Update from Mexico: The Day of the Dead

In 2002 I made a solo trip to Oaxaca for a week, around the holiday of El Día de los Muertos. As we are once more entering the season when the veil between this world and the next thins and lifts, I excerpt here a portion of my travelogue.

Photo by Mario Mendez on Unsplash

Mexico is on the make!  I understand that they need an extra peso here and there, but every service-sector person conveniently forgets to give you change, until you ask them and feel very gringo about it all.  Ah, a dollar here, a dollar there.  

Memorable exchanges, hilarious for their wiliness:

The Market at Mitla

Me: I love this beaded bracelet.  I’ll give you 40 pesos for it.

Seller: Okay, great.

(I give her a 50 peso bill.) I am sorry, I don’t have anything smaller.  

Seller:  I don’t have change.  You can you pick out a crappy string bracelet with one bead on it for 10 pesos.

The Bookstore at Monte Alban

Me: I am ready to pay.

Bookstore man: Okay.  That’s…. 110 pesos.

Me: (I give him 120 in notes.)

Bookstore man (handing me a receipt):  Gracias for your ten pesos.  I really appreciate it.

A Stop on the Tour of the Valley of Oaxaca

Alberto the Tour Guide: Okay, you all need to give me 30 pesos for, uh, fees to see this really big tree.

(Everyone in the group gives Alberto and his coworker Omar 30 pesos. But we do not see anyone collect it anywhere)

Dutch girls (grumbling): They told us that it only cost 3 pesos to see the big tree.

(Moments later, we see our tour guides Alberto and Omar exiting an ice cream shop with about 90 pesos worth of Nestle nutty cones and ice cream bars.)

Tonight I am going to the beach in the town of Pochutla – the renowned beach is called Mazunte. Oaxacans claim I misplanned my trip to miss the best part of their holiday, but I will return for November 1 and 2 when festivities are still afoot.  I am sick of being hot and sweaty, and prefer to sweat if and where water is available for swimming.  I don’t mind icy water but I do hate sweat-crust.  Today I think I contracted heat exhaustion (this happened last year in Brazil). It seems to always happen on the third day of exposure, being a shock to the system to go from Seattle’s cool clouds to hot Latin sun.  Small swirly sparkles started sucking up the air around my head and I retired to the rooftop of the hostel in Oaxaca to sleep on a chaise.  No cold countries speak Spanish!  Except for Spain, for whom my affection is well documented.  But Mexico, in spite of their cultural failure to make change for minor purchases (as well as charging spurious fees), is coming in a close second.  Why haven’t I traveled here more?  And when can I come back?

Update from France: Gobbles

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Mommy, the hottub eated the gobbles!

Both children shrieked as they came back into the room, damp and laughing.

I stopped what I was doing. What? How?

He was diving for the gobbles in the hottub and the hottub eated them up!

Did you tell anyone?

Their brows furrowed.


Who helped you tell someone?

The babysitter.

You told who?

We went and told the lady in the front that the hottub eated the gobbles.

The boy chimed in to help. They got sucked into the filter. The place where the water goes in. They slipped into there and we couldn’t find them again.

The girl yelled, the gobbles got eated!

Yes, I am clear on the fate of the gobbles, I said calmly, but we might have broken this hotel’s hottub.

The babysitter loped in leanly, her hair dripping, fiddling with a silver stud in her face. Hey! 

Did you see what happened to the goggles?

Oh, yeah. The hottub sucked them up.

I sighed. Did you tell the front desk?

Yeah, they said they’d look for them, and tell us if they found them.

I thought of the cheap rubber goggles clogging the filter system of the hottub in the fancy hotel.

I can check with them tomorrow, I said. Can anyone give me a hand with dinner?

Noooo! The kids screamed and ran to the back bedroom, leaving wet footprints on the maroon carpet. The sitter looked at me and shrugged, and followed the kids.

Will came in from the balcony where he was working.

Something happen? He popped an Oreo into his mouth from the open package on the counter.

Yeah, the kids said they fed a pair of their goggles into the hottub. 

His eyes widened. The whole pair?

I’m guessing yeah, the whole pair.

They tell someone?

They went with Fiona to the front desk to explain. I started patting down the chops with a paper towel.

He pinched another Oreo.

Hope it’s not a massive damage fee.

That’s what I said.

How much was our security deposit?

We didn’t have one this year.

My heart sank as I thought of the alien goggles clogging the pipes of the hottub downstairs. Dammit, and I liked this hotel so much. And they liked us. They treated us like family.

The next morning I tapped the window. Sophie was at the front desk working on the calendar.

I cleared my throat. Bonjour! – juste une petite question. Did you find the water eyeglasses?

She stared at me.

The pool eyewear? 

No, that wasn’t it….

The swimming lenses? My kids said the hottub ate them.

The corners or her mouth turned up. Ah, oui! We didn’t find them, but don’t worry about it.

Ne m’inquieter pas? I shouldn’t worry about it? I asked dumbly.

Sophie shrugged. Non. Don’t worry about it. We all have kids. She licked the tip of her pencil. I mean, if you really want them, we’ll look for them…

Non, non, non, I fluttered my hands around my head like I’d seen the French mothers do in the jardin back at home. No need. Merci.

Au revoir! She smiled at me warmly.

I walked up the stairs and continued to imagine the many ways that the hottub might overflow, breakdown, flood the basement. But it was out of my hands now. Come what may, and damn the cheap gobbles.

Update from Italy: Curtains

Photo by Maria Orlova on Unsplash

Our apartment in Florence has four enormous curtained windows that face south, east, and west. White linen panels with fine needlework cover the single casement panes. They provide privacy from the upstairs and downstairs windows, and even blocks of fine needlework run in parallel vertical lines down each length, perfect rectangles stacked one atop the other. Held in place by tension rods that inevitably pop out if someone (for example, a small child) pulls on them, I removed the panels in the west-facing window because they’d popped out one time too many. I was afraid we would break the rod or tear the starched panels. Francesca is very proud of her palazzo and keeps an eye out for any damage or impending risk to her property. The panels are from another time, when live-in housekeepers in perfectly tied aprons would hand wash and clear-starch the lengths of cloth, drying them in the loggia on the top floors where the even taller windows open to admit abundant sun and light and breeze. Our bare kitchen windows face north, up and toward the monumental windows of the loggia where Claudio keeps his art studio. Large sails of canvas hung on grommets billow on the outside of the windows. I can’t see his art or sculpture from the kitchen, but the leaves of his thriving ficus plants in their window pots flutter in the air on temperate days.

White sheer curtains, five dollars each, purchased from Ikea, hung from an unfinished wooden rod and matching brackets in the front window of the Wallingford house. They snagged and snared and attracted a herd of dust bunnies at their hem, but I loved them so. I left them in the house when I moved to Capitol Hill. They were practically rags by then anyway.

The Capitol Hill apartment had five windows that all faced south and west, down to First Hill and over to Queen Anne, hung with expensive custom double-drop cloth louvers that could be adjusted from the top or bottom, depending on the season and low slant of the sun. It is the case that a great quantity of low-slant sun shines in Seattle, and blinds that merely rise from the bottom could never rise to the occasion. The light in that apartment was heavenly, and the forty coats or so of paint on the walls, applied over a hundred years or more, changed from light peach to deep tangerine depending on the subtlety of the sun’s rays. In the bedroom I bought white sheers again, with velvet panels in midnight blue, to block the late afternoon and evening sun that stuffed the room with heat. It was a cruel irony that black mold destroyed all my shoes in the closet one winter. Pick one: damp cave or sweltering heat. The velvet panels made indigo puddles on the natural berber carpet and were effective. The room remained cool as a shoebox in my final summer there.

Vinyl curtains hung from the sole windows in the economy motels that my family stayed in when we made our routine, epic American road trips, stopping in Chattanooga, Savannah, Pensacola, Kansas City, Cheyenne. We only ever took one room. My parents got one bed, my brothers the other, and I slept on the floor, beneath the undulating plastic curtain that smelled of mildew and unsuccessful attempts to disinfect or remove said mildew. The curtains often were stamped with a faux French pattern or chevrons in tones of peach and orange. It’s really their cheap perfume I remember most. I close my eyes and can smell the mildew that grows from years of hanging above an economy air conditioner that rattles and wheezes throughout the night.

Update from Italy: Lemons Three Ways

Lemons in Sorrento. Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

We’ve all been down with a family cold since last weekend. (Our canary Eleanor tested negative for Covid, so we are not concerned about that. Plus the numbers in Italy and in Tuscany are very low.) Thoughts must turn to cheerier things. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Lemons three ways…

The waxy skin wins it. A bowl of lemons always looks like a perfect still life painted by a Dutch master. Years ago, when I lived in Wallingford and had blue and white crockery bowls in the kitchen of my rental house, I would buy bags of lemons at the QFC on Forty-Fifth Street and dump them into the bowl where they cheered me through the short winter days like a dozen perfect yellow suns. Lemons as a bouquet, and cheaper too, I thought, always scraping bottom then. 

In Spain throughout the winter and spring I ordered té manzanillo dozens of times before I realized it was chamomile tea. Oh the joys of unknown words that mask the familiar. In every bar in the old town of Santiago they served té manzanillo in the same thick white teacup with a saucer, the tag hanging lazily over the rim, a thin slice of lemon clinging to the saucer’s rim. How the Spanish loved tea in their lemon! To brighten it, my English friends told me, even though every English friend I ever had in Europe back then took their builder’s tea with a generous plug of fresh whole milk and a spoonful of sugar. I squeezed my lemon dutifully into the cup of manzanillo. It was confusing because manzanilla was also a kind of fortified wine that came in a wooden cask in the basement bar that I frequented in the old town with that rogue Coco. I sipped té manzanillo on those endless grey days when the woollen clouds hugged the over-the-top Baroque steeples of the cathedral. When I discovered that it was chamomile I liked it less, and these days I can’t stand the dusty gutterings. Even a fresh lemon slice fails to sufficiently brighten that slice of mouldering attic for my palate. 

If you ever feel like you could never tire of lemons (I raise my hand), head to Sorrento, where the poor fruit is fetishized beyond all reason. Lemons on tea towels, ceramic spoon holders, festooning plates and garlanding trivets and wreaths, tall narrow bottles of limoncello creating their miniature cityscape in every tourist shop. Ceramic lemons, wooden lemons, lemon lemons. They roll through the town squares, collect under benches, hang like Christmas ornaments from the ubiquitous, richly leaved trees. The citizens of Sorrento live for lemons with nary a pucker. 

If you’ve had a bad experience with limoncello in your life (that is to say, have you been a student), I invite you to try the limoncello of Sorrento, where it is served in a diminutive frosted glass, the bottle crusted with ice from the freezer. Tip the elixir into your modest cup. Don’t be offended by the small portion. The punch more than makes up for the size: astringent, sunny, positively Roman. Your jaw tenses, expecting to hit a seed or two. But no. It’s just solar energy and citrus goodness, summer and heat captured and chilled, warming your innards with its Mediterranean imprint. The bottle, now slowly defrosting, has been generously left on your table, should you wish to have another, or another. One wonders if Cicero kept limoncello to his recipe on his southern estate, deep in an ice grotto of his own design. One hopes so. 

Footnote: Manzanilla is a dry white wine made from palomino grapes, aged under a layer of yeast called veil de flor. Wow. So wasted on a teenaged me. Sorry manzanilla.

Sorrento, where even the churches somehow look citrusy.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Update from Italy: La Pescaia di Santa Rosa

La Pescaia di Santa Rosa. Photo (c) 2021 Monica Sharp

I walk past the Pescaia di Santa Rosa each day along the sidewalks that follow both sides of the riverbank. It points like an arrow southwest to San Frediano in Cestello in the Oltrarno, northeast past Ognissanti (pictured above with its bell tower). The weir is rocklike but not a rock. Its solid span of concrete crosses the river Arno like a grey shelf, the cascade of water creating vertical spines of foam.

How the forthright and simple pescaia in Italian becomes a weir in English seems a trickery of language to me. I can imagine Roman soldiers casting for trout on a pescaia. I cannot imagine who might have been running around England looking for a weir to fish from. 

Salmon weirs are a thing in Seattle, minor workarounds for the great dams and locks of the Cascade basin; the sloughing fish struggle up the ladders. In ye olde days wer meant to dam up. Weir looks like it is missing a d, seeking that long-lost friend so that it can become weird. I wonder if weird derives from weir. Something that is dammed up, strange, not flowing freely. That’s weird. (Never mind. Wyrd, a contemporaneous word, means destiny, but came to mean unearthly sometime during the reign of Victoria when the well-heeled were quite given to holding séances at home.) But I digress. 

Centuries ago some monks built the weir to support their woollen mill, in an age when sheared Florentine brocade was the very height of comfort and fashion. Those mill wheels did not turn themselves, however, and the abbot applied to the city priors to alter the course of the river for the purpose of powering their mills, making possible their livelihood while enriching their coffers. The city fathers were shrewd and quickly saw how much more valuable the river as a resource could be, in the service of enterprise rather than, say, the sand harvesters upstream at Ponte San Niccolò, or the fishermen who plied the current with nets thrown from their flat-bottomed punts to pull in piles of glistening tench. They gave the abbot permission to reroute the flow of the the city’s very artery, as though splicing an aorta, to funnel the energy elsewhere. Away it went. The woollen mill was shut down, one assumes, sometime during the Industrial Revolution, if Italy had one that was contemporary with those of the UK and US. But the weir remains, a vestigial creative solution.

In the summer the Arno dries to a near trickle and the weir transforms into an urban beach with sunbathers in various states of indulgent undress, couples and singles and clutches of impossibly beautiful teenage girls with long, straight hair. Fishermen cast directly off the concrete bar. The sun is direct and hot – too hot for me to be tempted by that flat iron. At dark, city ghosts slide in to tag the walls with bright, indecipherable graffiti.

Come winter the river veers unruly and the weir disappears under the rush of brown water, foam, driftwood, trash, bobbing soccer balls. The sky steel grey and hung with low clouds, It is hard to remember what the beach on the weir looked like.

Anthony Bourdain’s last public picture was take on the weir, a few days before he died by suicide in Strasbourg that summer three years ago. I sometimes feel I sense his ghost, smiling into the sun, his eyes twinkling, greying curls aloft in the breeze. Something twitches every time I walk by those stairs on the south side of the river. No reservations, I hear him say. I felt like I knew the man. It still makes me so sad we lost him before his time.

I love the Pescaia Santa Rosa – the St. Rose Weir. It keeps me anchored to place, year round, through every season, as the Arno connects Florence to the seasons, its umbilical to the Mediterranean Sea. The pescaia is the lens through which I check the river. Days I don’t see it, I feel I have missed something.

The weir in winter. La Pescaia di Santa Rosa. Photo (c) 2021 Monica Sharp
Graffiti and the weir. La Pescaia di Santa Rosa. Photo (c) 2021 Monica Sharp

Update from Italy: Of Opioids and Ivermectin, Musings on American versus European Healthcare Cultures

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

It’s hard to access routine healthcare – or most healthcare – in the US. Looking for great healthcare? Better have be over 65, in the military medical system, or so impoverished you probably live in a healthcare desert. Or you could be fantastically rich so that none of the regular rules and limitations apply to you in daily life anyway.

Going on Year 6 here in Italy, and while I won’t claim that our experience with Italian healthcare has been perfect (opaque bureaucracy, difficulty getting clear answers about enrolling in healthcare on an annual basis), I sleep easier every night knowing that a healthcare crisis in the family, heaven forbid one should occur, will neither sink or bankrupt our family. I’m an eyewitness to the fact that a universal healthcare system holds down all costs in the market, because no market exists for a $5,000.00 routine diagnostic MRI. Even purported outlandish costs that Italians decry rarely top a few hundred euros. We pay a small annual out of pocket expense, and nominal – nominal – co-pays, along the lines of €25 for an x-ray, €75 for a thorough blood panel (I’ve done both this year).

An excellent piece that ran in the LA Times five years ago about an American who had a major healthcare crisis in France (similar system to Italian healthcare) still sticks in my mind. The man’s total bill was €1300 and included heart surgery, a hospital stay, and weeks of residential occupational therapy. Even if the dark cloud of a health calamity were to roll over our little family this year, the cost would form the least of our worries. When health is fragile, survival odds do not improve by running laps in a maze of healthcare, filling out personal data forms at every turn. Americans know this. It really sucks. But it’s been so long since we’ve experienced it any other way, if ever, that the extent of our imagination lags far behind our moral indignation. Compounded by the fact that modern (maybe even historic) American culture breeds anxiety (for which adults are medicated), ADD, ADHD, and hyperactivity (for which children are medicated), to the point that American dogs are on doggie Prozac (more on that in a later post), and America is in a perfect storm.

Anxiety and unrest at every turn. Insomnia. Fill out the form: name, DOB, residential address, are you the principal policy holder or a dependent? Symptoms go unreported and undiagnosed for months or years until illness has progressed too far to be meaningfully treated. (I’ve discussed this phenomenon in this space in my piece on PTAHSSS – Post-Traumatic American Healthcare System Survivor Syndrome.) The spectre of looming medical bills is just too much for any family individual to calmly confront. It’s the main reason so many Americans work, work, work to make more money. How much? We don’t know, but given the uncontrolled and unmitigated disasters that lurk in virtually every life intersection, it had better be a lot, then a whole lot, then you know what? Double that. I have so many examples of this from my personal life, and am grateful that we survived them all, but the American healthcare system’s odds were not on our side. The house always wins, and the quarterly profits of health insurance providers get paraded about without so much as a peep from the population. This is not right. It is not fair. It is certainly unhealthy.

About fifteen or twenty years ago, the Sackler family knew that people would not complain if their symptoms were addressed. Hell, people will thank you for helping them. Their pharmaceutical laboratories came up with a slow-release opioid. Not opium, not morphine, but Oxycontin – all the better for its pilly portability. And profitable thanks to the addictions that take root in the body and mind when a person suffers pain from which there is no escape. The Sacklers became so wealthy from this clever bit of marketing in a blue-ocean market of “pain management” that they remain effectively immune from legal action to this day.

In American, it is hard to obtain the reliable treatment of the causes of disease. If you’re lucky you might get the symptoms addressed. This is particularly true for women, the working class, working poor, and anyone of color. into this scene enters the handmaiden of opioid addiction – the American pain clinic. In 2014 The New Yorker ran a superb essay by Rachel Aviv on pain management and pain clinics in the U.S. I had firsthand experience of this in Oklahoma when we lived there the last time, and can attest that those doctors handed out Lortabs like they were candy corn at the second-grade Halloween party. I dated a man in the nineties who used to drop them from his jeans pockets like jellybeans. By the time we left Oklahoma in 2016, I had a cupboard of hydrocodone that I didn’t know what to do with. I was never going to take it all. I don’t even know why I filled the scrips, except that I was given a scrip to fill, so I filled it. We dropped all the expired pills off at a pharmacy before we left. I vaguely remember Oklahoma was on a list of states that prescribed the most opioids per capita a few years ago. It was tough to find a good GP in the state. My memories consist of physicians browsing WebMD in the examination room and patriarchal obgyns. My nurse midwives were good, minus one who often brought Jesus into my prenatal appointments. One very young, kind surgeon saved my life in 2009, and for him I’m forever grateful. But he was an exception. I had a great doctor once for about two months, a woman originally from Pakistan, but she moved to New York.

To my point. In America, it’s so difficult first, to access healthcare, second, to budget for it, and third, to even know how much it costs, that the cultural current carries people to seek out accessible solutions. Easily obtained prescription opioids became one of those solutions for about a decade, until people started to notice how many people were addicted, transitioning to heroin, overdosing, and dying. It’s funny how American news coverage of the opioid abuse epidemic almost never mentioned how American this whole problem is. Show me another country that is having an opioid epidemic.

Well, you know what, why don’t we just legalize marijuana. That should solve quite a few problems, and the tax receipts are mad robust! Legalization has swept America in the last five years or so. Jason said I wouldn’t even recognize the place for the grand Weedtown it’s become. (I haven’t been back since 2018.) I’m all for legalization and recreational use, but I also believe that people should be able to access the healthcare – including the mental healthcare – that they need, rather than reaching to medicate and soothe themselves with a less-than-ideal remedy, given the struggle they’re experiencing. America, the birthplace of AA and the home of the temperance movement. Show me another country that is having a wave of legislation to legalize marijuana. Don’t get me wrong – people should be able to recreationally use whatever they want to put in their bodies – but if they’re putting those things into their bodies because they are seeking relief from pain, anxiety, or depression, then we have a problem. It’s not going to work out very well.

The US FDA classifies drugs based on the American economy and culture of healthcare. Alcohol is practically a pillar of the economy; it’s going nowhere. Ditto caffeine. Nicotine started getting the boot about twenty-five years ago when the social cost of tobacco-related disease was acknowledged and Big Tobacco got taken to the cleaners. American culture, on many levels, knows that its healthcare system and culture are dysfunctional, so in comes a different set of rules about marijuana. Recent studies about the effectiveness of MDMA on post-traumatic stress patients will likely rewrite those rules. And mescaline and psilocybin will soon be in the pipeline in the Universal Church of LSD and similar organizations as we attempt to address our fractured communities and collective sense of fragmentation and dissociation by gathering together to trip and bond in a safe space. I think it will happen. I will love to see Justice Alito’s face when he is forced to come down on the side of the Universal Church of LSD in the name of religious rights. War on Drugs, pah. It’s all politics.

I’ve recently written about the endemic anxiety in American culture, and how the American social contract forces us to accept a very high level of external anxiety (thanks to availability/affordability of housing, education, healthcare, childcare, retirement, and stability in general.) American culture ties people in knots without access to medical care because it’s blocked, and any fool knows that a stressed body and mind becomes a sick body and mind. Humans have not evolved to live like this. It’s not sustainable.

Unfortunately, Americans learn to mistrust a for-profit medical system, and few trust doctors. Maybe every now and again one finds a good one, at the right time, like I did, to scrape out my burst appendix. But physicians, inaccessible and harried, often work behind layers and layers of front-office administrative bureaucracy. The American culture that encourages self-diagnosis and treatment in an anxiety-addled environment is part of what brought us to a pretty pass with the pandemic. Ivermectin, why not? Ten years ago it was off-scrip opioids, five years ago it was legalized weed. The fearful and unsupported say that vaccines don’t work, the government is trying to microchip you, it’s a ruse, trust no one. The spurious snake oil salesman of the American 19th century comes to mind. Snake oil is sold where a profit is possible. No profit? Good information? Oh. No snake oil sold.

Solutions in America run downhill like water: where there is an obstacle, the water will simply change course, and everyone will praise the problem-solvers. (See: bulletproof backpacks; solar tents for homeless people; other ridiculous solutions to an otherwise solvable problem) I wish – always – that it wasn’t a peculiar ingenuity of the American system to create an impossible maze of reality, then gaslight its citizens into blaming themselves when “things don’t work out.” Or people die. Like 700,00 people from coronavirus, or 841,00 people from overdoses since 1999 (CDC). I wish America had universal healthcare so that basic needs could be met, and the water wouldn’t have to run around obstacles to find other solutions downstream that simply don’t constitute a sensible response to an identifiable problem.

Maybe next time I’ll talk about why America can’t inaugurate universal healthcare for all. Yet.

Update from Italy: Language Layer Cake

Mmmm language cake. Delizioso.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A clear confession: I miss my past lives in Spanish and in French. I have talked about this before in this space, in You say pieno, I say completo, The Sprachcaffè, and in The periphery of fluency. I spent significant time in both languages and their various cultures from 1983 to 2008, and was happy to reach the proficiency that I did. It all started by doing well at the statewide academic bowl in Oklahoma in the eighties and taking home top place for Spanish and English as a student. I remember recounting silly gossip in French in 1996 to a friend who was much more fluent than I was mere months before being astonished on the London Tube by my improvement. I remember confusing Argentines in 2001 with my allegedly accentless Spanish. I remember being so tired and half-bored in Spain in 2005 that my Spanish flowed forth effortlessly.

I accept now that I was born with a knack, as are others with gifts for art, music, and math. This knack makes my life here in Italy and in Italian possible. I accept that these past lives of mine have been rolled into Italian, creating a life in Italy that is more natural and more fluent for me. But it is like taking flour and making a cake. I have baked a language cake.

Do you still have the flour?

Kind of, but it is now inside the cake. You cannot get the flour back out. The flour is transformed forever.

The flour has been transformed and made integral within the context of the cake. I have Spanish harina and French farine. I balance tippingly between the Germanic and Romance branches of the Indo-European language tree.

My vowels are pure, a e i o u. I roll my R where many anglophones struggle with the tongue’s fillip. I have moments of natural communication, relaxed and calm, in Italian. I also have many moments where I feel neither relaxed nor calm, but I kind of crave that feeling. I like to think of it as a festival in increments of thirty seconds to five minutes. I credit the dominant expression wanderlust gene for the natural thrill-seeking of what the hell is this person talking about? or what’s my word to use here for possibly versus eventually?

Yet the faux amis trip me. Why is the first-person dative personal pronoun mi in Italian and me in Spanish? Mi piace. Me gusta. What happened with the possessive pronouns? La mia mamma. Mi madre. La mia amica. But also, in Spanish, amiga mia. Mi amiga! My brain has turned into a cold pronoun salad. La loro casa – their house – in Italian. Or is it casa loro? I have heard both. (Have I?) Their in Italian doesn’t even change any ending to match the gender of the noun, and by the way, it is the same word for parrot in Spanish. One can only assume it was their parrot. Some third-party parrot on a pirate ship comes to mind. Thank goodness we don’t have to say il loro loro. Spanish, su casa, his/her/their house. Makes sense in French – leur maison – but I don’t know why it drives me noci in Italian.

Or another favorite, salire. In Spanish, salir, an indispensable verb meaning to go out, but in Italian, salire means to go up! As in, to ascend a stair. Yo salgo. I’m going out! (Spanish) Io salgo. I’m going upstairs! (Italian). One wonders what would happen if one went upstairs for a bit of entertainment. Brothels come to mind…

The rules I once took as sterling for Spanish reveal themselves to be mere language habits, calcified and codified. They are no more rules than a collective grammar contract, recycling the same words wherever the words may flow. This is my struggle in Italy: all the words are very familiar, but how do the Italians use them? I am like a woodworker presented with a tray of jeweler’s implements or a pannier of surgical tools. I see the analogs, but need to hear and see it employed properly so I know. Italian makes perfect sense to me (except for all the parts that make no sense) once I hear them, but I have to hear them in order for it to click. How surprised was I to learn I could just say escoba for broom (escopa in Italian) and that all the tener/venir verbs are near perfect equivalents (tengo/vengo, tiene/viene) until I trip on tengono/vengono, and valiò / valgò la pena.

It was worth it. Vale la pena is something that Spaniards say constantly, but almost never in the preterite (the past tense, or what Italians call the passato remoto in Spanish). It’s all worth it in the present. Everything. But in Italian, the past efforts merit equal recognition. No hay remedio. It can’t be helped. I am still seeking the Italian equivalent for this Spanish expression of resignation, palms upturned. Perhaps everything is worth it or without remedy in Spanish for some deeply subsumed psychological reason.

Latin intrudes from time to time through Italian. Quanto prima. As soon as possible, but apparently this is used only in Tuscany. I can still decipher a funerary lapidary with decent skill. The cases and declensions jostle around my upstairs. Io salgo. Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Snips of Catullus. Oh Procras! Latin likes the preterite just fine, and willed it to Spanish, but Italian insists on the passato remoto. Just like their friends in France – the Roman Gallia. I’m always amused that to be in the preterite is fu in Italian and fut French. Eff you. What’s the matter with fui/fuiste/fue? Oh, a Hispanic tic? But I miss it so. I really do. I might miss yo fui the very most. Lo que fue era …

Haeccity. I recently learned this one hundred dollar English word. From the Latin haec, this, as in hic/haec/hoc. You can use it to mean suchness, or quiddity. (Kokomama or sonomama in Japanese, which I picked up from an Osho book about Zen philosophy that I read in the bath earlier this year.) I wonder why it is not hiccity or hoccity? Pooh Bear might know – it sounds like a song of his. Maybe it is the same reason that this in is Italian is almost always the feminine la, as in la cosa. We lose the noun but the article remains. When the vestigial article la is substituted out for a demonstrative pronoun haec, the gender sticks.

And this is just the Romance percorso. I run these circuits all the time. Some days less than others. The hamster wheel exhausts me. I yearn for binary quid pro quo equivalency learning. How it was in Spanish from 1983 to 1993. The hilarity of Galicia and the soaked granite streets of Santiago. The narratives I lived in France that continue to pique and amuse. Working in the immigration assistance program of Catholic Charities as non-native speaker of Spanish. But those days are behind me. Perhaps my hamster wheel exhaustion is the universe’s smirking payback for my greedy language learning as a youth. Or is it some form of arcane understanding, never mind the exhaustion?

For example, Jason and I were two steps behind a couple of ragazzi from the liceo across the street from our kids’ school. Who knows what they were talking about, but the one very tall boy in large white trainers exclaimed, Follia! Crazy!

Except the way he said it, it had about thirty L’s in it. Follllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllia. I appreciated its Latin provenance, a word I knew well from French the folie, so something I could quickly grip. I told Jason, laughing, that is going to be my new exclamation. What? Follia? He’d heard it too. We were both laughing now, each of us pulling one of our children along the sidewalk. You can say that, if you want to sound like a seventeen-year-old Italian boy, he added. But it brings me comfort to claim a recycled familiar word in a useful and amusing way.

In some future century, I believe that medicine and science will learn how closely language and emotion are connected, mapped in the grey matter of the human brain. This is why boring classes or audio files will never ever stick. Please don’t ask anyone in our home what we think of Rosetta Stone. This is why younger years are perfect for language mapping: all the feelings are right there and immediately accessible, for better or for blushingly worse. The more you feel, or laugh, or are shocked or in love, or offended or angry, when you learn a new word or phrase in a foreign language, the easier it is to remember it later when you might find the right occasion to use it. Without feelings there can be no heartfelt language. Without language our emotions are limited to the confines of nonverbal expression. I knew when we moved to Italy five years ago that I would have to start creating, at my advanced age, a new reference library of feelings, memories, and emotions in Italian. Again, tough to do when we are in English at home, but the daylight hours offer plenty of time to explore and observe, sense and participate.

Do you still have the flour?

Kind of, but it is now inside the cake. You cannot get the flour back out. The flour is transformed forever.

Update from Italy: The Quickly-Exchanged Coin

. I know it’s a Brazilian real and not a two-euro coin but the image was so lovely ….
Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

This morning I walked along the Lungarno, the Via dei Tornabuoni. Listening to a podcast about Marla Rusicka and feeling my heart ready to burst with the tales of antiwar protests, her work in behalf of civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq, knowing by the language used that she would not live, she would not be alive at the end of the story.

In Piazza Antinori, in front of the Chiesa dei Santi Michele e Gaetano, I saw it, glimmering on the wet pavement. A coin.

Two euros. Perhaps destined for the the offering plate? Why was it out here and how had no one else seen it yet? No matter, I picked it up. A sign from the universe! Yes, surely a sign that the Universe wanted me to have a cappuccino this morning. I slipped the coin into the pocket of my red raincoat, feeling buoyed by this benevolent sign. I turned right to go up Via dei Pecori, Sheep Street, the façade of the duomo and the bell-tower looming high above me, the blue sky and scraps of clouds floating above. What a glorious day! And soon I would be seated at a bistrot table, sipping a steaming cappuccino on this glorious morning. I felt very pleased. I passed a clothier, a bar, a terrazza with tourists sipping their cappuccini. Soon I too would be sipping a steaming cappuccino! I smiled to myself. How wonderful to have received this sign! I walked with a spring in my step, the weak sun streaming in the sky.

At Via dei Brunelleschi I saw him, with his pink baseball cap. A man of about twenty, African, always with a literal cap in his hand. More often than not I crossed the street to avoid his imploring, obsequious face. But I knew what the Universe was asking now. Easy come easy go. The coin was already in my pocket. I fingered it with my left hand. He smiled at me, his cap empty. I dropped the coin in his cap. Signora, grazie infinite! he smiled at me. Well, maybe not infinite thanks, I thought with remorse. It was just two euros, and I had only picked it up around the corner a moment before.

Easy come, easy go. My bag weighed heavy with the wallet which just he week before had been a source of mirth for the security at the US consulate. Però signora! Why do you have so many monete in your portafoglio? the private security guard exclaimed. Where else would I put my monete, I wondered, confused. Half annoyed. First world problems. Yes, x-ray my wallet! Count all my damn change!

But it occurred to me this morning that perhaps my heavy wallet full of monete was sign from the universe enough that I might order a cappuccino outside this morning. And indeed I did, at Caffè Ciapetti, where the aged signora served me with a trembling hand, and I sat outside next to a potted plant and to write in a flimsy journal while the motorini and cars and busses zoomed by.

Update from Italy: Life on a Human Scale

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

After I published a piece two weeks ago about the American work ethic, a friend asked, but what can we do to help effect the change? It seems many people are unhappy with the turn American culture has taken. What can we do to bring it back around to something on a more human scale?

The human scale is a concept I came to appreciate in Europe as a student, and my gratitude has only deepened in the past three decades. A day and a neighborhood that are human-sized for walking and interacting. A manageable day, week, year. Parks and sidewalks. A neighborhood. Cafes and small grocery stores close by. Basic shops within walking distance. Quotidian circuits you can actually do without driving 45 minutes in each direction, and sometimes in a multi-destination route, example: home, daycare, work, daycare, home, spending two hours per day or more in a car. This is not sustainable, but it is normal for many people living and working in America.

Everything has gotten more extreme. This has happened everywhere; in America, especially so. The weather. The climate. Politics. What passes for news. Elections and recalls. Clock speed. Work weeks. The cost of living. Anxiety. Enmity. Fractures and fault lines in community and culture. The pandemic and public health. There is no middle ground. Where is the firm footing? The ice is so thin. How can everything be getting more and more extreme every day, rocketing toward the far right end of the spectrum?

Do Americans even want the culture to change? I wonder. Everyone has to want it in order for it to change. A social contract is only as strong as the collective goodwill that supports it.

This takes the shape of YOUR support and votes for leaders and policies that support families and individuals in meaningful ways. I am talking the Maslow’s Hierarchy here (thanking my ninth-grade health class for a concept I often refer to):

Universal guaranteed healthcare. (I have another post coming about how the lack of healthcare in America has led us down the road of the opioid crisis and legalizing weed faster than a high school sophomore will cut class after lunch. For a different day….) Also and on a side note, if you’re celiac, Italy gives you a nice monthly rebate on groceries because it’s hard to shop gluten free and wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of help where it counts?! On your groceries? What would that cost per day for the US? NOTHING like the $273 million per day we spent over twenty years in Afghanistan.

Guaranteed parental leave. The United States also fails to mandate paid parental leave, unlike countries such as Germany, Mexico, and Niger. See UNICEF on this for excellent information.

Universal childcare. See UNICEF again on this. I remember once when a coworker in his early twenties was shocked when I told him that our bill for childcare in a given year was more than our annual mortgage payments. Younger people do not know this. Older people have not lived it. His response? Blargh.

Universal retirement. Starting at a dignified age. Perhaps 68. I don’t know. Not 75.

Guaranteed sick leave. 93% of the world guarantees paid sick leave. (PRI)

Guaranteed holiday time off.

Universal education at all levels of instruction.

These items cannot simply be commodities reserved for the wealthy or the fortunate, for those who judged to have worked “hard enough” and are therefore deemed to have “earned” these things. Does every person not have a life span that naturally incurs different needs? Pregnancy and parental leave for infants, childcare for working parents, school for the youngest among us. Bodies get sick, both our own and those of family members. Bodies and minds grow old – and sometimes sick – with age, and cannot work like a younger person. We all have bodies. We all know these things will happens to our persons. Why make the ridiculous bet against reality? Why shame people for being ill, or pregnant, or for having ill or pregnant family members, or small children who don’t raise themselves and need lots and lots of care? Have you seen a newborn lately? Your home basically becomes something like an ICU until the kid is six months old, and then you’re in a form of occupational therapy until the kid is 2 or 3 years old. Why is this a dirty secret, a reality to be swept under the rug, when it comes to public policy? American families are under stress because it is hard as hell to be an American family. The very structure of an extreme system deals almost every hand against you, and dares you to survive it.

Maybe fractured American families are broken under the weight of a system that refuses to support them, yet makes them pay and pay for everything, out of pocket and after taxes, with no time off. Unless you’re sick, in which case, you’re using your paid holiday leave to be home sick from work. Does this sound like a recipe for success? It is not. It is insane.

Education offered at no cost to anyone, if public – leave the private institutions for those who work there, and for those who wish to pay and who have the resources to do so. There are a few private institutes of higher education in Europe, for example, but far, far fewer that what we have in the US, because public education carries a very low economic threshold to access in the EU. Typically a few hundred euros of fees per year, plus books. Sometimes a couple thousand euros per year, but I don’t think it’s ever more than that. (The UK used to have a more accessible EU model, but that public payment structure has been dismantled over the past couple of decades, and British students now take out loans like American students for college. Not as much as we do, but a lot, compared to what they paid before, I think in the neighborhood of £7,000-8,000 per academic year.)

Healthcare, for everyone, all ages, all conditions. This can be done for less than what the US spends on healthcare per capita currently. Medicaid, Medicare, the US military and the VA, and Congress all currently operate on what is basically a universal healthcare system. Along with this, guaranteed sick leave for all workers. I can’t believe how no one in the US talks about this. It’s just not on the radar for the frogs in the proverbial boiling pot. About 20 years ago, all worker sick leave was combined with holiday leave so that we were forced to to use holiday pay when ill. Sick a lot this year? No holiday for you! Italians are always shocked when I tell them this. I guess I just got used to it in the US. Since employers in the United States aren’t required to provide any paid sick leave to their employees, many do not. About 32 million workers in the US have no sick leave whatsoever, with less lucrative jobs less likely to offer sick days (Pew).

The US GDP is almost $23 trillion annually. (So that $3.5 trillion bill in Congress is worth about a quarter of our annual GDP…. yes the one certain people are saying costs too much … like they’re buying a sofa or a car or something. Honestly, people should not be in public office if they don’t understand how public spending is different from private spending.) We’re a G7 country, at the top of the rich democratic heap. The wealthiest of an elite group of nations How much of that money is tied up at strategic points, like a blood clot, in massive corporate ventures whose profits become CEO paychecks? Or the defense budget? Our citizens are on the verge of a collective stroke because money and services are not flowing freely through the accounts of individuals. How much would it seriously cost to provide all these things to everyone in our country? Is American culture truly still so puritanical that we think that the only people who deserve a clean shot at a civil life are those who have worked “the hardest,” without “complaining,” eating cold gruel, and weathering numerous setbacks? (Trying to sketch a picture as Puritan as possible…)

So, here is my view on the path forward. If you feel crushed beneath the wheel, vote for the well-being and support of every person in America. You might not need that help now, but there is a 100% chance you will at various points in your life when you are called upon to confront the reality of the physiological needs for you and the people in your family, whom you assumedly love and wish to see happy and well cared for. And well communities make for calmer homes with happy people in them. Happy people tend to be able to better parent, and if they’re married or committed to one another, they’re more likely to remain so if every day is not some infernal slog where everything is difficult and respite is nowhere to be found.

I’m passionate on this topic. Still scarred from medical crises, a few pregnancies, working, babies, and parenting in the US, trying to combine two careers and one marriage in a culture where the pieces just don’t fit together, our savings are drained by normal daily expenses, and we never made enough money, while we are somehow gaslit as people and convinced that it is our fault for not working hard enough or making smart enough decisions. It can be a different way. It has to be, because the way the US is trying to do things – they way things have devolved in the US – is just not tenable.

Vote, then, for the public good. Support the new infrastructure bill. Be humane, and civil. Imagine life on a human scale, because it is certainly possible. We just have to believe it and want it to happen.

Update from Italy: What Italians Think Americans Do Over There

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

The preeminent eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico became, after his death, a voice of the Risorgimento (“resurgence”) – the name for the concerted attempt by an élite group to forge a unified nation of Italy. The many cultures that called the Italian peninsula home, with the many voyagers who sailed by and stopped a while, ensure that Italy was characterized, perhaps more than anything, by cultural plurality. The old Risorgimento chestnut – “We have created Italy; now we must make Italians!” – originates in this perceived obstacle.

The solution, as our man Vico understood it, was to culturally mediate among the groups, to find not just common ground, but a shared civility. The end goal? Incivilmento. A social contract, an agreed-upon culture.

In incivilimento the process, Vico maintained, is initiated by certain people — or temosfori—who act as the first cultural mediators between different human groups. (Temosforo is itself an invented term from perhaps the Greek, [tèmis], knowledge or law; [foro] carrier. Oh, Vico.)

My life work, both formal and informal, has been to develop and interrogate my own Theory of Culture, exercising a broad definition of culture. I was delighted when I learned this neologism, which I came across last summer when working on a mammoth editing job for an academic transcript whose theme was right up my alley, At the Roots of Italian Identity.

On that note, I have been compiling, thanks to scattered conversations with Italians and others over the years, a brief list of what Italians think Americans are up to in America:

1 – Everyone’s just getting richer and doing so well because there’s so much work and we pay no taxes.

2 – No foot on the neck of any American over there!

3 – Everything is free and easy!

4 – My personal favorite: some version of We’re all basically 1%ers living in SoCal, eating sushi and admiring the Pacific from Malibu, or strolling through Central Park.

Point counterpoint! A collection of overheard What Italians say about Italy:

1- The healthcare system is dysfunctional!

2 – The tax man will get you in the end.

3 – You can’t start anything here.

4 – It’s impossible to get anything done.

5 – If you’re not “connected,” forget about it.

6 – Everyone and everything and every institution in Italy is corrupt.

7 – Our elections are a joke.

A few of my humble observations regarding What Italians take for granted:

1 – Universal healthcare for all ages, all conditions, everything, guaranteed. Of course it has its systemic drawbacks, as do all systems, but by and large, with experiential knowledge of both countries’ systems, the Italian system is equitable and accessible and serves its purpose. Italians have no understanding of the Wild West scene in healthcare that Americans live every day. Paid for by the public.

2 – Universal education starting at three years of age, with excellent snacks and lunches. Paid for by the public.

3 – High-quality education in public institutions. Paid for by the public. (Downside: Italy has the lowest four-year graduation rate in the EU – 22%. Many start but never finish.)

4 – Many employment protections. (There are downsides to this as an employer – hard to hire, impossible to fire… this is the case in much of the EU. And another downside is that there is effectively no open labor market, and it’s the holy grail of a professional to obtain an indefinite contract, since it’s basically the equivalent of a traditional university tenure.)

5 – Guaranteed holiday time – twice as many holidays (14 official federal holidays) as opposed to the US (7), with plenty of ponti (long weekends, where you take off one or two days if the holiday falls midweek), and paid leave from jobs.

6 – The tredicesima. Employees receive an extra monthly paycheck in December – the thirteenth month. If they are in one of those “tenured” jobs.”

7 – A retirement without wearing a greeter vest at the door of a retail establishment when you’re 72. Which is not actually a retirement anyway, let’s be clear. Retirement, or a drawing back, literally means to draw down, not to draw the short stick and never get to rest in your later years.

8 – Family time. Italian culture understands and values family responsibilities, of children to aging parents, of parents to young children, extending outward to the family at large. See my lengthy analysis of this in a 2017 post, Italy: Who’s Taking Care of You?

9 – Excellent and affordable frequent train service throughout the country.

10 – Affordable excellent food that they know how to prepare at home. Hardly any fast food.

11 – Nice local wine and olive oil.

12 – A country with varied geography – Alps, Apennines, ocean, forest, lakes, cities, ad infinitum.

13 – Founding EU member state.

A few years back I wondered what the world would be like – more specifically, what America would be like – if our culture were able to put down its insularity and inquire with curious minds how things work in other places. An enormous, collective fact-finding mission, if you will. Sort of like delayed study abroad. Perhaps a period of two to four weeks, paid for by the commonweal to anyone willing to go see for themselves. No tourist activities, but a lot of hands-on community inquiry. I am accustomed to cultural woolgathering and grant that I betray my own outlier status on this point as a temosfora. The more we see, the less we fear, and the more we know. In most cases, and eventually, the more we release anxiety. There are so many ways to be. There are easier, gentler ways to be.

It’s well worth a moment to consider how we view ourselves versus how others view us culturally, even as a starting point.

I fully expect additional points/counterpoints, from my own desk, and from inquiring friends in all locales. Let’s hear it.

Love, A Temosfora