Further Linguistic Considerations: or, My Mind Has a Mind of Its Own

Today I finally got to be the parent to accompany Victor to Mondobimbo, which reasonably sounds like some sort of bordello, but in Italy it is Baby World, which is not at all insulting for boys and girls under the age of ten who want to go to a repurposed-ice-rink-meets-Denver- International-Airport with no air conditioning and lots of stored gardening supplies behind the trampolines, and various other OSHA violations liberally strewn about the place.
It was the birthday of a little girl named Giorgia who is in Victor’s class, and a fair number of his classmates showed up to toast her in the ball pit, playing air hockey, and jumping on assorted inflated furnishings.
The Spanish family from his class is leaving Florence early next month for reasons related to Fiorentina’s season finish (this is a European football [soccer] thing). The dad, coincidentally also named Victor (I LOVE THIS NAME FOR OUR KID), must now look for coaching work elsewhere as the entire coaching staff has been let go in a fit of fan-fuelled community pique.
The parents are lovely people, outgoing and lively, and I am sad to see them go. But every time I try to talk to them my brain shorts out. It happened again at Mondobimbo with each of the four of them in turn. I think I would like to see a neurologist because there is so much language in my brain at this point that my mind can’t keep it straight.
I was explaining to Victor-dad a variety of things about our schedule here, when we moved here, what we think of the school etc., and words were spilling forth from  my mouth, but in alternating sentences between Spanish and Italian, without conscious effort. Like, it is just happening on a software level.
I recognize that Here Is a Spaniard, Engage Spanish, but also the awareness level for You Are In Italy is permanently switched. My brain is not reaching for Spanish in a fumbling way. I know how to explain any of this calmly in either Spanish or Italian: basic conversational discourse.
So I am laying all this out to the catalán football coach, and our conversation is smooth and he is understanding me just fine, until a third message flashes on the marquee of my conscience which says You Idiot What Are You Doing Pick a Lane and Stay In It.
After this linguistic buffet of a conversation that bizarrely also inserted some English here and there, I am running after Victor yelling at him in Mondobimbo in Spanish, ¡Victor! Ya hemos terminado, ¡ven pa’ca porque nos vamos pronto! ¿Me oiste?
The Italian parents are looking at me curiously trying to figure out what just happened, isn’t that the American mom, why is she yelling, ¡Victor, mi amor escúchame! like a Spanish lunatic?
The short answer is: I just don’t know. I have no idea. I miss my Spanish, receding on the horizon, lost on the Italian sea.
This never happens with French here in Italy. Yet I remember when I was in France as a student in 1995 and 1996, I routinely (and inconveniently) experienced something similar with French and Spanish, happening most often and embarrassingly with prepositions as I subbed out “avec” (“with”) for “con” (“with” in Spanish, but “bastard” in French, as in “t’es gros con.”) In that year also my Spanish came as quickly in the service of expressing my thoughts, as my native English always does.

But alas, Spanish is much more erratically attending me here, when I am able to rouse it from its dreamy lazing and felt impressions tied to gut memories.

My mind has a mind of its own.
In other observations, however, this is great news for my writing. I am 43 and getting real sick of my own thoughts. How wonderful that I can have small chapters where I just can’t even control intellectually what goes on upstairs, or in the attic, or the storage unit.

Victor on trampoline, while the part of my brain that controls language is doing something similar.

Italian Language Considerations

In language class last week, Marco had us reading an article about modern art, full of specific vocabulary and scientific terms. “The glass-emulating plastic deteriorates over time, meaning the art is not only impossible to preserve, but is so by design.” My retired Austrian classmates squinted at the words.

Martin, the retired economics professor from Vienna, raised his hand. He speaks slowly but deliberately, with impressive vocabulary and hesitating conjunctions. “Spalmare?”

“Oh, yes,” said Marco. “To spread, like butter or jam, or fegatino for crostini neri.” A further digression followed about spreadable cheese as a snack and its relative merits.

“And … palmare? What does palmare mean?”

Marco’s generous eyebrow furrowed. “Palmare?”

“Yes, palmare,” continued the dogged Austrian. “The verbs that are created by adding ‘s’ to mean their negation.”

“But what would ‘to smear’ or ‘to spread’ be the logical negation of?”

Now Martin’s brow furrowed. “To not spread? To unspread?”

“Yes,” said Martin firmly.

I thought of unspreading a bunch of peanut butter off of a piece of bread and putting it back into a jar, crumbs and all.

I thought of the negation of spreading, and its related adjective, and the inherent logic of language. I spread it. I unspread it. It is spreadable; it is unspreadable. What is the nature of something unspreadable? This is unspreadable cheese.

I suppose it’s solid, or crumbly. But solid cheese cannot be spread, so – there’s no verb for the negation of the action.

I love language class.

Certaldo: Boccaccio, Sagra del Cacciatore, and More!

We’ve been on such a sagra roll, to everyone’s pleasure, that we began late last week to sort out the sagra excursion for Mother’s Day. There were a few to choose from, all short drives, and featuring, to briefly review, strawberries, woodland pests, wild bear, and mushrooms. And more fried dough balls.

We took a pass on the fried dough balls – no sense in unnecessary repetition. The strawberry sagra appealed, but was a bit of a drive toward Pisa.

We saw that the woodland pest sagra (la sagra del cacciatore – of the hunter) was being held on its final day in Certaldo, a moderate and scenic drive from Firenze.  Also, Bocaccio’s hometown. The die was cast. (For those unfamiliar with Jason’s professional specializations, when he is not talking about Dante, he is taking about Boccaccio, Dante’s contemporary). I invited our friend and Jason’s colleague Aileen, who also maintains a strong professional interest in Boccaccio, and we all agreed to pile into our used station wagon with Victor and Eleanor on Sunday morning at 11 am.

Featured woodland creatures who slip down from the hills and into Italian vegetable gardens often include hare, boar, and deer. This sagra had no deer on the menu, but the other two would be.

We met at 11 am in front of our palazzo. The drive was every bit as fresh and green as anticipated.
Victor lobbed questions from the backseat toward our panel of experts:

  1. Who is in Boccaccio’s house now? (A: Petrarch’s cat.)
  2. Does the ATAF 1B Boccaccio go all the way to Bocaccio’s house? (A: No.)
  3. Where is Boccaccio now? (A: In a marble box in a church we are going to see – what’s left of him.)

Eleanor: Panel, panel!

We arrived in Certaldo approximately 15 seconds after Eleanor fell asleep in her carseat, parking in front of a warbling carousel which Victor of course immediately wanted to ride. Rousing Eleanor from her reverie, we made our way to the funicular station to inch up the steep hill to Certaldo’s medieval urban hilltop.

The funicular was charming and alarming by turns. Victor liked the automated gates and the ticket turnstile, but everyone was startled by the Blitz-like shrieking alarm, upon liftoff and landing as the car moved up and down, up and down, on its expeditious round trip. It creaked and squeaked and featured a slatted wooden bench along the perimeter of the wall, which reminded me of a Carson McCullers train.

We ground to a creaking stop at the hilltop. The town was of a sort we’ve often seen in Italy, but which never fails to please – sunny, flagstones underfoot, Roman bricks and romanesque churches; walled up windows evidencing where buildings have been made and remade for centuries.

The back of la Chiesa di SS. Jacopo e Filippo

Where Boccaccio swigged his espresso, surely.

We walked up the main street leading to the Palazzo dela Podesta, stickered with ceramic coats of arms, and stopped in at the church of Sts. Jacopo and Filippo, where Boccaccio found his final rest. Victor lit about 5 candles and was careful to not step on the marble slab atop Boccaccio’s tomb, but commented on the carved marble pillow under his marble head. Eleanor did tread on the slab a bit, to Victor’s hissed horror. Victor begged to light more candles, after he saw that there was a rack of actual candles next to the shine to Beata Giula di Certaldo, but I was out of change. We watched a caretaker dispose of the used tealights and straighten up the iron candle rack, then showed ourselves back out into the mid-spring sun.

The sanctuary of SS. Jacopo e Filippo

Up at the Palazzo della Podesta we admired a few large paintings of lions which appeared to have been bayoneted (after our year in Arezzo, I am a bt of an expert in enduring wartime damage, but when did these ones happen? Napoleon or Kesselring?), and counted the shields on the outside wall. The medieval prison was not open, to Victor’s disappointment, as it was undergoing renovations. Eleanor ran a few cobblestone hills (the same one, numerous times) and we meandered back down the steep street to the funicular station. We saw a portly black and white cat that we claimed was Petrach’s, but he quickly disappeared into a shaded alley as we approached.

The line to board the funicular was long, due in part to not one, but two groups of tourists with guides needing to creak their way back down the hillside. I watched the first two trips from the side with the kids. When we got back in to the waiting area, Victor said he hoped that we’d have it to ourselves. Then we saw the Russian bride whom we’d seen up by the palazzo, followed by two photographers. “Oh!” Victor exclaimed. “Pretty people.” And she was, a tall, slender redhead with her hair up in a simple cream dress, with a rope of red coral at her neck.

We quickly realized, after a chat with two Italian red Cross nurses who were closing up a booth remaining from a morning festival in the borgo basso (lower town), that we would have to get back in the car to arrive at our sagra.

We pulled into a gravel lot in an industrial area surrounded by fields, and also the site of two large bouncy slides, which the kids immediately wanted to jump on. The people running the sagra were initially perplexed that we had not reserved for Sunday lunch, but it is not the way of Italians to ever refuse food to anyone for any reason if food is at hand. After a short wait we were seated in a hall with about 200 other people. We marked off our choices on a small list that would be familiar to anyone who has ever ordere sushi. And then we waited. And waited.

The wine and bread and water came out.

We waited. The kids were hungry. Eleanor’s allergies literally went haywire. Vic disappeared into iPad world.

Hungry Victor
Eleanor successfully moves straight to gelato course.

We waited. And waited.

The nonni must have been tired; the kitchen was swamped.

We waited.

Our pasta finally arrived. It was delicious, but wow. Even by Italian standards it was a long wait, because the nonno apologized and said we’d been too patient.

Jason went to the gelato bar to get the kids their gelato. We were still waiting.

Finally our french fries (standard) and mixed grill (superb) and fried artichokes (ok) came out. We ate them and quickly packed up. Everyone working at the sagra looked exhausted as it was the last Sunday of a three-week fundraiser.

No getting out of town though until the bouncy slides were conquered. Thirty minutes of that, and we were truly on our way home with the two little sweatballs, back to Firenze and the 1B Boccaccio.

Firenze: Torno a scuola/Back to class

I have been on a six-week hiatus from my Italian language classes. They’d originally asked me, at the end of my initial ten weeks, if I would mind taking a break. Of course not, I said. You have been more than accomodating to me.

And so they have been, in a language school whose model is dilettante tourists with euros, Argentine pesos, and roubles to burn (there are hardly any Americans), I am a total outlier.

An American professional with a full-time job, settling in as an expat, who does not wish to take 6 hours of intensive Italian a day, who is reluctant to be charmed by the earnest weekly cooking classes in the school’s tiny kitchen at the end of a dim corridor whence emanate various scents, who smiles tolerantly at itinerant tour guides hawking weekend trips to Chianti or Cinque Terre or Siena. Whose children enroll in Italian schools and speak fluent Italian at home, whose husband is practically Tuscan,; she who moves, if awkwardly at times, through centro and its many shades of Florentine, Tuscan, Italian, Euro culture. I have made that risotto before, I know ravioli, I have been to almost every possible side trip in Italy, and if I haven’t, I am so annoyed by hearing about it all the time that I’ll let you know when I feel like going.

[Disclosure: I have never been to Cinque Terre, or Urbino, or, properly, to Naples. Worse, within Firenze, I have never been to the Accademia, or the Palazzo Vecchio, or inside the Battistero, or up to the cupola of the Duomo. As for those last two, they seem easy enough to do, and boy, do they run the numbers on the gathering tourist throngs. These places locally are now all, from the outside, part of my daily circuit and commute; I no more think about paying money to enter them than a lifelong DCer would think about scheduling a tour of the White House.

I could write another piece about all the places I have never been to, in cities where I lived or frequented, including Paris (Louvre, Tour Eiffel), New York (Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty), Barcelona (I moped around the outside of the Sagrada Familia in 1995), Seattle (Space Needle, EMP). Bookmarking for later.]

Finally, the week before last, as I paid my monthly fee for use of office space, I asked the business office staff, what if I want to take more class?
They looked at me with surprise.
I want to take more classes, I persisted. Is Franco teaching?
Well, yes, he is, they hedged, but my dear, he began the new course two weeks ago, and in any case it is too basic for you. Would you like to try Marco’s class?
Of course, I said, when can I try?
Leonardo looked at me for a moment, then said, we owe you one more class from your last package, is that right?
I was floored. Even I only figured that out after a lengthy calculation on paper while consulting a calendar. We rarely signed in, and I had missed a few classes at the end due to schedule disruptions, sick kids, and the like. Franco felt that the sign-in sheet was a sort of affront to in-country civil liberties.
Sure, I said, You do. When can I go?
This Thursday, they said. Same time as Franco’s class. Come at the break to do the second half of the morning.

Marco is about my age, perhaps a bit older, trim, always well turned out in a suit, Elvis Costello glasses, but his defining feature is a shock of hair so black it looks blue, and which appears to be one giant cowlick even though the front must be at least two inches long, waves like seagrass when he talks in his high-animation state. Groucho eyebrows wiggle above his frames. He is full of energy and very well-humored, and spends a lot of time with a handful of change in front of the espresso vending machine in the lounge, being happily harangued by Leonardo.

I already liked him, so I was well disposed to enjoy his class.

Thursday morning, I took my seat at the break. The other students slowly filtered back in. A retired Austrian couple sat next to each other on the corner of the conference table, and a young Colombian woman named Daniela sat on the same site as the husband.

Marco asked me to introduced myself. I pattered on about my family and job for a few minutes, while Marco made notes on a whiteboard about various verbs I was throwing around. I stopped talking.

Why are you in this class, the Austrian wife said in a monotone.
Yes, your Italian is very good, the husband added.

Well, there’s always something to learn, I said. There is a lot I don’t know.

They looked at me skeptically. The Colombian maintained a very diplomatic expression.

We continued to talk and introduce ourselves. The Austrian wife was a retired schoolteacher; her balding, bespectacled husband had been a well-placed functionary in Vienna, also now retired. They did not like their apartment in Careggi. They had one grandbaby and another on the way, which they hoped would be a girl because the wife already bought all the gifts for it.

The Colombian woman was in a gap year from university and aspired to be a child psychologist. She explained her career choices, as well as the cultural differences between Italy and Colombia (few, minus a torrent of comments about the bland food here), and Italy and the UK, where she had also lived (many), and how she anticipated with pleasure her upcoming sojourn in Nice. I was delighted to hear her Spitalian – it was so easy for me to quickly grasp. We covered:

The noise level in Florence
Italians: distracted or focused?
Commuting to Firenze
Public transport in Firenze
Trying to get Wi-Fi fixed in Firenze
Italian food: bland
Colombian food: tasty
Top Indian takeout restaurants

Marco started in on the familiar Italian refrain of how hobbled and backwards Italy is, which I listened to with what I hoped was a straight face. I didn’t want to appear judgemental, but …

They just don’t get it, I always think. They love to talk about how things don’t work in Italy. Everything here seems pretty functional to me, and when it doesn’t work well, there is always commisseration, espresso, pastry, a solid sense of humor, a fresh lunch and delicious dinner, apertivi, omnipresent aesthetics in general … what can we reasonably expect to function smoothly atop more than 2000 years of infrastructure, and the unseen infrastructure of history and government and shortcuts?

Daniela said something about the hardships of being a child psychologist, and Marco jumped on it: disagio. What is a disagio?

Matrimonio, moaned the Austrian. Il matrimonio e un disagio. 

Marco looked at me. You understand here is here with his wife?
Why is he explaining this to me? It is very clear to me.

We portaged through that very awkward moment and continued on.

Midway through the class, a knock at the door announced the arrival of a new student. Wow, I thought, so they just drop them in like this.

Our new friend was another retired Austrian from Vienna, this one a former professor of Economics. When Marco asked him to introduce himself, he labored on in decent if halting Italian whose speed I attributed to his advancing years. His introduction was strictly monologue, and when Marco asked him politely if he was finished, he responded with a sincere, “No,” and kept on. We all looked at each other from across the conference room table as he meandered and fumbled for words.

He finally finished, and class was done.

There was a moment in there too at the end where the Austrian wife commented, Everything is easy for Monica. I do not know what we were discussing that prompted such a remark from her. I awkwardly replied, No, c’e molto che non e facile per me, but she looked totally dubious.

I’ll be back. There’s always something to learn.

Firenze: Update + Sagra Report/Notizie

Some quick updates.

I’m back on Instagram. You can follow me there, if you like, because I take far more pictures than I could ever possibly use in my blog posts, which, due to vagaries of hardware, Google logins, and my daily and weekly routines, prove themselves increasingly difficult to regularly post. Some of my pictures have contextual comments, but most of them speak for themselves, since I am spoiled for beauty in Firenze.

No one’s been sick at our house, and I can’t remember the last time someone has thrown up on me, which is saying something when you have a two-year-old and a five-year-old traversing the commute between home/preschool/daycare. Caveat: I had a sinus infection two or three weeks ago, which we caught immediately and blasted with steroids and a Z-pack.

We’ve been in a work-travel lull, which starts again next week as Jason heads to Rome, then Assisi, with the Gonzaga group of summer students. I’ve taken a page out of Cory and Fran’s book (my brother and his wife in SFO) and have been scheduling all manner of birthday parties, open houses, bus rides, and more. Provided, as outlined above, that no one is actively throwing up on me, this will be just fine.

The sagra is on its way tobecoming a standard fixture of our weekends. We’d been to one or two when we lived in Arezzo, four years ago. But now with two kids, they are the sociable family lifesaver. Sagre are a huge thing in Tuscany: part fundraiser, part social event, part excuse to eat a lot, part wondering if those waitstaff aren’t maybe breaking some child labor laws, even though they are volunteers?

Pre-sagra hunger, before we found Monteloro.

Seasonal irises.

They are often in picturesque locales, and if you’re lucky, REALLY picturesque locales that feature an impromptu playground is a fresh-mown pasture, and an outdoor coffee bar, and a mercantino (little market). We have most recently been to the Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar ragu and stewed meat and whatnot), in Monteloro (insanely perfect, nestled into the hills high above Firenze, and featuring all optimal add-ons).

Feasting in Monteloro

Monteloro playground action.

Burning off some more calories after a decadent lunch.

A couple of weeks later, we hit the Sagra della Ficattole (fried dough balls) in Borgo San Lorenzo, which was more rustic but none the less satisfying. We did not understand the menu, and so WAY overordered our fried dough balls. No one so much as said, that is a lot of food for a family your size with kids those ages … is a fifteen-year-old boy joining you soon? But it was all under 40 euros, and who were we to say that their fried dough balls were not super special in some mysterious Italian way?

Multiple muddy puddle trips in Borgo San Lorenzo.

After we sat down, they delivered 16 fried dough balls (accompanied by strips of pig larg, ham, and full-fat strachino cheese), and two plates of ravioli, and a plate of grilled ribs and sausage, plus a half-litre of wine…. the waitress did proactively bring us a to-go bag with a knowing smirk.

A grandpa across the aisle at another table watched us closely, then offered us a room at his hotel in Florence. A young couple at our table regarded us sympathetically.

Jason and I took multiple turns running around outside with Eleanor, who found puppy after puppy to coo over. It was a cloudy day and the playground and its surrounding grass was too wet to play in.

Eleanor fell asleep again on the roading winding back down the hills through Vaglia, which Jason knows well from his cycling.

Sagra publicity

Work is going well – I’ll be on the ground in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks for work – the NAFSA conference, to be exact, that international education extravaganza.

The Sprachcaffe staff continue to treat me like family. More about that in my next post as I am off the language class hiatus and back in a course again, with a new teacher.

Firenze: Quando l’Italia mi sembra più spagnola/When Italy Seems More Like Spain

Florence in spring – a spring that has tended to be wet, and chilly, but bursting forth with cool green spaces. Weeks like this, I feel like I am in plena Galicia, that equally damp northwest corner of Spain which sealed forever my loyalty to the northwest corners of countries (under certain circumstances, northeastern corners also accepted).
I wonder at this subconscious cultural affinity. On the one hand, it definitely puts me at ease and makes me feel more at home and relaxed, which can only be a good thing for an expat. Yet, on the other hand, in a way it also prevents me from fully perceiving my environment as uniquely and particularly Italian. I am sure that 99.99% of people in Firenze today are not walking around saying to themselves, this feels so gallego. Am I perceiving Italy, or simply straining my Italian perceptions through my subjective, autobiographical Spanish filter? There is a depth and poetry to this, and yet I feel like Italy is always a bit at arm’s length to me, for this reason – una braccia spagnola. 
Oh, you know, just our 600 year old garden. A bit neglected, actually.

Gardens are green, gravel damp. Terra cotta statues are brushed darker by the rain. The air is sweet.

Even inside the buildings, like the kids’ school, I am whisked back to Spain. The androne (foyer) is dimly lit, and the marble terrazza, though elegant, could use a good scrubbing. Sectional sofas in leather and metal from the 80s are set about in nominally thoughtful ways. The way the front desk person sits there, looking both bored and busy at the same time.
Eleanor and I woke up late and made the mad dash to daycare in less than half an hour, from bouncing out of bed to walking into the classroom. These are the days that I know she is my daughter through and through … quick as a wink that one. (Reminds me of a time that my younger brother Cory told a mutual friend, “Our middle name is fast. I’m Cory Fast Sharp and that’s Monica Fast Sharp.”)
I stopped in to Caffe Cavour to fortify myself with a macchiatone and a cornetto alla marmellata, then walked home along Via Venezia, which runs along the back of the University of Florence College of Architecture.
I always love their garden, but on this morning, it was especially beautiful, and beckoning.

Odd little statues of peasant women.

Firenze: La Madonna di Giglio

Today is May Day, the day of workers and rights. I was working, but took a lunch break with our friend Vicky, late of Washington D.C., now in Firenze since 2015 and here another 2 more. Her daughter is close to Eleanor’s age; we’ve traded birthday parties and tips here and there, and today, a load of books from Celeste’s case!
Today we contrived to find ramen, or some form of it, for lunch. But because I was totally off my normal circuit and routine, I was a bit confused. We wound up making a huge circle from our house, to the Duomo, to the Arno, to Santa Croce, and boy, did I get a lot of steps in. I have  an app on my phone – it’s not cool, but boy, is it effective. Step step step.
On the early leg of the holiday circuit, we were on Borgo Pinti, passing by la Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. It’s not the famous Pazzi chapel of Santa Croce, but it is often enough written up in Hidden Florence or the subject of arty fundraisers or unveilings. I am often speeding past it on my bike of a mid-morning, muttering to myself as I head to Repubblica to take up my rented workspace for the day.
On this cloudy early afternoon, the huge gates were open to reveal an expanse of lawn so green it seemed CGI, with a smattering of lazy tourists seated under the cloister arches, and a group of mostly women all waiving madly puffing censers. 
At first glance we thought it was perhaps an Asian tour group come to use the church for a wedding, but after a few minutes realized that this celebration was wholly indigenous. A priest’s voice could be heard droning in the sanctuary behind the open doors. The incense grew ever stronger and thicker in the enclosed courtyard as the women waived their metal censers, quietly joking and laughing.
Finally, a large litter with a statue of the Madonna began to squeeze its way out of the front doors. It was huge, white and gold. We saw it would soon be slowly inching toward the street and so scurried in that direction ourselves. Vicky found a flyer on an old-school bacheca (bulletin board) that indicated this was the Madonna di Giglio. Perhaps a patron image for Firenze?