt from Charpentier's "Louise," and finished with a round rendition of "Tonight," with a nod to the appreciate Yanks in the salon.

I remembered the accomplished pianists I have been lucky to know in my life, and though of how glad I am to be in the presence of our Riccardo when he plays at St. James, sweeping down the aisle after with his sleeves billowing behind.

The hostess returned to applause, and invited the appreciative private audience back into the bar for further drinks and what is called an "aperitivo abbondante." I partook as I was able, but then had to slip out to get back home to Jason and two children with sniffles.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Life after Facebook / La Vita Dopo Facebook

It's been a week and a half since I decided to leave Facebook.

I have not yet deleted my account. It is deactivated. I keep thinking I will be in a calmer place to do so. I'd like to do so from a place of purpose and intent, without compunctions.

Facebook makes it incredibly complicated to actually delete your account, much like cancelling a phone number with T-Mobile, another major PITA with which I also have extensive personal experience. They do not want to let your data go. A lost account is anathema when your brand relies on marketing and subscriptions. Apparently it takes them two weeks or more to delete your data from their servers, but we all know there is no such things as a true deletion. I am fairly confident that some version of my data will remain vestigially in Facebook, to be used in stats and trends, snapshots and numbers for year-over-year growth and loss.

I did successfully download and unzip my file. I learned I created the account in 2006. That was news to me.

I do have more time now that I am looking less at Facebook, which I always likened to some version of a beauty pageant of friends. You log in, and you see your list of friends, but that is far from accurate compared to your analog friends list, the same way that Trump's Miss Universe spectacle is hardly a spectrum of the most beautiful women in the world. It is simply a self-filtered list of self-identifying women who believe they are beautiful, or who were trained to be beautiful, and so now find themselves on a stage in a swimsuit and a sash talking about how to solve world hunger.

From the start I have had friends who refused to use Facebook. I never thought they were less a friend for having made that choice, although they were at times harder to track down.

I have more time now. I am feeling calmer. I am reading things I want to read, written by thoughtful people, rather than dumbly scrolling up, down, up, down, clicking things like a lab rat.

Click, click, click. Looking for news from friends. Who can take this much stimulus? What kind of an example am I setting for my kids, aged 3 and 6?

It's all become so Orwellian, and we've done it to ourselves.
As a confessedly extroverted person, Facebook and social media have presented a particular allure. Especially when we have been living abroad. I do feel that I am breaking light social links which, who knows?, might be missed or needed someday. But then again, perhaps not. The more friends I made and shed within the parameters of Facebook, the more stressed I felt about my analog life, the time I spent with my children and husband, how I felt about work. The people I met in my day to day meanderings about Florence.

I also note that Italy without Facebook feels much more like the Europe of the early and mid-nineties where I cut my international travel teeth. Quieter and more thoughtful. More observational, rather than being observed.

I do not love that Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram, my remaining social media outlets. I am still on LinkedIn, but it is noisy and less sticky for me.

What does it mean, to have a friend, a friendship, to be a friend, in this time of online friendships? I have made a small handful of friends online, and I treasure them. You know who you are. And I'll keep you as friends and regard you as friends in this new chapter.

What of the five senses? How can we reclaim the physical experience of life, that is not imagined, as we imagine and fill out experiences when online? I cannot see or hear those online friends as we chat or interact. I do not sense their mood, the conversation stripped of context and reduced to typed phrases. It is difficult. What of all the feelings that online time generated in me, feelings that had nowhere to go, no outlet, no receiver, as I stewed in my own feeling juice. I became exhausted by my own dead-end responses. This, as I yearned for in-person friends and an actual network of social acquaintances who would know my name, greet me, as me how I am, allowing me to reciprocate.

Life has quieted down. My world is shrinking in one sense, and growing in another. Another plus: unhooking from the dopamine loop has really improved my overnight sleep cycle.

Mark me: the next great move culturally will be going off-grid. As much as possible. Private, secret networks that do not sell data to marketing firms. I have been rebuked; people have told me, "I have nothing to hide. I do not care if they monitor me." But that is not the point. Their monitoring purpose is to datamine and sell your data. What irks me the most is companies like Facebook are making billions off of us each quarter, with their selling selling selling to advertisers, and giving us nothing we would not have already had. We all have friends. We all have groups, and networks. Facebook simply superimposed a filter that we all came to rely on, or so we thought.

I'm on the cusp of something. This reminds me of a Rinzai concept with respect to novitiates: those with the biggest ego to shatter are the best students because they must learn and change the most. I acknowledge I was a frequent Facebook superuser. (This is starting to feel a bit like the twelve steps...) But it became very, very unhealthy.

Leave your ego at the door.
Time to strip it down.
As the French cynically and correctly observe, "Si c'est gratuit, c'est vous le produit!" (If it's free, the product is you.) I refuse to log in for the privilege of reading the equivalent of junk mail. With apologies to my handful of thoughtful friends who remain.

Onward with analog life in Italy, parenting small children, my adorable intelligent husband, writing, my work, my friends. Making new friends. Valuing analog relationships. Forging ahead. Finding that true horizon.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Exit Facebook / Uscita di Facebook

It all began innocently enough, in the fall of 2007, when Jason and I were faculty in residence on campus. In our orientation the year before to our duties as wholesome adults providing non-alcohol-based programming options to undergraduates in university housing, an outgoing professor - a well-known college dean - had said he had joined Facebook for a while, but had deleted his account a few months after, when social boundaries began to blur and hierarchies of common sense became morally ambiguous.

"I deleted my account because I felt really weird when students poked me, and I did not want to poke them back."
Hmm, interesting, I thought; what is this Facebook?

But I paid it no heed until the following year when it became clear that Facebook had become our main marketing strategy for events with the students. These were amusing Facebook days, when everyone and their dog was not tapping away on Facebook. I could toss off a post without thinking. It was very stream of consciousness. It was an amusing scrapbook, a sketch pad, a old-school bulletin board. I actually formed groups based on one of the many elementary schools I attended, I friended my best friend from the fifth grade, I talked with a random person about a second-grade teacher whose bizarre affect had made a major impact.

More and more people joined Facebook. As more people got on the platform who fit into categories of "people who did not need to know my every thought," such as my parents and manager and conservative cousins, I chafed at feeling so reserved, and I missed my social sketch pad. These were the days when I took quizzes and gave posts thumbs-up and shared posts to my timeline and other people's timelines. These were also the days when random personages such as "ex-husband of high school friend" showed up with an itch to argue. I tried to ignore such online skirmishes, but congenitally do not have the stomach for much conflict. I snooped people who had exited my daily life, gracefully or not, to see what they were doing now, but it never made me feel any better. It just fed the curiosity, and seemed to make every year and every phase of my life concomitantly present in a space that seemed more and more like a chaotic emotional warehouse.

I understand that some higher spirits may view as a drawback the human need to live within a linear time frame, but our brains are wired that way for a reason. For about ten years, everyone and everything and every relationship was all alive at once on Facebook, in high relief. As a social person, I found this exhausting.

However, as our years in Oklahoma continued to accumulate, Facebook provided a glimpse into what life I might be living elsewhere, an important remedy for me at that time. It offered endless escapist imaginings, but it offered no roots in exchange.

I did not have FOMO. I was deeply afflicted with WIWSE (wishing I were somewhere else.)

I "Facebooked" (by now, and ridiculously, its own verb) far less when we were busy with tasks that finally led to the arrival of Victor, being depressed and burying myself in work, and plenty sick of living on campus by that time, in our fourth year. I did not make a single post about being pregnant, fearful I would jinx the delicate chemistry. I did post a picture of the newborn Victor, and someone commented that they had not even known I was pregnant.

Once he was in the world, though, all bets were off, and hundreds of baby and kid pictures were posted. I regret this now as an invasion of his privacy, regardless of the good intention behind it to let grandparents see how he was growing.

In Arezzo five years ago, I was on social media frequently, keeping in touch. As a gentle social medium, Facebook is ideal. I remember the years in the nineties when I used to write paper letters, then 2000-word emails, to friends in other cities, and in other countries as I continued to return to Oklahoma from Europe. A small broadcast seemed the ideal antidote to the draining exercise of recounting afresh events along a segment of the timeline for a single person. As a person who travels frequently, and has lived abroad often, something like Facebook became necessary to knit together the disparate episodes of my life. Maybe I did not want everything clamoring at once for attention, but the ability to successfully find and ping person x from place y was useful to me.

I should have become more suspicious the day I saw the blue Facebook f on the label of a Heinz bottle of ketchup. Hmm,  I was using Facebook for my purpose, but what was their purpose? Zuck didn't care about me, a dumb f***.

I continued to post pictures, stories, poems. Of myself and friends. Of Victor, and then Eleanor, when she came along. Gradually I noticed the newsfeed changing, how it would throttle the scroll until I read the ad. Ads in Messenger. Ads that matched my recent searches. Ads that bordered on offensive when I realized the extent to which my Messenger conversations were being datamined. Ads that were offensive when Facebook made assumptions about how I viewed myself and my world. I started reporting offensive ads. I dropped off my Outlander fan groups.

I work in the field of IT, as do both my brothers. The software devs in my company were horrified that I used Facebook at all.
"Why??!!" they yelled. "Why!"
"I don't know," I responded lamely. "Grandparents want to see pictures of our kids."
"That is NOT a reason!" the grumpy one shouted. "We are trying to help you."

When we moved back to Italy almost two years ago, I was still very active. But social media for me has always felt like a verbal junk food. Like a binge night out, I never felt better after a session scrolling around and liking and posting on Facebook, no matter what their corporate marking department claimed. I gave up on Twitter long ago, and have never really cottoned to any other platform, except Instagram lately, which vexes me all the more for its acquisition by Facebook.

I began to write and write and write in Italy, the cloud of Oklahoma slowness and sadness having lifted, and I began to focus my creative energy on my writing, which has always been a refuge for me: blogging, fiction, poetry, journalling. Reading good fiction. Picking up my New Yorker subscription again. The more I wrote for myself, the calmer and happier I became, in ways that social media has never provided me with its Proustian buffets of regret and vexed spirits.

The 2016 election in the U.S. was a turning point for me. I confess I was one of those people who had become wrapped in the echo chamber of Facebook, obtaining far too great a percentage of my news from behind the login, as a member of Pantsuit Nation, the "secret" group with something like 3 million members. I had believed my newsfeed. I had been lulled into complacency.

I was shocked the morning after the election, in the dark hours when Jason came to wake me and tell me the awful news. I posted a remark about my anger and disappointment, and the specter of a conservative Christian cousin materialized with plenty to say to me in this public space, and she did. That was the first time I deactivated my account. I cried for a week after that, the conservative cousin adding insult to the injury of an election gone terribly awry. I collected myself and saw with fresh eyes the Facebook madness I had come to accept as normal, on both macro and micro levels. Their greed for profit with no foresight as to consequences led directly to this ugly and painful chapter in American history. And we all took that ride with them because we liked to know what our friends were doing.

I have deactivated my Facebook account a half dozen times since then, but my next action is deletion. I am tired of reading about Facebook's massive profits, founded on data that we have all given away because we valued community, even though we were quite capable of finding a bottle of ketchup in the grocery store without the endorsement. (Seriously, a Facebook group for ketchup?!)

I'll download my file; I will make sure I get all those baby pictures. But the cons outweigh the pros for me. Facebook is no longer the innocent distraction it once was. We need to accept the fact that it is distorting and destroying democracies in the name of relentless marketing and capitalism. As a social and extroverted expat blogger, I will be looking for better options to create and sustain my communities and to let my audience, however small it becomes, know when I have posted new pieces, be they creative or narrative, and to find my fellow writers and true travelers. I have seen my numbers plummet on this blog when I am deactivated on Facebook.

I like Instagram, but feel similarly marketed to death by the endless friending/unfriending by businesses I will never patronize, and personalities that seem to border on porn stars. There are many good reasons, some seductive reasons, to stay active on Facebook. But I think I am done. I deleted the app from both my phones, Italian and American, a year ago.

Perhaps I am grumpy GenX. I do not mind being labeled; my cohorts and I form the most cynical generation. We expect to be screwed. We will not be manipulated so easily. But we can show ourselves out. I am going to go deeper into my writing and my art with the minutes and the hours that I formerly dedicated to Facebook, often without conscious intent. And I know I will be more content for it. I have proven this to myself.

To my friends against whom I have leveled accusation of being a Luddite for refusing to participate, I apologize. You were right, and smarter than I was.

If anyone is reading this, thanks for stopping by, even though it is not getting posted to the big blue. Drop me a comment; I am not going off-grid, although I will be deleting my Twitter account soon enough.

You can still find me on Google+, Gmail, Gchat. I am on LinkedIn. I hope that is not a decision I will come to regret in ten years, but I may. It just seems the better, less egregious option for now.

The writing will continue. The writing is just beginning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Math Americans Cannot Do

O my people, I read the news and weep. It is hard to watch from here. It is harder still to live it.

It does not have to be this way. Can we try some calculations that every other developed nation does not routinely engage in? Let's review some math that Americans cannot do.

How many hours/days/weeks/months til an "active shooter" situation threatens people I love and civil society - takes a life, many lives?
How many lives until it matters enough to change?

Or this:
How much will I spend on healthcare this year?
What is my year to year healthcare expense?
What does my employer pay out of pocket for my health insurance, and what percentage is that of my healthcare coverage?
How much do I need to save for healthcare costs?
What healthcare annual total would spell financial ruin for me and my family?
How much has my healthcare out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will it increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
How much will I spend on food this year?
What is my year to year food expense?
How much has my food out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will it increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
How much will I spend on childcare this year?
What is my year to year childcare expense?
What does my employer pay out of pocket for my childcare, and what percentage is that of my coverage?
How much do I need to save for childcare costs?
How much has my childcare out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will childcare increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
How much will I spend on tuition this year?
What is my year to year tuition expense?
What does my employer pay out of pocket for my tuition, and what percentage is that of my healthcare coverage?
How much do I need to save for tuition costs?
How much has my tuition out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will tuition increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
What has our country spent on the military and civilian incarceration this year?
What is our year to year military and incarceration expense?
How much has funding for military and incarceration increased %wise year over year?
How much will military and incarceration spending increase next year? in five years?

People. This is madness. There is plenty of money in the American engine. These should not be problems. America is more prosperous than ever before.

Do you know what I just saw? You will not believe this. IMAGINE a civil society like this: Italians aged 18 are getting a 500 euro cultural bonus now. That they can spend on culture. This includes books, theater, music...stuff...performances. More. I saw the sign in the bookstore and I teared up.

Americans age 18 are trying to not get shot in class. Wondering how to pay for college. They don't even know how hard it is going to be after their degree.

Is this the country we want?

It is not a money problem - we are all G7-G15 countries. It is mismanaged, so mismanaged. We are all just waiting around for the oligarchs to feel generous. They will not.

Is this the country we want?

My Finnish genes are strong. Finland is the happiest country in the world. They are civil and welcoming to immigrants because no one is deprived of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.

Why did my forebears sail away? Well, famine. It wasn't so great 100 years ago. You can stand the cold if you are eating decently. Finland suffered the last natural famine catastrophe in 1860. Now famines are caused by war and more.

Is it weird that I have bad dreams about Ghouta? Someone should be.

Is this the world we want?

I understand that it is hard for Americans to spend too much time thinking about the global, or even daily domestic issues like childcare, healthcare, groceries, and tuition, when you have two mass shootings a month and a serial bomber is trying to blow up Austin one package at a time.

Is this the country we want?

Americans are so stressed. Understandable the push for legalization of marijuana -  which I am all for, in any case. Weed just gives people unhealthy cravings for Little Debbie products and Funyuns. No one gonna shoot anyone after smoking a big doob.

No medical care? Heroin.
Work/out of work/shitty job? Weed. Or heroin.
Depressed about things in general? Keep drinking.
Americans are masters of self-medication. 

It does not have to be this way. It is not this way in most places in the world. Go research heroin epidemic and tell me if any other country comes up on the list. Go on. I'd love to know.

Is this the country we want?

Oklahoma is sinking into a hole literally and figuratively, yet most of of their House Republicans are running unopposed at midterms. The oligarchy holds its own - they maintain their grip. It's hard to run for public office when you are struggling day to day to make the whole thing work.

Is this the country we want?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Italy: Italian Expectations / Le aspettative italiane

I've been thinking a lot lately about cultural expectations - what someone might reasonably expect to happen on a daily basis, living within a culture, and further, which expectations might fracture when the plate shifts, and someone from Culture A finds themselves more or less immersed in Culture B. We are all products of our culture, whether or not we recognize this, and I grant that it can be very difficult indeed to recognize this fact if one has never lived anywhere but in one's own culture, leading to the assumption that all expectations everywhere match the ones from inside the bubble.

I have written here occasionally on sociopolitical topics, but my first year in Firenze was more a fat pipe of beauty: see pretty thing, take pretty picture, share. I do love catching a breathtaking image on my scurryings about town on my various daily errands - school, work, choir, church, dentist, and more.

But now, halfway through year two, I find myself noticing and comparing the cultural data I have been accruing here through experience, and comparing it with my cultural reference section, abundantly shelved thanks to my career steeped in US immigration and academic immigration, and time spent living abroad and traveling, but especially Spain, France, and the UK. Because I lived for thirty years in Oklahoma, and left not quite two years ago, those cultural reference volumes in particular bear recent evidence of perusal.

I've indexed some of these mental notes and comparisons, and present one of them below for my audience: American aggression.

I am unsure if this phenomenon can be ascribed more to Oklahoma. Perhaps so, as I noticed far less of it in the more civil Pacific Northwest, and even in DC and NY, all places I have lived.

America is not only a frequent global aggressor, what with our various bright ideas for deploying military power, but internally, America is an aggressive culture. Part of this is due to the omnipresence of firearms, in open or concealed carry, or illegal carry. In the US, I was terrified of any dispute's escalation. A gun was a very likely possibility.

In Italy, gun control is sound, and logical. In fact, I have never thought anyone would pull a gun in the EU, and I am glad for that. Not even in Finland, which loves hunting, and is currently ranked by the UN as the happiest country on earth. My Finnish cousins in Karelia with their gun racks are not proponents of a firearms free-for-all. (In my perfect world, no one would hunt, but I do not get to make up all the rules around here. I kind of wish my great-grandparents had not gotten on that boat headed west from Liverpool, but that is a topic for a different day.)

An illustration of my cultural conditioning. One day last fall in St. James, I was either serving or singing, so was in the chancel during mass. A man came in halfway through the liturgy, alone. With a backpack. Of a certain age. Of course he was a tourist, but I have been so conditioned by the lack of public safety in the US that I actually began to have some version of a panic attack sitting up there. He started to fiddle with his backpack; he wasn't paying attention. But in my reptile brain I felt pretty certain that Backpack Man had weapons in there, and my palms began to sweat. Why is an usher not approaching him, or asking to check his backpack? I thought. All the other Americans in the building were facing forward and paying attention. Someone should really ask him to sit down, or ask to check in his backpack, I thought. I tried to mentally convince an usher to do so, as my imagination was working overtime and I was picturing him pulling some gun out of the backpack.

But no. It was fine. He was just a middle-aged tourist with a grey ponytail, and a backpack. He was probably looking for his guidebook to figure out where he'd just interrupted mass. He left a bit after, never having sat down, but neither having shot and killed anyone either, even though in my mind this had been a distinct and panicked possibility.

This reminded me of my time working on campus. I had two offices at OU: one was in an old building, the floorplan like a glorified hallway, with a front entrance and a hallway to another door. We had a few really disturbed international students, unstable young adults on the edge (one non-traditional woman in particular), with no-trespass orders on campus and police involvement, but I always thought in my mind, I can get out if someone goes nuts in here and becomes violent.

The other office, which I spent six years working in, was a renovated classroom, with one entrance, and this setup scared the daylights out of me. Happy international students did not typically come to our office. It was the ill ones, the failing ones, the struggling and depressed ones, the irrational ones. The office had one entrance, which was also its exit, and that was it. If someone came into our office with a gun purchased at a gun show, ready to teach me and my staff a lesson, there was nowhere to go or to hide. I literally sat at work and imagined the ways I could seek refuge under my desk, or in our supply closet where we also pumped breastmilk.

I calculated how long it would take an armed student to find me and shoot me. How long would I have to stay under my desk, could I convincingly play dead, or would an irate student come looking for me by name? How far down was the jump from the second story? Could I break a window and climb down that juniper tree? Probably not in time, but these calculations nevertheless spun through my head. This thinking was sick. But I did not feel safe, we did not feel safe, and that seemed to bother no one but me and my staff. Again, and to clarify, most of our 2,500 advisees were just fine, but we had five or so each year who seemed to be on a literal hair trigger.

This type of public violence did not seem to happen when I was growing up in Oklahoma and Michigan. The first mass murder by gun was in Edmond, OK, 73034, at the post office just a mile from my school, in 1986 or so. We were in shock for weeks. My mom understandably freaked out and didn't really want us going anywhere, which was more a punishment for me than my two brothers, who tended to stay home anyway.

There was bullying in my high school, but it seemed limited to skinheads versus skaters. I remember a fair amount of very Mean Girls-style bullying in the seventh grade, but no one ever thought that someone would bring a gun to school and shoot everyone, at any time, in my schooling.

Risultati immagini per mean girls

Gun violence doesn't just start with guns. It begins in a culture of aggression and bullying, where might makes right, and boys are bred and raised to be big, and therefore stronger, and therefore dominant.

In preschool in Norman there were six and seven year old boys in Victor's pre-K class (which should have all been kids who were four, turning five) who were specifically held back to grow bigger for football. This is madness. Note that girls were never held back for this purpose, as it was strictly gender-driven, and, I might argue, race-driven, since these little boys were almost always Anglo, creating a miniature ruling class of dominant males right there in pre-K that would persist in the culture in all cohorts, at all levels, for years.

I talked to the school's director about it, and was told something along the lines of, parents have a right to hold their children back.

Um, yes, I thought, but not for sporting reasons, and those boys should not be permitted to become the bullying terrors of the class. I was just sick about it in the fall of 2015. I did not want our children to be raised in a world where this seemed normal to them, where they had to learn to protect themselves because the adults in charge indicated they were powerless to change the rules, and thus the dynamic. This was the same school where I was told that conceal carry was the law in the state, and so the private preschool would make no rule otherwise prohibiting parents from toting their pistols around in the school. This was the same year where our small children were in lock-down three times for gun-related violence.

Conversely, the adults in charge might well be aggressors themselves, as with the neighbor in Norman across the street, who I saw one morning chase his son around their car, catch him by the arm, and hit him again and again until the little boy was sobbing. I saw all this from my window, like a terrible stage piece, but did not go out to confront the father because I assumed he was packing heat.

I had been raised in such a world, and had adapted by developing strengths in skills of "freeze and friend": smile at the big boys, they might decide you're harmless, and leave you alone. Play dead with a weird sort of frozen smile. Do nothing to provoke. Do not challenge. Crawl under the desk and play dead. Disappear. Become silent. Keep your counsel at all times.

You never see kids held back for sport in Italy. The Italian parents here actually think that soccer is a dangerous and violent sport, which really makes me laugh. The US from Italy seems like a version of Sparta on opioids, which is another topic for a different day. The overall atmosphere in the children's school in Florence is one of sane adults in charge, and I have noted little evidence of bullying. Italy, on the whole, and in this context, persists as a civil society in ways that America does not. I am sure bullying happens. I am sure it is pervasive in less well-off communities; Florence is arguably an Italian center of wealth concentration. Any Italian will tell you that the Mafia and Comorra and 'Ndragheta are bullying shadow institutions.

I re-read 1984 a year ago, looking, in part, for a playbook. Orwell does a superb job describing citizens cowed by culture, products of fear and conditioning.

An Italian woman asked me yesterday to explain what is happening in America. I was late for work, and could not. I said, it is a big problem, a huge problem. I am glad to be in Italy where things seem to work.
Ma che! her eyes grew wide. There is plenty in Italy that does not work! she told me.
Yes, I said, but you have a civil society.
She looked dubious.
Things work here, I pressed. I listed their universal healthcare, pensions, schools, nice roads, bridges that do not fall into rivers, the luxury of feeling safe from harm in public, which should be a primary civil right, but for Americans in America, it cannot be had.
In Italy, I said, people are kind to each other. There is a sort of kindness here, of life on a human scale, which America has lost. But also, I added, the US, Italy, and Poland are all on a list of flawed democracies. I understand why Italians are upset.

Risultati immagini per flawed democracies

Italian electoral rules seem to be of a piece with American gerrymandering, and a fair amount of election confusion. The voting rules are so complicated that no one can make sense of them anymore.
Worse, people vote, and then some other process blender takes over to assign percentages to their governing bodies based on the multiparty election results. Errrr.

There then ensued a long linguistic discussion of what flawed meant, and how to spell it, and when to use it.

She said my scarf looked pretty.
I do not think Italians love hearing Americans list what appears to be functioning in Italy.

I am still decompressing here from my time in Oklahoma. I know we are privileged to live here. We had the option to leave, and many do not. Everyone in America is compressed, with little sign of decompression possibilities on the horizon. My heart aches for this fact.

Hear me: It does not have to be this way. It does not. It is not this way in so many other places. The predominant culture in the US right now is not an inevitable reality.

Further topics for this discussion: Italian rules that can be broken, Italian vending machines, the school menu and nutritionist. Much more anodyne topics, unless someone out there is really feeling this soapbox.