We’re just about caught up with our first few months in Bologna! Here are a few images from our first holiday season away.
We’re just about caught up with our first few months in Bologna! Here are a few images from our first holiday season away.
Without Gina & Stef & the kids around, the holidays were a little bit lonely this year (except for Thanksgiving…which we’ll tell you about next week) but, nonetheless, we managed to find many moments of joy and peace.
When Stefan first came up with the cockamamie idea of moving to another country, he hit me with all his personal needs for exploration, waxed poetic about all the wondrous adventures we could have from a European base and went on about lives being short and the world being big. I nodded politely, employing all my self control not to shut down his ridiculous notion immediately with an eye roll and a dismissive wave of the hand, but then, probably sensing my disinterest, he smartly hit me with all the reasons this kind of thing would be awesome for our kids, specifically for their “education” he said. After 18 years, he’s figured out some of my weaknesses. That damn education comment stuck with me. I had already seen how vacations to other places had impacted these lucky little buggers who in a decade had been to more countries than I had visited in my first 20 years. I’d seen lightbulbs go off in an Italian museum, eyes glitter at the sight of the Eiffel Tower, and muscles stretch and flex in the desert sands of Tunisia. And I knew he was right.
As you know I finally said yes to life at a European base, and shortly after this, we set out to find the right city for our family. During that trip in 2012, the positive effect of experiencing other cultures and lands was in evidence yet again. Probably my favorite moment was when Zoel, after having spent some time in 4th grade reading about the Renaissance and Leonardo DaVinci, found out there was a DaVinci museum in Venice, housing life-size models of some of the machines he had envisioned 500 years ago. Unfortunately, he found out about it the last night we were there, but this little timing problem was not going to stop him, he talked and talked and made his case until somehow I had agreed to get up at 8am, dress and jog 30 minutes through alleyways and over canals so that we could be there at opening time and sneak a peek at DaVinci’s ideas before leaving. As it turned out, Venice is incredibly beautiful early in the morning in sunny July. It was delightful to wind our way through narrow cobblestone streets, up one metal bridge and down another wooden one, through one piazza, then another. Just me and my boy. We could have turned back at the entrance to the museum and it would have already been a glorious morning for me, but we went in. A deal had been made after all. Inside, as promised, there were human-sized models made to the letter of DaVinci’s drawings and specifications, which were displayed next to each piece. With the clock ticking, we made our way quickly through the exhibit as Zo excitedly recounted what he could remember of DaVinci’s mechanical objects. I could just about see the brainworks in his head as what he had read in books came to life, literally, right before him. His eyes glowed with glee. We were definitely moving.
Because of all of this, one of the pacts we made once we rented our house, was that we would set aside part of our budget and time for exploration, voyaging to as many places in this neighborhood of the world as we would manage. Our first stop was England this Fall where I again got a chance to see history come alive for a little one, this time Leeloo. She had been working on a project about the United Kingdom for school, and had spent hours researching it, especially its capital, from the time it was Londinium, commercial center of the Roman Empire to today. Not surprisingly, she was the most excited of the four of us, when the opening of a very good friend’s new (and totally fantastic!) cocktail bar, took us to London in late September. On our first morning there, we took the underground to the waterfront, and jumped on one of those tour boats that take you down the Thames in order to visit the Tower of London. I was planning on spending the morning at the 1000-year old royal palace with the kids while Stefan gave a lecture on Design and Life, and this was the fastest way to get there. But once on the boat, I realized that the trip back in history had already begun for Leeloo as she gazed at centuries passing by in the form of buildings and bridges. In the midst of this, she yelled, at playground-volume, “MOM!” I spun around expecting to find her perilously hanging off the side of the boat, but instead she was waving wildly, Look! LOOK! I followed her finger and just emerging from between two buildings, I saw it. Big Ben. I can’t say that I’ve ever found that corner of the Parliament building all that exciting, but for Leeloo, who knew its history and had seen it over and over again, in books and on the web, it was magnificent. It was as if the clouds had parted and a million rainbows had appeared. Her eyes glowed with glee. “Mom…Can you believe it?”
Oh yes, I can.
So, this happened today:
Noah actually requested the full-blown version of the style, with shaved sides and purple dyed tips, but I told him the faux hawk was muuuuch cooler and, surprisingly, he complied. (A reprieve that will probably last until it’s time for his next haircut.) He said he needed a change and this ‘do seems to be enough of one to satisfy that craving. For now.
Noah is a born Traveler. He’s always up for a trip…to the supermarket, into the city for an afternoon of roaming around a museum or a park, to anywhere an airplane will take him. I hesitate to name the origin of his wanderlust…I just think he likes to go. He keeps careful note of all the places his BFF Zoel has visited and is hopeful, er…determined to go to London and Paris and Tunisia, too. One of the first questions Noah asked us after he definitively understood that our friends really would be moving across the ocean was, ‘why can’t we go, too?’
The answer to why we stayed here is, as you are learning, simple and complicated, involving far too many moving pieces for even the most precocious child to understand, but there wasn’t a reason in the world that would have salved his disappointment about being left behind. Sure, Noah wanted to move to Italy so he could be with his friend, but he’d be up for living someplace other than here TOMORROW even if that wasn’t the case. He already has plans to move to Greece with my brother and his wife ‘when he’s old enough,’ and he consistently asks for ‘a trip’ to be his gift when Christmas and birthdays roll around. Whenever Noah’s in an airport, his eyes get all bright and twinkly as he reads the Departures board aloud to us imagining, as he does, boarding a plane to anywhere.
I love airports, too. I hate to fly, but airports themselves are my drug of choice–with their highs of measureless energy, unceasing noise and anonymity. When I was a graduate student living in New York, I used to take the A train out to JFK and sit at one of the coffee shops or bars there to write. I’d siphon off the fondness and resentment pulsing out of all those the frenetic hellos and goodbyes and then deliriously imagine climbing aboard a huge steel tube roaring down a runway and lifting off toward Cairo or Oslo or Minsk. Soaring over the Atlantic I could leave behind my identity, my responsibilities, all those promises I couldn’t keep.
But what does all this have to do with hair?
Nothing. And everything. Here’s the thing. I’ve cut my hair off twice in my life. The first time was just before I collected the guts to break up with my first serious boyfriend–a man of (very) questionable integrity. The second time was six months after I had my son and I had yet to leave him for more than an hour. Literally. Both times I needed a different way of being in the world. A new perspective was required. Something had to change.
I’m not trying to draw a straight line from my kid’s haircut to him crying out for help. Jeez. The kid lives the life of Riley as far as I’m concerned. But I’ve learned a thing or two about not letting moss grow underfoot–especially because of how itchy and uncomfortable it can get. I, too, am envious of Gina (and Stef & the kids’) new ability to hop on a pretty inexpensive flight and, in as much time as it takes me to drive to the edge of my state, land in an entirely new world.
Luckily, when you’re 11, change comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a haircut. Sometimes it’s a train ride to Montreal. Other times all it takes to make you feel alive again is your music teacher showing you a couple of new chords and then handing you a instrument you’ve never tried to play before.
Rock on, Noah. Rock on.
It’s winter in these northeastern United States. Real winter. Record-low temperatures (the high today was 14˚(F)) have frozen the whole world here. Our tidal, ever-moving Hudson River stands as still and solid as an iceberg beneath a meager sun–it’s tepid glow doing little to melt the ice covered roads. Trees creak and whine in an unabating wind, their sap fixed in capillaries, transforming usually supple branches into stiff and unbending limbs.
I’m numb from the cold, too. And tired. And, quite frankly, a little bit cross. Everything takes so much longer when there’s snow covering the ground and the air is tinged with a windchill of -24˚(F). I did the math on the taking longer thing today and can document that it me took 37 extra minutes to take on and take off clothes. Boots. Scarves. Socks. Earmuffs. Slippers. Piles and piles of fleece. And that’s not counting the extra 15 minutes it took to warm up the car. Or the three extra walks I had to take the dog on because he’ll only stay out in this ridiculous cold for six minutes at a time and he still has to poop and pee the regular amount.
But who am I to complain? Isn’t this what I signed up for when I chose to live in upstate New York? By staying here? I don’t think I get to grumble now, just because we’re having the kind of winter my parents (who grew up here) remember having every year when they were young.
This endless cold has gotten me thinking about one of the challenges you face when you decide to Stay in a place. (Or in a relationship. Or a job.) Eventually, the warts of the thing become unavoidable. You can no longer turn away from them. And then you have to decide to either accept the damn cold (or the lack of chemistry, or the boss with the very bad breath) and hunker down and hope the dose of Compound W freezes the damn thing off…or what? You move? (Leave the marriage? Quit the job?)
I hate being cold. I HATE IT. But right now I hate the idea of leaving this place even more. Part of the reason that spring and summer here are so majestic is BECAUSE of their impermanence. Because I know that they won’t be sticking around here for long. In this latitude we get used to getting used to something new every four months or so. The river changes. And the leaves. And our shoes.
Any decision to Stay could change, of course–maybe one day the cold weather here will just become too much and I’ll buy that ticket to Kauai and never look back. But for now, I’m comforted in knowing that, not too long from now, there will be an evening much like this one when I’ll be sitting at this same desk, sipping from this same mug, looking out this same window and telling you it’s 88 degrees in the shade.
Besides, it’s supposed to be 40˚ on Saturday.
Living in a different culture and language makes the mundane stuff of every day life seem anything but average. The new norms and foreign tongue leave you feeling like a 6-year old when trying to fill prescriptions at a pharmacy counter, get school supplies, visit government offices, follow directions around town, or go to the doctor. Something as simple as getting coffee can feel totally overwhelming. First, you have to choose from one of 6 cafe bars on the same block. Why are there so many? What’s the difference?! Now then, how do you greet them? Do you go with Buongiorno? Maybe Salve, which is a greeting left over from Roman times but is still used as a more formal version of hello? (I’ve figured out that you don’t say Ciao, unless the person is very young or a close friend.) Once inside, there’s the decision of how to get to the physical counter. Italians aren’t big believers in lines. They prefer the huddle. So I weave my way around other moms, business men and women, a few teens and older people trying to get a look at the pastries on display in a glass case. As I do so, I pass a ticket machine dispensing numbers on triangular pieces of paper. Do I need one of these to get some my coffee and baked good?! After a quick glance around, I can’t really tell. Some people have them, others don’t, but I grab one just in case, and wait. All around me, people are chatting. No standing around looking at the floor. Hardly anyone is staring at a smart phone screen either. They’re actually speaking to each other. Many arrive together, but then strike up conversations with friends and strangers alike once inside. In the midst of my anthropological survey, a number is called, and called again, and again. I realize it’s me. Er…uhhh… Salve! The room volume seems to drop instantly to a murmur, and I’m certain that everyone is looking right at me, waiting to hear what this foreigner has to say. Um… I manage to sputter out something about a cappuccino and then have no idea what any of the pastries are called so I point and say “Croissant”, which obviously is the wrong language. Ah, you mean the brioche the smiling man says in Italian. Then what follows sounds like “Vote for you door lay me le graily?” I think he’s giving me a list of flavors. When he says it slower and it still sounds like a word association game, I just point and hope for the best. It goes on like that – Where do I pick up my breakfast? Do I drink at the counter, attempt to find a table, move to one of these shelves that people are leaning on?, Lord…What if someone tries to speak to me?, Do I bring the mug and dish back to the counter or leave it here? Where do I pay? Do I tip? When I finally exit, weaving again through the new mass of people that have assembled in the 15 minutes I’ve been here, I’m spent and need a nap. But even if all of this is challenging, it’s been a true joy getting to know how it all works, minute by minute, day by day, week by week, until I’ve found myself a month or two later, walking into the same cafe to shouts of Buongiorno Gina! Come stai? I bimbi? (Good morning Gina, How are you? The kids?) My cappuccino and brioche integrali (whole grain) come up without asking and without a number. A few women from school offer me a free seat at their table. Of course, like moms everywhere, they are debating the pros and cons of the school year so far, but since we’re at an international school, the conversation comfortably jumps from Italian to English to Spanish and back again. I catch the majority, enough to nod appropriately and throw in my bit. I say a polite Buongiorno to familiar faces and sometimes have a brief chat from the comfort of my table of acquaintances. And just like that, what had been an unnerving experience becomes pleasurably mundane once again.
Christine, there’s always something new you have to get used to, right? Living in foreign country just gives you more opportunities to stretch those acclimating muscles…
“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”
Even after spending a short time here, in our little corner of cyberspace, those of you who don’t already know will discover that the right side column of these posts will often provide a darker, drearier read than the left. One of the reasons I love Gina so much is because she possess an authentically enthusiastic (though decidedly NOT pollyannaish) view of life and of our world–an orientation which serves to temper my curmudgeonly and more cynical sensibilities. It’s a distinction that is evident in the quotes we’ve chosen for this, our first nature-photo-post.
The thing is, I’m not a fan of autumn. Even living where I do, in a part of the world where it’s Mother Nature’s time to show off as she does–staining leaves impossible shades of crimson and gold while scenting the air with campfire smoke and the fragrance of ripened crops of grasses and hay. There are days here in the fall when the sky is so blue and crisp that just standing underneath it can break your heart right open. Still, for me, autumn is mostly a reminder that winter will soon be here and that I’m going to be cold for the next seven months.
As I get older, though, I’m finding it harder to escape the beauty of this place–as well as its savageness (we’re in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record–but more on that tomorrow). Spending time with both of those elements, IN them, plodding through the nature of them wearing rubber boots and fleece gloves and stabling myself with a walking stick, helps assuage my orneriness about not being able to arrive quickly enough at the answer to those two ancient mysteries Ms. Ackerman speaks of.
Sometimes the savage and the beauty make it (almost) worth the wait.
(Click on pics to enlarge.)
“At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world: Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.” –Annie Dillard
Contrary to Ms Dillard’s beautiful words (which the lady in that right-hand column over there sent me because we share a love of being outside), I find that I live in nature that can be so striking that it stops me in my tracks, commanding me to pay attention to it because it is ready. On Tuesdays, I’ll share photos of those moments when I have no choice but to stop, focus and listen.
To get started, here’s a look at how our countryside and town changed from September through December.
(Click on pics to enlarge.)
My grandmother’s 90th birthday is in a of couple of weeks. My Italian grandmother. My mother’s mother. The one from Sicily who taught me how to can tomatoes and make sausages and grow basil and parsley and green beans. My Italian grandmother who has never been to Italy—‘the old country’ as she calls it—but still drives 45 minutes to buy the only acceptable Parmaesan she’s found in upstate NY.
It’s the running joke of our family. This Cheese.
The only time you’ll see grated cheese on my family’s table is on a holiday. Christmas. Easter. The Fourth of July picnic (with the Bovees) at the Lake. Sure, cheese is served at almost every meal (and to clarify, when members of my family say ‘cheese’ they are referring to hard, Italian Parmaesan—everything else is given its proper name: mozzarella, cheddar, sandwich provolone) because there’s always an opportunity to put a dusting of it on something…soup, steamed vegetables, any variety of potato, scrambled eggs. But only on special occasions is it served grated. On most nights a greasy hunk of the stuff sits on the table in its more unspoiled form (on a plate next to an old metal grater) and folks are left to shred it on their own.
When my grandfather was alive (he was also Sicilian, also fond of cheese), he and my grandmother would to drive to Boston regularly so that my grandmother could visit her sisters who she’d left behind in Quincy, MA (a town just south of Boston, once heavily populated with Italian immigrants) and they always ferried back several pounds of ‘good’ cheese from their favorite shop in the North End. Once they got home, they’d divvy up the triangular wedges wrapped in white butcher paper and twine, among my mother and her two siblings. We had a special spot in the refrigerator for the haul, one that would become cavernous between those trips east, but could never be sullied with an inferior variety of a saran-wrapped American impostor from the grocery store. My uncle nicknamed the monthly voyage The Cheese Run and the name stuck, especially because of the time my grandparents drove back to Boston one night to exchange the cheese because my grandmother said it smelled bad.
Now that my brothers and cousins and I have made homes for ourselves in cities around the globe, we’re given care packages of cheese to take back with us whenever we come home. My brother, who lives in Colorado, tells the story of how once his luggage was inspected after he landed at Denver International Airport because the drug agents and their canine companions weren’t quite sure what to do with the plastic bag filled with aging goat milk curd they found packed neatly between his Christmas gifts. I have a spot in the dairy drawer of my own fridge that, when it’s empty, reminds me that it is time to plan a trip home.
Despite her allegiance to the highest quality cheese, my grandmother has no desire to visit Italy. Whenever I ask her why she never went back she says that she’s always been afraid to fly. That the trip was always too expensive. That the time was never right and then my grandfather got sick and now she’s too old. She says that, anyway, her family is her home, so wherever they are becomes her homeland and now that place is Johnstown, New York. A little city on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains that she moved to seventy years ago after she married my grandfather. She’s raised a family there. She’s buried a husband and his four brothers and her mother-in-law in a cemetery a mile away from the house she’s owned for six decades. It sounds like home to me.
Some days I think of her driving to a store 20 miles from that house so that she can replenish her family’s stash of Parmaesan and I wonder what keeps her going back. At her age, why not settle for the brand that they stock at the Price Chopper right in town? But then I imagine her mother as a young girl, roaming the dusty streets of a town right out of The Godfather (the only movie she and my grandfather ever owned on VHS) and I know that for her, this pilgrimage tethers her to an otherworld she can only dream about on nights she allows herself to sift through the stack of black and white photos she keeps in a box in the closet of her back room.
My grandmother’s family left Italy and came to America more than a hundred years ago. They stayed and made a life. And my Nonna is at peace with the lifetime she’s spent here, in the place she’s sprinkled with the very best fairy dust of her forefathers and mothers. The place that she calls home.
About a month after our arrival, Leeloo realized that her birthday was coming up in just a few weeks. Her face lit up like a carnival ride at the thought, and then just as quickly her whole face dropped as she also remembered that she knew No One in Bologna. What about my friends?! What about my best friends?! And Nana and Abuelo?! Who will come to my party!? Sensing that a total breakdown was coming, I immediately replied with a big smirky grin “Don’t worry. Papa and I have an extra special surprise planned for you!” Confident that moms have this kinda thing under control, she quickly recovered and off to the pool she bounced. My son, never wanting to be left out of a good secret plan, leaned in conspiratorially, and asked: “What is it? You can tell me.” I answered honestly. “I have absolutely no idea.”
I also had no reference point for what it’s like to be in her situation. As much as my sister and I would have liked them to, my parents had never moved. My friends (and my sorta-like cousins, and my real cousins and aunts and uncles and…) had always been there. But here we were in another country, in those fragile first months, when she was asking to face time her closest friends daily, and when she was just starting to piece together what moving across the Atlantic Ocean meant to her 6-year-old life. The excitement of packing and moving and settling into a new place was waning, and school life had yet to offer new friendships and adventures. What’s a momma to do? Flying everyone to Italy wasn’t an option, so I went for the next best thing, total and utter over-compensation.
We came up with a road trip to the beach, and planned a few days exploring the Adriatic Coast. Nana and Abuelo even joined us because, being way better planners than their off spring, they had had the foresight to organize their first trip to Bologna at the same time as their granddaughter’s birthday! But then after candles had been blown out, presents given and we had all packed back into the car, supposedly heading back home, Stefan took a few “wrong turns” off the highway, and we ended up at the entrance of… Mirabilandia – a huge amusement park right outside the coastal city of Ravenna. I should mention that we are not so much amusement park people, but even Stefan, who starts to sweat and swear at the thought of being in a crowded space with hundreds of people he doesn’t know, had agreed that an amusement park was the answer. The only answer for one homesick and newly seven-year-old. The day was spent riding just about everything in the park. Stefan patiently endured long lines of sweaty people, Abuelo went down a water coaster for the first time, and Nana and I road the rapids with the kids and raucous Italian teens. We sampled amusement park pasta, tigelles (a pita-like sandwich typical of the area), Italian beer and wine under the hot summer sun. The day came to an abrupt end (to the delight of the 4 adults involved) when the skies opened up around 6pm and a storm drove everyone off the rides and running to their cars. Leeloo proclaimed it: The. Best. Birthday. Ever. as she took off her sandals and splashed in puddles all the way to the exit.
Less than 3 months later, Zoel’s birthday rolled around, and we really had no choice but to go big again. He had dropped a few “Wow, I can’t wait to see what you come up with for my birthday since we did that whole thing for Leeloo’s!”, upping the pressure just a bit more. How do you top an amusement park in a soon-to-be 11 year old boy’s mind you ask? I racked my brain quite bit with that one, and then, luckily, asked the right new friend here in Bologna. She came back with the brilliant idea of taking the kids to a medieval castle called Castello di Gropparello, which belonged to the Count of Gropparello during the late Middle Ages, but that dates all the way back to 810. What made it even cooler for our history loving boy is that actors take over the grounds from April through November, and lead an audience through a play that takes you through not only the castle itself, but the enchanted forest surrounding it. We met up with wizards, fairies, beasts, knights and Merlin, himself, as we made our way up rocky hills and down muddy slopes. At one point the kids were invited to dress as knights and join the castle’s forces to find and slay 3 hairy black beasts who, just as we approached an open field, emerged from the foggy edges of the forrest. I kid you not. I had to stop myself from running. Zoel got right in the chase with his wooden sword pumped high in the air. He tangled with one of the beasts one-on-one and dealt him the blow that finally dropped him to the ground. At that moment, he looked older and much bigger than the little ones around him, on the verge of being too old for all of this, but thankfully, for this momma, he wasn’t just yet.