Monday Funday

I had the day off yesterday and spent it with Ellen about town.

Before my adventure began, though, I ran into Francesca, the owner of the palazzo, coming down the stairs with an armload of feather pillows. “Do you want to see the piano nobile?”she asked. Of course I immediately trotted downstairs with her to admire the frescos, tapestry, and furniture of 1860. It is like a mini Downton Abbey. If you want to come to Florence and get the full effect, it is highly recommended.

Jason reserved a spa day for me close by at a day spa. But it did not start until noon, so in the morning we went to Zecchi to trade out some art supplies for Ellen’s husband Marc. Just walking around the packed narrow aisles of Zecchi makes me itch for a brush and some oils, and an old sock.

We made our move on Zara for some kid clothes, then headed to Scudiero for coffee and pastry before the spa appointment.

The spa’s owner is a Turk, and his Turkish bath proves it. Wow. Steamy marble, hot hot hot. Perfect. Maybe I prefer a bagno turco over a sauna. Give me vapor any day.

I had an appointment for a massage and my person was a young woman from Naples who spoke beautiful Spanish, and explained the long history of the Bourbon kings in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. She also gratified me with amusing language explanations, at my request:

Quindi = entonces
Comunque = something like Spanish aún, todavía, de todas formas, de todos modos, de todas maneras. She was a little fuzzy on this. “It is a particle of continuation,” she said. “Or a topic change when you want to continue talking.
Ormai. We spent a good half hour on ormai. She presented examples in Italian involving the 9/11 attacks, a missed train, and prepared pasta. As best as I can tell it means “already.” Mixed with “unfortunately.”
Magari. “It’s too bad we don’t have it in English,” I said. “It’s close to if only or I wish! Said in the way that conveys it will never happen.”

I also learned many things that southerners think about Florence, none of them surprising. It is, however, against city ordinance to hang your laundry outside the external windows facing the street in Florence.

Ellen met me at the spa, having monopolized the bagno turco herself for some time at to good result. We headed out to grab crêpes and go (again) to Tiger for Eleanor’s hair bits. We also hit a small boutique close to the duomo called Echo where I picked up a few transitional Italian pieces to further help my wardrobe situation. Then to Piazza dei Ciompi for a spritz.

We came home to two sleeping little girls so made use of the time to get all those little things done that require thought and concentration that can be so hard to accomplish with littles afoot in the house.

Our new helper, Chanusha, made us espresso. By this time I was feeling insanely spoilt. So I tempered my euphoria by checking on pre-debate online to gauge the general feeling. Eeek. Looks like a train wreck from here. Good thing the salubrious effects of my massage were still in effect.
(Don’t worry – our Washington state ballots are complete and en route as we speak via email.)

It’s good to have a friend

This is Eleanor, in front, with Avalon, in back. Riding the giostra (carousel) in front of our house in the Piazza d’Azeglio.

Avalon is 8 months older than Eleanor, a wise and traveled girl. She and her mama, Ellen, head back to the US tomorrow first thing from Firenze.

We are grateful to have them as friends anywhere in the world!

Un (altro) compleanno perfetto italiano

Yesterday was a perfect day.

We got all four of us on two bikes (Jason has two kid bikes seats on his bike, one fore and one aft) in the morning and headed up to Gioberti. A brief stop in a stationer’s sent us down a few doors to the optical shop, where we successfully obtained extremely cute school pictures for Eleanor, but Victor was having none of it. One for two.

Back on the bikes, Victor happily buckled into his aft seat, but Eleanor entered the mother of all tantrums when confronted with her catbird seat. Fifteen minutes later, we all walked back to Upim, me wheeling my bike on my right, Eleanor on my left hip. We chained the bikes between the street market and Upim and headed toward the nearest bar to address what has been diagnosed as a family attack of low blood sugar.

In the caffe, homemade sweets abounded: budino di riso, pear/chocolate chunk cake, and fresh doughnuts for the kids. Espresso for mom and dad, ACE for the kids. We asked the barista if there is anywhere to buy kids shoes. “Sure! Just across the street! I’ll take you there.” We look across the narrow street and see Lo Scoiattolo.

In the store, Eleanor immediately selected the most expensive pair of tennis shoes and tried them on. She then thankfully selected a less expensive, but still ridiculously priced, pair of Tommy Hilfiger canvas shoes for 47E. No shoes in the store were sufficiently red for Victor, who gamely observed, “there is just a red star on those shoes. That is not enough red.” We checked out of the Italian store for Italians with Italian prices. (The store did give us a discount of 5E for mentioning the barista across the street who pointed us across the street.)

We returned home (on the bikes, thankfully) and put Eleanor down for a nap after lunch. It’s my turn to take Victor out on the buses, so away we go down La Colonna.

We stopped to look at the bucchatte di vino and discuss how daddy juice is no longer delivered to the daddies of Florence directly, but the daddies must now go to the sfuso to procure their own daddy juice.

Victor tried it out for good measure, and wanted to know why the door was permanently sealed shut.

We hopped off at Anunziata and headed into Tiger to provision ourselves with toys for the evening.

We walked to San Marco, where Victor improbably announces that he wishes to enter the museum. In the museum, we discussed various points of theology on which I may have been a bit fuzzy. Twenty minutes later, Victor announces, “I’m done.”

 San Marco from the courtyard.
Yeah, mommy thought she was pretty strong in theology until this fresco kicked off all these important and pressing theological questions.

We caught the #1 bus and rode it around for awhile. Back at San Marco, it’s time for espresso and snacks, so we ducked into the Grand Caffe San Marco to procure a macchiato for me (with a cannolini siciliani) and a large glass of ACE for Victor, which he promptly glugged.

We returned home to meet back up with Jason and our friend Ellen, to prepare for, WONDER OF WONDERS, and adult birthday dinner plans thanks to the amazing offices of Flavia, aka Fla Fla, aka Flava Flav, who took the train up from Arezzo to mind the bambini while we dined like royalty.

A walk across the river to the Oltrarno and back to the enoteca of Ellen’s friends Edo and Shannon. A perfect evening – the air balmy and breezy, the Pitti looming majestically over its piazza. We ordered a vino importante that Edo kindly helped us select through a flight of samples. Let me tell you what we ate, because it was genuinely memorable: fried squash blossoms stuffed with fresh cheese, seared octopus over pureed chickpeas, a homemade terrine, then primi of various fresh pastas either filled with or covered generously by equally important cheeses. Edo brought us dessert wine and tiramisu in a tiny jarand we stumbled home amicably by the light of the reflection off the Arno’s silently slipping waters.

Un compleanno …

Italy, 1995. Rome, specifically. September 24.

It’s my twenty-second birthday. A Sunday. A perfect day full of sun, at the end of my week in the Eternal City. I’d been staying in the Pensione Sandy for a ridiculous pittance. It looks the exact same now as it did then.

Pines on the Trastevere. Pizza by the slice. Vespas. Early-game cell phones. Italian men in suits.

Glowing.

A lot of this.
And this.

I met Jessica Williams in the Sandy, a friendly, mouthy, hilarious Germanophone swimmer from California, who was, I think, an incredible 19 at the time, and who became my travel companion for the next three weeks through Eastern Europe. Friends to this day, and a bright spot she is, on the West Coast doing her teaching and roller derby thang with three daughters now.

I pulled into Rome from Nice, and Rome, she was so good to me. I spent days walking around the Forum, crossing 18 lanes of traffic in front of The Typewriter. I learned how to cross traffic in Rome, really, a skill that has served me well all my life, by watching wizened Italian nonne just take off into traffic with a cane and a malocchio visible at 100m. Daring cars to hit them. And they were fine. There was a lot of honking, but they seemed to always make it across.

Eating a meal so good I could cry somewhere close to the Vatican. Cheap and delicious lasagna bolognese. Laughing at a gypsy boy who winked at me, then lit up, by the Ponte Sant’Angelo, seven going on twenty-five. Feeling like everything I learned in my Letters degree at OU was, in fact, true. It’s all here! It is all right here! And then: I want to come back here to live. I think I’ll be back.

I fell in love with ochre-washed stucco. A minor obsession to this day. The more decayed and wabi sabi, the better.

I am charmed beyond description by Italians on the ground. They are patient, open, warm. They seem glad to see me. They are also funny.

Jessica and I head to the Fonte di Trevi one balmy evening and laugh at the pickup artists. No naifs, we! I toss a coin in.

Not superstitious, but you never know. Taking Pascal’s wager at the Trevi.

On my actual birthday, Jessica and I went to the Vatican for Free Sunday, when the museums do not charge a fee. We waited in line for a short while. Everyone was nice. The Sistine Chapel was muggy. I bought a t-shirt of God and Adam, one of those European tees that were so thin, way before burnout knit was even a thing.

The museum was huge. I think we ran through, returned to the Sandy for our things, and boarded a train for Assisi.

The day was dreamy. The train ride breathtaking, through central Italy and her sunwashed hills, an Umbrian welcome. We got to Assisi and checked into the Anfiteatro Romano. A real hotel after weeks of youth hostelling!

Youthful yank promptly confounded by Italian shower, which consists of a telefono mounted to a wall in a bathroom tiled on six sides, and a modest drain in the floor that benefits from no indentation. I should mention here that the shower “area” is located on tiled step up from the sink area,  virtually guaranteeing an unwitting American Niagara.

It kind of looks like this, but cleaner and with white tile. (I have just spent 20 minutes looking for a helpful image on Google by way of illustration, and even Google does not believe what I am saying, so maybe it was a one-off.)

I promptly flood the Anfiteatro Romano, water coursing down the tiled stairs toward the reception. The owner, an Italian woman, comes up from the desk to ask me what the hell I’m doing.

Trying to take a shower, I stammer.

Turn the water off when you soap, she says. At least, I think that’s what she says.

Jessica and I go somewhere for dinner in town, and the food continues to astound and amaze. We drink house red and I splurge on torta di frutta, having a second. The waiters hang around the bus station, bella, bella, I hear behind me. We were really enjoying ourselves. We trot home to the Anfiteatro Romano, where the reception area and stairs now look well mopped, and roll into our little beds. I can’t believe the birthday I’ve just had.

I’ve been thinking about that week in 1995 all this week, and about how good Italy has always been to me, in so many ways, my whole life. A recurring theme. I felt at home here, well before I ever met Jason, and our shared affection for this well-textured peninsula was a point in common that was and is, I think, essential.

So, a grazie, with this small love note to Italy. Thank you for making many parts of my life so beautiful. And tasty. And funny. And enjoyable.

Qualcosa nell’acqua

Something is most definitely in the water.

Just a few amusing vignettes from the morning –

On my own with Victor (5) and Eleanor (1) trying to get them ready for school, out to the busstop, and to Scolopi by 9:30 at the latest. Victor is always the last kid in school so is missing out on his free-play time that his teachers emphasized would be so important for his acculturation and adjustment.

Eleanor wants to wear her baby Tevas. It’s 60F outside. She also wants to bring three stuffed animals and a naked doll.

It’s not even 9 am and I am done arguing. I quickly place all the stuffed animals on the empty plant stand by the elevator on our floor.

The buses are late. Victor is hanging off the lamppost like a sailor on shore leave. Eleanor is sitting on a stone curb that reeks of dog pee. She is rubbing her naked baby in the dirt. I look around to see if any Italian parents are taking pictures to report me to Italian CPS.

The #31 finally arrives after 25 minutes. It is packed to the gills. We get on. The bus lurches forward, sending Victor flying down the aisle. I stumble holding Eleanor to the middle of the bus, where an Italian bis-bis-bis nonna is sitting. “Siediti,” she tells Victor. He recoils. She has no teeth, no dentures. “I’m sitting down, Vic,” I say. Eleanor and I take the seat. The 150-year-old Italian woman immediately starts freaking out about how blonde my kids are. She is touching them and talking to them. Victor starts kissing Eleanor’s hand like a besotted Florentine dauphin. Grandma keeps talking and talking. I find her quite charming, but the kids are mortified. “Tante grazie, signora,” I tell her repeatedly. When the bus stops, everyone rushes to get off it like it’s on fire. Including the nonna! She pushes Vic out of the way and heads straight for the door. Like, a serious body check.


You’re cute and all, but out of my way. kid.

I am dying. Oh, Italy, I think. You can be such a mixed bag.

We are the last to exit the bus and start making our way slowly and painful a trois up Giorgio la Pira and Via la Marmora. This is like going to school with two ants. There is no straight line. Vic won’t hold Eleanor’s hand. She is trying to pry gum off the sidewalk. The orto botanico is also interesting. We have a long discussion about dog poop on the sidewalk. Everyone is disgusted. I finally drag them both into Scolopi.

Vic refuses to wear his slippers, but after the long discourse about sidewalk poop, he is visibly concerned about the bottom of his street shoes and lets me take them off to store them in the cubby. “Cubby, cubby,” says Eleanor, and immediately removes her baby Tevas. I shove her sandals in my purse and take Vic down to his class.

Meanwhile, on the primo piano in the nido, I see no one. I get us ready for a morning of confusion and muteness. A teacher comes out eventually and takes Eleanor. “Hug your mama and we’re off,” she instructs Eleanor. Eleanor lets out a whimper then a full wail. Hmm, this is not at all what I thought would be happening today. (See previous post, “Rules and Systems.”) “See you at 11:30,” says the teacher. “You will come back for lunch.”

I am so relieved that I do not have to go through Italian rush again that I almost start crying.

I head into centro on my bike to look for some of the items we are still missing off of Victor’s school supply list. I stop in a small church on Via dei Servi and Bufalini to pray for strength in a back pew while tourists loudly snap pictures of unexceptional art.

Outside, and incredibly, I bump into the two English-speaking moms from yesterday. They were also surprised by the aberration from the nido script. I wonder if I look teary but they say nothing. “We should have organized something,” they say, and shrug. “See you at 11:30.” I still do not know their names, and I would tell them mine, but it doesn’t really seem like they want to know my name.

I fall in love with Flying Tiger, the Danish store that is like Muji. Pick up a bunch of goofy/useful stuff for all of us.

I also stop at Robiglio on Via dei Servi for what is possibly the most perfect cappucino I have ever had in my life. I smile as I think, well, here’s my daycare espresso.


Espresso + Daycare = Myth

I am on day 2 of the espresso + daycare equation with Eleanor. Let me just say now: WHAT espresso were they talking about. There is no espresso anywhere. (See yesterday’s post, “Rules and Systems.”)

Eleanor is doing great. She is unfazed as usual. Today she trotted out to the outside playground to kick it with the regulars. Her group is mixed ages, 1-3, so there are quite a few kids on scene quite a bit bigger than is she. (Victor’s class upstairs is also mixed ages, 4-6. We love this.)

Mama, on the other hand… what can I say.

I’m whining internally a lot. Alternating with white-knuckling my way through various situations.

My Italian is not up to snuff for either elite Florentines or the daycare professionals with their super strong Tuscan accents. I’m muddling my way through complicated interactions, feeling like an idiot.

You’ve done this before, I tell myself, Think of all your First Days. Think! Preschool, kindergarten, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade … ninth grade… first year in college … Especially, do not forget those experiences abroad as a young adult in Spain and in France, at the start of long-term exchange programs, adrift on a sea of language and social code and trying my best to acquit myself honorably with my skills at hand.

Not to mention distant moves … job changes. And on.

It’s true that I got a bit battered culturally by Spain in 1993, and France … and in France for months. Months and months. 1995-1996. But neither did I expect to know much about anything in those places. Sure, I was frustrated. But the locals didn’t care. Whatever. Another youthful arriviste.

Now, I feel, the locals care. I’m older. A parent. A professional. A reflection on our family at large here.

Ugh and I feel like a moron.

A small group of moms and I milled about on the Scolopi schedule. Two or more of them speak English, but very reluctantly. One is American and cringes to speak English with me in front of the other moms. Another is deeply, deeply Florentine, and is clearly the Queen. She is impeccably turned out. Her clothes are perfect. She is so skinny she looks French. Her ballet flats are new, her purse must have cost 900 euros. She looks right through me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about side eye:

1 – the side eye that originates from an Italian who wonders what the American is doing there

2 – the side eye that originates from another expat who looks like they might wish you would disappear because you are harshing their local cover

I’m wearing the Wrong Clothes. Hair still looks deeply cavewoman. I’m in this little room with this gabbling group of Italian mamas, and I am getting about 50% of what they’re on about.

Other schools in town. Shots and vaccinations. Illnesses. Nannies. I hear “per carita” thrown around a lot by the Queen when talking about her resentment at sick children being brought to school by their working parents. She understands that parents have to work, but, per carita, Jocasta was so sick last year …

They pause every now and again to quickly ask me a question, but in the cavernous salotto with its hard floors and all the windows open onto the street with rumbling trucks, and blaring horns, and various shouting going on, I might as well be hearing impaired.

I’m focusing so intently on following their dialogue that I must look pained. I know those two creases that happen between my eyebrows when I am just thinking.

“Are you getting any of this?” They all stop to look at me as I slowly sip my apricot juice out of a disposable plastic cup and try not to cry.

“Um, I think about half. Sorry I am not talking,” I say. I am feeling quite awkward. I am wishing this morning would draw to a close.

“How long have you been in Florence?” they ask me.

It’s like a congressional hearing in Italian.

“Three week,” I say. “Weeks.” My palms are damp.

“Is your husband Italian?”

“No,” I say.

“Two of us went to this school as children,” one of them tells me, smiling. I wonder if I am supposed to guess which two. I think a few of them are cousins. Or one is a blood cousin to the husband of another? It’s hard to tell. Language is whizzing by me.

They look at me. Then they resume their chatter.

Finally one of the carers comes to the room and tells us the kids are all doing great, and that we can go get them in ten minutes.

Eleanor is almost asleep on the lap of one of the teachers. For about the fortieth time this morning, I am on the receiving end of a barrage of country Tuscan and I have no. Idea. At all. What has just been said.

I gather up all my things and Eleanor, and we catch the #31 bus home.

Rules and Systems

Italy loves it some administrative bureaucracy. A prominent feature of Italian life, at least for the expat, is the time and effort placed on enforcing systems that no one will really follow or understand. Or care to follow. Or understand. Because it all started out such a good idea, you know, to ensure order, but then, who has time for that? and anyway, don’t we all understand how it works, or should work anyway, and we’re pretty much following the rules, except when we’re not, so….

I blame the Roman Empire, then Napoleon.

I have two stunning case examples to illustrate:

Firstly, Victor’s school lunches. These are administered (as far as I can tell) on a separate budget and fee schedule. He gets (as previously mentioned) a handsome pranzo each day. He pays for these meals with a small book of paper tickets, stapled together in sets of what look like 20. Someone has made these booklets. We buy them and then write in, by hand, his name and the date that the ticket is to be used for said lunch.

Except, you know, they feed him anyway.

And no one really cares if he gives the ticket or not. What, they’re going to let a five-year-old go hungry? At midday? In Italy?

“Where are Victor’s lunch tickets,” Jason asked me last Friday.

“I don’t know – I never saw them again after that one day you showed me the booklet after you bought them.”

Mutual shrug.

Meanwhile, Victor: “They always make me eat the first round. Then I get seconds. But I never eat the third round, which is just bread. I hate bread. Too crunchy.”

These. Pretty much. But in Italian.

Second case in point: building numbers. Yep.

I’ve never been to Japan, but from what I’ve read, I bet the Japanese are not at all fazed by this multilayered historic numbering system.

I need to find the office co-op that I have reserved on sharedesk.net. I paid 25E for it, soooo best get on it. This office space website works just like airbnb, except for workspaces. So you peruse, chat with hosts, then reserve; all payment routes through the website, and after you pay, you get a phone number and a full address.

Should have known it would be challenging when Gianni was so slow to respond to me with a proper street address.

Presenting:

Red numbers.
Black numbers.

Interspersed somewhat evenly? if haphazardly? Up and down streets.

“It’s easy,” Jason said. “There are numeri neri and numeri rossi. Just find the black 18.”

I am on it, I thought. I can do this.

So I ride my bike deep into Campo di Marte neighborhood, closely inspecting the numbers and trying to not get hit by traffic (smart purchase, that helmet.)

Red numbers, Hmm.
And black numbers. Okay.

So easy!

WHAT. What are the other numbers? What are these blue numbers? Are those like close to black? No one mentioned blue numbers.

WHAT! What are these brass numbers? Do they could as red or as black?


Is it blue? Or black? Does indigo count as a kind of black? How dark is this blue, anyway?

I don’t see an 18 anywhere anyway, not in red, or black, or blue, or bronze.

I take off my helmet and call Jason from my Italian handset because I am still carrying two handsets like I am a Wikileak informant or a gun runner. I am pouring sweat.

“I don’t see an 18 anywhere,” I tell him.
“Did you see a black one?”
“No, I don’t see anything that looks like an 18.”
“Go ask in a bar.”
“Why is everything so hard here?” I know as I say it that not everything is hard here. But the 10% that is hard is really confounding because logic cannot help you through it.
“Welcome to Italy,” Jason croons, as he does when he is reminding me to be patient.

I look down the street at Bar la Sosta again and decide I cannot brave that particular language challenge at this time.

Plus I am wearing the wrong shoes, my hair looks like a cavewoman, and I still have this laptop backpack that screams dork so hard that even my coworkers make fun of me when I use it on work trips. And I am toting it around Florence, sweating.

Groan.
I walk around some more.
A confused Italian woman asks me if I know where something is. “I am looking for an address too,” I tell her.

Blue numbers. Black numbers.
Bronze numbers.
Bright red numbers.
No 18.

I finally call my contact Gianni. “I can’t find the black 18 B on Via Massaccio.”
“Oh,” he says. “We’re on Via degli Artisti.”

Scolopi and School Customs

Ciao a tutti!

The last two weeks in Florence have been ones of adjustment and transition. We arrived three weeks ago today, and although have been settling in to our comfortable and well-located apartment, were a bit unprepared for the staggered start school dates for Victor and Eleanor as we juggled work and ad hoc childcare and transitions.

Victor started at Scolopi on September 5, and attended half-days for that first week; he just finished his first full week of full-time “kindergarten” (il ultimo anno di materna).

Scalopi, just two blocks from Gonzaga in Florence.

The flying priest greets us each morning as we come in.

His day runs from 9 to 4:30, and his teachers Sabrina and Ilaria are wonderful. So far we are pleased with his experience, and ours – all the more so given the news this past week out of Norman, and the debacle and dispute surrounding a priest’s sudden decision to close St. Joseph’s ECDC, where Eleanor would have been attending this fall. (Victor would have already moved on to Lincoln to become a Lion there.)

Quick rundown of Victor’s impressions of school: those school slippers are not cool and he refuses to wear them, why do those Italian kids wear smocks, and he appreciates how at lunch he is required in the mensa to take seconds. Let me just explain these three points for amusement’s sake:

1 – Italian early childhood schools require that children change out of their street shoes and don their school slippers upon arrival. There is a special slipper station with cubbies that have their names on them for the shoe switch-out. This is smart, and quasi Japanese, and fits with Victor’s native courtesy to remove his shoes immediately upon entering any residence. However, he does not love, to put it mildly, incorporating new attire or footwear into his rotation. He hates these slippers we bought. I actually like them; they kind of look like Felix from “The Odd Couple,” and are in search of a smoking jacket. I alerted his teachers at orientation to his particularities with respect to wardrobe and they promised me they would work with him on the slippers. This is an especially germane requirement in Florence, where, as Eleanor frequently comments on our strolls, “so much … doggie poo!”

Slippers in question look very much like these English ones, but are euro size 27. 

2 – Just this:
“Mommy, what’s that big shirt called?’
“A smock.”
“Smock. Smock.”
“Yep – they wear it over their nice clothes. You know how Italian kids wear nice clothes?”
“Yes.”
“They don’t want to hurt their clothes with paint or food.”
“Huh.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t make you wear a smock. You don’t wear nice clothes really anyway to school. Plus, you’d probably run away from home. But then. you’d be wearing a smock too.”
[quizzical look]

Over his dead body would he be caught in some getup like this. He has a few versions of Seinfeld’s “golden boy,” which would be better used for scrubbing a toilet than wearing to school. If you hear calamitous screaming in the hall, it’s either an Italian classmate saying goodbye to his mama, or Victor being confronted with a smock.

3 – Italian lunches are no joke. I like to think Victor is having recovered memories of his year in Arezzo as a one-year-old, in Santissima Maria Consolatrice, at his tiny dining table with silver service and proper cutlery.

Haha. Pretty much this for Victor in 2012-2013 in Arezzo.

He is getting something similar, I hope, in Scolopi.

Victor: I always eat seconds at lunch.
Me: How?
V: They make you eat seconds.
Me: Really?
V: Yes. If your plate is empty they make you eat more.

Jason and I laughed about how his teachers are likely scandalized by how fine-boned he is.They’ll fatten him up soon enough, or die trying!

A presto!

Daycare + Espresso = Italy

Both Victor and Eleanor will attend school in Italy at Scalopi, a progressive Montessori school in the same blocks on Via della Marmora as Jason’s work. Victor starts tomorrow, and Eleanor begins on September 19.

Part of the Italian pedagogical approach is a very soft start with lots of support and monitoring. On the one hand, it is really nice – in the US, our approach with so many things is “jump in, sink or swim.” On the other hand, when you have done a lot of swimming for fear of sinking in your native culture throughout your life, ever encouraged to swim more vigorously else sink more precipitously, this all can seem bit overwrought and silly.

And yet I maintain that one of the aspects of Italian culture I have always appreciated is that, on a human level, Italians are always concerned about your comfort. Are you hungry? Tired? Would you like to sit here, in the shade, or over there, in the sun? Would you like a cappucino at 4 pm even though no one here would dare do so after 10 am? It is not an obsequious culture, but rather one in which Italians consider paramount the quality of the experience.

Italians do not kid around when it comes to education; this program runs from daycare through high school. We have attended a total of four meetings in the first week were were here in Florence – one for Victor, three for Eleanor, to orient ourselves to the school, their method, the teachers, our fellow parents, and more. Although private, its school fees are very modest by American standards – about 260E per month for Victor, with daycare fees running about the same for Eleanor as they would have been at home, at 540E per month.

Eleanor is an old hand at daycare, charmingly called, in Italian, “asilo nido” = literally, “asylum nest.” She started at St. Joseph’s in Norman at 12 weeks, and moved rooms twice in her year and a half there. In Spokane, she spent the summer at St. Aloysius. So this is her third school, and her fifth “room” to be in with different kids, new teachers, new faces. Eleanor will probably be running for president in 2064. She is confident, social, and chatty. We have almost no concerns about her adjustment to life in Florentine daycare.

The Italians, on the other hand, are VERY concerned.

Who are these cavalier American parents who assert that their one-year-old daughter needs virtually no transition monitoring, no shepherding with close monitoring and handholding by extremely well-educated, advance degreed, decently paid professionals?

They haven’t met Eleanor yet. But let me tell you how they think our first week of daycare is going to go.

First, the mother must be the parent to follow this script. Dad is acceptable in a pinch. But studies show again and again that this person must be the mother.

Ideally the mother will not work because this process will take a ton of time. We asked them if I could use the WiFi in the lobby during this weeklong process and were met with blank looks. “Check with the segretaria,” they finally recommended.

I will drop off Eleanor and sit with her in the new space. She will be greeted. After a time, I will be released from the room by the teachers to go elsewhere for a short time. A SHORT TIME. Like, fifteen minutes.

I will take an espresso at this time. There will be an espresso stand in the lobby for this parental purpose. The espresso may or may not be free. I still have not figured that out. At any rate, there will be a holding area for parents who have been sent outside the room by the teachers.

I will return to the room after a short while. Eleanor will be pleased I came back. She will continue to play while I sit there, until the teachers release me again. To go back to the lobby. For another espresso. Etc.

At this point in the meeting I am actually giggling. We are seated on miniature kid chairs with all the other parents. Really? “How many espressi must I take in this process,” I hiss to Jason to my right. “I am not sure,” he said. “Be patient.” I can tell you now how patient I’ll be after 3-4 espressos spaced out at about 30 minutes each in an institutional building with no WiFi.

After I take the espressos on the child-acclimation schedule, I am pretty sure the teachers are going to send me out of the building, based on what was explained in Italian to the group. I will salute my child each time, reassuring her I will be back. My next task will be to go buy a scaciatta (a kind of mini-focaccia all the kids eat here) . I will tell Eleanor I am buying a scaciatta. BUT I MUST RETURN WITH THE SCACIATTA. Or she will lose all faith in me for the rest of her life.

Do not return senza scaciatta! Do not even think about it. You can go to whatever panificio you like to buy it, but for God’s sake, come back with the scaciatta in a little sack and show it to your child.

This goes on all week. They literally have a script.

Okay, I am into it. I’ll do it. I love Italy. I am so glad my children will benefit from their attentive and informed approach to early childhood education. Soon, I have no doubt, I will have need of their handholding as an expat mother with two very small children in their school. And I will be very glad that they are patient listeners with appropriate responses.

For the moment, however, I need to work on my caffeine tolerance threshold to make it through their acclimation game plan.

This all starts September 19. I have two weeks. RAMP UP.

It just really makes me think of this Muppet clip. This will be me.

Looking for the Sprachcaffè

A quick vignette since I am playing catch-up – as mentioned earlier, I am accruing moments of hilarity apace, before I had even decided to start sharing them again. But people. They are so funny. I want to share.

I work remotely full-time for Terra Dotta; it’s a wonderful thing – except when the wifi is out, the kids are at home with a babysitter, I’m going stir-crazy …. Florence boasts, as one might expect, an ample population of professional freelancers, remote employees, and on. As a result, many options exist for office co-op spaces (also referred to as a “hot desk”), and after some casual inquiries and research looked promising, I endeavored to confirm an arrangement for my workdays.
I went back and forth a few times with a woman who had listed their shared space on sharedesk.net. This all pretty much functions like Airbnb, but for work. Their shared space was in a language school that looks on to Piazza della Repubblica, right in the middle of Florence’s beating heart.
First mistake – I assumed that this co-op space was located in Piazza della Liberta, a piazza with which I was more familiar and could more quickly locate. Piazza della Liberta is more like the filtering kidney of Florence, where all the buses pass through. 
I still don’t have my bearings all the way back yet in Florence, as I have not had much time to wander about. So I took along my phone and turned on navigator.
Second mistake – this would not be at all embarrassing in the middle of the street with That Voice intoning directions in English. Her Italian accent is Not Good. I looked around and quickly muted The Voice.
Third mistake – sure, I’ll just run over there on my lunch break. Yep, no problem. Looks like these instructions are taking me … down Ricasoli … past the Accademia … across Piazza del Duomo… in front of the Baptistery .. and over to Repubblica … seems easy enough! Yep! At lunch. I got this.
Me, and 200,000 tourists.
I followed the print instructions until I came to Repubblica. I looked around the massive square, looked down at my phone again, around at the square … Hmm. Where is #5? I followed the Voice to a corner of the piazza. The numbers above read 3, 4 …. 14, 16…I vaguely remembered Florence’s dual numbering system. I walked back and forth in front of Nos. 3/4 and 14/16… a crowd of tourists were seated on the deck of Giubbe Rosse. I wondered if they were looking at me. Of course no one was. Just another lost tourist on Repubblica. After a few passes, I thought, hmm, maybe I should read the business names on the doorbells to see if Sprachcaffe is listed. Nope. And nope. I walked back and forth a few more times. I thought back to the 21-year-old me, who would have folded out of insecurity and panic and walked back. But no. The 42-year-old Monica is shameless. I walked back to #3 and found a doorbell I thought would be a good one to ring. A male voice answered in Italian.

Yes, friends, I immediately played the dumb tourist card.

“Is this the language school?”

“The WHAT?”

“The language school.” I was pretty certain by the doorbell name that I was speaking with an accountant.

“No. But it’s on the primo piano. Here, I’ll buzz you in.”

“GRATZ ee ay.” I was enjoying my role.

Upstairs an open door framed another friendly Italian man, about my age, in suspenders, looking a bit Peewee Herman. He was VERY happy to see me. “Are you here for the language school?”

“Yes…. but I am looking for the Sprachcaffe.” He looked crestfallen. He was clearly waiting for new arrivals, and perhaps angling to do a little cold calling in between. “It is #5 but I can’t find it.”

“Oh! 5! It is just across the square.” Yes, the big, massive square teeming with people. Peewee took me by the elbow to his open window. “It is between the Feltrinelli and the Hard Rock Cafe.”

I thanked him profusely and headed back down the stairs. As I opened the enormous wooden door, a fresh group of tourists with luggage pushed their way in. “Benvenuti!” I greeted them brightly. They all nodded their thanks and filed in  – I hoped up the stairs to see the welcoming Peewee.

I made way to the other side of the piazza to the Hard Rock and indeed did find the Sprachcaffe, which was well-signed and in a beautiful palazzo. A woman awaited the elevator. “Are you here for the language school?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m actually here to check out the office co-op space that was listed online.”

“So… you have spoken to someone from here?”

“Yes – a few times back and forth via email.”

“Who?”

“Gemma.”

“La Gemma non c’è più.”

“Well, I was speaking with someone named Lara.”

“Ah! La Lara sì c’è.”

In the office Lara shook my hand and showed me the space, which was an enormous and well-appointed salon set apart from their classrooms. It looked fine, but not ideal, given the hectic location, and the available hours from 12-7 due to their teaching schedule (Italian in the mornings, executive English at night.) Their rate? 250 euros per month.

I made my way back to Marmora, where Jason’s office is located. His Italian colleague (from Cortona) let me in. He looked at me with a raised brow. “I’ve just been to Repubblica,” I said.

“What? Why? At this time of day?”

“I know … poor planning. It was packed with tourists.”

He gave me a long look with a crooked grin, clearly assessing my competence, or lack thereof. “You will find that, once you take the tourists out of Florence, there is little left.”