Thursday, November 29, 2018

Globalmoxie is retiring! / Globalmoxie si pensiona.

Ciao a tutti! 

Got an an important announcement here:

The Globalmoxie blog is retiring. This URL won't be deleted, but all new content from now on will be posted on

This my new author site where all my creative pursuits are gathered in one place, with a focus on my writing. It is also integrated with my Instagram account, so all the pretty pictures will me there, and, with the near-seamless integration with my brain, all my new writing will be posted there. Blog posts, publications, mischief I tend to get up to, and all the rest of it. My life is pretty random so things tend to emerge and change fast!

Globalmoxie has had an excellent, long, and quite unexpected second run.

Launched in 2013 in Arezzo, Italy, re-launched in 2016 when we moved back to Italy, the humble blog here has been home to more than 150 posts about our life and progress in Italy: nuts and bolts, cultural adjustments, new jobs, new offices, new schools. But it was time to go to a friendlier, more versatile platform that gave me more freedom to evolve and reach my audience.

The new site went live on Tuesday and has already had over 500 page views. (I am surprised and delighted.) Please click the link to meet me there, and follow me again.

Thank you to everyone who frequented this space and read my work here, commenting in an always-gracious community. You have no idea what your support has meant to me during these years of momentous family changes of plot, scene, and supporting cast.

Onward and upward!

Grazie mille!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Thanksgiving in Italy: 2018 Installment

Since we moved to Italy, we have not observed Thanksgiving in the traditional manner, even though in Florence opportunities abound for large dinner with American expats.

Pros: Italian food, great wine. Cons: don't know many people, our kids will whine that it is boring.

So that generous two-day holiday, the American Thanksgiving Work Relief Program? (See recent cultural rant here.) Since we moved to Italy in 2016, we have taken the Thursday of the weekend, the high holy day of Thanksgiving itself, as a vacation for us. The kids are in school of course (grazie, Italia). 

In 2016, our first year, Jason and I drove to Artimino for a fancy quiet lunch in due. It was a beautiful sunny morning. The vineyards were ruddy and glowing on the hills. Purple and dove grey clouds scattered low in the sky like the background of a Renaissance portrait. We were two of a handful of people eating lunch that day in the modest ristorante that Jason had found for us. The wine was good and we bought a few bottles of it. We drove home in quiet solitude, grateful for the tranquility. We agreed we would do it again the following year.

In 2017, we switched it up and headed to the hot water heaven of Asmana, north of town in that well-known spa area of Calenzano/Campo Bisenzio. My inner Finn demanded a hot sauna, hot water, and steam. Asmana offers all of this. They have a good onsite restaurant on site with a brief, well-curated wine list. We soaked away our cares in the saltwater hot tub in the sunny, brisk outdoors and ate a fancy quiet lunch in due and wearing bathrobes, drinking wine as we chatted among the two-tops full of squeaky clean couples.

The theme emerges. A fancy quiet lunch. Just the two of us while the children are in school. With a car here, we have freedom to daytrip.

A few weeks ago Jason suggested that we combine work and pleasure for this year's Thanksgiving foray. He had to pay a visit to an estate outside of Florence, in Montespertoli, to scout specifics for a Gonzaga law seminar.

The Castello di Sonnino is a winery that also produces olive oil, honey, and any number of additional Tuscan staples. With a small enoteca also onsite it was an ideal candidate for our small trip out of town. I read up about them on their website before we set out and filled Jason in on the basic facts of the noble family, headed by Barone Sonnino De Renzis.

Belltower with Etruscan base on estate.
Again the weather cooperated, against all November odds. We dropped off the kids at school on a glorious sun-filled morning and headed out of town. The drive afforded further Renaissance views of rolling hills carpeted in neatly tended olive groves and vineyards cultivated for millennia. Putting the car in second to climb the hill to Montespertoli, we made a sharp left into the estate, parking with a few other cars in a small lot bordered by tall, thin cypress trees. It was not at all clear which door was the entrance, as a low building sported a long row of doors.

We walked past all the doors and finally picked the door on the far left. We rang the bell. After a few moments it opened, and out peeped the friendly face of none other than the baron himself. I knew this from my online research.

"Buongiorno," he said smoothly, a natural Italian bass. His white hair was neatly cut, and a well-trimmed white beard framed a handsome face. Clad in a winter suit of tweed, he had the build of a hunter: fit, and neither portly nor thin. He was collected and graceful. We were at his manor, after all, and were welcome.

"Buongiorno," Jason replied. "We're here for ..." he unfolded his small note. "Jessica."
"Certo," the baron said. "Come in, come in." He extended his arm into the foyer with an outstretched hand. "Jessica!" he turned around to call.
We waited in a foyer tiled with terra cotta, lined with archival photos of the property, an ancient gnarl of olive branch mounted to the wall.

An attractive Englishwoman with short blonde hair quickly appeared and ushered us into a conference room with a long table and many light-blue wooden chairs. She returned back with espresso for me in a tiny white cup and saucer. "This will be so easy," she said. "We can just stay in English. But let's not talk too much about business before Caterina arrives." It was not clear to me who Caterina was.

Jason at the window, surveying the property.
We chatted about London and Florence, her work with Gucci in London, how she came to be in Montespertoli doing this kind of work with the estate. Her teenage children, and how different life was in this small Tuscan hilltown compared to Stansted. The window at the end of the vaulted room faced east, and bright sunlight poured in and flooded the room. I excused myself to the bagno and puzzled for some time over the taps/pedals system to turn on the water, then admired a collection of country hand towels on an old wooden rack.

A few minutes after I returned to the conference table, the door opened and in swept an older woman with her red hair in a thick double ponytail. She wore a quilted jacket and boots. Her face was scrubbed clean, and was open and still beautiful even lined, in the way that older Italian women so often are. Is she a gardener? I wondered. A groundskeeper? She had obviously just come in from working outdoors. She took the seat to my left and greeted us.

"Ah, Caterina!" said Jessica.
"Did you talk too much business yet?"
"No, no. Just small talk and coffee."
Caterina looked at Jason. "You've already met my husband."
Her husband? I thought. Whom did we meet? Did we meet a husband? Then I realized quickly and with an embarrassment that I am sure flushed my cheeks. Oh, she is the baronessa.

Caterina immediately took charge of the conversation which meandered over an hour and a half, covering Italy, Italian politics, education, the history of higher education, liberal arts, and study abroad. The family are developing a study abroad center on their estate with the support of HECUA, making admirable progress.

Caterina made eye contact with me often as she made one point or another in the bright room, firmly clasping my hand or squeezing my forearm. It all began to feel very much like my beloved Russian classics, on the estate in the parlor of the baronessa on a sunny morning in November after the harvest. I closed my eyes and began to take notes for this piece. When I opened them, I noticed Caterina's two enormous rings, one on each ring finger: a lion with a mane of jade, and a large aquamarine cabochon set in gold. She also wore diamond hoops. Of course she was the baronessa. She was country nobility.

After we finished up our business, Caterina went to attend to her affairs and Jessica brought us upstairs to the magazzino to admire racks and racks of vin santo grapes fresh off the vine, aging in the old way in preparation for vin santo, that Tuscan delicacy that tastes like the aperitivo of angels (in fact it is a digestivo made to be consumed after a meal.)

"Monica, watch out!" Jason gasped as I backed up for a shot, running into some dowels lined up on a rack behind me. "You almost ruined a fortune in vin santo."

Do NOT ruin these. The baronessa will never invite you back.
We hopped over to the enoteca to make a reservation for a light lunch, and met Christian, a lovely young Italian-Canadian from Vancouver in the process of completing a slow food internship on the estate. He joined our anglophone trio, bringing a huge set of keys.

A small fortune in Chianti, with no ventilation.
From there we went up a low hill to the cantina, in use since the early 1500s as a cistern for the town above, then as a cellar for dozens small French barrels of reserve Chianti. Patches of black mold lined the stone walls. Christian hurriedly explained that the mold did not affect the wine. The estate produces about 200,000 bottles a year of various Chianti blends, the small barrels being the most desirable. Larger vats held younger wine that was fermenting and would soon be bottled as vino di tavola.

Caterina rejoined us, as Christian returned to the ristorante to start his lunch service. She took us up to their home in the castello, with its Etruscan-base belltower and adjacent chapel. The barone's great-grandfather was Sidney Sonnino, an Italian statesman and prime minister of Italy during World War I. His historical archive remains in the castello along with a warren of libraries and a priceless book collection. Jason almost fainted as the baronessa began unlocking cabinets and bringing out priceless annotated copies of Dante's Divina Commedia. They quickly bonded further over his knowledge of Dante and the history of his masterpiece. She was especially impressed when Jason flipped the aged pages to a canto where he pointed out the book had been printed in Venice, beyond the reach of the pope, evident by the heretical verses remaining intact and uncensored in the copy she had brought out. "The doge of Venice," he said. "The pope was no match for the doge in this century; they each kept to their own grounds." At this point the baronessa seemed to have offered Jason an indeterminate job of uncertain compensation a few times already. I giggled in the shadows, well-accustomed to this particular plot that I have seen played out so often in Italy: Jason and older noblewomen of significant education.

One of at least five rooms of library we toured.
The huge rooms were freezing. Caterina cursed gently as she closed a number of open casement windows. She opened the shutters in one of the parlors to reveal a fantastic full-room mural painted before 1600 of all the marvels reported from the New World - morning glories, mimosas, flora and fauna in abundance that seemed to leap out from the wall. The baronessa's daughter works for Gucci, and none other than Lallo himself (the head designer for Gucci) commandeered the castello for a two-week photo shoot with beautiful thin maidens and their goateed swains. Indeed the entire castello was a capsule of Italian history from 1300 to the present, plaster walls cracked from the bombing suffered as a result of its situation on the Gothic Line in World War II.

I still cannot get over this room.
We finished our tour of the castello in the kitchen. When Caterina opened the door, again it felt like a movie set. Two professional cooks were serious and at work, one stirring an enormous steaming pot, the other seeing to dishes in a marble sink much like our own in Florence. the woman flashed me a genuine smile when we said "buongiorno." The ancient hearth was at least ten or fifteen feet long, garlanded across the mantel with dried oak boughs. A few tables of butcher block held platters of pasta, vegetables, small cutting boards of herbs, ready to be assembled into a Thanksgiving dinner for the American students on the estate. I wanted to remain as it smelled fantastic and was by far the warmest room in the castello. It also looked like a Renaissance still life mise en scene.

We returned to the enoteca for our lunch. A table of students were on our left, and a small group of Americans on private tour from Florence were on our right. The heavily botoxed wife announced that "tomatoes were discovered in the Yew Nah Ted States" in a loud voice that made me cringe.
Enoteca, open to the public.
If you're in the area stop by!

But a glass of wine later and working our way through traditional Tuscan courses of crostini, fettunta, then a board of cuts of salami and prosciutto, then fusilli all'amatriciana, which Jason knew was good when I said it did not even taste like iron nails. (This is always my strange complaint about fusilli. Does anyone else think those corkscrews taste like nails? How can pasta have such a different taste based on shape alone? This is a persistent Italian mystery.) I faintly heard the husband relating all the branches of the US military in which his children served. I no longer cared. The vin santo was brought out with almond cantucci. It was the perfect Thanksgiving meal. We bought a half case of Chianti on our way out into the sunshine and wound our way back down and through the hills, home into Florence.

We did take the kids out of school on Friday for a chill day at home, but I think we will keep our Thanksgiving day to ourselves as a tradition as long as we are not living in the U.S. It is really the one day a year in Italy we have for this kind of time, and I am thankful. May the deranged pilgrims forgive us for our baronial Thanksgiving in due with fine wine. I am sure it was not what they had in mind when they presided over the apocryphal holiday, but it is an outgrowth of the evolution of our gratitude. For this life in Italy, for each other, for our thriving and happy children, for opening a new adventure as a family. For health and dreams. The practice takes a bit of a different shape in Italy. We are thankful.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Thanksgiving in Practice

American culture is stingy with holidays and time off. The rest of the globe - meaning especially people who do not know any Americans or who have never lived in America - may assume that Americans enjoy a reasonable and manageable work culture. That Americans have holidays and time off. That Americans have a time when they can stop thinking about work, and can be relaxed and with their families.

An image from a different time.
(I am not even going to go into American policies on sick leave for oneself or family members here.)

Well, that does not really happen. We all get our leave calendars at work and accept them as though they are somehow reasonable - seven holidays a year plus two weeks of paid leave (for anyone who does not work for a bank or on Wall Street), compared to Italy's fourteen days a year (plus various ponti, or bridge days, taken off in the middle to make a longer holiday) plus four to six weeks of paid leave, or Japan's 21 holidays a year plus six weeks of paid leave (two weeks at a time, three times a year!). I learned all this in a language class last year at the Sprachcaffe with classmates from various countries. It was a day I took my espresso corretto in the break time that morning with a solid plug of strong anise sambuca just to absorb the reality of what had come to seem normal to me as a worker in America.

On the campus where I worked before moving to Italy, we received 19 hours a month "to use as we wished." That mean to use for sick days and for time off. If you got sick, then you had no vacation. And if you have kids? Fugeddaboutit. Babies and little kids are always sick. Being a working parent means you get no paid leave nor do you get sick leave for yourself. Every time I try to explain this to Italians they look like they've seen a ghost. "But that is inhumane!" they protest on our behalf. Yes, it is - and the culture pressures workers to be thankful that they have a job at all. I don't miss it.

Actually in the sixties American workers probably got decent time off.
Problem was, most people couldn't get a job.

Deranged as hell.
It is very depressing to list American holidays side by side with the holidays of all other developed economies in the world. We have one day off a year for one religious holiday: Christmas. All other holidays are secular: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day. And then comes the crown jewel of our holiday calendar: Thanksgiving. The apex of American time off, in which all Americans receive two days off in a row. Two! Of course its origins are spurious and apocryphal (one English friend in casual conversation has recently referred to "deranged Pilgrims").

A time to give thanks, to travel to someone else's house for a long meal or to host at yours, and the relaxed chatter that is normal in most cultures. So rare has this time become in the US that we consecrate one meal a year to it, and then, as only Americans can, we really overdo it. We eat a lot. We prepare an elaborate menu that is through the roof. We invite people over. We often go round the table to say what we're thankful for in a routine that is itself the source of much dread and comedy. We all eat; like a wedding or a parade, it goes by so quickly. Then we all pass out thanks to tryptophan, whose name we all now know from that "Seinfeld" episode. I am pretty sure "Friends" covered it too. American menfolk eventually rouse themselves and crawl to the nearest sofa to watch some American football.

I get asked a lot of questions in Italy like, "Cosa e Thanksgiving attualmente?" I say we spend time with our families and eat, and often get a funny look in return as though to say, "You have a holiday for that? We call that dinner." Then I mention the football and get a bit of a nod; its Italian equivalent, calcio, has been known to put quite a few menfolk at games and on sofas to watch really fit players chase a little ball around a faux battlefield while would-be soldiers scream.

Italy has also, and unfortunately, adopted the Black Friday trope of enticing discounts designed to encourage unbridled consumerism. Without the Friday off as in America, and no relaxing day off on the day before, it seems to fall flat. It is mostly put forth by international brands like Amazon and Aveda, and the advertising for it is everywhere.

Me, after Black Friday, ca. 1988.
The vulgarity of such grabbing and escalating violence around buying crap made in China has always affronted me. I have never "done" Black Friday, although I know people who participate annually in the US. (I may get on a soapbox about that practice at a different time, how Black Friday seduces the working poor much like the promise of a lottery, the idea of some ship finally coming in, somewhere.) My mom and I once went to Balliet's in Oklahoma City for Black Friday. I returned home with a kelly green mock turtleneck, which needed constant small repairs with a needle and thread until I finally got rid of it, and a pleated white skirt of unflattering length but  I wore anyway for awhile until I tired of looking like a Civil War era doll.

I meant to write a post about what Jason and I did on Thanksgiving Day 2018, but it turned into this piece, a necessary prelude to our adventures yesterday in the Tuscan countryside. That post coming soon.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

French Alps / Les Alpes francais

We are in La Rosiere, a small burg just over the Italian border crossing the Col St. Bernard. Yes, the namesake big dogs are native to these mountains, their steep ridges and dark valleys still treacherous in the winter months, roads closed from November to May or June.

Eleanor calls them "doctor dogs," recognizing their wooden barrel, and the shield of Savoy, which resembles both the Swiss flag and the Red Cross emblem.

The next largest town is Bourg Saint-Maurice, visible from our balcony on the valley floor below, flooded in sunshine. Mont Blanc and Montrose are in this chain of peaks, still snowcapped in the second week of August.

La Rosiere is small and incredibly safe. The front door to our apparte-chalet has never been closed or locked since we arrived. A scattering of businesses address any need: pain au chocolat, gin, baguettes, aspirin, slingshots, stuffed St Bernards. The town must have as many bars au vin as hotels. Everything is well connected by paved pedestrian paths. It's a bit like Bend, OR, but in the Alps. There are hiking paths everywhere. An intermittent stream of semiprofessional cyclists round the bend and come over the hill into town, high on that Tour de France feeling. La Rosiere was the finishing point for the eleventh day of the Tour de France this year, and all the signage is still up.

We arrived on Saturday night, on the eve of Les Clarines (cowbells), their annual celebration of traditional culture. Starting Sunday morning, femmes savoyardes (local women) filled the street wearing peaked velvet headdresses that resembled Cruella de Ville. There were multiple bouncy castles and Saint Bernard puppies and plenty of wooden clogs. The local PTA sold cotton candy (barbe a papa) and hosted a "learn how to milk" cow that was a hit with Vic and Eleanor.  We watched sheep eat a fresh salad for some time in a pen that had been erected onto the street, the farmers at a card table next to it selling fresh Brebis cheese from a cooler underneath. We join the long tables of French families and tucked into a Sunday dinner of steak and polenta, local cheese and apple tart, red beer and redder wine.

Where French cheese begins, tout vous.
We are very glad for it.
I maxed out on a carb binge on Saturday and Sunday (a little too excited about the patisserie and boulagerie nooked into a dark corner of the wooden arcades across the street) so have switched to French eggs, butter, fromage Beaufort, and dark green mache leaves for the last three meals running.

We really ought to limit ourselves to a few of these a year, not five or more per day.
Our balcony faces west. I have commissioned it as my morning office as this is a working vacation for me. I managed two three-day weekends in succession, but have been otherwise engaged in my remote work as Eleanor attends the French kids' club (she loves it), Jason takes his bike up to the Col Saint Bernard (ditto), and Vic hikes with whomever is available to accompany him. Our good friend Flavia is here with us, installed in the second floor of the apartment with sweeping views of the valley and a set of bedding that seems transported from a Heidi scene.

Speaking of scenes out of Heidi (which was, I will confess, one of the first novels I ever read that made me yearn to go abroad, to go to Europe, to be elsewhere under wide skies), there is an actual farm underneath this balcony. The first two days I thought I was hearing things, but then realized that those were actual bells on actual sheep who were grazing on the green pasture below. A very steep pasture, I might add. Are these velcro sheep? We ran into another flock of sheep last night in a pen next to a terrasse (the much nicer term for a small shopping center - the Alpine version of a strip mall), hunting for Pokemon with Victor. Eleanor fell in love with the lambs, and refused to come away from the fence, sniffling and cooing about how cute they were and how they loved her.

My heart swells to hear French again, and have it spoken to me, and to be able to comfortably respond in kind without missing too many beats. I am grateful for the added dimension that French has brought to my life, in spite of the fact that its initial undertaking in 1993 seemed excessive, and my year in Strasbourg two years after that was haphazard at best. Still, here they are, those little French language skills, dusty tools tucked away in a kit, ready to be used as soon as they are called forth. And it is true: the moment I hear a familiar French word or expression, a door opens in my mind leading to a tumble of useful linguistic bits and bobs. Oh, this! Hey, I forgot about that!

Exposure is the better part of language fluency. This is the reason Italian still feels at times like a stranger to me: I simply haven't heard the word, the verb, the expression, the structure, before. I lack Italian exposure. I'm hearing these Italian words for the first time now, at 44. Whereas French was an intensive three-year slog of Extreme Language Acquisition from 19 to 22, and I leveled up more quickly and more deeply than I had imagined possible. Parents: forget the half-hour lesson, the daily lesson, the weekly lesson. Immersion, whenever and wherever possible, makes the imprint.

Also, kids' club and Saint Bernards.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Firenze: People and Places / Gente e Locali

It has been three weeks since I moved offices to The Student Hotel, out on the viale and close to the Fortezza.

The move has been positive. I love the rooftop gym, and the bathrooms are spotless. We have two dedicated office managers who resolve requests (internet stuttering, air conditioning too strong), place fresh water and fruit in the kitchen, and in general provide a friendly, calm presence as other professionals come and go in the space. As a shameless lay cultural anthropologist, I am also very interested to observe the dynamics among my new coworkers.

The space is divided into desks and offices, with a general work area out front that can be leased more cheaply. I am in a desk, as are three others - all British men. There are a few Dutch people who float in and out, and a small clutch of Italian women who are designers and architects on the back row. They keep to themselves.

The small glass offices are occupied by Italian startups or small companies - it is set up to be an incubator situation. One office is truly overfull of Italians. I don't know what they do, but they are beautiful people. There are eight of them in that small room, wearing headphones, and having what appear to be client meetings in the shared workspace out in the front foyer area. They have purchased their own Lavazza espresso machine, and walk over to the kitchen with tiny cups and saucers and espresso pods. The man who appears to be somewhat in charge of the group is named Marco.

One morning last week Marco approached me in the kitchen, and under the assumption that I actually speak fluent Italian, unleashed a small monologue about "Dangerous Dragons" and his friend Simone. I looked at him for the duration, mostly making sounds like mmm, oh, and si, while trying to look intelligent, and when he turned and walked away I realized he had been talking to me about Jason's D&D group in Italy - I heard only Dangerous Dragons, and was certain he was telling me about a soccer league or something, which didn't make sense because aren't all dragons, by definition, dangerous? Oh, Dungeons and Dragons, not Dangerous Dragons. In any case, Marco is friends with Simone, the Italian Dungeonmaster who Jason plays with weekly and who owns an agriturismo with a pool in Arezzo where we will relocate with the children for the final week of August.

Jason's adult study abroad curriculum.
The space hosted a cocktail hour last week, and we came with the kids, after promising they could swing on the giant swings, and Victor could look for Pokemon with Jason's phone playing Pokemon Go. I also brought a soccer ball to play with in the piazzetta, because Italy.

Victor and Eleanor played with the soccer ball in the huge internal courtyard. We spied the pizza being brought out from the restaurant to the work space. A huge bucket of cold Nastro Azzuro beer on ice was placed on the counter. The pizza was hipster pizza on foccaccia, with anchovies and jalapenos and foamy ricotta - hardly the fare of the school-aged set.

I found a piece of margherita for Victor, and he nibbled at it. "What's this leaf here for? Where is the cheese?" he wanted to know. He put it down, and five minutes later Eleanor was wheedling about her empty tummy.

Jason picked up the piece of hipster margherita pizza and showed it to me, asking "Did Victor lick the top of this all over?

"No," I said, "it looked like that when it came out." The kids looked glummer and glummer. Jason finally took Victor back out to play more soccer.

Eleanor meanwhile had met Marco's two young sons, bilingual Britalians, and quickly formed a play group of three, crawling among the adults and giggling. Jason and Victor came back in, and I introduced him to Marco. They had a long conversation about Simone and Dangerous Dragons and the agriturismo. Marco took a picture of him and Jason and immediately WhatsApped it to Simone the Dungeonmaster.

We still cannot work out how Marco initially began talking to me about Simone and Dangerous Dragons and my husband's RPG hobby - eventually it will become clear. What I can say is this: in true Italian fashion, as my gens here increases, my social capital becomes more firm. Now all Marco's coworkers in the small glass office greet me warmly, engage in small talk in the cucina condivisa (shared kitchen), compliment me on my Italian (um ok thanks), and share their coffee with me. Thanks to Dangerous Dragons and Simone and Marco and my husband, I can now be placed in the vast Net of Indra that is Italy. Adding this to Andrea, whom we know from the kids' school, and Maria, friends with our friend Megan in Turin, and it's feeling like a proper workplace.

The added amusement of cross-cultural puzzling is easily my favorite activity, and it is available in spades with the Brits. The anglophones in the area have all spread out to opposite corners, where we are not looking at one another; in contrast, yesterday an Italian man made himself at home across from me, while his colleague, an Italian woman tapped away at my right elbow. Were they close enough? Were they cold? Did they need something?

Hey? Kinda tight here.
Do you see all the space here in this huge space?
Can you please use some of that space? Grazie 

Britain and I have discussed our disappointment in the coffee situation (not great espresso by any measure in the coffee bar on premises; not free in kitchen as advertised; no pods available) so this past weekend I picked up three boxes of Nespresso-compatible pods at the IperCoop in Novoli. I am pleased to have coworkers after two years of working in near solitary confinement in the Sprachcaffe on Piazza della Repubblica, and planned to share the coffee.

One of the Brits was raised in Italy, and thus is very calm and culturally proficient. I hear him with the Italians and it is clear he is a native speaker. He completed his schooling in Italy. He works on fintech and has a product that is pretty cool - it moves money around international accounts at the current exchange rate with no wire fee. Take my money Giorgio!
I shyly pulled out the coffee pods that I had put together for the Brits. When I handed Giorgio the coffee, he politely pointed out that he had already acquired his own pods over the weekend. I should have thought of that - he is britaliano. He put my pods on his desk next to his pods, and pronounced me "a legend."

The second Brit is a sweet Mancunian who does film.
He confessed to me that he accidentally jammed the fancy Lavazza espresso machine of Marco's workgroup. He said he did not know that different pods go in different machines, and had stuffed a Nespresso pod into the Lavazza machine, resulting in a loud Lavazza alarm and a bright flashing red alert light.
"What did you do then?" I asked him, intrigued.
"I left the area," he said. "I came back to my desk and sat down. I asked Oscar the office manager to go have a look at it, but by the time he got round to it they'd fixed it, hadn't they."
"Clever," I nodded. "I don't see how or why they bought that machine for the kitchen - the Nespresso is just fine. Plus it takes up an outlet, and is huge."
He agreed.
We chatted briefly about coffee pods versus espresso machines - it really is something you need to know in Italy.
"Here's some new pods," I said, handing him the small sack of espresso pods and sugar packets. "They go in the small machine only. Don't stuff them into the Lavazza machine."
"Right," he said.
I relayed this anecdote to Jason later on in the day, and he was highly amused by the level of tamper protection built into the Lavazza machine. Do not screw with the Italians' workplace espresso machines!
Perhaps Manchester would like to write a treatment of this episode for an indie short. Plenty of action, plenty of farce.

OF COURSE the model is called Espresso Point. 
In Italy, if you make a thing or a business, make sure you append "Point" to the branding.
That way, people will know it is a thing you use.
Imagine this with alarms and red lights going off, and a jammed pod in the chute.

A third Brit showed up a week after Giorgio and Manchester and I had settled in to our dedicated desks. He came with a duffel bag, looking around in a preview with Maria, and five minutes later came back with a key and immediately set to work. He eventually slipped that he is from Bristol. He owns his own tech firm and was very quiet his first week. When I gave him the coffee pods yesterday, he asked me what they were for.
"You don't drink coffee?" I asked. "Oh, no - are you a tea drinker?"
"I drink both," he said.
"I do too," I quickly rejoined. Agreeable American! "Tea in the morning, and espresso after. Coffee is not hot enough for me. I need a ... a mug of builder's brew." (Note to Yanks: this is Brit argot for a very strong cup of tea.) "I cannot drink the tea in Italy," I added. "It's awful."
"Yes," Bristol mused. "What we really need is some loose tea."
"Oh, there is a shop in town, it's local, called La Via del Te. They'll have it, and loose."
"I like Assam and Darjeeling," he said. "I'll bring a teapot."
I laughed. "A teapot! I never know how to drink it all fast enough so that it stays hot. I hate cold tea."
He looked at me. "It's called a cosy."
"But you wouldn't take a teapot and a tea cosy to work, would you?"
He nodded. "People would." He thought again. "They would."

Oddio, will some inglese please bring this to work and set it next to me.
Yes, I find this quite a normal item to have in the workplace.
It's really nice to be in a workspace where people know I am working, and who are working along similar lines. I often felt the suspicion in the Sprachcaffe - what was I really doing? How could this possibly be work? Where were my coworkers? Did I work at all? No, it seemed I worked too much. I get none of that here. Everyone bikes in, taps away, works out, does a few conference calls. Types some more. It's good.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Italy: Where Two Italians Gather...

A cultural observation? If I may.

Italians love to consider problems in groups. They absolutely love it. It is a birthright.

My new office space is a recently renovated palazzo, formerly Trenitalia. It has had a lot of work done. There are finishing touches taking place now - painting fresh murals on walls, putting in light bulbs that look like 1920, adjusting air conditioning. This has all been happening around me as I work in the new space this week.

Every problem, even the smallest problem, requires at least six to eight Italians to consider it and bring it closer to a point of resolution. I do not know if the problem could be solved with just one Italian.

Is this a union thing?

A vent was malfunctioning in my new space yesterday. Eight Italians came to look at it and talk about it. One man held something that seemed like a precision instrument, to measure air flow. The other Italians looked up and made comments.

Comments included: crap; this makes no sense; why, what are we going to do; who knows what to do. Et cetera.

The man holding the precision instrument seemed not at all confused, nor did he seem to be consulting any of the other Italians in the group. He calmly measured, squinted, looked up a few times, jotted down some numbers, and left. The other seven Italians trailed out after him. I would wager they all went to get an espresso.

We're not done here. There's more to say.

I mused a bit.

The American way.
Do it yourself. Work with no one else. Suffer. The job is probably too big.
Do it anyway.
This would be like eight cable guys in the U.S. coming to your house to hook up your cable, or to resolve a cable issue. One guy's got the needle-nosed pliers to fix the thing, and the other seven guys are all standing around talking about the NFL draft or pre-season, and how silly their employer is. One is saying to the other, hey, I like those pants, the flat-fronts are flattering. Other dude is stroking his sideburns. Afterwards, they all leave together in three trucks to go do it again.

Where two Italians gather, let there be more. And as they solve the problem in front of them, let them suggest further unrelated problems which they might easily resolve, on macro- and micro-levels.

This. Pretty much. Every day. Your civic right to public debate
with family, colleagues, friends, and strangers.
C. Oliver Stegman Photography

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Florence: Turning a page / girare la pagina

This whole post is about my new workspace!
As many of you know, I work remotely for Terra Dotta, a software company based in North Carolina. I am going on six years now with the company, and find my work engaging and fulfilling on many levels. It is a boon that the position has been remote since they hired me for the second time in 2013 - good for me, good for my career, good for our family, and frankly, good for Terra Dotta, as I remain deeply involved in our product development from Oklahoma and Italy, in way that would be impossible had I been issued an ultimatum to relocate to Chapel Hill.

It has long been a discussion in our marriage that I am easily employed, with a wide latitude in my career encompassing immigration, marketing, writing, editing, publishing, software development, testing, end user documentation ... the list goes on. Foreign language teaching. Branding. I fall quickly into often fruitful employment situations: freelance, contract, full-time. A random conversation many times has turned into income for me.

This hasn't always precipitated pleasant discussions in certain years in my marriage, when Jason felt stymied professionally. He has a profundity of education and a level of specialization I don't; he is supremely qualified for a handful of positions that turn over infrequently. So it worked out well that when Jason was offered the position in Florence, I was able to bind up my roots and transplant my work to Italy with relatively little churn or burn. Happily, my position continued, and continues, to grow and change and expand in ways that remain interesting and engaging for me from abroad.

However, Italy is not San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland, in the sense that jobs are very rooted to a sense of place and the Roman concept of gens - who you know, and who is in your network, and who your parents are, and where your clan has lived for the last, oh, one thousand or two thousand years. The job market in Italy is tight and sewn up. Publicly posted positions are almost always mere formalities, as they were filled some time ago in name, and now only the details remain to be completed.

Italy is not also San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that remote work is barely an idea here. If an Italian asks me what I do, and I explain it to them, they are usually astonished. The entire concept of full-time remote work is so far beyond their hermeneutic horizon that I am met only with disbelief.

And, most importantly, Italy is not San Francisco, Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that, more often than not, the lack of reliable internet here is a constant source of stress. I think of the places listed here as places with awesome internet! Fiber! superfast speed! Very reliable, and new networks. Italy does not really have that. They try. Oh, they try. They place paper flyers on the doors of buildings, "La fibra vi arriva!" I no longer believe it. It is like trying to wire the Colosseum to be a tech incubator. Italian infrastructure at times can seem truly hostile to modernization. Can't drill a hole... walls will crumble, stones will break... historic building ... not to mention every time they rip up a street or piazza it seems to be that some very suspicious bundles and braids of blue and yellow ethernet cabling are snipped, and carelessly tossed about with abandon.

And so it was that my rented office situation in Florence began its quick, explicable descent. From my office balcony since March I have watched the commune tear up Piazza della Repubblica, digging holes and planing old flagstones. The ruins of the razed Jewish ghetto under the piazza merited further academic investigation, and an anthropologist wearing a white sunhat was soon seated at a desk in a pit. My internet got worse and worse, and in the old building, there was nowhere to plug in. I did not have an option to wire. My afternoons were frequently fraught and gave me minor chest pains as I failed to complete call after call and meeting after meeting with any kind of grace or success.

When I asked why the wifi was not working, the staff insisted it was my laptop, that the wifi was fine.
But the wifi is not fine, I said. I want to wire in, I begged.
You cannot, they said. All these outlets are non-functional.
Meanwhile I further annoyed my colleagues with an audio that sounded like the aliens from the movie Mars Attacks, and no video.

So I went home to work for a week.

I should mention here that Jason is in the US for work and the kids are home on summer break. Working from home has been touch and go at best. Even with sitters, and we have many, my life at the working parent switchboard is like a military CentComm.

In a midnight moment of insomnia, I remembered the pleasant lunch I had had recently with one Maria, a marketing manager and host of a co-working space a bit out of centro. Maria and I had been introduced by Megan, another remote tech professional whom I met a year and half ago on Piazza della Repubblica. Megan had since moved to Turin, leasing office space that was hosted by Maria and her company, The Student Hotel.

The Florence location opened this month, I  remembered. I had missed both of the events to which I had been so kindly invited, due to scheduling conflicts. I had not seen the space yet. Maria is colleagues with another person we know, Andrea, a mom of kids at our kids' school, whose bambini are roughly the same age as ours. Why didn't I email Maria? What was I waiting for? 

My loosely structured gens, such as it is, could be put to work for me here.

I contacted Maria the very next morning. She immediately responded and invited me to come look on Friday at lunch. It's a quick ride from our palazzo on the bike path.

What's the internet like? I grilled her. I would like to remain employed, and to not have a cardiac in my remote position due to my lack of connectivity.
It is good, she affirmed.
The building is newly gutted and renovated - it is a former HQ of Trenitalia, the state rail system. They maintain a very pretty office building next door.

Trenitalia HQ next door.

Can I wire in?
Yes, Maria said. It is a LAN too. Bring a wire. 
She took me around. New furniture, functional air conditioning. Office space, social space, classrooms and cafes. A juice bar. A deejay booth, I am not kidding, for a nightclub that seems to start at a later hour, like 10 or 11 pm. A recording studio which I will be using to rehearse. A rooftop gym with a sweeping view of the Florentine skyline. A rooftop pool (can't use) and bar (can use). Laundry and kitchens. Restaurants. A bike shop. A salon. A retail design store. Big swings.
A LAN I could wire into.
This place was off chain. The Student Hotel is a Dutch enterprise, and it shows. Design is thoughtful. Spaces are clean and inviting.
Maria and I passed Andrea in the hall, and soon we were three for lunch at the fancy restaurant, which is leased by La Menagère, which is a high-end eatery in centro.

I said I would return on Monday for my free trial day to work. But my mind was made up the minute I unlocked my bike from the pole on Friday. This would be my new, reliable office. With a wired LAN. I was so excited I could have screamed.

My new office building.
I came on Monday with my work backpack and got down to it. Wow, it is so easy to work when you have internet and a tiny bit of air conditioning! It was nice to have an ambient cohort also all working and doing their things in the vicinity. I struggled in Oklahoma and Florence with feeling isolated. I do not love to have people on top of me, but I appreciate being around professional people if they're not eating stinky leftover food they've just heated up in the office microwave.

Seriously, people. I got so much done with minimal stress. Wifi was awesome. Wired LAN was dreamy. I cannot overemphasize how stressful this was on Repubblica. Then I hung out in a little nook and got even more done!

Work nook!
This morning I messaged my rental colleagues on Repubblica to let them know I was not coming back to work, and that I would bring the keys back. It feels a bit like a breakup (sniff). I started working there the second month after we moved here. Through all four seasons, the vagaries of that grand palazzo, the thin heat in winter and the stifling rooms in summer. The Evita Peron balcony from where I spied on all the activity below each day. The six months of Italian language classes that I took. The clipclop of the carriages carrying tourists. And oh, all my friends at Caffe Paszkowski, which is fortunately on my regular route home from St. James on Sundays after I sing at mass. The buskers in the piazza below, and my easy access to the bustle.

I've got a new neighborhood now to explore, though, which isn't Piazza della Repubblica, but is still plenty full of caffes and restaurants. Plus, the fact that I will be able to ride a bike path for the full commute is wonderful - no more playing Frogger (TM) in centro with aggressive Florentine taxis.

Up and away! Turn the page.

Fresh fruit, fancy water, keycard. Feels like old times in Seattle.

Friday, June 29, 2018

La Certosa di Galluzo

It was very late in the morning by the time we drove out of Florence, and wound our way up into the hills to the south of the city, where the Ema and Greve rivers meet at Galluzzo. The rivers this time of year are slow-moving, and green. Galluzzo is a sleepy town with a Tuesday market, but is the gateway to the Certosa di Galluzzo, which holds court as it has for centuries from a hill high above town.

We were with Jason's Italian colleagues, Elsa and Susanna, medievalists all three of them. This was a very special visit to the Certosa for them, as Jason's associate Don Alessandro, a Catholic priest with all the keys, was to meet us in the courtyard. His order, San Leolino, are the newest custodians and residents of the Certosa. They plan to eventually grow it into more of a retreat center.

Don Alessandro says Mass at Gonzaga in Florence on a regular basis. He is a very friendly man, with a wide smile and blue eyes. A youthful priest in the best sense, we are on warm terms with him, having even been to his local parish at Panzano in Chianti a couple of times for Mass (followed by an amazing pranzo at Cecchini.)

Elsa and I sat in the back seat and worked on deriving the etymology of "Galluzzo" - "gallo" means "rooster" in Italian, but the ending brought another shade to the definition, which we debated at length, much to the amusement of the professors up front. Was it a big ugly rooster? Or just an ugly rooster? or a strange, ugly rooster? Maybe a weird rooster.

Jason and I had been to the Certosa (the Charterhouse, as in the Stendhal novel) before, but had only picked our way around the parking lot, and seen the courtyard, as we had arrived too late to make the final guided tour. This time, as we pulled in the car and got out, a squinting attendant asked us our business, and Jason was quick to inform him that we were meeting Don Alessandro. The attendant quickly desisted and ambled back to his small table and chair under a canvas lean-to.

The midday sun was strong, and bright white. I kept to the shadows of the buildings. Olive groves lined up in martial formations in the hills around the Certosa. We waited in the courtyard, admiring the distillery and the gift shop, the front of a smaller chapel, until Don Alessandro strode up in a clerical collar, smiling and gave each of us a strong handshake. Elsa and Susanna wanted to make a few purchases in the gift shop, so Don Alessandro called a couple of his companions to attend to us. I perused the books, noting that none other than Oriana Fallaci had historic links to Don Alessandro's Order of San Leolino, based in Panzano in Chianti. I also scrutinized the many monastic remedies available to purchase, of contents both herbal and alcohol. Susanna selected a small wall ornament designed to hold holy water in the home, for her mother in Viareggio.

Pick up your medieval liquor here.
We paid for all our small things (bottles of liquor, books, postcards, ceramics, honey, rosaries), and walked with Don Alessandro up the long flight of stairs to the adjacent Palazzo Acciaiuoli, where the founder and namesake Niccolo had imagined all manner of humanistic erudition would take place. Today used as a conference center, the two main halls adjoin in an L-shape, with vaulted ceilings and enormous oil portraits of assorted patron saints and leaders, chief among them San Bruno and San Lorenzo. The palazzo itself was never intended to be a sacred space, but rather a sort of college appended to the Certosa in which learned study might take place.

A few quick historic notes here for non-medievalists. The Carthusian Order was founded by San Bruno in 1084, in Grenoble, France, where it remains headquartered. It is a hermetic order that maintains vows of silence. The brothers remained in seclusion, and even received their meals through a specially-designed cupboard with offset openings so that they never saw the faces or hands of those who waited on them.

Boccaccio is a special figure in the Certosa, as Niccolo Acciaiuoli was his patron, and so his personal history closely intertwined with that of the institution. Indeed, the Certosa's geographic location (high on a hill, fresh air, sewage runs downhill) made it an ideal escape from which to ride out the bouts of plague that so often swept through Florence.

Boccaccio was a signatory on the document that established the financial gift from Acciaiuoli to begin the project. About 10 years later, after Boccaccio fell out with Acciaiuoli, he made fun of the Certosa, calling it a pile of rocks on a hill that would never bring everlasting fame to its patron Acciaiuoli. But history proved him wrong, and let that be a cautionary tale for readers here.

From the Palazzo Acciaiuoli (very successful! historically noted!) we stepped out onto a grand piazza, in full sun, crowned by the facade of the church. 

One big piazza, check.
The inside, like almost every building in Florence, was surfaced in an amount of fine marble sufficient for a thousand luxury bathrooms. Don Alessandro explained that the foyer of the church was for the public, and lay monastics, whereas the interior of the church remained closed to the public to maintain the Carthusian seclusion. We went into the main sanctuary. The ambient temperature progressively dropped. Don Alessandro kept up his knowledgeable patter, supplemented by the exclamations of the medievalists who offered facts or confirmation here and there. I hung back to look at the wooden choir stalls, with their bare, buxom mermaids leaning out as though from the prows of ships.

Choir stalls, Certosa.
We followed Don Alessandro into the sacristy to see the liturgical treasures: chalices and tabernacles, votives and relics. He unlocked and opened an enormous set of cupboard doors that reminded me of my recent trip to the Great Synagogue, and where the Torah is kept. Around the walls of the sacristy were frescoed, in a kind of wainscot, images in single-tone of what England did to Catholics in the early seventeenth century. "The English were incredible," Don Alessandro smirked. "If there was a way to torture a person, they would do it without hesitation." The depictions on the wall attested to this, as Carthusians were shown being drawn and quartered, beheaded, crucified, burned, and more. Farm carts were piled high with torsos, legs, and arms. A calligraphied narrative clarified the facts of the scene - quite a counterpoint to the serene icons and portraits of saints, and the gleaming gold in the sacristy's cupboard. Oh, England, I thought.

We twisted through a maze of halls, down an unlit two flights of stairs, to reach the crypt of Acciaiuoli family. Cells phones with flashlight apps came out. The medievalists were beside themselves. There in a small chapel at the end of the crypt were Niccolo himself, and his wife, and a sister and brother, in their marble tombs since the fourteenth century, their long fingers clasped in silent, eternal prayer. It was cold. I began to shiver, but after the heat and the sun above, it felt good. A voto was set within the wall, with more remains in a vault.

Wife of Niccolo Acciaiuoli, Margherita degli Spini.
She's been resting here now for quite some time, since the fourteenth century.
No telling where his mistress Catherine of Taranto is laid.

Outside of the Acciaiuoli chapel were laid what appeared to be every member of the Ricasoli family who passed to eternal rest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their marble lapidaries attesting to the enduring one or two basic facts of their life ("distinguished solder," "long and painful illness," "grieving wife," "epilepsy.") A few more altars were tucked here and there in dark spaces, and one more tomb of a Bishop of Florence, gleaming in white marble with a small rope hung around it like a hapless fence.

We climbed our way back up the dark and dusty staircase, until it became warmer and warmer. A small gallery with wooden seats set into the wall was situated between the sanctuary and the courtyard. This place, Don Alessandro said, A sign at the end of the hall over the door read "Penitentibus" (for penitents, plural ablative, thank you Peggy Chambers) and I imagined what sins a secluded monk under vows of silence might confess. Had unkind thoughts about another brother? Perhaps caught a glimpse of his weekday waiter through the offset windows in the wall?

We passed into the courtyard preceding the refectory, which was situated like another set of cloisters, with a massive stone lavandone that had three metal taps, and bore an inscription about washing off iniquity.

The grand cloister of the Certosa is huge, like a residential college at Yale or Oxford. The doors of the monastic cells open onto its cloistered path, shaded from the sun, looking out onto a massive garden of grass and lavender. A huge well was sunk into its center. The green space in front of the cells was matched by a private garden, with lavender and oleander and a bench, a place to sit and contemplate God's works. I mentioned their dinner cupboard above, but also, next to the cupboard, was bored a small opening above the monk's bed. This, Don Alessandro explained, was so that the good health - or not - of the monk might be verified if he had not been seen or heard from in more than a day or two. When the questioning knock came, he was to reply, "Deo gratias" - thanks be to God.

Outside in the cloister, along the main wall of the building and the low wall surrounding the garden,  were more tombs, hundreds of them, seemingly of parish members. I was struck by a memorial for a baby who died at three days old, and the many tombs for the laity, again with the one or two remaining facts of their lives chiseled into marble plaques. A smaller, sectioned off cemetery contained the graves of nameless monks, whose extreme abdication of the ego brought them closer to God even in death.

Grand cloister.
We made a quick final loop through the refectory, which looked much like the choir stalls. A dais at the east end of the room was, presumably, for the abbot, and a lectern set high into the corner to the left of the abbot's place ensured that the lectio divino read out by one of the brothers would be heard by all the monks, chewing carefully and in silent contemplation, with their one or two possibly sinful thoughts pushed away for the moment.

Our tour complete, Don Alessandro again shook hands warmly with each of us while Jason and the medievalists continued their conversation about the conference they planned to hold on the grounds next year. The monastery had taken on the midday hush of Italian midsummer, save for a lone woman speaking loudly into a cellphone, who was greeted by name by Don Alessandro, after which she seemed to pipe down. Don Alessandro got into a small car outside the Certosa walls and waved goodbye from the window as he departed down the gravel road.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Choices, and Their Lack: Mendicants of Santissima Annunziata

I routinely transit la Piazza della Santissima Annunziata each morning when I accompany Eleanor to preschool, and again when I return home to the palazzo where we live.

Perhaps at midday, bringing a critical but forgotten item back up to the kids' school - a lunch ticket, a felpa (hoodie), a change of clothes. Or meeting Jason for lunch in the blocks around Gonzaga in Florence, most often la Trattoria di San Gallo, or Il Giglio in a pinch for their four-euro fresh pasta plates, consumed next to office workers in suits and workmen in jumpsuits, their hands white with plaster or chalk.

It is a space I now know well, and have come to love: the Brunelleschi arches of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, stretching in uniform conformity along the eastern side of the piazza, each little swaddled putto slightly different than the one next to it, as though to underscore the humanity of orphans and lost children. The western side of the Loggia dei Servi di Maria, and its apartments overlooking their own set of steep steps. The arcades of Michelozzo's church of the Santissima Annunziata, on the north side, where I often duck in to make a quick petition to God, or any god, or any presence (I fold fast) who might be willing to receive it. The two walrus-man fountains in bronze reign in the middle, and hotels and restaurants line the south side, at the intersection of what I like to call the Gateway to the Molten Tourist Core of Florence. Via dei Servi begins at the south side of the piazza, and its crowded pavement extends all the way to the duomo, visible in slices between tall buildings crowding the narrow street.

Walrus fountains, Santissima Annunziata.
And yet, for all these flagstones and fountains and architecture, what captures my attention is the name: the most holy annunciation. What has not been chosen, when the lots are drawn. Mary, learning that she's bearing none less than God's only begotten Son. No choice there for a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl headed into an arranged marriage.

Tiny tokens once attached to a foundling.
Thousands of Florentine orphans and children of impoverished families passed through L'Ospedale degli Innocenti for hundreds of years, from 1445 to 1875. The museum inside maintains all the records of the babies, and while some of them did grow up and go on to be productive members of Florentine society (artists, statesmen, orphanage administrators), many met an early end as they failed to thrive, shuttled as newborns between city and country, and paid wet nurses. Giovanni died at 13 days old, one tag read. Annamaria died three days after arriving, said another. The tiny tarnished bit of a broken medal on a frayed piece of ribbon all that remained to remember them by. The hope that the two pieces might be joined again one day.

Not all babies met such a quick end; many survived, and indeed, thrived. This was a boon to the Silk Guild, the underwriters of the orphanage budget. There is always a reason. There is no simple charity. What was in it for the powerful silk guild, the owners of not only the bronze statue of St. John the Evangelist that graces one of the outer niches of the Orsanmichele Church, but of the entire loggia of the Orsanmichele itself and the statues of all the other thirteen Florentine guilds, wealthy and working class alike? There is always a reason. Think. Think hard. What could a guild of wealthy and powerful silk merchants want to do with a seemingly endless supply of small, young, nimble hands?

Carding silk. Weaving silk. Being apprenticed to the many textile workshops in the city.

And so the mutually beneficial, if lopsided, arrangement thrived for years, as the child labor of the orphans benefited the business pursuits of the wealthy and powerful silk merchants who funded their home.

So, they had a social safety net, but no child labor laws... win some, lose some. Still, light years ahead of their time, and frankly, a revolutionary concept.

The women who had been met with ruin as unwed mothers and fallen women were consigned to a disturbing fate within the Ospedale, giving up their own baby and being stationed in a wing for newborns, where they would lie in bed, a baby on each side of the bed under the curlicue of a mosquito-netted cot. The women would breastfeed around the clock while a medical nurse attended to them. Having recently returned from six years myself in the Land of Breastfeeding, I mentally uttered a firm nothankyou upon viewing those archival photos.

An aged nun makes her dogged way down
to Santissima Annunziata.
I always see priests, monks, and nuns in these blocks, walking up and down the sidewalks in sensible sandals and habits and robes as they have done for centuries. I thought also of the religious orders, and how getting thee to a nunnery was almost never a free choice, but rather an option of last resort for women without marriage dowries, women from poor families, and orphans. Perhaps the suor was the tenth of twelve children, in a merchant family down on its luck, and the next-eldest sister scraped the last of savings for her marriage. Or more rarely, a wealthy young woman who wished to continue an unusually profound education, but was barred from doing so via the institutions available at the time, so probably begged her father to deposit her dowry in a convent and went there to study and read, or write, or write music.

All these people, all these forced choices. I suppose when a forced choice is termed something along the lines of a most holy announcement, it goes down a tiny bit easier, or much more easily for the faithful. After all, God's choice. Who are humans to presume to choose the lot they'd like to receive in this life?

Another cast of characters that give me pause for thought are the mendicants of Santissima Annunziata. Staking out a post at the well-trafficked entrance to the church virtually guarantees a profitable day of begging. There is a fairly standard set I see in the arches and the portico.

An African mother who has been separated from her three daughters by Italian immigration authorities (as best as I can tell from her literature and her science-fair-esque poster display, which is heartrending) hands out flyers and asks for help to pay a huge legal bill that might resolve her issue and reunite her with her daughters.

The Rom women, in their mismatched print scarves and long skirts, socks with cork sandals, and gleaming braids.

A man who looks like he could be Rom, but also possibly a college student, with a level of grooming far too fine to really seem down on his luck.

Another man who truly is down on his luck is frequently seated on the step at the entrance of the cloister, to the west of the main church entrance. His grubby hands and rheumy eyes speak to a lifetime of suffering; his clothes are layered and poorly patched. He watches the street, and one morning, months ago, I accidentally dropped Eleanor's gingham string bag with her extra change of clothes. I was on my bike, and did not notice until I was at her school. I returned to the piazza, and the beggar had darted out in the street to pick up the bag, and was waiting for me on the step with it in his hands. I thanked him profusely and gave him a euro. A few weeks ago he was perched on his step with two breathtaking black eyes that made me inhale hard when I saw him. He looked as though someone had beaten the crap out of him on a dark street, and they probably had. His injuries were awful, but I see him every day, and he is slowly returning to his normal. The nuns and priests always give him coins, even though he does not position himself at the entrance of the church to preen and curry favor with the faithful like the handsome Rom/not-Rom youth.

I empty out my coin purse to this cast, whether just walking by or opting to duck into the church for a quick five minutes with the thousands of lit taper and oil lamps. One day, I gave the Rom/not-Rom youth a euro on my way out. One of the Rom women (clearly not a friend of his) saw me do it. She quickly sidled up to me on the marble floor under the arcades, following me closely, her entreaties growing louder and more agitated as I repeated, mi dispiace (I'm sorry) until she finally devolved into a few profane threats, and I crossed the street.

The Adnkronos, Lampedusa, Italy.
Another group that drifts through the space are the African immigrants. They are clearly those with the least choice. Even the Rom are swaggering and confident next to the nervous glances of the Africans, toting their trays of tissues and umbrellas from corner to corner, or, if they have just arrived, simply holding out a cap - literally. The situation between Africa and Europe is always in the news, and getting worse; the recent refusal to permit first one, then two, then three migrant boats from landing in Italy while Matteo Salvini crowed that he was somehow taking back Italy. Make Spain and France take those boats! The young men, always under twenty-five, it seems, break my heart. I can see and smell the white salt in their tears, their hands and hair, and I don't know what to do to help them. The Italian government gives them homes, I am assured, none of them sleep on the street. Yes, but what of their days on the street, on the sidewalk, the utter lack of dignity? The looks and comments they endure? What choice did they have to stay or leave where they came from? I always say buongiorno, and I always feel their resolution to not show weakness, to keep that stiff upper lip, to hold strong on their corner. Can we allow dignity to those who have had no choice?

And to those who say, but they had a choice, I invite you to get out of your comfort zone and try their "choice" on for size, for a month or two, and come back and tell me if it was true choice or a forced choice. Because these are my former immigration clients stateside, and I know all their stories, in both type and detail. What poverty, what violence, what want they experienced where they were born. Go somewhere, if you haven't been, to see for yourself. See what circumstantially forced choices feel like, look like.

The choices we have, and the choices we do not have, are cast in high relief on the Most Holy Announcement (hilarious and businesslike in English, with little of the Italian solemnity), its church and its piazza. I reflect on my choices and my forced choices in this life - my lot, my inheritance, if you will.

I am fortunate in this life to have accessed a wide array of actual choices - and also fortunate to see when my forced choices were neither good nor bad, but simply a path I followed because it opened up to me, like Via dei Servi between two fountains, down a narrow shaded street, meeting the massive orange cupola of the cathedral as the Piazza del Duomo lays out its grey flagstones on the other end.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Spain on the Brain / Spagna nella mente

Twenty-five years ago, I was wrapping up my first European foray. Spain, where I'd spent the semester in intensive Spanish language and literature classes; Santiago de Compostela, to be specific, that rainy northwest corner of Spain whose American counterpart Seattle stole my heart five years later.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that I undertook such an endeavor at nineteen. I was naive but trying hard to be brave. I was fortunately armed with a decade of Spanish language education. I insisted for years as a teenager on going to summer camps out of state on my own, so had mustered what skills I could in the American Midwest and on domestic flights, long roadtrips, Greyhound buses, and more.

It was my first transatlantic flight, and I deliriously journaled in my seat about my perceived shared affinities with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, headed over finally for my own continental chapter. No wonder my mother cried in the Oklahoma City airport, as I practically ran down the jetway that January. I had little room for sentiment and nostalgia. My view was full forward.

But I was ill-prepared for the mechanics of that trip. The flights were not good, the connection ridiculously short, then suddenly long, because I missed my short domestic flight to Santiago. I was waylaid in Madrid Barajas for twelve or fourteen hours, and berated by a frustrated Iberia customer service representative at a desk for my crappy Spanish. I was alarmed by the military atmosphere in the arrivals hall, freaked out by Spanish soldiers in camouflage uniforms pointing semi-automatic weapons down at the trudging travelers. The acrid smell of black tobacco stung at my nose. I am pretty sure I cried in the airport bathroom.

But I collected myself, and arrived in Santiago at midnight on a pouring January night with my overpacked bags. I was promptly ripped off by an exorbitant taxi fare thanks to the late hour, resulting in a loud dispute between the taxista and the hotel manager. I fell asleep for sixteen hours and the manager's wife woke me up at four the next afternoon, nervously asking me if I was bien and did I need to check in with anyone, ¿tal vez tu madre?

There followed an adventurous, studious, joyous, and highly amused five months. Santiago embraced me. I quickly made friends and in no time was being shuttled to various Spanish homes for the weekend. I dated the eldest son of six children, Antonio, his sister Virginia my hallmate in the residencia, and became friends with the whole family, remaining so to this day.

I learned how to drink coffee, the value of a fresh-squeezed orange juice, porto and orujo and chupitos. The lemon curd pastries on the way to class, merluza a la romana - I ate so well that semester. The seafood! My midwestern palate prior to Santiago was totally unschooled, but I learned to crave octopus and mussels and oysters and clams, and especially the sweet long quadrangles of razor clams. Fresh shellfish that tasted of the sea and its salt. The dark tobacco that all the Spanish puffed then, boxes of Gitanos and Lucky Strikes that I tried unsuccessfully to socially smoke. (That "sticky gene" for smoking? I do not have it.)

I hitchhiked around Galicia with my boyfriend, I fell in love with the wild costa gallega with its rías altas and rías bajas - the high fjords of the northern coast, and low fjords to the west. I was very glad for my years in Spanish class. I experienced very little language or culture shock - I was simply delighted and amused, and learning. I went home to Oklahoma, throttled back to first gear, and hit a slump so hard that only campus overachieving would restart me.

I returned to Spain in 1995 for three weeks, in 2005 for six weeks, in 2013 for a week. But, still when I hear a peninsular Spanish accent, I wheel around to see where it is coming from, so great and deep was my exposure to the language that semester in Santiago. I know now that the peninsular accent sounds to latinos like a thick Scottish brogue sounds to Americans, "¡Venga! ¡Gracias! ¡Hasta luego!" But I heard so much of it that the immersion made its deep imprint.

I harbor a particularly warm allegiance to Spain and Spanish culture, and to my Spanish friends. So when I learned that, by some stroke of luck, my return trip from Philadelphia included a nice solid layover in Madrid Barajas thanks to serendipitous routing, I anticipated with pleasure this little Spanish culture hit.

I immediately sussed out my seatmate in flight. He was a Basque pharmacologist from Bilbao about my age who had just completed a three-month research project in Philadelphia at one of the teaching hospitals. Although I slept most of the flight, when I was coherent he was more than happy to chat Spanish politics (the prime minister Rajoy had just been forced out hours earlier), American culture observations, and compare travel stories with me. I laughed about the exuberant Spaniards in the row in front of us, and mentioned that Florentines would never be so unfiltered, preoccupied as they are with maintaining la bella figura. "Yeah, we don't have that preoccupation," he chuckled.

I stumbled through my italospagnolo with him, but like all Spaniards, he admired Italian culture, and so my grammar errors and fumbles were met with patience. I did not get a chance to say hasta luego and gracias for the welcome conversation and company on that transatlantic haul.

All the international flights that arrived in the early morning hours were emptying their passengers into the long terminal halls of the airport. The soldiers on camouflage with semi-automatic weapons are gone. The airport is now no-smoking. I did not feel like I was arriving on a military base in Afghanistan, scrutinized with suspicion. Madrid Barajas is now beautiful, and shines with the best of Spanish design, all wood and curves, in a sensual yet spacious welcome.

Pre-dawn concourse, Madrid Barajas.
We eventually made our way into the arrivals hall to be processed for immigration. A Spaniard in a blue suit stood at the top of the line, calling out "¿pasaportes europeos? ¿Venga aqui vale? ¿Vale? ¿Vale? ¿Pasaportes europeos?"

I chuckled and remembered of the blind ONCE lottery ticket vendors omnipresent in Spain. The man sounded just like them, plus the clipped "¿vale? ... ¿vale? ... ¿vale? .... ¿vale?" that the Spanish insert frequently into their chatterstream.

I stood in line with approximately half of Perú and a good part of the Yucatán, picking out the pale Yankees among the crowd. A group of four Mexican abuelas from Merida at the start of their European tour struck up conversation with me, and asked, "were all these people on our plane?"
No, I said, estimating the crowd in the enormous hall to be at least one thousand to two thousand people.
"How many people can each airplane hold?" they asked me with curiosity.
I don't know, about 275? I said. Maybe more? "Estos dias los aviones son muy grandes! These days planes are huge!"
They nodded and agreed. "Our plane was really big!" they said. Yes, but not 2,000 passengers big.

Toward the end of my half-hour wait, I found myself next to two young American students. They were extremely clean cut, and well-fed. I heard them talking and asked them where they were from.
South Carolina, they said. We go to school there, ma'am.
Really, where? I asked.
The Citadel, ma'am, have you heard of it?
I said, yes, I certainly had. I have a handful of seminal sad memories tied up in the Citadel that I will not detail here. I kept my cultural comments and memories to myself.
Where are you going? I asked them.
Ma'am, we are headed to Santiago de Compostela.
I lit up. Really! Were they serious!?
Yes ma'am, serious as a heart attack.
They did look extremely serious.
Are you doing a one-month language program? I asked them.
Ma'am, how did you know?
I studied abroad in Santiago in 1993! I crowed. Before you two were born, probably.
Yes ma'am! they said in unison.
I proceeded to pepper them with questions and give them advice about ground transfer to the city, and where to stay, and what to eat, and Santiago culture. I told them their good manners would serve them well in Spain. They beamed at me like I was some kind of American fairy godmother, breaking into wide smiles.
Ma'am, we are so glad we talked to you here. We have no idea what we are doing, and we do not speak Spanish.
I reassured them that they would be fine, and would soon be welcomed by the locals of Santiago into that most historic of hospitable cultures, a destination for adventurers and voyagers since 1100!
My heart warmed to see that Santiago was still a desirable destination for naive nineteen-year-old Americans.

At the window, the immigration control officer flipped through my passport, frowning.
Where do you live? he asked me.
Florenthia, I said, and flashed my Italian permesso di soggiorno.
Vale, vaya, he said, and stamped me in, waving me onward. Go on then, you! I snickered because now I always mentally translate the Spanish of the Spaniards into the English of the Scottish. Snort. Very inside joke, audience of one.

I wound my way through the airport labyrinth, opting at every chance to walk and take the stairs after the long hours in flight. My goal was to find a café con leche and a medialuna and a fresh zumo de naranjjjjja, then any type of salon where they would wash and dry my hair. I peered at a store full of Spanish shoes, glanced into an enormous Zara, drooled over the arty jamón stand.

Don't ever accuse me of failing to love jamón serrano, but I am looking for an open salon.
My hair was beyond grungy after the flight and travel, and the NAFSA week. Neither sexy Spanish shoes nor apparel nor jamón serrano could dissuade me from my mission to find a salon that would give me some post-flight TLC, stat.

These shoes are extremely cute, but I got plane hair to get washed.
I found one at 7:15 am, and they still looked plenty sleepy as they were just opening. I opened my mouth and poured out some lazy Italian mumbo jumbo about needing a piega.
They regarded at me quizzically.
I apologized and said, I am sorry, I am so tired, normally I do speak Spanish.
They laughed, ¡no hay de qué! We will fix you right up!
I consulted their listina prezzi and saw that, surprisingly, Spanish does not seem to have a word like piega in Italian, or blowout in English. "Lavar y secar," the listina indicated.
A young woman led me back to a chair, tilted me back, and started washing my hair with warm water and a shampoo that smelled like handfuls of crushed rose petals. I was in heaven, and almost asleep. She kept up an amiable chatter while she worked, and said she was from Romania, where work in a salon does not pay like it does in Spain.
I said appreciatively that her haircut and color were very becoming, which was well for a woman who works in the aesthetic industry.
She gave me a great scalp massage. I pretty much forgot the airplane and arrivals hall.
She asked if I would like a massage too.
Oddio si! I exclaimed in Italian. God yes! More of this please! This was the best use of a Saturday morning connection ever. Five hours to kill and this adorable little salon is just buzzing over me at the start of their day.
When she finished, I felt like a Kerry Blue ready to be shown in Westminster. It was a very good piega.
Her colleague came to get me. He read my intake sheet and said, "oh! you wrote it in Spanish!"
I laughed and replied, "I have no problems writing in Spanish, but speaking it, these days, on the other hand..."
He worked out all my cricks and kinks, again chatting amiably in Spanish, about Slovakia, where he was from, and how Slovakian culture is so unhealthy "on account of all the beer they drink. Good god, I moved to Spain and lost 15 kilos!"
I walked out a new woman. Long haul, what long haul? Ninety hour work week, who me? I felt magnificent.

a tiny bit bleary but feeling grand
Over to the cafe for el menú desayuno - the breakfast menu. Spain, which like Sicily enjoys a year-round surfeit of oranges, loves a fresh squeeze. Out came the café con leche grande with its generous portion of scalded milk, a medialuna (cornetto/croissant) more savory than sweet like they bake them in Spain, with a tender center, and a generous glass of Spanish zumo de naranjjjjja. 

(Side note: It took me a while to learn how to say naranjjjjja correctly in Spain. The waitstaff in our student residence and at the university building where I took my my classes drilled me mercilessly on the dry Ummayyad gargle that is a J or a soft G in Spain. I had such a soft Mexican J from my years in Spanish class in the U.S. By the middle of that spring or so I could dry gargle my Js with the best of them, and so was able to publicly order orange-based items free of mockery for the remainder of the term.)

Breakfast down the hatch, check. Spain, you are sorting me out so sweetly!

By this time my gate had been posted on the list, and I headed down another long concourse to board. Two ridiculous American college boys in the vicinity were living some Che Guevara dream with red bandannas and helmets. They gave me serious side-eye and sniffed when I took a seat next to them in the lounge, asking them if they were Florence-bound. I inadvertently wound up in the middle of a pack of chattering of Chilean high school girls, and with my backpack momentarily passed for one of them, to my enormous amusement, thanking the gate agents for the compliment.

Buckling in to my seat for the flight across the Mediterranean from Madrid to Florence, I mused at how happy the tiny slice of Spain had made me. Granted, I was able to access services and commodities that are well-documented people pleasers, like good coffee, warm croissants, fresh orange juice, rose-scented shampoo, and massage. But there was something else too about the openness and relaxation of Spain, and floating about in one of my language heavens, able to read and understand everything perfectly even if the words coming out of my mouth sounded more scrambled. In some ways it was so relaxed and so far from my Italian experience.

Gracias, España, por esa mañana perfecta de sábado. / Thank you, Spain, for that perfect Saturday morning.

Bye-bye Barajas!