Florence: Italian Post-election Commisseration

As you know, I have rented office space in the Sprachcaffe, on Via Brunelleschi, on the south side of Piazza della Repubblica, closest to the Arno.

The warm and friendly international staff have been a boon to me this fall as I move through the innumerable steps of cultural and personal transition. They have all been, to a person, respectful, international, and welcoming.(Okay, maybe slightly less so that one guy, Francesco, who seems to maintain a huge wardrobe of logoed college hoodies, and who shushed me that one day for being on a conference call in my rented salotto. But he and I worked it out that one night at aperitivo hour with everyone from the school.) There’s a Canadian-Italian, a German, some other Americans on
staff. A Romanian or two. A possible Russian, and some more Italians. It is a flourishing business.

 I think this man actually is on teaching staff.
But this picture is at least ten years old.
He’s really nice.

The student population is composed of a varied mix of Erasmus students, fine art people, wandering small groups of the same geoethnic origin, and Women of a Certain Age, the last group perhaps hoping to star in a real-life Barilla commercial.

The foreign student crowd is mostly present in the early afternoon, after their Italian language classes have concluded. By 5:30 p.m., the Italian professionals begin arriving to join their evening foreign language classes (French, Spanish, English, German). A number of these Italian professionals are weary, suited men over 55. There is also a group of schoolkids who do an English class, and who have some tiger moms of both Asian and Italian origin.

The director of the school, Iris, is Florentine through and through. She is a nonna, with one grandson, who just turned last week some number under 60 which she would not specify. Iris is very proud of her city’s storied history, and from time to time she comes to sit on my conference room table to loop me on on important topics, which in the past have included:

  1. How Cosimo di Medici receives an inordinate amount of praise, when he was only a banker.
  2. How the Medici cable series is a bust, and totally inaccurate.
  3. How Lorenzo really was magnificent.
  4. How Michaelangelo was NOT Florentine, but his parents were on the Medici staff.
  5. A reprise of the story of the David and how it came to be, as Michaelangelo located the unloved hulk of marble in a Carrara quarry, gave it a quick tink with his chisel, and suddenly saw the potential for greatness.
  6. How and why Michaelangelo broke the nose of the David, out of spite.

This is all critical information in Florence. The past doesn’t feel that far away. Seriously, Iris talks to me about the Medici family as though they were all still alive.

She gets going, and goes fast. I try to follow but am probably getting about 70%. She is also very Italian in that no sidebar conversation is too long, so I have to limit her somewhat guiltily in an American way as I watch my email and IM go nuts for my work between 2 and 6 pm.

Yesterday, she stopped by my table. I wished her a happy late birthday, which made her very happy indeed, as she kissed both my cheeks and said auguri were always welcome. “Monica, cara, what do you think of the Tramp results?”

I always pause when she says “Tramp” before I realize she is talking about our president-elect.

“I was molto turbata last week, ” I say. “This is terrible news.” I smiled weakly. “I am regaining my composure now.”

Iris perched on the edge of the table to settle in for a nice long contextual explanation. “Do you know, Monica? Your system is still better. Do you know why? At least you all voted for your turd (stronzo). We don’t even get to vote for a turd. We haven’t voted in four years. All we have are groups of turds who run things behind the scenes and who keep picking new turd leaders from within the party. It’s an embarrassment.” I nodded. Iris never loses steam. “And this constitutional referendum! It is ridiculous.”

“I don’t know anyone who is voting yes for it,” I said. As though I had just personally polled half of Tuscany.

“Ma che!” Iris exclaimed. “The Italian constitution, written in 1946, is the MOST beautiful thing about our country.” She declaimed the first sentence of it for me, which I know because Jason also – and often – declaims it. This must be some kind of calling card for Italian culture. I make a mental note to memorize the first sentence of the Italian constitution. “… And these unelected turds,” she continued, “just want to change it like idiots.”

“Renzi is going to have to step down,” I said, repeating what I read in the paper over a capucho. “This is never going to pass.” PM Renzi, like the erstwhile UK PM Cameron, has banked his political career on the passage of the constitutional  referendum.

“Magari! I hope so! Ma che!” she exclaimed.

I stayed quiet about the unreliability of polls and the filter bubble, and held my tongue when tempted to caution her against believing that all of Italy would vote as the Florentine electorate – comfortable, educated – believes. This has been a theme in 2016, people – pay attention. The electorates do not want to take the medicine. They are tired of being told what is good for them when they feel like nothing is good for them.

“Well, the good thing about you Americans,” she went on, “is that you will get to elect your own turd, and if you do not like him, then you get to go back to the polls in four years and elect another turd.”

I fail to completely see how this is progress, but next to what she has explained, with very clear frustration, about the Italian system which is dominated by party rule, I can kind of understand it.

“And, if your newly-elected turd is a huge turd, you can impeach him (buttarlo)!” she added. “Then you know that you elected him and you kicked him out, and everything was free and open.”

Well, not quite, I think. Can’t we freely and openly elect a non-turd? We just did that twice, in 2008 and 2012.

“I do not like how our presidential elections have disintegrated into cults of personality with no discussion of policy,” I say. (My Italian is a little stammering at this point. I am freely inventing words and grammar to convey my political opinions.)

“Well, we have that too, but we never even get to vote on the turds,” she said. She clapped an open hand down on the table, and said, “I have to go.”

At this point all I can think of is Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo from South Park.

I was very glad that Iris was able to shed some positive light on this whole outcome for me, in terms of “turds you vote for versus turds you don’t vote for.”

She’s got a point. I didn’t vote for the Tramp turd, but a bunch of people did. Like almost half. Even th
ough we know Clinton leads the popular vote by one million, which is a topic for a different post. Or not.

Tramp is, indeed, the turd we voted for.

Florence: The St. James Choir

A couple of weeks ago I posted about music – specifically, singing and choir.

I did attend a dinner for newcomers (along with some old Florence hands) that Friday at the rectory of of St. James Episcopal, which was a hilarious and delightful experience in itself, after a Katherine Mansfield fashion. All I could think of was the material that I could mine from the dinner, after the fashion of In a German Pension, one of my favorite short story collections of all time.

At the end of the dinner the priest’s wife (Episcopalians, remember) Dottie walked me out to my bike. On the way out, I said, I would really like to sing in a choir. She immediately brightened and promised to put me in touch with Liz the choirmistress. I asked if I would have to audition? Because I was a bit rusty. Oh, no, she assured me. It is a ministry – we turn no one away. Liz will work with you. She promised to forward my email address to Liz, and I rode home in the dark Florence evening with a literal song in my heart.

Of course the next day I felt impatient about my choir prospects and so I found the choirmistress’s contact information on the website, and emailed her (copying Dottie of course – never one to miff the priest’s wife.) Liz quickly wrote me back to explain basic information, and shared a folder with me full of sheet music for the following Sunday.

Well, this was exciting. I promptly reviewed the music and, with my friend YouTube, practiced last week. Some Saint Saens (“Oratorio”), and two standbys, “A Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester” and “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Rehearsal at 9:45, mass at 11.

Jason was in Poland for four days with 80 Gonzaga students, and I had cleverly arranged for a former student of ours and overall lovely person to stay with us for part of the time he was away. On Sunday morning, I attired myself in the most respectable cold-weather Episcopal outfit I could muster (black tights, black boots, denim mini, black sweater, peacoat) and pedaled my way to St. James, which is on the other side of the main train station, Santa Maria Novella. Every time I ride that way I wind up in the tangled roundabouts surrounding the station with city buses and coaches circling with me, which is a bit terrifying.

Church was quiet. I couldn’t figure out how to get in with my bike (many iron gates), but then saw that one gate had been propped open with a rock, and slipped in. I chained my red Bianchi to the wall next to the rectory, where it had been for dinner the week before. An earlier mass had begun at 9 that I did not wish to interrupt, so I walked around and admired the property. It was a gorgeous, clear morning, with a Rafaellian blue sky rolled out above.

 Rectory. Can you spot my red bike?

I eventually found a side door that said “push – church office” and followed the instructions, feeling a bit like Alice in Episcopaland. On the stairwell I encountered an older woman, and asked her where choir practice was. “Upstairs of course!” she answered brightly. “It’s my first time,” I said. She showed me the way.

The 9 am mass had apparently emptied out fast; the sanctuary was deserted. I stood around feeling awkward as the priest chatted with a parishioner. A quiet Japanese woman came after me. I sat in the pew for awhile. I got up and walked around and took note of the many plaques set into the walls and floors – a number of US Consuls, assorted long-term expats, J. Pierpont Morgan.

Eventually the other choristers trickled in. It was a small group, very international, of varying ages. The choirmistress Liz was all high-end business and very chic. Her husband anchored the bass section. The Japanese woman held forth for the sopranos, along with Liz and an American named Joan, who was very Yonkers. An American with a gorgeous tenor. A younger Italian, slightly jumpy but very musical. An Englishwoman named Claire (of course) kept to my side and filled me in when Liz was unable to. It was all very organized and professional; I was quickly handed a binder, and a hymnal. I’m sure I’ll know more later, but was told that some – many – of the choir members are professional musicians. I believe it. I think all the anglophone women had Italian husbands (not that I was keeping track but it was either evident or stated.)

“Where’s Timothy?” Liz asked.
“He can’t make it today – he’ll come for mass but can’t rehearse.”
There was some eye-rolling and grumbling. Claire pursed her lips and said she would fill me in later – “but it’s quite a story.”

Our accompanist played a Steinway grand whose notes filled the sanctuary. (The Steinway said “Steinweg” on it, which made me wonder if the brand name is localized for the US?) When he struck the first key I felt chills – and happy. I tried to acquit my vocal duties admirably. It did feel every bit a 26 year interval since I last sang in a choir, in 1989. Claire kept up an amusing patter in quiet tones at my side. Joan shared facts about grocery shopping on Sunday, and Fiesole. Liz seemed to stay close to me as we went through each piece for the first time, perhaps trying to gauge my ability to find a note or keep pitch or carry a tune. Fair enough – there was no audition, but it had to sound good. I sang in the alto section for the Saint Saens, and was assigned to the melody for the other two.

We filed up into the choir stall to further practice and make sure everyone knew where to be. The Willis organ made the Steinway grand seem, in comparison, like the small plastic Winnie-the-Pooh piano that Victor played with when he was one.

Rehearsal concluded (after we practiced everything, sectioned and resectioned – Liz was efficient and knew exactly what needed to happen). I was swept back to the vestry for a choir robe and, following a brief physical scrutiny by Liz, was handed a hanger labeled “Christina” with two robes. I put on the long-sleeved red robe with the mandarin collar and buttoned up, feeling like a cardinal imposter, perhaps Black Joan herself just prior to the vote. On went the voluminous white robe. I was glad for the extra layers in the November chill of the stone church.

Claire explained a bit more about the mass and what would happen. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m Episcopalian. I know the songbook, and the liturgy.” She smiled at me.

Timothy jogged in wearing a track suit. A small murmur and grumble went up, but everyone was glad to see him. He looked a bit to me like he’d just come out of a time machine that originated in 1994. “He’s British Italian. Such an interesting story on that one,
” Claire stage whispered to me again. I watched a Timothy quickly donned his robes, over his bright blue tracksuit and trainers. He sported a rather britpop haircut, like a lost Gallagher brother. I made a mental note to diplomatically extract the interesting story.

Mass clicked along rather quickly. The choir remained in the stall for the entirety, except after Communion when we sang from the pews with the Steinway. The music was, indeed, beautiful.

After, we put our robes on the hangers and placed them in the wardrobe, and everyone quickly dispersed to their Sunday. Liz seemed like I would be welcome to come back again as she explained what was happening with the choir on December 4 and December 18. Hand bells are involved, which is amusing. We’ll also be leading lessons and carols, which is a favorite tradition of mine.

No one in that choir seemed new to Florence – well, especially not the Italians. But the Americans were all a bit older than I and all seemed to have moved here in the mid-70s, and the same for the Brits.

When I got home, the kids were happily playing with Shelby, and Eleanor told me she wanted to go to church with me next time.

I really enjoyed my choir Sunday. Best part: you get to sing EVEN MORE with EVEN MORE special music. Also, really nice people.

More to come.

Straight up art, literature, and music, everyone. Facebook fast is in full effect.

Home Truths

This partial post is from last Wednesday:

This is a very tough day for me to write, but I feel I must.

The elections at home have taken place, and the result, while not wholly unexpected, is still shocking. After the Brexit meltdown, and what is happening in Europe with the rise of alt-right populist nationalism, as well as in India with Modi and and the Philippines with Duterte, the recent Colombian no vote, the writing was very clearly on the wall.
Jason came to wake me at 6 am on Wednesday morning.

“It’s bad,” he said. “It’s really, really bad.” 

“Really? You’re kidding,” I said dumbly.
“No,” he said. “Come snuggle Eleanor.”
I crawled into bed with our warm drowsy two-year-old and started reading my tiny blue screen. I felt sick.
The morning wore on. I took both the kids to school and walked back to our apartment, holding back tears, still runny-nosed from my recent bout with the sinuses and bronchitis.
At home, I cried for at least three hours. I thought of we women’s lot. I picked up the house, folded and put away laundry, did the dishes. I straightened up the bathroom and the beds. I folded the towels and stacked them. I tend to get very OCD when upset, as though imposing order on the concrete world around me might help calm my stormy feelings and rampant anxiety. Sometimes, it does. Actually, it does help, almost always.

I considered the topic of unpaid labor and women. We do have significant help here, but she can’t do it all for us. The margin falls to me to do, in any spare minute I have. This is also why it is good that I have rented office space in Piazza della Repubblica, to get out of that space of home chores when I need to buckle down and put in solid hours of focused work.

I thought of Clinton and how hard she worked, and how smart she is. I thought a lot about the fine print that a smart woman often fails to read when she marries a smart man, and throws her lot in with him, and then children come. I cried considering how my own professional career has shaken out, unevenly in some years, and how I have struggled with it for varying reasons.
I cried as I missed my working mama friends, who also have Very Smart Partners, and who helped me feel very supported when we were lucky enough to be in proximity.
I thought of all the frustrations I’d had in my career maybe weren’t my fault after all. This made me even sadder as I saw clearly how much I had blamed myself for my perceived failures. Perhaps they were not failures at all, and certainly not personal failures. Rather they were possibly the result of my gender, and working, and later, certainly, being a parent – more specifically a mother, which in our culture is a far less desirable type of working parent. 
I thought some more of Clinton and how smart she is, and how hard she worked to be Good and Possibly Perfect. Bill is smart, but I think she is smarter. And how there is nothing she could have done to make this election turn out differently.
I read some more on Facebook, and made a few teary posts to this effect. That in the clear light of day, on November 9, I realized that women are not equal in the eyes of so many, and that this made me very, very sad.
Minutes later up popped a comment from a cousin who hails from the firmly conservative side of the family. Accusations and excessive punctuation. I was being Trumptrolled! I was shocked. This cousin had done this a handful of times since I had reluctantly friended her earlier this year, at the urging or another, cooler California cousin, haha. I won’t even detail for you here the observable elements of the confused, angry hypocrisy. A life like hers would give me a lot of anger to displace too. She was angry and judgmental even when we were children, and although she is younger than I am by at least four or five years, she never missed an opportunity to look squarely at me and pronounce her judging, hateful words to me when no adults were in sight. My brothers were not on the receiving end of this, because she had clearly learned, at a very young age, to reserve and direct all moral judgement only toward other women. This is what they learn.
I couldn’t breathe for a few minutes. Actually, like half an hour. I finally got so angry that I took down my Facebook profile after a brief farewell post. Certainly the aftermath of this election would not be helped by my newsfeed assault.

Facebook asked me for a reason why? I typed in, “So sick of this.” I felt relief as I unyoked myself from that online den of polemic that has spiraled further and further out of control. It felt like a next healthy step since I had uninstalled the Facebook app from both my cell phones last week.

I stayed off Facebook for a week, and I am avoiding it now. It is too tender and too upsetting.

I wanted to post this partial piece though by way of background and in solidarity with my friends in the US who are struggling with this new reality too.

Is it too political? The political has become even more personal for women in America. Even if they don’t realize it. Or if they do. Or if, like my cousin, they lash out at other women.

I am still trying to process all of this. I know you are too, if you are reading this. Where are you with it?

Florence: Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty, and that….

How about some pretty pictures? 
 Food section.
 Prosciutto patiently awaiting its sandwich.
Typical lunch: salad with cannelini, tonno, pomodorino, parmiagiano.
Nom nom.

 Via Colonna – our regular route.
 Building on Via Colonna with interesting historic plaque 
 My arcades outside of the Sprachcaffe, on Piazza dell Repubblica.
Santa Croce sun. 

Florence: Election Blues

Tomorrow’s the big day. November 8. Our quadrennial presidential poll and regular election.

I donated again last night to HRC. What could it possibly help at this point? Is my money being used today in a campaign? I don’t know. I hope so. Even if it is buying coffee for some democratic campaign workers somewhere.

Meanwhile, in Tuscany, we are trying to take in stride the three major earthquakes (no damage here, but everyone is rattled), the incessant downpour (though not of biblical proportions, as occurred 50 years ago, I am assured by People Who Know), the tornado in Lazio yesterday (!!), the strangeness of the political protest in Florence on Saturday.

Political protest: strange for an American, perhaps? The protesters failed to secure the proper permit to assemble; they assembled anyway; the police were called out. They marched from Piazza San Marco to Piazza Beccaria, stopping in the middle at Piazza d’Azeglio. It was raining hard; there were megaphones; the crowd was not insubstantial. La Repubblica carried a live news feed. Friends of ours got caught up in the middle of it and said there had been bloodied napkins on Piazza San Marco, that everything had been cleaned up most expediently within half an hour after the protest subsided and moved toward Beccaria. The protest was against PM Renzi’s constitutional referendum, which is happening soon, perhaps this week? Our progressive Italian friends seem to think, “good idea, bad bill, vote no.” The referendum is on Italian government, on its excesses and the ways in which it might be simplified. Perhaps the protest made major news because it was happening in Renzi’s hometown. It did not seem to be occurring around the country.

Watching the newsfeed online from our apartment three floors up made me wish, a tiny bit, that I was in the action. I have a latent protest gene. It’s never been properly exercised. I credit my Finnish heritage and my pro-labor father for these leanings, combined with years in Europe as a student, and years more in the US studying Europe past and present.

Maybe I was in Paris in 1968. Or in Spain, 1933, before the Civil War exploded. Or in the US after WWI, protesting a woman’s right to vote.

It’s not that I think protests necessarily change things. Ideally, they should. The Dakota Pipeline especially comes to mind, unfolding now in a suffocating media silence for weeks.

Protests are key because they give citizens the right to assemble, express, and be heard. On a street with no cars, so the polizia are going to tow all the new Skodas, you’d better believe it.

The more fragmented and detached our societies become, the more an analog protest seems so vital. Don’t hide on a comment thread, or on Facebook. Don’t lurk online. Show up in person and let your community know exactly what you believe.

Watching the run-up to the US election since we left on August 26 has been surreal. I read summaries of those three awful debates. I scan headlines daily with a disbelieving shake. Has it really come to this? Brexit is a fresh memory, and I have been cautioned by my friends in the UK to not rely on polls, and to make no assumptions. Just look at all the Leavers who came out of the woodwork on June 23 to turn back the clock.

Watching the US from here is like a 1960s sci fi movie where the space colonists are in a little ship, watching the Earth fade into blackness, and wondering if they will have an Earth to return to.

I got added to the secret Facebook group. I think it’s because I am a dedicated DNC donor. It has helped me feel like I am not in a minority as a progressive, educated woman. It has given me pride again, amidst the ugliness, that a woman will be the American president in my lifetime. I am concerned that we should all be careful what we wish for, but with a healthy side dose of f that. As Obama has experienced since 2008, nothing brings out the nutjobs like a reality that conflicts with their worldview. When HRC wins this election, I hope she gets a nice four-day vacation somewhere with a beach and an umbrella drink, because the severity of her campaign memories will pale next to her in time in office.

I’ll still be with her. I have been there myself, incrementally, but have accrued some analogous life experience in what she is going through. I can’t believe she actually wants this job, but I am very, very glad she does.

I do have a calm confidence that she’s got this. I’m with her. I felt this way in 2008 and 2012 too. (Interestingly, I also balloted both times from abroad in those elections.) I did NOT have this calm feeling of confidence in 2004. I did in 2000, but it quickly proved to be misplaced, and what a ride that was, one I will still never forget, in the George and Dragon pub in Seattle on that Tuesday evening, watching Florida turn from blue to red to blue to red and all the confused faces of the newscasters as we all started gaining an inkling of the 36-day Supreme Court ride we were in for.

1996 was a gimme. We all knew.

1992 was my first presidential election, and it made me feel so adult to discuss its many variables and aspects with my history professor, Dr. Levy, in his windowed office in Dale Hall Tower. He reassured me that Clinton would win, and I was glad of the knowledgeable farewell confidence as I made my final preparations to study abroad in Spain.

Jason and I voted absentee weeks ago, balloting in Spokane County. We were invited to a watch party or two for tomorrow night, but won’t go. With the time difference, the earliest the polls will be closing or returning any kind of result would be at least 11 pm local time. We might do better to just get up and take it with a hot cup of coffee on Wednesday morning.

Please let the U.S. move calmly in the direction of inclusion, progressiveness, and support. Let our systems become better and stronger. Let health and education and parental leave become rights guaranteed by law, for everyone. Let all people move through their lives in safety, no matter where they are, and especially if they are at risk for being somehow seen as “less than.” Let every citizen’s voice be valued and heard, and let us choose a leader who will usher in sanity and calm. Let those in the fading majority who tremble with insecurity see and understand how their insecurities pale against the actual lack experienced by so many more.

I am honestly worried about the violence that I expect to see from the side that I expect to lose. Come on, America. What is the problem with our culture? Pakistan had a female PM like 30 years ago. The UK had Thatcher. Most of Europe has had a female head of state. What about Liberia? Pretty much all of South America? Get out of your little time capsule and come into the 21st.

Just sitting on this election egg to see what we hatch come Wednesday morning.

Florence: Reality


We absentee balloted for Washington State weeks and weeks ago. Tuesday can’t come soon enough.

It won’t stop raining. Hard. Like a ton of rain. It is coming in through the windows onto the floor in the hallway.

We all have the stomach bug. Everyone is just waiting to see when and if Jason succumbs to round out our gastrointestinal quartet. Eleanor will probably go to school tomorrow, but not Victor.

Art and "Excellence"

Where I grew up, art, in all its forms, was something that was to be looked at and admired. It was an unimpeachable sign of refinement, however obtained. Art was not an activity, and art was not a safe place for attempts or failure.

There is a lot of “looking at” in the culture I was raised in. There are those who look, and then there are those who create, magically, Things Worth Looking At.

It strikes me now that I grew up in a culture of criticism, a grotesque exaggeration of pageant culture.

When I was seven, I had my own studio, in our huge finished basement in Michigan, a little utility closet where I used the shelves between jars of my mother’s canned summer fruit for the various things I was making. It was in this space where I also closed the door and sang. One time, my brother or father asked me if I was ok – what was I doing down there? Er, I was fine, I blushed. I was singing really, really happily and loudly. Looking back, I was clearly channeling some strong Sami tendencies to joik concepts into being and reality. I still remember the acoustics in there. Incredible. Concrete floor, high ceiling, wooden shelves and glass jars. I had spaces down there too in my studio for all my other little projects, which often involved making furniture and linens for my dollhouse, writing, and coloring with paints and crayons. Yarn was involved somehow. There were a lot of spaces to hide out and make stuff in that basement, and I disappeared for hours on end to do it. No one ever saw or heard what I made, but the important thing was, it was a safe space to just go and play with that energy.

Where I grew up, there was no support for making art, as I did as a child, and less so as an adolescent, and rediscovered in my twenties. In my town, if you were good at something, you were nationally ranked. My classmates in choir said they were going to Broadway… and they went to Broadway as professionals. My classmates making visual art received awards and grants in high school. My friends in debate accrued awards beyond measure. If you were a smart student in my high school, you went to an Ivy for undergrad, or at the very least, in the eighties, somehow got a nice, full scholarship to OU as a Merit Scholar or a Regents’ Scholar.

But where was the space for attempts and failed attempts? There was no workshop, because it cannot be Looked At and Appreciated. Where the studio? Who knew? These high achievers, these artists and intellectuals in my youthful community, seemingly woke each morning to breathe achievement and excellence.

My arty childhood energy receded further and further back in this culture until my goals for myself were Spotlight Operator and Editor. Seriously, I still cannot believe I thought this. I thought that my output was so poor, and so clumsy and ridiculous, that I stopped trying. I am not a creator, I thought. I can only help and support people who are gifted enough to create. I’ll just put a big “what the hell” bubble around that right now for you.

That is how, by the end of high school, the dregs of my creative tendencies were channeled into, I am not kidding, student government. The last bastion of something I could create. That went on for years. (My classmates in Oklahoma who stayed on that path are many of them now in the state legislature, so I’ll just leave that revelation with you.)

I look around now in Florence and see a city stuffed, literally crammed, with art, masterpieces in paint and marble and stone so fine that millions of people of a year stream through its narrow streets just for a chance to glimpse the highlights here housed on their once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I suspect most people think that the masterpieces in this city were created by some new type of human who simply woke up and chiseled the David, painted Venus on her half-shell, gilded the halo on Mary’s angel. Who wrote music or entire lyrical poems that explained the entire universe and all of mankind inhabiting it.

Solid initial draft, Signor Alighieri. 
You’ll have an adoring public for centuries to come! 

Great job on David, M’angelo. 
Can’t believe you got it so right on that first try! 
Botticelli,thank you for waking up and painting this.

But no. I dreamed last night of a Dark Florence. I wondered what the city would look like were it full of the castoffs and detritus, the failed attempts. I saw down time into studios brimming and buzzing with energy and creation, with no one looking over anyone’s shoulder, of artists and writers and musicians who simply had the space to expand and the safety, at some point, funded and supported by someone, to take risks. Sometimes those risks worked out well, and people clamored to consume the resultant art or music or literature. But very often those risks just failed to fly, and were relegated to a midden in the corner of a studio until they were removed.

What would Florence be today if the castoffs were on display? What would it say about the process? Who would come to assess their worth? If the lines were not graceful, the dimensions out of proportion? Who would love a hyper-edited Divine Comedy, eked out in moments when Dante’s internal editor managed to lower his critical voice? Who would attend a half-baked, dispassionate Puccini production?

(We talk a lot about Dante in our home. He is pretty much a roommate at this point. A glowering, intelligent roommate with bad teeth and brooding literary genius.)

 No one is lining up to see this, but who cares? Someone made it.

Nabokov notebook. 

Art in all its forms is not simply something to look at and consume. We are all artists. Art is something you do. It is an energy and a way of looking at the world and seeing things differently, then taking a risk to transform it with our hands, our perspective, our mind, our voice, our words. The high-water mark of this energy tends to wind up in museums, or garlanded with awards, or auctioned at high price. But what of the immersed iceberg below, and everything that came before what peers and society judged to be beautiful and worthy?

You are now free to go to your art space and make anything you want to. I don’t want to see it. Just tell me if you did it.

Oh, footnote. Choir is on! And what a milieu. People really love to make music in this town. So glad I went to that Friday night cena.

Florence: All Signs Point to Music

The flip side of a cruel mistress, as all artists know, is that she can also be a fertile muse.

I’m spoiled for inspiration here. Views and corners beckon me, even with my phone, to capture; amusing conversations overheard; hilarious encounters. Street perfumes of every bouquet. Colors are brighter; the city, though chaotic at times, hums outward from its core. I’ve the odd moment here and there to think and process. I’ve been writing a lot. Phrases form in my mind ready-made for use in poetry or prose.

I can’t stop singing or listening to opera.

I’ve always considered myself a singer of sorts, a writer always, a not-so-closeted thespian. My richly creative inner life has not always had appropriate outlets for the practice of expression. Maybe I watched a handful of YouTube videos that featured operatic soundtracks. Maybe I watched, or tried to watch some Merchant and Ivory movies online, then gave up since they’re all been removed from the public domain, so I just listened to soundtracks instead.

I’ve always liked opera. I can’t sing an entire libretto like Jason can (just say “Barber of Seville” to him and watch what happens. He’s like a walking Rossini production). My mom sings a lot, and always sang to us when we were small. She’s got a great voice, and is truly musical.

Years and years in choir in school. Honors choir. Show choir. Music theory. Voice lessons. Voice lessons! What could be more suburban than that?

Starting in 1987, for about a year, I took voice lessons from Marilyn in Edmond, at her house. She played an upright, and made tapes of accompaniment for me as we worked through the songbooks of folk, opera, exercises. I was a language nut even then and loved it when the lyrics were not in English. Give me the Italian, the German, the French. Marilyn was good, and patient. Her language skills were good too, because I learned how to pronounce everything properly.

The Italian really stuck though. Years later, when I was studying abroad in Spain, my first real Italian friend, the milanesa Paola Bertacchi, patiently listened to me creak through my rusty Italian repertorio for her. “Ma dai, tu sai molto italiano!” she exclaimed. It became a running joke. I would find her around our residencia and intone, with a poker face, “oh lasciatemi morir,” or some such. It always got a laugh.

I can still sing through all the lyrics for

Caro mio ben.
O cessate di piagarmi.
Se tu m’ami.



I didn’t even know what I was singing at the time. What did I know of the Italian Baroque, Scarlatti, or Pergolesi? Not much. I was busy enjoying rolling my rs and forming pure vowels.

I would warm up on some scales in Marilyn’s spare bedroom, ever after the elusive upper register. I’ve always been a mezzo. No prima donna vibrato here. My voice sounds positively Lutheran. Straight, clear, and on pitch. I sound like those sisters in Babette’s Feast. I love bridging magic intervals that make the hair on my arms bristle. I’m not so hot at hanging out on a liquid high note. I wish. If I get into a lower register, not like Cher, but maybe a higher alto, it feels good.

One time at Marilyn’s, I had rushed in flustered after an argument with a friend (ninth grade, everyone. Ninth grade.) I was trying not to cry but sang anyway. Halfway through the song, Marilyn stopped playing, looked at me, and said, “your voice sounds so different tonight – rich, and open.” It was an insight. I realized something then. My voice was much much better when I was a little out of control and uninhibited.

In all creative endeavors, it is the struggle of the artist to un-tether that inner bind and to let the muse fly freely through the range of creative tools. Singing, writing, acting – what holds the artist back? Is there a tight creative orbit, harried by an internal editor or critic, or does the muse have a long, long leash? I yearn to write without an inner editor, to sing with an open heart and lungs, without restraints. That soaring that comes when you really hit your stride, the tools are in place, and it feels so great.

I gave a few recitals here and there with Marilyn’s other students, at the Baptist church far north at the county line, or at school in productions. But I did not shine like those super-gifted musicians. I could not play “She’s Like the Wind” by ear, or sound anything like Barbra Streisand. I slowly began to believe that I was not good enough to express myself, and so literally retreated backstage in the school productions to be, insanely, working a spotlight that was literally trained on my peers who were busy ripping it up onstage.

I loved choir. I’m sad it fell out of my life as I continued through my high school, which was large, wealthy, and full of the competitive children of competitive parents, which made it hard to enjoy sport, theater, debate, or music as any kind of an authentic, adolescent amateur. I wanted to sing. But did not make the auditions. I was discouraged by the vocal music teacher at school who felt I did not take it “seriously” enough (read: not enough makeup, hair insufficiently styled, voice not high enough). I’ll never forget the face she made when I was at a voice contest in the tenth grade and was so nervous that I could not stay on pitch. I didn’t like the frowsy songs she chose for me. Lavender? Marionettes? Dolls? I was a teenager. Give me a break. I knew I was not her favorite student, or even the right type of student for her, but damn, I loved to sing. Incredible, when I think about it. I was a great sight reader there for awhile, with daily practice.

Whenever I am at church, especially at home with the Episcopalians, I do love to crack a songbook. I tried and tried without success to make it to choir practice at St. John’s in Norman, but the last three years with small children and varying transitions related to such made it all but impo

I’m mostly mended now from my sinusitis and bronchitis. I only ran a fever last weekend, and what a misery. After I have been that sick, which is not often, I often find I can really flaunt the reed. I was walking home from the kid dropoff on Monday and started humming “O mio babbino caro,” which I have listened to about 100 times since we got here, by varying artists. What! These effortless high notes at the ready, floating upward! What is this? It felt great. The days and weeks of a hot gullet bathed in snot really seemed to have done something to that famously elusive upper register. I was singing a high C. That never happens. I was actually a soprano for two days! So I went home and practiced and recorded myself, “O mio babbino caro,” and then, “Loch Lomond” (it was Samhain, after all), and then “Molly Malone.” I posted out to a couple of places that I was looking to scrounge up a weekly voice lesson, if anyone had any leads?

Wow! I recorded more that the next day too, but by late Wednesday the fresh cords had tightened up again.

But it made me think – time to get into a choir. It’s still there. I can totally do this.

And, as it happens, I am having dinner tonight at the rectory of St. James’ Episcopal with some other new expat arrivals. Jason and I attended when we lived here in 2005, and it is a well-known and well-supported community. It won’t be a large group for cena, and the invitation is the culmination of my relentless attempts to connect since last April with the parish. This might just all work out perfectly. I am sure they have a choir that has a space for a mezzo who loves to sing, and whose latent skills can be quickly refreshed with practice.

Florence: Space and Time

I’m still working on my inner versus outer maps of Florence, now that I have figured out the mystery of the Four Seasons entrance on Borgo Pinti. The memories fade in and out, but when they fade in and stick and I can’t place them, they are like the visual version of the earworm.

I have  a few more that are gnawing at me.

When Jason and I lived here, in 2005, it was full summer. I remember that we were often on a street, looking down another street, to take a right turn to go back to Le Cure, but in those summer weeks, to turn right up to Le Cure on that street meant to trade comforting dark shade next to generous stone buildings for the blinding heat of a stucco-lined wall. And so we always dreaded this particular right turn, either on foot or on motorino, because it meant to step from a medieval stone glade into a miniature Florentine version of the Sahara, like a De Chirico painting.

Where is this turn, this intersection? Was it a small piazza? I can picture its segment as clear as day, but now we are in the wrong season to easily identify the cool/hot chiaroscuro. I know it was between the Duomo and Le Cure.

Was it really a turn onto Cavour from between La Pira and Cavour? Close, but doesn’t seem spacious enough as in my memory. Also Cavour goes in the opposite direction than the one we would have been heading in. 

It’s around here somewhere. I’ll find it again, and avoid it in the dog days!

A second homeless, unmapped memory, more recent this time. In the spring of 2013, our friend Mel and I went to the Dali exhibit, taking the train from Arezzo for an urbane day in the bigger city. Somewhere around Stazione S.M.N., we ducked into a caffè and were charmed by a barista who made us beautiful cappucini with foam shamrocks on top, and practiced his English with us. Where was this caffè? The tangle of blocks and small businesses around the station now seems infinite, and dominated by cell phone accessory shops and fast food. I can see it in my mind, and we’ve been to the blocks around the station a few times, even as recently this weekend, but none of the map makes sense to me.

Older caffè than here pictured, 
but similar barista, who looked like a Hemingway toreador.

One last memory map confusion, not strictly limited to Florence, but now dishing up at the buffet of European space-time memories. A street that I walk down every day from dropoff at I Scolopi as I head home reminds me so much of Strasbourg that it renews my Gallic melancholy from that year. The liceo, the autumnal plane trees, yellow leaves dropping to the pavement and disintegrating under feet and in puddles.
Pan european street view.
Upcoming topics: immigrants in Florence, the 1966 flood anniversary, of Florentines and Anglicans, the changing seasons, bambini updates.

A presto!

Florence: Tutti i Santi and PTAHSSS

The church bells have been ringing out frequently all day in Florence, calling the faithful to the mass of All Saints – the national Festa di Tutti i Santi, which far eclipses the Anglo-commercial Hallowe’en in cultural importance.

It’s a national holiday along the lines of New Year’s Day in the U.S. Everything official is closed; a few small stores remain open. Because it is Florence, the hawkers of tourist catnip such as leather bits and scarves have not retired. Plus, they’re almost never Italian anyway.

The kids think it is fantastic that it is a holiday from school today. “We don’t get Hallowe’en off in the U.S.,” Victor said. No, my love, we don’t but this is actually a completely separate holiday on November 1, when Italians give thanks for all the saints that ever were, in any format, from the greats, like John and Peter, to the familial on the following day, November 2, like our ancestors both close and distant.

The Screti family dinner we were invited to last night was lovely. We were immediately handed prosecco pours. A wide variety of exuberant Italian grandchildren were busily playing chase, foosball, and Legos in the loggia. Maria, the youngest daughter, said that when they all gather, just the family, they are 23 for dinner. I also learned that the apartment we live in was once the teenage abode of her and her brothers when they were all teenagers in liceo in Florence. From the modest kitchen flowed a stream of squash soup and croutons, creamy risotto and simple penne, meatballs, chickpeas and carrots and french fries, followed by a huge spread of sweets after, sponge cake and fruit compote and fresh whipped cream and a selection of pastries that looked like it emptied out an entire local case.

Victor latched on to the Legos and we didn’t really see much more of him. The scene was not very conducive to our kids’ appetites as they took in all that was happening around them.

I met one of the sons-in-law who had inexplicably been to Enid a few years back with a friend. His eyes widened when I told him where we’d moved from. Everyone was very gracious about my Italian, which comes out much more fluidly when I am less inhibited, for reasons such as illness and a splash of prosecco. Sometimes a lack of preoccupation can easily be interpreted as a confidence. This is a secret of gathering years.

So sick. We now know said illness is a sinus infection and bronchitis. I have joked that returning to Europe from the U.S., it always takes me some time to adjust to the healthcare here (for the better) as I am certain that all Americans have Post-Traumatic American Healthcare System Survivor Syndrome (PTAHSSS). Symptoms of this syndrome include, but are not limited to, minimizing symptoms of illness to delay treatment because it is too confusing or too expensive to access, or both; delaying medical attention for the same foregoing reasons; stressing out about the cost of medical care and prioritizing cost of care over loss of days to illness; asking repeatedly about co-pays and feeling they are a deterrent to accessing care; worrying that sneaking costs are included in the medical visit.

Finally, after almost three weeks of being ill, on Sunday, the day of Eleanor’s birthday party, I could not take it any more. My head was on fire; my nose burned, my cheeks ached. I posted a climbing fever. I hadn’t been so ill in some time. I posted to a couple of Facebook groups about how to get medical attention on a holiday weekend, and a Sunday to boot. I remembered my positive, but expensive, experience in Paris three years ago, which put me out a cool couple hundred euro for a UTI and a basic antibiotic. (We’re not in the Italian healthcare system yet… the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly for an immigrant.) I panicked when people started posting links for doctors that go to the five-star hotels in town.

I missed Dottoressa Gaggia in Arezzo something fierce! She was so great and always available. Oooooh Florence and transition …. I was in tears.

After the party I begged Jason to help get me to a doctor.
“Just go to the doctor,” he said.
“By myself, with this delirious fever?” I asked. “I won’t be able to explain myself.”
“Just play the dumb tourist,” he said. “Or, we all go.”
I cringed to think of all four of us in a poliambulatorio. We each began frantically texting our short list of regular sitters.
There is one.
She soon responded to Jason and said she could come with her daughter.
We set out on foot to the poliambulatorio (urgent care) on Via della Pergola. A very Italian experience ensued. The 800-year-old hospital was fully renovated and full of priceless art. A few custodians floated around. A handful of obvious patients were departing after their appointments. The bar was closed. The way was unclear.

 How about some priceless art with your diagnosis.

Or a nice view of the Duomo.

We wandered around for awhile while attempting to interpret ambiguous signage, but once we found the poliambulatorio, there sat an avuncular doctor at a desk who motioned us in. No administration whatsoever. There was a nice plaque that said that Folco Portinari, the father of Dante’s Beatrice, had founded the original hospital on the site. I thought that that was a nice touch. But I was delirious. Jason said that the claim to origin was more probably spurious.

Maybe this guy will see me soon in the clinic.
Hey Folco, come va.
Nope. My guy was much older.

Jason quickly explained how long my symptoms had persisted, and he listened to my chest and pronounced, “Lei ha anche un po’ di bronchite.” 
He seemed to need no convincing of the
sinus infection after we told him about the fever and snot.
“But listen,” Jason said. “She needs antibiotics, but she can’t take amoxycillin. She’ll have a severe reaction to it; she had to go to the hospital two years ago for it.”
“Va bene,” he said, and wrote the scrip, which also included our friend the Bentalan, the Italian steroid that is always prescribed, and which Victor took like candy in Arezzo when he was one. Tiny tiny pieces of white pill dissolved in water and which he then drank.
There ensured another very Italian exchange about the farmacia we should go to to fill the scrip. “Duomo,” the doctor insisted. “Also, you owe 15E.”
“Pay here or … at the cassa?” asked Jason.
“Me. I’m the cassa.” We paid him.
He sighed and sent us on our way.
“I do not think I could have either found this office, or satisfactorily explained myself to this doctor,” I said, blowing my nose again.
I don’t remember what Jason responded. I was really out of it and holding back tears.

The farmacia on Piazza del Duomo is not called Farmacia del Duomo, but rather San Antonino. We spent some time consulting Google about this on the piazza. (Literal Americans.) We went in and got our scrip filled right away for about 15E. Everything looked good. Health on the horizon. I went home and promptly started the drugs and began to feel better.

Jason went out a couple of hours later and I thought again to look at the box. It was a brand name, but best to just make sure … WHAT. Ma che! There on the box was very clearly indicated amoxycillin.

Jason was actually out visiting a student for another reason and I began to text him frantically. “They gave me amoxycillin,” I texted. “I can’t take it. I already took one!” I texted him pictures of the box and the scrip. Fooled by name brand in large font!

He soon sped home on his bike and returned to the farmacia with the opened box of amoxycillin. They did not want to exchange it at first, but he stood there until they gave him a small box of zithromax. God bless my stubborn husband. He credited the fact that he waited until the farmacia matron came out, because the younger woman in no way was going to go over the scrip of a doctor to provide a replacement that he had not specified.

Now truly on the mend, and the right meds. But what a health-hole I fell into! Foiled again by PTAHSSS. I’ll remember this for next time I am sick… takes years to rewrite this terrible learned behavior that we have come to view as “just the way things are” in America, but hopefully I can speed it up a bit in Italy.