A week quickly gets better: Firenze

This week was like one of those days where you have a cold, and, improbably, begin to feel better and better through the afternoon, reaching a state of relative health by the evening. Instead of a slide into worse symptoms, your waking hours have managed to vanquish illness.

I’d say now, looking back, that the week began on a low point, not quite nadir or Pyrrhic victory, but a whole day in the questura waiting in a cold, enormous, dirty hall, although successful in the end, was the toughest day this week.

Tuesday I took my language placement exam, as earlier recounted, and Thursday morning I attended my (drum roll) first official Italian language class of my life. At 43. Yes! A long time coming! may the shortcuts and bumblings cease, and the way forward become clearer. My stuttering deployment of Italian language, after 5 months and more on the ground of the last twelve, had veered into a category I have not been a member of since my ill-fated online dating chapters in the early aughts: funny, but not fun. Amusing to recount, but demoralizing to live.

The professor Franco was a distinguished older gentleman; the other two students, an American and a Russian, both women. 

He asked me a few questions, which I answered, then said, “Mi hanno detto che parli bene italiano.”
“It really depends on the situation,” I responded.
“Da quando sei a Firenze?”
“Sono in Firenze dal…”
“No! No! No! In Italian we say a for cities, a Torino, a Roma, a Firenze, but IN IN IN Italia, Toscana, Europa…”
The hairs on my forearms stood up.  Ooooh a taskmaster! I love it. Then I thought … WAIT. I know this rule. I learned it for French, I know this. It is the same.

Mais oui mes amis! Je l’ai appris d’autrefois!

I am finally on my way to learning what is the same and what is different.
I realized, sitting in class, that I have simply been starving for consumable language information.
We went on to do 45 minutes of group work on direct object and indirect object pronouns, and my fellow students were neither appreciably more expert nor more novice than am I.
I felt tears of relief. There is a class for me!
This is going to work.
After the break, Franco announced we would do a detatto. which I know well from French as a dictée. I was very excited. I love monastic grammar learning.
Franco reviewed Italian punctuation with us for 15 minutes. Then he read a literary passage after exhorting us to neither touch our pens nor paper. Then he read it all again. Then he wrote it out and we graded it. I did much better than I thought, and got many things right that surprised me, along with transcribing plenty of advanced vocabulary whose meaning was unclear to me.
The class concluded. I went up to Franco. “Grazie, Franco. Mi ha veramente piaciuto; sembra un livello ottimo per me.”
He agreed.
The staff also agreed that it was the right class, so I am all enrolled. Tuesday and Thursday mornings with Franco, a type of instructor with whom I am very comfortable, I have learned much from his type before. Plus two agreeable classmates to learn from and chuckle with.
I could not be happier.
I’m in a language class for the first time … what year is this?
This is going to work out.

I will now show you the way to correctly employing indirect and direct object pronouns together in the same sentence.
Follow me.

I also headed to IBS yesterday (the unfortunately named International Bookstore), which in another interesting spatial-historical twist I realized is in fact the bookstore we hung out at all the time in 2005, NOT Feltrinelli! It is hard still sometimes for me to spatially place the elements of the now-pedestrianized Piazza del Duomo. I selected an Italian dictionary (monolingual), a grammar (also), and a couple of books for Eleanor. Jason promptly approved of, and them appropriated, the Pimpa book that prominently featured Dante.

Palazzo Strozzi, last of the Ai Weiwei exhibit

Orsanmichele

Zara

Cos

  As a plus, taking a class in the space where I have rented office space means that the teaching staff I see every day will now see me even on a day when I am not taking class. Lorenzo stopped by after a few times to ask me how it was going, and to review my placement level with me.
“Va bene che finalmente imparo il… direct object.”
“Ma! Per che non dici oggetto diretto!?”
“Ma ho sentito la parola…” And so it goes.
I think they’re all tickled that their corporate space squatter has transformed also into a student. My life on Repubblica further integrates.

Repubblica arcades

On Friday, Jason and I went together to the ASL – the office for the Sanitaria Locale. The ASL is also the referral office for their NHS, so many people were clearly waiting to see a physician or to talk to an official about scheduling a surgery or a hearing aid appointment or something similar. A few physicians were in and out. It was like an aggregate administrative staff for all the doctor’s offices in town, because, from my experience, Italian doctors do not maintain separate administrative staff in their offices. You just walk into the office and there’s the doctor, ready to see you. No multiple levels of checking in, verifying, copay, nurse assistant, nurse, doctor …
Believe me. After my doctor and hospital and referral experiences from 2009-2014, I know whereof I speak.
I was braced for a long wait as we experienced on Monday (7 hours total), but our number was quickly called. We (okay mostly Jason) spoke with a hyper competent functionary behind a desk to get me on the Italian NHS, and to change the children’s doctor to one closer by.
“Next time, you can come by yourself!” Jason reassured me.
Yes, except I have no situational context for what was discussed, except that we got me an assigned doctor on our block. How civil!
The ASL visit was done in an hour, half of which was talking, and another 15 minutes was finding parking and walking to and from the car in the Oltrarno neighborhood.

Nest steps: Carta d’identità. Italian driver’s license as a long-term goal … Residenza, I think? Making certain progress.

I really love being more legit, if incrementally more so.

Side note. I avoided the Friday news about the inauguration. I read my Facebook newsfeed, and stuck to the Guardian mobile app for summaries. I’m so grateful for the millions of people who marched in the 600+ cities yesterday, including, as I saw, a ton of friends and family members. My favorite sign, which I would have been glad to carry, is “Super callow, fragile ego, Trump you are atrocious.” I hope we unleash and harness a global movement. There was a wan turnout in Firenze,in Piazza della Repubblica, but a robust one in Rome.

 Today I sang my heart out from the St. James choir stall – a little Purcell, a little Mozart – and availed myself of the garden beauty in the rectory beforehand. I am deriving so much joy from this foray…

Belleza.

Madonna

Porta della chiesa

Art and lit will save us.

Seriously people – come visit. Door wide open for friends.

The Sprachcaffè

Thanks to everyone who responded and commented with your suggestions about how I might best address my Italian language issues.

Realizing that I rent office space from a private language school in Firenze, yesterday when I arrived I asked their front desk how I might become a student. Iris and Lara were at the front. I have to say that, at this point, I know all the staff at the Sprachcaffè fairly well, and have puzzled out their names, relative job descriptions, and minor personal histories. They are all always very cordial with me.

A placement exam and rate sheet were whipped out from underneath the counter before I could even finish saying “diventare studentessa.” The placement exam was an old-school paper exam of 80 multiple choice questions. I took it back to my desk and completed it. At the top, a single line was reserved for “languages studied.” I faithfully listed English, Spanish, French, Latin … Di più…

I brought the exam back. The front staff found this turn in events, I think, somewhat interesting. I have been a bit of an anomaly now for four months and more in their salotto. Lara said my exam would be marked, and then Lorenzo, their senior faculty, would meet with me.

The Sprachcaffè is a for-profit school and are clearly accustomed to walk-ins who wish to take placement exams and who must then be quickly placed. Minutes later, Lorenzo materialized and said he would be with me shortly.

“So, here’s your exam,” he said. I had scored a 40 out of 80, which is about what I feel like most days in Italian. “Have you ever taken Italian?”
“No,” I said.
“But you speak Spanish and French? How many years did you take?”
I’ve long since lost count of how many years I spent in Spanish class, off and on, between 1983 and 2008. “Mmmm quindici anni?” I guessed. “And a masters degree.”
“Molto bene,” Lorenzo noddied, stroking his chin. “E francese?”
“Tre anni,” I said, “e un anno …in Strasburgo… en faisant une maîtrise en letters modernes à l’université là.” I lapsed into French.
He looked at me closely. “And never any Italian?”
“Mai,” I said.
“This is very interesting. I do not know if we have a class for you.”
Oh please have a class for me, I whined internally.
“Because your errors are very random. Some very easy questions you missed, and some very difficult questions you got right.”
“My errors all come from Spanish and French,” I admitted.
“No, no,” Lorenzo exclaimed, “Spanish and French are also your friends in this. Especially French, which is not simply a friend, but a cousin! a brother! twins!”

As we continued to talk, he gently pointed out the things that I said in Italian that were borrowed too earnestly from Spanish or French. Loans I did not even realize, because I am usually thinking two steps ahead and grabbing whatever is on the shelves as I barrel down the aisles in Italian. 

It’s like I have a jigsaw puzzle in a box, and some random pieces are missing – quite a few, really – and I don’t know which ones they are until I build the puzzle. Is it a border piece? A corner piece? Some huge chunk of sky? Who knows. Maybe, as has happened before with us, I have a thrift store puzzle with a picture of a lighthouse on it but it’s really a puzzle featuring a horse paddock. That can’t be right though. If that were the case, my stealth language would be Mandarin, which is most definitely not the case.

“For example,” Lorenzo said, “You say ‘dico’ a lot, which I know you are taking from the Spanish, ‘digo.’ But we don’t use it like that in Italian?”
“Why not?!” I replied. “It’s a great use of dire.”
He laughed. “I don’t know what an Italian says. We say nothing. We do not feel the need to re-explain ourselves in such a way as the Spanish might.”

He looked at me again. “Also, I heard the way you said ‘speso.’ Your accent is Neapolitan. No one else but Naples says it like this, ‘shpeso.'”
“I think it is from German,” I replied, coloring.
“No, not German.” Lorenzo laughed. “Neapolitan for sure.”

Why should I color? I didn’t even know what that shpeso sounds like to a native speaker. I am not trying to signal anything by sounding stealth Neapolitan to a Tuscan, although it would explain a bit my Ferrante obsession. Just wait til he hears me say “goodbye,” which still comes out of my mouth like a lazy Catanian, “arriverdeeerrrrrrsh…” With a shrug.

Napolitani, “Mangiamaccheroni”

I am being diagnosed with linguistic tics and regional borrowings I did not even know I had. What else lurks in the Broca’s area of my left frontal lobe?

I have no idea why I pronounce “often” that way in Italian. I am an accent and language sponge. It is like the creative spirit versus the internal editor. I just sponge, sponge, sponge, and sort it out later. Or dream about it. Or get frustrated and have bizarre high-level linguistic hearings with my patient husband.

He tapped the table with his pen. “Look,” he said. “I recommend a mix of a class setting and an individual lesson. The class will help you see how you are progressing, and the individual lesson will address your, ah, specific needs.”

I’ll try a class on Thursday around lunch, and schedule a private lesson with Lorenzo for next week, around the same time.

I checked in with Jason about the Neapolitan accent comment. “Sounds about right,” he said. “French + Spanish in Italy = Naples.”

I am looking forward to getting some of this sorted out. I know it’s in there, much of it. But I want to add what is missing, and identify what is useful. I feel like I am conning the Italian people – at moments I know I can be understood, but I cannot stand it when their normally patient brows furrow as I stammer on and continue filling my cart with the linguistic equivalent of Spanish ramen and cheap French crisps. And the occasional paquete de jamón ibérico and foie gras.

I’d like to make peace with the role of Spanish and French in this pageant, and recognize them for when they lead me down a helpful path, and not just when they throw me in a ditch. Today, and mark me, my Italian is like an episode of “American Pickers,” those two guys cruising around rural America offering $14 for a metal Coca-Cola sign. It’s not like I want to win the Strega prize, or run for public office in Italy. I’d just like to get fingerprinted in Firenze without snark
y Neapolitan police officers making fun of my Italian accent.

I should have referred them to Lorenzo …

Firenze: Questura Day

“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!”


Almost. But not quite.Yesterday was the day we had been anticipating since at least last May: the day that the kids and I were invited to present ourselves to Italian officials to regularize our immigration status. Up to this point, our presence has been tenuous at best: tourist visa overstays trying to not break any laws. The immigration specialist in me has been beyond mortified. I am far too trained and practiced in the principles of U.S. immigration law to be able to easily understand its Italian corollaries.

For my U.S.-immigration-savvy friends in the house, I’ll just encapsulate:

  1. We all waived in to Italy in June from the U.S. and spent 3 weeks here
  2. We returned to the Schengen Zone in September within 6 months after our departure.
  3. We came on tourist waivers, the kids and I, while Jason came on the equivalent of an Italian individual L-1A (the U.S. would never permit this intrafamilial conflict in immigrant intent)
  4. We’ve just been here since then.
  5. Except for my weekend jaunt to the UK, which is a stressful immigration anecdote unto itself.

The kids and I have apparently changed our status from tourist to “family reunification” within Italy and without a valid immigration status from which to do it. The impulse is grateful, but the mind boggles. I’ve been annoying Jason since last May to help me understand it, but his understanding is also at a loss.

Dependent family kit

Our local attorney, Rossano, met Jason and me at the questura at 9:30. He’d gotten there far earlier to take a number and get in line. He was initially told that insufficient officials were available on that day to accept and review the types of documents in support of the particular process that we were completing, but he persuaded them to permit us to wait. 23B. Remember that.

The questura in Firenze is a huge hall that was, in earlier and literal “horsey” times, the stables for the Fortezza dei Medici just across the viale. It is a beautiful building, bricked but barely heated. Dim lights from high ceilings cast a faint glow to the waiting groups below. Chinese, southeast asians, a latino or two – definitely a Peruvian couple – and more than a smattering of young single sub-saharan men, as well as a couple of tight clusters from the Maghreb. Instructions for the acculturation process were posted in hard copy in 14 languages, many of them amusingly edited by hand by bored petitioners. 

Many small children were present. Although it was not clear at first if we should bring our pair to join the party or not, Rossano the attorney eventually agreed that it would be better to be safe than sorry. Jason and I caught the #17 back to Scolopi to get the kids and take them back with us in a taxi – door to door service is worth any price with Lady E in tow these days.

There were easily 300 applicants on the grounds. The numbers changed with no great speed on the lit signs over the sportelli, or windows. We waited. 

We left to get second breakfast at a local bar. Victor enjoyed a cornetto filled, on the spot, with fresh sweet ricotta. We mowed through their pastry case and then V&E started on the gelato case. I acquiesced to their tasting of kiwi and fondente. This was at about 10:30. We used the bagno and went back.

First of four trips.

The B series had inched forward. We waited around a bit more. Victor announced an urgent need to poo (groan), so we headed back to the bar to use the acceptable bagno. The employee was very courteous. I cleaned it up in there as best I could, and Vic got down to business. 

Seconds later, we heard Eleanor beating at the door with her tiny fists, laughing. When we opened the door, she announced, “I have poo too!” We did not believe her, assuming instead that she rather wished to smear her mitts all over the ceramic commode.
We quickstepped back out of the Sicilian bar, thanking Benedetta profusely, and a minute later confirmed that Eleanor had indeed in solidarity dropped an impressive load.

We hadn’t planned for this as we’d originally thought we were not going to be waiting with the kids, so we didn’t have a diaper bag, or what I like to call my “emergency diaper change kit”: diaper, scant wipes, in a plastic grocery sack, for when a poo is possible afield but you don’t want to schlep out the whole diaper bag in its padded and overanticipating glory. Jason and I scanned the perimeter for a pharmacy or a grocery express. Nothing in the wasteland around the questura and the guardia di finanza. “There’s one down there!” Jason shouted over the wind. I spied the bright green plus. 
“We can’t all go!” he yelled. 
“I’ll take Victor!” I shouted back. Taking Victor firmly by the hand, we made haste down to the nearest pharmacy to purchase the entire set of supplies (diapers, wipes, ‘tizer) and met Jason back at the garage where our car was parked. We changed Eleanor in the back seat and headed back into Purgatory.

No closer to 23B.

The kids played hide and seek. Eleanor made sure to touch every grimy surface. The place looked like it had not seen a custodian in months. Vic spilled some juice on the floor, and I promptly cleaned it up with a wipe, since we now had about 150 on hand. It came up immediately black.

Please, let us stay. 

Babies cried. Young single adults looked bored or demoralized. Other parents closed their eyes against the scene. 

We agreed to go out again and wound up in an OVS, perusing the Star Wars knitwear in Victor’s size. He picked up some jammies and a long-sleeve t. I got a pair of Royal Stewart plaid fleece slippers. Eleanor got a stuffed cat and a blanket. She was looking tired. Everyone was hungry. It was now 12:30.

We found a strange and unkempt bar staffed by a Chinese mother and daughter. We ordered panini while V&E played with the inactive video slots. The panini tasted like playdough. Rossano was still on scene for us with an eye on the glacial movement of our number series.

Slots at lunch.


Might as well learn some history while we wait.


We walked back across Indipendenza for the eighth time and went back to the questura. Rossano’s patience had not flagged. He held our enormous dossier under his arm and continued to look calmly determined. V&E approached her naptime and a mutual meltdown. Eleanor dragged her new blanket all over the questura floor. She tried to wipe down a rail with a kleenex. These things bother her.

Finally, at 2pm, 23B! Yayyyy it felt like the lottery!

We approached the sportello. The official was a competent middle-aged woman with impressive occhiali. Rossano and Jason flooded her with competence and Italian fluency. She sent the dossier back to the back office for the document review. We showed her the children through the plexiglass. She was confused about the many stamps in my passport and my Italian visa history, which was related to her verbally.

Rossano, Victor, Eleanor, Jason, plus Donna Administrativa

Twenty minutes later, done. We took the kids back to the car and to home, where we begged our babysitter to meet us early at 2:30. 

How much longer, mamma?

At this point it was clear that my workday was shot, so I emailed my manager to let him know I was out of pocket, and firmly in the pocket of Italian bureaucracy, for the rest of the day, because, incredibly, I had to return at 3 to wait some more: fingerprints and biometrics. Kids under 6 do not get printed, so they were off the hook. Jason and I returned to Purgatory on our bikes.

Another fun step. What is this, 1950? So much paper.
Come at 3, but we’ll call you at 4. I know this drill. Jason waited with me. The police were taking people back in groups of 10. When it was clear that I was not getting in the first group, we went back to the Sicilian bar for fresh canoli and more coffee. We talked to Benedetta some more. She was very sympathetic, and exclaimed that she comes to work at 8, and sees everyone waiting, even in the cold, huddled around the front entrance to get their number. 

This will help dull the pain.

I was called at four, and Jason exited. Three Chinese people, a young man of indeterminate citizenship but perfect Italian, and a large young woman from Houston all came back with the officer. A Chinese interpreter had wanted to come back with them, but he quickly snapped at her, “No! Io parlerò cinese!” I was dubious but he did, in fact, break out some impressive and decently-accented Mandarin as he expertly shifted people toward the biometrics office.

As we entered the office I was the last one in. 
“Chiudo?” I asked. 
“Chiudo? Chiudo?!” the mezzo-cinese mocked me. “Lady, where are you from? America?” I confirmed. He guffawed to his colleague, did you hear what she said? Chiudo! chiudo! in an exaggerated Alicia Silverstone impression. I am sure I colored. He continued to snicker. 

He and his colleague were both compact and thickly bearded. And bored. And profane. And funny. Every other word out of their mouths was palle, rompe palle, stronzo, etc. They were very professional aside from that, and got the job done efficiently. I gathered the one who did not speak Mandarin was named Tito, like our Vic’s nickname. 

When he checked my passport, the Barbados questions and comments came up, as they always do. He continued his patter while he printed me, asking me if I was a student – until he saw my birthdate – and then, after offering his sincere compliments, demanded an explanation of my doings in Firenze. I said I worked full-time remotely in software and that my husband worked for Gonzaga. That got a response. “They send a ton of people here,” he said. I agreed. I noted to him that his colleague was neater and more efficient that he, which sparked an amusing exchange. It was true though. My police officer talked a lot, but his stack of completed documents was not neatly arrayed. His friend, on the other hand, at the adjacent desk, had a perfect stack. 

They were both from the south, one from Naples, one from Matera. 
“Where do you think that is!” they asked me. 
Mmmm Puglia? Campagna?  I wondered. I’d heard of it. 
“Nooooo signora, BASILICATA!” 
I felt like I was in a Hemingway short about the Italian front circa 1916.

By 4:30 I was the last one done. The bearded cops shooed me out the door into the cold, where it was now snowing. Seven hours later, I had completed the opaque process (many thanks, Rossano), and headed home on my bike, scarf wrapped around my head like a Slavic milkmaid. My prize? A slip of paper which, in my passport, will serve as proof of my application for a permesso di soggiorno until the actual card arrives, sometime in an unforeseeable month. They’d better accept this as proof in Amsterdam.

I’m taking a nap.

Fiesole: An Afternoon at the Paolo Conti

Yesterday we attended a family art workshop on Italian Futurism presented by our friend Molly, who owns and runs LetterArteMente from her homebase in Pistoia, Italy’s 2017 cultural capital.
The workshop was in Fiesole, at the Fondazione e Museo Primo Conti, on the backside of town, down the hill a bit. 
The property Conti bought in 1945 as residence and studio.
Paolo Conti, self-portrait.
More Conti.
I think I saw this tipo in Piazza San Marco.
More Conti.
This. This. This, people. This is the reason. We can do something like this, as a family, on a whim, with the kids. Drive up the hill to Fiesole. This is a main reason why we chose to give it all away in the US and relocate to Florence.
The workshop was presented in collaboration with Jane Harman, a local art restorer of repute, originally from Glasgow but now seamlessly Florentine. It focused on Futuristic typography, as we all learned about what words meant for Italian futurists, and how they liked them to look, and why, and what colors they wanted to use most often. Jane had wood, and a jigsaw, and sandpaper and various files, and letter stencils. The 8 or so families got to work.

Eleanor invites herself into another family’s project

Mmm … we got to less work. Eleanor was super into it, but too little to do any of it. As soon as she saw the table with paints and brushes her fingers started itching, much like her mommy’s. “I want to paint, I want to paint!” she whispered to me.

Vic was having none of it and eventually calmed down enough to read his Legolog. Eleanor continued to explore and try everything out.

E. and I painted a few wood blocks. We all ate snacks, and inspected the tools of the artist himself, carefully preserved in situ, along with a human skull.It was really fun – such a treat to get out among beauty and get into some high culture. We will be doing more of Molly’s events!

Victor pores over his Lego catalog enjoying the Futuristic ambient.

Jason sets to work sanding a piece of wood at E’s behest
Futuristic font plus dreamy view

La belleza.

Beauty.

Painty hands on #7 bus home

Firenze: My kingdom for a nail.

Life in the Palazzo Wilson-Gattai is many things: sociable, historic, central, beautiful, spacious, furnished, community-minded, adjacent to a very busy busstop, across the street from one of the city’s most popular parks and carousels, quick access to the Viale… the list goes on.
Two of the things it is not: well-insulated, as covered in a recent post.
Secondly, easy to hammer a nail into.
I am sure that this second drawback is by design. The palazzo (1860) has walls that were built to last, with a practical English thickness. The interior walls are steps beyond plaster and lath. More like concrete and lime and concrete and lime.
There is no way any nail is going into those walls. Ever. Or bolt. Or anything you might hang a picture on.
Fortunately, the apartment came well hung with many, many pieces of art, notably, a number of oils on canvas and wood. One Luisa Gattai, most certainly a family member, did many of them. I love that this part of the family history is preserved in our living space. Plus, they’re beautiful and evocative, if a bit undaring, and typically Tuscan in their subject matter.
A great many family pictures arrived in our international shipment, but it’s hard to hang them. Plus I like 90% of the art in the apartment. Like less: a disintegration lacy handkerchief tacked and mounted, and a huge art exhibition poster from 1993.
I’ve had to resort to very creative solutions to keep the indigenous pieces that I like in prominent positions, while getting some of our family stuff up so it feels more like our home. Ribbons. Musical frames. A hawklike inspection of all the white walls for an errant nail nubbin from which I might hang something. These found nails/bolts tend to be over doorways, as where, for example, one might place a small crucifix in an Italian home, or a religious devotional item. Jason has been surprised to spot them high overheard – “how did that get up here?” he exclaimed when he saw small canvases he recognized from Oklahoma perched over an Italian lintel.
Over our dining table. By Gattai.

Verdi keeps watch over the the salotto – and our TiVu.
Va pensiero…

Tiny Gattai.
Amusing juvenile art, reminds of Lemony Snicket, or Dahl illustrations.

My creative ribbon solution when trying to create further wall space.
Madonna and child share nail nubbin with original oil on wood.
Note utilitarian placement of our small canvas art in locations
where most likely a crucifix was, at one point,
or perhaps some other small devotional,

I would undoubtedly like this disintegrating handkerchief more
if I knew some of the family history behind it.
Maybe it belonged to a Gattai sister.

Middling art. But not without its charm. The rooster is cute.
The flowers on warped cork, otoh….

Fiesole today felt like
Luisa Gattai might have been
just around the corner
with her paints and palette

Coming soon:
Tomorrow’s prefettura appointment to regularize our Italian immigration status, and today’s jaunt to Fiesole to the studio of Paolo Conti.

Firenze: You say pieno, I say completo

There are so many ways to be full in Italian.

I keep a tiny notebook in my backpack where, usually, at midday, I make small language notes for myself. This is typically done in the Sprachcaffe before I begin my east coast shift at 2 pm. The notebook was begun in 2012, and has stayed with me. It is not at all organized, and tends to repeat itself in random ways; the name and contact information of an Italian friend with whom I struck a short-lived language exchange is carefully lettered and inked on the back fly page.

Apparently I have been trying to work out comunque, quindi, and ormai for years, like a minor trauma in a repetitive dream.

As a language student for years, I can attest that it’s the little words, the odds and ends and bits, that most commonly elude. They are also the words that, when correctly deciphered and understood, are most useful.

Magari.
Meistens.
Ojala.
No niin …

Let’s move on to ways one can be full in Italian:
Pieno – full in a general way, when the number of things may or may not be countable, or you can’t be bothered to count them, as they are too numerous
Completo – full when there is a finite number of countable spaces

Or closely related and equally interchangeable, ways to complete or compute:
Compiuto – completed, as in, Ho compiuto 43 anni quest’anno.
Calcolato – computed or calculated.. or arranged, as in a plan, tutto calcolato.

We have an ongoing conversation, Jason and I, about Italian language. I’ve always been a language student who delighted in language and in learning language. From the time I began sitting in Spanish class at 6:30 am 3 days a week in Edmond with my younger brother Cory in 1983, through a master’s in Spanish in 2008 and the present day, it’s been my catnip. Impossible to here recount in detail, but as far as the languages I have taken, and for how long, here is a list:

  1. *Spanish – 4 high school, 4 college, 3 graduate years, plus exchange in Spain
  2. *French – 3 semesters plus a year in uni in France
  3. *German – a year in France
  4. *Latin – 3 semesters in uni
  5. *Norwegian – a year in Seattle
  6. *Finnish – a fall in Seattle
  7. *Arabic – a spring in Seattle
  8. *Greek – a mere dip
  9. Icelandic – dilettante but supported curiosity – thanks, Bjork
  10. Danish – ibid.
  11. Swedish – ibid.
  12. Hungarian – ibid.
  13. Hebrew – ibid.
  14. Portuguese – joyful travels
  15. Gallego -well, that year in Santiago
Languages where at one time or another I have actually received formal classroom instruction are starred. As an immigration professional for years, my language bug greased the wheels of many a client or advisee conversation as I tried to show respect with a “hello” and “thanks” in any number of languages, such as Hindi, Tamil, or Romanian. Or more.
I started coming to Italy in 1995. That first time, I hadn’t even lived in France yet, and it was like being on Mars with shades of Latin, Spanish Empire, Galicia, Mexico, Carlos Quinto. I returned to Italy from Strasbourg for les vacances d’hiver in February 1996 and everything suddenly made more sense. A bit. I remember especially a day in Verona with two Roman laborers, and much shoestring Italian over lunch and dinner. It worked. I could do it. But my expectations were low, and, Roman laborers, well. … an easy audience.
I did not return to Italy between 1996 and 2004. I’ve been coming every year, more or less, since then, for short and long trips, mostly in summer, as well as the year in Arezzo.
I have never taken Italian.
How did this happen? and why?
Italian is like a person I see all the time and take for granted. Like, I see him at the busstop all the time, but we don’t really talk. I keep hoping we strike up a friendship, but it’s tough. My expectations are unrealistic. I hope for too much! I’m shy! He intimidates me! He’s cute, and dresses really well. He’s friendly enough, but doesn’t seem to want to talk to me so much. He’s got stuff to do. He has funny jokes that whizz by me. I hate not understanding the funny parts.
Ciao ragazzi. Avete un momento?… I just have a quick question …
No? ok you seem to be walking really fast …
Va bene…
And so it goes. 
Jason: just talk to Italians. Just talk to them. You’ll learn.

But this kind of learning is very, very hard for me. I haven’t done much of it. Sure, it’s fun when you’re on vacation. But if you live somewhere? And you’re tired and also maybe sick and have a fever and need to complete (what kind of completion is this, in Italian?) a complicated purchase or repair, or some sort of official transaction? What if your babysitter peppers you with instant messages that you barely understand and your phone doesn’t seem to have a simultaneous Italian dictionary for instant messaging? What if you have two kids and a job and a husband who rocks at everything and frankly you don’t have much joyful, playful energy left over for such relaxed and trusting linguistic forays…?
What to do.
Jason: you already rent space in a language school. Talk to them about it. But the kind of instruction they offer is very tourist-oriented, and, I am sure, expensive. I don’t even know what they charge, but they offer very bespoke lessons.
Plus random people roll through my office that stop by to speak with me in Spanish, French, Italian …
I suppose I had hoped I would learn Italian osmotically, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Or is it? I have no benchmarks, no vocabulary quizzes or grammar exams as I am used to.
On the other hand, three different people yesterday told me that my Italian was bravo, eccelente, etc. But I always feel like I am just faking it with a half-Spanish accent. And to people whose expectations of my communication in Italian are so low as to be easily – very easily! – impressed. Bariste on Piazza della Reppublica. Our landlord’s son-in-law from Milano. People, I suppose, who expect me to sound like a hapless American fresh out of Fiumcino, rather than a crafty and theatrically oriented language lover with a too-convincing accent …
And my two Italian crutches, named Spanish and French, can sometimes do more harm than good. I rely on them a lot. I did. I cast them aside more and more lately as I trade in Italian on face value. Who cares what the Spanish or French say? But the minute I disregard these old, old friends, I am often caught out, and can’t remember anything. Then I find out that the word is very close or identical to either one. Especially Spanish. Vincolo. Vincolato. Scopa. And that’s just from this week.
Spanish and French – come on. Are you in this with me, or not? Can you be helpful without being so bossy with my anterior cingulate cortex?
I feel almost teary when I get to break out the Spanish or French. The words feel so familiar. Old friends! Hello, hola, salut! You make sense to me, and I know I make sense when I say you! Ne partez pas! Quedad conmigo!
Am I too old or tied up to even be trying to learn a new language? It was so, so easy, and fun, when I was 20. I see Victor and Eleanor joyfully sponging it up and I am very happy for them and for us, but also humbled to realize, as Victor might put it, that I am the #4 most Italian speaking person in this family. 

Language lovers, learning friends, please weigh in here. I am serious. I know you’re out there, reading this. What do you think? Cosa pensate?
Grazie, gracias, merci, kiitos, a dozen further variations of gratitude.

Firenze: Freddo e Riscaldamento

Europe is in a cold snap. It’s severe to the east, but you know a snap is a real snap when it’s 20F in Tuscany.

Piazza San Marco, brrr.

The wind blows down the narrow canyons of the city center. My teeth rattle so hard when I am riding my bike that I can’t tell if it’s more from the uneven flagstones or the cold.

A woolen and cashmere peacoat provides insufficient protection, so mine has been retired until it warms up a bit again. I am straight-up piumino, or down coat (Ital., piume, feather, piumino, little feather, or down). My favorite. The one I bought in Arezzo four years ago, is brown and features a zipper and snaps and a positively Sapmi fur-trimmed hood with a drawstring. Harness the reindeer, I’ll be right down! No one recognizes me on the street in the piumino, and the two times someone did, I was surprised, because I look more hedgehog than human in it. Now I’m really mixing similes – I don’t even think Finland has any hedgehogs.

All bundled up. Following: various piumini solutions.

Slovenian park bench piumini.

Family piumini on vacation, plus Slovenian princess with no piumino.
Piumino incognito
San Marco piumini, waiting for the C1.
 Everyone has a piumino, and everyone wears the piumino. It is a grand Italian solution. NO wind at all can be felt through its padded, stitched layers.

We should have taken the clue from the hot water bottle someone left behind in our apartment that the winter months here might feel historic. Our heat works, but the building is old, and insulation is not its strong point. Many of the very warm heat registers are conveniently located under large windows. Those casements are both historically evocative and drafty.

I’d also brought my Scando hot water bottle back from the US (again, an Italian purchase from a design store in San Lorenzo four years ago, now shuttered), so I deployed those this week. The kids are fascinated.

Victor: What’s that?
Mom: A hot water bottle.
V: Why?
Me: To keep you warm.
V: How??
M: I put hot water in it. It stays warm most of the night. We tuck it into your bed. (I should mention here that his BMI must hover around 5 at present due to back-to-back November illness: five days of fever, then a tummy rampage.) They did this during horsey times.
V: They didn’t have heat in horsey times?
M: Well, they did, but it was not awesome.
V: Did they have pillows and blankets?
M: Yes.
Jason: Their pillows were made of rocks.
M: Do you want the hot water bottle?
V: I don’t know.

Sheep look much better with their skins on.

Taking an executive decision following his unhelpful user input, I made the hot water bottle and put it in his little bed, dressing it in a 3T t-shirt. We also have a few fake sheepskins purchased at IKEA, which are, undoubtedly, better than having a skinned sheep in the house. I mean – knit a blanket. Don’t peel the sheep and dry it out; it’s not 600 CE. The fake sheepskins each go under a small chi
ld at night. They are a total nighttime hit.

Victor loves the hot water bottle. Between fake sheepskin and hot water bottle, he is getting cozy sleep in his single bed. He woke up yesterday morning, and holding the hot water bottle up. said, “This is a problem. It is cold.” I told him the bottle cannot stay warm indefinitely. “Why?” Because it is the nature of hot water to lose heat. He is not impressed with physics.

Eleanor shares the Scando hot water bottle with me, as it is clothed in its own cover of brown fleece, with a baby reindeer on it. I have thought before that it might be a baby giraffe, but now I am almost positive it is a reindeer. Maybe a baby reindeer. What do you think? Zoom in.

My favorite wintertime accessory in Tuscany.

Eleanor on Tuesday night saw me filling the hot water bottles from our old kettle on the gas hob, and said, “Mommy! Coffee pillow!” She continues to call it that, which I love. Don’t stop.

Maybe there’s a market for that. A hot water bottle filled with coffee for mamas with creative streaks and packed days…

A final note. I just had to include these. Life imitates art.

Eleanor with a dolly in nido,
checking baby Billy Idol for lice
Victor on Slovenian trampoline looking suspiciously similar…

Italian-Induced Neuroplasticity

Italian research has shown that mental acuity in increasing years is best preserved and improved by struggling, experiencing moderate amounts of stress, grappling with the emotions that come with a healthy social network, and learning new skills from the ground up. Do you like to paint? Try writing. Cooking? Head to the garden. And on. Don’t stay to your well-trod path. Find a new one, or be grateful if life leads to one.

The study found that a simply pursuit of Sudoko or crosswords is insufficient as they fail to fully stimulate the “giro cingolato” or the “corteccia insulare.” The emotional aspect Italian researchers emphasize that getting out regularly for consistent exercise is still a critical part of the equation. It is best if this exercise might be combined with the aspects listed above. Perhaps the best prescription is a daily passegiatta, where you might get in your 10,000 steps while struggling to maintain a budget as you pass shops, or finding a shoe bargain, or bumping into some Salvatore or Federica with whom you have a well-managed but infrequently strained friendship.

At this rate I am going to live to be 100. Especially with a long-term Italian soggiorno, as we hope this will be. I am reminded of our friend Alice, who often invoked the importance of neuroplasticity, and I am happy that we have this situation where my neuroplasticity is growing on a daily basis. Language, culture, city, cuisine, career, working remotely, growing a personal network, feeling at home while encountering new situations and people daily. Or answering the door buzzer as I did just now. I am pretty sure she is from an agency of some sort … condominiums.

Today marks the recommencement of our regular schedule: Kids in school at i Scolopi by 9:30 am, Jason to work, me to home to work before getting lunch and heading into town on my bici to put in my east coast afternoon from Firenze. The holidays in Italy are so. Long. Advent to Natale to the holiday week to capodanno to Befana. Yeah, like a month and a half later I am ready for some normal time in the familial liturgical calendar. Victor was aggrieved that we did not get to take the 19 even though we got out to the busstop in time – Jason and I surmised that it came early. However, we were able to compensate for this tragedy by ensuring that we caught the C1 from San Marco, which always makes everyone very happy.

Eleanor accompanied me to St. James Episcopal yesterday for mass. I could not be more pleased with my tiny, savvy, open traveler who loves to sing. Much like her mama, she becomes quickly cranky when cooped up. A janut into town of about 3 hours for a noble purpose is balm to the soul for both of us.

 D bus.
 St. James sanctuary
  Transferring from the 6B to the D, hopping into S.M.N. to see what was happening, and to confirm that there, even on a Sunday, there are “so much people.”

La Befana

“Befana” sounds like a very small child trying to pronounce the word Epiphany in Italian, and indeed the holiday, commemorating the 12th day of Christmas, is celebrated throughout the Mediterranean. 

Apparently, this old crone has broken shoes and brings the children toys on January 6th. She might be an estranged sister of Babbo Natale. At any rate, she is very old, very crazy looking, a little unpredictable, and requires cookies and milk that are very soft.

The last time we were in Europe for Epiphany we spent it in Seville, and watched the three wise men in somewhat alarming blackface make-up walk through town, giving small bags of chocolates to children including Victor.

This year with Jason in Rome with a gigantic group of newly-arrived university students, I was on my own. Fortunately, we had a stash of Christmas gifts that did not make it to Slovenia for Christmas Day. Those were quickly assigned to the final gift giving holiday of the holiday season in Italy.

I also stopped at a fancy chocolate shop last night after work in the center of town to pick up stockings for the kids, filled with chocolate. Jason had purchased small bags of fake candy coal for the kids earlier this week. Victor and I had many discussions about why does everybody get a little bit of coal? The answer? Because everybody is a little bit bad sometimes, and the coal reminds us of that. Nobody is perfect. I think this is a good message.

At Venchi I purchased the children stockings and gluttonously perused the adult boxes myself, pictured below. It is common to light candles to help the befana see which house is she should stop at, and I took a picture of some candles on the sidewalk last night.

We set out milk and cookies for our befana, and let two candles and put them on the landing by our front door. Victor was very nervous and went to sleep at 9:30 to hasten her arrival. Eleanor had had her second nap for the day and so did not give it up until 2 hours later. 

The children slept fitfully until light, and then ran out to see the presents that the befana left. Shouts of joy arose as they saw the huge haul. But joy turned to some disappointment for Victor as he realized that the gifts that were provided to him by certain agents of the befana were for a child far younger than he. This was further compounded by the fact that we seemed unable to assemble Eleanor’s new tricycle, and although Victor’s large toy was for a much younger child, it was in fact very hard to put together because it lacked an instruction booklet as we have learned to expect from our many Lego projects. 

Victor retired to the living room to cry under a chair, while Eleanor absentmindedly ate all of her candy coal. However, when I asked Victor if he would prefer that I call the befana and tell her to please not come next year because her gifts were not good, he vehementlyshook his head no.

Buona Befana!

Happy New Year from Firenze

2017 could be heard approaching by its numerous small pops, whistles, and explosions. “That’s the sound of Baby New Year being born,” Victor said. Quite right love. He and Eleanor were both asleep before 11, so Jason and I watched the Italian Top 9 under 90 New Year’s Eve concert on Italian television while enjoying a mini bottle of spumante and some luxury sweet snacks that he received from a colleague: chocolate covered candy orange peel, and some mad good truffles with more canditi inside.

2016 – a year of high velocity, sea changes, massive adjustments. Everyone in the family on board the language and culture train, everyone finding new routines and skills and frustrations to resolve or come to peace with. The fire monkey year gives way to the fire rooster on January 28, so we have four more weeks of the divine trickster, who is not always so funny!

I took the Facebook app of my phone again. It’s gone for good. I really hate the spying nature of Facebook on the phone, the incessant and nosy newsfeed suggestions, the sudden appearance of friends in the newsfeed if I have even mentioned their name in voice in conversation. I was unhooked from the evil beast after the November 8 elections, I only put it back on the phone for our Slovenia trip, but ugh. I’m done. Analog life in 2017, here I come. I am happier this way.