Update from Italy: Everyday Ephemera

Just a random list of things I have noticed in Italy.

The wisteria is out of this world. I have never seen wisteria in the New World look anything like the wisteria here that’s been climbing and blooming since the Roman Empire.

Beds are small compared to the U.S. Yet somehow none of the U.S. sheets can even be remotely provisioned for use. This is a conundrum. Actually I think maybe the beds are shorter but wider.

Wallets are large. Those big euro notes need a nice big pocket. American dollars are small. Ergo small fat wallets. Maybe American wallets are baby Italian beds.

They never put salt in their baked sweets and so the sweets taste pasty. Please, Italian pastry chefs, for the love of all torta di Spagna, throw a pinch of salt in the mix.

I can’t get used to millefoglie. the standard Italian festive dessert, which I have not tasted in forever because no one has had anything resembling a party since Carnevale 2020, last year in February. A million flakes and cream should be delicious, right? Like a French Napoléon, a silver fork tine dragged through the wet chocolate forming waves on the vanilla cream top. But … eh. I really just want what I have learned is properly called a sponge cake, which I called a layer cake when I was stateside.

I love the flower vendor in Piazza della Repubblica. Rain or shine, Katia is there with gorgeous bouquets for less than ten euros. She’ll even wrap them for you in bright plastic and raffia. I am telling you, that is service, and I am turning into Clarissa Dalloway.

Katia’s Handiwork

Italy has been in a declared state of national emergency for fourteen, going on fifteen months. There are very few Covid vaccines in Italy. Finger crossed for German mRNA vaccine approval next month.

Italians are super mask compliant but struggle more with social distancing.

Italian lawyers wear an incredible kit. Lawyers: cravat is one color, judges: cravat of some other color. Everyone gets shoulder braid. I spied this in a shop window today and promptly took it to the studio legale to verify accuracy.

Note LEX tatt on neck. Pretty hot. Does the ink come with?

Update from Italy: The Burden of Accent Embarrassment

In social situations, who gets to avoid embarrassment, and who bears the burden of embarrassment? I suppose this applies to many different types of circumstances, but I am here specifically considering language learning and the stress of immersion acquisition.

I will explain the rabbit hole.

I don’t want to speak English, say some Italians. Il mio acento è bruttissimo. My accent is very, very ugly.

This always makes me laugh, then cry. I, who bear an accent in Italian that must sound something like a Valley Girl ca. 1984. My main evidence for this is the mockery of the polizotti at the questura in January 2017. I don’t mean for this accent to happen, and it was never an issue for me in Spanish, where my immersion acquisition foray into Spain in 1993 spit me out with a near-perfect accent (in my mind) at the end of six months. Why can’t my Italian sound more like my Spanish? ¿Por qué no?¿Por qué?¿Por qué?¿Por qué?

Then I panic. How ugly is my accent in Italian really? Do my vowels make native speakers cringe, the way I fumble for consonants? Are they all thinking, she seems quick enough, but oh my god that accent is like nails on a chalkboard. I fear this in my more anxious moments.

Then I think, wait, if they think MY accent is annoying, why do they let me keep talking? That’s it. I’m not speaking Italian again.

Then I think, they must think people are so mean. This makes me sad. I explained the other day to an Italian friend that it is almost impossible to speak English with an accent that a native speaker would pretend to absolutely not understand. English offers a marketplace of global accents, all comprehensible. Maybe Italian doesn’t exist in enough accents.

I am thinking of Italians who won’t speak English because they are quite certain that native English speakers are quietly mocking them, which is not happening. Instead they would rather their interlocutor speak an accented Italian.

Immersion acquisition is the sink-or-swim model of language learning. You go to the place, no one speaks to you in anything other than Language X, which is not the language you were raised speaking. This was a honorable way to learn language in horsey times before the interwebs and dumbphones existed. Eventually, over time, and frankly over a lot less time than sitting in a classroom, you remember words and phrases and pronunciations, verbs and tenses and the rules around the subjunctive and formal usage. These lessons are engraved on your brain, the synapses knitted closely together in a tight dance of emotion and language. I’m no neurologist, but as a lifelong language learner, I can say that without feeling there is no language. Perhaps language can exist without feeling, but it sounds a lot like that weird male voice that reads PDFs out loud for me sometimes on accident and I still don’t know how to make that happen on purpose.

At any rate, without having a feeling about whatever linguistic point I was learning – really any feeling at all, so long as it was a good strong one – there was virtually no chance that the lesson would stick. The word would be lost, the verb forgotten, the tense misused yet again. Someday I will catalog a list of language learning highlights that stay with me today, particularly ones about oranges, lollipops, and the subjunctive tense that expresses a set of circumstances that will never, ever happen in this lifetime. Some combination of joy, fear, elation, shame, wonder, even a warm-natured pedantry can work; for example, I will never forget how to say “sunset” in Spanish after a kind older Gallego sitting on a long stone bench with me in Santiago de Compostela admired the sunset with me, and seeing that I fumbled for the word, intoned la puesta del sol. In that moment, the magenta-streaked sky, the cool air, the kindly man in his cloth cap, the hard stone of the bench, all converged to make sure I never forgot this term.

You really have to be willing to put aside your fears and never stand on ceremony. A language tiger must wade in, chin up, ears open and pricked up for clues, eyes scanning the near and far horizon, her language whiskers attuned to usage and intonation. It’s not easy. It is, in fact, exhausting.

One summer in Finland, my cousins looked at me pityingly and said, You must be so tired, listening to us, in spite of our mother’s warm cinnamon buns and hot coffee. Go take a nap. And they were right. It could have also been the marathon of Formula 1 they were watching in the living room with Finnish commentary. I trundled off to a guest room, lay down on a twin bed with a cotton coverlet, and had the best nap of my life. Listening in that state of high alert with your toolkit of feelings at the ready to be deployed in the service of effortless remembering – because memory is the better part of this enterprise – is exhausting, like the beginning stages of any relationship.

All this to say, feel free to be embarrassed. It will lock in some language, if you’re trying to learn one. I am sure of it. Then, after a long day of navigating one or more languages, go take a nap, if you can.

Update from Italy: Tampone Negativo

Signora guarda su! su su su! / Lady look up! Up up up!

It was going to happen sooner or later. I’m neither neurotic nor avoidant. I just hadn’t had a reason to date to get my brain swabbed yet for Covid.

No, I have not been vaccinated yet. Yes, I am on a list to get a shot as soon as it is possible to do so. No, Italy is not lazy, or poor. There are no vaccines right now. It is a supply and demand issue, and the supply is not to be found in the EU at the moment. I feel if I have to explain this any more my head might pop off. Millions of people in Italy would get the vaccine tomorrow were it readily available. It’s not. So, in the meantime, we are in a zona rossa (a red zone), with businesses shuttered and faces drawn as the local economy contracts even more severely. I sincerely hope that the world is flooded with various effective and updated Covid vaccine. But until it is, this is the boat we’re in. Masks. Social distancing. Closed schools. Cases climbing. Mortality, not great. Case positive reports.

And so, around March 23, Eleanor had had a cold for a week, then Victor, then Jason, then me. Since I had babies any cold immediately turns into a sinus infection. I think the smushy bones of pregnancy rearranged my sinuses. I battled the crud for a weekend, then reached for an unopened box of Zithromax (three tablets) that we had in the cabinet. My face stopped hurting, but I still had a headache for a week, and then a little cough crept in. It is the kind of cough that sounds like the mmmf a dog makes when he’s taking a nap and hears the first crunch of a distant mail truck as it makes the turn onto a gravel road. Calmly sitting, Mmmf mmmf. Reading for an hour. Mmmf mmmf.

Shouldn’t you get a tampone? Jason asked me late last week, his brow furrowed, as my canine vocalizations had gone on more than a week. I still cringe because the Italian for test swab (tampone) calls to mind Tampax.

I am fine! I protested. This is a cough that signals the tail end of a sinus infection. This happens. It could go for nine weeks.

It is also a symptom …. he said.

I know that, I responded, growing snappish. We all know that a cough is a symptom. Victor has a cough too.

Maybe you should both go get a tampone.

This is where the discussion remained all weekend, until I learned at church on Sunday that a parishioner had tested positive a few days before, along with their family. I had seen this person at Good Friday service. I spoke with this person face to face, with masks on and in front of an open door, but still. I talked to an increasingly annoyed Jason about it at lunch. He begged me to stop talking and to just take care of it. So, by late that evening, after some proactive messages to savvy locals, I had found and made an appointment online at a private clinic for 7:05 AM. I paid the 40 euros online. I printed my receipt and confirmed where the lab was located. Fortunately my daily walks in town have contributed to a finely tuned urban orientation in Florence. I’d ride my bike there and be home in time to get the kids to school. Right? Of course.

The morning was dark and soaked. Rain pounded our skylights all night long. I was up at 11 PM, 3 AM (whimpering Eleanor), 5:15 AM (overnight tooth loss, Victor). I made my tea and suited up for a spin in the rain. I got to the lab easily enough, greeted immediately by two smiling (!) receptionists, who took my tessera sanitaria from me and confirmed I’d paid online. (I don’t know why they needed that since it was a private lab, but whatever.) They ushered me into a small room when a murse in a bunny suit awaited me with a foot-long Q-tip. He was efficient even as he counted to five while the cotton swab brushed my frontal lobe. I suddenly understood how knights and knaves who took a sword in the nose ended up with strange injuries and prodigious recoveries.

Fatto, the murse smiled behind all his PPE, all done.

A few minutes later he called me back to show me the negative result on the stick that looked a lot like a pregnancy test. Just one line, he observed cheerfully. Not positive! Moments later the reception desk had my receipt and results for me. I rode my bike home, a drowned rat, but not infected with Covid. My heart lighter. I changed clothes and took the kids to school.

Now that I know how easy it is to do, I am telling everyone. No one can believe how fast it was. Instant results!

When I got home I had an email from my new medico di base (PCP) with a prescription for a public tampone. I responded with my negative result and a thank you. Also good to know my medico di base is fast on the email. The idea of a “public tampon” still makes me giggle. I suppose I feel like I can giggle since I did not pick up Covid at a voluntary event.

Mmmf mmmf. Still waiting for that mail truck though.

Update from Italy: My Tuscan Mammogram

Vatican mammaries look way better than stock mammogram photos. Photo by Catalin Paterau on Unsplash.

Frances Mayes would probably never write about mammograms. Tuscan sun always sells, but Tuscan breast cancer-screening? I value all aspects of cultural foray and I’m a huge fan of universal healthcare so stay with me here.

This time last year in Florence we were halfway through a hard lockdown, and we didn’t know it would start to open up again on May 4. As far as we knew we were on that spaceship from Wall*E and navigating our new forever normal. Streets were empty. Ambulance sirens blared night and day. Cops yelled at us through megaphones to get back home if it looked like we were doing anything close to lingering or loitering. No one was accessing healthcare for routine reasons, and the hospital crisis was heavy upon us. At least one person in our wider community died from cancer diagnosed too late, which her surviving family attributes to her fear of seeing a doctor in those months.

But somehow we did make it through all that intact, touch wood. Jason went back to his office in early May, and I resumed my routine in early June. The school year started and our kids got trained in distancing and hand sanitizing. The school has a policy: any Covid symptoms in a kid must result in the kid staying home and returning to school only with a Covid-negative test result. One tiny wrinkle: we were not in the Italian public healthcare system for complicated reasons due to immigration status and tax status. Of course the kids got sniffles and colds. The hoops we had to jump through and the fees we paid to get them Covid tests miles outside of town were insane. Four hundred euros later one memorable week last fall, we agreed that we had to look into it. Then, after Christmas, when Eleanor famously got carsick and threw up into her face mask, Jason redoubled his efforts to not only buy us a new vehicle that would make everyone barf less, but also get us enrolled in Italian healthcare so that we could get a Covid test less than 10 miles from home.

Jason’s visa expressly prohibits him from accessing Italian healthcare. My immigration status is dependent on his, and the kids are with me, but I don’t have the public healthcare proscription. However, until last year, I had no Italian income, ergo paid no Italian taxes. And then when I did accrue Italian income, I did not pay IRPEF – the employer contribution to universal healthcare. These various bureaucratic conundrums went on for years until we worked out the paid enrollment option. We wired something like a thousand euros to the region and were issued healthcare cards the next day. I quickly located primary care physicians in town for the kids and me in the same practice a short walk from our palazzo. More importantly for our immediate needs, we can now obtain Covid tests in the normal, free, km0 way that everyone else in the Italian healthcare system can.

I was thrilled to finally get my card. We are happy to pay the annual premium even though Italians do not pay this fee. I tucked the card into my wallet and focused on feeling relieved.

The very next week an official envelope arrived at our address from a healthcare entity called ISPRO. Hmm what’s this? I thought. I opened it and read through it. I was being called for a mammogram! I read through the pages and understood I had been automatically scheduled due to my age and sex. No cost to me. Proactively contacted. Tuscan region, etc. etc. Jason met me at home for lunch that day and I told him the Tuscan region had contacted me. Now that I was 100% official in the healthcare system, naturally they want to check out my boobies. I never had a screen for breast cancer in the US, probably because they scheduled me when I was 40 and I promptly got pregnant with Eleanor, then was breastfeeding until we moved to Italy. For reasons that became very clear to me today, even though any reasonable woman might suspect them, no woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding should ever have a mammogram.

The Florentine hospital complex is a bit out of town. Jason first suggested I might ride my bike there, but the weather did not really cooperate. the day was socked in with leaden skies. Our angel of a neighbor Chiara took the kids for lunch while we drove out to my Tuscan mammogram appointment.

The Villa delle Rose is set back from the hospital, with an old strada bianca parking lot of white gravel. It was almost empty when we pulled up. I walked into the practically deserted villa clutching my raft of papers and was promptly greeted by a young woman in a very smart pair of glasses. I handed her my paperwork. She processed me in no time and sent me on my way down to the waiting room. A particular hallmark of Italian healthcare is the absolutely skeleton crew of admin staff compared to the US. There was literally one receptionist and one page of paperwork for me to complete, and the receptionist didn’t even want it. “You’ll give this directly to your screener,” she told me with a solemn face, handing me a thin paper slip with a number.

Of course, being me, and having a tendency toward inappropriate humor when faced with anxiety-inducing situation, all I could think of was Mardi Gras and wondered if I would get a string of beads. I sat down in the waiting area where two other women were also waiting. The waiting area seemed clean but a bit neglected. Posterboards with empty flyer pockets. They both nodded and greeted me cordially, looking up with buongiorno buongiorno. The digital numbers lit up scarlet on the board. It was like being at the meat market in the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. I checked my number. F0013. I settled in and started to read my phone, but the numbers moved fast. In no time I was in the screening room. The kindly tech told me to disrobe from the waist. She kept up a patter I followed decently, no, no family history, not pregnant, never had a ‘gram before.

I stepped out of the tiny waiting room with my boobs out, relieved that the tech was a capable sixty-year-old woman in a lab coat with a halo of curly hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. No cape, no cover, which was surprising in a country where Alitalia flight attendants look like Diego della Palma runway models. I was surprised a local luxe brand missed this opportunity, but you know, how American of me to even think that. (“Gucci should really brand some cute mammogram capes! People would love that.”) She opened up the ultra high tech rocket ship of a machine and maneuvered my boobs, one at a time, onto the platen glass, apologizing profusely multiple times for how annoying this was going to be. Her demeanor reminded me of the Sant’Ambrogio butcher handling fresh chicken roasts. The machine flattened (ow – really flattened) and scanned each boob at two angles. Capable tech lady thanked me, told me to get dressed, and sent me on my way after giving a quick patter of instructions for exam result and callbacks for an echogram if needed.

And so, less than thirty minutes after I arrived, and having seen at least five other women getting screened, my appointment was complete. Proactive. No-nonsense. Every time I have an interaction with healthcare in Italy I am so relieved for the level of attention and care given. With a minimum of fuss, and a few humane comments about how this is no one’s favorite activity. I suppose my inner Finn thinks this is the way things should just be. Practical. Manageable. Especially after my healthcare-heavy years in the US from 2009-2011, then 2014-2015.

So, thank you, Italy, for looking after me. I am grateful. And thank you Jason for driving me out there on those crazy donkey cart roads that were paved in the hills around Careggi sometime around 1900.