Florence: Turning a page / girare la pagina

This whole post is about my new workspace!

As many of you know, I work remotely for Terra Dotta, a software company based in North Carolina. I am going on six years now with the company, and find my work engaging and fulfilling on many levels. It is a boon that the position has been remote since they hired me for the second time in 2013 – good for me, good for my career, good for our family, and frankly, good for Terra Dotta, as I remain deeply involved in our product development from Oklahoma and Italy, in way that would be impossible had I been issued an ultimatum to relocate to Chapel Hill.

It has long been a discussion in our marriage that I am easily employed, with a wide latitude in my career encompassing immigration, marketing, writing, editing, publishing, software development, testing, end user documentation … the list goes on. Foreign language teaching. Branding. I fall quickly into often fruitful employment situations: freelance, contract, full-time. A random conversation many times has turned into income for me.

This hasn’t always precipitated pleasant discussions in certain years in my marriage, when Jason felt stymied professionally. He has a profundity of education and a level of specialization I don’t; he is supremely qualified for a handful of positions that turn over infrequently. So it worked out well that when Jason was offered the position in Florence, I was able to bind up my roots and transplant my work to Italy with relatively little churn or burn. Happily, my position continued, and continues, to grow and change and expand in ways that remain interesting and engaging for me from abroad.

However, Italy is not San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland, in the sense that jobs are very rooted to a sense of place and the Roman concept of gens – who you know, and who is in your network, and who your parents are, and where your clan has lived for the last, oh, one thousand or two thousand years. The job market in Italy is tight and sewn up. Publicly posted positions are almost always mere formalities, as they were filled some time ago in name, and now only the details remain to be completed.

Italy is not also San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that remote work is barely an idea here. If an Italian asks me what I do, and I explain it to them, they are usually astonished. The entire concept of full-time remote work is so far beyond their hermeneutic horizon that I am met only with disbelief.

And, most importantly, Italy is not San Francisco, Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that, more often than not, the lack of reliable internet here is a constant source of stress. I think of the places listed here as places with awesome internet! Fiber! superfast speed! Very reliable, and new networks. Italy does not really have that. They try. Oh, they try. They place paper flyers on the doors of buildings, “La fibra vi arriva!” I no longer believe it. It is like trying to wire the Colosseum to be a tech incubator. Italian infrastructure at times can seem truly hostile to modernization. Can’t drill a hole… walls will crumble, stones will break… historic building … not to mention every time they rip up a street or piazza it seems to be that some very suspicious bundles and braids of blue and yellow ethernet cabling are snipped, and carelessly tossed about with abandon.

And so it was that my rented office situation in Florence began its quick, explicable descent. From my office balcony since March I have watched the commune tear up Piazza della Repubblica, digging holes and planing old flagstones. The ruins of the razed Jewish ghetto under the piazza merited further academic investigation, and an anthropologist wearing a white sunhat was soon seated at a desk in a pit. My internet got worse and worse, and in the old building, there was nowhere to plug in. I did not have an option to wire. My afternoons were frequently fraught and gave me minor chest pains as I failed to complete call after call and meeting after meeting with any kind of grace or success.

When I asked why the wifi was not working, the staff insisted it was my laptop, that the wifi was fine.
But the wifi is not fine, I said. I want to wire in, I begged.
You cannot, they said. All these outlets are non-functional.
Meanwhile I further annoyed my colleagues with an audio that sounded like the aliens from the movie Mars Attacks, and no video.

So I went home to work for a week.

I should mention here that Jason is in the US for work and the kids are home on summer break. Working from home has been touch and go at best. Even with sitters, and we have many, my life at the working parent switchboard is like a military CentComm.

In a midnight moment of insomnia, I remembered the pleasant lunch I had had recently with one Maria, a marketing manager and host of a co-working space a bit out of centro. Maria and I had been introduced by Megan, another remote tech professional whom I met a year and half ago on Piazza della Repubblica. Megan had since moved to Turin, leasing office space that was hosted by Maria and her company, The Student Hotel.

The Florence location opened this month, I  remembered. I had missed both of the events to which I had been so kindly invited, due to scheduling conflicts. I had not seen the space yet. Maria is colleagues with another person we know, Andrea, a mom of kids at our kids’ school, whose bambini are roughly the same age as ours. Why didn’t I email Maria? What was I waiting for? 

My loosely structured gens, such as it is, could be put to work for me here.

I contacted Maria the very next morning. She immediately responded and invited me to come look on Friday at lunch. It’s a quick ride from our palazzo on the bike path.

What’s the internet like? I grilled her. I would like to remain employed, and to not have a cardiac in my remote position due to my lack of connectivity.
It is good, she affirmed.
The building is newly gutted and renovated – it is a former HQ of Trenitalia, the state rail system. They maintain a very pretty office building next door.

Trenitalia HQ next door.

Can I wire in?
Yes, Maria said. It is a LAN too. Bring a wire.

She took me around. New furniture, functional air conditioning. Office space, social space, classrooms and cafes. A juice bar. A deejay booth, I am not kidding, for a nightclub that seems to start at a later hour, like 10 or 11 pm. A recording studio which I will be using to rehearse. A rooftop gym with a sweeping view of the Florentine skyline. A rooftop pool (can’t use) and bar (can use). Laundry and kitchens. Restaurants. A bike shop. A salon. A retail design store. Big swings.
A LAN I could wire into.
This place was off chain. The Student Hotel is a Dutch enterprise, and it shows. Design is thoughtful. Spaces are clean and inviting.
Maria and I passed Andrea in the hall, and soon we were three for lunch at the fancy restaurant, which is leased by La Menagère, which is a high-end eatery in centro.

I said I would return on Monday for my free trial day to work. But my mind was made up the minute I unlocked my bike from the pole on Friday. This would be my new, reliable office. With a wired LAN. I was so excited I could have screamed.

My new office building.

I came on Monday with my work backpack and got down to it. Wow, it is so easy to work when you have internet and a tiny bit of air conditioning! It was nice to have an ambient cohort also all working and doing their things in the vicinity. I struggled in Oklahoma and Florence with feeling isolated. I do not love to have people on top of me, but I appreciate being around professional people if they’re not eating stinky leftover food they’ve just heated up in the office microwave.

Seriously, people. I got so much done with minimal stress. Wifi was awesome. Wired LAN was dreamy. I cannot overemphasize how stressful this was on Repubblica. Then I hung out in a little nook and got even more done!

Work nook!

This morning I messaged my rental colleagues on Repubblica to let them know I was not coming back to work, and that I would bring the keys back. It feels a bit like a breakup (sniff). I started working there the second month after we moved here. Through all four seasons, the vagaries of that grand palazzo, the thin heat in winter and the stifling rooms in summer. The Evita Peron balcony from where I spied on all the activity below each day. The six months of Italian language classes that I took. The clipclop of the carriages carrying tourists. And oh, all my friends at Caffe Paszkowski, which is fortunately on my regular route home from St. James on Sundays after I sing at mass. The buskers in the piazza below, and my easy access to the bustle.

I’ve got a new neighborhood now to explore, though, which isn’t Piazza della Repubblica, but is still plenty full of caffes and restaurants. Plus, the fact that I will be able to ride a bike path for the full commute is wonderful – no more playing Frogger (TM) in centro with aggressive Florentine taxis.

Up and away! Turn the page.

Fresh fruit, fancy water, keycard. Feels like old times in Seattle.

Italy: Italian Expectations / Le aspettative italiane

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cultural expectations – what someone might reasonably expect to happen on a daily basis, living within a culture, and further, which expectations might fracture when the plate shifts, and someone from Culture A finds themselves more or less immersed in Culture B. We are all products of our culture, whether or not we recognize this, and I grant that it can be very difficult indeed to recognize this fact if one has never lived anywhere but in one’s own culture, leading to the assumption that all expectations everywhere match the ones from inside the bubble.

I have written here occasionally on sociopolitical topics, but my first year in Firenze was more a fat pipe of beauty: see pretty thing, take pretty picture, share. I do love catching a breathtaking image on my scurryings about town on my various daily errands – school, work, choir, church, dentist, and more.

But now, halfway through year two, I find myself noticing and comparing the cultural data I have been accruing here through experience, and comparing it with my cultural reference section, abundantly shelved thanks to my career steeped in US immigration and academic immigration, and time spent living abroad and traveling, but especially Spain, France, and the UK. Because I lived for thirty years in Oklahoma, and left not quite two years ago, those cultural reference volumes in particular bear recent evidence of perusal.

I’ve indexed some of these mental notes and comparisons, and present one of them below for my audience: American aggression.

I am unsure if this phenomenon can be ascribed more to Oklahoma. Perhaps so, as I noticed far less of it in the more civil Pacific Northwest, and even in DC and NY, all places I have lived.

America is not only a frequent global aggressor, what with our various bright ideas for deploying military power, but internally, America is an aggressive culture. Part of this is due to the omnipresence of firearms, in open or concealed carry, or illegal carry. In the US, I was terrified of any dispute’s escalation. A gun was a very likely possibility.

In Italy, gun control is sound, and logical. In fact, I have never thought anyone would pull a gun in the EU, and I am glad for that. Not even in Finland, which loves hunting, and is currently ranked by the UN as the happiest country on earth. My Finnish cousins in Karelia with their gun racks are not proponents of a firearms free-for-all. (In my perfect world, no one would hunt, but I do not get to make up all the rules around here. I kind of wish my great-grandparents had not gotten on that boat headed west from Liverpool, but that is a topic for a different day.)

An illustration of my cultural conditioning. One day last fall in St. James, I was either serving or singing, so was in the chancel during mass. A man came in halfway through the liturgy, alone. With a backpack. Of a certain age. Of course he was a tourist, but I have been so conditioned by the lack of public safety in the US that I actually began to have some version of a panic attack sitting up there. He started to fiddle with his backpack; he wasn’t paying attention. But in my reptile brain I felt pretty certain that Backpack Man had weapons in there, and my palms began to sweat. Why is an usher not approaching him, or asking to check his backpack? I thought. All the other Americans in the building were facing forward and paying attention. Someone should really ask him to sit down, or ask to check in his backpack, I thought. I tried to mentally convince an usher to do so, as my imagination was working overtime and I was picturing him pulling some gun out of the backpack.

But no. It was fine. He was just a middle-aged tourist with a grey ponytail, and a backpack. He was probably looking for his guidebook to figure out where he’d just interrupted mass. He left a bit after, never having sat down, but neither having shot and killed anyone either, even though in my mind this had been a distinct and panicked possibility.

This reminded me of my time working on campus. I had two offices at OU: one was in an old building, the floorplan like a glorified hallway, with a front entrance and a hallway to another door. We had a few really disturbed international students, unstable young adults on the edge (one non-traditional woman in particular), with no-trespass orders on campus and police involvement, but I always thought in my mind, I can get out if someone goes nuts in here and becomes violent.

The other office, which I spent six years working in, was a renovated classroom, with one entrance, and this setup scared the daylights out of me. Happy international students did not typically come to our office. It was the ill ones, the failing ones, the struggling and depressed ones, the irrational ones. The office had one entrance, which was also its exit, and that was it. If someone came into our office with a gun purchased at a gun show, ready to teach me and my staff a lesson, there was nowhere to go or to hide. I literally sat at work and imagined the ways I could seek refuge under my desk, or in our supply closet where we also pumped breastmilk.

I calculated how long it would take an armed student to find me and shoot me. How long would I have to stay under my desk, could I convincingly play dead, or would an irate student come looking for me by name? How far down was the jump from the second story? Could I break a window and climb down that juniper tree? Probably not in time, but these calculations nevertheless spun through my head. This thinking was sick. But I did not feel safe, we did not feel safe, and that seemed to bother no one but me and my staff. Again, and to clarify, most of our 2,500 advisees were just fine, but we had five or so each year who seemed to be on a literal hair trigger.

This type of public violence did not seem to happen when I was growing up in Oklahoma and Michigan. The first mass murder by gun was in Edmond, OK, 73034, at the post office just a mile from my school, in 1986 or so. We were in shock for weeks. My mom understandably freaked out and didn’t really want us going anywhere, which was more a punishment for me than my two brothers, who tended to stay home anyway.

There was bullying in my high school, but it seemed limited to skinheads versus skaters. I remember a fair amount of very Mean Girls-style bullying in the seventh grade, but no one ever thought that someone would bring a gun to school and shoot everyone, at any time, in my schooling.

Risultati immagini per mean girls

Gun violence doesn’t just start with guns. It begins in a culture of aggression and bullying, where might makes right, and boys are bred and raised to be big, and therefore stronger, and therefore dominant.

In preschool in Norman there were six and seven year old boys in Victor’s pre-K class (which should have all been kids who were four, turning five) who were specifically held back to grow bigger for football. This is madness. Note that girls were never held back for this purpose, as it was strictly gender-driven, and, I might argue, race-driven, since these little boys were almost always Anglo, creating a miniature ruling class of dominant males right there in pre-K that would persist in the culture in all cohorts, at all levels, for years.

I talked to the school’s director about it, and was told something along the lines of, parents have a right to hold their children back.

Um, yes, I thought, but not for sporting reasons, and those boys should not be permitted to become the bullying terrors of the class. I was just sick about it in the fall of 2015. I did not want our children to be raised in a world where this seemed normal to them, where they had to learn to protect themselves because the adults in charge indicated they were powerless to change the rules, and thus the dynamic. This was the same school where I was told that conceal carry was the law in the state, and so the private preschool would make no rule otherwise prohibiting parents from toting their pistols around in the school. This was the same year where our small children were in lock-down three times for gun-related violence.

Conversely, the adults in charge might well be aggressors themselves, as with the neighbor in Norman across the street, who I saw one morning chase his son around their car, catch him by the arm, and hit him again and again until the little boy was sobbing. I saw all this from my window, like a terrible stage piece, but did not go out to confront the father because I assumed he was packing heat.

I had been raised in such a world, and had adapted by developing strengths in skills of “freeze and friend”: smile at the big boys, they might decide you’re harmless, and leave you alone. Play dead with a weird sort of frozen smile. Do nothing to provoke. Do not challenge. Crawl under the desk and play dead. Disappear. Become silent. Keep your counsel at all times.

You never see kids held back for sport in Italy. The Italian parents here actually think that soccer is a dangerous and violent sport, which really makes me laugh. The US from Italy seems like a version of Sparta on opioids, which is another topic for a different day. The overall atmosphere in the children’s school in Florence is one of sane adults in charge, and I have noted little evidence of bullying. Italy, on the whole, and in this context, persists as a civil society in ways that America does not. I am sure bullying happens. I am sure it is pervasive in less well-off communities; Florence is arguably an Italian center of wealth concentration. Any Italian will tell you that the Mafia and Comorra and ‘Ndragheta are bullying shadow institutions.

I re-read 1984 a year ago, looking, in part, for a playbook. Orwell does a superb job describing citizens cowed by culture, products of fear and conditioning.

An Italian woman asked me yesterday to explain what is happening in America. I was late for work, and could not. I said, it is a big problem, a huge problem. I am glad to be in Italy where things seem to work.
Ma che! her eyes grew wide. There is plenty in Italy that does not work! she told me.
Yes, I said, but you have a civil society.
She looked dubious.
Things work here, I pressed. I listed their universal healthcare, pensions, schools, nice roads, bridges that do not fall into rivers, the luxury of feeling safe from harm in public, which should be a primary civil right, but for Americans in America, it cannot be had.
In Italy, I said, people are kind to each other. There is a sort of kindness here, of life on a human scale, which America has lost. But also, I added, the US, Italy, and Poland are all on a list of flawed democracies. I understand why Italians are upset.

Risultati immagini per flawed democracies

Italian electoral rules seem to be of a piece with American gerrymandering, and a fair amount of election confusion. The voting rules are so complicated that no one can make sense of them anymore.
Worse, people vote, and then some other process blender takes over to assign percentages to their governing bodies based on the multiparty election results. Errrr.

There then ensued a long linguistic discussion of what flawed meant, and how to spell it, and when to use it.

She said my scarf looked pretty.
I do not think Italians love hearing Americans list what appears to be functioning in Italy.

I am still decompressing here from my time in Oklahoma. I know we are privileged to live here. We had the option to leave, and many do not. Everyone in America is compressed, with little sign of decompression possibilities on the horizon. My heart aches for this fact.

Hear me: It does not have to be this way. It does not. It is not this way in so many other places. The predominant culture in the US right now is not an inevitable reality.

Further topics for this discussion: Italian rules that can be broken, Italian vending machines, the school menu and nutritionist. Much more anodyne topics, unless someone out there is really feeling this soapbox.

Firenze: Fringe Opera / L’opera vanguardista

The stables were freezing, the violinist said.
There was no way they would be able to play for an hour and a half, straight through without intermission. Their hands were cold, and even more importantly, their period string instruments were strung with gut to do justice to the Baroque music.
The steel or nylon wires, she said, would not have been impacted at all by the temperature, but the gut strings would have to be re-tuned every twenty minutes or so.
How this was going to be possible, it simply was not clear.
Plus, how were they expected to wear concert attire? I listened carefully and nodded. I am not string musician, but her concerns made sense to me. I too am always freddina – freezing. That condition, thankfully, is coming to a conclusion soon here in Florence.

The quartet was lodged downstairs in the palazzo, in the basso mezzanino, which I had never seen before, but looks every inch a set for a period film by Merchant and Ivory. Two bedrooms look out from large windows onto the capacious and blooming garden behind the palazzo, with rows of small frescoed barrel vaults for ceilings. The furniture is nineteenth century, with tiny desks and chairs and metal beds. They were there for the week for rehearsals for a festival production of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” to be performed in the stables of the Palazzo Corsini by a young cast, with a forward-thinking director and producer.

I am friends with the producer, Sophie; she was also singing Euridice. She works with the choir at St. James, and as is often my way, I had fallen into conversations with her about ground logistics and creative solutions, given their performance dates in different cities and needs. That is how the quartet came to stay for a week at the palazzo we call home.

We had tickets to attend the performance on Thursday, and were going with Claudio and Francesca, who are our landlords, neighbors, and friends. I was glad they were accompanying us because I had no idea where the Palazzo Corsini was, and plus, Claudio had offered to drive us all. Francesca knows the Corsini family, and asked me what the address was for the performance.

“It’s in the Palazzo Corsini!” I said brightly.
“Yes, I know, dear,” she replied patiently. “What number? I don’t even know how many numbers that palazzo has, between their doors and the gardens.”
I looked up the palazzo on my phone, but the street it gave wasn’t even right.
Francesca went back upstairs to get the poster the quartet had dropped off for her before they left.
“I know where it is,” she said, “it’s the scuderie (stables) address.”
We headed downstairs to the piazza where Claudio was waiting for us with the car.

Driving from one location in centro ZTL (zona traffico limitata) to another is a bit like space travel – you must go out to a ring road to come back in, so a trip that would take me 10-15 minutes on a bike will easily take 30-45 in a car. Plus some swearing and dry gargling.

Claudio, however, as an unflappable Italian gentleman, gamely remained calm throughout the navigation, his beret jauntily perched atop his head as he manned the wheel of the tiny town car, telling Jason with a laugh on Liberta, “I am never quite sure which was to go here,” and, later, backing the car out of a wrong turn he’d taken at the snake of an intersection currently strangling the main train station. I was plenty impressed with his aplomb.

We parked in a space that looked to me like it might have just barely fit a crate of clementines, and walked around to the palazzo. In front of the Hotel Medici, Francesca lamented the large paved apron in front of the hotel, saying, “There used to be the most beautiful fruit trees here.” As far as I can tell, about 35 years ago someone who hated mature, urban fruit trees, such as used to crowd around many properties in Florence, began to rip them all out, and did not stop until they were almost all gone.

We arrived at the Corsini stables and walked in, through a huge door, then past car after vintage car that seemed ready for a period drama like “Downton Abbey.” I am no car buff by any stretch, but these old Fiats and Aston Martins were gleaming. Claudio and Francesca had been to exhibits in the scuderie before, and were pleased to return. We checked in at will-call and wedged our way into the small crowd that was waiting to enter. It was a festive group, but I couldn’t move. The venue was intimate indeed. Francesca immediately began to spy a few of her friends, and slipped through the packed people to exchange buona seras. Jason and I stood around and watched a cluster of girls on an ancient settee devour a giant bowl of popcorn.

Soon a petite older woman with a booming voice came through.
“Georgiana!” Francesca brightened. “It’s Signora Corsini. Let me introduce you to her.”
Signora Corsini was all business, and leaned in to hear my name, and Jason’s, while Francesca generously introduced as their friends and affiliates of Gonzaga, as opposed to the rambunctious tenant family in their grand palazzo on the opposite side of town.
Signora Corsini asked me if I had had any refreshment yet.
I said no, I couldn’t get to it, gesturing to the packed bunch of people.
She looked shocked. “Of course you can arrive at the refreshment! You must! Allow me.”
She parted the crowd with a deep, “Permesso! Permesso, signori!”
At a back table I had been unable to see stood two huge urns, one of mulled wine, the other of a concoction I understood to be a combination of beef broth (?), Red Bull (??), and, possibly, vodka (!?!). I do not know which observation alarmed me more: the possibility of such a drink, or the sad state of my Italian comprehension.
Unable to clarify the contents of this second urn in the roaring, tiny space, I said, “I would like the Gluhwein.”
“Err, the vin brulee.”
Il vino,” I said, pointing.
Signora Corsini dispensed a small cup of the steaming wine and handed it to me. “E lui?”
Jason politely declined.

The doors to the stable swung wide, and Georgiana invited “people of a certain age” to come first. Francesca looked at me and shrugged. “Of course, we’re just going in.” I followed her lead and we quickly found chairs. Jason had a standing post in the horse stall behind us, and neighed good humoredly. I saw a number of people I knew from St. James on this, the last night of the production, concluding their Italian tour. I noted a small group of women who seemed like they knew the place, and who all looked like each other, and assumed they must be the Corsini sisters. The daughter of one of them, aged about ten, had an enormous bowl of popcorn, and was sitting on the floor eating it with such gusto that bits and pieces were flying onto the rugs covering the stones, and dropping all over her sweater, adding a touch of farcical Wes Anderson to the whole scene.

Povere Euridice. Will she come back to life?
Spoiler alert: in the Baroque version, YES.

There were maybe a hundred people total in the audience, tops. The orchestra was at the far end of the stable, under a handsome ston
e statue of San Eligio, patron saint of horses and their caretakers, and under that, a smaller statue of the Virgin. The sound in the space was optimal, for the stables were a bit like a stone chapel, and filled with the music as the orchestra began to play. The Corsini were a historically well-placed family indeed as I counted sixteen stalls in our space, all bordered by stone columns. It looked like a horse chapel.

Orfeo baragining successfully with Amor to restore to life his beloved Euridice

The quartet did have to pause periodically to re-tune their strings of gut, I noticed, but they did it so quickly as to be almost unnoticeable, and in any case the handsome cast was a transparent distraction. Gluck, as a Baroque composer, had the resource of castrati countertenors at hand, but in this opera, Orfeo was sung by a beautiful, tall woman, whose face was scrubbed clean, her hair wound back in a tight braid. It took me a while to figure out she was Orfeo. I mistakenly thought at first she was the shadow Euridice – perhaps a dream Euridice – in any case, I worked it out, and the singing was beautiful, as the chorus and soloists were inches from us at full volume. 

The costumes were amusingly tongue-in-cheek – Amor was an Elvis impersonator, Orfeo an RAF pilot, Euridice’s skirt and bodice looked like they came from last year’s Feria Sevillana, castanet-ready. Moving forward, I would love all live entertainment to be that close to me; it is so much more striking than watching an opera on stage form a box, and everything looking like an animated postage stamp.

Euridice and Orfeo are reunited!

The young girl continued to eat the popcorn with her mother and aunties. I tried to avoid direct eye contact with the singers so as not to fluster them. Since this production was an adaptation, and not the entire work, it was about an hour and a half in length, but none the less for it. (Good news for Jason in the horse stall.)

Oats and opera, anyone?

The finale finished to much shouting of brava, bravo, bravi. The conductor thanked everyone for coming, and outlined the next festival productions scheduled in the gardens of the Corsini for late August and early September.
“Che meraviglia!” a Corsini sister breathed from a stall across the aisle. 
We finally squeezed out of the stables back into the entry corridor where all the vintage cars silently gleamed. In the warm evening, Francesca outlined for me the many talents and accomplishments of Georgiana, clearly a woman of much fuoco e spirito.

Driving home, Jason and Claudio debated the Gluck revision of the Orfeo and Euridice myth, agreeing at the end that Gluck was under pressure from his patrons in the royal court to make an ending more piacevole (pleasing), since the original plot is a tragedy, as Euridice perishes and Orfeo descends into an eternal grief. We also covered the casting, and the history of castrati, agreeing that the opera would have become vanguard indeed had it been edited to star Orfea and Euridice.

I can’t wait to see their late summer productions of Tchaikovsky, Shakespeare, and Mozart. Perhaps I too might be able to dine in the Corsini gardens with other guests …

Italy: Weights and Measures / Pesi e Misure

How much of one thing equals another thing?

This has to be one of the most overarching cultural questions. When we look at or hold something, a thing, a substance, we ask, how much of this thing is equal to this other thing?

This varies widely from culture to culture, and yet it is transparent to the cultural participants. Of course this much of this one thing is equal to this other thing! Only when we shift positions do our perspectives change.

Our apartment, as I have mentioned, is freddino. It is chilly. Our palazzo is beautiful, and central, and its relative advantages far outweigh its climate control. We are very happy here.

But it is so cold. The cold affects me especially in the morning, when I wake up and stumble into the kitchen (still wearing the scarf, sweatshirt, socks, woolen booties I slept in) to turn on the heat, turn on the electric heater, fill the kettle and light the gas hob for tea, check the situation for Jason’s coffee.

When I return from our school drop-off, things have cooled down again in the kitchen. This is where I always make my same mistake: I think I will just straighten things up a little bit. Just a bit. But my hands are freezing, my fingers barely work, the hot water takes an age to reach the tap from the boiler. It feels like the winter of 1890 up here. Just a small plate, I think to myself, I can scrub this, I can quickly wipe off this other thing. But with my cold hands, in the cold kitchen, the fingers, they do not have a solid grasp, the water is cold, where is the hot water, why is the hot water not running yet …

The plate slips. The ceramic breaks. Every time. Dozens of times.

Mundane plates don’t bother me to break  – a plain white plate, a plain saucer. They can be easily replaced at the sample ceramics vendor at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, who sells only white ceramics, some embossed, modern and vintage-seeming, but all plain white. It reminds me of arty friends who brought out purposely mismatched and monogrammed hotel silver to entertain at home. Such elegant friends.

Last week, though, I dropped and broke our spoon rest, which came with the apartment in the giant china hutch (madia) of assembled essentials. The spoon rest gets a lot of use, and this spoon rest always tickles my fancy, because it is in the shape of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, which makes me think of, in this order, my mom, Mexico, and Brazil. Mom drove a powder-blue Bug for years in the Midwest, usually stuffed with three small children, a mutt, groceries, and a sheet cake. No air conditioning, vinyl seats, Oklahoma City in sweltering summers. Beetlebugs are all over Mexico and Brazil, destinations I have spent happy travelling time in, so any invocation of simple transportation with three gears, any ocean coast, and windows rolled down is welcome.

But this small Beetlebug was now in two pieces at the bottom of the marble sink.

I heaved a sigh as I picked them up. I dried them off, and verified that they still fit together, more or less. I added them to the small white sugar bowl, whose tiny knob atop the lid had cleaved in half under identical circumstances, and been carefully stored in the bowl until such time as I determined how best to repair it. I am a fixer. I do not like to throw things away, especially if they are sentimental, or I like them particularly. I know it is not always ideal to have a glued seam showing, but I am careful, and dexterous, and can fix things. It’s a personal challenge. I can work with imperfection. I struggle with total loss.

When this happened in the US, I had a very handy glue pen for terra cotta that worked wonders. That glue was awesome. I could fix almost anything with it. A bright bowl from Caltagirone. An ironic ceramic bowl used for cat food. The decapitated head of a concrete Saint Francis after a scuffle with a toddler Victor, reaffixed, that lasted through many cold seasons reglued. But I did not have this glue in Italy.

I knew just where I could find some, though: the mesticheria (home goods shop) on Pietrapiena, just around the corner from our palazzo: Casalinghi Mazzanti. Every quartiere (neighborhood) has one, but I like to think that ours on Sant’Ambrogio is special.

This mesticheria is seriously old school. The sales assistants are all men of a certain age in blue jumpsuits, with thinning and graying hair. They take their responsibilities very seriously. One might browse among the aisles of the shop, but in general it is not done; take a number, and wait for one of the jumpsuits to help you. You must have a number to be in the store, pretty much, if you plan on looking for anything or purchasing anything. The counter was amicably mobbed by day laborers and contractors, who handed over their number to say they are looking for denatured alcohol, a special kind of screw, rope of a certain weight, a new lock. A red-haired widow needed a water bottle. A woman in a luxe fur coat needed a specific can of paint. The store is packed to the rafters – my father would love it. Along with all the practical contractor inventory, they also sell Le Creuset ironware, bathroom accessories, gleaming copper pots and pans of every size and shape. Anything you might need for your home, from screws to a lightbulb to a specific kitchen tool, Mazzanti carries it.

I broke the rules a bit, and began browsing for glue to fix my spoon rest and sugar bowl. The narrow aisles were a challenge to navigate, especially at this busy hour right before lunch, when all the contractors had advanced as far as they could in their morning work without that tube of silicon or box of screws. I quickly found an entire section of glue, and silicon. It became immediately clear why I might need to first take a number to ask a jumpsuit which glue to buy. I had no idea. The selection was overwhelming, and a workout for both my Italian and whatever I remembered of semiotics from grad school. A vast array of sealants and glues were neatly hung on about eight feet of aisle shelving at all levels, and I started to look for the closest approximation to my terra cotta glue-all that I knew so well in the US.

After a few minutes I gave up, and went to look at the activity in front of the counter again. At least ten people were waiting. I noted the location of the number dispenser. I went back to the glue aisle and, finally, found a tube of what I needed where I had not seen it before. The yellow tube was indicated for marble, glass, and any item where visible dried glue is undesirable. At five euros, and with helpful pictures on the front of it of a broken Ming vase, a muffler, a wooden stair, and a dining room table, it was exactly what was needed.

I pulled a number out of the red dispenser. 53. I settled in calmly to wait my turn and to watch the organized mayhem. The jumpsuits were very efficient, and dealt kindly with both contractors’ demands and the hot water bottle needs of chilly widows. An American woman dressed in GMU-logo pushed up to the counter with two glass cruets. She spoke no Italian.

“Number please,” the jumpsuit said in Italian.
“I want to buy these,” she said, in English. Pushing the cruets forward on the counter. She smiled at him. I groaned inwardly.
The jumpsuit gave her a look and disappeared from behind the counter. Her cruets had no price tags. I wondered what the word was for cruet in Italian. I felt sympathetic for a moment as I inwardly agreed that there was no way I would ever wal
k into an Italian shop like this and start talking to a jumpsuit about my need for a glass cruet with a cork.
Everyone behind GMU began to grumble. She had jumped at least ten numbers in the line. Everyone else was holding their number and looking at it.
She turned around and saw the scene. She looked sideways at me.
“Am I doing this wrong?” she asked me.
“They’re traditional here. Gotta take a number to pay,” I said, relieved I was far from the most clueless person in the shop.
The unsinkable Molly Brown seemed to have assumed that other customers were simply too undetermined to pay, or perhaps fraught by indecision.
The jumpsuit finally came back and told her the price for the two cruets. She paid, and hastily made her way from the store.

By this time I was an expert in number-taking. One of the contractors, with plaster dust still in his dark gelled hair, asked me where I got my number from.
“Di la,” I said, pointing.
Finally, 53! I hopped up to the front, gave the jumpsuit my number, and paid with an acceptably small banknote. He smiled at me and shooed me out of the store, already thinking ahead to 54.

Realizing the master class I had just received in language and culture thanks to the long wait and general powers of observation, I resolved to contrive a reason to come more frequently to Casalinghi Mazzanti.

Saturday morning I got out my broken porcelain pieces and the glue package. I set the pieces of the sugar bowl and the spoon rest on the marble counter.

I read the instructions on the back over and over to make sure I knew what I was doing. Clean and dry surface. Do not get in eyes. Use within two to three minutes, hold pieces to be glued together for forty seconds. Forty minutes to cure. One phrase made me laugh. You may tint the glue with pigment as you wish, obviously before adding the hardener, which was in a smaller tube next to the big tube.

Yeah, obviously. Maybe the contractors knew that. Certainly the jumpsuits knew that. Well, it wasn’t a conversation I was going to have, with any Italian, in any case.

But one detail remained opaque to me. I had puzzled over it many times, and finally called over our house expert in Italian and Florentine culture, language, and measurements, Dr. Jason Houston.

“Read this,” I said. “The sentence about the chicco di caffe and the noce.” It was a description of proper proportions for glueing success.
He held the package close. “Yep,” he said. “It is referencing a coffee bean and a nut.”
The package outlined the proportions for mixing the glue (coffee bean-sized amount) with the hardener (walnut-sized amount), from each tube, to successfully employ the product. The text said that the hardener should be about 2% of the total mix, which I should then mix velocemente. The recommended percentage preceded the coffee bean and nut reference, which were meant to clarify the proportions in an easily understood metaphor. Except it was not easy to understand.
“Is a noce like a walnut?” I asked Jason. “Or a pecan?”
“Pretty much,” he nodded in assent.
“Okay,” I said. “And a chicco di caffe is a coffee bean?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Okay,” I said. “Do fifty coffee beans equal a walnut? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Or is there another Italian nut they are referencing that is huge?”
He looked at me like I had begun drinking before noon.
“Seriously,” I pressed. “Fifty coffee beans do not fit into a walnut. Think about it.”
“Maybe they mean a grain of coffee. Perhaps it is referencing coffee that is ground.”
“No, it specifically says chicco here.” This is a catch-all Italian word for a grain of something – a coffee bean, or a grain of wheat. Certainly fifty grains of wheat would fit into a walnut. But the package specifically referenced a coffee bean. “Fifty grains of coffee might equal one coffee bean, and a coffee bean does not equal a walnut.”

How much of one thing equals another thing?

I decided to go with a dab of hardener into my unpigmented glue. The mixture reeked. I mixed it in the plastic lid from a can of Pringles and a used drinking straw. Opening a window to let the smell out, and set about holding together my broken pottery pieces. The glue seemed to work just fine, notwithstanding my confusion over the recommended agricultural proportions.

The sugar bowl and the spoon rest are now convincingly restored to their original states. I think the jumpsuits would agree that I did a fine job.

Inverno e i russi / Winter and Russians

The cold months around Christmas have always signaled that the time has come again to read Russian classics.

The crisp air, the holidays, warm rooms and chilly paths, short days and long moonlit nights, all seem congruous with my days. Social intrigue, confessions, married couples, shining eyes, nannies and gaggles of noble children. Huge farms and serfs and trains and snowstorms, the train to St. Petersburg.

I am not sure when this habit of mine began, possibly in the late nineties in Seattle with Turgenev, or even earlier, in Strasbourg in 1996, as I plowed through the brick that is The Brothers Karamazov first in French (got about halfway through), then in English. It persisted, and from then on cold weather meant that I should take in hand a volume of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Turgenev, or Lermontov or Akhmatova when the mood called for poetry. Anna Karenina, The Idiot, The Torrents of Spring, “Family Happiness,” “Master and Man,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” more.

Something about the way Russian literature flies a straight path through a narrative, clean prose and insight on board, poetry and poignance when called for, but never overdone, resonates with me more deeply with every passing year The truth that runs through all relationships, between all people, at every age and level, the sensitivity with which inner struggles are described and resolved – or not. The frank portrayal of the spectrum of human passions.

I remember thinking as an adolescent that certain types of fiction were beyond me, and best kept aside for a later date – Hemingway and Fitzgerald seen in middle school but saved for high school, Proust on the radar in college but saved for graduate school, the Russians beckoning toward me through the fog of my mid-twenties but reading like a life manual by my mid-thirties (to a certain extent.) Especially as the occasional squalor of the day-to-day grind, working and dealing with an unwieldy public, my bureaucratic career barely papering over the churning sea of my many hopes, desires, and internal conflicts.

Last year I read more Tolstoy, novellas and short stories, and my holidays were improved considerably by literary insight, as I was at the time in my initial six months of cultural adjustment in Italy. It helped that we drove to the cold mountains of Slovenia for Christmas, the slavic air further contributing to my feeling of being transported and immersed into the whirl of another’s well-painted problems.

Russian perspective is a valuable acquired skill especially in Florence, where the sublime exists in daily company with squalor. Of course, we have the Palazzo Vecchio with its ridged tower and colorful crests, the Loggia dei Lanzi filled with sculpture for public perusal. The duomo, hulking over its piazza and the Piazza di San Giovanni, its tricolor marble trumpeting centuries of economic growth and dominance. Block after block of luxury high-end retail, five star hotels, vaunted restaurants.

Feast your purse on such luxury goods.

And yet poverty, in the form of desperate African immigrants selling tissues and their counterparts from North Africa holding down the market on selfie sticks and knockoff fine art prints, Roma bickering in the street and shouting into cell phones. The crowds that gather for the thrist shop and food pantry at St. James. The easy access to a variety of panaceas to numb the mind and get through the night. The transnational crowd of wealthy tourists, economic climbers from China. Even the occasional Italian parent slapping and spanking their young child mid-meltdown on Piazza della Repubblica makes me wince.

As a friend used to say, life’s rich pageant, hmm?

Two items recently have struck me as stepped from a Russian novel: the aging Italian junkie I see every day, and the English cemetery.

He is about fifty, with a white ponytail. He is slight, and short. He looks like a kind man, if he know what day it was. He wears a blue piumino, jeans, and tennis shoes without fail. I pass him on my bike each evening as he drifts around the intersecting of Via degli Alfani and Via della Pergola, in the middle of some very student blocks. He is there, rain or shine. His eyes are blue, but they do not see; he usually looks strung out in a gaunt, haunted way. He never asks me for money, probably because I am moving too fast on my bike, but his pathos is shared with every pedestrian he sees. I think he must have been a handsome and creative man once, twenty-five years ago. The Florentine intersections are often named on each angle – I like to think this is foresight to assist Florentines from every century to successfully complete their daily rendezvous. The corners are poetically named: Canto dei Candeli, Canto dei Diavoli, and so on. The corner where this hungry ghost rattles his maudlin chains? Canto alla Catena.

The Cimitero Inglese is just a few blocks from our palazzo, on Piazzale Donatello, which is today a huge traffic circle. I know it well by sight, but had never been inside its iron gates; two weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to tag along with a cultural side trip from another language school, and showed up on a very windy, cold day. As the group assembled we introduced ourselves to one another, chatting amiably until the caretaker came to the gate to let us in.

She was straight out of the thirteen century, and spoke fluent Italian with a British accent. A white kerchief was carefully knotted around her head, the front fold pulled down over her brow to make a sort of brim. She was cheerful, and of an age that cared not a whit about her matching white whiskers. She wore a sort of monastic habit, and sandals with socks. She ushered us into her library to tell the story of the cemetery, and the many famous people who came to rest there, especially the headliner – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, long-suffering of tuberculosis, who died of a gradual laudanum overdose administered by her husband Robert. The caretaker declaimed a few Browning poems, first in Italian, then in a beautiful Oxfordian English.

She said it was not just one cemetery, but three, and I am guessing the next two layers down are either medieval and Roman or Roman and Etruscan. The cemetery is a noticeable hill, which must be at least 40 or 50 feet high, and I am sure it is all bones upon layered bones. It became the English cemetery in the nineteenth century, when it was illegal for non-Catholics to be buried within the city wall, and the Piazzale Donatello was just outside that city limit, at the top of Borgo Pinti.

The caretaker also does a lot of work with the Rom in Florence, having invited them to the cemetery to help clean and restore the cemetery. From 1950 to the early 2000s it had fallen into disrepair, and had become an eyesore, a place where drugs were bought, sold, and taken, dirty needles discarded, women’s bodies bought and sold, a suicide attempt. When the cleanup began, though, the scholarly grandmother said, the iniquity seemed to disperse, and the property became a less desperate place.

Following her lecture, we went outside
to look at the graves and stones. The sky had become darker and grayer, threatening a stinging rain. I went off on my own to read inscriptions. I found the Browning headstone ahead of the group so I could take a picture. Many leaders of the Swiss Reformed Church are buried there, along with many artists, statesmen, the last living descendants of William Shakespeare, and more. The memorials themselves are very Victorian, many weeping angels with their hands on their foreheads, and rugged crosses hewn from marble.

The final resting place of EBB, as she’s known here.

I’ve always felt an affinity for stones and bones. It is the history student in me, the intuitive feeler who can close her eyes and inhale and feel the lives lived centuries before. Tuberculosis, smallpox, fever, childbirth. Perhaps heartbreak. Rarely old age. Where did they live, what did they dream? Whom did they love, what did they yearn for? It is another way to read a book, to know history. We all come to rest, sooner or later. I don’t know if I’d want to be squeezed in on that bone-filled traffic island.

Angel for eternity

I thanked the scholarly grandmother for her time and informative lecture. She was keen to talk more to me as she and Jason are social contacts, given their shared research. I told her that I would return with Jason, and some books for her library. I donated to the box that was set out by Rom volunteers to support their continued work as they right the broken and crooked tombstones, and repair the now-flourishing gardens – in the spring the cemetery erupts in a profusion of thousands of purple irises, the gigli that are the symbol of the Florentine commune.

I’ve got a fresh copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls that I will be inhaling as soon as our holidays begin, fortified by fresh images of low and high culture, living the human experience in Florence as close to the bone as life will allow, in parallel with art and history.

And, fortunately, with antibiotics, proper medical care, and immunizations.

Firenze: Medical Scarves / Sciarpe Mediche

You see them everywhere, in virtually every season except the hottest months. On men, on women, On babies and young schoolboys. Certainly on schoolgirls and ragazze di liceo (high school girls). On toddlers. Definitely on nonni (grandmas and grandpas). They become obligatory accessories here somewhere in late September, and remain so until summer, in June.

I refer to the medical scarf.

Very fashionable, but very safe.
Solid anti-cervicale strategy.
She should pull it a bit tighter, honestly.

Europe is a firm believer in the Power of the Scarf as a health accessory, across the continent. Strangely, I do not remember much scarf-wearing in Santiago, Spain in 1993, but I was a nineteen-year-old Euro neophyte then. My Spanish boyfriend did give me his scarf in our early flirtations, so perhaps he found me scarf deficient. It was roughly woven of wool and mohair, and so was not put on wardrobe rotation, although now that I think about it, it did bear many characteristics of a medieval penitent’s hairshirt: scratchy, uncomfortable, punishing.

In Strasbourg, a couple of years later, so ubiquitous were scarves that I used to count them on the bus. As less of a Euro neophyte then, but certainly still a neophyte in many ways, I was not familiar with the Burberry signature plaid pattern, and thought that Strasbourg maintained a civic plan to distribute the beige, red, and black-striped lambswool scarves to all qualifying citizens. The scarves were always neatly wrapped and folded to cover the neck up to the ears and the chin, because of what use is a scarf if only loosely wrapped?

The “Strasbourg scarf,” I called it, marveling at its omnipresence, and assuming that such a conformity could only have been locally enforced, because surely people would not choose to all wear the same scarf, unless they were fans at a football (soccer) (calcio) game. I did not become aware of the Burberry brand until a few years later, and pieced together the reason for the popularity of the plaid. I also realized that the Strasbourgeoisie, living very much up to their moniker, had likely paid about two or three hundred dollars each at the time for the scarf.

“Without a scarf, your humours are sure to become unbalanced.”

Europe retains many beliefs in quasi-Galenic medical theory that are not part of American culture, unless you happen to have a Jewish or Finnish grandma in the house. (I am ever grateful for the daily relevance of everything I learned in 1993 in “The History of Science in Islam,” with Dr. Ragep.) The importance of staying well covered. That no skin should be exposed to the outside elements. That you should never shiver, nor sweat. The goal is to maintain a corporal equilibrium as close to balanced as possible. Vulnerable parts of the the body that are prone to weakness and infection, such as the ears, and especially the throat, must be appropriately cared for and managed at all times in dangerous months (October through May).

Americans may scoff at this, raised to be hardy as we are. I remember times in my life when I stubbornly wore shorts in fifty degree weather, for example, in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, snowy even in July. Now when I see thinly clad tourists in Firenze, walking down Ricasoli or Servi in shorts and a t-shirt, I too have begun to mutter, put some clothes on, you’ll get so sick.

Illnesses brought on by insufficient scarf usage could include sinus infection, ear infection, rafreddore (a cold), and the dreaded cervicale, a malady so particular to Italy and France that we do not even seem to contract it in North America even as we sit in 64 degree Fahrenheit air conditioning in an office in October. (France: mal de guele.) Europeans will clutch at their throat as though a sharp knife were held sideways to it, and immediately exclaim that the throat is unable to withstand a draft. Medical doctors will also disseminate this information.

In Arezzo, in 2013, I was advised by my doctor very specifically as to what kind of hat and scarf to use when recovering from an ear and throat infection. I was also reprimanded for lax scarf use. This preventative aspect of national healthcare in Italy is a general consensus. There are things you do, and then things you don’t do, if you wish to maintain a baseline level of good health. When Italians advise me on these points, I feel the weight of conviction from reliable, passed-down knowledge of a hundred generations or more.

Arezzo, 2012.
Even when indoors, a cashmere scarf at the ready for a quick bundle.

Florentines love nothing more than the cambio di stagione that signals to them it is now fair game to bring out the scarves and piumini (down coats). In truth I have seen them wearing piumini in late summer, on mornings that dropped into the sixties.

Now that it is October, we are in full sciarpe and piumini season. Scarves are wound, tightly and voluminously, around vulnerable Italian necks. Piumini are out and about. Women are wearing knee-high boots. There is public tsking at t-shirts on tourists often seen congregating in front of the Hard Rock Cafe.

Failure to confirm to seasonal Florentine wardrobe norms will result in illness, and possibly, death. Grandmas will shoot you the look in the park that says, zip up, bundle up, or pay with your life. We are helpless to help you unless you help yourself by following a few basic rules.

NOT a medically approved scarf wrap.
This amendment was mandated by the photographer who was taking our pictures for the questura, since we applied to renew our permessi di soggiorno last week.
This level of scarf wrap will result in death if you are outside on a cold/windy/both day.

I did bring approximately thirty to forty scarves with me when we moved back to Italy, since I have been trained in these basic preventative care precepts. I have lighter ones for slightly warmer seasons, and heavier ones to wind around three times on days when the wind sweeps through the valley of the Arno. I buy them often. I do like a scarf. Who doesn’t like a scarf, after all? I do feel safer, cocooned, protected, even if I were only warding off the malocchio (evil eye) of the nonne (grandmas). I certainly “pass” more quietly as a non-tourist when so bundled up, and that brings a peace of mind in itself.

An American family conforming to Italian winter wardrobe norms.
Check, check, check.
No grandma tickets here.

Firenze: The Bookseller from Senegal / Il Venditore di Libri di Senegal

I saw him crossing the street out of the corner of my eye. Victor and Eleanor were climbing a heavy, wrought-iron lamppost like two domesticated Florentine monkeys.

He often comes to the park at Piazza D’Azeglio. Dapper, fedora, medium height, well-built, wide smile. He carried small bags and trays of merchandise with him.

I do not always talk with this vendor, but he is far and away the friendliest of the Africans that come through the park, hoping to sell some of their wares to parents, perhaps further convinced by a wheedling child if the vendor is lucky that day.

I have also spoken to his counterparts, who come through the piazza with their children’s books, and sometimes poetry books.

“Do you like it here?” I asked a hard-faced one, a few Saturdays before.
“No. Florence is the worst,” he said to me, scowling. “No work, no money.”

Mr. Dapper Fedora came up on my right side, as Victor swung around the lamppost and Eleanor sat on its Art Deco lion’s knee.
“Buongiorno,” he said.
I greeted him back.
I will confess that, at first, I did not feel like having this interaction. It is fraught with guilt, as I watch the vendors amble around town, trying, trying, trying to sell their bilingual books about Africa, the text neatly laid out in Italian and English on each page.

Vic’s preferred parkour lamppost, Piazza D’Azeglio.

But this vendor is the nicest one. He never intrudes, and does not become angry or frustrated by a “no, grazie,” but moves on to the next parent or small group. I have seen other vendors stalk off in a huff after being rebuffed. I hate to refuse them, knowing that this is their everyday struggle, as well as the routine racism and lack of acceptance I can only imagine they encounter in Firenze. They are obvious outsiders, and unwelcome ones.

African vendor, San Lorenzo.
Getty Images as credited.

My ambivalence about these interactions is also exacerbated by the fact that, very often, I do not have cash on hand for the vendors. Why would I, at the park across the street? I am frequently chasing out two small children for fresh air with nothing more than a soccer ball and the housekey. When I say, mi dispiace (I am sorry) and that I do not have any money, I am regarded dolefully, as though I were lying to evade them. But I am telling them the truth – the days that I have no cash on hand, I really have no cash on hand.

The vendor brought out his books. They were small, colorful, bilingual. It’s ingenious, really. I admire the creative initiative of the person who saw the value in giving itinerant Africans books about Africa to sell, along with their regular stock of Kleenex, socks, and lighters. I have another regular vendor friend, Assan, who sells on the corner of Borgo Pinti and Via dei Giusti, greeting everyone with a smile and a wave. I have bought a lot of socks from Assan that are truthfully too large for me.

The vendor gave a book to Victor, who is old enough to be polite. Victor thumbed through the book.

“Where are you from?” I asked the vendor in Italian.
“Senegal,” he nodded.
“Alors, vous parlez francais,” I said. So you speak French.
He brightened. “Oui!”
“C’est mieux,” I said. It’s better, meaning in reference to my Italian.
“Does he like the book?” he asked me, pointing to Victor.
“No,” Victor said. So much for politesse.
The vendor tried with another book. “Forse un altro libro,” he said. Maybe another book.
Victor thumbed through that book, too, from the lamppost.
“No,” he said.

I discreetly checked the price. At almost seven euros for a thin book that my kids probably would not read, I was not tempted.

We own a similar book that I bought last year. We have read it together at bedtime, all 50 pages or so; the plot treats two brothers and a pack of monkeys that connives against them to burn down their family’s entire cornfield, then kidnaps the smaller brother so that the older brother gets in a heap of trouble with his parents for losing his younger brother in the burnt cornfield. The book goes on to describe how the monkeys threaten to torture and possibly kill the younger brother they have kidnapped, and who is now up in a tree. The family is eventually safely reunited, but it doesn’t look good for most of the book. The last time we read it, the kids had about 50 questions of the what the hell variety. So it’s not on a frequent rotation.

Eleanor spied his bangles in another bag and began touching the bracelets.
“What else do you have?” I asked him.
That was the right question, because out came all his Kleenex, socks, lighters, bracelets of every kind and description.
Victor was also interested in the bracelets. I tried to talk Eleanor into a bracelet I might later appropriate from her, but Victor selected a bead bracelet in a rasta color scheme, and so Eleanor chose one equal to it.
The book vendor had a fancy trick for sizing down the bracelet for small wrists, and with a quick flick, he removed an inch from each bracelet, and slid the elastic over each child’s hand onto their wrists.
I looked in my wallet. I had a fifty euro note and some change. I gave him all my change, which amount to about three euros.
“Va bene?” I said, slipping it all into his hand.
“Oui, oui,” he replied, relieved to have made a sale.
He walked down past the swings to the next family.

“Mommy, why did you buy us these?” Victor asked, stretching his bracelet with his other hand.
“Mommy used to work with people like him all the time. It was my job.”
“What!” Victor said. “When. What ages were you?”
“Hmm, about 23 to 40,” I said. “I helped people like him for my job. It is not easy for him, Victor.”
“What did you help them do?”
“I helped them stay in their homes with their families,” I said.

I have always been proud of my immigration work. It addressed many of my most deeply-held values. Civic duty. Charity. Humility. Awareness, of both privilege and discrimination. Doing what I could to help people along, when I can. Recalibrating social balance. Channeling legal benefits to those who qualify, and need them most. I miss this work, at times. It was also exhausting work. So much need. Such an unfair world. So many awful stories, so many bad hands dealt.

I used the book I Was an Elephant Salesman when I taught my class on immigration and Italy, in Arezzo five years ago. It is well-written, and accessible. The students liked it; it’s an engaging account, and a narrative backstory on the African vendors, albeit a generation has been born and come up into Italy from Africa since then, and things are far worse now for them in Italy than they were in 1988.

I saw the vendor in his fedora smiling and talking to the next Italian family, inside the fence of the playground. I could read their lips. No grazie. No. No. 

“Where do you think he sleeps, Victor?”
“I don’t know,” said Victor.
I thought how to say what I wanted to say next. “Probably not in a bed as nice and as warm as yours. He might sleep outside, or on a floor with ten friends.”
Victor said nothing.
He looked at the vendor.
“Where’s his mommy and daddy!” Eleanor blurted out.
“Not sure,” I said. “Probably in Africa still.”
“They live there. He is older, he would not live with his mommy and daddy anyway.”
Victor looked up. “Let’s go home.”
We crossed the street after a few large buses rumbled by.
Eleanor’s bracelet snapped and broke on the sidewalk, spilling the tiny plastic red, black, and yellow beads onto the flagstones.

Italian-Induced Neuroplasticity

Italian research has shown that mental acuity in increasing years is best preserved and improved by struggling, experiencing moderate amounts of stress, grappling with the emotions that come with a healthy social network, and learning new skills from the ground up. Do you like to paint? Try writing. Cooking? Head to the garden. And on. Don’t stay to your well-trod path. Find a new one, or be grateful if life leads to one.

The study found that a simply pursuit of Sudoko or crosswords is insufficient as they fail to fully stimulate the “giro cingolato” or the “corteccia insulare.” The emotional aspect Italian researchers emphasize that getting out regularly for consistent exercise is still a critical part of the equation. It is best if this exercise might be combined with the aspects listed above. Perhaps the best prescription is a daily passegiatta, where you might get in your 10,000 steps while struggling to maintain a budget as you pass shops, or finding a shoe bargain, or bumping into some Salvatore or Federica with whom you have a well-managed but infrequently strained friendship.

At this rate I am going to live to be 100. Especially with a long-term Italian soggiorno, as we hope this will be. I am reminded of our friend Alice, who often invoked the importance of neuroplasticity, and I am happy that we have this situation where my neuroplasticity is growing on a daily basis. Language, culture, city, cuisine, career, working remotely, growing a personal network, feeling at home while encountering new situations and people daily. Or answering the door buzzer as I did just now. I am pretty sure she is from an agency of some sort … condominiums.

Today marks the recommencement of our regular schedule: Kids in school at i Scolopi by 9:30 am, Jason to work, me to home to work before getting lunch and heading into town on my bici to put in my east coast afternoon from Firenze. The holidays in Italy are so. Long. Advent to Natale to the holiday week to capodanno to Befana. Yeah, like a month and a half later I am ready for some normal time in the familial liturgical calendar. Victor was aggrieved that we did not get to take the 19 even though we got out to the busstop in time – Jason and I surmised that it came early. However, we were able to compensate for this tragedy by ensuring that we caught the C1 from San Marco, which always makes everyone very happy.

Eleanor accompanied me to St. James Episcopal yesterday for mass. I could not be more pleased with my tiny, savvy, open traveler who loves to sing. Much like her mama, she becomes quickly cranky when cooped up. A janut into town of about 3 hours for a noble purpose is balm to the soul for both of us.

 D bus.
 St. James sanctuary
  Transferring from the 6B to the D, hopping into S.M.N. to see what was happening, and to confirm that there, even on a Sunday, there are “so much people.”

La Befana

“Befana” sounds like a very small child trying to pronounce the word Epiphany in Italian, and indeed the holiday, commemorating the 12th day of Christmas, is celebrated throughout the Mediterranean. 

Apparently, this old crone has broken shoes and brings the children toys on January 6th. She might be an estranged sister of Babbo Natale. At any rate, she is very old, very crazy looking, a little unpredictable, and requires cookies and milk that are very soft.

The last time we were in Europe for Epiphany we spent it in Seville, and watched the three wise men in somewhat alarming blackface make-up walk through town, giving small bags of chocolates to children including Victor.

This year with Jason in Rome with a gigantic group of newly-arrived university students, I was on my own. Fortunately, we had a stash of Christmas gifts that did not make it to Slovenia for Christmas Day. Those were quickly assigned to the final gift giving holiday of the holiday season in Italy.

I also stopped at a fancy chocolate shop last night after work in the center of town to pick up stockings for the kids, filled with chocolate. Jason had purchased small bags of fake candy coal for the kids earlier this week. Victor and I had many discussions about why does everybody get a little bit of coal? The answer? Because everybody is a little bit bad sometimes, and the coal reminds us of that. Nobody is perfect. I think this is a good message.

At Venchi I purchased the children stockings and gluttonously perused the adult boxes myself, pictured below. It is common to light candles to help the befana see which house is she should stop at, and I took a picture of some candles on the sidewalk last night.

We set out milk and cookies for our befana, and let two candles and put them on the landing by our front door. Victor was very nervous and went to sleep at 9:30 to hasten her arrival. Eleanor had had her second nap for the day and so did not give it up until 2 hours later. 

The children slept fitfully until light, and then ran out to see the presents that the befana left. Shouts of joy arose as they saw the huge haul. But joy turned to some disappointment for Victor as he realized that the gifts that were provided to him by certain agents of the befana were for a child far younger than he. This was further compounded by the fact that we seemed unable to assemble Eleanor’s new tricycle, and although Victor’s large toy was for a much younger child, it was in fact very hard to put together because it lacked an instruction booklet as we have learned to expect from our many Lego projects. 

Victor retired to the living room to cry under a chair, while Eleanor absentmindedly ate all of her candy coal. However, when I asked Victor if he would prefer that I call the befana and tell her to please not come next year because her gifts were not good, he vehementlyshook his head no.

Buona Befana!

Florence: Italian Post-election Commisseration

As you know, I have rented office space in the Sprachcaffe, on Via Brunelleschi, on the south side of Piazza della Repubblica, closest to the Arno.

The warm and friendly international staff have been a boon to me this fall as I move through the innumerable steps of cultural and personal transition. They have all been, to a person, respectful, international, and welcoming.(Okay, maybe slightly less so that one guy, Francesco, who seems to maintain a huge wardrobe of logoed college hoodies, and who shushed me that one day for being on a conference call in my rented salotto. But he and I worked it out that one night at aperitivo hour with everyone from the school.) There’s a Canadian-Italian, a German, some other Americans on
staff. A Romanian or two. A possible Russian, and some more Italians. It is a flourishing business.

 I think this man actually is on teaching staff.
But this picture is at least ten years old.
He’s really nice.

The student population is composed of a varied mix of Erasmus students, fine art people, wandering small groups of the same geoethnic origin, and Women of a Certain Age, the last group perhaps hoping to star in a real-life Barilla commercial.

The foreign student crowd is mostly present in the early afternoon, after their Italian language classes have concluded. By 5:30 p.m., the Italian professionals begin arriving to join their evening foreign language classes (French, Spanish, English, German). A number of these Italian professionals are weary, suited men over 55. There is also a group of schoolkids who do an English class, and who have some tiger moms of both Asian and Italian origin.

The director of the school, Iris, is Florentine through and through. She is a nonna, with one grandson, who just turned last week some number under 60 which she would not specify. Iris is very proud of her city’s storied history, and from time to time she comes to sit on my conference room table to loop me on on important topics, which in the past have included:

  1. How Cosimo di Medici receives an inordinate amount of praise, when he was only a banker.
  2. How the Medici cable series is a bust, and totally inaccurate.
  3. How Lorenzo really was magnificent.
  4. How Michaelangelo was NOT Florentine, but his parents were on the Medici staff.
  5. A reprise of the story of the David and how it came to be, as Michaelangelo located the unloved hulk of marble in a Carrara quarry, gave it a quick tink with his chisel, and suddenly saw the potential for greatness.
  6. How and why Michaelangelo broke the nose of the David, out of spite.

This is all critical information in Florence. The past doesn’t feel that far away. Seriously, Iris talks to me about the Medici family as though they were all still alive.

She gets going, and goes fast. I try to follow but am probably getting about 70%. She is also very Italian in that no sidebar conversation is too long, so I have to limit her somewhat guiltily in an American way as I watch my email and IM go nuts for my work between 2 and 6 pm.

Yesterday, she stopped by my table. I wished her a happy late birthday, which made her very happy indeed, as she kissed both my cheeks and said auguri were always welcome. “Monica, cara, what do you think of the Tramp results?”

I always pause when she says “Tramp” before I realize she is talking about our president-elect.

“I was molto turbata last week, ” I say. “This is terrible news.” I smiled weakly. “I am regaining my composure now.”

Iris perched on the edge of the table to settle in for a nice long contextual explanation. “Do you know, Monica? Your system is still better. Do you know why? At least you all voted for your turd (stronzo). We don’t even get to vote for a turd. We haven’t voted in four years. All we have are groups of turds who run things behind the scenes and who keep picking new turd leaders from within the party. It’s an embarrassment.” I nodded. Iris never loses steam. “And this constitutional referendum! It is ridiculous.”

“I don’t know anyone who is voting yes for it,” I said. As though I had just personally polled half of Tuscany.

“Ma che!” Iris exclaimed. “The Italian constitution, written in 1946, is the MOST beautiful thing about our country.” She declaimed the first sentence of it for me, which I know because Jason also – and often – declaims it. This must be some kind of calling card for Italian culture. I make a mental note to memorize the first sentence of the Italian constitution. “… And these unelected turds,” she continued, “just want to change it like idiots.”

“Renzi is going to have to step down,” I said, repeating what I read in the paper over a capucho. “This is never going to pass.” PM Renzi, like the erstwhile UK PM Cameron, has banked his political career on the passage of the constitutional  referendum.

“Magari! I hope so! Ma che!” she exclaimed.

I stayed quiet about the unreliability of polls and the filter bubble, and held my tongue when tempted to caution her against believing that all of Italy would vote as the Florentine electorate – comfortable, educated – believes. This has been a theme in 2016, people – pay attention. The electorates do not want to take the medicine. They are tired of being told what is good for them when they feel like nothing is good for them.

“Well, the good thing about you Americans,” she went on, “is that you will get to elect your own turd, and if you do not like him, then you get to go back to the polls in four years and elect another turd.”

I fail to completely see how this is progress, but next to what she has explained, with very clear frustration, about the Italian system which is dominated by party rule, I can kind of understand it.

“And, if your newly-elected turd is a huge turd, you can impeach him (buttarlo)!” she added. “Then you know that you elected him and you kicked him out, and everything was free and open.”

Well, not quite, I think. Can’t we freely and openly elect a non-turd? We just did that twice, in 2008 and 2012.

“I do not like how our presidential elections have disintegrated into cults of personality with no discussion of policy,” I say. (My Italian is a little stammering at this point. I am freely inventing words and grammar to convey my political opinions.)

“Well, we have that too, but we never even get to vote on the turds,” she said. She clapped an open hand down on the table, and said, “I have to go.”

At this point all I can think of is Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo from South Park.

I was very glad that Iris was able to shed some positive light on this whole outcome for me, in terms of “turds you vote for versus turds you don’t vote for.”

She’s got a point. I didn’t vote for the Tramp turd, but a bunch of people did. Like almost half. Even th
ough we know Clinton leads the popular vote by one million, which is a topic for a different post. Or not.

Tramp is, indeed, the turd we voted for.