Update from Italy: The Grand Mufti of Rome

From mosque …. Photo by ‏🌸🙌 فی عین الله on Unsplash

The ancient trope of the Roman Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, is alive and well in Italy, ever at a cultural crossroads. Midway through the school year last year a pair of twins arrived in Eleanor’s preschool. “Mommy, they have almond eyes and are in English. They cry a lot,” she told me matter-of-factly. Muneem and Nissrine are Sudanese via Saudia Arabia, and are here with their mother Fatima, who recently finished a graduate program in Italy. They all speak English as a solid second language, and the twins have quickly adapted to Italian.

However, Fatima is now learning Italian, and is moving gamely through local culture with a brave, if novice, perspective. I have been brought in by the class representatives to help, from time to time, to interpret from Italian to English, and will confess that Fatima reminds me very much of an international student from my campus days. Yet this time around I am in a very different position, as a peer and a potential friend. My time is not regimented; I am not dispensing advice, or making difficult decisions. My role this time is to be a friendly presence, a cultural go-between navigating the spaces between Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the U.S., Muslim religious education, halal exemptions in the school cafeteria, the fondo cassa (class kitty) taken up for costs during the year, among others.

I am delighted that Fatima and I have formed a very casual, warm friendship, and last month she took me to a halal Moroccan restaurant in San Lorenzo with individual stew portions served in small tagines. That October afternoon, well before any return to lockdown or restrictions, was full of sunlight; the modest restaurant was open to the piazza, and the fix or so tables pressed into the compact space were almost all taken by workers and bike delivery people from Just East and Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Fatima bantered warmly with the owner and her sister behind the counter, who praised me for my five words of Arabic. When we finished our lunch, they brought sweetened fresh mint tea in clear glasses inside silver clasps. I thought it was funny that she did not know about the mosque in Florence, which is large and well-attended, not far from where we live. Since that lunch (which was cancelled and rescheduled a number of times, but which I refused to let go, not wishing to fall into the cliché of the insincere American), Fatima and I are genuinely happy to see one another at pick-up and dropoff, as I collect Eleanor, and she takes one twin each by the hand.

Today she told me that she’d taken the twins out of religion class, but that they seem to be learning religion every day. I understood at once that she meant not Islam, although to my mind, the religion class at the kids’ school is admirably ecumenical.

“But they still say these prayers and cross themselves. What are they doing?” she asked me.

“They learn it throughout the day. This is a Catholic school.”

“Yes?” Her eyes grew wide. I thought it best not to point out this basic distinction, or go into an explanation at that time of Italy’s designation of schools as pubblica, privata, or semi-privata. I went with the basics.

“Italy is very Catholic. This is a Catholic country.”

“It is? Why?”

“The Pope is in Rome.”

“Pope?” Wow, I thought, fuzzy on facts.

“Yes,” I said quickly. “Like the head imam of the Catholic Church. He’s the grand mufti here.”

“Oh, you know about imam and mufti!”

I nodded.

“But why the Pope is in Rome?”

I thought fast, fresh off my Greek post from yesterday, I got this. “There were five imams, but about a thousand years ago the imam in Rome decided he was the chief imam. So he became the head imam of the Western church. And the other four imams remained in the Eastern church.” I thought a moment. “Like Sunni and Shi’a Islam.”

Her smile was huge. “You know about Sunni and Shi’a! How?” This was a flattering assessment as I felt pretty certain I had mangled more than a few facts.

“Years in my field.” I smiled back. “But your kids will continue to say prayers they learn at school and cross themselves at meals. It is just a part of the culture. Over there,” I gestured behind me, “the Scolopi priests live. Regular imams.” Indeed, I had just learned this autumn from Jason that the priests are in residence on the west side of the building block. Always happy to share a newly-acquired fact.

“Is that who teaches them this?” She crossed herself. It looked like she was shooing a mosquito.

“Yes, they teach them that.”

“My sister who lives in London wants them to stop crossing themselves.” I wasn’t sure what to say about this, and in any case, Eleanor was first out and down the stairs screaming, “Thank you for saving me, mommy!” as though I had just sprung her out of solitary. I turned to wave farewell to Fatima, but she was already engulfed in a frenzy of twin affection.

… to the Vatican. Photo by John Rodenn Castillo on Unsplash

Update from Italy: All Things Greek

Admiring an ikonos in the Oltrarno. Sant’Iacopo sopr’Arno, Firenze.

In a strange, dreamlike way, even though I have never been to Greece, I feel a visceral connection to Greek culture. I date this fixation to a hardcover book I purchased as a child in a secondhand bookshop in Florida one winter when visiting mu grandparents. The large volume about ancient Greece seemed oprhaned from a series (where were “The Babylonians,” “The Romans,” “The Celts,” “The Gauls,” etc.) and had a slightly stained cloth cover, lavish color plates, and no end of detailed explanations about the city states: what they wore, what might top a column, the gods they worshipped on Mt. Olympus. Picture books were soon replaced with leisure reading along the lines of Edith Hamilton and D’Aulaire anthologies and C.S. Lewis retellings, which became a major in Classics and Letters as an undergraduate in October 1991. I never looked back. A recent podcast binge on Hardcore History took me along with Herodotus and Xenophon on various campaigns, into Assyria and Babylonia, explaining the uses of political propaganda and intimidating in 550 BCE. I gravitate toward these topics.

Before Latin became the lingua franca of Europe, the language of the learned was Greek. Greek in a Hellenized Mediterranean basin, Greek in parallel with the mirror image of the Byzantine church, and Greek, though frozen in time around 400 BCE, kept pace as a language of scholarship well into the Renaissance, and continues to be so today in Christian seminaries of almost every denomination.

My adventures in the Episcopal church were added to my Greek orbit. You may argue my point, but the Anglican and thus Episcopal churches were not borne of Lutheran Protestantism, instead taking up for a time of unity before the Great Schism of 1054 CE. Let us dispense with the pope, one might hear Cranmer state in as though in a distant dream, and return to an equitable system of patriarchs, distributed throughout Christendom. The greatest gift the Episcopal Church gave me – and continues to give – is a release from the endless analysis and dissections of the Western Church (although appreciated), and an affinity for the Orthodox (and by extension Episcopal) of practice before theory, verging on Buddhism. Gone the Cartesian matching of wits, of theory before practice, the idea that if it can all be explained logically, then I’m totally in. I do think this is the reasoning of many Western atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists. I treasure the Via Media and value a compelling reason (if you’ll forgive my immediate return to the Cartesian redoubt) to lay down the burden of investigation, and to practice.

My total time in a classroom learning Greek amounted to about two months in 2004. Not taking Greek as a young student is one of my greatest regrets in an otherwise full life fairly free of regret. I finished a superb book last week about Greek, La lingua geniale, a play on words of Elena Ferrante’s bestseller, L’amica geniale. The premise of the book is “nine reasons to love Greek,” but it also contains a gentle dissection of Greek grammar: what is lost when a language is lost. Singular, plural… dual? Indicative, subjunctive … optative? The optative in particular, the verbal gradation well beyond the basic subjunctive, of wishing versus possibility through to impossibility, counts as an immeasurable loss in the pantheon of human expression. The willingness to hold in suspension the degree to which we control our surroundings, and the extent to which our hoped-for reality is even possible, seem very timely concepts at the moment.

Tuscany entered the strictest regiment of lockdown yesterday, back to where we were last spring. We have been expecting it for weeks, and in anticipation of a loss of freedom I had been taking extra-long walks all over town. One morning, walking down Borgo San Jacopo in the Oltrarno, I passed by a church I’d been curious to visit for years. It is typically locked up, dark, its chancel hanging over the river and, giving it its moniker of Sant’Iacopo Soprarno (St. Jacob over the Arno). Formerly a landmark church, it is now part of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Sant’Iacopo Soprarno. They say you can hear the river from the front pews. I didn’t hear the water that day, but I love the symbolism of water flowing under a cantilevered chancel.

On this chill morning incense floated into the street, and through my headphones I heard the priest canting. Of course I went in and tucked myself into a corner to hear the liturgical mix of Greek, Latin, and Italian (you have no idea how happy this makes me). Two hundred lit beeswax tapers filled the sanctuary with pools of yellow light. The priest went through his paces behind the altar screen; an acolyte stood at the ready with a long taper, and a reader staffed the lectern. Gilded icons were tucked into almost every corner, illuminated by candlelight like an actual heavenly host. I haven’t been in an Orthodox church since I was last in Helsinki, nosing around Uspenski Cathedral (uspenski = dormition in Old Slavic, celebrating the miracle of Mary being taken directly into Heaven, bypassing all that distasteful mortal business of death), the head of the Orthodox Finnish congregation . I noted that accoutrements of the Orthodox sanctuaries made our Episcopal church of St. James (the Greater) look almost as austere as the Lutheran Cathedral of Helsinki, whose whitewashed walls and wooden pews are scrubbed clean, a bit of blue here and there the only color, its niches hollow. I did not stay for the entire liturgy, but left after about twenty minutes, walking into the warm sunshine, a hint of incense remaining in my coat and hair.

I follow my curious heart wherever it may lead, and the old I get, the more I enjoy drawing the connections among language, art, human experience, history, and faith. How fortunate we are to live in an era of cultural richness not forgotten.

Update from Italy: La Misericordia (Mercy)

Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

La misericordia. It’s a Latin mouthful, meaning mercy, and I learned it in Spanish, where it seemed a very long word indeed to express mercy. An unmerciful word indeed for the concept, to the mind of an adolescent language learner! However, in Italy, misericordia is also the term for the not-for-profit medical teams that provide medical services, staff ambulances, and dispatch first responders. Not-for-profit ambulances. I want to repeat that for my American readers. Emergency medical responders whom you do not pay. This speaks to a deep history of community support and a robust social contract. No one hesitates to call an ambulance in Italy when in a genuine medical crisis, because the ambulance bill is always nil. In the US the trope of a thousand-dollar ambulance ride has been a running joke for decades now. I wrote about my PTAHSSS four years ago here.

My first ambulance ride of my life was this year, in early March, for an ideopathic incident that still has us scratching our heads, but which we thought at the time to be some sort of cardiac distress (certainly there was a lot of general stress in early March). Four to six medical professionals arrived in lime-green jumpsuits with an impressive kit of start-of-the-art medical equipment, ran a bunch of tests on my person, then loaded me into the back of their ambulance, where we bounced over the very uneven flagstones of the streets between our palazzo and the hospital (not a long trip). They were efficient, well-educated, and kind. They did a great job. And we received no bill for any portion of their services.

Centuries ago, the Misericordia di Firenze was headquartered next to the Battistero and Duomo, in a jewel-box of a palazzo. Its phenomenal history dates back almost eight centuries. Said to be the oldest charitable institution in the world, it was founded in 1244 by a local San Pietro Martire, but really came into its own in the years of the Black Plague, when orderlies would transport the ill to medical care in large baskets. Even today, a mural on the outside wall of their office depicts a cloaked medieval employee of the Misericordia shouldering a sick fellow citizen with no small effort.

In a similar vein, the Ospedale degli Innocenti has been caring for children since at least 1445 and probably earlier, before they moved into the grand early Renaissance complex that today houses a childcare center and a UNICEF office. Their museum has records and artifacts from the Florentine commitment to take in foundlings and care for them since the early 1300s. While it would be a stretch to say that this care was given without shame in the medieval era, the culture does not put much stock in bootstraps. The community takes pride in coming together to care for its members.

When I see the news and updates from the US about the dissent over wearing a mask – a mask – a cheap, noninvasive, and extremely effective measure to control the spread of Covid – I am reminded of what may be the most compelling reason for me to remain in Italy and raise our family here. The social contract is robust. It is life on a human scale, and has been so for a long, long time. As I wrote three years ago, there is an established, high-culture context of expectations for network care in Italy. Spoiler: it doesn’t come from their top five most profitable healthcare corporations. I am checking in with older friends this morning to see if there is anything I can do to help them in the coming weeks, now that we are in code red or whatever. This is a culturally supported response.

Italy. Life on a human scale. Where you’re treated with the respect due a human being. It’s really helped me to grow, mature, and calm down as a person. If this seems hyperbolic to an Italian, I might suggest you try living in the US for more than three years to experience the crush of that cultural wheel. It’s just not doable for anyone with less money or gall than Peter Thiel.

What if the people of the world could be as kind to one another as Italians, moved by mercy?

Update from Italy: Here We Go

The sun really rolled out for my last walk. Gold painted the Arno this evening. Grazie, sole. Photo credit (c) Monica Sharp 2020

Tomorrow the region of Tuscany joins many other Italian regions, entering a code red in a lockdown attempt to manage the upward spiral of Covid positive cases. Hospitals are again strained. Ambulances and emergency vehicles wail through the streets day and night. The faces of Florentines are etched with stress.

What’s different this time, compared to last spring? Well, we’re old hands, have done this before. On a very positive note, the region is prioritizing keeping the schools open for children 12 and under who are not as technologically independent and who struggle with online classes. I have a lot more I could say about usability and online classes; I wish I could point the kids’ schoolteachers to best practices in online pedagogy, and cut their contact time down significantly to three 20-minute sessions or so, with time away from the computer to do an assignment. The memories of a teary, bleary third-grade Vic struggling with online classes are still very fresh for the other three people in the household who was in lockdown with him last spring. It is no exaggeration to say he was enraged, and as a parent and a tech-savvy person in general, I judged him to be most justifiably annoyed.

I felt the familiar panic goblin creeping over my shoulder. Yesterday I stress-cleaned, and overloaded our washing machine, thus breaking it and causing a flurry of palazzo apologies and assistance. The final load duly drained, Jason called Zoppas and the repairman has been scheduled for a Thursday morning house call. Fortunately it was the last load.

I have already begun stress baking, but more mindful now of what seems to be my increasing intolerance for glutinous grain. I may have to start baking gluten-free. I have a recipe in mind already for coconut orange carrot squares.

Knowing that this day would soon be upon us, I have been taking very long walks each day, up and down the Arno, crossing each bridge multiple times, typically in the morning before I went to the office. Watching the egrets gracefully fish, oblivious to the currents. The morning smells, the deserted streets and piazze, the bored baristi, all arranged themselves into a visual poem that I read as I walked. Tonight I took my last long walk for some weeks or months to come, and it did not disappoint. I was concerned by the number of people out, but 98% of them were carefully masked. I was clearly not alone in my wish to briefly access urban freedom before we get down to it here at home again. On my way back to our house, the sun overflowed with golden light spilling over the surface of the Arno, and a double rainbow appeared to the east, spanning the distance from San Miniato to Le Cure. I was not the only one to stop and take a picture of it.

Rainbow over Piazza Beccaria, arching toward Porta Croce Rossa. Can you spot it?

I’ll be going into the law office as I can, to work in the mornings. The kids will still be going to school. I’ve got stacks of books to read, and a book I am writing. The ogre who previously lived in the ground-floor apartment of our palazzo decamped at the end of May, so I’ll get my watercolors (acquarelle) out here shortly and plan on spending some time in the garden. Watch my Instagram feed for art output.

We’re just moving into this as prepared as we can be. I’ll be writing here more, so check back, and follow me. Parting note: I never thought I’d be a routine apron wearer at home. Is this Italianness? Is it practicality? I eschewed it before because I thought, I don’t need to protect my clothes. But now I think, it’s a kitchen towel with strings for hand wiping. Such is the practicality with which I am moving into the third phase of our pandemic experience. My 98-year-old Finnish muumuu would be proud.

Update from Italy: On Not Zoomin’ with Toobin

Fellow human as idols? It never ends well. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

When I first saw the news I was like, what? But he’s so smart. Why would he do that?

Exposed himself? In a Zoom meeting with his fly employer, The New Yorker, and WYNC, which is cooler than The New Yorker? Who does that?

A quick note: I feel qualified to weigh in as a layperson on this topic. I’ve been reading The New Yorker since 1993 or before, and have been a subscriber for 25 years. Why, just last week I was chatting with their customer service people (“Please stop sending us paper copies to Italy, for real, and now.”) I feel about Jeffrey Toobin as I feel about Malcolm Gladwell, one of his colleagues. They’re those smart boys in AP English who talked too fast and were quick to outpace one another’s amateur stand-up routine for the back row of class. But nervous, nervous as hell. Afraid they wouldn’t meet the expectations of their élite parents. Probably exhausting in person, like dating a Stairmaster, to borrow a bon mot from Sorkin. I read everything those two wrote, Toobin and Gladwell, religiously and for years. Insightful! Different! Clarifying.

For a brief period, Jason and I were friendly with a man through Jason’s Oregon connections. This professor had been a staff writer for The New Yorker for some years in the past, and regaled us and my lit fangurl with tales of the hallway gossip, how insufferable Adam Gopnik was in person. I felt less to blame for the standard rejection letters they’d sent me from time to time our of the slush pile in the submissions office, back in the nineties. Place was an office like any other. Good days and bad days.

Well, for some people, some really bad days.

Important disclosure: I am one of the few people in a room who will immediately quash mean jokes about lawyers. I like lawyers; I always have. I have frequently worked with them in jobs I found fulfilling. I have many lawyer friends. I appreciate their intensity and wit. I am not attracted to smarmy people when seeking potential new friendships, so this may be a contributing factor to why my lawyer friends are upstanding people who do good work.

I read up on Toobin. I hadn’t realized how élite and privileged his background was. Harvard undergrad, HLS (ok, so he actually has a law degree), hanging out with Kagan back in the day, staffing in the U.S. Senate, parents beyond successful (son of Marlene Sanders, former ABC News and CBS News correspondent, and Jerome Toobin, a news broadcasting producer). Ok, so probably, as we say in Italian, molto pesante. All that.

I Toobined a little in his footsteps, keeping my fly securely fastened and the video OFF. I rolled up my shirtsleeves and set out to analyze The Incident. I called a friend in the UK who tracks this type of news closely, in the name of #metoo and general feminism. “They’re all sex maniacs!” she laughed. “It’s a huge thing for them to flop it out in public.” Me: “You have got to be kidding. A work meeting? at 2 PM? Why?” She said it was a power thing, to see if they could get away with it. The more powerful they are, the more exhilarating the risk. Related: Having sex in public.

For me, the most disturbing part is how the news reported that he “exposed himself,” rather that “actively participated in Zoom sex on another video call and screen while his work meeting’s video was active.” I also have a real issue with the term “exposed himself” when in reality he was having a wank in a very public way in a work meeting during office hours. This is a willfully misleading synecdoche. He was not exposing his deepest self. Nor was he exposing a knee, or an ankle, or armpit. It was not intimate. It was exhibitionist. This act might be more accurately termed “exhibited his penis while pleasuring himself.” I think Toobin would appreciate the accuracy in wordsmithing here.

Sorry, élite writer, but your longtime employer did the right thing ending your employment. When I think of how hard a woman has to work to even be considered for any one of the multiple jobs that Toobin seems to have held concurrently, and how I have never known or read about any woman who had a quick wank in a work meeting, it is clear that Toobin became rather too accustomed to earning in the highest echelon of thought leadership. I am struggling to understand, Q: who risks that? A: Someone who’s accustomed to receiving everything, and expects to never have anything taken away.

I am so glad I was not on that Zoom call. Zoom is one of the last redoubts of connection and socializing and normal work in 2020. I am sure he’ll be rehabilitated soon. Someone will probably give him a softball book contract soon to talk about What He Learned From This.

Semi-related: I was listening to a Reply All podcast with Jia Tolentino, another staff writer for The New Yorker, about her bitcoin and online drug purchases and trying to track down her missing $264,000 USD, only to find she’d spent it all on the weed from Mali that she bought on The Silk Road. Jia writes really well, but demonstrates a greater-than-average dumbness on a variety of counts in this story. My idols are crashing down faster than I discover new ones. (If you think you might qualify for Idol Status here at my desk, there’s a Contact Form on my site.)

Update from Italy: Hope

“Hope is the thing with feathers….” Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Our household, like every home with one or more Americans in it, and plenty of other homes besides, had been subdued and glum in the days before and after the November 3 election. Anticipation and uncertainty, followed by more anticipation and uncertainty. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Is this going to court? What are the margins? Every time I looked at my phone the NYT app indicated about 128 updates. What states are still up for grabs? Why can’t Nevada count? Looks like Arizona was called prematurely. And so on.

Yesterday we planned to go to a friend’s house in the countryside to help collect chestnuts. I happen to love chestnuts and rue the unfortunate demise of our chestnuts in America, lost a century ago to disease. Chestnuts seem to me to be well-packaged gifts from Nature of abundance and sustenance. Their miniature leathern purses; the light monk’s tonsure atop each one, where the forest urchin was affixed before it split and fell away, releasing the nut. Alas, it was not to be, as Eleanor pitched a rare fit, threw all the books everywhere, and cried herself into a top-bunk nap. Victor and I opted for a sunny two-mile stroll through town, getting some shopping done for Jason’s birthday at the end of this week. At first Victor was quiet, stricken by Eleanor’s dramatic scene, but eventually calmed down and turned chatty with me. For his pains he was rewarded with a €4,50 mega ice cream cone, in the very European Kinder Egg flavor, which he said made him feel like he was floating through time and space. He polished it off in Piazza Santissima Annunziata and threw the cone away, while I spied a glowing chapel at the corner which I’d never seen before, and so of course I went in to be nosy and take a couple of pictures.

At home Eleanor was still slumbering in the top bunk, bangs plastered to her face by stress and sweat. I refreshed my news again. No news. Jason and I talked about when late numbers might come in. An update on my scroll said a pile of votes had just come in from Pennsylvania, putting the election outside of their margin for a mandatory recount (<0.5%). I looked at my screen again. “What!” I exclaimed. “How can Biden be up to 270 electoral votes but the election not yet be called.”

“Maybe refresh your screen,” Jason calmly recommended.

I did so. The 50-point font immediately flipped, BIDEN BEATS TRUMP. I too now felt as though I were floating through time and space, stress released, my inner cortisol drip of the stress hormone extinguished. We had a celebratory dinner of steak frites and a glass of Bolgheri. A moment of hope. Phones went off as excited messages began to fly. Hope is the thing with feathers! Relieved Italians sent well wishes and thank you notes. The world thanks America for this result. I am not kidding. The world. Everyone was rooting for the American People in this one.

But, in many ways, this is just the start of the hard work. As a country we cannot just keep grabbing the ball more and more violently from one another every two years. Can we work on Electoral College reform?Are there two Americas, and can they live under the same roof? Can a privileged class see and understand the damage done in their name to an underclass? Can we right historic wrongs, while educating one another on what those were and how they impacted people and populations? Democrats lost seats in the US House; key state legislatures that were hoped, expected to flip didn’t flip at all. Texas and Florida more entrenched. Michigan and Wisconsin living up to their swing state monikers.

It’s a rowdy mix, and yet let’s not forget, it is not a game. People’s lives are impacted. Real harms are ongoing to POC, the poor, to the middle class. Healthcare access continues to be a huge problem. Americans can’t save money not because they’re lazy, but because the rent is too damn high in America. Everyone is always out to earn more, seeking a sense of security, chased by bills in a country where food, childcare, healthcare, and retirement are inestimable costs, impossible to predict and wildly vacillating. And no one loves to change jobs because all your private benefits change, but oh, it is worth it to be on track for a little more money each year … America, this is exhausting. It’s no way to live.

This election feels a lot like childbirth: a tenth-month marathon of pregnancy followed by the two-year toddler marathon. I think we’re all still in the hospital, giddy with a newborn, but reality will soon sink in. And hope. A baby presents much hope, along with much work. We’ve done it before. We’re strong. We’re each a parent of this Republic, so buy some coffee and figure out how you’re going to get through this.

Update from Italy: Thoughts on Race

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

I have been thinking a lot about race and structural racism this year. Burdened by old knee-jerk ideas that I was ready to discard, I wished to see my world and the greater world for what they were, not for how I assumed them to be. My discursive game was not strong when I found myself in conversations that assumed a shared pleasure in this aspect of our shared world.

So I started reading. A book that resonated deeply for me was White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me (I started reading this book about a year ago) is that the term racist is not an insult. It is a fact of life the way our world is organized.

How strange to watch the events this year in America unfold from Europe, an ocean away. To breathe cool air under the oaks whose acorns of racism were carried to the U.S. in ships and documents that designed a system by and for the profit of Europeans. Europeans are concerned about America, but seem less concerned about institutional racism at home. This a topic for a different post.

For thirty years in Oklahoma, I navigated that culture in a leaky blue lifeboat, adrift in a sea of red rage. Oklahoma, a cradle of white fragility. Surrounded by people who felt, on some significant level, culturally cheated they didn’t belong to the Deep South – and had accrued none of the residual elegance, none of the courtly manners, the plantations, the fine breeding exported from the United Kingdom. All they got was a Texas twang and the Dust Bowl.

Thinking back to my thirty years in Oklahoma, white people often repeated that they did not see race, they were not racist, “he don’t care if you’re black or white, or green or yellow or purple.” How childish to refuse to see. How persistently transparent this system is for the white majority. If you don’t see it, then you’ve always benefited from it. Always. Full stop. Black and brown people did not create this system. Women did not create this system. Don’t even get me started on “Lean In.” Just work harder, as hard as we do, and you can beat us at our own game. Um, actually, no we can’t, because this game was created and rigged centuries ago. We all know by whom.

As a white woman growing up in Oklahoma, there were plenty of assumptions that I agreed with the institutions all around me. I had experienced a healthy dose of violence as a woman: Oklahoma culture does not take kindly to an outspoken woman. Especially if she be small. Something about the inability to subvert her spirit enrages people. I can’t even count the number of times that a man laughed or profited at my expense. Some scars minor, a few very deep. I learned to keep my mouth shut lest they come back for more, the way playground bullies will gang up on a weakling who hasn’t yet learned to stop squawking or looking cowed. It was exhausting to battle it day after day, in elementary school, middle school, high school, especially through the many years that I spent at the state’s flagship campus, first as a student, then as a grad student, then as a TA and a GA, then as a staff professional. Yet I know there were many who had it far worse than I did, treated as tokens at best; as nuisances, less good; as less than human, worst-case.

White women – all women – have it tough in Oklahoma. The dominant male culture is suffocating. Sexual assault and gender-based violence are rampant, woven so deep into the fabric of society that no one even bats an eye. They had an event for BLM this summer at the state capital with a bunch of white guys. No women, no POC in sight.

Yet white women on campus who complained the loudest about their plight were also often the most shining examples of institutional racism. Women who grabbed the nearest POC for a photo op when they got airtime to air their grievances. Somehow the injustice of this did not occur to them: what it meant to grab a brown human shield from a seated audience, to make them stand up while the white woman aggressively embraced them, thus snuffing further debate. Now hugging a brown person; you cannot call me to account. POC caught in the middle between privileged white men and women, arguing about the gender divide when the issue of race was invisible to them. Because we don’t see race, they said. Because it doesn’t impact you, our brown and black brothers and sisters rejoined.

Some in my circle on this side of the ocean have approached an unbearable note of tsking, tsk tsk, America, acting so badly. There’s no recognition of the English seeds, the European seeds, that started much of this in the 14th-18th centuries. Europe is doing pretty well now, overall, because they had centuries of a bullish global market built on the decimation of native cultures, in Africa, in the Americas, in Australia. We can acknowledge that history, while also saying that we need to do better, we must do better, to change our course.

I’ll keep reading and examining my own received opinions and ideas. I like DiAngelo’s suggestions and examples in her book for rectifying systemic racism with our own individual actions. I know there have to be ways I can put my values into action from where I live, in this liminal expat space, neither here nor there. Are you working on this? What are your ideas for cultural progressive change?

Come back tomorrow for my post about hate. People do not love to hate. Why do we think they do? Let’s examine hatred and perceived polarity together.

Update from Italy: Quando lo saprete?

Soon, with a little luck, both the world and Melania will be getting in a little boat and speeding far, far away from Yamland. Pictured, Ljubljana, Slovenia, a city that captured my heart in 2016. I bet the Yam’s never even been. Photo by Bram van Geerenstein on Unsplash

When will you know? Quando lo saprete?

I walked for two miles up and down the river this morning to clear my cobwebs. Mood is much better than yesterday morning as bits and pieces of hope floated in on the U.S. election news yesterday. I stopped in the caffè next to our office palazzo, lingered over a cappuccino, gave in and got the delicious fresh Italian cornetto. Why not? Perché no? Life is short; some days are harder than others. Italy ensures that everyone has access to a very affordable pick-me-up, no matter the city or day. Thus fortified, I headed upstairs and let myself in the heavy front door.

Pinuccia the office cleaner was hard at work this morning in our reception area. “Monica! BUONGIORNO!” She is a reliably cheery morning greeter. “Quando lo saprete?” When will you all know?

“Una bella domanda,” I yelled back even though she was about a foot from me.

These types of discussions in Italy require minor shouting. Sometimes, when the windows in our palazzo are open and seemingly shouting voices float up or down inside the courtyard from other apartments, I have to ask Eleanor, “Are they angry or just being Italian?” My little Italian culture expert will cock her head, listen for a second, and usually say, “Mommy, they are just being Italian. It is how they talk.” I have asked her this enough that sometimes now this ebullient Finn will now edge into Italian volume when culturally appropriate. I feel Pinuccia is a safe space in which to try out my discursive volume.

And it is a beautiful question. When will we know?

Pinuccia continued, “I saw everything that Tramp was saying! How he’d already won! Lying! And then I remembered what you told me, Monica! That he’s mentally ill! Malato di mente! So I paid a lot less attention. It makes sense what you said! He’s matto, pazzo.” She swirled an invisible corkscrew by her ear. I was glad that I had been able to give her useful information to refine her reception of Tramp’s rants now making international news.

“But you know, Monica,” she scrunched up the left side of her face in consideration, “I think the even BIGGER question right now is, when is Melania going to file for the divorzio?” Pinuccia cackled and made an internationally recognized non-verbal gesture for feck off. “Oddio, I hope she gets to file her divorzio papers soon!” She trotted off down the hallway to the architect’s studio to work on their end of the office. I am pretty sure she cleans that side too. Or maybe she was just headed down there to get their news.

I have plenty more on my mind, but must go refresh a few websites for return updates. But, America, this: I can’t stress enough how the eyes of the world are on you. This is an election of global importance. It really is. This election matters. Your votes matter. All of them.

Update from Italy: Civility the Day After

Take the belleza wherever you may find it. Photo by Max Nayman on Unsplash

Everyone in our house slept fine last night, except Jason, who claimed he got “half an hour” of sleep,” and his wife, who occupies the other half of the bed. Up and down, checking polls, ballot counts, Electoral College tallies. On the plus side, it wasn’t the route of 2016, when he roused me at 6 AM to tell me that He Who Shall Not Be Named had cakewalked off with the highest elected office in the land.

I sniffled and cried that week, on the circuit among home, the kids’ school, my office, home again. Watching the leaves turn on Via della Colonna, the blue sky sparkle, dreams crumble.

This year is different. No rousing, not news of a rout. But plenty of nail biting. The day was dark. I didn’t feel like smiling, which is unusual. I felt sick. My low expectations were being confirmed, and I didn’t like it. How? How can this be happening? People asked me. Hm, live 30 years in Oklahoma, and you might understand why. Once again I felt myself falling into the familiar role of cultural explainer. When cultures collided historically on the Italian peninsula, the Italian process of incivilimento (civilizing) was initiated by figures—temosfori—who acted as the cultural mediators between different human groups.

Florence was empty, rainy, wet. Disintegrating dog poo all over the sidewalks, of course. The ongoing pandemic underscores just how much the Florentine economy depends on mass tourism and global mobility. I’d read that 70% of the residences in the centro are tourist rentals, and these days, I believe it. The city is about 30% full. One in six jobs in Florence is gone for good. Stores permanently shuttering. I grumbled to myself as I locked up my bike and prepared to go into the very quiet office on the very quiet street. A new 28-page decree of restrictions, all aimed at preventing the spread of Covid, was released yesterday. There is no hustle and bustle in Florence these days. The baristas are bored.

Our of the corner of my eye I saw a woman falter on the sidewalk. She was too well dressed to be homeless or drunk, a bit older than I. “Signora,” she said softly, “can I walk with you?” I saw she was blind, or partially blind, and not walking well. I said of course.

“Where to?”

“Those plants.” The plants were about twenty feet away. She was very unsteady.

“Signora, would you like to take my elbow?”

“Yes, please, that’s so nice of you.” Her gnarled right hand clapped my left elbow. “Where are you from? Your Italian is very good. So clear.”

I guffawed. I never believe the compliment. “I’m American.”

“Oh, ugly day! These elections.”

“I know,” I said. I asked her where she was from. She said the Casentino, the mountainous part of Tuscany to the east which we know fairly well from numerous day trips and time spent out at Simone’s spread in Castelfranco di Sopra. I told her we loved her region, that we’d spent a delightful two weekends in Stia in the past year.

“Stia!” she crowed. “That’s my hometown.” I mentioned our friend Martha, who lives just outside of Stia in Porciano in a renovated tenth-century tower. The signora was amazed and delighted that we had a mutual acquaintance, and such a distinguished on.

We continued walking. “Where are you walking to?” she asked me.

“Oh, Piazza del Duomo,” I said. “Where do you need to go?”

“The Uffizi,” she replied. “I work there.” She may have said she worked in the archives or as an art historian. I was focused on the uneven sidewalk and my increasingly tingly left arm. My mind whirled. That was a true jaunt! I saw how tentatively she stepped on the sidewalk, faltering on the uneven pavers. “Signora, do you normally make this walk to work?”

“Every day,” she said, “but today is really bad.”

I could believe it. I patted her hand and walked slowly with the chatty Italian caboose latched onto me, walking down Via Cavour toward the river. We talked about my kids, the schools, language, her studies in Greek philosophy, my general fetish for Classics, the Roman empire, and all topics Romance of any era. We reached Piazza del Duomo and she stopped. “Well, you can leave me here,” she announced.

“Oh, no, Signora, if you need me to, I can walk to your office.”

“Oh no! I won’t let you!”

“I think I must!”

“That would be so helpful – thank you. I’m indebted. Also,” she added again, “because I can’t see, I use my ears more, and I love your clear voice. It’s very easy to understand! Oddio, I wish my English were as good as your Italian!” I blushed, but she couldn’t see that. She was walking very slowly, her feet in black flats, a mask on her face, extremely fogged thick glasses. I judged that she and I were about the same height. The signora and I continued down Via Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria. By now we were talking about San Francesco and La Verna and Camaldoli monks and all the religious devotion to be found in the Casentino. Then the Conti Guidi and all their castles. No one gave us a second look. A younger person calmly and gently leading an older person in public is a frequent sight and a badge of honor in Italy.

We crossed the Piazza and turned left on Via Ninna. I led her to her office, and down the stairs (“Signora, forgive me – I am sure you know these gradini!” “Oh, your beautiful Italian!”) to the Uffizi security.

I continued on my walk with my headphones on, listening to a “Reply All” podcast about quantifying happiness. In that moment I felt very blessed that this opportunity had presented itself in the form of a small, blind Italian woman, unsteady on her feet, for whom I might do a small service in the name of civil society. On a day when my low expectations were being met abroad, it was a balm to be able to step into this circle of basic kindness.

So, if you are struggling today with everything in the world, that’s the best I have for you. If an opportunity presents itself for you to show basic kindness and civility, please take it, even if it brings you a half hour out of your way and slightly off course. It lifted me, a temosfora, borne up by kindness and acceptance, usefulness and assimilation.

U.S. Election Watch: Update from Italy

Popes of the past perch atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Photo by Simone Savoldi on Unsplash

“Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro.” Literally, one pope dies, eh, they’ll make another. An Italian idiom for “life goes on.” No? It marches along.

To the Italian sensibility, the seasons change, grapes and olives and chestnuts are harvested. Politics are but a background wallpaper to scenes throughout the year, throughout a life. And Italians know from some stressful politics. They still have Berlusconi kicking around, for heaven’s sake (his physician said he will live to be 140!), and now a new standard bearer of populist mania, Salvini. It’s no bed of roses in Italian politics. But the peninsula has been ruled more or less in an organized fashion (not to say in perfect hegemony) since Romulus knifed his twin brother Remus and founded Rome in 753 BCE.

Italians really rolled out their moral support for Americans in 2016 after the election debacle. Don’t worry, they told us. We lived through Berlusconi. You will survive this too. We weren’t so sure, but then, we come from an earnest culture that really wants to be good, that wants to right wrongs. The Italian response is more often a shrug, hands outstretched, palms up, saying whatcha gonna do? Change human nature? Pick another fool’s errand; there’s quality espresso, and a fresh pastry, at the nearby marble-topped bar. Seek the micro-addressing of microaggressions. Be a good person in your day to day. As far as what happens in the clicking halls of Rome, well, not much we can do about that from here, but also, the minestra’s done, and it’s almost the ora di cena. Italy’s reliable rituals comfort and sustain a culture and its people.

Jason and I voted weeks ago, in Spokane County. We vote every election we can from here, and Spokane County’s management of absentee and overseas ballots is superb. We’ve both been following the news this election very closely. It’s amusing when stateside friends update us as though we lived on the moon without internet. But, it is sweet, and nice to be remembered by people who wish us to stay updated.

Today I went to work in a quiet office. Ah, peace. I switched on the lights and took out the file I’d been working on yesterday to finish the task in total serenity. The attorneys in the office come and go, are often in court, and frequently absent, which means my corner spot with the natural light is the perfect place to research and draft.

“MONICA! Buongiorno!” The voice of Pinuccia, the woman who cleans the office, echoed down the hall. A certain type of Italian woman finds me in these situations and talks my head off. This was also the case four years ago with the office manager Silvia in my rented space at the Sprachcaffè.

“The elections are today!” she told me brightly.

“Yes! They are,” I smiled, and put down a sheaf of vital records.

“My God! Trump! Let’s hope he leaves!”

“You’re telling me,” I replied. “I don’t even want to hear his name. There are many Troomps behind this Troomp. His presidency has been a failure of our system. It shouldn’t have happened.” I wasn’t really in the mood to go into checks and balances, the three branches of government, and the treachery in our co-opted legislative and judicial branches in Italian.

She regarded me closely. “How did you say his name? How are you supposed to say his name,” she asked. “What’s the proper pronunciation.”

“Oh, I just say Troomp. But Italians seem to call him Tramp. His name in English is pronounced Truhmp, with that beautiful English ‘uh’ that is so hard to say.”

Pinuccia laughed. “You know, I really like Melania! She’s so pretty and European.”

“She is,” I agreed. “She also looks like she could be Carla Bruni’s sister.”

“You are so right! She does!” She looked at me with newfound respect and opened a window to let in the fresh air. A pause. “Why did she marry him?”

“A pact with the Devil. She was meant to to divorce him. He expected to lose in 2016.”

“Ah, poor Melania, to be insulted by her own marriage! day after day! Can you imagine going to bed with Trump?”

Now, this image so early in the morning was far too much for me. I smiled weakly. “No, I can’t.”

“And his two ex-wives! How much was Melania paid to marry him! Well, it’s not her fault really, a beauty like her, from a small European country where almost no one lives.”

“I like Slovenia,” I offered. We went for a week at the holidays in 2016, enjoyed a farm trampoline, and sampled their emergency medical care with a wheezing toddler and a medical staff who spoke perfect English.

“Of course! But it would be hard to be from there!” Pinuccia’s wisdom and insights are always very earthy. She often relates long tales of her family’s struggles in an accent I honestly find difficult to parse. Her drive-by monologues, like those of Silvia four years ago on Piazza della Repubblica, are best received as local color and language immersion.

“I’ll have a glass of wine tonight,” I said lamely. “Get through this day.”

“Oh, do you think we’ll know something tonight?” She looked surprised.

“No, I don’t think we’ll know anything before December, most likely.”

“Caspita!” Wow! She moved off down the hall on her cleaning circuit.

I thought about how the hardest part of the past four years for Americans – and American – culture is our essential earnestness. Like, why would someone be bad on purpose? Why wouldn’t someone try to do a good job? This makes Italians shake their heads in pity. Of course people are base. Why would you torture yourself hoping or expecting otherwise?

And finally, after living four years out of the U.S. and looking at it with distance, and perhaps kinder eyes that see more and understand better, the astonishing ongoing experiment that is America continues to impress. That a country could be attempted (with all due respect to indigenous tribes, and what they lost in this attempt wasn’t right then and isn’t right now) where people might migrate and somehow become a new kind of person, an American, who, after just one generation, might speak English without an accent. Maybe attained a level of education unknown to their parents. Maybe, until recently, found a level of safety and security they hadn’t known before, where they came from (with all due respect to Black and Brown people and POC, and GLBTQI who suffered then and suffer now). Maybe had opportunities impossible for those who came before them in their families. I’m living proof of that, and if you’re reading this, you probably are too.

In many ways America continues to be a global experiment. The whole world has skin in this game. Even though the past four years have been a moral mudslide, we can reverse course and shore up and build again. We can! Despite what Americans might believe in the more insulated pockets of the country, the events and politics in the U.S. impact the globe. Despite what Americans believe on the more urbane coasts, the U.S. is still a global leader for whom every other country in the world is rooting. Our experiment is their experiment is a global experiment.

I hope you voted today. I’ll be sure to report back with Pinuccia’s post-election analysis. You know she’ll find me and have plenty to say about it.