Italy: Language and culture thresholds

Words and phrases I am now able to more or less effortlessly drop into sentences and conversations:

  1. Accidente!
  2. Ma dai!
  3. Figurati!
  4. Ma scherz’!
  5. Che scherz’
  6. Ma come mai!
  7. Magari!
Words I still struggle to correctly integrate and employ:
  1. Comunque
  2. Quindi
  3. Cioe
I’ve completed my initial five-week Italian course, which has run the gamut of topic and conversation, and where I have learned such critical information as:
  1. The Italian for the following: catafalque, fraud, blackmail. threat, graft, racketeering, caporalato, various types of rain and thunderstorms, how to roast a pigeon, Pellegrino Altusi, the problems with windows in historic palazzi, the state of Italian public education, Italian pensions, lordo versus netto, leftover food, the various forms of what we know as “mafia” in America, Principe di Casale, and much, much more.
  2. Speakers of English and Spanish are far too affectionate toward gerundive constructions.
  3. Discussions and further illumination of readings from the liturgical year.
Incan Carnevale
Perhaps my favorite moment to date in class: when the two Argentines pointed out that the first-ever Italian Carnevale (Foiano di Chiana, ca. 1539) occurred well after the arrival to the New World by Europeans, and that indigenous peoples in what is now Peru celebrated an analogous holiday around the same time as Carnevale, so therefore, Europeans must have returned and seeded the idea in Europe based on Incan (Quechua? they didn’t specify) celebrations. Franco pushed back. They were adamant that this was not only possible, but probable. I thought Franco’s head was going to explode.
Viterbo Carnevale

Last, but not least, and for those of you who read the “cenci” post, I learned yesterday that the pastries are cut from dough into rectangular raglike shapes, recalling the wool or cotton rags used to dust or mop, then thrown into the hot oil, then dredged out and thrown together like a heap of rags and dusted (DUSTED) with sugar. A rag, in Italian, is a cencio. I was ordering a rag with my espresso. But the team at Paszkowski did not correct me. Rag, rag, rag. Gimme one of them yummy rags for 80 centesimi, I’ll nibble it with my macchiato, please. 

Topics to come: La Grotta Giusti, Carnevale.

Firenze: BRT/Be Right There [Express]!

Come with me to the corner of my mind where schemas are stored and activated. Thus the path of the lifelong language learner, an early reader, a dogged on-the-job trainer.

My mind just creatively fills in blanks like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. My friends who have heard me blithely sing completely wrong lyrics will know this side of me.

This is also how I remember reading a lot, at 6 and 7. Just read stuff, not understand, make up some placeholder fact/definition/pronunciation, and continue to turn pages.

I told Jason this story weeks ago, and he gave me a good-humored snort. “You have to blog about this, you realize.”

So here we go.

There are these trucks in Firenze. All of Italy, now, as I realize. They are red, and ubiquitous.

BRT Corriere Espresso.

BRT: Be Right There! Of course I read it for an English acronym. Who knows why.

DHL is Deutsche Poste Handlung, why not an anglophone acronym in Italy too. It’s a relatively slow country by comparison, and Anglophones are known for their speed and efficiency.

Be right there! Little truck will be right there with your stuff.

But wait! A tagline offers a further clue as to what the Be Right There people might be expediting.

Corriere espresso. Running your espresso right over. This must be the truck that supplies the hundreds of caffe bars with fresh roasted beans, right? Of course! The espresso run!

Just dropping off beans everywhere! Be right there, speedy with coffee beans.

Keeping Firenze caffeinated.

This was a little story going on in my head for months until I realized this is Italian UPS, “fast delivery.”

Not Be Right There.

Not the espresso bean express.

Just packages.

Just dropping off packages, signora. Niente di piu ne di meno.

I think BRT stands for “Bartolini.” Maybe? of course I can’t now easily confirm it anywhere in the interwebs.

Firenze: When I Met You/Quando ti ho conosciuta*

Reader, step with me back in time 21 years, to this week in Firenze, 1996.

Wait. Let us first visit Venice.

I’d just come off a weekend in Venezia for Carnevale, with friends I’d made in the preceding months in Strasbourg.


I do not recall if I had made plans to actually take the train there with the students of Holy Cross, or if I had bumped into them on said train. I am inclined to think the latter because that is how my life tends to work.

We spent two days and one very white night in Venice with a throng of Carnevale-mad tourists, and many fairly drunk American students. My cohort was virtuous, and give also the fact that we’d failed to reserve, or afford, a hotel on the Saturday night before Carnevale, had abstemiously approached our evening plans.

I gaped at the professionally costumed actors, silently bowing and posing for pictures, gliding through the puddles of the piazza like Renaissance phantoms.

We had slogged across Piazza San Marco many times, through puddles and over boardwalks, craning our necks to hear what we could of a Peter Gabriel concert. We got to know many small campi and their benches.

We headed back to Venezia Santa Lucia around dawn, where I famously almost got in a cat fight with a well-soaked American woman about my age, still well in her cups, wearing a wet summer dress, and, incredibly, sandals, and, even more incredibly, holding a half-empty bottle of what must have been Jack. I’ve never had a perfect public filter (always working on my Bulgarian meeting face), but at that moment the thought that I believed to have whispered to myself had evidently echoed across the wet marble floors of the station.

“Drink much,” I said.

She wheeled and looked at me, snapping “What? what did you say? say it again!” I did not. I think my group ushered me elsewhere.

It must have been les vancances d’hiver in France. I seemed to have had between a week and two off school.

From Venice, I went to Bologna to see assorted other friends, all studying there, some new, some old. In Bologna I delighted in the menu and affordable fare, tucking into fresh pizza and developing a taste for olio al peperoncino, which I have to say I do not often see elsewhere in Italy. I spent some time in The Body Shop (oh, the nineties), testing every product. I went to a bookstore an felt very worldly indeed to be purchasing current Spanish language literature in Italy (Isabel Allende). I got some phenomenal writing done that week in Bologna. All creative pistons were firing.

I felt like the city had somehow sprung to life just for me, intersecting with my recently completed degree in Letters and Spanish, Carlos V’s crowning as Holy Roman Emperor marked on the floor of the Basilica San Petronio with a marble slab, a perfect anniversary for the contemporary date: February 24

Young Carlos V.

Dopo aver ricevuto la corona ferrea , il 22 febbraio, nella cappella del Palazzo Pubblico, due giorni dopo, in occasione del suo compleanno, fu incoronato Imperatore da Papa Clemente VII in San Petronio.”

Basilica San Petronio

Cassini’s Meridian – look it up

Unfortunately, my heels were cooled in Bologna longer than I’d planned, but my ten days in the city of brick and stone and endless arcades endeared me so to it, that to this day I harbor an abiding affection for it.

From Bologna I continued to Firenze. This was to be my first real stay in the city, as I had seen it first at the end of September in 1995 for a few moments on the platform. It was hot. Bodies were packed. The long dowels of tour guides festooned with ribbons poked the air above. So appalled was I by the madding crowd in Santa Maria Novella that my companion Jessica and I promptly agreed, steps from the carriage, to turn around and reboard for Padova.

And so it was five months later that I pulled into Firenze again, this time after a short train ride from Bologna, and some memorable people watching that I still recall.

This time, it was low season. The sky was blue, the air crisp. I was able to traverse the binario without difficulty. I walked to the Oltrarno and checked into the Istituto Gould on Via Maggi, which lived up to all its recommendations: welcoming, clean, safe, affordable.

The following five days were mine, all mine, on my own in Firenze. I got to know the city on her own terms then. After barely tolerating months of Alsatian reserve in Strasbourg, the sunny charm of Italy was a positive relief. I walked around on crisp mornings, finding cafes and gelato. I tarried a day in the Uffizi. I don’t really remember much else specific, except crossing the bridge again and again. And the sun. And the nice people.

It’s amazing to think that that was all a lifetime ago. I’m thankful for the persistently glowing first impression of Firenze, and even more grateful that even then I had the presence of mind to choose its timing.

*Grammar in title edited following anniversary conversation: “Is Florence the proper noun feminine in gender?” Answer: Probably. “So then the past participle needs to reflect the feminine – even though the direct object pronoun ‘ti’ carries no marker on gender.” Answer: Correct. “I will fix this now.”

Firenze: Hidden Nooks/Angoli nascosti

Florence. Remember when, a few months ago, I called her a cruel mistress?

I was reading a piece recently about the personality traits of Italian women, as typecast from certain Italian cities. The Florentine woman was said to be intellectual, direct, and insightful. Brooking no nonsense, and frankly too busy for the likes of you.

We’re all amazing. And no we’re not making eye contact,

I think it’s close.

Six months in, my thoughts go something like this: I get it. I get you, Florence. For now. A tiny bit. You’re like the seventh grade before the world had even invented junior high, but with better food, wine, and literature, obviously. You’re wealthy and comfortable. It’s a tight little club. The haves, the have nots. I’m a have-not here. I get it. Thanks. You’ve helped me see that!

Oh, did you just move here?

You let me walk through your streets; you share you nooks and corners with me. People who view me as a client, someone who regularly patronizes  are kind; after all, I must be some kind of bread and butter. I revel in the easy-access beauty, my daily crossings of the Piazza del Duomo and Repubblica and Signoria and Azeglio. It’s frankly a bit ridiculous. How easy the aesthetics can be had.

The Italian Navy disembarks on Piazza San Marco on a rainy Friday morning. Aren’t they dapper!

Coffee quaffed. Aperitivi sipped. Pictures snapped. Clearly, that is why everyone is here. The secret is out.

Flower market, Piazza della Repubblica arcades.

I’m a flaneuse aesthete. I have a short list of things I have not yet done here:

  1. l’Accademia
  2. Palazzo Vecchio
  3. Top of Rinascente
  4. Top of Santissima Annunziata
  5. Been to mass in any of these churches
  6. Sneaked into various fine gardens
  7. That Pazzi thing on Borgo Pinti
  8. Toured my own building, although I know well its staff staircase
  9. Etc.
It’s easy enough to build things in. 
For example, today my classmate Susanna and I had planned to stop in at a paninoteca we had spied, on the way back from the mercato centrale the other day. Our group quickly snowballed as our friend Susan joined us, then Jason late morning, and finally Allison,the Seattle expat, after noon. We walked to the paninoteca but our group of five quickly conceded that it was too small and humble for a group that had until 2pm for lunch. 
Nuvoli in warm months. Check out Mr. Blue Suit Brown Shoes!
Back to Nuvoli, as it was advantageous to have two persons in the group with professional tour guide experience, leading in front and bringing up the rear. We were quickly ushered into the 9th century basement dining room. It was early; we were the second table. The walls were stacked with wine and various ornaments of historic note. 
The food was honest and well-priced; we had wine with lunch; the waiter was incomprehensible and had a man bun. “Good thing he’s not teaching Italian,” Jason muttered. I had baccala with polentine; Jason and Allison the pappardelle; Susanna devoured the melanzane. The pappardelle was cold; a complaint was lodged; the other slightly more comprehensible waiter was mortified. They came back steaming. Company was great, lunch had suddenly become memorable. 
These sorts of experiences are ones that might be far more difficult to have elsewhere. 
For example, I recall a field trip to Guthrie in 2004, in a Passat, with a Spaniard, a Peruvian, and a Korean, to see a rodeo at the Lazy E, and some mighty forgettable sloppy Joes….
Next up: 
Carnevale memories, 1996. (For you heathens, it is this year on the 28th.)
My first trip ever to Florence, that same sojourn.
Not an actual picture but I hope this happens next Tuesday.

Firenze: Late Winter/Tardo Inverno

Just a few observations from my daily foot commute, as I wiggle back home from La Pira to Azeglio.

How to Spot the Italian:

  1. Large, large scarf wrapped about neck. Like, an afghan-level scarf. Seriously, I have sofa throws smaller than those things.
  2. Handsfree wire cleverly woven around and through said afghan so that Italian can mutter into scarf unabated while walking on sidewalk.
  3.  Shiny fitted pants.
  4. Bedazzled boots.
  5. Nice sunglasses. Minimum 200 euros.
  6. Carrying a motorino helmet.
  7. Screaming into cellphone in full argument on street.
  8. Really nice blowout.
    Occhiali di sole + piega!
  9. Serious purse.
  10. Shoes always look brand new.

Firenze: La Quaresima S’avvicina/Lent Approaches

The days lengthen, the sky turns blue. Sunlight warms the stone. Streets smell wet again rather than simply cold.

Carnevale is February 28, late this year. The kids at school are getting ready for it. I learned today that the various characters of Le Bal en Masque are all traditionally from different cities and regions of Italy.

Rest assured Victor will not wear a costume, beyond a moustache on a stick, but Eleanor has been parading around in Peppa Pig at home for the last week and a half.

Cenci are out in force in every caffe and supermarket – what’s not to love about salty-sweet fried dough strips, generously dusted in powdered sugar? Sold by the etto (100g), they are everywhere. Often they are thrown into the oil and pulled out just as quickly, resulting in a jumble of crumpled rectangles, but at La Loggia dei Albizi they are lovingly folded into 8-inch canoes, symmetrically lined up in the glass case. I’m a fan of that kind of attention to detail.

At Caffe Paskowski, the rectangle jumble prevails, and they are often confused when I ask for just one with my macchiato. “But they are sold by the etto!”
“I know,” I responded. “I just want one … cencio.
So routinely are they discussed in bulk that the singular form of the noun sounds amusing spoken aloud.
“Please give me one … cencio.
The stylish middle-aged Italian at the cassa looked slightly impatient.
“I promise, I did this yesterday, and I paid 80 centesimi for one … cencio.”
“Really? You paid 80 centisimi for one cencio?”
“Si,” I said. “Qua.” 
She took my money and gave me a scontrino: one cencio, 80 centesimi. And the macchiato.
At the pastry counter… here we go again. Gracious confusion.
“What can I get you?”
“One cencio please.”
“One what!?”
“Just one cencio,” I say, pointing at the platter of fresh cenci.
I wonder, maybe the singular form is cence? It probably is.
I bet I’m saying something filthy. Wouldn’t surprise me. But they’re so gracious.
The pastry associate pulls a cencio out from the jumble and places it with a waxy napkin on a saucer and gives it to me.
It is huge, fresh, and sugary.
It is delicious.
It really goes great with espresso.
I am going to have to look up the gender of the singular form though. God knows what I’ve been asking them for. Bakery nouns, as we all know, quickly convert to prurient euphemism in almost every language. Go ahead. Think about it.

Firenze: Approaching Routine

Almost six months to the day that we arrived, and nine since we departed Oklahoma, our days and evenings and weekends are approaching something like routine.

Kids are learning in school. Workaday responsibilities are being responsibly acquitted. We’re each making new friends in different circles, developing espresso and pranzo and merenda circuits, as Florence slowly begins to give up the edges of her grim (dark, wet) late fall and winter for an increasing amount of sunlight and blue sky.

Victor behind the lens at our park.

Saturday sunshine

V&E owning the matching choppers on the giostra

The daffodils are in bud.

Lemon trees remain protectively blanketed.

Language class is paying dividends for me, having completed my first month under the tutelage of the well-cultured and determined Franco, whose accent and intonation makes all Italian at least 95% comprehensible to me. This makes me think that the Florentine accent I hear in centro must be something similar to chilango Spanish in the D.F., when I would think, I thought I spoke Spanish – what are they speaking here? I thrive on Franco’s immediate and kind corrections, as well as his good-natured patter about etymologies, the nature of organized crime, Italian pension schemes, how to roast a pigeon, and what books any tourist or expat should purchase in Firenze (Pinnocchio, and Pellegrino Altusi’s Cucina Toscana.) My salutations have graduated from tesoro to tesorino with the staff at the school, and from signora to cara at Caffe Paszkowski.

I’m learning better routes on my bike (namely, flowing in the correct direction with dense and haphazard, tax-heavy traffic on cobbles and pavers), and have a better feel for how long it takes me to leg it somewhere if I want the exercise (far shorter distances than I might have estimated last summer.)

Jason bought a sleek bike that he’s been able to take out for spins on the weekend.

Choir continues to increase my joy in measures greater than I could have anticipated. The crowd at St. James is professional, gifted, and fluid – I just hope they do not kick me out or ask me for my robe back. I got nothin’ on these Italian and American and Japanese opera people. It’s a privilege to sing next to them. This morning I was in the choirstall to the left of Paolo, Italian husband of Liz the choirmistress, whose warm baritone never misses a note and whose tone give me goosebumps – and whose occasional muttering of “in somma” periodically during the homily had me in quiet stitches.

Our childcare situation is approaching optimal. Chanusha is competent and calm, and we’ll be keeping her more or less permanently; we’ve got a few cheery younger backups for weekends, and Flavia (“Fla fla”) is coming with us to Washington this summer. Honestly, I am not even homesick. Seattle is a welcome stop for friends/food/culture, but if it were anywhere else, I’d be begging to stay here instead through the summer months.

We’re planning an Easter trip in country to see our friends Manola and Juri, after Jason connected with them outside of Verona on Friday. Hopefully a couple of Dolomites and some fresh air are involved. Family trip to Ireland placed on hold due to scheduling conflicts, but we’ll make it to Galway soon enough.

Italy is seeping in to me, in all the best ways.

Firenze: Corso della Lingua

My first Italian language class at the Sprachcaffe was Thursday, January 18. I’ve been going Tuesday and Thursday at middayish. They’re short classes, for me; I am simply coming in for the second half of the class.

I decided to forego the individual lessons after I tried out the class. The composition of the students is slightly reminiscent of WWII: U.S., Russia, Germany. Italy, of course.

The instructor, Franco, a droll Tuscan in his sixties, is really, really funny. And educated. His asides range from high cuisine, to Tuscan and Italian and Florentine history, to literature, and politics. He does not hesitate to quickly correct: “No! No! Signora! LO stato lo stato lo stato!” after I said il stato about ten times in a presentation about Seattle. 

The class has typically completed an exhaustive grammar workout by the time I arrive, and so I tend to get more of the free talk lesson plan (peppered liberally with Franco’s quick and well-humored corrections). It’s nice to be older as a language student. I have so little ego in this. I am happy to speak up, to stumble and bumble, to try to explain something complicated, or to relate an anecdote for the good of the class’s grammar learning.
Camino. No, not a path, but a fireplace.
In the classroom.
I take tons of notes in class. Many, many points large and small are clarified for me. It is such a relief. I am finally getting a handle on this, and, to be fair, meeting Italian on its own terms, rather than as the stray dog or surprise caboose of my acquired language family that tend to crowd in my frontal lobe.

I did decently on a geography quick last week. My errors consisted of an inability to properly locate and name the maritime provinces of the Adriatic, and (incredibly) labeling Sardegna as Corsica. I’ve got Corsica on the brain as we are welcoming Ellen and Avalon at the end of this week, but eek. Sorry Italy, sorry Sardegna. I did properly label its capital on Sardegna as thought it had just been overlaid, one island atop the other, in an insular usurpation.

I’m going straight up high school with verbs. Avere and essere, written out by hand. If/then clause tense formulae paired in quick algebraic shorthand. I consult my hand-me-down 501 Italian Verbs, and feel both pride and remorse in my Spanish accomplishments in the 80s and early 90s. So hard did I hit those Spanish verbs then that I never needed such a tome for Spanish. “Why don’t people just learn the verbs,” I would think in my teens. Ugh. Linguistic sins of youth. I did used to often joke, when people asked me how I remembered so much, that this was the brain that memorized the irregular pantheon of the irregular Spanish preterite. And they’re still in there.

Work work work. Homework.
I’m happy to be in class, and I think they’re happy to have me there. I am happy to answer when called on, and never hide when volunteers are requested. Not like I can, really – the class is so small. I do enjoy Franco’s good-natured grump persona, as he reminds me so much of other teachers I know and from whom I have learned well – and who have taught me well. 
I’ll keep updating on this topic, but note also that the Sprachcaffe has extraordinarily accommodated me, partly because of the time and money I have spent to work there in the shared space, and partly because I am sure my enthusiasm can be sensed at a distance.
I’m just so happy to report that the classes are already paying day to day dividends in confidence, although I still have not idea what the WhatsApp thread from the mothers in Victor’s class is referring to. I should bring it to Franco for scrutiny.
Or these.

Public poetry from the Movement to Emancipate Poetry.

Firenze: The Blogger’s Struggle/La Sfida della Blogger

My intermittent posts are the victim of 1 -time, 2 – the desire to build and maintain an analog Florentine life, and 3 – struggling to assimilate all the transition and changes while organizing my observations.

Time first. Where does my time go? Here is a typical weekday. Two full-time jobs, two little kids, a morning routine that often feels as though a full day’s work has happened before I even start work. I’m exhausted and spent by the time they are dropped off at school, after two hours or more of breakfast, whining, complaining, chatting, dressing, undressing, changing diapers, arguing over toothbrushes/toothpaste/socks/shoes/coats etc. I get home, I sort out my tasks for the day. I document, I test, I get some work done. I respond to clients. Lunch then on bike to Repubblica. My work accounts are Google enterprise, so I am logged in to my work laptop with my work account and can’t draft blog posts on the fly. The Blogger app is sporadic at best, and frequently fails to upload pictures or correctly save drafts, and often gives me an error that it cannot find my location, which is less important to me. I finish work between 6 and 7, go home, our sitter is at home with our kids after having picked them both up from school, she leaves soon after we get home from our respective offices, we have dinner, then begin the evening routine of arguing over laptops/TV/Legos/showers/pajamas/etc. We wrestle the kids into bed, during which phase I often mutter to myself, I will get back up, I will get back up, but by that time the day is already 15+ hours of nonstop activity and I am exhausted. Even if I do get up, my brain is mush. I am a morning person by nature, and verbal thoughts after the evening hours are not usually my best.

Every morning the busstop feels like a major victory.

Next, my desire to create and live in an analog Florentine life. We’ve been here for almost six months now. Italian society and culture tend to be more integrated socially than life in the U.S. Midwest. You walk out, you go from here to there, you meet and know and make friends with the people whom you bump into regularly on your circuit: the tabac where you recharge your Italian handset with credit, the caffe where you snack on macchiati and paste, the pharmacy where you pop in from time to time, the grocery express… these are important interactions. Mine seem to center a lot around lunch, dinner, groceries, snacks, and apertivo. I am an enthusiastic if transparent participant in Italian and Tuscan food culture.

Pastry case at La Loggia dei Albizi

Panini at I Tre Fratellini
Susana took me here, and I had a panino that featured wild boar with butter.
So so so good.
Sorry boar.

Paszkowski’s glittering bar

Demolishing a budino di riso at Paszkowski

We am now in a place where we want to be (sorry Oklahoma), and when we were in Oklahoma, I felt like my online life was one that I cultivated to make possible the analog life that we managed to have there. We wanted more – we wanted this. I have unhooked from Facebook and am happier for it; it’s off my phones, and I no longer scroll through a random mix of news that almost never made me feel good or better. Less time online means less blogging, although a few friends receive regular updates with images, as I cannot help but imagine good company as I walk through the streets and my days, soaking it all in.

Finally, each day brings so much, and so self-schooled am I in the practice of this kind of expat life, this travel, that I note a hundred things each day, glimpses of sky and snippets of conversation, the odd statue or seal, the way a Florentine woman’s boots looked with her lace tights and that enormous fur coat last Thursday afternoon on Repubblica … you get the picture. How to edit down and select these, one by one? How to present curated vignettes in light of #1 and #2 above? How to get back on the ol’ blog horse after I have gotten 2, 3 weeks behind, during which time I will have crammed in as much as a year or two felt like it gave me previously?

I took this

Sunny Repubblica with carabinieri

Winter sky with Signoria in skyline

Further topics for treatment:
Language class
What the EU thinks of America these days