Firenze: Santa Maria Novella

Picture this. An overcast Saturday morning. Kids are screaming and fighting over toys. And running around. And biking around. And kicking regulation soccer balls. In the apartment.

We knew we had to get the whole crew out or someone might not live to see the evening.

So, out to the busstop on our piazza, waiting for the 6A or 6B, the working idea being to go to Santa Maria Novella train station to talk to the ATAF (local transit) people about our bus passes. (Is Vic too tall to still ride for free? What’s the family pass? Is there a student discount? etc.)

Eleanor uncharacteristically acquiesced to being buckled in her stroller, squawking only a bit, and understandably, when we all gawked and exclaimed through the windows upon seeing a matching pair of white steeds pulling an open carriage through Piazza San Marco, driven by a handsome Italian in full grey livery – top hat, cape.

“Dove cavalli?” Eleanor demanded loudly. “Su, su.”

We all admired the horses together, then had a long discussion in Italian of what foods might constitute primi and secondi for horses. In what order apples? hay? sugarcubes? Eleanor thought they might best enjoy gelato for dessert.

The station S.M.N was of course a total Saturday morning zoo. We first addressed ourselves to the repurposed ATAF bus with our questions. About 10 seconds into the conversation, the attendant implored Jason to go inside to the ATAF window, where ATAF experts could best assist us.

Into the heart of S.M.N. we went, Jason holding tightly on to Victor’s hand, me pushing Eleanor forward in the stroller. We found the windows, waited briefly in line, and then monopolized the attention of a middle-aged functionary for a solid ten minutes. Answers:

  1. Is Victor much over one meter tall?
  2. Why are we so honest?
  3. Seriously, why are we asking about getting a bus pass for the little guy?
  4. What… for the littlest one too? It will be years before she is solidly past one meter in height.
  5. Who are you people? We don’t even understand your questions.
  6. I am Jason’s wife? 
  7. So I get the second annual pass at a deep discount if Jason buys the first at full freight.
  8. Vic needs a picture to make the bus pass.
  9. It sounds like he gets some sort of student pass for a very reasonable rate.
  10. But wait until next year, for crying out loud. He looks short enough to ATAF.
Eleanor and I assessed the plaster ice cream cones outside of Venchi. She angled hard for Saturday morning gelato but lost. The store was stocked with high-end chocolates of the hostess gift variety, such as might sell briskly in a train station.
We decided to bus to Oltrarno to pay a visit to our friend Ellen, but first the weekend bus timetable and then the weather conspired against us, as fat, cold drops began to fall while we attempted to herd the kids on a narrow median between the tram line and an arterial street.
We cut across the Piazza della Stazione to the busstop for the C2, and the minibus passed us as we were 50 feet from the stop. Of course no posted timetable. The rain seemed to have ceased. 
We decided to saunter in to Santa Maria Novella itself. We’re right here! Ir’s a pretty enough day. It’s not quite lunch. 
Eleanor was carrying on in very loud Italian, really establishing her cultural bona fides, on the pedestrianized street in front of all the retail on the piazza, to the delight of more than one Italian onlooker. “Ma dove?! Dove, mamma!? Dove? Di la? Di qua? Dimmi dove ti prego.”
No lines at all, and Jason had brought his ID card with him to verify our residence status, which got the lot of us in for free. We’d been before, each of us, numerous times, but not for years, and certainly not with Team Energy.
The church inside was cool but well lit, lightly sprinkled with tourists. I’d forgotten how big it is. 
I unsuccessfully attempted to leave the stroller at the entrance, as two youngish, robed monks to my left asked the information desk, “Who reserved a mass? We are here to say the mass. Where are we supposed to go? Someone has reserved a mass.” The organizational logistics of prepaid reserved masses were still being clarified as we headed up the right aisle. 
Victor and Eleanor each lit a candle. They also enjoyed scampering up and down 600-year-old marble staircases to see various chapels. 
“Who’s that guy on the floor?” Victor asked me in the Capella Ruccellai. A bronze face gazed beatifically heavenward.
“Mmmm he is buried there. His name was ….Leonardo Dati.” I squinted through the bars.
“He is in there?”
“Well … what’s left of him.”
As we came down the stairs I told Jason.
“Oh, it’s Leonardo Dati up there, really?”
Sigh – giggle. Being with Jason in Florence … there is really nothing comparable in my life to my walking Florentine almanac husband.
Someone please tell me which chapel this is.
I love the row of hanging iron lamps.
Feels like Cordoba.
We took the kids over to see the historic Massaccio. Victor was nominally interested. Eleanor immediately attempted to duck under the velvet rope to get really, really close to the priceless fresco. I quickly snatched her back.
Some large – ENORME – pieces of art had been extraordinarily opened from their equally gargantuan cupboards, the later paintings on the enormous doors seeming garish in comparison to the 15th century frescoed tones behind. We looked at both of them. I pointed out the solar line on the marble floor to the kids, a many-metered arrow from Cancer to Capricorn to measure the solstices and every day in between. I love matter-of-fact pagan semiotics when they appear (to the modern eye) incongruously in a famous domus dei
Victor and Eleanor ran a few laps up and down the solar line while we hissed at them to keep it down a tiny bit, for heaven’s sake. But because this is Italy, no one chastised us. The woman at the information desk was actually very apologetic that she was unable to personally mind Eleanor’s stroller while we wandered around.
From Cancer to Capricorn and back again.
“I want to go home,” Victor said. You could put a 15 minute timer on him for his tolerance of such activity. Good thing it was free, and that we live here.
“Home, home,” Eleanor intoned.
“When can we go home?” Victor reiterated.
Jason said, “Let’s see the Spanish Chapel first.”
There was a minor queue to enter. The kids immediately said no. 
Next time. We live here.
And it’s free.
We headed back outside, and lucky for us, met the C2 bus in perfect time at the stop.

Firenze: BRT/Be Right There [Express]!

Come with me to the corner of my mind where schemas are stored and activated. Thus the path of the lifelong language learner, an early reader, a dogged on-the-job trainer.

My mind just creatively fills in blanks like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. My friends who have heard me blithely sing completely wrong lyrics will know this side of me.

This is also how I remember reading a lot, at 6 and 7. Just read stuff, not understand, make up some placeholder fact/definition/pronunciation, and continue to turn pages.

I told Jason this story weeks ago, and he gave me a good-humored snort. “You have to blog about this, you realize.”

So here we go.

There are these trucks in Firenze. All of Italy, now, as I realize. They are red, and ubiquitous.

BRT Corriere Espresso.

BRT: Be Right There! Of course I read it for an English acronym. Who knows why.

DHL is Deutsche Poste Handlung, why not an anglophone acronym in Italy too. It’s a relatively slow country by comparison, and Anglophones are known for their speed and efficiency.

Be right there! Little truck will be right there with your stuff.

But wait! A tagline offers a further clue as to what the Be Right There people might be expediting.

Corriere espresso. Running your espresso right over. This must be the truck that supplies the hundreds of caffe bars with fresh roasted beans, right? Of course! The espresso run!

Just dropping off beans everywhere! Be right there, speedy with coffee beans.

Keeping Firenze caffeinated.

This was a little story going on in my head for months until I realized this is Italian UPS, “fast delivery.”

Not Be Right There.

Not the espresso bean express.

Just packages.

Just dropping off packages, signora. Niente di piu ne di meno.

I think BRT stands for “Bartolini.” Maybe? of course I can’t now easily confirm it anywhere in the interwebs.

Firenze: You say pieno, I say completo

There are so many ways to be full in Italian.

I keep a tiny notebook in my backpack where, usually, at midday, I make small language notes for myself. This is typically done in the Sprachcaffe before I begin my east coast shift at 2 pm. The notebook was begun in 2012, and has stayed with me. It is not at all organized, and tends to repeat itself in random ways; the name and contact information of an Italian friend with whom I struck a short-lived language exchange is carefully lettered and inked on the back fly page.

Apparently I have been trying to work out comunque, quindi, and ormai for years, like a minor trauma in a repetitive dream.

As a language student for years, I can attest that it’s the little words, the odds and ends and bits, that most commonly elude. They are also the words that, when correctly deciphered and understood, are most useful.

No niin …

Let’s move on to ways one can be full in Italian:
Pieno – full in a general way, when the number of things may or may not be countable, or you can’t be bothered to count them, as they are too numerous
Completo – full when there is a finite number of countable spaces

Or closely related and equally interchangeable, ways to complete or compute:
Compiuto – completed, as in, Ho compiuto 43 anni quest’anno.
Calcolato – computed or calculated.. or arranged, as in a plan, tutto calcolato.

We have an ongoing conversation, Jason and I, about Italian language. I’ve always been a language student who delighted in language and in learning language. From the time I began sitting in Spanish class at 6:30 am 3 days a week in Edmond with my younger brother Cory in 1983, through a master’s in Spanish in 2008 and the present day, it’s been my catnip. Impossible to here recount in detail, but as far as the languages I have taken, and for how long, here is a list:

  1. *Spanish – 4 high school, 4 college, 3 graduate years, plus exchange in Spain
  2. *French – 3 semesters plus a year in uni in France
  3. *German – a year in France
  4. *Latin – 3 semesters in uni
  5. *Norwegian – a year in Seattle
  6. *Finnish – a fall in Seattle
  7. *Arabic – a spring in Seattle
  8. *Greek – a mere dip
  9. Icelandic – dilettante but supported curiosity – thanks, Bjork
  10. Danish – ibid.
  11. Swedish – ibid.
  12. Hungarian – ibid.
  13. Hebrew – ibid.
  14. Portuguese – joyful travels
  15. Gallego -well, that year in Santiago
Languages where at one time or another I have actually received formal classroom instruction are starred. As an immigration professional for years, my language bug greased the wheels of many a client or advisee conversation as I tried to show respect with a “hello” and “thanks” in any number of languages, such as Hindi, Tamil, or Romanian. Or more.
I started coming to Italy in 1995. That first time, I hadn’t even lived in France yet, and it was like being on Mars with shades of Latin, Spanish Empire, Galicia, Mexico, Carlos Quinto. I returned to Italy from Strasbourg for les vacances d’hiver in February 1996 and everything suddenly made more sense. A bit. I remember especially a day in Verona with two Roman laborers, and much shoestring Italian over lunch and dinner. It worked. I could do it. But my expectations were low, and, Roman laborers, well. … an easy audience.
I did not return to Italy between 1996 and 2004. I’ve been coming every year, more or less, since then, for short and long trips, mostly in summer, as well as the year in Arezzo.
I have never taken Italian.
How did this happen? and why?
Italian is like a person I see all the time and take for granted. Like, I see him at the busstop all the time, but we don’t really talk. I keep hoping we strike up a friendship, but it’s tough. My expectations are unrealistic. I hope for too much! I’m shy! He intimidates me! He’s cute, and dresses really well. He’s friendly enough, but doesn’t seem to want to talk to me so much. He’s got stuff to do. He has funny jokes that whizz by me. I hate not understanding the funny parts.
Ciao ragazzi. Avete un momento?… I just have a quick question …
No? ok you seem to be walking really fast …
Va bene…
And so it goes. 
Jason: just talk to Italians. Just talk to them. You’ll learn.

But this kind of learning is very, very hard for me. I haven’t done much of it. Sure, it’s fun when you’re on vacation. But if you live somewhere? And you’re tired and also maybe sick and have a fever and need to complete (what kind of completion is this, in Italian?) a complicated purchase or repair, or some sort of official transaction? What if your babysitter peppers you with instant messages that you barely understand and your phone doesn’t seem to have a simultaneous Italian dictionary for instant messaging? What if you have two kids and a job and a husband who rocks at everything and frankly you don’t have much joyful, playful energy left over for such relaxed and trusting linguistic forays…?
What to do.
Jason: you already rent space in a language school. Talk to them about it. But the kind of instruction they offer is very tourist-oriented, and, I am sure, expensive. I don’t even know what they charge, but they offer very bespoke lessons.
Plus random people roll through my office that stop by to speak with me in Spanish, French, Italian …
I suppose I had hoped I would learn Italian osmotically, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Or is it? I have no benchmarks, no vocabulary quizzes or grammar exams as I am used to.
On the other hand, three different people yesterday told me that my Italian was bravo, eccelente, etc. But I always feel like I am just faking it with a half-Spanish accent. And to people whose expectations of my communication in Italian are so low as to be easily – very easily! – impressed. Bariste on Piazza della Reppublica. Our landlord’s son-in-law from Milano. People, I suppose, who expect me to sound like a hapless American fresh out of Fiumcino, rather than a crafty and theatrically oriented language lover with a too-convincing accent …
And my two Italian crutches, named Spanish and French, can sometimes do more harm than good. I rely on them a lot. I did. I cast them aside more and more lately as I trade in Italian on face value. Who cares what the Spanish or French say? But the minute I disregard these old, old friends, I am often caught out, and can’t remember anything. Then I find out that the word is very close or identical to either one. Especially Spanish. Vincolo. Vincolato. Scopa. And that’s just from this week.
Spanish and French – come on. Are you in this with me, or not? Can you be helpful without being so bossy with my anterior cingulate cortex?
I feel almost teary when I get to break out the Spanish or French. The words feel so familiar. Old friends! Hello, hola, salut! You make sense to me, and I know I make sense when I say you! Ne partez pas! Quedad conmigo!
Am I too old or tied up to even be trying to learn a new language? It was so, so easy, and fun, when I was 20. I see Victor and Eleanor joyfully sponging it up and I am very happy for them and for us, but also humbled to realize, as Victor might put it, that I am the #4 most Italian speaking person in this family. 

Language lovers, learning friends, please weigh in here. I am serious. I know you’re out there, reading this. What do you think? Cosa pensate?
Grazie, gracias, merci, kiitos, a dozen further variations of gratitude.

Firenze: Freddo e Riscaldamento

Europe is in a cold snap. It’s severe to the east, but you know a snap is a real snap when it’s 20F in Tuscany.

Piazza San Marco, brrr.

The wind blows down the narrow canyons of the city center. My teeth rattle so hard when I am riding my bike that I can’t tell if it’s more from the uneven flagstones or the cold.

A woolen and cashmere peacoat provides insufficient protection, so mine has been retired until it warms up a bit again. I am straight-up piumino, or down coat (Ital., piume, feather, piumino, little feather, or down). My favorite. The one I bought in Arezzo four years ago, is brown and features a zipper and snaps and a positively Sapmi fur-trimmed hood with a drawstring. Harness the reindeer, I’ll be right down! No one recognizes me on the street in the piumino, and the two times someone did, I was surprised, because I look more hedgehog than human in it. Now I’m really mixing similes – I don’t even think Finland has any hedgehogs.

All bundled up. Following: various piumini solutions.

Slovenian park bench piumini.

Family piumini on vacation, plus Slovenian princess with no piumino.
Piumino incognito
San Marco piumini, waiting for the C1.
 Everyone has a piumino, and everyone wears the piumino. It is a grand Italian solution. NO wind at all can be felt through its padded, stitched layers.

We should have taken the clue from the hot water bottle someone left behind in our apartment that the winter months here might feel historic. Our heat works, but the building is old, and insulation is not its strong point. Many of the very warm heat registers are conveniently located under large windows. Those casements are both historically evocative and drafty.

I’d also brought my Scando hot water bottle back from the US (again, an Italian purchase from a design store in San Lorenzo four years ago, now shuttered), so I deployed those this week. The kids are fascinated.

Victor: What’s that?
Mom: A hot water bottle.
V: Why?
Me: To keep you warm.
V: How??
M: I put hot water in it. It stays warm most of the night. We tuck it into your bed. (I should mention here that his BMI must hover around 5 at present due to back-to-back November illness: five days of fever, then a tummy rampage.) They did this during horsey times.
V: They didn’t have heat in horsey times?
M: Well, they did, but it was not awesome.
V: Did they have pillows and blankets?
M: Yes.
Jason: Their pillows were made of rocks.
M: Do you want the hot water bottle?
V: I don’t know.

Sheep look much better with their skins on.

Taking an executive decision following his unhelpful user input, I made the hot water bottle and put it in his little bed, dressing it in a 3T t-shirt. We also have a few fake sheepskins purchased at IKEA, which are, undoubtedly, better than having a skinned sheep in the house. I mean – knit a blanket. Don’t peel the sheep and dry it out; it’s not 600 CE. The fake sheepskins each go under a small chi
ld at night. They are a total nighttime hit.

Victor loves the hot water bottle. Between fake sheepskin and hot water bottle, he is getting cozy sleep in his single bed. He woke up yesterday morning, and holding the hot water bottle up. said, “This is a problem. It is cold.” I told him the bottle cannot stay warm indefinitely. “Why?” Because it is the nature of hot water to lose heat. He is not impressed with physics.

Eleanor shares the Scando hot water bottle with me, as it is clothed in its own cover of brown fleece, with a baby reindeer on it. I have thought before that it might be a baby giraffe, but now I am almost positive it is a reindeer. Maybe a baby reindeer. What do you think? Zoom in.

My favorite wintertime accessory in Tuscany.

Eleanor on Tuesday night saw me filling the hot water bottles from our old kettle on the gas hob, and said, “Mommy! Coffee pillow!” She continues to call it that, which I love. Don’t stop.

Maybe there’s a market for that. A hot water bottle filled with coffee for mamas with creative streaks and packed days…

A final note. I just had to include these. Life imitates art.

Eleanor with a dolly in nido,
checking baby Billy Idol for lice
Victor on Slovenian trampoline looking suspiciously similar…