Cultural Footnotes: Italy

Our friends on the ground here in Florence are another American family who have children the same ages as Victor and Eleanor, by just a few weeks, and also an older boy and a younger girl.

Courtney is American, and has been here for years; she and her husband Tommaso had just started dating when we lived in Florence in 2005. She and Jason met during their time working together at Butterfield and Robinson, where she still runs the Italian show. They helped us get set up with a motorino, two helmets, and an apartment in Le Cure.

Courtney, Tommaso, and me in 2005, in the apartment I am pretty sure they sourced for us.

We returned for their Tuscan country wedding in 2009, which still rates as the fanciest wedding I’ve ever been to, castello, cena, musica, and all.

Jason and I enjoy a prosecco at Courtney and Tommaso’s wedding.
Good thing you can’t see the 30 mosquito bites on my back, courtesy of summer in Florence.

Tommaso’s family is proudly Florentine, and the fact that they now live down the road a piece in Pisa diminishes this fact not at all. His brother owns and chefs at a restaurant nearby in Vicarello, Ristorante David, that you should not miss if you are in the area. If I could eat David’s food continuously, I would. Seriously, if you go to Pisa, skip the tourist hoardes in centro and make a reservation.

It is impossible to count all the many kindnesses that the Nicoletti family has done for us. They are truly the closest thing we have to family, and an extended family, in Italy. We’ve had Christmas dinner with them. Tommy is always our Italian connection for larger projects. Spent the night as their guests numerous times in Pisa. Shared late-pregnancy freezer meal menu ideas and baby name lists.

All this to introduce you to … language class with Tommy, when I am lucky enough to get it.

Tommy is hilarious. Florentine, with a heart of gold, and years of close companionship with a smart and energetic American, and an amusing way of looking at the world, and translating Italian culture aspects, have made him the ideal unwitting language instructor. And even though his accent is Tuscan, it’s not Tuscan in the way of the sweet teachers at Scolopi.

For some reason I can understand Tommy really well. Maybe it’s because he always has me in stitches with his Tommyisms. Maybe because Tommy is the first Tuscan I ever met, whom I still know. I suspect he slows down just a tiny bit for me. I appreciate so much that he does not edit or adjust his conversational content at all when I’m along for the ride.

I here present two Tommyisms.

On this past Sunday, when Jason was out of the country for work, we went to their apartment for lunch. Weekend mornings with the kids on my own is like Appomattox. They live about three blocks from us, but because we tried to use Google maps to walk there, we took the 14-block route. (Had not yet walked there from our new apartment.) We arrive, Eleanor in a stroller and Vic tagging along, through various doorbells, gates, stairs, and elevators. Urban living.

Once we unfurled into the apartment, removed our shoes, and led our children to toys, Courtney asked if I’d like an espresso.

“I never say no to coffee,” I said.
“Do you want a corretto?” Tommy asked. By this he meant a generous pour of grappa or sambuca in my espresso. Well, that would certainly take the edge off, I thought to myself.
“It’s a little early, no?” I responded. It was 11 a.m.
“In Italy it is never too early for a corretto. You can have one anytime you like, You walk into a bar and say, a corretto please, in the morning, they have to give it to you. It’s practically a law. We do not judge.”
I laughed. “I think I am fine with an espresso,” I said.
But Tommy, who always provides more information, had more to say on the topic. “In fact, if you go up north, to the Veneto, you walk into a bar, you can get a corretto without the caffè. They will just pour it into an espresso cup for you.”

So there is that. God bless Italy. Come to think of it, I did have my first caffè corretto in the Dolomites, in San Virgilio in Marebbe…. an acquired taste, but one I do enjoy from time to time. I’ll have to remember the trick to order a corretto with a wink and a nod to the barista though, next time we are up there.

A long play session followed by lunch. A couple glasses of chianti, and we are back to espresso. Court put the cafetera on and as we have learned, I never say no to espresso. The kids are playing again happily, Tommy and I are watching them and gently assisting as necessary.

Out come the perfect little cups with our replenishing elixir. Tommy stands, and briskly pats the top of the half-wall that divides their salotto from the corridoio. 

“Monica, qua,” he says, motioning me to stand and join him. “I never drink coffee sitting down if I can help it. It is bad for the digestion. That is why we have a bar in our home.”

I am dying. We sip our espresso.

A coffee bar in the apartment. For taking your own espresso. At home! It just feels so much better and natural! Who sits for coffee? Who needs to drink copious volumes of coffee? Why do Americans insist on to-go cups in Italy? These are all questions.

This could be you, in your own home, or in a caffè.

Florence: she can be a cruel mistress

Ciao a tutti –

Been on a weeklong blog hiatus as we continue to organize various components of our daily life in Italy, combined with Jason’s madcap travel schedule that has had him thither and yon, all over the Amalfi coast, and North Carolina (which, I hear, is just like the Amalfi), and tomorrow, Athens. He’ll then have a breather until November so that we can settle in.

Fortunately, here we have an incredible babysitter named Chanusha who is from Sri Lanka, and who has been living in Florence for almost 20 years now. She most recently nannied for a new colleague of Jason’s for eight years, and prior to that, for another Italian family for ten years. She has got it down. Her help has been invaluable these past two weeks as she has put in extra and weekend hours to make sure that our piccoli and me stay fed and clean and properly provisioned with fresh air at appropriate child and adult intervals. She does all this while remaining calm and friendly. She also makes an incredible frittata ai zucchini, and made us her home food yesterday for dinner, which was a toothsome biryani with a fresh ginger-mint paste. I hope she likes us, because we love her!

Eleanor is picking up Italian faster than I can gulp an espresso. She was on a major language kick already this summer in Spokane, and now has switched horses to il cavallo italiano. “Sì” has almost completely replaced “yes,” and “eccola!” is now her exclamation of choice whenever she finds a toy she wants. She started full days at nido last Wednesday, and seems okay with it, except at morning dropoff when those one-year-old Italian boys raise a fuss like you would not believe as they are encouraged to give their mamme a bacio. My favorite new things she does: stands in front of my laptop when I stream YouTube videos of arias, and warbles like a little songbird, trying to match notes when she can, occasionally exclaiming, “pretty, pretty.” I think we may have another mezzo on our hands…

Victor tried out yesterday for calcetto (soccer) at school. “Tryout” is a generous term. I think they just wanted to make sure he’d seen a ball before. Victor reported yesterday evening that he “put on a shirt with a collar, that was red. Then, with three other boys, we kicked a ball to a bigger guy, who kicked it back to us.” He loves his teachers at school, the winning Ilaria and Sabrina, who are both positively brimming with joyful energy.

What’s my experience so far? Mixed but heady, frustrations alternating frequently with poignant breathers or glimpses of beauty. For example:

  • Tough expat crowd difficult to break into for friends.
  • Piazza Santissima Annunziata glittering with puddles after an early morning shower.
  • Italians stopping to ask me for instructions in town.
  • Ambient loudness at the Sprachcaffè.
  • Excellent vini sfusi (bulk wine) at various sfusi a stone’s throw from our apartment.
  • No sleep or poor sleep.
  • Invariably restoring cappucini and pastry.
  • Minimal sense of community thus far.
  • Italians very friendly in general. And a couple excellent friends on the ground here.

Florence, you may toss your head at me when you wish. I know you’re well bred, and come from money, even if your nobility is a bit down at heel. I am taking notes, and watching you. There are passing moments when I feel as though I have stepped into a time machine and taken myself back to 1993 Santiago Spain, or 1995 Strasbourg France, living in the historic center as we do. I close my eyes and get a whiff of bus exhaust, cigarette, discarded mop water, perfume, and wet flagstones, and I am transported. Who in life gets this opportunity? Florence, I will bear your hasty snubs, and meet them with good cheer. After all, you’re sharing almost everything with me.

 Via dei Servi – façade detail

                                                                Just a regular door.                                                                              
Victor was angling for some Minions espresso cups on Sunday.
 The Great Synagogue around the corner.

Duomo detail.
Feeling worn? Restore with an aperitivo. 

Monday Funday

I had the day off yesterday and spent it with Ellen about town.

Before my adventure began, though, I ran into Francesca, the owner of the palazzo, coming down the stairs with an armload of feather pillows. “Do you want to see the piano nobile?”she asked. Of course I immediately trotted downstairs with her to admire the frescos, tapestry, and furniture of 1860. It is like a mini Downton Abbey. If you want to come to Florence and get the full effect, it is highly recommended.

Jason reserved a spa day for me close by at a day spa. But it did not start until noon, so in the morning we went to Zecchi to trade out some art supplies for Ellen’s husband Marc. Just walking around the packed narrow aisles of Zecchi makes me itch for a brush and some oils, and an old sock.

We made our move on Zara for some kid clothes, then headed to Scudiero for coffee and pastry before the spa appointment.

The spa’s owner is a Turk, and his Turkish bath proves it. Wow. Steamy marble, hot hot hot. Perfect. Maybe I prefer a bagno turco over a sauna. Give me vapor any day.

I had an appointment for a massage and my person was a young woman from Naples who spoke beautiful Spanish, and explained the long history of the Bourbon kings in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. She also gratified me with amusing language explanations, at my request:

Quindi = entonces
Comunque = something like Spanish aún, todavía, de todas formas, de todos modos, de todas maneras. She was a little fuzzy on this. “It is a particle of continuation,” she said. “Or a topic change when you want to continue talking.
Ormai. We spent a good half hour on ormai. She presented examples in Italian involving the 9/11 attacks, a missed train, and prepared pasta. As best as I can tell it means “already.” Mixed with “unfortunately.”
Magari. “It’s too bad we don’t have it in English,” I said. “It’s close to if only or I wish! Said in the way that conveys it will never happen.”

I also learned many things that southerners think about Florence, none of them surprising. It is, however, against city ordinance to hang your laundry outside the external windows facing the street in Florence.

Ellen met me at the spa, having monopolized the bagno turco herself for some time at to good result. We headed out to grab crêpes and go (again) to Tiger for Eleanor’s hair bits. We also hit a small boutique close to the duomo called Echo where I picked up a few transitional Italian pieces to further help my wardrobe situation. Then to Piazza dei Ciompi for a spritz.

We came home to two sleeping little girls so made use of the time to get all those little things done that require thought and concentration that can be so hard to accomplish with littles afoot in the house.

Our new helper, Chanusha, made us espresso. By this time I was feeling insanely spoilt. So I tempered my euphoria by checking on pre-debate online to gauge the general feeling. Eeek. Looks like a train wreck from here. Good thing the salubrious effects of my massage were still in effect.
(Don’t worry – our Washington state ballots are complete and en route as we speak via email.)

It’s good to have a friend

This is Eleanor, in front, with Avalon, in back. Riding the giostra (carousel) in front of our house in the Piazza d’Azeglio.

Avalon is 8 months older than Eleanor, a wise and traveled girl. She and her mama, Ellen, head back to the US tomorrow first thing from Firenze.

We are grateful to have them as friends anywhere in the world!

Un (altro) compleanno perfetto italiano

Yesterday was a perfect day.

We got all four of us on two bikes (Jason has two kid bikes seats on his bike, one fore and one aft) in the morning and headed up to Gioberti. A brief stop in a stationer’s sent us down a few doors to the optical shop, where we successfully obtained extremely cute school pictures for Eleanor, but Victor was having none of it. One for two.

Back on the bikes, Victor happily buckled into his aft seat, but Eleanor entered the mother of all tantrums when confronted with her catbird seat. Fifteen minutes later, we all walked back to Upim, me wheeling my bike on my right, Eleanor on my left hip. We chained the bikes between the street market and Upim and headed toward the nearest bar to address what has been diagnosed as a family attack of low blood sugar.

In the caffe, homemade sweets abounded: budino di riso, pear/chocolate chunk cake, and fresh doughnuts for the kids. Espresso for mom and dad, ACE for the kids. We asked the barista if there is anywhere to buy kids shoes. “Sure! Just across the street! I’ll take you there.” We look across the narrow street and see Lo Scoiattolo.

In the store, Eleanor immediately selected the most expensive pair of tennis shoes and tried them on. She then thankfully selected a less expensive, but still ridiculously priced, pair of Tommy Hilfiger canvas shoes for 47E. No shoes in the store were sufficiently red for Victor, who gamely observed, “there is just a red star on those shoes. That is not enough red.” We checked out of the Italian store for Italians with Italian prices. (The store did give us a discount of 5E for mentioning the barista across the street who pointed us across the street.)

We returned home (on the bikes, thankfully) and put Eleanor down for a nap after lunch. It’s my turn to take Victor out on the buses, so away we go down La Colonna.

We stopped to look at the bucchatte di vino and discuss how daddy juice is no longer delivered to the daddies of Florence directly, but the daddies must now go to the sfuso to procure their own daddy juice.

Victor tried it out for good measure, and wanted to know why the door was permanently sealed shut.

We hopped off at Anunziata and headed into Tiger to provision ourselves with toys for the evening.

We walked to San Marco, where Victor improbably announces that he wishes to enter the museum. In the museum, we discussed various points of theology on which I may have been a bit fuzzy. Twenty minutes later, Victor announces, “I’m done.”

 San Marco from the courtyard.
Yeah, mommy thought she was pretty strong in theology until this fresco kicked off all these important and pressing theological questions.

We caught the #1 bus and rode it around for awhile. Back at San Marco, it’s time for espresso and snacks, so we ducked into the Grand Caffe San Marco to procure a macchiato for me (with a cannolini siciliani) and a large glass of ACE for Victor, which he promptly glugged.

We returned home to meet back up with Jason and our friend Ellen, to prepare for, WONDER OF WONDERS, and adult birthday dinner plans thanks to the amazing offices of Flavia, aka Fla Fla, aka Flava Flav, who took the train up from Arezzo to mind the bambini while we dined like royalty.

A walk across the river to the Oltrarno and back to the enoteca of Ellen’s friends Edo and Shannon. A perfect evening – the air balmy and breezy, the Pitti looming majestically over its piazza. We ordered a vino importante that Edo kindly helped us select through a flight of samples. Let me tell you what we ate, because it was genuinely memorable: fried squash blossoms stuffed with fresh cheese, seared octopus over pureed chickpeas, a homemade terrine, then primi of various fresh pastas either filled with or covered generously by equally important cheeses. Edo brought us dessert wine and tiramisu in a tiny jarand we stumbled home amicably by the light of the reflection off the Arno’s silently slipping waters.

Un compleanno …

Italy, 1995. Rome, specifically. September 24.

It’s my twenty-second birthday. A Sunday. A perfect day full of sun, at the end of my week in the Eternal City. I’d been staying in the Pensione Sandy for a ridiculous pittance. It looks the exact same now as it did then.

Pines on the Trastevere. Pizza by the slice. Vespas. Early-game cell phones. Italian men in suits.


A lot of this.
And this.

I met Jessica Williams in the Sandy, a friendly, mouthy, hilarious Germanophone swimmer from California, who was, I think, an incredible 19 at the time, and who became my travel companion for the next three weeks through Eastern Europe. Friends to this day, and a bright spot she is, on the West Coast doing her teaching and roller derby thang with three daughters now.

I pulled into Rome from Nice, and Rome, she was so good to me. I spent days walking around the Forum, crossing 18 lanes of traffic in front of The Typewriter. I learned how to cross traffic in Rome, really, a skill that has served me well all my life, by watching wizened Italian nonne just take off into traffic with a cane and a malocchio visible at 100m. Daring cars to hit them. And they were fine. There was a lot of honking, but they seemed to always make it across.

Eating a meal so good I could cry somewhere close to the Vatican. Cheap and delicious lasagna bolognese. Laughing at a gypsy boy who winked at me, then lit up, by the Ponte Sant’Angelo, seven going on twenty-five. Feeling like everything I learned in my Letters degree at OU was, in fact, true. It’s all here! It is all right here! And then: I want to come back here to live. I think I’ll be back.

I fell in love with ochre-washed stucco. A minor obsession to this day. The more decayed and wabi sabi, the better.

I am charmed beyond description by Italians on the ground. They are patient, open, warm. They seem glad to see me. They are also funny.

Jessica and I head to the Fonte di Trevi one balmy evening and laugh at the pickup artists. No naifs, we! I toss a coin in.

Not superstitious, but you never know. Taking Pascal’s wager at the Trevi.

On my actual birthday, Jessica and I went to the Vatican for Free Sunday, when the museums do not charge a fee. We waited in line for a short while. Everyone was nice. The Sistine Chapel was muggy. I bought a t-shirt of God and Adam, one of those European tees that were so thin, way before burnout knit was even a thing.

The museum was huge. I think we ran through, returned to the Sandy for our things, and boarded a train for Assisi.

The day was dreamy. The train ride breathtaking, through central Italy and her sunwashed hills, an Umbrian welcome. We got to Assisi and checked into the Anfiteatro Romano. A real hotel after weeks of youth hostelling!

Youthful yank promptly confounded by Italian shower, which consists of a telefono mounted to a wall in a bathroom tiled on six sides, and a modest drain in the floor that benefits from no indentation. I should mention here that the shower “area” is located on tiled step up from the sink area,  virtually guaranteeing an unwitting American Niagara.

It kind of looks like this, but cleaner and with white tile. (I have just spent 20 minutes looking for a helpful image on Google by way of illustration, and even Google does not believe what I am saying, so maybe it was a one-off.)

I promptly flood the Anfiteatro Romano, water coursing down the tiled stairs toward the reception. The owner, an Italian woman, comes up from the desk to ask me what the hell I’m doing.

Trying to take a shower, I stammer.

Turn the water off when you soap, she says. At least, I think that’s what she says.

Jessica and I go somewhere for dinner in town, and the food continues to astound and amaze. We drink house red and I splurge on torta di frutta, having a second. The waiters hang around the bus station, bella, bella, I hear behind me. We were really enjoying ourselves. We trot home to the Anfiteatro Romano, where the reception area and stairs now look well mopped, and roll into our little beds. I can’t believe the birthday I’ve just had.

I’ve been thinking about that week in 1995 all this week, and about how good Italy has always been to me, in so many ways, my whole life. A recurring theme. I felt at home here, well before I ever met Jason, and our shared affection for this well-textured peninsula was a point in common that was and is, I think, essential.

So, a grazie, with this small love note to Italy. Thank you for making many parts of my life so beautiful. And tasty. And funny. And enjoyable.

Qualcosa nell’acqua

Something is most definitely in the water.

Just a few amusing vignettes from the morning –

On my own with Victor (5) and Eleanor (1) trying to get them ready for school, out to the busstop, and to Scolopi by 9:30 at the latest. Victor is always the last kid in school so is missing out on his free-play time that his teachers emphasized would be so important for his acculturation and adjustment.

Eleanor wants to wear her baby Tevas. It’s 60F outside. She also wants to bring three stuffed animals and a naked doll.

It’s not even 9 am and I am done arguing. I quickly place all the stuffed animals on the empty plant stand by the elevator on our floor.

The buses are late. Victor is hanging off the lamppost like a sailor on shore leave. Eleanor is sitting on a stone curb that reeks of dog pee. She is rubbing her naked baby in the dirt. I look around to see if any Italian parents are taking pictures to report me to Italian CPS.

The #31 finally arrives after 25 minutes. It is packed to the gills. We get on. The bus lurches forward, sending Victor flying down the aisle. I stumble holding Eleanor to the middle of the bus, where an Italian bis-bis-bis nonna is sitting. “Siediti,” she tells Victor. He recoils. She has no teeth, no dentures. “I’m sitting down, Vic,” I say. Eleanor and I take the seat. The 150-year-old Italian woman immediately starts freaking out about how blonde my kids are. She is touching them and talking to them. Victor starts kissing Eleanor’s hand like a besotted Florentine dauphin. Grandma keeps talking and talking. I find her quite charming, but the kids are mortified. “Tante grazie, signora,” I tell her repeatedly. When the bus stops, everyone rushes to get off it like it’s on fire. Including the nonna! She pushes Vic out of the way and heads straight for the door. Like, a serious body check.

You’re cute and all, but out of my way. kid.

I am dying. Oh, Italy, I think. You can be such a mixed bag.

We are the last to exit the bus and start making our way slowly and painful a trois up Giorgio la Pira and Via la Marmora. This is like going to school with two ants. There is no straight line. Vic won’t hold Eleanor’s hand. She is trying to pry gum off the sidewalk. The orto botanico is also interesting. We have a long discussion about dog poop on the sidewalk. Everyone is disgusted. I finally drag them both into Scolopi.

Vic refuses to wear his slippers, but after the long discourse about sidewalk poop, he is visibly concerned about the bottom of his street shoes and lets me take them off to store them in the cubby. “Cubby, cubby,” says Eleanor, and immediately removes her baby Tevas. I shove her sandals in my purse and take Vic down to his class.

Meanwhile, on the primo piano in the nido, I see no one. I get us ready for a morning of confusion and muteness. A teacher comes out eventually and takes Eleanor. “Hug your mama and we’re off,” she instructs Eleanor. Eleanor lets out a whimper then a full wail. Hmm, this is not at all what I thought would be happening today. (See previous post, “Rules and Systems.”) “See you at 11:30,” says the teacher. “You will come back for lunch.”

I am so relieved that I do not have to go through Italian rush again that I almost start crying.

I head into centro on my bike to look for some of the items we are still missing off of Victor’s school supply list. I stop in a small church on Via dei Servi and Bufalini to pray for strength in a back pew while tourists loudly snap pictures of unexceptional art.

Outside, and incredibly, I bump into the two English-speaking moms from yesterday. They were also surprised by the aberration from the nido script. I wonder if I look teary but they say nothing. “We should have organized something,” they say, and shrug. “See you at 11:30.” I still do not know their names, and I would tell them mine, but it doesn’t really seem like they want to know my name.

I fall in love with Flying Tiger, the Danish store that is like Muji. Pick up a bunch of goofy/useful stuff for all of us.

I also stop at Robiglio on Via dei Servi for what is possibly the most perfect cappucino I have ever had in my life. I smile as I think, well, here’s my daycare espresso.

Espresso + Daycare = Myth

I am on day 2 of the espresso + daycare equation with Eleanor. Let me just say now: WHAT espresso were they talking about. There is no espresso anywhere. (See yesterday’s post, “Rules and Systems.”)

Eleanor is doing great. She is unfazed as usual. Today she trotted out to the outside playground to kick it with the regulars. Her group is mixed ages, 1-3, so there are quite a few kids on scene quite a bit bigger than is she. (Victor’s class upstairs is also mixed ages, 4-6. We love this.)

Mama, on the other hand… what can I say.

I’m whining internally a lot. Alternating with white-knuckling my way through various situations.

My Italian is not up to snuff for either elite Florentines or the daycare professionals with their super strong Tuscan accents. I’m muddling my way through complicated interactions, feeling like an idiot.

You’ve done this before, I tell myself, Think of all your First Days. Think! Preschool, kindergarten, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade … ninth grade… first year in college … Especially, do not forget those experiences abroad as a young adult in Spain and in France, at the start of long-term exchange programs, adrift on a sea of language and social code and trying my best to acquit myself honorably with my skills at hand.

Not to mention distant moves … job changes. And on.

It’s true that I got a bit battered culturally by Spain in 1993, and France … and in France for months. Months and months. 1995-1996. But neither did I expect to know much about anything in those places. Sure, I was frustrated. But the locals didn’t care. Whatever. Another youthful arriviste.

Now, I feel, the locals care. I’m older. A parent. A professional. A reflection on our family at large here.

Ugh and I feel like a moron.

A small group of moms and I milled about on the Scolopi schedule. Two or more of them speak English, but very reluctantly. One is American and cringes to speak English with me in front of the other moms. Another is deeply, deeply Florentine, and is clearly the Queen. She is impeccably turned out. Her clothes are perfect. She is so skinny she looks French. Her ballet flats are new, her purse must have cost 900 euros. She looks right through me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about side eye:

1 – the side eye that originates from an Italian who wonders what the American is doing there

2 – the side eye that originates from another expat who looks like they might wish you would disappear because you are harshing their local cover

I’m wearing the Wrong Clothes. Hair still looks deeply cavewoman. I’m in this little room with this gabbling group of Italian mamas, and I am getting about 50% of what they’re on about.

Other schools in town. Shots and vaccinations. Illnesses. Nannies. I hear “per carita” thrown around a lot by the Queen when talking about her resentment at sick children being brought to school by their working parents. She understands that parents have to work, but, per carita, Jocasta was so sick last year …

They pause every now and again to quickly ask me a question, but in the cavernous salotto with its hard floors and all the windows open onto the street with rumbling trucks, and blaring horns, and various shouting going on, I might as well be hearing impaired.

I’m focusing so intently on following their dialogue that I must look pained. I know those two creases that happen between my eyebrows when I am just thinking.

“Are you getting any of this?” They all stop to look at me as I slowly sip my apricot juice out of a disposable plastic cup and try not to cry.

“Um, I think about half. Sorry I am not talking,” I say. I am feeling quite awkward. I am wishing this morning would draw to a close.

“How long have you been in Florence?” they ask me.

It’s like a congressional hearing in Italian.

“Three week,” I say. “Weeks.” My palms are damp.

“Is your husband Italian?”

“No,” I say.

“Two of us went to this school as children,” one of them tells me, smiling. I wonder if I am supposed to guess which two. I think a few of them are cousins. Or one is a blood cousin to the husband of another? It’s hard to tell. Language is whizzing by me.

They look at me. Then they resume their chatter.

Finally one of the carers comes to the room and tells us the kids are all doing great, and that we can go get them in ten minutes.

Eleanor is almost asleep on the lap of one of the teachers. For about the fortieth time this morning, I am on the receiving end of a barrage of country Tuscan and I have no. Idea. At all. What has just been said.

I gather up all my things and Eleanor, and we catch the #31 bus home.

Rules and Systems

Italy loves it some administrative bureaucracy. A prominent feature of Italian life, at least for the expat, is the time and effort placed on enforcing systems that no one will really follow or understand. Or care to follow. Or understand. Because it all started out such a good idea, you know, to ensure order, but then, who has time for that? and anyway, don’t we all understand how it works, or should work anyway, and we’re pretty much following the rules, except when we’re not, so….

I blame the Roman Empire, then Napoleon.

I have two stunning case examples to illustrate:

Firstly, Victor’s school lunches. These are administered (as far as I can tell) on a separate budget and fee schedule. He gets (as previously mentioned) a handsome pranzo each day. He pays for these meals with a small book of paper tickets, stapled together in sets of what look like 20. Someone has made these booklets. We buy them and then write in, by hand, his name and the date that the ticket is to be used for said lunch.

Except, you know, they feed him anyway.

And no one really cares if he gives the ticket or not. What, they’re going to let a five-year-old go hungry? At midday? In Italy?

“Where are Victor’s lunch tickets,” Jason asked me last Friday.

“I don’t know – I never saw them again after that one day you showed me the booklet after you bought them.”

Mutual shrug.

Meanwhile, Victor: “They always make me eat the first round. Then I get seconds. But I never eat the third round, which is just bread. I hate bread. Too crunchy.”

These. Pretty much. But in Italian.

Second case in point: building numbers. Yep.

I’ve never been to Japan, but from what I’ve read, I bet the Japanese are not at all fazed by this multilayered historic numbering system.

I need to find the office co-op that I have reserved on I paid 25E for it, soooo best get on it. This office space website works just like airbnb, except for workspaces. So you peruse, chat with hosts, then reserve; all payment routes through the website, and after you pay, you get a phone number and a full address.

Should have known it would be challenging when Gianni was so slow to respond to me with a proper street address.


Red numbers.
Black numbers.

Interspersed somewhat evenly? if haphazardly? Up and down streets.

“It’s easy,” Jason said. “There are numeri neri and numeri rossi. Just find the black 18.”

I am on it, I thought. I can do this.

So I ride my bike deep into Campo di Marte neighborhood, closely inspecting the numbers and trying to not get hit by traffic (smart purchase, that helmet.)

Red numbers, Hmm.
And black numbers. Okay.

So easy!

WHAT. What are the other numbers? What are these blue numbers? Are those like close to black? No one mentioned blue numbers.

WHAT! What are these brass numbers? Do they could as red or as black?

Is it blue? Or black? Does indigo count as a kind of black? How dark is this blue, anyway?

I don’t see an 18 anywhere anyway, not in red, or black, or blue, or bronze.

I take off my helmet and call Jason from my Italian handset because I am still carrying two handsets like I am a Wikileak informant or a gun runner. I am pouring sweat.

“I don’t see an 18 anywhere,” I tell him.
“Did you see a black one?”
“No, I don’t see anything that looks like an 18.”
“Go ask in a bar.”
“Why is everything so hard here?” I know as I say it that not everything is hard here. But the 10% that is hard is really confounding because logic cannot help you through it.
“Welcome to Italy,” Jason croons, as he does when he is reminding me to be patient.

I look down the street at Bar la Sosta again and decide I cannot brave that particular language challenge at this time.

Plus I am wearing the wrong shoes, my hair looks like a cavewoman, and I still have this laptop backpack that screams dork so hard that even my coworkers make fun of me when I use it on work trips. And I am toting it around Florence, sweating.

I walk around some more.
A confused Italian woman asks me if I know where something is. “I am looking for an address too,” I tell her.

Blue numbers. Black numbers.
Bronze numbers.
Bright red numbers.
No 18.

I finally call my contact Gianni. “I can’t find the black 18 B on Via Massaccio.”
“Oh,” he says. “We’re on Via degli Artisti.”

Scolopi and School Customs

Ciao a tutti!

The last two weeks in Florence have been ones of adjustment and transition. We arrived three weeks ago today, and although have been settling in to our comfortable and well-located apartment, were a bit unprepared for the staggered start school dates for Victor and Eleanor as we juggled work and ad hoc childcare and transitions.

Victor started at Scolopi on September 5, and attended half-days for that first week; he just finished his first full week of full-time “kindergarten” (il ultimo anno di materna).

Scalopi, just two blocks from Gonzaga in Florence.

The flying priest greets us each morning as we come in.

His day runs from 9 to 4:30, and his teachers Sabrina and Ilaria are wonderful. So far we are pleased with his experience, and ours – all the more so given the news this past week out of Norman, and the debacle and dispute surrounding a priest’s sudden decision to close St. Joseph’s ECDC, where Eleanor would have been attending this fall. (Victor would have already moved on to Lincoln to become a Lion there.)

Quick rundown of Victor’s impressions of school: those school slippers are not cool and he refuses to wear them, why do those Italian kids wear smocks, and he appreciates how at lunch he is required in the mensa to take seconds. Let me just explain these three points for amusement’s sake:

1 – Italian early childhood schools require that children change out of their street shoes and don their school slippers upon arrival. There is a special slipper station with cubbies that have their names on them for the shoe switch-out. This is smart, and quasi Japanese, and fits with Victor’s native courtesy to remove his shoes immediately upon entering any residence. However, he does not love, to put it mildly, incorporating new attire or footwear into his rotation. He hates these slippers we bought. I actually like them; they kind of look like Felix from “The Odd Couple,” and are in search of a smoking jacket. I alerted his teachers at orientation to his particularities with respect to wardrobe and they promised me they would work with him on the slippers. This is an especially germane requirement in Florence, where, as Eleanor frequently comments on our strolls, “so much … doggie poo!”

Slippers in question look very much like these English ones, but are euro size 27. 

2 – Just this:
“Mommy, what’s that big shirt called?’
“A smock.”
“Smock. Smock.”
“Yep – they wear it over their nice clothes. You know how Italian kids wear nice clothes?”
“They don’t want to hurt their clothes with paint or food.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t make you wear a smock. You don’t wear nice clothes really anyway to school. Plus, you’d probably run away from home. But then. you’d be wearing a smock too.”
[quizzical look]

Over his dead body would he be caught in some getup like this. He has a few versions of Seinfeld’s “golden boy,” which would be better used for scrubbing a toilet than wearing to school. If you hear calamitous screaming in the hall, it’s either an Italian classmate saying goodbye to his mama, or Victor being confronted with a smock.

3 – Italian lunches are no joke. I like to think Victor is having recovered memories of his year in Arezzo as a one-year-old, in Santissima Maria Consolatrice, at his tiny dining table with silver service and proper cutlery.

Haha. Pretty much this for Victor in 2012-2013 in Arezzo.

He is getting something similar, I hope, in Scolopi.

Victor: I always eat seconds at lunch.
Me: How?
V: They make you eat seconds.
Me: Really?
V: Yes. If your plate is empty they make you eat more.

Jason and I laughed about how his teachers are likely scandalized by how fine-boned he is.They’ll fatten him up soon enough, or die trying!

A presto!