Italian Elections

It may be of use for our friends and family in America for me to chronicle the outcome of the most recent Italian national elections, as best as I understand it. My understanding is certainly imperfect.

Italy voted on March 4 in national elections. It’s a parliamentary system here, which is still opaque in certain ways to me (“What do you mean a ‘no confidence’ vote dissolves the government?”), but the most important aspect to remember for Americans is that Italians vote for parties with platforms, not for individuals. This is the inverse of the US, where we vote for individuals with ideas, and the RNC and DNC lurk in a shadow background of massive funding and string-pulling.

I sometimes bemoan our American, personality-driven election cycles. I remember as a wee university runt interning in the US Senate in 1994, hearing august senators bemoan in public the gridlock in the American political system, and others citing a parliamentary system as a way to require political collaboration. But these days it is hard to say which system breeds more gridlock: parliamentary or … the US system… whatever we call it now.

For much of the old guard progressives, the March 4 elections were nothing short of a disaster. The PD (Partita Democratica) posted its worst result in perhaps forever. These are the old school, post-war liberal democrats. The party of Matteo Renzi, and big neo-liberal ideas that just don’t even begin to address the even bigger problems that Italians perceive in their society.

The Lega and Cinque Stelle parties posted a huge portion of votes between the two of them, but neither of them earned enough to have a majority and thus appoint all their own ministers to cabinet positions. So, parliamentary fun! This is where I am always either amused or quickly lost: It’s Coalition Time!

The Lega party arose in the Po Valley some decades ago. It is widely known as an Italy First party that promotes Italian sovereignty, but the ugly flipside of that platform is a lot of xenophobia, outright racism, and hatred for anyone not meeting a narrowly defined idea of Who Is Italian (Thanks, Risorgimento! Those mid-nineteenth century nation-state ideals are really paying handsome dividends in the twenty-first century).

The Cinque Stelle party started about ten years ago, headed by a well-known comedian who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter before he started the party. This man, Beppe Grillo, is an agent provocateur. He has no real ideas other than to provoke and to say that “government is bad and should be different,” and he is ineligible for public office due to that unfortunate incident. When his five-star (luxury non government? what does Five Stars even mean) party began, it attracted many young people and untried politicians. The first elections were exciting. People under 80 getting elected in Italy! who woulda thunk it!

Cinque Stelle started behaving as a group though in faintly alarming ways, if one ever read and remembered one’s twentieth-century Italian history. These tendencies! They stayed in a sort of Roman dorm together when the legislature was in session. They got checked in and on to make sure they were up to snuff for the platform (does this happen in other parliamentary governments? Feel free to weigh in, Brits and Spaniards.)

Jason joked once to a friend of ours, who is an elected Cinque Stelle official on a smaller town’s city council, that all they needed were matching shirts, perhaps in a tasteful black and tan? The friend was not amused. We have not made a similar joke since. They are touchy about the political tack the party has taken, to the right, anti-EU and anti-immigrant. Because what has the EU ever done for Italy! Well, Italy, aside from the fact that you are a founding member, and also those two most unfortunate world wars that started and ended here and elsewhere, and also some breathtaking genocidal incidents. But, you know, screw the EU!

Then Turin and Rome voted in mayors from the Cinque Stelle party, and that has not gone so well. Both mayors are young, smart women (Chiara and Virginia, respectively) who have been fed to the metaphorical woodchipper, and will soon be fleeing their proverbial burning cities. Rome is now widely judged to be ungovernable, a chaotic melee covered in bags full of trash, and Turin, who knows? It used to run pretty well, a stronghold of the left, and still seems like a nice place to live to me, but I am not Italian. It’s really polluted too, in that valley, so much so that it looks like you’re schlepping through London, ca. 1880.

So, as far as I understand it, la Lega and Cinque Stelle are populist parties with some fairly typical platform overlap. And Cinque Stelle has a 31-year-old leader who looks like he’s in high school, keepin’ it youthful, y’all! He actually reminds me of some Trumpsters who have lately found themselves in hot water stateside. Better than the Lega leader, who has been known to take personal action against the presence of immigrants in his local area up north. And after almost three months of polemic, there emerged yesterday an agreement and a formal coalition between the two parties: they will govern together, for as long as they can all stand each other, and their leader is Giuseppe Conte of Cinque Stelle, an attorney from Puglia who lives in Florence where he teaches on the law faculty. He looks, it must be said, a lot like Renzi. They must get these guys out of central casting, but then again, they are Italian. Dimples, HWP, tailored suit, nice smile, not much grey.

Here’s a side by side. Uncanny, no? We got a replacement, Italy! It’s gonna be okay! He’s wearing a suit – a nice one – you won’t even notice the difference! 

Conte.

Renzi.

They say he is discreet, a man of measure, passionate about the law.

(I gleaned all this from reading the headline article in Le Monde this morning on my phone, and I was amused at the very French compliments, seemingly in diametric opposition, of a man at once both discreet and passionate. For heaven’s sake, he sounds like a Parisian Lothario, but we’ll leave that for later speculation or revelation. “Tell me what you know about Conte, because we know nothing!” my dentist chirruped at me this morning as I presented myself for yet another appointment.)

Conte is passionate, again, about Italian law. That must be a great d
eal of passion, because Italy has a LOT of laws that seem to have taken root in Roman times and grown and accrued until today (and also, thanks Napoleon, for that sweet sweet code), and now they have so many laws, you’d better be passionate about it if you think law is the right career choice for you!

This breaking news today is on every Italian mind. As I was walking into my office on Piazza della Repubblica, one of my rented colleagues cornered me. I have mentioned Iris before in these posts, and her political explanations. Today, of course, she wanted to cover this development.

“Who knows who this guy is!” she said. “But Italy is so broken, we have to try something.”

“Spain had no government for over four years, and no one really noticed, Spaniards included,” I said. “Maybe this is the natural conclusion of all G-7 countries, because Spain, the UK, Italy, and the US all have the same problem. The country cannot calmly be led, but meanwhile there is lo stato profondo underneath that is still working away and functioning.” I was pleased I got all this out in Italian.

“Well, we will try this,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Who knows how long it will last.”

“France gives it five, no more than six months,” I said, neglecting to mention the article had quoted Italian insiders.

Iris looked taken aback. “Well, who cares what France thinks. We have to try! Nothing works here. And anyway, if this doesn’t work, in four years we will change it to another way that also doesn’t work.”

I laughed out loud on the stairs.

“You have universal healthcare,” I said. “And a lot of vacation time.”

“Yeah, so what!” she replied. “Our real income has not increased in decades.”

I pointed out no one in America had recognized any real income increase either, and that GenX and GenY were making less than our parents even when both parents worked, in terms of purchasing power. She conceded my perspective.

I am always amazed at how Italians think Italy is broken, and then attempt to good-naturedly indict me on grounds of my purported rose-colored (surely American) glasses.

Note: work on projecting more grumpy in Italian public.

“Italy is like heaven for Americans,” I thought, mentally ticking off all the safety, and good food, and affordable healthcare here.

“You are so American,” she sighed, as we walked in the door.

“You need your own television show, or podcast, and call it Parla Iris, and you can explain political topics like this to, uh, foreigners like me.”

She rolled her eyes at me and sat down at her desk.

Thinking about it now, what concerns me most about the recent result is the lack of diversity in leadership. Italy is more diverse than they admit, or want to be. Everyone at the table in this conversation is an Italian man out of central casting.

Twelve Angry Italians.

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.

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.

Italia: Our Italian Vacuum Cleaner / Il nostro aspirapolvere italiano

You know, it’s the little things. They stick. And because they are so small, and inconsequential, until they are not, they are a rich mine for reflection.

I have written here on mundane cross-cultural topics – scarves, laundry. A dentist visit. Things that locals wouldn’t think twice about, because these things are transparent to them in an of course way.

I read Beppe Severgnini’s Ciao, America! circa 2001, in Seattle. A passage in his memoir covered curtains in America, amusing and insightful for its philosophical bent. The symbolic value of curtains in America. How I laughed when I read it: the familiar through the eyes of an outsider, the mundane made new. I’d experienced with blackout shutters in Spain as a student many years prior, those magnificent, interior eclipse-inducing persianas that could make 4 pm in June seem like midnight in January, affording a long lie-in from a previous night out, or a gentle landing into a new time zone. The name itself of these external shutters, so well-known in the Mediterranean basin, invokes Persia/Iran, purdah, Pakistan, sunbaked bricks, protection from an unrelenting sun. I appreciated Beppe’s treatise on the symbolic value of curtains in America: ineffective, thin, light permitting, offering no privacy, seem like decoration only, and what this indicated to him about our culture.

On a related symbolic note, I give you: our Italian vacuum cleaner.

We live in a generously-sized apartment whose every floor surface is terracotta tile that has benefited from decades of waxing. The tiles gleam like no flowerpot I’ve ever seen. They are glorious in the high heat of a Florentine summer: a natural wine cellar feel permeates the space, even on our fourth floor. But tiles are chilly in winter. Perhaps better suited to protecting fine vintages, or curing terrine in small pots sealed with pork fat.

To address this issue, we purchased a few large area rugs shortly after arriving, both to insulate our living spaces and to provide a softer, warmer surface for our kids to play on, their endless hours of haggling and tussling and watching YouTube videos. And eating. Don’t tell the Italians, but we struggle to get our kids to eat at a table at home. They are usually eating on the faux oriental rug in our dining room, generously spreading crumbs and spilling all drinks. Magnetic play sand gathers in pink blobs, marring the pattern. Play-dough (TM) dries on the fringe. Bits of toys and dried pasta abound.

In an ideal world, we would live in the country and take the rugs out to be beaten once a week, and aired in the fresh sunshine on a dry, breezy day. I am pretty sure this is what happens in the Italian countryside. I like to think this is what happens.

In our old life in America, I would have run our industrial strength vacuum over the surface once or twice a week to achieve a calming sense of cleanliness and order. I credit my deeply Finno-Anglo-Teutonic heritage for this. Plus, perhaps, a bit of the cell memory of my Finnish forebears, who must have observed the basic rule of thumb: have little, scrub much.

In our world, however, we initially tried to sweep the rugs with a broom, then with the smaller hand broom that I know from days keeping a hard floor clean in France, the nimble balayette.

The balayette always reminds me of a certain English Jane,
who swept while smoking, a ciggie hanging out of the corner of her mouth.

We then attempted to use an old vacuum from in the cantina (storage) in the basement of the palazzo. But it had all the power of a DirtDevil from 1983. None, no power at all. It charged and had a cord-free feature, which was fine, but it was no fun to hear its wheezing whine and see that nothing was picked up from the rug with its feeble suction. Our rugs got dirtier and dirtier. It was a losing battle.

Jason researched and located a new vacuum on Amazon Italy. The most powerful one we could find, we believed. We have Amazon Prime here, which we hardly ever use, so the new vacuum was delivered in a blink. He brought it home and we assembled it. This was when Victor was heavy in his Lego phase, so he helped us put it together. This new vacuum cleaner resembles Noo Noo from Teletubbies more than it does any useful rug sweeper. It has a potbelly, an accordion hose, and an aluminium arm attached to a rotating mouth lined with bristles.

Noo Noo

We plugged in the vacuum and turned it on. The aluminium arm barely clears my knees. You all know I am a tad over five feet tall. I had to awkwardly hunch over to push it across the rug. The bristly mouth seemed to pick up a lot of loose hair, which we shed freely on the rugs, but did little to gobble up all the particles from food and play that had gathered in the tuft. The rotating feature of the bristle mouth ensured that it kept flipping over and up, and I struggled to keep the sucking intake facing downward on the rug. After about twenty seconds of this, my lower back began to ache like I had been pulling weeds all morning.

This is the best vacuum we could find?

Our babysitters used the vacuum and came back with glowing reviews, which I received with suspicion. Were we using, in fact, the same vacuum cleaner?

I told Jason I did not think the new vacuum was a huge improvement over the emphysemic DirtDevil from the cantina. He shrugged; he accepts variant Italian outcomes with an admirable aplomb.
“Their rugs here are delicate,” he posited. “They cannot be ruined with overabundant suction.”
I looked at him. I thought of my lower back pain.
“The rugs are old?” he continued, fishing. “They cannot be replaced. They must vacuum them very gently, very carefully; the fibers are delicate.”

I read the reviews on Amazon.it and saw that the Italians thought that this was, in fact, a pretty superlative vacuum.
I was nonpl
ussed.
I put the new vacuum back in our closet and left it there.

I had to hand it to him: of course I understood that wall-to-wall synthetic carpeting, such as we both grew up with in our split-level ranch homes in the US of the seventies and eighties… well, that’s just silly. A truly American goal, to carpet and upholster and heat and insulate your home to the point that you could walk around in your underwear in the winter, and feel like you were in Cabo. Americans want to edit their external environment for comfort. Italians edit their attire.

Our babysitter did use the vacuum on a fairly regular basis, and seemed to obtain better results than I did. However, its bagless design remained a seeming mystery to her. One day she mentioned that the vacuum no longer seemed to be working. After she left, I took it out of the closet, and eyeballed the clear plastic dirt receptacle, and saw that it was jam-packed with grey dirt, dust, and hair. I pried it apart and emptied it into the kitchen trash, creating a huge cloud of floating dust in the process.

A different friend used the vacuum once in our house and made an amusing onomatopoeic imitation of what it sounded like when dried bits rattled up the tube and into the vacuum’s potbelly.

I thought of the horsepower of our old vacuum cleaner in the US, its motorized wheels propelling it across our rugs. Our house in the US was all wood and tile floor, with a few large area rugs, strategically placed. I knew that vacuum sucked up everything. It practically tore the yarn from the mesh. I bought a rug from Overstock.com when we first moved in that seemed to contain the better part of a sand dune from the Katpana desert, and its dirt receptacle filled with the sand that resembled extra-fine granulated sugar, shaken from a sack into a vacuum.

Now, that was a vacuum you could rely on. Even if it were to destroy the tapestries of the Medici.

Italy: Caretaking Culture / La Cultura portierata

Any parent of children under five will tell you that it’s a long game when it comes to family health. You cannot lose hope, or good cheer, as a barrage of microbes and viruses slam repeatedly into your herd immunity. Even as parents fight off germs, washing hands, wiping down surfaces, sanitizing grubby mitts, imploring children to not lick the floor/soccerball/bottoms of their shoes, the germs will win. Not for good, but they’ll have a winning season.

In our family, last week was the only week since Labor Day that no one was sick. Truth.

We attended a birthday party on Saturday straight out of the Florentine Playbook (Saturday, 4:00 p.m., Mondo Bimbo with at least 8 other birthday parties in process.) We laugh and call it Microbo Bimbo, because the place is crawling with germs. It reminds me of that indoor play area at Sooner Fashion Mall that was practically gleaming with saliva and snot. A key difference is that all the games and areas each seem to cost a different kind of token/cash/punch card/bracelet. I counted at least 5 payment methods. This led me to wonder as to their business model, and were all these games/areas independently contracted? It seemed so, but I couldn’t wonder it for very long, as the noise level ratcheted up and I was trying to visually track our two sprites.

Bouncy castle, independently contracted, germs included. 

Victor and Eleanor both enjoyed the trampolines/bouncy areas/games for a couple of hours, until Jason and I folded because we were starving and the ambient noise level was akin to a Billy Idol concert and there was not a glass of wine to be found. Victor succumbed to parental entreaties well before Eleanor, and sat glumly on a chair while we watched her zoom around the cage surrounding the ball pit like a hopped-up hamster in a giant Habitrail (TM).

I finally set my jaw, looked at Jason, and said, “I’m going in.” I am always the default choice for this due to my size.

I removed my shoes and crawled into the maze. The floor was uneven and broken underneath the vinyl. I made my way to the ball pit, which Eleanor was swimming in, shouting “piscina, piscina!”
I looked at the pit. There was no other way. I waded in.

The other little kids stopped throwing their balls looked at me in shock a I half-swam through the tiny plastic balls to her, grabbed her firmly by the waist as though a lifeguard, and sidestroked my way back to the vinyl-covered diving platform. I hauled her out of the Habitrail (TM) kicking and crying.
Exhausted and dismissive of the many grandma tickets that might be written in public for us, we carried her without shoes or coat on back to the car to motor home.

By midnight she was hot and crying for reasons other than ball-pit extraction. It seemed like a short incubation to us, but it’s anyone’s guess what forms of superbugs are bred in Mondo Bimbo.

By Sunday night she was miserable. She did not go to school on Monday, and by Monday night was in such poor shape that we called a private pediatrician for a house call. The doctor, a kindly woman about sixty, with white hair roots and smudged glasses, diagnosed an ear infection, wrote a prescription, and left.

I saw my week crater under the schedule shuffling to accommodate a child home from school. With an ear infection and a cough, as temperatures plunged. Our regular help is unable to extend her hours into the mornings. This ad hoc arranging often requires multiple text messages and communications. Still, all told, I have given up hours this week to be at home with Eleanor while she gets over this. Which of course I am happy to do.

Amusingly, Eleanor and I are alike in that we both go crazy when cooped up at home. By Tuesday evening, she insisted she was ready to go to school and “see my friends.” Yeah, me too, kid.

We are a small family hub in Firenze, our nuclear family. We do not have the extended family network enjoyed by lucky Italians, who can call on retired parents, adult siblings, adolescent nieces and nephews, and their network of verified babysitters, to assist when the smallest among their clan are down with illness, or even sadness. Every hour of help we get in our home is paid for, always. We are fortunate that we can pay for it – indeed, were we unable to do so, we would not be here. Or I would not be continuing in my professional career. Or writing, as here and now, ever. I often fantasize about what it would be like to have nonni a stone’s throw away, who would take the children to the park for an hour or two, or a sixteen-year-old niece whom I trusted to play with them while I ran a couple errands.

Italy is a caretaking culture by nature. There is something so sweet, and nurturing, in the Italian impulse. Children who are raised in loving homes by patient parents will grow up to be adults who see a small/younger/weaker being in need, and will instantly want to help it. There is a village approach here that we have lost in many places in America, if we ever had it at all.

I observe many interactions in public and at parks, and here present the anecdotal results of my informal research:

“Italy: Who’s Taking Care of You?” 

Babies: Every single other Italian around within earshot, until about age four, including tiny Italians aged 2-4 who independently qualify for unsolicited public aid and personal assistance.

Bambini aged 4-12: Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers, parents of friends, bakers, baristas

Teens: Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends

Young adults: Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, professors, girlfriends/boyfriends

Adults without kids: Parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, spouses, friends

Adults with kids: Parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, teachers, babysitters, sometimes tate (nannies and cooks and laundry and cleaning), friends

Middle-aged adults: Parents, children, siblings, cousins, friends

Retired adults: Children, siblings, grandparents, cousins, friends, badanti (elder aides)

Afterlife: the spirits of all your ancestors, friends, and the Holy Trinity

The network is well-distributed, meaning everyone gets about as much as they give, according to their age, station, and relative health. The network really focuses on clothing and nutrition. And the reinforcing effect is to know that your community is a safety net of both goodwill and good health.

A note about Italians with disabilities: every day I see dozens of small vans, lettered to advertise their public funding, as they drive around town picking up and dropping off
people with varying needs, in wheelchairs, developmental disabilities, older people who need a ride, and more. I think it is public transportation for those who are unable to ride the bus. It is very civil. I see the drivers and helpers attending to people who are alighting or disembarking the van.

A note here too about Italians who are caretakers of children and adults with disabilities: I know a bit about this, first, because of the kids’ school, and secondly, through my involvement with St. James’ Episcopal Church.

As to the former, one of Victor’s classmates is on the spectrum. She does not talk. In addition to the anecdotally-observed support network outlined above, Sofia has an insegnate di sostegno (support teacher) who accompanies her in every hour of the school day, so she can be with her friends and mainstreamed with them. Sofia has a clipped bob haircut and huge brown eyes. She is thoughtful, and quiet. She gets upset if relative mayhem erupts. The loving way that Victor talks about her honestly brings tears to my eyes (“Sofia is our friend who does not talk. But she really, really likes tarallini [the small doughnut crackers kids tend to eat by the handful].”) I had no experience like that as a child; in the US, Special Education classes are held apart from all the other kids. The insegnante is named Daniela and is supremely professional – well-educated, mature, articulate, and highly trained. She is also hired and paid for (as best as I understand it) from the national health system. If your child qualifies for an insegnate di sostegno, s/he will have one, and it won’t wreck your family, or you personally. When I find out more about this, I will share, because it seems so fair, and civilized, and unlike the culture we lived in for the last twelve years prior to moving to Italy.

And, as to the latter group, Italians who are caretakers of adults with disabilities: a woman who attends St. James in town has an adult son about my age who is developmentally disabled. There is a not-for-profit in the area that provides professional respite care for the adult child, while the caretaking parent stays on the premises, possibly being able to, for example, take a rest, read a book, and not think about their routine and all-encompassing responsibilities for at least a bit. I know that this caretaking parent spent a week or two at the casa di vacanze. She cried when she talked about it one Sunday in announcements.

In America, we say it takes a village, and Hillary Clinton wrote that kids’ book about it back in the nineties. But I know from experience, and see from afar, how American culture has evolved and, in some ways, contorted, so that public policy assumes little responsibility for this type of caretaking. Families and communities have fragmented in the US, if indeed they were ever cohesive, as long-distance moves for education or work determine our pop-up communities. In other corners of our culture, the village ethos exists, but largely to care for those in the in-group. In still other corners, there is little impetus to to take care of anyone other than one’s own good self. What strikes me about Italy is how no one expects recognition or reward for such caretaking, and certainly not a highlight spot in the evening news.

It just is what is done. You see the need, you meet the need. You wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.

Image result for it takes a village

Firenze: A Different Life, Part 2

I always hated the produce at the Norman Super Target, and yet that was, for years, our regular grocery destination. Nothing tasted like anything. Purchasing tomatoes or strawberries or plums felt more like a semiotic exercise than a reliably positive tastebud experience. You bit into things, no matter what they were, and they were, in a word, awful. No taste at all. Styrofoam and sawdust. Horrible texture. And so, so expensive. Why did we buy it? The word was on the list, and it matched the word on the tiny produce tag in the tables. But conceptual fidelity ended there.

The bakery section. I’d like to stop here for a moment too. A decent (by local standards) but small loaf of bread would easily set you back five dollars. And it wasn’t even good. And it was stale within a day. I am a baker by genotype, and early in the game after my return to Oklahoma in 2004 decided I would have to tackle the Yeast Question. Typically I trafficked in eggs, flour, butter, and sugar, but in this baker’s wasteland, it was time to figure out yeast. I became expert in turning out a boule two to three times per week, thanks to the NYT recipe that was all the rage in 2006. I had a Le Creuset dutch oven, and the round loaves I routinely turned out were better than any bread that could be bought in town. Even if I upped my game and went for Fancy Flour (Bob’s Red Mill; King Arthur) my loaves were still pennies on the dollar, and made mad good panini, eggs in a window, bread pudding, and sandwiches. And lasted four to five days.

Meat. Ugh. I hated meat in the US, pink in plastic. It tasted like nothing. No bones in, all wrapped on light blue styrofoam trays. Cut who knows how many days ago by a machine in a factory. At one point I told Jason, don’t buy any chicken, ever. Just stick to steaks and pork please. I could not take any more of that injected MSG flavor and liquid, the weird dryness of chicken breast meat. (As any Italian will tell you, chicken breast meat is “cat food”; people eat dark meat, which tastes better.)

Jason and I love food, fresh food, and we both came to food culture as adults, through travel. As children of the seventies, we ate our share of dinners that featured Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Durkee fried onions, Potato Buds. Casting no aspersions here – it was very much the standard of the time. (To be fair, our mothers made plenty of tasty things too from scratch, but to purchase the fresh ingredients on a regular basis for every meal was, I imagine, prohibitively expensive on one salary.)

I had a long list of food phobias when I was 19. Nothing too spicy. No bones in. No blood. No marrow. No blood sausage. I had never really eaten broccoli, or eggplant. I hated eggs. I liked starch, and a bland palate. I was a case example of advocacy for Garrison Keillor’s “whitening agent”: mashed potatoes with white gravy and a chicken fried steak with more white gravy, with a side of buttered corn. The semester before I went to Spain for my first study abroad program, this was my favorite thing to eat, and it was doing my heart and weight no favors.

In Spain, I went all in, determined to break my food phobias. For what is a fear, of anything, but an invitation to mastery? Forty million people can’t be wrong, I told myself, and they’re not at all dying from the menu, as I ate plates of liver, pigs’ ears, anything and everything those gallegos pulled from the Atlantic and served on a platter: mejillones, langostinas, pulpo, merluza. I ate it all. I tried everything. I had a rule for myself that, if I did not like it, I need not eat it again. Cocidos. Tripas. Tortilla espanola a la espinaca. Everything. And less brave food too: medialunas that shattered when tapped with a small silver fork. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Chocolate con churros. Gofres. I returned home with a completely changed culinary reference.

An aspect of Seattle I always valued was its food culture. Fresh food, Pike Place Market, people from everywhere. It is hard to get a bad meal in Seattle. (It is possible to pay far too much for said meal.) (Also, the Mexican options were never good.)

But Italy. Italy and food.

In Italy, food is a right, and good food is the only kind of food there is. Americans tend to regard food as a class indicator: eating well means you’re doing well. If you’re not doing well, well, then you won’t eat well. To eat well and organic with taste and flavor in the US means you will pay dearly for it, as this is a type of brand marker and market position that Americans have bought into. We have lost our food culture. If you fly in the US over infinite huge circles and squares of agribusiness, if you drive through Dodge City or Garden City and smell the stockyards for ten miles before and after, you see where we get our food from. How can good food possibly come out of this ADM/Monsanto world we live in, in North America? Answer: it doesn’t.

Americans on the whole do not know what food tastes like, or is supposed to taste like. This is part of the reason American tourists (and many other nationalities) flip out when they come to Italy and eat: it is akin to getting into a time machine and returning to 1900 or 1880 and tasting what food must have tasted like for my great-grandparents. (Granted they probably had less of it, but what they had tasted like something.) In Italy I never cease exclaiming over the tomatoes, potatoes, porcini mushrooms, the eggplant, the tiny zucchini and the little zucchini squash balls. The eggs, the dairy. One of my favorite Italian food moments of the past year was Victor’s joyful exclamations over the fishmonger’s supply at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. He just wanted to look at all the types of fish because he was blown away!

The schools take lunch very seriously too: the food education does not end at the kids’ front door. Two courses plus a side, fresh bread, water, at a table with a plate and cutlery, and a glass glass. The menus are varied, and fresh, despite what the Italian mamme might say in a 148-message midyear WhatsApp tirade.

Eleanor receiving Italian lunch instruction.

Italy has never entered into the black pact of agribusiness because – well, look at a map. A narrow peninsula spined from north to south with mountains. Good luck getting mass irrigation profitably moving on that. Italy gave the world the Slow Food movement, to try to remind everyone to consider their culinary patrimony before plowing enormous monocrop fields, shutting down every family farm or garden, and heading to Burger King or Flunch or Golden Corral for a meal.

Our grocery bills in Italy reflect their value of Good Food for Everyone. A huge take at IperCoop, an Italian chain, will set us back just 90 euros. Groceries easily a third to a half less what they cost in the US. Produce even cheaper. A few examples: frozen pizza (special treat for kids at home), two euros. Brick of coffee (half a kilo), less than three euros. UHP milk brick, seventy-five cents. Cold cuts? a couple of euros for a handsome packet of prosciutto wrapped in paper. Fresh mozzarella balls? Sixty cents. A whole Italian chicken? Four euros. And on and on. It all adds up. We eat so much better here for so much less. When our friends come to cook, I keep an eye on all their tricks, and have learned a few
things here and there: a bit of butter in the red sauce. Salt your eggplant. How to dice zucchini for a frittata. And more.

The prepared food that is sold in Italy is more honestly made – in the sense that Italy does not add sugar to every single thing. We always say here, you know when you’re eating sugar, because you have either put it in your coffee, or you are eating a sensibly-sized pastry. The amount of prepared food in Italian supermarkets is a fraction of what you find in the US. I remember being so frustrated by all the colorful packaging, the huge freezer sections. What if I just want to make some food? I despaired. Rows and rows of frozen freezer bags of things Americans can’t or won’t make, or don’t have the time to make.

Italians always remark on it. Our friend Flavia was floored this summer in the US. Your food costs so much here! And it does. And it doesn’t even taste that good.

Italy wants you to eat, and eat well, no matter how much you make. You could eat well here as a single person on sixty euros a week, if you planned your meals and cooked at home like 99% of Italians. And they would be good meals.

Firenze: The Discomforts of Home

The longest summer break known to the whole of mankind came to an end yesterday as Victor began first grade today. September 15, people.  By this time in the school calendar I had usually already been at school for a month and had drafted a list of classmates whom I planned to invite to my birthday party.

Victor is continuing into the elementary school in the same school where he completed materna (preschool) last year, at I Scolopi, a mere hop from Jason’s office on Via Lamarmora.

(Eleanor began materna two weeks ago, essentially taking Victor’s vacated space in the sezione italiana, which is populated by many international families. She is fully adjusted and happy as a clam with Maestras Sabrina e Manuela.)

I hounded the kids last night to get to bed, and set the alarm clock for the factory-whistle hour of 7:15 am. We read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (Victor is obsessed with all the cats in the consecutively smaller hats, and with the invisible Little Cat Z.) Victor seemed vaguely aware of the imminent start of school. Honestly, it all seems like so long ago to him now. School? What school? There is a thing called school?

I woke up well before the alarm, and lazed until it went off. As Jason is returning today from his ten-day trip, we were all in the same bed. I shook Victor awake and said, Victor! It’s a school day! 
He woke up and smiled. He really was excited. Our good Victor ate breakfast and got dressed, playing until Eleanor woke up.

We all got out to the busstop in front of our palazzo by 8 am, with an ample choice of buses (but no 19, sorry Victor!) The packed 6B stopped. “Come on, guys, we gotta get on this,” I said, holding Victor’s hand and heaving Eleanor onto my hip. We validated our ticket and sardined ourselves in. Grumpy Florentines were giving up no seats in spite of the two little kids. They have this strategy where they stare out the window and refuse to make eye contact.

Busy Piazza San Marco morning

At the next stop we moved back toward the middle where I herded the kids into the wheelchair space to watch them. A quick turnaround on San Marco to catch the less-crowded 1B up to school. Eleanor clutched her mini gummi bears in a sweaty palm. They both wore their backpacks like big kids. A friendly grandmother chatted to them on the way to school.

Glad I got this picture early in the morning.

We dropped off a happy Eleanor upstairs (hardly anyone in materna at that hour; she was #4 in) and Vic and I went back downstairs to wait to be let into his classroom. His teacher, Maestra Alessandra, told me on Tuesday that they would wait for all the bigger kids on the floor to get in and settle down, then the youngest ones would go to their classroom.

This is where things began to crumble. The foyer was crowded and hot, and so loud. Victor has a low threshold for tolerance of such an ambient. We see a similar reaction when we try to walk with him to the mercato Sant’Ambrogio. I pointed out the lab coats (smocks). He was not wearing one. He started tearing up. “I don’t want a lab coat! I hate the lab coat!” I reassured him that it was optional. “What’s optional mean!” he shouted over the din.

It got increasingly louder as parents jockeyed for positions from which to take photos and videos of their little besmocked scholars. Victor was so upset we had to go outside for intervention. Although many of the kids he knows from preschool last year are in his class, he was not interested in talking to them. His new older American friend Izzy with whom he has been playing for the last two weeks blew through the androne on her way to quarta (fourth grade).

Finally the herd started moving upstairs. The scrum continued in the hallway, then, incredibly, in the classroom, as parents continued to take photo and video of their kids like they were sailing off to new homes in South America. Victor did not want to take a seat at first, and by the time he felt he might be ready to sit down, all the seats but a back one at the corner were taken. The noise and chaos went on and on. Eventually a few parents began to filter out.

One of Victor’s classmates is on the spectrum, and her helper, whom Victor knows, saw what a hard time he was having so came back to sit with him and talk to him. At this point he had been crying for close to half an hour. This is not like our Vic. I was upset that he was upset.

“This is like prom, this is insane,” I growled as the parents continued to take Party Pics and mug for their cameras.
“What’s prom?” Victor asked.
“This,” I said. “It is in high school, and is a reason to take a lot of pictures.”
“What this would be like in English,” he asked.
“Probably a lot calmer,” I said. “Italians can be so loud.” I thought a moment. “This would be a very different situation anywhere north of here.”
“I’m glad daddy’s not here,” Victor sniffled.
“Why?” I asked.
“He would not like this either!” Victor said.
“Yeah, this is definitely a lot of chaos for mommy too.”
He sniffled some more and held back tears, but a few escaped. Like anyone, he hates crying in public. The outrage at one’s own uncontrolled emotions is worse than the actual situation.
Daniela the helper motioned to me. “It is better if I just go?” I mouthed to her in Italian.
She nodded, so I kissed Victor on both cheeks, made sure one last time he had his lunch ticket in his pants pocket, and left.

Maestra Alessandra followed me out into the hallway.  She reassured me she would look after Vic especially today.
I felt like I needed a debrief. It was way too early for a spritz.
I walked home.

I think to Italians this loud and rambunctious scene feels totally normal. All the parents were motioning and mouthing to me, what is wrong with Vic? I felt like saying (but did not feel like shouting), does this not seem a bit loud and over the top to you? I mean, any reason for a party, but come on. This was like an Italian wedding, minus the buffet. It was like trying to get a few of the freshly laid out fiori fritti di zucca and failing. I could not believe how much Vic and I had gotten jostled and bodychecked waiting in the foyer and trying to walk into the classroom.

I am looking forward to getting my little guy back at the end of the day. I think we could all use a debrief.

This is clearly a day of growth and increasing flexibility for Victor.

And mamma.

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!

Slovenia: People Abroad

We made our move this morning from Bled to Ljubljana in car. A very short car ride! This is not a big country. With just 2 million people and a lot of forest and mountains, the distances to cover are not great, yet they offer much by way of quality scenery. We are settling in to our Airbnb rental home in the stare mesto (old town), across from a size M church with an XXL campanile – the Trnovo Church.

Trnovo Church, outside our front door. 

 Vic mugging on Eippurova ulica close to our house

 Picturesque brewery a few steps from where we’re staying

International graffiti – a perennial draw

A few observations about people abroad:

Slovenes dress more like Americans than do Italians. I was startled to see adults in daylight wearing two-piece sweatsuits. Our children look less vagrant than they tend to do by comparison in Italy. People are bigger here, probably due to the unofficial “every meal meat” policy. Plus pastry as often as possible. There’s less coffee. In fact, hardly any espresso!

It was very easy to pick out the Italians at Bled for their neat fits and nice glasses. And nice hair. And nice everything. It’s not that the Slovenes did not also have nice down coats and Desigual suede boots and new jeans. But everything just seemed to not fit as well.

Italians always look extra sparkly no matter where they are. Please, Italy, rub off on me. Let me age as graciously as an 80-year-old Florentine grandmother spinning through town on her bike with her friend in a down coat and lipstick, 10,000 steps per day and varied groups for dinner each evening while Chianti pours modestly!

Ok… back to Slovenia…

Our Kinderhotel in Bled

As I picked my way down the hill from the hotel to the lake with Eleanor in a borrowed stroller, we came across a rather large group of Americans who were as perplexed as we were regarding the stair situation in Bled. We mumbled something to each other regarding outcroppings of rock on the slanted dirt path. The assertive middle-aged father promptly asked me where I was from.

“We live in Italy,” I said.
“Oh!” he replied. “We live in Belgium.” He gestured to his wife, children, and a very tired looking mother in law who was making her way uphill with an oxygen cart and a walker. (Excellent advance research, people.) “Why you in Italy? Military, or business?”
“Neither,” I replied. “Academia.”
“Well, happy new year to you, too!” He turned around and started talking to his family again.
It took me a moment to realize what had just happened. I laughed.

I appreciate a little “welcome to destination X” trivia myself. Slovenia, as I regaled Jason with smartphone-channelled wiki help in the car, was the first former Communist country to go straight-up EU. Its annual per capita is >$32k. It is a wealthy country here. With that population of just 2 million, there is no danger of any Slovexit. A Prussian history has given them, no doubt, a well-fortified education system, as Slovenes were the most literate and well-educated immigrants to come through Ellis Island, at an impressive 90%. Ljubljana definitely maintains a smart intello vibe with its 50,000 students.

Victor and I had a post-sundown saunter into Ljubljana center together tonight, walking on a wide sidewalk down a main arterial. He trilled numbers and destinations as the busses purred by, all electric, all full. Congress Square was decked out for the holidays in lights as a band completed a soundcheck for an imminent concert.

We hit the H&M for a few things (also learning that “moski” means “men,” which is fun), got some money out, scoped out a kiosk to buy our new vijneta prior to setting back out for Italy on the 30th, and did some legwork on how the buses work and where to buy tickets. We also saw the electric train doing its loop. I love that our children are seeing firsthand how and where things are different, and good, and that the world is a welcoming and varied place. Vic’s urban calm and confidence really struck me tonight as I watched him move through crowds, his bright green and yellow Oregon stocking cap in place under his hood. Wow, I thought, he sees things and he just wants to try, try, try. He was practically ready to hop onto a bus without me. I pointed out that we had not paid great attention on the way in and so were not exactly sure which number to take (9, as it turns out, direction: Stepanskij Naselje). He booked the return 1.5k with me in the dark with nary a fuss nor a whimper. That’s my boy! I thought with pride.

 Bridge next to where we are staying

 Stare mesto – centro

  Stare mesto – centro

 Stare mesto – centro – Congress Square with Ljubljana castle in background

“Mommy, do you have any tissue?”
“Gahh! No, Victor, I am so sorry, I forgot. Use your mitten, we can wash…”
“That’s ok, mommy. I already licked it.”

[I am a hopeless shutterbug – making up for years as a young traveller who was to shy to take any pictures, and too poor to afford decent film or hardware!]