Dicembre?! Cosa dici?

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Berlin Park, October.

Sitting between a pile of dishes that need to be set out for dinner and a stack of homework papers that Zoel has left behind, I’m hoping to get at least a few lines down here, before some force pulls me away. As you might have noticed, there hasn’t been much time for crafting long posts or adhering to a steady schedule on LHT lately. Or if your Fall has also been speeding by, maybe you haven’t noted our absence at all. In that case, thanks so much for choosing to spend a couple of minutes here today!

Our calendar has been packed with some of the usual Autumn activities like Fall Break vacation, Halloween, Birthdays, Thanksgiving, and a continuous marathon of dance, swim and piano classes, but also a couple of unusual additions. After our fall break road trip, which took us through Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic (Stefan posted a beautiful set of pics chronicling the journey here.), I hunkered down with my Cahiers d’ activites determined to remind my brain how French grammar works and my mouth how to pucker in that special way that makes French sound the way it does, and that’s best exemplified by the universally exclaimed oooohhh la la! I was aiming to pass a government-mandated exam that I needed in order to get a French passport. It would seem that pledging love until death do us part to my husband would not cut it. The authorities would also like you to be able to communicate in the country’s language. Reasonable enough I guess… although I suspect it also has to do with a plot to keep the language alive as English continues to take over the world. In any case, that little burgundy booklet would certainly make it easier for me to move around Europe. And besides, the three other people in my family already get to stand in the EU citizens line at the airport, and I feel kinda left out.

With all this in mind, I locked myself in my home office for two weeks at the beginning of November, cramming words and conjugations into my head, and quickly realizing that indeed the studying muscle does atrophy with disuse. Just two days before I was to hop on the train to the test center in Venice to see just how much had stuck, I went out to run last minute errands with Stefan in the center of Bologna. All of a sudden, as we were finishing up, he started stumbling like he’d polish off a bottle of grappa. As we walked down the archways of Via D’Azeglio he staggered to the left, then to the right. As he put our bags in the trunk, he nearly fell to the ground as as he slammed down the back hatch. Within an hour, I, along with the kids who had just gotten out of school, found ourselves with a shaking and vomiting Stefan at Sant’Orsola’s emergency room. Thankfully, their diagnosis leaned towards an ailment, Vestibular Neuritis, that wasn’t too grave, but that had debilitating symptoms that would keep him in the hospital for a week, and that now have him recovering at home, still a bit dizzy and clumsy. He tells the story in his on words with a lot more detail over on theapt.com, so please jump over there for his scary, witty, out of the blue adventure with spinning rooms and socialized medicine. Now, between you and me, I’m realizing as I write this, that it may all have been a ploy to keep me from taking that damn test… He’s never had much interest in my speaking the language of his family too well… skeletons, closets, etc.

If there is a continuous thread throughout all this expected and unexpected Autumn action, it might be one having to do with diving deeper into this Italian world, as if last Fall, we had just waded in knee-high, and maybe to the waist by last summer. In September, we decided to schedule all of the kids’ after school stuff outside of their international school. So, now piano is at a local place in Casalecchio with the exceptionally fit and Italian-speaking Filippo; dance is also in Italian, at a more modern place with all local kids; and swim is at the community pool, also with only Italian public school children. Zoel and Leeloo were a little nervous at first, but luckily, they saw they could hang pretty quickly, like within 10 minutes, so it’s worked out well! I’m definitely more at ease moving through my Bolognese world, launching into Italian with much less hesitation, knowing I won’t get it all right, but I’ll be understood and be able to understand, and no longer so confused by the customs at cafes, offices, pharmacies, etc… This has come in very handy as I navigate filling prescriptions and making appointments for Stefan through the “system”, which can be so incredible when you spend a week in the hospital and pay nothing, but so completely dumbfounding when you have to go to a special area of the local pharmacy to make an appointment for an MRI, and, after explaining that you need to do the test as soon as possible, the lady looks up at you and confidently asks, “How about June 16?”. Ma che cosa?! 

Despite these little particularities, we’re all quite comfortable here, I can see how a couple of years slips into 6 or 10, like it has for other ex-pats that we’ve met in Bologna. But in our case, we know my family would show up and physically drag us out of the country if we dared… so instead, we’re up to our necks in activity, enjoying the comfort, language, culture, music and all our good friends, looking forward to holiday time, and knowing that in a few months, we’ll have to start thinking about what comes next.

Lastly, before I get back to the bustle, HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my PAPA! Have a beautiful day! We love and miss you!

 

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Target practice in Prague on Halloween.

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Contemplating the Salzburg gardens where Julie Andrews and the gang sung “Doe, a deer, a female deer…”

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My poor Stefan at the hospital trying to enjoy a curiously delicious plate of mash potatoes with grana, while the room spins.

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Zo celebrates his 12th birthday with friends in the midst of a lot of crazy.

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What it’s looked like on our hill for the past 2 weeks. Fog and rain, Rain and fog. That tree masquerading as a rooster to the left of the road greets us every morning as we head out through the mist to school.

 

 

Happy 25th Anniversary Berlin!

Happy Friday everyone! During the last 10 days or so, we’ve been enjoying another road trip around Europe during the kids’ fall break from school. Although I have yet to evolve a stress- and anxiety-free way to enjoy these longish, multi-country excursions with Stefan and the kids, they will undoubtedly still go down as one of the best parts of our time living in Italy.

This journey ended up taking us to interesting places that aren’t only historically significant, but that intermingle with our own families’ histories as well. We found connections in Dachau, Prague, and Vienna, but it was our visit to Berlin and its infamous wall that once separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany, that was especially meaningful for me, and not just because this weekend marks 25 years since it fell. My family emigrated to the US from communist Cuba, and it was both comforting and frustrating to uncover just how similar the German and Cuban experience has been. As in the case of East Germany, the communist government in Cuba has erected obstacles, much like the very long and winding Berlin wall, which have split families apart and isolated a population.

That’s probably why I was glued to my little TV set in my college dorm room in 1989, teary- eyed at the sight of East Germans insisting on passage through the wall. A still very young news network, CNN, was broadcasting all these jaw-dropping images, and I remember calling my mother to ask if she was seeing what I was seeing. We sat there in silence on the phone just flabbergasted by the moment. Most of the East Germans weren’t interested in staying in West Berlin, although some had surely been yearning for that freedom for decades. Instead, the majority just wanted to be able to go where they wanted to go, see who they wanted to see. Shop, eat, visit with family and friends, and then head back home.

Somewhere between the long silences, we decided that my mom should just come over to my dorm room, so we could watch the coverage together. She was there within the hour and we watched as the gates opened and hundreds of faces poured through. Some were crying, others yelling happily, yet others looking completely astonished, as if they couldn’t believe this was happening at all. We were overjoyed for these Germans, as we saw a sister run into the embrace of a brother waiting on the West side; a group of teens, in all their late-80s gear, dance on top of the wall; and an East German soldier smile widely and give a rose to a girl on the other side, as if no one in the whole wide world was more relieved than he was. It was quite emotional up in that university high rise apartment. In part, of course, because the parallels to our family, stranded behind the formidable waves of the Caribbean instead of a cement wall, were far too clear. We couldn’t help but wonder, what if…

 

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

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The part of the wall that has been preserved with murals commissioned right after its fall, is part of the East Side Gallery. The neighborhood now feels like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grittier and cooler than the rest of Berlin, but just as sophisticated and modern:

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This one’s for you, Mami!

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Leeloo’s come up with a very endearing new habit… listening to history through architecture. “Mom! It’s like I’m there and the soldier is giving the girl the flower!”

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For my Italian peeps/ Per i miei amici italiani:IMG_0512

 

This image evokes a way of life with which I’m quite sure my relatives are painfully familiar:

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How do you say “perestroika” in Spanish?

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Somebody made sure that I didn’t get too romantic about the whole thing with this insightful graffiti, in Spanish nonetheless! (Sons of bitches. Stop lying. We haven’t learned anything.)

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Yet, a girl can keep dreaming. IMG_0545

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I like that Leeloo serendipitously added her face to the hundreds in this scene, re-playing what I saw on my TV in ’89. She’s got quite a few cousins that I can’t wait to see pass through their own wall someday. Hopefully, not another 25 years from this anniversary.

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Summer Camp/Not Summer Camp Summer

In just a few weeks, the school year will come to an end here in the northeastern United States and many kids will head to summer camp. (More than 11 million children attend some kind of camp each year.) Some go to sleep-away sites–rural, privately run bastions of midnight pranks, artificially sweetened care packages and coming-of-age ‘firsts.’ Others will attend day camps, and follow a routine similar to, though much more informal than, the one they have at school. Summer camp is big business here in the states and another area of culture and childrearing that Americans have made competitive, somewhat elitist and a debate.

Not that I think that summer camps are bad places, mind you. Noah is signed up to attend a few weeks of various day camps this summer. One is an outdoor survival camp–a Native American inspired week of foraging and thinking about spirit animals and building shelters from mud and sticks in the woods along the Hudson River. Another camp he’s excited about is Shakespeare Camp–an education arm of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Noah will end the summer with a week of baseball camp (the least interesting of the bunch to me), but the one that brings him together with a few friends and teachers from school–always good connections to rekindle towards the end of the season when Noah’s not ready for vacation to be over. Without fail, seeing his friends and his favorite teacher (and having fun with them), makes the inevitable end-of-summer-beginning-of-a-new-school-year transition a little bit easier.

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After camp.

Not that I want to be thinking about the end of the summer yet. For heaven’s sake NO. I am ready for long lazy days of doing nothing (and HEAT)–which is why I sometimes wonder about this idea of summer camp. Growing up, I never went to summer camp. Each year our family went on a two week vacation around the fourth of July (usually to Cape Cod or Prince Edward Island in Canada) and then we spent the rest of the time at home. We didn’t really even do playdates. Granted I had three brothers to play with and swim with and, of course, catch frogs. Noah’s an only child, on the other hand, and while that comes with its own set of benefits, consistent companionship isn’t one of them. I like that summer camp allows Noah to enjoy some down time with other kids so he’s not just hanging out with me and doing adult things, which is typically his preference.

I also agree with the gist of this article I read a few weeks ago titled: Deceleration: How Radically Slowing Your Pace Can Make You Smarter. Generally, the author writes about the importance of slowing down our lives and our days and our hours, not just to reduce stress and improve health and enjoy of life more, but also to increase one’s ability to understand and engage with the world.  i.e. TO MAKE YOU SMARTER. Activities like spending time in nature or a few hours looking at the same piece of artwork or taking an entire afternoon to watch the clouds and then the sunset are life changing because by their very nature they are intrinsically different occasions than the ones we usually engage in to pass the time. When we slow down and focus on less action-oriented stuff, space opens up inside of us for a perspective shift; for a crack to break open in the shell of everything that we’ve been taught so that the light of what we know can shine through.

In the article above, the author writes about kids taking time at summer camp to do (not do) these things but this summer our family will be taking some time on our own to investigate this deceleration–without other kids or scheduled meal times or macrame in the afternoon. We’ll spend several weeks at the very end of the summer on Cape Cod (our favorite place on the planet) not doing anything at all.

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Nauset Light Beach. Eastham, MA.

Pranzo a Casa di Luigi!

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Luigi is my Italian teacher. He’s an ex-consultant/engineer who fills his retirement days with market shopping, cooking, family and teaching Italian for free to “stranieri” (strangers) like me and my classmates, a merry band of Latin American and Polish girls. Since last October, I’ve been popping into his class, which is conveniently held at the library that I’ve become so fond of and that I wrote about here, once or twice a week. The course got off to a slow start, as our loquacious but well-intentioned professor figured out the right balance between telling us stories about his youth and work, and actually teaching Italian. Unfortunately for them, quite a few students dropped out before he got his groove, missing out on a pretty engaging and flexible class, where a little time was spent on grammar, but mostly the focus was on conversation about whatever tickled the group that day.

The charming Luigi decided to cap off the successful year by inviting our intrepid, if smaller group for a traditional pranzo (lunch) at his house last week. Never one to shun free food, especially free Italian food prepared by avid cooks in their own home, I was thrilled to accept their kind offer. And that’s how I found myself on Via Malcontenti, not far from the central Piazza Maggiore, in a well-appointed third-floor apartment, in front of a beautifully prepared four-course meal. We started with a deliciously fresh and frizzante white wine made by the maestro, himself, with grapes that Luigi grows at his house in the hills, north of Bologna. His lovely wife served it with cubes of focaccia and mortadella (the reason we Americans can spell B-o-l-o-g-n-a, even if Oscar Meyer wasn’t actually selling us the tasty real stuff!) My Mexican classmate had also brought a guacamole that we shared, not Italian food, but being that it’s next to impossible to find good avocados and cilantro in this town, I could have eaten the entire tray myself. Next, the primo piatto (first course) was a pasta, perfectly aldente, with a light panna (cream) sauce mixed with zucchini, prosciutto, onions and chopped fava beans. I left not one morsel, which I later regretted when the most delicious baked potatoes and roasted lamb was brought out for the segondo (second course.) There was not a centimeter of space left in my stomach, but I just had to have one. more. potato. Yes! Pasta and potatoes in the same meal. God bless you Italian people.

Luckily, there was a little breathing and digesting space after the main course, which was filled with lively talk, all in Italian, the only language shared by the five nationalities sitting at the table. I looked from the Polish faces to the Mexican and Colombian then back to the Italians, marveling at the fact that we could share this wonderful meal and share in each others lives, thoughts and opinions, all because we had made the effort to learn the same language. Simply being able to string together a recognizable set of sounds in the correct order allowed us to commune and joke and laugh and enjoy a beautiful afternoon.

Just when we thought the meal was over and it was time to go, out came a ridiculous dessert including a mango liqueur, fresh berries in a sambuca gelatin, and palle di Mozart (a chilled mixture of ricotta, almonds, amaretto cookies and coconut rolled into balls and covered in dark chocolate that our hosts had discovered in Salzburg.) Somehow… we all found just a bit more space for this sweetness. I wasn’t going to need to eat for a day, or maybe two, or maybe ever. After more than three hours at the table, it was time to say arrivederci, feeling profoundly thankful for having been able to share in a real pranzo Italiano, like the ones our hosts used to serve in the old days, when as they noted wistfully, everybody still came home for lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day in America

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The mothers in my life (my grandma (she just turned 90 but don’t tell her I told you that! (luckily she doesn’t have WiFi) & my momma). I didn’t get to spend Mother’s Day with them this year, but they are a huge part of my life and hold a giant piece of my heart on every single day of the year.
(Photo courtesy of Aunt Judy (The Great)).

Here in the heartland of Hallmark and American Greetings I should probably be more cynical about Mother’s Day than I am…or more so than I feel after this year’s celebration. Usually I grumble about the “holiday.” Usually I would rather go to the movies or out for Chinese–the way other (more refined) marginalized groups do on the high, commercial holidays. This year, however, my people had other plans for me; plans that included a special brunch replete with platters of my favorite foods. Plans that included the gift of a few hours of uninterrupted writing time and a family hike to a most fabulous vista. And I got to skip the kid’s baseball game. This year I was happy to be fêted on Mother’s Day.

Not that I’ve done much to deserve said fêting. For the past year I’ve pretty much been a beast. What with my Looking For A Job and my Trying To Write and the exhaustive bouts of cleaning and straightening the house that I do in (both of) their stead. Just yesterday I spent six hours washing windows WASHING WINDOWS–a task that would typically elicit an prolonged eye roll from me (though somebody’s got to wash the windows, right?)–but a task that got me out of writing this blog post for a few hours and finishing the poem, possibly indefinitely, I started three days ago.

I didn’t need flowers on Mother’s Day, I needed a swift kick in the butt.

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Perfect Mother’s Day Brunch in the gazebo. Bagels. Lox. Cream cheese. Raspberries. McClure’s Bloody Marys.

For me, this past year–riddled with unemployment and melancholy as it was–helped me realize just how much traditional, routine work mothers (including me) still often have to do. Not that I didn’t know that before, but I didn’t appreciate the routine of it. The never ending cycle of a life spent mothering a family full time. This year I’ve had to hold down our fort almost entirely on my own. I’ve cleaned and I’ve cooked and I’ve shopped and I’ve sewed (really…like I actually reattached a couple of buttons). I’ve walked the dog and folded the laundry and shoveled snow and swept the kitchen floor and emptied the dishwasher one thousand times.

Obviously these aren’t the jobs of mothers alone. A million people (women who are mothers, mothers who work, women who are not mothers, men, men who father children, men who don’t like children, indentured servants, legitimate employees, children who are children) do the very same jobs. Some do the jobs for pay. Some for free. Some because they have no other choice. No matter, though, they do the jobs that must to get done in every household in the country though they hold hardly any prestige, very little–if any–pay and sometimes require an apron and rubber gloves.

This year on Mother’s Day I thought about these tasks a lot as I read snarky blog posts about the myths of motherhood and sweet Facebook statuses from distant friends about beloved mothers who I’ll never meet and I was struck by the pervasiveness of the messages. Mothers Love. Mothers Help. Mothers Sacrifice. Mothers Are Always There.

I used to gag on these platitudes. GAG I tell you. In America, on Mother’s Day, these very platitudes sell thousands of sappy greeting cards and (hundreds?) of poetry books with watercolor-flowered-dust jackets and a million trillion pink and white carnation-and-daisy arrangements from Teleflora. I would never fall for the likes of them….

Until this year. The thing is, these platitudes shine light and celebration and appreciation on jobs and work and making-the-world-go-round duties that nobody else wants to do. Functions that mothers have traditionally fulfilled. Sure, these jobs are no longer solely a mother’s work, but somebody somewhere has to continue to Love and Help and Sacrifice and Be There or else, as a species, we’re screwed.

This year my status as only a mom has, at times, felt tiresome and weighty, like the cute cherry-red daypack I picked up at the Patagonia outlet last summer that is full of dog bones and Noah’s extra baseballs. Once an indication of freedom and independence and the promise of an open road, it is now filled with obligation and duty: a life spent at home, doing housework and taking care of everybody else.

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Half way there. No turning back now.

Obligation and duty. (See the red backpack on my back in the photo above?…très chic.) Both of these courses of action got me and my boys to the top of the mountain on Sunday (I urged my kid and my dog and my husband up an incline of 1,260 feet ((384 m) above sea level). They also got me to wash every window in the house on the day after Mother’s Day and feel fulfilled at the accomplishment. Like I had actually Done Something even though I wasn’t out curing cancer or writing the next great American novel.

Sometimes a Mother’s Work is the most holy work there is if you stop and pay attention to it. And Mother’s Day can be, sometimes, a good day to observe that.

Mother. Father. Sister. Son. No matter who does the work, we all can marvel its significance.

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We made it to the top!

Express Mail in Italy. Stop Laughing.

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Many of you have already heard about my encounter with the polizia last month. Oh no, well, you can read about it here, and then come back if you like. Aside from taking away hours of my life, they also took my expired driver’s license, so consequently, I had to gear up to order a new one from the infamously bureaucratic New York DMV.

I was dreading the call and having to explain my predicament to a witless rep sitting somewhere in Brooklyn or upstate New York, who probably wouldn’t care about my troubles, and would  have no idea what to do with my case. But I was pleasantly surprised when I did get that witless rep, but he quickly figured out he couldn’t help, and expeditiously passed me on to a supervisor. After listening to my saga, she promptly listed out the zillion forms (okay, I’m exaggerating a little but go with me) that I needed to fill out and the process I needed to follow. In the past, I would have probably found the endless directions irksome, but not now. I was so impressed by how she knew exactly which documents we’re needed by their form number (MV 619, MV 44…) and by their proper name. Off the top of her head, she knew exactly how many kinds of identification I would need to send, and how many points each was worth. She had the correct mailing address ready, and gave me helpful hints for how to deal with the fact that the ophthalmologist doing my vision test wasn’t American and therefore didn’t have a U.S. license ID number. And then, she told me not to forget to include a prepaid express envelope in the package so that I would get my new license as quickly as possible. So organized! So precise! And all of this in under 10 minutes! I almost cried.

Feeling newly confident that I might be able to drive again not next year, but in a month or so, I got all my papers together, found an ophthalmologist with a U.S. license number (Thank you Antonio and Jas!) and located an express mail office. I ran right over to that Mailboxes, Etc… with my thick file of forms, copies, renewal checks and mailing addresses.  (I have yet to come across any shipping company-owned offices in Bologna or Casalecchio. There aren’t UPS, FEDEX or DHL offices on every corner like in other cities.) A tall pretty man-boy with a French sailor tee on, happily greeted me, “Salve! Bisogno?” (Hello! Can I help you?) You sure can, I answered and then…. at this point in the story you should hear the teeth-numbing sound of a 12″ record being abruptly scratched from end to end, slowly. My request to express mail my documents to New York and include a prepaid envelope were met with the ubiquitous “Non è possible.” (It’s not possible.)

It’s not that sending express mail was impossible, it’s that he had never heard of the idea of sending a prepaid express envelope, so it was not possible, case closed. He looked at me grimly, sticking out his lower lip and raising his eyebrows, pity in his eyes. How can it be that no one has ever asked for a prepaid envelope from this guy?! In a Mailboxes, Etc…! Another 20-something came over, he seemed to be in charge of this fine establishment, so I tried out my story on him. Same blank stare. There was no way I was leaving without sending out the package, so I started to deconstruct my request to them, and finally they came around. I explained that I had done this dozens of times via UPS, FEDEX and DHL, and that there was no way that they didn’t have the capability to do it too. There were protests, including my favorite exchange: “But how are you going to get one envelope inside the other?” asked the tall sailor, “They are the same size.” ” I’m going to fold it.” I replied, trying not to sound condescending. “Eh.” he said nodding but looking incredulous. I took the envelope from his hand and folded it and put it in the other one. Magic!

With the Italian millennials on my side, the older of the two, hit the computer. He printed out the label for my express package to the States relatively quickly, but then he started working on the prepaid envelope. Mamma mia! Twenty minutes went by and he couldn’t get it to go through. A call to the boss, a chat with me, a chat with the other numbskull, and still nothing, another 20 minutes went by. Niente, nada, nothing. In the end, I spent one and half hours in that Mailboxes, Etc… and about every 15 minutes one of the two clerks asked if I could just come back tomorrow. I could not, so we kept at it and finally, he did it! At least, I think he did it. In any case, I paid a ludicrous amount of money for the prepaid return envelope, got my labels and sent it off. Will it actually come back?! I’m thinking it’s 50/50. But I can say for sure, the so-called bureaucratic or inefficient DMV has got nothing on the Italians. They win. Hands down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close to Home? Visiting Spain

One of the main selling points that Stefan used in pitching his moving-to-Europe idea, was that once we settled on a base, we could easily travel around to other countries, introducing the kids to places we love and discovering new lands. Our Spring Break road trip last week gave us the opportunity to do a little bit of both. Our main destination, San Sebastian, Spain,(or Donostia in Basque, which is as prominent as Spanish since it’s one of the capitals of the autonomous community called the Basque Country) was new to all of us, and it ended up having something for everyone’s tastes – beaches and sunshine for me, an established food scene for Stefan, and a charming, if somewhat rickety, amusement park for the kids, all situated in a naturally and architecturally beautiful place.

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As a multicultural person, or more specifically a Cuban-American raised in Philly, married to a Frenchman, who’s lived in Spain and Italy, every trip to a new city automatically triggers a somewhat subconscious search for connection with its people, culture, and language. This eternal quest, which really filters down to trying to find the place in which you fit best in this big ol’ world, may or may not call to all exiles and immigrants and their children, but it definitely speaks to me. Do I look more like these people than the ones I grew up with? Do they speak my language? Do we think alike? Do they feel like family? Do they get me? Do I feel that undefinable, chemical-level connection with them? My intellect tells me that you can never have all of this with any one people, only with individuals, and at this point, I also know that I belong to an international tribe more than to any one nation, although I can feel fiercely American or Cuban, or even Latin American at times. But none of this stops my heart from trying to find a physical homeland, and envying just a bit those who were born into a people with a place of their own, that they love and feel is uniquely theirs.

In this endeavor, San Sebastian gave me a lot to mull over, but although my grandfather and most of my great grandparents were born in Spain, and Spanish is my family’s primary language, the international tribe member in me connected more with this city than any other part. It’s a wonderfully functional European city that, because of its status as a premier tourist beach destination for over 100 years, seems to be very culturally diverse, even if its resident population is mostly Spanish and Basque. It also has a vibrant art scene, beautiful historical areas, and as I mentioned above, a world class foodie culture.

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Located at the northeastern tip of Spain, just 12 miles from the French border, the natural landscape of the city, is dominated by rather dramatic hills and cliffs that face the Atlantic Ocean. The urban plan, architecture and landscaping of the town of just under 200,000 people, is striking in every neighborhood. The superb condition and upkeep of everything is shocking, maybe especially for us who live in an historical, but very poorly maintained city (Bologna.) The architecture of the city changes from building to building, a Paris-inspired Haussmann style structure sits between a baroque Spanish church and mid-century modern offices, German-like half-timbered apartments, are squeezed between 80s contemporary housing and a new brick and stone beach house.

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My Cuban side was tickled to be able to use Spanish instead of Italian as the main mode of communication, not because I dislike speaking Italian in any way, only because Spanish requires so much less effort. I’m noticing that listening and speaking in, day in and day out, a language that I’m just learning, requires an amount of energy that I don’t really realize until I don’t have to do it, then something in my brain relaxes and says aaahhhhhh! Although it’s not like the Spanish of Northern Spain, sometimes tinged with a Basque accent, is always easy to decipher with my Cuban ears, just as my rounded syllables and sing-songy Spanish sometimes leaves Spaniards looking confused.

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Likewise, the angular tanned faces and wide smiles of many residents reminded me of my “gente”. The palm trees in every shape and size, and the Spanish colonial architecture made it seem like so many Caribbean nations, and my name (Alvarez) on just about everything from buses to buildings also hinted of being at home. The kids noticed a level of kindness and warmth in the way people spoke to them that I thought was a great observation too. Zoel remarked that he may just feel that way because everyone reminded him of Nana and Abuelo (my parents), but I think they were on to something. Despite their reputation for being cold in the North of Spain, we found a wonderfully welcoming beach community in San Sebastian, and I’m sure the wind will blow us back there again some day.

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Italianissimos!

 

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You might have heard that Italians have an impassioned way of speaking and arguing. Actually, I just saw this Italian stereotype used to sell ice cream on the U.S.’s HuluPlus.  A fight erupts over groceries between a couple – she in her Sofia Loren ‘do, red lipstick and low cut, full-skirt dress, and he, in his dark tailored suit, crisp white and unbuttoned shirt, and dark close- cropped hair. They yell in Italian (subtitled in English) in a dimly lit kitchen, she pouts, he comes dangerously close, they spot the gelato, all is better as they share the ice cream between pouts and whispers. I also get how this Italians-argue-about-anything stereotype could grate on Italians the way the hot-blooded (“caliente” if you will) Latina stereotype irritates me. Since moving, I’ve only witnessed a few of these heated exchanges over a meaningless thing, one between drivers on the road, another between a couple on the street, and one directed at me by a ballet mom (after Leeloo hid another child’s sneakers). There is another aspect of Italian speech that’s much more telling about the culture and that’s on display much more regularly – just about every time I speak to an Italian. It is the ubiquitous “issimo” or “issima”, a word ending tacked on to just about every adjective, that very effectively and dramatically elevates the thing being described to a whole other level.

For example, when asked how an appointment went, it’s not “bene” (good or right), it’s almost always “benissimo!”. After a performance, the child is not “brava” (good), she is “bravissima!” And your outfit is not “bello” (beautiful), it is “bellisimo!” I have to admit, the issimo can really lift your spirits, after all, the speaker feels so positive about the subject that she’s willing to add a few syllables to her words, and toss them up into the air with a smile. I was truly floored when I got my first “bravississima!”. Look at all those s’s and all those extra syllables. It’s hard not to feel honored, right? Based on who uses it, I get the idea that this level of exaggeration is the domain of the younger, hipper set, trying to one up the older generation, and keeping the dramatic nature of Italian alive and well for the future.

But this “issimo” can be used for evil as well as good, as I learned recently when I went to a routine ultrasound check of one of my organs. Firstly, it was odd that the specialist himself was also the ultrasound technician. In the U.S., the separation of radiology from the actual doctors, seems akin to the theoretical separation between church and state. You go to a special department for your sonograms and speak to a nameless, mute technician, who, for fear of being sued for incorrect diagnosis (I assume) barely looks at you, let alone says anything, even when you ask direct questions. Here, on the contrary, I’ve visited two different specialists who march you over to their own ultrasound machine and launch into detailed  conversations as they bounce sound waves against your body parts, sometimes sharing more information than you really wanted to know. This is where the “issimo” can take a nasty turn. One particularly gregarious and, perhaps somewhat callous, doctor launched into a monologue about all the things that could go wrong with a particular condition. He didn’t talk about it being “brutto” (ugly), while probing, he expounded on all the ways it could become “bruttissimo!” Oh no, not what you want to hear as someone is examining you! (By the way, I’m fine. He just felt that this was the appropriate moment to show me how knowledgeable he was about his field.) He went on about how it can cause you to become not stanca (tired), but “stanchisima!”, how it can become not pericoloso (dangerous), but “pericolosissimo!”.  Okay, that’s enough. Stop speaking. Time to go.

Luckily, the “issimo” is generally unleashed for the good, and not the dark side. But in moments like the one above, my Latin American upbringing (talk about over-the-top expression!) and the Spanish language itself, give me enough context and perspective to see  all these “issimos” for what they actually are. A little flair, a little drama to add intrigue and fun to the mundane stuff that life throws at us adults every day, all day long. So no hard feelings Italianos. Va  benississimo!

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Police, SVU and My Too-Far-Away Friend

Listening to Gina as she navigated through her, um, adventure this week with the Italian Police (and now reading about it over on her side of the blog) got me thinking about all the different stories I could tell you about my own run-ins with the law here in America. Not that there have been many. (Hi, mom!) A speeding ticket in college, a busted-up keg party and a small fine (in college), the time a parade of New York City’s finest came streaming through Noah’s bedroom in Brooklyn when he was three. They ran past him, asleep in his toddler bed, and then climbed out of his window and onto the fire escape where a fugitive of one kind of another (probably a small time pot dealer who had wandered across the street from Prospect Park looking to unload) had climbed up and into the apartment above us.

I considered recounting the tale of the loathsome police officer who walks the beat here in Cold Spring–she’s a small town cop with a big-city ego who gives out scores of tickets every weekend (to the tourists who come to Main Street to eat and shop, and to the kids who ride their scooters down by the river without helmets). She’s reputed to hand over the penalties with a sassy and sinister sneer, “I guess I just ruined your day, huh?”

I also thought about the time a thunderous, gigantic and probably deranged German Shepard had been left by his owners for three days inside the downstairs apartment of the house I was living in and how the kind, gentle and very handsome sheriff I called to report the abandonment waited with me (and the wild dog who was careening against the window screens at us and bearing his teeth) until Animal Control came and took the wild beast away.

We Americans have wildly divergent opinions about authority figures and our judgements of law enforcement officers are probably the most inconsistent of all. We revere them (after tragedies) or vilify them (during protests) depending, of course, on our perspective of the matter at hand. There is usually little room for middle ground. To an extent, I have a similar maladjustment to the police’s omniscience in our world. I like to have cops around when I’m walking alone at night or when there’s a madman roaming the woods in the forest down the road (true story). But I want them to leave me alone when one of the brake lights in my car is out or I’m driving too fast on the highway upstate. It’s an unfair attitude, to be sure.

I will say that the scariest part of Gina’s story–for me–is the part about how she was alone with these guys at her house for two hours. For those of you who know Gina, she’s a woman of diminutive stature. Also, beautiful. And while I’m not suggesting she can’t kick some ass when she needs to (because she can kick some ass), it’s exactly these precarious situations that authority figures–like police officers with a van and guns–can put a person in that makes it so hard for me to completely buy in to their good intentions.

I think this doubt is what fuels one of my most often imbibed-in vices: binge watching Law & Order: SVU.

You know…the crime drama that touts the practice of highlighting sexually based offenses? I can consume a half dozen episodes of the show without pause. One after another, like a macabre freight train, they pass by me; car after car filled with gore and blood and bad news. Netflix has seasons 1-12 available with one touch to my iPad screen. On Tuesdays, TBS runs the show from dawn until midnight. It’s like a heroin delivery. Typically I choose Tuesdays to clean the house or do laundry so I can feed my habit, unchecked (I’ve found that cleaning toilets and folding clothes goes well with the story lines). It occurs to me as I write this that I root for Benson & Stabler to collar rapists with the same fervor that my mother rooted for Luke & Laura to fall in love. Interesting.

I’m curious about what it is about the series that makes it nearly impossible for me to turn away from it–even from episodes I’ve already seen four times. It could be unchecked consumption, after all this is America, but I think my devotion is more primal than that. Bearing witness to my nightmare Hollywood-created as it is, again and again and AGAIN dulls the edges of its terror somehow. And that leaves me feeling safe, until my next fix anyway. It doesn’t make sense, really, but I know that watching the show lulls me into a sense of security and, I guess, the belief that because Olivia is out there kicking ass, all police officers are good.

Sometimes I need to believe that.

***

I seem to have wandered off the point a little bit here–SVU? Really? While Gina is dealing with a very real horror & hardship that could, itself, be an episode of some kind of show? (I’m hoping, perhaps, that this whole thing will end up being sitcom-funny for all involved in a few months.)

Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the universality of our reactions and fears remain consistent no matter the language we’re speaking. And so does the impulse to help. It’s difficult for me to sit here and not be able to drive Zo & Leeloo to school (like I did when they had car issues here) or deliver a few bags of groceries. Or soup. Or offer to take Gina to the DMV (and lunch afterwards). I imagine, for her, it’s even more difficult to not be able to ask.

Here and There. Sometimes it seems so very, very close and yet other times…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cranky Pants at the Mercato

After a late night out to catch a show by jazz musician, Avishai Cohen, at Paradiso Jazz in San Lazzaro di Savena, I find myself bleary-eyed and wandering the aisles of Carrefour, our local giant supermarket. There may have been a time when a post-midnight date, and a pre-7am rise would not have devastated my body systems, but I can’t think back that far. Nowadays, the next day of usual activities – running to school before 8am, doing errands, working, meetings, making food, chauffeuring to after school activities, dealing with homework/baths/dinner/bedtime – becomes a pure hell, traveled through in a state of mental and physical exhaustion that utterly negates whatever fun was had the night before. Hence, the precipitous decline in such frivolous behavior.

So, wondering why I bothered, but knowing that somehow it’s helpful to spend time alone with your significant other doing things together that you once thoroughly enjoyed, I am dragging myself through this Walmart-sized place starting with the produce section, which is enormous, and full of lovely things. However, it involves donning this ill-fitting fashion accessory:

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No doubt a remanent rule of Mussolini-era fascism, you’re not allowed to touch anything without it. Sure, I could ignore the regulations but who wants to risk the scorn of the nonna in the tangerine aisle, who will not hesitate to tell me how unhygienic I’m being, maybe even hiss “schifosa” (revolting) at me?

Another thing that makes this the most time-consuming and tedious part of the food shopping experience is this infernal machine…

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and the Italian custom of having to mentally record the “tasto” number of each thing you choose, get to a scale, enter said number and weigh each item separately. When you have to do this with 10-15 items, it’s kinda painful. (I know, I know, first world problem, but I’m cranky!) Not only this, you’re also obliged to place each item, no matter how big or small, in a plastic bag. Feeling guilty about all the plastic in the world, as any good first world-er generally does, I’ve tried to get away with not bagging some things, only to have an annoyed check out lady scold me and send me running back to produce. Have these folks somehow missed the news about that giant island of plastic floating in the Pacific, or not tuned into the millions of recycling sermons out there? And don’t people wash this stuff when they get home anyway?

Since I know that this morning, it’s me and not them, I’ll finish up this post with some of my favorite parts of this store…

Beautiful veggies!

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Wheels and wheels of parmigiano reggiano and grana padano!

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Every kind of cured meat possible, including the giant piece in the front, pride of the region, mortadella, aka Bologna!

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