Florence: Election Blues

Tomorrow’s the big day. November 8. Our quadrennial presidential poll and regular election.

I donated again last night to HRC. What could it possibly help at this point? Is my money being used today in a campaign? I don’t know. I hope so. Even if it is buying coffee for some democratic campaign workers somewhere.

Meanwhile, in Tuscany, we are trying to take in stride the three major earthquakes (no damage here, but everyone is rattled), the incessant downpour (though not of biblical proportions, as occurred 50 years ago, I am assured by People Who Know), the tornado in Lazio yesterday (!!), the strangeness of the political protest in Florence on Saturday.

Political protest: strange for an American, perhaps? The protesters failed to secure the proper permit to assemble; they assembled anyway; the police were called out. They marched from Piazza San Marco to Piazza Beccaria, stopping in the middle at Piazza d’Azeglio. It was raining hard; there were megaphones; the crowd was not insubstantial. La Repubblica carried a live news feed. Friends of ours got caught up in the middle of it and said there had been bloodied napkins on Piazza San Marco, that everything had been cleaned up most expediently within half an hour after the protest subsided and moved toward Beccaria. The protest was against PM Renzi’s constitutional referendum, which is happening soon, perhaps this week? Our progressive Italian friends seem to think, “good idea, bad bill, vote no.” The referendum is on Italian government, on its excesses and the ways in which it might be simplified. Perhaps the protest made major news because it was happening in Renzi’s hometown. It did not seem to be occurring around the country.

Watching the newsfeed online from our apartment three floors up made me wish, a tiny bit, that I was in the action. I have a latent protest gene. It’s never been properly exercised. I credit my Finnish heritage and my pro-labor father for these leanings, combined with years in Europe as a student, and years more in the US studying Europe past and present.

Maybe I was in Paris in 1968. Or in Spain, 1933, before the Civil War exploded. Or in the US after WWI, protesting a woman’s right to vote.

It’s not that I think protests necessarily change things. Ideally, they should. The Dakota Pipeline especially comes to mind, unfolding now in a suffocating media silence for weeks.

Protests are key because they give citizens the right to assemble, express, and be heard. On a street with no cars, so the polizia are going to tow all the new Skodas, you’d better believe it.

The more fragmented and detached our societies become, the more an analog protest seems so vital. Don’t hide on a comment thread, or on Facebook. Don’t lurk online. Show up in person and let your community know exactly what you believe.

Watching the run-up to the US election since we left on August 26 has been surreal. I read summaries of those three awful debates. I scan headlines daily with a disbelieving shake. Has it really come to this? Brexit is a fresh memory, and I have been cautioned by my friends in the UK to not rely on polls, and to make no assumptions. Just look at all the Leavers who came out of the woodwork on June 23 to turn back the clock.

Watching the US from here is like a 1960s sci fi movie where the space colonists are in a little ship, watching the Earth fade into blackness, and wondering if they will have an Earth to return to.

I got added to the secret Facebook group. I think it’s because I am a dedicated DNC donor. It has helped me feel like I am not in a minority as a progressive, educated woman. It has given me pride again, amidst the ugliness, that a woman will be the American president in my lifetime. I am concerned that we should all be careful what we wish for, but with a healthy side dose of f that. As Obama has experienced since 2008, nothing brings out the nutjobs like a reality that conflicts with their worldview. When HRC wins this election, I hope she gets a nice four-day vacation somewhere with a beach and an umbrella drink, because the severity of her campaign memories will pale next to her in time in office.

I’ll still be with her. I have been there myself, incrementally, but have accrued some analogous life experience in what she is going through. I can’t believe she actually wants this job, but I am very, very glad she does.

I do have a calm confidence that she’s got this. I’m with her. I felt this way in 2008 and 2012 too. (Interestingly, I also balloted both times from abroad in those elections.) I did NOT have this calm feeling of confidence in 2004. I did in 2000, but it quickly proved to be misplaced, and what a ride that was, one I will still never forget, in the George and Dragon pub in Seattle on that Tuesday evening, watching Florida turn from blue to red to blue to red and all the confused faces of the newscasters as we all started gaining an inkling of the 36-day Supreme Court ride we were in for.

1996 was a gimme. We all knew.

1992 was my first presidential election, and it made me feel so adult to discuss its many variables and aspects with my history professor, Dr. Levy, in his windowed office in Dale Hall Tower. He reassured me that Clinton would win, and I was glad of the knowledgeable farewell confidence as I made my final preparations to study abroad in Spain.

Jason and I voted absentee weeks ago, balloting in Spokane County. We were invited to a watch party or two for tomorrow night, but won’t go. With the time difference, the earliest the polls will be closing or returning any kind of result would be at least 11 pm local time. We might do better to just get up and take it with a hot cup of coffee on Wednesday morning.

Please let the U.S. move calmly in the direction of inclusion, progressiveness, and support. Let our systems become better and stronger. Let health and education and parental leave become rights guaranteed by law, for everyone. Let all people move through their lives in safety, no matter where they are, and especially if they are at risk for being somehow seen as “less than.” Let every citizen’s voice be valued and heard, and let us choose a leader who will usher in sanity and calm. Let those in the fading majority who tremble with insecurity see and understand how their insecurities pale against the actual lack experienced by so many more.

I am honestly worried about the violence that I expect to see from the side that I expect to lose. Come on, America. What is the problem with our culture? Pakistan had a female PM like 30 years ago. The UK had Thatcher. Most of Europe has had a female head of state. What about Liberia? Pretty much all of South America? Get out of your little time capsule and come into the 21st.

Just sitting on this election egg to see what we hatch come Wednesday morning.

Florence: Reality


We absentee balloted for Washington State weeks and weeks ago. Tuesday can’t come soon enough.

It won’t stop raining. Hard. Like a ton of rain. It is coming in through the windows onto the floor in the hallway.

We all have the stomach bug. Everyone is just waiting to see when and if Jason succumbs to round out our gastrointestinal quartet. Eleanor will probably go to school tomorrow, but not Victor.

Art and "Excellence"

Where I grew up, art, in all its forms, was something that was to be looked at and admired. It was an unimpeachable sign of refinement, however obtained. Art was not an activity, and art was not a safe place for attempts or failure.

There is a lot of “looking at” in the culture I was raised in. There are those who look, and then there are those who create, magically, Things Worth Looking At.

It strikes me now that I grew up in a culture of criticism, a grotesque exaggeration of pageant culture.

When I was seven, I had my own studio, in our huge finished basement in Michigan, a little utility closet where I used the shelves between jars of my mother’s canned summer fruit for the various things I was making. It was in this space where I also closed the door and sang. One time, my brother or father asked me if I was ok – what was I doing down there? Er, I was fine, I blushed. I was singing really, really happily and loudly. Looking back, I was clearly channeling some strong Sami tendencies to joik concepts into being and reality. I still remember the acoustics in there. Incredible. Concrete floor, high ceiling, wooden shelves and glass jars. I had spaces down there too in my studio for all my other little projects, which often involved making furniture and linens for my dollhouse, writing, and coloring with paints and crayons. Yarn was involved somehow. There were a lot of spaces to hide out and make stuff in that basement, and I disappeared for hours on end to do it. No one ever saw or heard what I made, but the important thing was, it was a safe space to just go and play with that energy.

Where I grew up, there was no support for making art, as I did as a child, and less so as an adolescent, and rediscovered in my twenties. In my town, if you were good at something, you were nationally ranked. My classmates in choir said they were going to Broadway… and they went to Broadway as professionals. My classmates making visual art received awards and grants in high school. My friends in debate accrued awards beyond measure. If you were a smart student in my high school, you went to an Ivy for undergrad, or at the very least, in the eighties, somehow got a nice, full scholarship to OU as a Merit Scholar or a Regents’ Scholar.

But where was the space for attempts and failed attempts? There was no workshop, because it cannot be Looked At and Appreciated. Where the studio? Who knew? These high achievers, these artists and intellectuals in my youthful community, seemingly woke each morning to breathe achievement and excellence.

My arty childhood energy receded further and further back in this culture until my goals for myself were Spotlight Operator and Editor. Seriously, I still cannot believe I thought this. I thought that my output was so poor, and so clumsy and ridiculous, that I stopped trying. I am not a creator, I thought. I can only help and support people who are gifted enough to create. I’ll just put a big “what the hell” bubble around that right now for you.

That is how, by the end of high school, the dregs of my creative tendencies were channeled into, I am not kidding, student government. The last bastion of something I could create. That went on for years. (My classmates in Oklahoma who stayed on that path are many of them now in the state legislature, so I’ll just leave that revelation with you.)

I look around now in Florence and see a city stuffed, literally crammed, with art, masterpieces in paint and marble and stone so fine that millions of people of a year stream through its narrow streets just for a chance to glimpse the highlights here housed on their once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I suspect most people think that the masterpieces in this city were created by some new type of human who simply woke up and chiseled the David, painted Venus on her half-shell, gilded the halo on Mary’s angel. Who wrote music or entire lyrical poems that explained the entire universe and all of mankind inhabiting it.

Solid initial draft, Signor Alighieri. 
You’ll have an adoring public for centuries to come! 

Great job on David, M’angelo. 
Can’t believe you got it so right on that first try! 
Botticelli,thank you for waking up and painting this.

But no. I dreamed last night of a Dark Florence. I wondered what the city would look like were it full of the castoffs and detritus, the failed attempts. I saw down time into studios brimming and buzzing with energy and creation, with no one looking over anyone’s shoulder, of artists and writers and musicians who simply had the space to expand and the safety, at some point, funded and supported by someone, to take risks. Sometimes those risks worked out well, and people clamored to consume the resultant art or music or literature. But very often those risks just failed to fly, and were relegated to a midden in the corner of a studio until they were removed.

What would Florence be today if the castoffs were on display? What would it say about the process? Who would come to assess their worth? If the lines were not graceful, the dimensions out of proportion? Who would love a hyper-edited Divine Comedy, eked out in moments when Dante’s internal editor managed to lower his critical voice? Who would attend a half-baked, dispassionate Puccini production?

(We talk a lot about Dante in our home. He is pretty much a roommate at this point. A glowering, intelligent roommate with bad teeth and brooding literary genius.)

 No one is lining up to see this, but who cares? Someone made it.

Nabokov notebook. 

Art in all its forms is not simply something to look at and consume. We are all artists. Art is something you do. It is an energy and a way of looking at the world and seeing things differently, then taking a risk to transform it with our hands, our perspective, our mind, our voice, our words. The high-water mark of this energy tends to wind up in museums, or garlanded with awards, or auctioned at high price. But what of the immersed iceberg below, and everything that came before what peers and society judged to be beautiful and worthy?

You are now free to go to your art space and make anything you want to. I don’t want to see it. Just tell me if you did it.

Oh, footnote. Choir is on! And what a milieu. People really love to make music in this town. So glad I went to that Friday night cena.

Florence: All Signs Point to Music

The flip side of a cruel mistress, as all artists know, is that she can also be a fertile muse.

I’m spoiled for inspiration here. Views and corners beckon me, even with my phone, to capture; amusing conversations overheard; hilarious encounters. Street perfumes of every bouquet. Colors are brighter; the city, though chaotic at times, hums outward from its core. I’ve the odd moment here and there to think and process. I’ve been writing a lot. Phrases form in my mind ready-made for use in poetry or prose.

I can’t stop singing or listening to opera.

I’ve always considered myself a singer of sorts, a writer always, a not-so-closeted thespian. My richly creative inner life has not always had appropriate outlets for the practice of expression. Maybe I watched a handful of YouTube videos that featured operatic soundtracks. Maybe I watched, or tried to watch some Merchant and Ivory movies online, then gave up since they’re all been removed from the public domain, so I just listened to soundtracks instead.

I’ve always liked opera. I can’t sing an entire libretto like Jason can (just say “Barber of Seville” to him and watch what happens. He’s like a walking Rossini production). My mom sings a lot, and always sang to us when we were small. She’s got a great voice, and is truly musical.

Years and years in choir in school. Honors choir. Show choir. Music theory. Voice lessons. Voice lessons! What could be more suburban than that?

Starting in 1987, for about a year, I took voice lessons from Marilyn in Edmond, at her house. She played an upright, and made tapes of accompaniment for me as we worked through the songbooks of folk, opera, exercises. I was a language nut even then and loved it when the lyrics were not in English. Give me the Italian, the German, the French. Marilyn was good, and patient. Her language skills were good too, because I learned how to pronounce everything properly.

The Italian really stuck though. Years later, when I was studying abroad in Spain, my first real Italian friend, the milanesa Paola Bertacchi, patiently listened to me creak through my rusty Italian repertorio for her. “Ma dai, tu sai molto italiano!” she exclaimed. It became a running joke. I would find her around our residencia and intone, with a poker face, “oh lasciatemi morir,” or some such. It always got a laugh.

I can still sing through all the lyrics for

Caro mio ben.
O cessate di piagarmi.
Se tu m’ami.



I didn’t even know what I was singing at the time. What did I know of the Italian Baroque, Scarlatti, or Pergolesi? Not much. I was busy enjoying rolling my rs and forming pure vowels.

I would warm up on some scales in Marilyn’s spare bedroom, ever after the elusive upper register. I’ve always been a mezzo. No prima donna vibrato here. My voice sounds positively Lutheran. Straight, clear, and on pitch. I sound like those sisters in Babette’s Feast. I love bridging magic intervals that make the hair on my arms bristle. I’m not so hot at hanging out on a liquid high note. I wish. If I get into a lower register, not like Cher, but maybe a higher alto, it feels good.

One time at Marilyn’s, I had rushed in flustered after an argument with a friend (ninth grade, everyone. Ninth grade.) I was trying not to cry but sang anyway. Halfway through the song, Marilyn stopped playing, looked at me, and said, “your voice sounds so different tonight – rich, and open.” It was an insight. I realized something then. My voice was much much better when I was a little out of control and uninhibited.

In all creative endeavors, it is the struggle of the artist to un-tether that inner bind and to let the muse fly freely through the range of creative tools. Singing, writing, acting – what holds the artist back? Is there a tight creative orbit, harried by an internal editor or critic, or does the muse have a long, long leash? I yearn to write without an inner editor, to sing with an open heart and lungs, without restraints. That soaring that comes when you really hit your stride, the tools are in place, and it feels so great.

I gave a few recitals here and there with Marilyn’s other students, at the Baptist church far north at the county line, or at school in productions. But I did not shine like those super-gifted musicians. I could not play “She’s Like the Wind” by ear, or sound anything like Barbra Streisand. I slowly began to believe that I was not good enough to express myself, and so literally retreated backstage in the school productions to be, insanely, working a spotlight that was literally trained on my peers who were busy ripping it up onstage.

I loved choir. I’m sad it fell out of my life as I continued through my high school, which was large, wealthy, and full of the competitive children of competitive parents, which made it hard to enjoy sport, theater, debate, or music as any kind of an authentic, adolescent amateur. I wanted to sing. But did not make the auditions. I was discouraged by the vocal music teacher at school who felt I did not take it “seriously” enough (read: not enough makeup, hair insufficiently styled, voice not high enough). I’ll never forget the face she made when I was at a voice contest in the tenth grade and was so nervous that I could not stay on pitch. I didn’t like the frowsy songs she chose for me. Lavender? Marionettes? Dolls? I was a teenager. Give me a break. I knew I was not her favorite student, or even the right type of student for her, but damn, I loved to sing. Incredible, when I think about it. I was a great sight reader there for awhile, with daily practice.

Whenever I am at church, especially at home with the Episcopalians, I do love to crack a songbook. I tried and tried without success to make it to choir practice at St. John’s in Norman, but the last three years with small children and varying transitions related to such made it all but impo

I’m mostly mended now from my sinusitis and bronchitis. I only ran a fever last weekend, and what a misery. After I have been that sick, which is not often, I often find I can really flaunt the reed. I was walking home from the kid dropoff on Monday and started humming “O mio babbino caro,” which I have listened to about 100 times since we got here, by varying artists. What! These effortless high notes at the ready, floating upward! What is this? It felt great. The days and weeks of a hot gullet bathed in snot really seemed to have done something to that famously elusive upper register. I was singing a high C. That never happens. I was actually a soprano for two days! So I went home and practiced and recorded myself, “O mio babbino caro,” and then, “Loch Lomond” (it was Samhain, after all), and then “Molly Malone.” I posted out to a couple of places that I was looking to scrounge up a weekly voice lesson, if anyone had any leads?

Wow! I recorded more that the next day too, but by late Wednesday the fresh cords had tightened up again.

But it made me think – time to get into a choir. It’s still there. I can totally do this.

And, as it happens, I am having dinner tonight at the rectory of St. James’ Episcopal with some other new expat arrivals. Jason and I attended when we lived here in 2005, and it is a well-known and well-supported community. It won’t be a large group for cena, and the invitation is the culmination of my relentless attempts to connect since last April with the parish. This might just all work out perfectly. I am sure they have a choir that has a space for a mezzo who loves to sing, and whose latent skills can be quickly refreshed with practice.

Florence: Space and Time

I’m still working on my inner versus outer maps of Florence, now that I have figured out the mystery of the Four Seasons entrance on Borgo Pinti. The memories fade in and out, but when they fade in and stick and I can’t place them, they are like the visual version of the earworm.

I have  a few more that are gnawing at me.

When Jason and I lived here, in 2005, it was full summer. I remember that we were often on a street, looking down another street, to take a right turn to go back to Le Cure, but in those summer weeks, to turn right up to Le Cure on that street meant to trade comforting dark shade next to generous stone buildings for the blinding heat of a stucco-lined wall. And so we always dreaded this particular right turn, either on foot or on motorino, because it meant to step from a medieval stone glade into a miniature Florentine version of the Sahara, like a De Chirico painting.

Where is this turn, this intersection? Was it a small piazza? I can picture its segment as clear as day, but now we are in the wrong season to easily identify the cool/hot chiaroscuro. I know it was between the Duomo and Le Cure.

Was it really a turn onto Cavour from between La Pira and Cavour? Close, but doesn’t seem spacious enough as in my memory. Also Cavour goes in the opposite direction than the one we would have been heading in. 

It’s around here somewhere. I’ll find it again, and avoid it in the dog days!

A second homeless, unmapped memory, more recent this time. In the spring of 2013, our friend Mel and I went to the Dali exhibit, taking the train from Arezzo for an urbane day in the bigger city. Somewhere around Stazione S.M.N., we ducked into a caffè and were charmed by a barista who made us beautiful cappucini with foam shamrocks on top, and practiced his English with us. Where was this caffè? The tangle of blocks and small businesses around the station now seems infinite, and dominated by cell phone accessory shops and fast food. I can see it in my mind, and we’ve been to the blocks around the station a few times, even as recently this weekend, but none of the map makes sense to me.

Older caffè than here pictured, 
but similar barista, who looked like a Hemingway toreador.

One last memory map confusion, not strictly limited to Florence, but now dishing up at the buffet of European space-time memories. A street that I walk down every day from dropoff at I Scolopi as I head home reminds me so much of Strasbourg that it renews my Gallic melancholy from that year. The liceo, the autumnal plane trees, yellow leaves dropping to the pavement and disintegrating under feet and in puddles.
Pan european street view.
Upcoming topics: immigrants in Florence, the 1966 flood anniversary, of Florentines and Anglicans, the changing seasons, bambini updates.

A presto!

Florence: Tutti i Santi and PTAHSSS

The church bells have been ringing out frequently all day in Florence, calling the faithful to the mass of All Saints – the national Festa di Tutti i Santi, which far eclipses the Anglo-commercial Hallowe’en in cultural importance.

It’s a national holiday along the lines of New Year’s Day in the U.S. Everything official is closed; a few small stores remain open. Because it is Florence, the hawkers of tourist catnip such as leather bits and scarves have not retired. Plus, they’re almost never Italian anyway.

The kids think it is fantastic that it is a holiday from school today. “We don’t get Hallowe’en off in the U.S.,” Victor said. No, my love, we don’t but this is actually a completely separate holiday on November 1, when Italians give thanks for all the saints that ever were, in any format, from the greats, like John and Peter, to the familial on the following day, November 2, like our ancestors both close and distant.

The Screti family dinner we were invited to last night was lovely. We were immediately handed prosecco pours. A wide variety of exuberant Italian grandchildren were busily playing chase, foosball, and Legos in the loggia. Maria, the youngest daughter, said that when they all gather, just the family, they are 23 for dinner. I also learned that the apartment we live in was once the teenage abode of her and her brothers when they were all teenagers in liceo in Florence. From the modest kitchen flowed a stream of squash soup and croutons, creamy risotto and simple penne, meatballs, chickpeas and carrots and french fries, followed by a huge spread of sweets after, sponge cake and fruit compote and fresh whipped cream and a selection of pastries that looked like it emptied out an entire local case.

Victor latched on to the Legos and we didn’t really see much more of him. The scene was not very conducive to our kids’ appetites as they took in all that was happening around them.

I met one of the sons-in-law who had inexplicably been to Enid a few years back with a friend. His eyes widened when I told him where we’d moved from. Everyone was very gracious about my Italian, which comes out much more fluidly when I am less inhibited, for reasons such as illness and a splash of prosecco. Sometimes a lack of preoccupation can easily be interpreted as a confidence. This is a secret of gathering years.

So sick. We now know said illness is a sinus infection and bronchitis. I have joked that returning to Europe from the U.S., it always takes me some time to adjust to the healthcare here (for the better) as I am certain that all Americans have Post-Traumatic American Healthcare System Survivor Syndrome (PTAHSSS). Symptoms of this syndrome include, but are not limited to, minimizing symptoms of illness to delay treatment because it is too confusing or too expensive to access, or both; delaying medical attention for the same foregoing reasons; stressing out about the cost of medical care and prioritizing cost of care over loss of days to illness; asking repeatedly about co-pays and feeling they are a deterrent to accessing care; worrying that sneaking costs are included in the medical visit.

Finally, after almost three weeks of being ill, on Sunday, the day of Eleanor’s birthday party, I could not take it any more. My head was on fire; my nose burned, my cheeks ached. I posted a climbing fever. I hadn’t been so ill in some time. I posted to a couple of Facebook groups about how to get medical attention on a holiday weekend, and a Sunday to boot. I remembered my positive, but expensive, experience in Paris three years ago, which put me out a cool couple hundred euro for a UTI and a basic antibiotic. (We’re not in the Italian healthcare system yet… the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly for an immigrant.) I panicked when people started posting links for doctors that go to the five-star hotels in town.

I missed Dottoressa Gaggia in Arezzo something fierce! She was so great and always available. Oooooh Florence and transition …. I was in tears.

After the party I begged Jason to help get me to a doctor.
“Just go to the doctor,” he said.
“By myself, with this delirious fever?” I asked. “I won’t be able to explain myself.”
“Just play the dumb tourist,” he said. “Or, we all go.”
I cringed to think of all four of us in a poliambulatorio. We each began frantically texting our short list of regular sitters.
There is one.
She soon responded to Jason and said she could come with her daughter.
We set out on foot to the poliambulatorio (urgent care) on Via della Pergola. A very Italian experience ensued. The 800-year-old hospital was fully renovated and full of priceless art. A few custodians floated around. A handful of obvious patients were departing after their appointments. The bar was closed. The way was unclear.

 How about some priceless art with your diagnosis.

Or a nice view of the Duomo.

We wandered around for awhile while attempting to interpret ambiguous signage, but once we found the poliambulatorio, there sat an avuncular doctor at a desk who motioned us in. No administration whatsoever. There was a nice plaque that said that Folco Portinari, the father of Dante’s Beatrice, had founded the original hospital on the site. I thought that that was a nice touch. But I was delirious. Jason said that the claim to origin was more probably spurious.

Maybe this guy will see me soon in the clinic.
Hey Folco, come va.
Nope. My guy was much older.

Jason quickly explained how long my symptoms had persisted, and he listened to my chest and pronounced, “Lei ha anche un po’ di bronchite.” 
He seemed to need no convincing of the
sinus infection after we told him about the fever and snot.
“But listen,” Jason said. “She needs antibiotics, but she can’t take amoxycillin. She’ll have a severe reaction to it; she had to go to the hospital two years ago for it.”
“Va bene,” he said, and wrote the scrip, which also included our friend the Bentalan, the Italian steroid that is always prescribed, and which Victor took like candy in Arezzo when he was one. Tiny tiny pieces of white pill dissolved in water and which he then drank.
There ensured another very Italian exchange about the farmacia we should go to to fill the scrip. “Duomo,” the doctor insisted. “Also, you owe 15E.”
“Pay here or … at the cassa?” asked Jason.
“Me. I’m the cassa.” We paid him.
He sighed and sent us on our way.
“I do not think I could have either found this office, or satisfactorily explained myself to this doctor,” I said, blowing my nose again.
I don’t remember what Jason responded. I was really out of it and holding back tears.

The farmacia on Piazza del Duomo is not called Farmacia del Duomo, but rather San Antonino. We spent some time consulting Google about this on the piazza. (Literal Americans.) We went in and got our scrip filled right away for about 15E. Everything looked good. Health on the horizon. I went home and promptly started the drugs and began to feel better.

Jason went out a couple of hours later and I thought again to look at the box. It was a brand name, but best to just make sure … WHAT. Ma che! There on the box was very clearly indicated amoxycillin.

Jason was actually out visiting a student for another reason and I began to text him frantically. “They gave me amoxycillin,” I texted. “I can’t take it. I already took one!” I texted him pictures of the box and the scrip. Fooled by name brand in large font!

He soon sped home on his bike and returned to the farmacia with the opened box of amoxycillin. They did not want to exchange it at first, but he stood there until they gave him a small box of zithromax. God bless my stubborn husband. He credited the fact that he waited until the farmacia matron came out, because the younger woman in no way was going to go over the scrip of a doctor to provide a replacement that he had not specified.

Now truly on the mend, and the right meds. But what a health-hole I fell into! Foiled again by PTAHSSS. I’ll remember this for next time I am sick… takes years to rewrite this terrible learned behavior that we have come to view as “just the way things are” in America, but hopefully I can speed it up a bit in Italy.

Of Hallowe’en and Florentines

Oh, Florence, Florence. You continue to delight and amaze.

Hallowe’en, a Celtic holiday in origin, so popular in the US thanks to our twin obsessions of dissimulation and sugar. And, for us, a family holiday, as we celebrate the second birthday of our wonderlassie herself, the princess of Samhain, Miss Eleanor Jane Houston, who joined us on a sunny Hallowe’en day in Oklahoma, just after 4 pm, when the veil was, indeed, the thinnest between birth and new life for us.

Happy birthday Eleanor!
Birthday cake: strawberry/lemon semifreddo. She did ask for “flagola” (strawberry).

I present the October 31 Shoupston family centerpiece, a montage of our values on this multipurpose holiday:

Masha and the Bear dolls, zucca (not yet carved and paganized), 
candle (yet undefiled by insertion into pagan idol), fresh flowers (you know, for a birthday, 
but also in anticipation of All Saint’s/All Souls on November 1 and 2, 
and also, these gorgeous things were called “fiori di ping-pong” and I could not resist.)
Choo choo! Calling all compleanni d’ottobre!
At Eleanor’s school.

Italy has an uneasy relationship with Hallowe’en. It’s still a country that is very culturally Catholic, and the pagan images, no matter how stylized do not sit well. They rest uneasily alongside crucifixes.

 Spiderwebs and the crucifixion.
 Umm. So close.

An American friend with a daughter close to Eleanor’s age related also how Italians reject the idea of a humorous Hallowe’en costume. Even children must be dressed up as witches, goblins, ghosts, and skeletons.

American idea of funny costume.
(I would never)
Italian idea of standard kid costume.
(less gross but still macabre)

And why would you waste a perfectly good zucca on that carved monstrosity. And put that candle in a sanctuary in front of an icon, for the sweet love of all that is holy.

Trick-or-treating: such a complicated topic here. As a GenX American I can tell you that I had the rare, unsupervised Hallowe’en candy sprint through the neighborhood, but more often was closely supervised by my parents, who carefully checked our candy for suspect treatment, then rolled their eyes as they handed over our rightfully acquired ten pounds of refined, artificially-colored sugar.

I’ve heard tales of Americans trying to trick-or-treat in Italy. What madness, I think. I would not even attempt that in a random neighborhood with my own children in the U.S. 

There is one quartiere in Florence, our own former Le Cure, which is said to be open for trick-or-treating. In Italy, the whole trick-or-treat affair (which Victor charmingly pronounces “trickle treat!” which makes me giggle each time I think progressive leftist thoughts, and then think, we really ought to coin that.) Various expats will head up there this evening to go door to door.

Last week, Jason’s campus hosted the children from Victor’s scuola materna for a Hallowe’en party. The littlest ones (2 and 3) were plenty confused, but who wouldn’t be confused by 50 extremely friendly and gently noisy American college students? The kids in Victor’s age group (4 and 5) were more into it. They made cards and ran around downstairs in the student lounge, then trick-or-treated through the offices of the Gonzaga-in-Florence staff. Their instructions were very specific. One candy each door! Do not eat your candy until you go home from school! I donned a witch hat and did my bit for the team. “Dite dolcetto o scherzetto!” (“Tell her trick-or-treat!”) The children shyly held out their very modest (by American standards) paper treat sacks.

Here I am, wearing my requisite witch hat with a bowl of German candy 
in front of a depiction of medieval Siena. Sounds about right.

As for us, we will be here in the palazzo with our lovely landlords, the Screti family, who are hosting us for dinner along with their entire extended family ( this is what I love about Italy). They have so many children (5) and grandchildren (12) that they are making their own door to door trick-or-treat party. Victor abhors a costume, and Eleanor is still pretty clueless about it all, so no costumes for our kids this year.

Except this, for Victor. The baffo al palio. 

Riding the C1 to school, baffo at the ready.

Yes, he loves this. The instant costume! So funny! But, also, and importantly, not binding. Signorino, no costume? Yes, I have a costume, he says, and whips that stick up to his face. Suddenly he is Phileas Fogg, which is fitting, since his school divides up the children by sections and language of instruction (Italian, English, bilingual) along the lines of the protagonists of the classic Around the World in Eighty Days. His section is monikered Mr. Passepartout (the others are, of course, Mr. Fix and Mr. Fogg). We examined the portraits in front of the elevator and decided he was, in fact, Mr. Fogg.

Three Degrees of Elena Ferrante

Readers, you know how much I love to read. I also love to read really good fiction. I take no pleasure from reading genre fiction, as trite and as blind as it so often is (although I do love good genre nonfiction, like auto/biography, and true crime). If I do not like a book, I will put it down. I am a slave to the Hook.

I love someone who wields words naturally to tell a story that is new yet familiar. I crave a skilled author’s insight, their perspective. I want to see their story through their eyes. I love learning about their life, where they lived, who they knew, what they said. Who fought with whom, and who made up? Who succeeded and who suffered in life? Who kept the secret to the end, and who freely confessed? It’s exhilarating like nothing else for me.

Elena Ferrante and I were a writer/reader match made in heaven. just waiting to happen.

I first read the New Yorker article about her in early 2013. We were living in Arezzo then. I bought Days of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend from Amazon UK. The article led with DOA, and I tried to read it first. Gritty, filthy, painful, angry fiction. Wow. I was not prepared for this.

I put it away at about page 35 and did not open MBF. Maybe I was not cool enough for Elena Ferrante. This is what everyone was reading?

I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber since … 1994? A while. I felt like I’d been suckered in again by East Coast literary tastemaking and aesthetic arbitration.

I might have started MBF, but it starts out so dark and creepy.  Sigh. I put it down, true to form. When we returned to the US, I brought the books back with me.

I have a friend, Alise, in Norman, also an intrepid reader. “Pick it back up!” she urged me repeatedly. “You won’t regret it.”
“Yes, but I am just trying to finish this 1,200 page novel that barely qualifies out of the genre fiction category.” (Genre: romance and adventure. I was deep in my 2014-2015 Outlander phase.)

I put down book 5 of Outlander (The Fiery Cross) and picked up my copy of The Goldfinch. I love Donna Tartt, always have. Goldfinch was tough going, and depressing. I told everyone I was reading The Sadfinch. Another story that everyone loved. What was wrong with me, as a reader? I trudged through it, complaining to myself, and internally, to Donna Tartt’s editor. I really did not like Sadfinch until about three-quarters of the way through it, then it caught fire for me and it made sense. The preceding 600 pages made the last 200 worth it. I internally apologized to Donna Tartt’s editor. She was right. It was perfect as is. (Maybe a tiny bit of editing around that lengthy “drugs in Las Vegas” component, but ok.)

I picked up MBF again this past spring. Encouraged repeatedly by Alise, I needed little further after about page 50. Wow – what a whirl. This book is incredible! I said. I gobbled it up, carousing around Naples in the fifties with my narrator, feeling like I had hopped into a time machine of culture and zapped straight back to the postwar mezzogiorno. 

With swift, broad strokes, and absolutely no hesitation, Ferrante painted for me a tableau of lives interwoven and tangled so compelling, so clear, I did not even need the character notes at the front of the translation that had been helpfully placed there by the American publisher. Her narrative voice pauses for thoughtful insight, but when it is painting action, she is all Stephen Crane, with the Italian sleekness of a literary Brancusi.

The next three of her Neapolitan novels were all in the Norman Public Library. Brand-new copies on the “New Fiction” shelves. I checked out all of them. No one else was reading them. Unbelievable. I took them home in sheepish anticipation of how much I was going to enjoy this literary binge.

The books are substantial. They’re not light reading. I am a fast reader, and each one still took me at least a week. They’re long, and good, and they make sense both individually and as a whole. After MBF, I gobbled up The Story of a New Name (which Alise had helpfully prepped me for by saying, “It’s all horny teenagers, you’ll love it.”) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The Story of the Lost Child.

Anyone who has grown up, who has moved somewhere, who felt like they did not fit in, in important ways, with the people with whom they grew up, and yet they share critical, sometimes shameful, qualities and values with them. As we were on the cusp of exiting Oklahoma, I thought, and wisely, that the books would help me process, in a compelling and parallel way, my feelings about where I’d grown up, and what it would mean to really leave it. And so it was the case. Ferrante’s Naples became my Oklahoma City. I had an ally in this. Ever since I learned how to read, I have always felt I have known authors personally: that they became my friends after we spent such intense time together. And so it was with Ferrante.

What I had not counted on also receiving in the exchange was a coherent explanation of new motherhood for a certain type of person, which struck a chord for me. The books traced a path around an Italy that I have come to know increasingly well over the past two decades, from Naples to Firenze to Milan to Genoa, with characters and dialogue whose verisimilitude I never doubted for a moment. Ferrante has helped me understand better the arcs of certain people and friendships in my life.

Seriously – does Ferrante even take a breath when she is writing? Her narrative is seamless, never stuttering once. Even when, for example, she jumps nine months forward through an entire pregnancy, explaining nothing, as a reader it made perfect sense to me.

I finished book four on a rainy April Sunday in Oklahoma, in a living room that was rapidly emptying of furniture and things. Reader, I wept at the end. The last twenty pages were like being at the funeral of a very stubborn old aunt named Hope. No spoilers here, but there is no redemption. Two thousand pages of glittering fast fiction buildup, and it ends with the proverbial whimper. In this, the despair is very much in keeping with the Italian shrug. Magari. Non si puo aiutare. This also helped me prepare for our move.

I did go back and read The Lost Doll, a novella which seems like it may have been the basis for the beginning of MBF. Lost dolls, and dolls and what it means to live life as a woman, and especially as a clever woman (Lena), in a chiaroscuric comparison of success and stymie (Lena and Lenu). How failure and endless high wall of culture will frustrate and twist and warp an intelligent woman (Lenu). How the protagonist lied to the family about taking the doll. How that doll vomited up rancid black ocean water when she attempted to give it dollie CPR. I’ll never forget.

I still haven’t read DOA. 

I bring up Ferrante often, to see if people have read her. I do this a lot when I really like an
author … “So…” I have made some good friends this way, via Ferrante, and also Gabaldon, and Kundera. Others.

I wish that the popular media would leave Ferrante alone. Much has been made this month of her “unmasking,” of her “true identity,” of what she “owes” readers. Some people become crazy when they overidentify with an author or an actor. They feel they are “owed” something in return for their obsession. I have never felt as though I were owed anything beyond what I have received as their art – is it not treasure enough? Leave her alone, people, we need her to keep writing. Her voice is so important.

Two final points here:

Italians barely know Ferrante. She is huge in the anglophone world, and when I ask Italians, educated Italians, Florentines, the occasional napolitana or romana, have you heard of Elena Ferrante? They screw up their brow and say, who? Every time.

Jason disclosed to me this weekend that we have an unexpected three degrees of separation from Ms. Ferrante. What! I shrieked. (No, I am not going to stalk her. Never would.) An Italian friend of ours, who is well-placed in government, about our age (don’t ask, this is how my husband rolls), had the author’s mother as a high school teacher in Rome in the eighties. The mother was apparently very much loved, and universally admired by her students.

This makes so much sense in light of Ferrante’s treatment of the relationship between teachers and their students, I said. “A whole life of framework and context when the student is attentive and the connection is there. … I still can’t believe you haven’t read Ferrante!”

“I don’t read anything after 1500,” he replied. That is what he always says.

So, with respect to three degrees, I counted it up, and it is:

>Jason and Monica
>government friend
>mamma di Ferrante


Finding the France in Florence. F/lo/R[A]NCE.

There’s quite a bit of it here. I’ve been mulling over this one for a few weeks now.

Jason maintains that Florence is in central Italy, but if you look at a political map of Italy, it’s pretty clearly in the north of the country.

I have a bit of a complicated relationship with France. As previously mentioned. My filter on France is thick, and tangled up with early adulthood, culture shock, and impecuniousness. And unrobust health.

That being said, there are aspects of French culture with which I am well, if not subtly, familiar, and they align with certain aspects of Florentine culture in ways that give me pause for thought.

You do remember that the French royal house prominently features Medici blood. In case you forgot, there are fleur-de-lis everywhere as the symbol of the city to remind you. On trash cans. Buses. Everything.

Well-dressed Florentine women will not give a second thought before scolding perfect strangers for what are, at best, dubious social infractions. Crossing the street against the light on a bike when there is no car or bus around for blocks. Taking up too much space on the sidewalk. Giving lots of Florentine side eye. These women are typically middle aged, of a Certain Type of Family, and would you please just follow all their social rules exactly so that we can keep this Florentine ship running nice and tight. I have noticed that their numbers increase considerably on the other side of the Viale, so maybe I will just stick to this side of Piazza Beccaria.

A certain level of pride and assured elitism that does not deign to discuss or explain itself.

The love of food, a good meal, a solid wine, and afternoon lunch.

Good god, how can I forget the smoking. The hand-rolled cigarettes.

The preciously padded and attired toddlers. (Mine, meanwhile, continue to look more gypsy than Florentine, but it’s getting better as Vic accepts new jeans and long-sleeve t-shirts and new shoes into his wardrobe. Eleanor is nowhere near approaching the mini-model status of her Italian peers, and I am perfectly bene with that.)

The political shrug. The Bronx cheer, reformatted for Italians, when it comes to political questions.

Bus or train strike, anyone? Major public infrastructure outage, advertised or real?

The dogs. Everywhere. In the market. In bookstores. In restaurants and bars. I mean, I am all about dogs. I love dogs. But on a rainy evening in a crowded, dark, fancy bar? Please, Fritalians. Keep that dog at home.

And, finally. And the worst. The dog poop. I am not kidding. It is everywhere. They barely curb their dogs. (I spent three years faithfully curbing Donovan in Seattle, so I know whereof I speak.) There are turds. Everywhere.

Today after kid dropoff I was walking home, and somehow, a dog turd leapt from the sidewalk into the back of my right shoe. Under the sock. But not at all on the shoe. I was walking down the street with the poo-infused sock dragging further and further below my heel into my shoe. I stopped to inspect and was appalled. Out comes the pocket Kleenex. Try to roll the pant leg up just a bit. Why is the poop not on my actual shoe? I am really confused. I walk home trying to not think about it, passing infinite additional examples of sidewalk poo in varying states of integrity due to the heavy rains this week. Poop soup puddles are everywhere. I immediately change, and put the poop jeans and socks in the wash.

I had a lot of sidewalk poop angst in Strasbourg too. It was much harder to get my clothes washed, though, so there’s that.

Small Florentine mercies. What she injures with the one hand, she remedies with the other…

Florence: The Luxury Pharmacy; Space and Memory

I’ve got so much material here in Florence on a daily basis that I am spoiled for subject matter.

On Monday, I posted a list of topics on Facebook, and a few people voted, so I’ll take two of the seven here. They share a nice narrative link – a plus!

I am still stitching together my mental map of Florence with my varied memories of it, from 1996, 2005, 2013, and today. I wonder if this well will ever be exhausted. Probably not.

Our good friend Amy returned to her Vermont haunt on Monday, after a great week and a half visit with us. Her auntie skills are impossible to overvalue. I was shocked and happy at how well Victor minded her (he’s in a bit of a Pierre phase at the moment, a la Sendak – “I don’t care!”)

The guest bathroom in our apartment has the only shower, in frequent use by our family as various combinations of small children and adults steam it up in there, banya-style. Eleanor is more solid on her feet, which means if they’re both in the shower, I can close the interior door and have, you know, a few quiet seconds to think.

Last week I spied Amy’s luxury toiletries on our counter (Nuxe brand – French) and sampled some of her huile prodigieuse. Wow. It was prodigious! Dry oil, delightful scent, made my skin feel great. I was familiar with the brand from my Glossybox dalliance in the US, ca. 2015-2016, but the product they’d sent me to try wasn’t really useful for me. (Contour cream? My whole face has contours. What is a face but a collection of contours? Where do I apply this cream?)

My face is a leaf. Dry in fall, crispy in winter, supple in spring, and supple-ish with dry edges in late summer. Pretty sure I struggle with an Ayurvedic vata imbalance, a topic for a different time.

After Amy noticed me siphoning off her prodigious oil for the third time (sorry Amy), she kindly offered to help me find a location that carried it here in Florence. A quick search revealed a dozen retailers. She scoped them out for me, and found one close by that had the oil on sale! A huge bottle of it for 25E! Like, half the price or less of what Any had paid for it in the US.

We went together back to la Farmacia la Condotta, on via Condotta. It was very, very nice. And the assistant in there was equally nice. Also, her skin looked fantastic, with little makeup. We guessed her age to be mid-thirties. The assistant was pleased to be able to practice her excellent English with us (a major retail plus in the hot molten tourist core of Florence). She disappeared behind her counter to rummage around for samples while Amy suggestively sold me a small collection of products. (I am a total soft sell.)

Note outside wall sconce for your open and flaming torch,
and rings to which your driver might hitch up your horses.

I walked out of there with the huge bottle of Nuxe prodigious oil, the Nuxe face wash, and a large bottle of Italian toner – the ubiquitous rose water that I love and which I used daily in Arezzo. Plus a tons of samples of tony French product. With the relentless cloud cover that has been shaken out over Florence in October, plus my generous supply of luxury face care products, I am confident I will be leaning rosa italiana in no time.

Amy and I had planned to go for an aperitivo before we returned to Azeglio. (The private reception in the Uffizi Gallery that we attended took place right before this pharmacy vignette – Jason had gone home to check in with the babysitter and the kids after a long day.) But where would we go? I didn’t really want to walk back to Ciompi or Sant’Ambrogio – our close haunts. I’m floating around there often enough. Let’s try something in centro. But where? I am rarely nosing around centro at aperitivo hour.

We agreed that the pharmacy assistant seemed like the kind of local who would know where to go for an aperitivo, so we went back in to ask her. She was delighted. “Go to Colle Bereto!” she exclaimed. “Their cocktails are great. They’ll take good care of you.” She scribbled it down on a piece of scratch paper.

We went back out on the street, and like two hapless tourists, wondered how to find the Palazzo Strozzi from Repubblica. Reader, we did Google map it. And scrutinized said Google map between the Palazzo Davanzati and the main post office. Not totally our fault, I assure you – who can see anything in centro with those enormous buildings all crammed in together? It’s like trying to find your way in Manhattan.
Palazzo Davanzati

We turned the corner to Palazzo Strozzi after repeatedly peering at Amy’s phone. There it is, in all its hulking glory, with Ai Weiwei’s thirty red lifeboats hanging off the windows in an indictment of Mare Nostrum and Lampedusa and the rest of the immigrant crisis in Europe.

And there, across from Palazzo Strozzi, is Colle Bereto. My wheels start turning.

Wait – did we just pass the Cinema Odeon?

Everything got kind of wavy, and I felt dizzy as the clock rolled back more than eleven years.

Hot July evening, summer 2005. Jason and I had made a plan to see a movie in English, and ventured into centro on the motorino to see – wait for it – “War of the Worlds” starring Tom Cruise in English! Thank god we saw that movie. In English. Oh, life before kids, and the bored expat Italian days. That movie was awful. The theater was baroque and the movie was neverending. If that slithering thing would have just taken out Tom in the basement. The cinema air conditioning was awesome, though, as I recall.

Such a bad movie. 
Lots of shots of Tom Cruise, face dusted with talc, 
staring at himself in a bathroom mirror 
as he comes to grips 
with the fact that he is, in fact, starring in this awful film.

But then I reoriented myself and looked at our destination, Colle Bereto, from the Odeon. Wait! I know this place! We made so much fun of this place, in a wistful, we-have-no-money kind of way (2005 was the last summer that I had all kinds of time and no money).

The beautiful people of Florence, in their fancy summer dresses and sleek locks and tan shoulders, stuffed the outside terrace of Colle Bereto. We heard them laugh, and talk, and greet one another. None of them were going to this ridiculous movie – it was aperitivo hour! Yes, we made fun of them. Yes, we wished then that we could have afforded a spritz that expensive. Yes, I was going to order that spritz right now.

On the way home, we got my bike from where it was chained just outside of the farmacia. “Let’s go tell our new friend that we liked the bar!” I crowed. Amy looked at me like I was crazy. I tend to make friends that way. It’s not for everyone … So we just went home.

And tonight I am going back to Colle Bereto again! For apertivi with the Sprachcaffe staff, who have welcomed me as one of their own, and have been so incredibly cordial and collegial with me. Just wait til they hear who I work for, and what our software does …

And with this post, I just covered topics #4-7:
4. Arrivederci Amy (this was Amy’s last night in Florence)
5. The best apericena ever (Colle Bereto did not disappoint!)
6. Florence: Space and Memory (“How did I wind up in this bar of all places?”) (Colle Bereto)
7. Luxury items from Farmacia la Condotta (Nuxe)