Bad Kleinkirchheim: Capodanno in Austria, Quarta Parte / New Year’s Eve in Austria, Part 4

The final day of 2017. We’re in Austria for the festivities. But before I cover this new locale, I would like to reprise a few observations from Santa Fosca, high in the Dolomites, since I last left my readers at the night of our arrival amid the snowstorm.

We learned on Friday evening at dinner that the snowstorm had in fact trapped any number of drivers in their vehicles who spent the night wedged in various snowdrifts or stopped at unsafe angles alongside the road, awaiting daylight and the arrival of a snowplow with five-foot chained tires, so we felt triply thankful to have safely arrived.

Our hotel, Garni la Stua, was small and family-run, and clean as a whistle. It was 2,500 steps from the ski school and sled run. (Never got the kids into ski school here, but they are finishing up their first lesson ever down on the hill with Steffi as we speak.)

On the upper Veneto:

I am always struck by how hygienic all spaces are in northern Italy. Like, insanely so. After prolonged periods in Firenze, where the valley captures all the air pollution and exhaust from buses, trains, cars, motorini and motocicli, and the front doors open directly onto narrow and busy streets, thus depositing much grime and dust on every available surface, the sparkling surfaces of the upper Veneto impress.

These people know how to build and heat a house. The comforters are down. The pillows are down. The sheets are pristine. And the heat. The heat works, and the space is insulated. After our shivering winters in Arezzo and Firenze, I just cannot get over this.

The accent shift is significant. Or is it a dialect? Not quite sure, but I really had no idea what they were saying to me in the gastronomia on Wednesday night. To be fair, I am pretty sure she was covering the local specialities available on the menu. On the sled hill, overhearing a mamma bellunese on her phone, and the vowel slide to “Va bon” from “va bene.” (Is this really a thing?)

Refugio becomes baita, all cheese is fried, as is the polenta, meat is everywhere on the menu, and butter seems to be the sauce base of choice. The thick white cheese is everywhere. The place names all sound like they came from a science fiction novel. The Italian, aside from melting into dialect, is slower and sounds more like German, thus being easier for me to follow.

The locals are completely without guile, compared to the Florentines. They are genuinely nice and not at all jaded. I initially attributed this to tourism, but then realized that such has been the case with Firenze for centuries.

Every bar maintains a collection of clear glass decanters which I quickly realized were grappa flavored with local flora like raspberries, blueberries, and hazelnuts. We asked for one at the hotel bar one evening, and were served generous tazze of the elixir, the faded blueberries and raspberries drifting on the bottom. We both slept well that night!

The valley was breathtaking as the heavy storm of Wednesday gave way to blue skies on Thursday, and glittering snow fields on Friday. We had he best room in the hotel – large and warm, snug under the topmost eaves, with a view down into the valley with its small parish church that caught my eye and of which I must have taken twenty pictures. Friday evening we met up with our friend Tommaso and his family in the small hamlet of Belvedere, at a bar and grill positioned precariously off the side of a Dolomite. Eleanor was delighted they brought their mild Jack Russell, Yuki, and Victor quickly joined the kids’ table to eat pasta and play Uno. We shared plates of primi and secondi, then bade our farewells and drove back to our hotel one last time on the now well-plowed and sanded strada provinciale.

After we returned our rented sleds on Saturday morning, we packed the car and the kids, taking care to check off all items so as to not leave behind further valuables as we had done on Wednesday leaving Firenze. The day was sunny and bright. Our plan was to drive up and over the Giau Pass, down into Cortina d’Ampezzo, through Dobbiaco and to our Bad Kleinkirchheim. Our Italian friends on Friday evening all roundly approved of our choice, as this part of Austria is a popular destination for Italian holidaymakers. There are thermal baths, and outdoor sport year-round depending on the season.

At the turnoff for the south side of the Giau Pass, the sign indicated that 29 hairpins awaited us in just over eight kilometers. I feared the worst. But the kids were in great moods, and Victor joyfully called out the numbers that marked each switchback. We pulled over at least twice to make way for lumbering urban buses that seemed out of place in the plowed and sanded single lane on the face of the mountain. We passed two ski resorts full of people. At the top of the pass, a half dozen people were skiing with parasails, letting the wind pull them up the mountain after each run.

We crossed the pass, and began our descent through more switchbacks, and in shade, as we were now on the north side of the pass. The nausea demon began to clutch at my temples again and I started to turn my fifty shades of green. Victor and Eleanor began to bicker and ask for more help, so I crawled into the back seat, which proved my final and most fatal error in the battle against motion sickness. Wedged between two small children, in about eight lateral inches of seat space, in the back of a car speeding around switchbacks at high elevation …

By the time we arrived in Cortina I could no longer speak. Jason suggested that I eat a banana. “It is way past that,” I groaned. I climbed back into the front seat (relative travel advantage of being in the second percentile for adult woman size.) Cortina was stuffed full of tourists, pedestrians, skiers, and drivers. Their streets were unplowed and remained lumpy with dirty snow moguls. No wonder their mayor was so outraged during and after the Wednesday storm.

We stopped in Dobbiaco for lunch and got lucky in a lovely little pizzeria attached to an adjacent spa hotel. Vic and Eleanor oohed and aahed at the pizzaiuolo who threw his dough with extra flair for them. We continued on our way to Austria, stopping at a local gas station to buy the vignete. Last year we neglected to do this before we arrived in Austria and almost cancelled our entire holiday as a result, in the midst of the after-dark literal highway extortion that ensued by uniformed Slovenia officials.

The route to Bad Kleinkirchheim followed a narrow valley, with steep walls rising on each side, filled with grey clouds. A small village punctuated the landscape every few kilometers, with a white stucco parish church at each center.

The town was thronged with skiers, tourists, patrons of the thermal baths, and service workers. We arrived just as it was getting dark, so missed out on sledding yesterday. Our hotel is a kinderhotel, full of families and children, with a full pension, which means they provide three meals a day in the dining room. The ski school is on the hotel grounds, and is full of ski students. Sleds are free and provided by the hotel. Do you find yourself accidentally on the outside of the hotel? Don’t worry, there is a bistrot right there at the bottom of the bunny hill.

The clientele here seem to be mostly Austrian, and I will confess that my heart skips a beat each time the employees cheerfully wish me “Gruess Gott!” Our German is getting a minor workout here. I have busted out many a hallo and stimmt so and hallo and Enschuldigung, but also begging people to speak English to me when their German took off on a tear, The hotel staff seem less up on Italian, as I saw last night when a flustered older Italian man left the dining room to alert the manager o
n staff that their waiter did not speak any Italian.

Victor and Eleanor had their first ski lesson today.
We rented them each a full kit, where we learned that the smallest ski boot available is size 24, which Eleanor can just fit. Helmets are mandatory for kids under 16.
We went out to the pista to find out instructor, Steffi.
She was a perfect fit for Victor, her principal student, as she reminded me much of Caitie, Victor’s favorite babysitter from Norman. Sweet, calm, reassuring, in control. Victor quickly picked up the basic skills.
Eleanor pouted on the sidelines until we clipped her into her skis.
Soon she was riding up the bunny hill conveyor belt behind Victor and following him down the small hill.
They both liked it – Eleanor loved it. “I’m not afraid,” she told everyone. “I’m not scared.”
“I am,” said Vic, “a little bit.”
But even so he was soon stopping and turning like a boy who’d been on the slopes many times before.
Meanwhile Eleanor was skiing down the bunny hill under the firm grasp of either Jason or me.
They have both been enrolled in class for tomorrow.
It was a perfect finish to 2017, true to type for the entire family cast.

[The wifi in this hotel is not superb, so I am not going to be able to upload photos for this post at the moment, but will do as soon as I am able.]

Veneto: Natale in Italia, Terza Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 3

The kids and I woke up at the very civil hour of 8:30 on Wednesday morning, but Jason had already had his coffee and left. I assumed he had gone to the gommista for new snow tires, as he had been talking about it the past few days, while keeping a nervous eye on the weather.

A flurry of texts from him after we were up and about confirmed as much, indicating that his situation had become ever more compromised as he stood in line with about twenty Italians at one of the only open gommista in town. Everyone was worried about the weather. Everyone wanted new snow tires. There was no room to haggle, much less converse. Signore Gommista was smiling as he made a fine profit that day, the best day to sell snow tires: December 27 as half the city emptied out to head north to enjoy snow concurrent with a winter storm warning.

I tried to mitigate total apartment destruction and pack for me and the kids until Jason returned home, annoyed but reassured.
“You don’t even want to know how much I spent,” he muttered.
“I actually do,” I said. Not out of any penny pinch but more morbid curiosity.
“He said he could not sell me chains for the tires because the chains would not fit in the wheelcase.”
“Oh?”
“But the fee also includes off-season tire storage.”
“Oh.”
We were still trying to pack and organize as the kids zoomed around in high spirits.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, “how much.”

We herded the team down to the car, along with a collection of suitcases, toy bags, snack bags, diaper bags … we are very much in the Napoleonic army mode of travel. Staging everything in the foyer until Jason could bring the car around from the other side of the piazza, we watched the rain fall on the wet flagstones in front of the palazzo. We quickly shoveled all small people, bags, and accoutrements into our wagon, and got on the road under grey clouds. Eleanor fell asleep quickly, before the A1 autostrada split into ‘panoramica’ and ‘direttissima.’ This drive is always a challenge for me, because the route between Firenze and Bologna is twisting and steep, tunneling through the Apennines. I typically am a shade of green, well before Bologna. But the grey skies and ruta diretissima worked in my favor, and when we emerged before Bologna I was feeling fine. The flat plain of Emilia Romagna rolled out before us, under more clouds and rain. In fact, the rain never stopped.

As we crossed over into the Veneto, the rain picked up. Victor and Eleanor chattered in the back seat. We turned north to climb into the Dolomites, and saw the waterfalls coming off the mountains were forming large icicles and walls of ice. “Oooh, pretty,” we cooed. Infrequent vertical ice gave way to freezing rain, then heavy snowflakes. We were nowhere near our final destination, and it was getting dark fast. Snow started sticking to the ground, first as a low cover, then in larger mounds. The climb was no joke, either. Every few kilometers felt like we gained another one to two hundred meters. This was like driving the highway in Colorado, where you turn south from I-70 because someone in the car thought it would be fun to drive to Leadville. The road was blasted out of solid rock.

Fortunately, we were driving north, so we had the inside lane that was not covered in ice leading to a 600-meter spill and a quick death. Jason kept the car in second and took the turns slowly as my palms began to sweat. I started to feel like one of those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories that I used to read at my grandma’s house as a kid, where the mom capriciously tosses a box of Nilla Wafers into the trunk just before they set out on a roadtrip that will evolve into a struggle for life. I mentally catalogued the contents of our snack bag.

Victor and Eleanor began to bicker. I asked them to hush, but Jason set his jaw and said it was better, that he preferred background noise when driving like this. It felt like a bit of divine retribution, or at least a Campbellian test, for a person who had been celebrating the successful passage of his written Italian driver’s test just a week before. “Maybe we should go back to Belluno and stay there, instead,” he said under his breath.

We rolled into Forno a Zoldo, a small town with a uniformed Protezione Civile officer at the one intersection, holding a lollipop. She was watching out for all the drivers on this dark, snowy night out on the SP 251.

We waited in line with a few other stopped cars as she lollipopped through drivers with chains on their tires. Jason rolled down the window and she stuck her head in.

“You got chains?”
“No,” Jason replied.
“Is this car 4×4?”
“No.”
She shrugged. “Then you can’t pass.”
“We have a reservation in Santa Fosca.”
She shrugged again.
“I just bought these new snow tires today.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, if you want to try it, and I do NOT recommend it, but leaving town here is a steep hill with a sharp curve. If you slide, turn around and come straight back; you won’t ever make it to Santa Fosca. But if you can make it up that hill, continue, and with care.”

We thanked her and drove away from the intersection, up the hill, up up up, and around the steep curve, still in second. We did not slip.

So we continued. It got darker, and the snow was blowing hard. The road was not good. This was a major winter storm even for the locals. The twisting mountain road was hard to discern in the headlights and the driving snow. We climbed, and climbed, hairpin after hairpin, and the weather got worse, and worse.

“How far back is Forno?” I asked.
“It’s been about four miles,” Jason replied. It felt like at least ten miles to me.
I could not believe we were doing this.
Jason continued to round the hairpins in second at increasing elevations.
Victor and Eleanor had stopped talking.
“Daddy, how much further is it?” Victor finally said in a small voice.
“A ways, guys. A ways.”
I intermittently monitored the max defrost button, which raised the temperature in the car to something like 100F. The ice accumulated quickly.

Finally, we reached the Passo di Staulanza, just after a town amusingly named Dont. It was a dismal scene. Snow was blowing sideways in sheets across the road. The signage indicated that six steep turns lay ahead before we arrived in our valley. The first turn was easy enough, but we fishtailed on the second one. I was trying hard to remain calm without much success. We made it safely down the next four turns, in first and second gear, without slippage. Finally we saw the lights of Pescul, and, just beyond it, our destination: Santa Fosca.

The roads were a mess. The snow had been falling so fast that no plow could keep up with it. We saw our first turnoff, and immediately got stuck, so backed out.

We continued forward. I started to whimper, “please let’s just call the hotel and explain to them what is happening.” But Jason was resolute. Our turnoff appeared again under the same name on a subsequent right, which we were able to access, although the ascent was steep and the road a lumpy, snowy mess.

We finally pulled into our hotel. It was still snowing hard.
“I wish we had taken this holiday in Sicily,” I grumbled. Jason laughed.

He got out of the car. The kids were still wearing their Florentine clothes.
“Where’s the big bag of their winterwear?” he asked me from the back.
“Their what?” I said.
“A huge bag of their winterwear.”
“It’s all in the suitcase,” I said.
“No, there is a huge bag … oh my god did we leave it at home.”

Apparently, we had. We carried the kids in their city clothes down into the hotel. Jason immediately made a trip out to buy them boots and gloves. I declined his offer to purchase boots for me, saying that mine were super and I loved them. Some of the wint
erwear was, in fact, in their suitcase; just not all of it. The critical pieces remained in our foyer in Florence in a huge recyclable shopping bag.

The kids now fully bundled, we trudged back down the snowy hill to a gastronomia for dinner. I slipped on the packed snow and bent my right wrist back and hard, cursing my boots for their lack of tread, making mental note to buy myself a new pair promptly the next morning.

Kids trotting off to the gastronomia in the storm.

Eleanor, initially irate at the snowpants situation, realized on the walk down the hill how incredible snow is. She’d never seen it before. Victor, ever the big brother, commented, “I’ve seen snow, but it didn’t look like this.” You got that right, kid.

Mom and dad had an adult beverage each while the kids devoured pizza and French fries. The gastronomia staff were sympathetic and doting, speaking in an accent and dialect that I could only guess.

We headed back into our snug, warm hotel room and quickly fell asleep after a trip from Firenze that had turned out to be much more than we’d bargained for.

In the end, we both agreed that the 700 euros for the ultra high performance snow tires had been well worth it.

We watched the storm continue from our balcony after we checked in.
The total snowfall was well over a foot.

There are more relaxing aspects of our days in Santa Fosca that I will record next for my reading public. Tomorrow we head to Austria, for more snow and sledding. Hopefully the drive will be a fraction as harrowing.

Firenze: Natale in Italia, Seconda Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 2

Thursday morning: “My entire face hurts,” I groaned after I woke up. I then began to whimper.
“I do not know how I am going to make it through this weekend and the holidays, plus our trip.”
My sinuses were killing me. Italy and my sinuses are in a long-term quarrel. I never had these problems before I had kids, or before we lived in Italy.
Now, I am in a low-grade sinus threat zone almost very day, and the slightest cold transmitted from school via our small children will trigger the congestion, odd squeaking, headache, and the worst, aching cheeks. Nothing induces incoherence like a sinus infection. I barely make sense. I have been in an out of this condition since the second week of November. My immune system and I are exhausted.

Nebulizing, painkiller, decongestant, Zithromax, saline, steamy showers – it is the Maginot Line of health, a daily struggle to maintain the razor-thin advantage. The low valley of Arno River, how it grows and keeps layers of fog and damp, nothing ever dries out, and the cold, when it is damp, seems to puddle in the dark narrow streets that pick their way through tightly packed stone buildings. At night, I try to stay warm by wearing socks and slippers to bed, and a knee-length wool cardigan, and a scarf, while lying atop a faux sheepskin.

“Do we have any more of that Sudafed?” I asked Jason.
“What?” he said.
I sighed, and tried to not cry.
“I found, like, a big white pellet yesterday and took it, and it really worked. But I cannot find any more of it.”
Jason disappeared into the back of the apartment. I could hear him ruffling through the shelves of over the counter medicine from the US.

He reemerged with the empty Sudafed box and some blister packs.
“Take this,” he said. They were the little red pills he has been known to eat like cat food, as a man permanently and mildly congested. “Take it with an acetominophen, it is the same thing as the so-called ‘bug white pellet.'” He shook his head in sympathy. Fortunately this month I had just brought back a huge bottle of acetominophen from the US.

A few hours later I was feeling much more myself. I did some Christmas shopping on my lunch break. Florence has been flooded with sunshine, and it was a pleasure to be outside, among the smaller holiday crowds of tourists, the large Christmas trees on every public square, local shops open and bustling.

Friday we had a much-postponed lunch date with Maria, who teaches at Gonzaga in Florence, and whose parents own the building where we rent our spacious apartment. I am always grateful for her company; she is an international Florentine par excellence, having lived in the Los Angeles, Ankara, Nairobi, and Muscat, now back in Florence with her husband and two small children to complete the extended family puzzle, much to her parents’ delight. I appreciate her cross-cultural agility; she is a trusted local (deeply local) of whom I might ask any complicated or perplexing cultural question.

Maria’s brother owns a b&b here, and so is up on the nice new places to eat. We headed to Trattoria Tiberio on Via delle Ruote, arriving just before the lunch rush, and feasted on a generous pranzo. I had a plate of rigatoni alla baccala mantecata (cod in cream sauce – a Venetian speciality) that may have changed my life. I always try to order items off a menu that I know I cannot make at home. This was precisely the kind of dish that makes me thankful, though, for a glass of red wine with lunch. I’m relieved to be well off the Dr. Pepper planet that is the American Midwest.

I recounted my health struggle to Maria, who empathized, as a mother of kids the same ages as ours. “You should take this vitamin I am taking!” she exclaimed. “It makes me feel like Asterix! Giulio and the kids were sick, and I did not even get sick!” She took a picture and sent it to me. I got the effervescent vitamins at my favorite farmacia on Via della Condotta and immediately started on them.

Asterix the Gaul, vanquishing germs!

Christmas eve day dawned on Sunday and the children bubbled with excitement: “Babbo ‘Tale, Babbo ‘Tale!” chanted Eleanor. I had committed to serving at mass at St. James and so was out the door on my bike by 10:30. I had expected few people, but there was instead a decent crowd. As I was the lone acolyte, I got firsthand experience carrying the enormous wood-and-metal crucifer up the aisle and manipulating various large things at the altar throughout the liturgy (crucifer, huge wooden Gospel cover, the main chalice..) After counting the collection plate and passing it along to the sacristan, I was flying back home in the freezing air on my bike.

Emily, one of our favorite locals, came at two so that Jason and I could go to his office and wrap the gifts in peace. I’ll let you guess who wrapped. No complaints – it is one of life’s great pleasures for me. In the nineties, when I worked at the now-defunct Borders, I was the dedicated gift wrapper, and I loved it. I can crease a corner with the best of them, eyeball sizes, use tape sparingly, tie ribbon expertly.

Jason made an emergency trip home on bike to pick up another bag of small gifts we had forgotten. We were done in a little over an hour. I curled up on the small sofa in Jason’s office as the Christmas jazz played, drew both our coats over me, hid my face behind a pashmina, and slid off for an hour of warmth into the sweetest, most delicious nap I can remember for years.

Back to St. James for 6 pm Christmas eve mass with the kids. We took over a back pew with all our outerwear and toys. This was good for play purposes, but less than ideal for attention holding. The Sunday school provided a pageant, the choir sang, we muddled through it somehow. I made multiple pacifying trips to the undercroft with Eleanor, who gave excessive attention to the two rescue Yorkies in the kitchen keeping company with the wife of the priest, who was preparing the generous spread for dozens. And generous it was: prosecco and antipasti, nero d’avola and primi and secondi and contorni, sweets and coffee and more prosecco (if you are ever in town when St. James is celebrating something, first, you will know it because of me, but secondly, go – do not decline the opportunity to toast special occasions with Episcopalians in Tuscany, a divine pairing!) We said our goodbyes and bundled the kids into the car to head home.

Back at home, Victor begged to go to bed.
“Can I go to bed now? Can I go to bed now?” he asked at the preposterous hour of nine, hoping to hasten the arrival of Babo ‘Tale.
Jason shooed him off to his bunnk where he quickly fell asleep; Eleanor talked and tossed with me until almost 11.

Amazingly, they slept in until after eight. I remember Christmas mornings rising at 5 or 5:30 to hawk on gifts until my parents woke up and got into the living room. Babbo ‘Tale was very generous to us this year and we took our time in turns opening the gifts.

Excitement overtakes our Christmas elves.

Victor was thrilled with his Pokemon take. Eleanor received awesome Frozen and Rapunzel and baby dolls, as well as a small piano and mic for her singalongs.

Good luck getting in on this action.

Our Christmas day appointment was special indeed: we were to go to Flavia’s house in Arezzo to eat with her extended family, and would round out a group of 25 for the meal. When we arrived they all crowded at the door to greet us. Jason had not yet met the Gramacioni (I knew them all), and we were soon warmly enclosed in their family fold, a fire blazing in the heart behind the table. Flavia’s father knows his way around a kitchen, to put it mildly. Their warm home in Arezzo is truly our home away from home when we are in Italy.

A phenomenal meal was rolled out before us: crostini al fegato, tortellini al brodo, bollito (boiled meat) with all the sauces, lentils with sausage, a contorno of crudites (carrots, seared artichokes, radishes) and a braised sort of Tuscan coq au vin that also involved pomegranate seeds and juniper. Wine both Spanish and Italian flowed freely from the kitchen. When a course particularly pleased the table, spontaneous applause erupted; diners jovially shouted compliments from the far end of the table. Flavia’s ninety-year-old grandma praised me effusively for my handsome husband, beautiful children, and youthful mien; I love it when the nonne clasp your hands when they talk. Both her grandparents were especially appreciative of our kids’ Italian and excellent table manners and social grace.

“This broth can speak!” Flavia exclaimed to my left, as Massimo on my right shared his broth secrets with Jason.

Eleanor received special recognition for sitting in her chair and eating two adult-sized portions of the meat tortellini with fresh cheese on top. Victor and Eleanor were the only children present, but they were roundly doted on by every adult in the house.

After we ate with leisure our four or five plates of dinner, the liquors and sweets rolled out, pannettone and ricarelli and a panna cotta alla frutta di bosco, panforte and more, and all manner of grappa and mirto to wash it all down. The meal, though long, flew by among the hospitable company, as we chatted with Paola and Massimo, and Flavia’s Zia Laura and Zia Grazia, who exclaimed, “Monica, where do you and Jason put all that food, you have eaten everything, and you are both so slender!” I laughed and tried to explain what my typical Monday through Friday schedule is like – molto fretta, sempre in ritardo – always rushing, always late, I said.

But the party was far from over. The fire was refuelled. We repaired to the living room for a gift exchange. We had brought just a few treats for Flavia’s parents. The gift exchange was by preassigned pairs, and packages and gift bags flew across the center of the circle for at least an hour. Victor and Eleanor received another generous slew of gifts. As their energy started to flag, we slowly began to say our Arrivederci. Eleanor didn’t last ten minutes in the car, in spite of an initial bitter dispute over who got to hold Victor’s new Nintendo 2Ds in the backseat. We arrived home in the dark, full, warm, and content.

I miss seeing our family in the US, but am comforted by the fact that we have such good friends and community here to welcome us as a family into their homes and traditions.

Tomorrow, we are driving far north, until the pink sawteeth of the Dolomites become the horizon, and then our narrow foreground, meeting up there with the Zambon family. We will then continue on to Austria for capodanno – New Year.

Firenze: Natale in Italia, Prima Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 1

Christmas in Italy feels much more low-key. Or maybe we are more relaxed?

The run-up to the crown jewel of calendar holidays here is, dare I say, enjoyable. But the one thing I really miss is mass Christmas baking (you can take the family out of Finland) and inviting friends over for a spread of homemade sweets, prosecco, and coffee. Oh for my cookie list.

The relative benefits of Italian holidays – or I should say, a Florentine natale in centro – are something to be considered: no big box stores. No driving. Relaxed gift shopping locally at Dreoni, Pusateri, a leather shop of Via dei Ricasoli whose name I still do not know, even as I have given them considerable custom in the past year. The majority of presents for kids were purchased on Amazon. Just a couple of crazy store visits.

Jason’s colleagues and business partners roll out with Christmas gifts like you would not believe, mostly luxury comestibles and libations, and high-end personal care products, and very often small wrapped toys for the kids. That’s a cultural perk of his position, and I am not complaining – it makes a festive spirit spring happily upon us with seemingly no notice.

Victor and Eleanor each had a Christmas program and party in the past week. They’re out of school from now until January 8, in observance of all twelve days of Christmas, culminating in the Befana (Epiphany) holiday on January 6 (the twelfth day of Christmas), when Santa’s slightly alarming, definitely demented, and very aged sister (or aunt? maybe his bis zia, great-aunt?) comes to the house a broom in the night to drop off chocolate and small gifts.

Eleanor’s Christmas program this year was divided up by class – there are four sections in her preschool, all named for characters from Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Her section, called Mr. Passepartout (the same as Victor’s last year), has about 18 kids in it. The section is taught exclusively in Italian. Ironically, it is the most international section, with many bilingual children who speak English or French or Dutch or German at home, so it far outpaces the other three sections (one taught in English, and two taught in a mix of English and Italian) populated largely by Italian children who do not speak English at home, and whose parents hope to give them a leg up on the language game by enrolling them in a preschool with English-speaking teachers. Her program was last Tuesday and lasted about fifteen minutes, followed by a party of an hour with an Italian spread.

Eleanor’s Christmas party +1

Victor’s Christmas program was presented by the entire primary school (grades 1-5) the following evening, on Wednesday night. It began the school chapel by a legit liturgy. celebrated by an Italian priest straight out of central casting give to a standing-room only crowd of 100 small children and their parents and extended families. Victor killed it on the front row singing some Lennon Christmas.

Victor, fifth from left in front, front and center like his mama.
Note he is wearing a very old, white-ish t-shirt with an image on front.
This is as close as we can get to “nice white shirt” with him.

Eleanor fussed, channeled all our frustration as she complained about the length, played on the stairs outside the chapel, then settled into the pew and then the kneeler with her doll. The little girl next to us fell asleep calmly amidst the chaos in the arms of her nonna. This program was no joke and last 30, 60, 70, 75 minutes (counting as a parent with one eye constantly on the toddler meltdown clock.) Whew and we’re done!

Here is what is incredible: after this lengthy Christmas program, everyone repaired to the mensa for what had to be the most insane Christmas party I have ever seen. It was like American school carnival with games for prizes, plus an Italian buffet of dinner and sweets, and a mercantino (tiny for-sale table of art and decorations). The most incredible component, however, was an Italian mom stationed at the deejay table, with a playlist, and some serious subwoofers.

The music was superb. The kids were all dancing. And the tiniest dancer, Eleanor, was dancing with everyone in a mad whirl, big boys and big girls, adults. She was on fire. She did not want to leave. Everyone seemed to know this wee dancing lass. I will confess I teared up to see her unselfconscious confidence in such a huge social situation that was clearly trying the thresholds of many of the children as well their parents. Yet here was mini Miss Cross-Cultural, just doing her thing. It was a sight to behold.

Another mom and I got our groove on at the edge of the dance floor, laughing as we mocked ourselves for being unable to resist even the most pop-up of discoteche. Jason and I finally lured Eleanor off the dance floor with a promise of a mercatino purchase, and left the building with an ostentatious tree ornament and a small Christmas tree made out of paper cone wrapped with about a skein of pink yarn decorated accordingly.

Inexplicably, we received red foam clown noses on our way out. The kids immediately put them on and wore them home.

Cross-eyed from looking

Up next, parts two (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), and three (what we have planned for our holiday! Hint: ski school.)

Firenze Al Rovescio / Firenze Inside and Out

A easy hallmark of an established culture is its historic external structure – why else would sixteen million tourists flood Florence, in every month and every season, to swarm the city’s landmarks and fill its restaurants?

Yet an aspect of Florentine culture that often goes unremarked, especially by tourists whose aim is to simply pound the pavement and tick off items as they complete their 72-hour whirlwind, is a culture’s internal history. Somewhere among the endless glasses of Chianti the visitors quaff, and countless bistecche fiorentine they can never hope to finish, the quiet contemplation of Florentine culture persists. How do they view the soul, and its wanderings? What of the dark rooms of the mind, the sunny joy of the spirit?

Like a child who shuns the spotlight, I abhor the tourist’s lowest common denominator. My impulses abroad skew more toward bookshops, local coffee and food, third-tier churches, random retail, riverfronts, and grocery stores. I create my mental map of the city, making note of street signs and buildings and landmarks. But to go up to the top of a landmark, or inside it? Cliche. To this day, despite having lived in New York and visited more times than I can remember, I have never visited Ellis Island, or the Statue of Liberty, or gone up the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. In Seattle, I have never zipped up the Space Needle, or gone to the EMP, or been inside the Wing Luke Museum of Asian Art (that final one particularly egregious since I lived on the edge of Volunteer Park for two years.)

This week I have been working on what counts as my short list of Florentine attractions. I’ve been coming to the city since 1995, and first lived here in 2005, then in proximity in 2012 and 2013, from summer 2016 to the present. And, in Firenze, I had never been up to the top of the Duomo, or in the battistero, or to the terrazza of the campanile. I had not seen Orsanmichele.

Incredibly, I have done all of those this week. My experiential knowledge of Firenze is now on par with exhausted tourists.

Monday: the church of Orsanmichele. Looming over Via del Calzaiuolo, its Gothic windows framed in pale stone with twirled columns, I have stopped to admire its reproduction statues represneting the fourteen Florentine guilds more times than I can remember, on the path between by office on Piazza dell Repubblica and one of my favorite pranzo destinations, I Due Fratellini (panino numero 28, small plastic cup of red wine). I have stopped in the church on hot days to sit and breathe the cooler air in its candlelit sanctuary. But on Mondays, it is free to go up the stairs to the first floor and the second floor of Orsanmichele. The first floor contains all the original statues which, in past centuries, looked out over the Via del Calzaiuolo and toward Piazza della Signoria. In person they look huge, at floor level. The vaulted ceilings and rib arches in red brick add to the feeling of time travel, natural light flooding in through the enormous windows.

Jason and I did a quick inventory of the patron saints. I was especially glad to greet St. James.

‘Sup, Jaime.

We climbed the long stair to the second floor (American third floor,) and emerged into a sun-filled loft with views in every direction that took my breath away. Every steeple, every tall building, was etched in the landscape and against the skyline in high relief, the snowcapped peaks of the Apennines glittering to the northeast. The familiar arch of Piazza della Repubblica now rendered as a child’s wooden block, my office window easily discerned from a distance.

There are only small statues in wall niches on the top floor, whose ceilings are easily fifty feet high. The floor is bare save for a series of rough-hewn benches that recall a Rinzai Zen monastery. In every direction you look, there is light and sky, landscapes and the tightly packed clay roof tiles paving the top of the city to its edges. The street-level cares seem to fade into the surrounding air. You can go here, and just sit. No one will ask you to leave. I mean, eventually, they probably will. But a see the man calmly reading on the bench? I am going to put this on my list of once a week, meditative mini-retreats.

Amidst the “more is more” gilt and royal blue and red and purple fleur-de-lis of Florence, here is a space for reflection and contemplation, a church atop a church. Even as you look out, you are invited to sit and look within.

Wednesday: Hurray, another sunny day! We climb the Duomo at first light! Ok, ten a.m. FINE they’re running late, so more like 10:30. We stood in line for at least forty minutes, in the cold shade of the north wall of the cathedral. Many tourists came to us when we were in the capolinea position to complain about the delay (they were running about half an hour late): was this really the line, they had a reservation, do either of us speak Spanish, what time was our reservation for, etc. The museum official reappeared from the wooden door, thoughtfully labelled “Gateway to Heaven” in large brass Latin capital letters, and muttered, “This schedule is always a feckin mess, ugh.” He took our tickets and we began the climb.

This climb is no joke. Have you seen the Duomo? It is super tall. 463 steps. I had my work backpack with me, which Jason insisted on carrying around step 100. We climbed and climbed, until we were at eye level with the frescoes on the inside of the dome, and the people on the marble floor below looked like fleas.

Bird’s-eye view of cupola frescoes.

Up more steps, until we reached the top. I stepped out and immediately felt vertigo. Even from below, I always mock the cupola scalers, crowded around on the circular fence.  Up top it is tight. Views in every direction, on another insanely sunny day. I felt a bit like the Archangel Gabriel clinging to a steeple weathervane. From this vantage point, you are the master of all you survey, if only for a few moments. Firenze looks small and manageable; logical, even, and a far cry from the web of shadowed and narrow medieval streets through which I scurry each day. All her landmarks are laid out and easy to discern.

From the tippy top, the dome of San Lorenzo, the Mercato Centrale, and Stazione S.M.N.

Climbing the duomo is a crowd-pleaser; the nonstop line to scamper (or wheeze) up the stairs is a testimony to this fact. There is no reflection or contemplation in this item, however, aside from the question “is it really going to be worth it to climb all these stairs.” Answer: on a sunny, clear day, yes.

Today: It’s winter solstice, but making up for shorter days by more bright white light of mid-December. Jason was off to take his Italian driving exam (again – oof. He might need to guest in a post here about that), and, after I dropped Eleanor off at school, I walked down Ricasoli to the Battistero. Like the duomo and all my other A-list landmarks, I have probably, easily, passed by the Battistero 3000 times. Today, on this cold early morning, I walked up and right in. The ticket scanner was broken, and the official at the door just looked at me and waved me in, where a couple other officials gave me a very bored once-over for security.
The Battistero is under renovation, but none the less splendid. I am not sure if they still do baptisms here, but for centuries it was the only place for a Florentine to be baptized into the faith. It reminded me of basiliche I have seen before in Ravenna and on the Adriatic coast, Byzantine jewel boxes in gold mosaic. Its eight sides represent the seven days of creation plus eternity (if eternity is ineffable, it may as well be a big marble wall). I sat in a pew and admired the ceiling, which tells the entire story of the Old and New Testaments in mosaic. The altar looks straight from the ninth century with a square cross. The tools of the workers on the scaffolding behind me whizzed and whined. Hardly anyone was in the building. An enormous Christo Pantocrator sat throned over the altar, his feet marred by circular black nail holes. 
Altar
It was beautiful, and I did regret waiting so long to see it. I am realizing now that it is more my nature to be tucked into a contemplative space, than to climb atop something to look at and crowd and feel elevated. I prefer an enclosed, low-light, glittering, space covered in the mosaics of dreams and the collective memory. This may also explain my predilection for Benedictine retreats – a topic for another day.
Mosaic dome to jog your memory of Western Civ and cultural heritage 
The morning was sunny, and still early. I was saving so much time by not standing in lines, so I decided to use my ticket (valid for 48 hours) to see the Giotto campanile too. I trotted over to the campanile (bell tower), which I ride by on my bike dozens of times a week, and found a door I had never seen before. There is also a gift shop staffed by grumpy Italians who do not want to peddle this crap!

No line at all to climb, so I walked in and up the 414 steps. It is less claustrophobic than the duomo, as it is largely open air at each of the three terrazze before you reach the top. Also, the signage is better, and of course I read all of it, since I like to learn as I exert myself toward silly, cliched goals. I was glad for my sweater, piumino, scarf, hat, gloves, and furry hood as the wind blew through screen covering the openings.

Oh! Ciao, cupola del duomo! You look familiar.

On the top terrazza the views spread out, as from the Duomo, with the added bonus of seeing the top of the duomo from the top of the campanile. After the three landmark climbs this week, I have a solid grasp of Florentine geography, and wish I had done it sooner to really understand how the Mercato Central and San Lorenzo fit in with the city, since you can never see them unless you are on top of them, or accosted by leather sellers in the Mercato San Lorenzo.

So, a quick summary of yin/yang tourist attractions:

  • Orsanmichele: yin and yang. Outer view plus inner reflection.
  • Duomo and campanile: yang all the way. Climb, endure, enjoy macro views, feel like a conqueror. Catch breath, get down, one and done.
  • Battistero: pure yin. Come be enclosed in Florence’s golden heart, reconnect with our enduring stories, and enjoy the silence and weight of history.
I’d go back to Orsanmichele and the battistero. I won’t feel the need to climb those towering heights again, unless some mountain goat comes to visit and really, really wants to do it, and promises to take me to Caffe Paszkowski after for a caffe macchiato and a cornetto vuoto zuccherato.

Rappresentando il Mondo Perfetto / Representing the Perfect World

Who among us does not yearn for a more perfect world? Who does not harbor idealizations of how the world might be, while longing to create that world externally?

It’s our nature to want to exert control over external circumstances, in order to align them with the inner vision we have. A quick mental tour through history, states, governments, and religions reveals again and again the result of this outsized longing. Do they succeed, our worldly manifestations of these inner ideals and longings? In part, yes. They do last for a bit. But also, no. The other side of humanity takes over as systems break down, people dissolve into argument, quarrel, and disperse.

This longing also knows a smaller expression, addressing not worlds or communities, but our own lives. We long to create externally what we envision internally. The less we can control, the more creatively we seek a channel of control to maintain psychological equilibrium. And, at times, this can go far, toward obsessions and compulsions.

Those most prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior are children and adolescents, who possess very little agency over their external life. School, rules, bedtime, the onward march of order form a sort of tyranny, against which they rebel by controlling their microcosms at close reach. As a very hands-on mother of a six-year-old and three-year-old, I observe this daily at a very close remove.

I was just such an obsessive-compulsive child. The frequent moves of my early years demanded that I form my personality to be nimble and ready to adapt to the new house, classroom, school, town of the year. I started at my fourth new school the fall I entered the sixth grade, when I was ten. I had become skilled at meeting people quickly, staking out my social territory, determining who was a safe new friend, and who was crazy and best left to their own devices on the playground. It was a matter of survival, and I wanted to thrive.

My obsessive-compulsive behavior of childhood expressed itself in pathetic rituals, such as using my hair bush to perfectly groom the fringe of the circular yellow rug on my bedroom floor, or knowing at any moment the value of all the loose change in the house, down to the penny.

However, I also had an aesthetic streak, and found my ultimate refuge of safety and order in my wooden dollhouse. My father made it for me from a kit, one early Christmas; my interior-design minded mother glued wrapping paper that featured a huge magenta and orange floral pattern as wallpaper on the small walls of its four rooms. At least one of the rooms had wall-to-wall, orange, fake fur carpet. There was tiny furniture. A few dolls, but the small human figurines were of little consequence to me. I wanted to imagine myself in this house. I did not need the dolls.

My dollhouse moved with us. Each time we moved, as well as during periods of relative stability, I could be found in my makeshift workshop, renovating and redecorating the dollhouse. I made furniture out of balsa wood, using an X-acto knife, staining and sanding the pieces to get them just right. I rolled out new rug from fake fur, and painted the walls, and re-wallpapered the rooms with new wrapping paper as I felt like it. I made tiny art and hung it on the walls of the downstairs living room. I sewed tiny hand towels and frayed the fabric to imitate the fringe of our real towels. I purchased tiny dishes with my allowance, or received such notions for Christmas. And the little dollhouse received a holiday treatment for Christmas and Easter. This went on for years. It was far and away my favorite toy.

Our last move of my childhood in 1984, combined with a growing awareness, relegated the little wooden dollhouse to a corner, where it later became a memory. I can close my eyes and remember the joy I felt at being absorbed on my own in a creative task that had no end, just a general goal to preserve in myself, for a bit, this suspended feeling of safety, and the pleasure of having my own small world to manipulate at will into a locus amoenus.

It gives me considerable joy today to see my daughter, now 3, play with her small Peppa Pig plastic starter dollhouse, placing the stairs and the furniture, putting Mamma Pig in the bath, George and his dinosaur on the top bunk bed, Daddy Pig on the couch. An American in Italy, straddled between cultures at home and at school, I intuit both her feelings and her response to process through play, as I did.

I didn’t see my dollhouse for years. It probably was stored somewhere. Long after, in my twenties, I read about the nomadic Tuareg tribe of Africa. A people without a state, they carry with them small silver miniatures of their domestic items, to keep present at all times the totemic comfort of a home that does not change, but remains ever-present and welcoming. I felt a chill of recognition as I read – that was me, that is why I was doing that with my dollhouse all those years. The subconscious wisdom of the seven-year-old reaches beyond Campbellian understanding into the collective Oversoul of survival. My coping strategy was in fact a cultural value for an entire people on a different continent!

This ability to carry a feeling of being at home with me, no matter where I am, has served me well, through five countries, fourteen cities, seventeen languages; some by choice, some out of necessity. Fortunately, I have grown beyond the OCD of my childhood, and look with empathy on that little girl of my past, who so struggled to make sense of the constant changes. My home is in my heart, and with my family, and with a few small totems that are easily packed and transported. It was such a relief to jettison in Oklahoma in 2016 all the material items that held no totemic value for me. Our house was literally perched above a basement that filled with things, given to us by others on their way out. To purge that minor landfill and make room for expansive feelings of security and my small treasures was a highlight of that year. Rather than being controlled by my belongings, I was controlling them.

Italians get out their seasonal version of the dollhouse each year around Christmas. They take it very seriously. What we call a creche in the US (merci, France), they call a presepe. The presepi are everywhere, bearing witness to the idealized world we all carry within us. They are in store windows, restaurants, school, and of course, churches.

Presepe, Piazza del Duomo, ristorante

We make a point to visit places with presipi of note, because they are lovely, and also, they give a major bang for the buck when you have kids in tow. Of course, for me personally, they speak to my historic dollhouse fetish and metaphor.

Monasteries and places of pilgrimage, such as the Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo in Gargano, Puglia, or the Abbazia di Monte Oliveta Maggiore in Siena, put out truly breathtaking presepi, complete with elements of running water and sunny skies that fade continuously into a star-studded ceiling and back, animated figurines busy at their agricultural tasks.

On Sunday, Eleanor and I were admiring the presepe in Dreoni on Via Cavour, where a diminutive shepherd’s arm endless ran along the back of a
tiny sheep with a gleaming pair of miniature metal shears.
“Che cosa fa lui, Eleanor, alla peccora,” I asked her, pointing to the small shepherd. (What is he doing?)
“Tagliare i capelli,” she answered right away. (Cutting the hair.)

The children attend a semi-private Catholic school, and presepi are everywhere, on every floor and in every classroom, the largest one in the foyer. The foyer presepe is huge and has running water.

Presepe, nell’androne di I Scolopi

The one on Victor’s floor is considerably more rustic, and amusing.

Each presepe represents a way we wish the world might be, could be – a place of rest, and hope, where what we need may not be easily found at first, but embraces us when we find it.

I hope all of you find your totemic place, not just at the holidays with various representations of holy people, saints, and animals, but throughout the year as we bob through our months, seemingly unmoored. Create the image and set your mind to it. Do not rely on external circumstances for daily reassurance – if it comes that way, fine. But the days that it doesn’t, a tiny dollhouse or a presepe might be just the thing.

San Giacomo per tutte parte / St. James everywhere

Saint James and I have been friends for years.

Meet my personal patron saint.

Almost 25 years, to be precise.

I first met him at nineteen, when, as an unchurched Protestant Midwesterner, I found myself in the the middle of Santiago de Compostela in January 1993, the clouds socking in the city so that none of the surrounding hills were visible, rain pouring down in buckets by the hour, rendering umbrellas useless and jeans that stayed wet for days.

I was on a study abroad program, in the spring semester of my sophomore year in college, and I had arrived alone. I was rocking that pilgrim gene hard. I am pretty sure I walked down to the church in my first day or two on scene, to feel the worn marble at the foot of the tree of Jesse, to eyeball the enormous bota fumeiro used to stream incense high above the pews at high mass and on feast days, to meander among all the chapels, and to duck into the crypt of the saint.

Santiago means “Saint James” in Spanish, and it is in the crypt of the cathedral that his relics are buried. Martyred in 44 CE, his followers were forbidden to bury him. Nine centuries later, it is said that his remains were found. In various fantastic stories, he is pulled on a ghost ship made of stone from the Holy Land, and a white steed leaps form the foam to pull him to land in Galicia. The name Compostela itself alludes to the star in the countryside which some shepherds followed until they arrived at the granite barge (sound familiar…) His remains received a proper burial almost a millenium after his martyrdom, and Santiago de Compostela was branded thenceforth as Saint James of the Starry Countryside.

A bit of sloppy internet research just revealed that the town may have been called Compostelum in the Roman era, referring to the camp of stars – the orienteering by astronomy that led pre-Christian pilgrims to its rainy northwestern corner.

In any case, Santiago was the third top medieval pilgrimage destination, after Jerusalem and Rome, and while Jerusalem is a tourist destination as well as a pilgrimage destination, and Rome the same, they are large cities, giants on the historical landscape. Santiago, in turn, is a small town of under 100,000 tucked into the Spanish countryside, yet it has bloomed in popular imagination as a destination for those undertaking some sort of personal visionquest, grappling with midlife, or any number of reasonable justifications. I think the hot thing now is to fly to Peru and trip on ayahuasca, but the Camino provides a more natural, even blistering, mortification of the flesh that also leads to insight, transcendence, and epiphany.

Note that, in the medieval era, a pilgrimage to Santiago could be meted out in court as penalty for some severe crime, since the highway robbers along the route were so fierce that hardly anyone would be surprised if the convict was thrown off a stone bridge to his death well before he saw the cathedral sires from the peak of Monte de Gozo, outside the city limits. Pilgrims who did return home often took a name to denote their survival, much in the way that Muslims today append Hajj or Hajji after their name to convey their successful hajj to Mecca. Pilgrim groups to Compostela elected a leader from among the group, whom they called King, and today many people, especially Catholics, who are named Rey or Del Rey or King or Le Roy or Leroy carry the traces of this family history.

1993 was an Año Jubilar Jacobeo, meaning the city was streaming with pilgrims who had made the journey, or part of the journey, on foot to receive a Compostela – an indulgence for the forgiveness of sins. They often looked like they had paid handsomely for those sins on the trail, as they limped in with staffs topped by scallops, their ginger hobble betraying blisters upon blisters, shin splints, and general wear and tear. They walked in groups or in lines down the Rua do Franco, named for the medieval tax, or frank, that pilgrims paid to enter the city. (Not Francisco Franco, as a teenaged me naively assumed for months after I arrived.) “Franco” derives from the same Latin word that gives us English “franking,” which today, as far as I know, is only used to in congressional contexts, such as when US senators and representatives sign or rubber stamp an envelope with their signature in lieu of a stamp. In the last 25 years, the Camino de Santiago in in its many routes has been increasingly popular, the subject of a film by Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, numerous books, and general wide entry onto bucket lists, regardless of religious affiliation.

I have never officially “done” the Camino – in today’s understanding, this means the Camino Frances, although there are many others. In 2005 on my own (Jason was working in Italy – we were engaged then), I did realize huge parts of it on the narrow-gauge FEVE train system of northern Spain, as I worked my way from Bilbao, backtracking to San Sebastian, then across the northern coast through Lekeitio, Castro Urdiales, Cudilleiro, Santander, Viveiro, Padron, Oviedo, and back into Santiago. I met many pilgrims on the train who were taking a day break from walking or biking on the FEVE routes that wound through the forests of oak and birch that cover that part of Spain. It is still on my bucket list, but now even college groups of students complete the Camino in whole or in part in groups with faculty leaders.

In 1993, I was intrigued by the idea of travelling with the Compostela passbook, getting my various stamps at the pilgrim refuges along the past, eating simple meals in refectories with strangers. Then, as one completes the Camino and arrives at the Porta da Gloria, the completed passbook is presented, all sins are absolved, and there is also a cute gift shop where one can buy bookmarks or paperweights to commemorate one’s newly immaculate soul.

In any event, my introduction to St. James and the pilgrim culture took hold all those years ago, and has stayed with me to this day. I identify strongly with the pilgrim archetype, a traveler with a purpose, even if a distant one, and one so far-flung from home that trips are measured in years, or even decades. Even now, every time I see a scallop, or a cross of Santiago, it is like seeing an old friend, feeling his welcome handclasp.

In Florence especially, just before the Ponte Santa Trinita, at Chiesa Santa Trinita, there is a statue of San Giacomo in an alcove, hat jauntily propped, scallop on his shoulder, staff topped with a gourd for water, missing a hand. I smile involuntarily every time I pass by there, whispering a warm, “Hi, James.”

Basilica Santa Trinita
Credit: Archdiocese of Florence
Note St. James in alcove on far left

And, even more coincidentally, he is the namesake of the American Episcopal church in Florence, where I have been singing in the choir for over a year now. St. James Episcopal has welcomed us a family in a way that particular to Florence, indicative of the many aspects of expat support in the city.

St. James Episcopal Church – portico

Yes, St. James has come full circle for me, as the friendly saint of my first year in Europe has reappeared again as the welcoming patron saint of travelers and pilgrims (and Spain) here in our new life. My pilgrim gifts (and welts) are welcome in St. James, which was founded in the nineteenth century by a rather Gilded Age cohort, led by none other than JP Morgan himself. The foundations he endowed for St. James thrive today, and provide a solid ground for the many programs of outreach that we do. St. James welcomed me by allowing me to warble on in their choir alongside professionals from the Opera di Firenze and the Opera di Livorno, as well as freelancers with incredible gifts of voice and music, and Riccardo, our Buddhist organist and pianist who can sit down to play any piece with a natural ease and fluency that takes my breath away. In March, I came onto the vestry – their governing body for the parish – and soon agreed to secretarial responsibilities for the group. In May, I trained to serve as an LEM (lay eucharistic minister), and have served the wine from the chalice at a half-dozen masses or so since then. I love that the leadership within our church weights in favor of women, and woke men. I cannot count the many opportunities St. James has given me to more fully become a contributing member of the community. As we are here for the long haul, that is a high priority for me.

In the vestry, fresh off mass this morning.

It’s a truly diverse congregation, comprised of all walks of life, class, origin, nationality. It gives me the deeply transnational American experience that I so craved in Arezzo five years ago, and in Oklahoma in general. (Funny side note – in Arezzo I used to lurk at the southeast asian market just to buy curry ramen or seafood udon and or masala in small tin cans, to be among a mix of people, so homogeneous did Arezzo feel with its scores of well-heeled, well-bundled bourgeois Italians trotting up and down the Corso d’Italia in their new shoes every evening at the passeggiata.)

St. James, I am glad we met when I was so young, and am more grateful still for our evolving friendship, and the many ways you continue to surface in my life, reaffirming my recurrent themes and challenges.

Inverno e i russi / Winter and Russians

The cold months around Christmas have always signaled that the time has come again to read Russian classics.

The crisp air, the holidays, warm rooms and chilly paths, short days and long moonlit nights, all seem congruous with my days. Social intrigue, confessions, married couples, shining eyes, nannies and gaggles of noble children. Huge farms and serfs and trains and snowstorms, the train to St. Petersburg.

I am not sure when this habit of mine began, possibly in the late nineties in Seattle with Turgenev, or even earlier, in Strasbourg in 1996, as I plowed through the brick that is The Brothers Karamazov first in French (got about halfway through), then in English. It persisted, and from then on cold weather meant that I should take in hand a volume of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Turgenev, or Lermontov or Akhmatova when the mood called for poetry. Anna Karenina, The Idiot, The Torrents of Spring, “Family Happiness,” “Master and Man,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” more.

Something about the way Russian literature flies a straight path through a narrative, clean prose and insight on board, poetry and poignance when called for, but never overdone, resonates with me more deeply with every passing year The truth that runs through all relationships, between all people, at every age and level, the sensitivity with which inner struggles are described and resolved – or not. The frank portrayal of the spectrum of human passions.

I remember thinking as an adolescent that certain types of fiction were beyond me, and best kept aside for a later date – Hemingway and Fitzgerald seen in middle school but saved for high school, Proust on the radar in college but saved for graduate school, the Russians beckoning toward me through the fog of my mid-twenties but reading like a life manual by my mid-thirties (to a certain extent.) Especially as the occasional squalor of the day-to-day grind, working and dealing with an unwieldy public, my bureaucratic career barely papering over the churning sea of my many hopes, desires, and internal conflicts.

Last year I read more Tolstoy, novellas and short stories, and my holidays were improved considerably by literary insight, as I was at the time in my initial six months of cultural adjustment in Italy. It helped that we drove to the cold mountains of Slovenia for Christmas, the slavic air further contributing to my feeling of being transported and immersed into the whirl of another’s well-painted problems.

Russian perspective is a valuable acquired skill especially in Florence, where the sublime exists in daily company with squalor. Of course, we have the Palazzo Vecchio with its ridged tower and colorful crests, the Loggia dei Lanzi filled with sculpture for public perusal. The duomo, hulking over its piazza and the Piazza di San Giovanni, its tricolor marble trumpeting centuries of economic growth and dominance. Block after block of luxury high-end retail, five star hotels, vaunted restaurants.

Feast your purse on such luxury goods.

And yet poverty, in the form of desperate African immigrants selling tissues and their counterparts from North Africa holding down the market on selfie sticks and knockoff fine art prints, Roma bickering in the street and shouting into cell phones. The crowds that gather for the thrist shop and food pantry at St. James. The easy access to a variety of panaceas to numb the mind and get through the night. The transnational crowd of wealthy tourists, economic climbers from China. Even the occasional Italian parent slapping and spanking their young child mid-meltdown on Piazza della Repubblica makes me wince.

As a friend used to say, life’s rich pageant, hmm?

Two items recently have struck me as stepped from a Russian novel: the aging Italian junkie I see every day, and the English cemetery.

He is about fifty, with a white ponytail. He is slight, and short. He looks like a kind man, if he know what day it was. He wears a blue piumino, jeans, and tennis shoes without fail. I pass him on my bike each evening as he drifts around the intersecting of Via degli Alfani and Via della Pergola, in the middle of some very student blocks. He is there, rain or shine. His eyes are blue, but they do not see; he usually looks strung out in a gaunt, haunted way. He never asks me for money, probably because I am moving too fast on my bike, but his pathos is shared with every pedestrian he sees. I think he must have been a handsome and creative man once, twenty-five years ago. The Florentine intersections are often named on each angle – I like to think this is foresight to assist Florentines from every century to successfully complete their daily rendezvous. The corners are poetically named: Canto dei Candeli, Canto dei Diavoli, and so on. The corner where this hungry ghost rattles his maudlin chains? Canto alla Catena.

The Cimitero Inglese is just a few blocks from our palazzo, on Piazzale Donatello, which is today a huge traffic circle. I know it well by sight, but had never been inside its iron gates; two weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to tag along with a cultural side trip from another language school, and showed up on a very windy, cold day. As the group assembled we introduced ourselves to one another, chatting amiably until the caretaker came to the gate to let us in.

She was straight out of the thirteen century, and spoke fluent Italian with a British accent. A white kerchief was carefully knotted around her head, the front fold pulled down over her brow to make a sort of brim. She was cheerful, and of an age that cared not a whit about her matching white whiskers. She wore a sort of monastic habit, and sandals with socks. She ushered us into her library to tell the story of the cemetery, and the many famous people who came to rest there, especially the headliner – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, long-suffering of tuberculosis, who died of a gradual laudanum overdose administered by her husband Robert. The caretaker declaimed a few Browning poems, first in Italian, then in a beautiful Oxfordian English.

She said it was not just one cemetery, but three, and I am guessing the next two layers down are either medieval and Roman or Roman and Etruscan. The cemetery is a noticeable hill, which must be at least 40 or 50 feet high, and I am sure it is all bones upon layered bones. It became the English cemetery in the nineteenth century, when it was illegal for non-Catholics to be buried within the city wall, and the Piazzale Donatello was just outside that city limit, at the top of Borgo Pinti.

The caretaker also does a lot of work with the Rom in Florence, having invited them to the cemetery to help clean and restore the cemetery. From 1950 to the early 2000s it had fallen into disrepair, and had become an eyesore, a place where drugs were bought, sold, and taken, dirty needles discarded, women’s bodies bought and sold, a suicide attempt. When the cleanup began, though, the scholarly grandmother said, the iniquity seemed to disperse, and the property became a less desperate place.

Following her lecture, we went outside
to look at the graves and stones. The sky had become darker and grayer, threatening a stinging rain. I went off on my own to read inscriptions. I found the Browning headstone ahead of the group so I could take a picture. Many leaders of the Swiss Reformed Church are buried there, along with many artists, statesmen, the last living descendants of William Shakespeare, and more. The memorials themselves are very Victorian, many weeping angels with their hands on their foreheads, and rugged crosses hewn from marble.

The final resting place of EBB, as she’s known here.

I’ve always felt an affinity for stones and bones. It is the history student in me, the intuitive feeler who can close her eyes and inhale and feel the lives lived centuries before. Tuberculosis, smallpox, fever, childbirth. Perhaps heartbreak. Rarely old age. Where did they live, what did they dream? Whom did they love, what did they yearn for? It is another way to read a book, to know history. We all come to rest, sooner or later. I don’t know if I’d want to be squeezed in on that bone-filled traffic island.

Angel for eternity

I thanked the scholarly grandmother for her time and informative lecture. She was keen to talk more to me as she and Jason are social contacts, given their shared research. I told her that I would return with Jason, and some books for her library. I donated to the box that was set out by Rom volunteers to support their continued work as they right the broken and crooked tombstones, and repair the now-flourishing gardens – in the spring the cemetery erupts in a profusion of thousands of purple irises, the gigli that are the symbol of the Florentine commune.

I’ve got a fresh copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls that I will be inhaling as soon as our holidays begin, fortified by fresh images of low and high culture, living the human experience in Florence as close to the bone as life will allow, in parallel with art and history.

And, fortunately, with antibiotics, proper medical care, and immunizations.

Il clima politico americano / The American political climate

Polls are in, and it’s done. Alabama flipped a senate seat blue, blue, blue. And by 1.5%, not just a handful of votes.

This gives me hope. Hope that the US can maybe heal a tiny bit, that we may become less broken, at least. That hatred and bigotry and racism and sexism may not be the order of the day, after all. We are seeing it now, at every level in the US, for reasons that were in part set in motion in last year’s election cycle, and in part lay latent with deep roots at every level of American culture.

Other things gave me hope in 2017 that the tables could turn back to progress and justice. The Comey testimony. The Manafort indictment, the Flynn plea bargain. The resistance and #metoo, and my work in the resistance. The voices of truth. The airing of rot and mildew and filth. Like sucking venom from a wound, and spitting it out.

But this, the Jones victory, this feels sweet. This is the chisel that could split everything wide open, because now the Republicans have the thinnest of margins, and can afford no dissent, and there are always a few who will dissent (Collins, Flake, Corker, McCain in play…). Perhaps now the margin will become so thin that not even Pence can solve it with a tie-breaking vote. Not too worried about him, though; I think ol’ Pencey boy will be in prison by Christmas of next year.

However, I do wish to address the issue of white women in Alabama, of all educational backgrounds, voting for Moore. White men in Alabama; ok – we expect their votes for Moore. But women? After everything that came out in the news? Really?

I have many friends in the American north, in blue states, here abroad, people who have asked me – how can this be? How, Monica, how? I have heard women from the north hating on women from the south, those ridiculous women, I hate them, they are bigots who support bigots. They are not like me. These women. 

I am going to pull rank here for a moment, in a way I do not normally do, because I would like to explain something here for the general audience.

I’ll credential myself now: I lived in Oklahoma for thirty years between the ages of 2 and 42, and through almost every year of school, and grad school, and my first hourly job, and my first professional job, and an important professional position after that which I took very seriously – perhaps too seriously. And yet our family was different; my parents could not have been more northern and more culturally displaced than they were. I am here to report, despite all the time I spent in Oklahoma, I am not southern, nor do I feel southern. (No surprise for anyone who has ever heard me speak.) My friends were southern; their parents were southern. My teachers were southern. My boyfriends were southern. You get the point. I am from the south, not of the south. I have a unique perspective as an in-country, cross-cultural kid.

So, fine. Oklahoma was not actually a player in the Civil War; the so-called “Unassigned Lands” were just that in the mid-nineteenth century. But I suspect that many a Confederate veteran headed west, west, west, trying to put out of his mind the blood and muskets and cannons, and came to Oklahoma, which was not technically a slave-owning state, but which inherited many of the deeply entrenched beliefs of the Deep South with this Reconstruction-era migration westward

A friend of ours recently wrote an article that compared Oklahoma to Angola. I often thought of it, when I lived there as an adult, and had more perspective, as a post-colonial Rhodesia. The white men drive Land Rovers and tell racist jokes and drink beer. The women try to stay pretty for as long as they can, according to the judgement of men, who like their women to look approximately 22. Women have very little agency or purchase to trade on other than their ability to manage the men in the culture. And although those men did not carry a whip or a crop, they carried in them the small seed of violence and sexism and racism that, given the opportunity, could sprout at any moment into violence.

Why did white women of Alabama vote as they did? For Roy Moore, a known pedophile and assaulter of underage girls? Why did they stubbornly support him even as his crimes became more evident, and his victims stepped forward? (Expand this explanation to Trump, if you wish.)

Listen, people: unless you have lived in the region, you cannot imagine the violence that lies under very thin cover in the south. Believe me, white women in the south know exactly what white men are capable of. They had white men as fathers, married them, raised the sons, worked for them. They have seen the violence. They have seen the assault, and the aggressions, carried out with a guaranteed impunity. They were raised and now live in a culture that condones, with tolerance, the following types of violent behavior (and I am just covering sexist behavior here; I am not even going into the racist discussion):

  • Flirting with girls as young as four
  • Touching young girls, and worse
  • Laughing as they said a high-spirited woman should be “raped, to teach her a lesson”
  • To laugh and say to a teenage girl “let’s rape her,” as though it were a game
  • To pick up a woman physically and carry her around, and to laugh as she asks to be put down
  • To tell joke after joke after joke in the presence of women that demeans and belittles women and worse, and to expect those women to laugh in the presence of their own mocking denigration
  • Rape because “she didn’t say no”
  • Rape because “she was there” and a thousand other reasons 
  • Assaults that they attempted to justify by how a woman dressed, or what she said, or who her father and brothers were, or where she was, or what drink or food she held in her hand
  • Men in power constantly pushing the quid pro quo, urging or forcing a woman to provide sex, or some form of sex, or gratification, in exchange for something she wants or needs
  • Men in power who are protected as predators even as they serially prey on women, because they know that all they need to do is to start mocking the little lady, and everyone will understand that women cannot be trusted, they just took it into their pretty little heads…
White women in the south are repeatedly exposed to this level of sexual violence, day after day. Every day, from the youngest age.
Do you really think they love these men? The Stockholm Syndrome is strong. In the context of their cultural filter, it counts as love, but they gotta lotta rules, Lucy.
Do you think they fear these men? Absolutely. After witnessing what happened to their friends, their mothers, their daughters, their memories of what happened to themselves, again and again and again, and how the culture mocked them for having allowed themselves to become a victim.
It is a battle for survival.
What is the survival strategy? I’ll tell you.
It is sexualized survival. It is ingratiation. Because, they have seen, they know, what these men in their community are capable of. If they belittle or demean someone, it is just par for the course. They’re laughing! It was funny to them – why is it not funny to you? Come on, lighten up! If they assault or rape someone, are they charged and brought to court? No. They are protected, and given a raise, and allowed to keep their jobs, and are “rehabilitated.” To do otherwise is to sit in judgement and to be first a bad woman (who fails to fulfill the demands of the dominant social code), and secondly, a bad Christian, which is huge in those parts. A woman who willfully refuses to forgive a man who commits violence, who does not see the good beyond the bad, is a worse person than he is! He, you see, is trying to chan
ge! (Words, words, words.)

The wife or woman or teenager or student who was assaulted or battered does not get a raise, she does not get to keep her job, she does not get a special position created for her, she is not protected. Her first-place prize is to try to continue to scrape together the composure to be seen in town. Her prize? She gets to keep her husband, staying married to retain her community status, or she gets to look for a new job. Maybe she gets to change schools. Maybe she is bullied. Maybe she becomes suicidal. Doesn’t matter if she has a college degree or not. The culture is the same.

Let me repeat: the south always protects a white male predator, aggressor, assaulter. They do not even see it that way, or label it as such. It is the norm. 

If you are a woman in this situation, what do you do?
I’ll tell you right now: you do NOT piss off the man. He will hurt you next. And you know you will be next, and you know he would not hesitate. He’s done it before. If he does do it, he does it serially. He knows how to shut you up and scare you. Trump. Moore. And thousands more.

Have you ever been ostracized in a closed community for failing to follow the rules? Do you know what it means to be shunned in your community for stepping outside of the norm? This is the reward for a southern white woman who breaks rank. Not just the men will come after her, but all the women like Mrs. Moore too, irate that their power structure is being challenged. Everyone will attack and shun the woman who refuses to stay in line – even after she has been harmed, again and again and again.

So, friends, what I want to say here is: do not hate on the southern white woman. Understand that she is trapped, at every socioeconomic level, in a system she cannot control: a system that institutionalizes violence in the service of control, and to protect the minority elite.

Do support her. Do try to understand her. Do see her hate and fear directed toward others as a cry to protect herself. See her support for Moore and Trump as a terrified response to what she knows is coming.

Because she has seen what he can do, and she’s next if she doesn’t fall in line: Look nice. Be nice. Agree. Make his excuses for him. Be a pretty parrot. Do not contradict or condemn him. Quickly admit her own faults, while glossing over his. See the best in him, while identifying the worst in herself, and the ways in which she might have contributed to his behavior and his outcome, while absolving his responsibility for his thoughts, actions, and harms. 

They were, they are scared of Roy Moore. Dime a dozen in the south, as a dear friend says. The ones who came forward were mocked, they will be ostracized. They have been dissected and belittled. They’re next. They’re just asking for more.
Please, please don’t hate the women from the south for this vote. Try to understand.

I wrote this in a binge yesterday and have a few footnotes before I post:

First, of course not all men in the south are like this. I grew up there, I lived there for three decades. I had many male friends from the south. There are aware ones, but they are not the norm in this power structure.

Secondly, no, I am not a man-hater. But I survived a very charged culture for years. Not without scars, either. I know it too well.

Finally, the way to disrupt this culture is to find out how you can support women candidates for public office in the south. And I am not talking Mary Fallin co-opts, those blind-eyed Barbies who are the pretty parrot so rewarded and treasured by the southern man. I am talking about the Emily Virgins, Breea Clarks, Connie Johnsons of the south. I am talking about women whom any blue state would be proud to welcome. But they’re running for office in Oklahoma. Hell, I can think of at least 50 women in the south who are friends of mine whom I would love to see in public office. When women are elected in at least 50% of public offices at every level in the south, every woman and child and woke man in the region will breathe easier. They need our support. They need to be elected.

Viaggare e memoria / Travel and Memory

Snap. A frame.

Snap. A memory.

Snap, snap, snap.

Last week I returned to the US for a week of work in Chapel Hill, at our annual all-hands meeting with Terra Dotta. Jason and I are now in our sophomore year of EU living, which both of us have remarked is a first for us – to have done the heavy lifting and hard work of settling and adjusting, and then getting to build on it rather than dismantle the whole apparatus and head home. I’ve done that more times than I can count. Jason too. To be in the second year means my perspective lengthens and deepens, and in other ways, flattens out.

My trip from Florence to Raleigh was smooth, the kind of long, international, complicated travel day that, when it actually pulls off without a hitch, makes me feel like laughing maniacally. The maniacal laughter is quickly replaced by a bizarre assumption that “It can always be this easy” in complete contradiction to my jetway feelings of relief and “I cannot believe that it was this easy.” This is probably just travel mania talking.

In what ways was it smooth? Let me count them for you:

  • Easy sunrise departure from FLR
  • Quick turnaround in Paris CDG
  • Competent French de-icing despite falling temperatures and precipitation
  • On-time departure
  • Nice row mates
  • No bumps on way to NC
  • Made many friends in flight and in various airport lounges
  • Bag arrived in NC
  • Raleigh customs and immigration amusingly tranquil compared to ORD, LAX, HOU
Yayyy! That was sooo easy! I’m laughing!
CDG, so civilized. Not that I can afford it.
My week in Chapel Hill was good – good colleagues, good friends, got work done. It was socked in, weather-wise, for most of the week, which meant I was getting barely any sunlight to help my clock reset. This resulted in some wicked jetlag every night except my first. The first night of sleep is often glorious because the travel body is exhausted. Vengeance comes on night two, and beyond. 
I woke up at 3:15 or 3:30 a.m. every day, just wishing for a Carolina henhouse or pigsty to start working on. That is truly a farm hour. I laid in bed, thinking, now? now? wondering when sleep might return.

But it never did, and so my mornings actually began before 4 am every day, which made East coast afternoons long indeed. I tried to buck up and rely on my native energy source, which is unique and unpatentable, but without sleep – I am grumpy. Grum-peh. It felt a bit like newborn times again, but without the baby, and being much cleaner this time as I wasn’t wearing a t-shirt soaked with souring breastmilk and whimpering as I tried to catch a sleep wave.

We stayed in the Siena Hotel, which comes close to being a little piece of Tuscany right on Franklin Street. Marble everywhere, tasteful black and white photos of the Val d’Orcia, palio flags (all fourteen of them, I counted) in the portico, beautiful rooms. Weirdly, hot chocolate every day in reception instead of just water with lemon, or a tea table. The waiter in the hotel restaurant, of course called Il Palio, repeatedly offered to mail an Italian panettone to me, even after I tried to make clear that I lived in Italy, in Tuscany, where the small pyramid of wrapped and ribboned pannetone originated. Please do not re-export the pannetone to me, I can get a fresh one at home ASAP!

Androne, Siena Hotel
Fatigue aside, here is what I culturally noticed in the US:
  • People, whoa. So friendly.
  • Everyone speaks English
  • Spanish is everywhere! Yes, that adorably accented Italian that is so easy for me to understand. We went to Los Cerritos close to the office, twice, for lunch, and my heart did a little flip listening to the staff talk amongst themselves, making me miss all my old clients at Catholic Charities OKC Immigration Assistance program. Also, much futbol on the enormous TV that featured Mondo Deportivo, subtitulado en castellano. 
  • WOW big houses
  • WOW major Christmas light madness, animations and life size Santas, why/how do we do this?
  • Traffic. This traffic sucks. Why do we all want to be in this traffic all the time in the US? Intersections the size of basketball courts, or bigger.
  • Sales associates in Walgreen’s bordering on obsequious, making me feel suspicious and Italian, like “what do you want why are you talking to me so much in this context”
  • Wow, these toys in Walgreen’s are so inexpensive, I am going to buy a bunch
  • FOOD. Greek, Mexican, Asian fusion, tastebuds so happy
  • What is with the ice? Excessive ice in all drinks. Even when I begged for water, no ice, I was passive-aggressively served a giant cup with 80 ice cubes in it. 
  • WHY is the a/c on in the hotel in December, are they trying to kill us? Is the hot chocolate a survival strategy?
  • Could not even handle the nonstop news on the lobby TV. Sound was off but still felt affronted by continuous insane news in US.
By Thursday the weather forecast in Raleigh had tanked. Winter mix with sleet, snow, and freezing rain was predicted for Friday afternoon. My flight was not until 6 pm. There was no earlier flight to get on; I was determined to stay on my sweet ticket that had me home to Firenze with one connection in Paris. Some of my colleagues rushed to amend their flights. The forecast changed and changed; now warmer, now colder. I decided to take my chances. I didn’t really have an option anyway.
Friday morning was wet, grey, and cold, and as predicted, the rain began to freeze. Then ice pellets, then sleet. My colleague Mike and I agreed to get a taxi to the airport to arrive 4 hours ahead of departure, just as soon as I got a chimichanga lunch special with guacamole and a side of beans and rice at Los Cerritos.

The airport was a zoo. Huge, wet snowflakes zipped heavily down from low clouds. Visibility was low. Mike got checked in quickly, but I was directed to stand in a line marked Special, Special Services. Not kidding, Special Special. Super Special.

Pain, pain, pain.
I don’t want to narrate the ensuing grief here – who needs the retraumatization. I’ll bullet.
  • Major snowstorm in progress from NJ to ATL to Houston. ATL was pretty much shut down, and the ripple effect quickly became tsunami-level.
  • 3 hours to check in at the Special Special Services desk. No managing agent in sight. 
  • Rebooking passengers were in same line as people who just needed a boarding pass and a bag drop, like me. (Delta website would not allow me to print a boarding pass for an international flight.)
  • After about 90 minutes of this, I started managing the line by going down and talking to everyone since no Delta employee was anywhere to you know, manage things. “Who’s rebooking? Who’s printing and dropping? What about these two moms with very little kids, one sick one not but come ON people, let them go up front.” 
  • The mom with the sick baby was a very appreciative Italian woman, so that was good karma.
  • Super grumpy and annoying older German man gave me a run for my realist/optimist money. How wonderful he was on my same flight. And I saw him in Paris. “Don’t you have some other country to get to,” I grumbled.
  • Managed almost uncontrolled crowd situation as Danish backpacker attempted to jump the line we’d all been standing in for 3 hours. An African-American man from Atlanta praised my diplomacy. “That was good,” he said, giving me a nod. “About as nice a no as he coulda expected.”
  • I called Delta 1-800 for help and was on hold for an hour. Never talked to anyone, but got the shit marketed out of me with their on-hold messages.
  • Never saw an agent other than the one I got to see after 3 hours to print my boarding pass.
  • The snow stopped.
  • My check-in process took about three minutes (rebooks were taking 30-60 each). As I ran away from Purgatory, fist-bumping the air like Rocky, I yelled “Yay!” then gave an eye roll that might have blinded a lesser eye-roller, and groaned “Gahhh!” with my most annoyed dry gargle. The crowd laughed. For a brief moment I felt like Amy Poehler. Then I remembered I had a flight to catch.
  • There’s Germany, behind me talking and grousing in the security line. I start avoiding eye contact.
  • 30 mins to get through security.
  • As I got to my gate, I was notified my connection had been cancelled. No word on my rebooking in Paris.
  • Plane stuffed full of grumpy people.
  • Clueless flight attendants. (“I have a lot of people not here!” she cried, holding a fistful of vegetarian meal stickers. “Where is everyone?” “In the airport,” I snapped. “Oh, in security?” “No,” I said. “At the Delta check-in area.”)
  • Seated in 28B between an Indian grad student and a Brahmin princess who made clear she did not love flying in economy
  • 7 hour flight featured 4 hours of heavy chop. Dinner could not be served. Stuff was flying everywhere. No one could sleep.
  • Lost my headphones.
  • Upon landing in CDG I am notified that I am rebooked for a new connecting flight … in nine hours.
  • Kill 9h in CDG. Meet everyone in concourse 2F. 
  • Get a chair massage and mani to make up for stress in RDU and in-flight. French immersion is fun, especially when project-oriented.
Jason loaded the kids in the car and came to get me at the Florence airport. Eleanor was asleep. Victor was shy and freaked out.
The return trip was the sort of travel that makes me think, travel is the WORST I am never travelling ever AGAIN but damn my nails look good.
Regular manicure in Paris, so I like to think of this as the vrai French mani.
But that’s confusing.
Not sure when I am flying again to the US. I am trying to not think about it.