Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Baby in a Bar? In Italy, That’s Just How We Roll.

Over New Year’s, Paolo, Naomi and I spent about 10 days in Ireland and England. My husband and I both love pub culture, so we were looking forward to settling in for a few pints wherever we went. But since we don’t travel with an au pair, that would mean taking Naomi with us into pubs. Yet a little advance research clued me into the fact that for the British and Irish, it’s not normal to take kids into bars.

Of course we stopped at the bar right after our wedding! 
What? I suppose my shock at kids in bars not being a culture norm just goes to show how much I’ve acclimated to life in Italy. In Italy, especially, maybe, in small Italian villages like my own, the bar is not just a drinking bar. It’s not just a place to adults to go and mingle and get their drink on. And it’s certainly not a nefarious, smoke-filled den full of drunks crying in their beers (though that occasionally happens—and no, I don’t mean me!) and single hotties looking to hook up (though from what I hear, that occasionally happens, too).

In towns like ours, the bar is very much the center of village life. It opens early in the morning and serves up cappuccinos and cornetti (croissants). It may sell newspapers, cigarettes, bus tickets, and cell phone credit. It certainly sells candy, gum, chips and soft drinks, as well as ice cream. When there’s a community dinner or a raffle, we buy our tickets at the bar. When there’s a collection taken up for some charity, memorial or other event, we tuck our change and bills into a cardboard box perched on the bar. It really is the place where everybody knows your name, for better or worse. There’s no anonymity and you cannot get away with any bad conduct, lest the whole town hear about it, including your mother.
It all happens at the bar...

In the late afternoon, the usual suspects roll in for their apertivi—before dinner drinks. Some of them have a lot of those and stay way past their suppertime. But the majority have a glass or two and then head home. After dinner, a younger crowd trickles in. Sometimes they’re there to get drunk but most often as not, they’re there to get out of the house, hang out with their friends, and play foosball or briscola, that baffling Italian card game.

Naomi has grown up in our Allerona bar. She walks in like she owns the place, and now, at a chattering 3 years old, often demands to be taken there. “Andiamo a bar, andiamo a bar!” We often go to dinner in town, and we’ll stop in with her for a drink before dinner and then, as often as not, pass by after dinner for another. She takes it all in stride, as do the other bar patrons. They all fawn over her and usually, no sooner do we walk in before someone scoops her up and entertains her. 

No need to be tall enough to see over the bar to order a drink...
Hell, the bar is my babysitter! Did I really just say that? I think I did.

So picture us in Ireland and England, where bars, and evenings out in general, are the realm of adults. It was New Year’s Eve in Dublin, and we were sitting in our blah hotel room at about 9:30, trying to figure out how to kill time and stay awake until the clock struck midnight. There was a pub in the hotel (it’s most appealing feature, really), so I suggested we go down and nurse a pint or two until the New Year. We figured that worst case scenario, we’d be told that Naomi couldn’t stay in the bar, in which case she could sit in the lobby while we got our drink on in the pub.
But we DID take her to
the Guinness Storehouse...

Okay, I’m kidding about that last part…

We walked into the crowded pub, packed with New Year’s revelers and rocking to the strains of traditional Irish music. I asked the bartender if Naomi could stay and he replied, “Only if she can sing!” I signaled to Paolo that we were okay to stay, and ordered us two pints of Guinness.

And then, we both started to notice The Looks. We got the stink-eye from so many different Irish women, we instantly felt like the Worst. Parents. Ever. Paolo even saw a woman elbow her husband and point. He gestured to me to make a quick exit and we took our beers to the lobby, where Naomi played and we sat, waiting for it to be midnight.

After we got back to Italy, I recounted this story to my friend and fellow blogger Toni. She reminded me of that funny scene in "Sweet Home Alabama," when Reese Witherspoon bumps into a childhood friend:

Maybe Reese was right to be judgmental of her friend’s parenting skills, just like that elbowing and pointing Irish woman in Dublin. I probably would have judged me too, were this several years, a baby and an Italian village ago.

So next time I venture to Ireland, I’ll respect the cultural norms and keep my kid out of the pub after a certain hour. It’s really not such an outrageous rule, after all. But when it comes to our little bar in our little village, I will take no stink eye from anyone. Because in Italy, babies in bars is just how we roll…

Corrupting my child, one prosecco at a time...

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Going to the Doctor in Italy – Pathos, Schadenfreude and TMI

You all know I’m a fan of Italy’s healthcare system, and am no less so as of this writing. But going to the doctor in Italy, at least in Umbria, or at least in my village in Umbria, is a little like watching a Greek tragedy (the Romans copied that from the Greeks too, after all). And that’s just in the waiting room.

We live in a town of about 400 people, but I don’t know when the last reliable census was taken. Most of our residents are well past middle age. And in a small town like ours, everyone knows everyone else. They’re probably related by marriage or some distant cousin. Hell, we’ve only got like seven surnames in the whole town. Sometimes, just when I think I’ve got the Allerona family tree sorted out, I find out that two octogenarians are siblings, or that they shared a grandparent. And then I have to take out my mental eraser and redraw the family tree.

But back to the doctor. The way the system works here is that Dr. Marco keeps certain hours. Everyone knows what those hours are and if they need to see the doctor, they show up at his office during those hours. There are no appointments—it’s not even possible to make one if you wanted to. So beginning at 8:30, or 11, or whenever Dr. Marco is scheduled to show up, people start to file in the waiting room. They’re seen on a first come, first served basis and everyone respects the system. You walk in, ask, “Who’s last?” and in that way, you can keep track of when it’s your turn should more people show up after you. 

The waiting room can be quite crowded, or it can be deserted. Everyone prays that the nasty woman who has a “precedente,” a card that says she can cut the line, doesn’t show up and butt in front of everyone. She hobbles in on a cane, overweight and reeking of cigarette smoke (seriously lady, you might feel better if you stopped smoking and lost 50 lbs.), waves her card around the room and says “I go first!” as if anyone didn’t know. She’s the reason my husband doesn’t eat cheese, but that’s another story.

As one person exits the doctor’s office, another enters. If a person has been in with the doctor a long time, we all start to sigh heavily and exchange raised-eyebrow glances. If you’re seated in the right place, you can see a shadow move under the door when the person gets up to leave, and you can nod to the others.

The waiting room is where residents seem to come to share their general laments on life, the state of Italy, the condition of our town, etc. Seriously, I’ve never heard a positive word spoken within those four walls. Witness a conversation I listened to yesterday:

The town is dying. Every house is empty. God help us.
Of course it is. We’ve had seven funerals in two months. God protect us.
Have you been to mass lately? Three people there the last time, including the priest! Good God.
The town is dying. When the bar is closed on Monday, it’s quiet as a tomb up there. My God.
All the young people have gone. Why would they stay? Jesus Mary.
And the taxes. Good God.
And all these young people doing drugs. God protect us.
And that man in Rome who threw his baby in the Tiber. God help us.

I don’t participate in these conversations for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t have much to contribute to the pathos and two, they’re speaking mostly in dialect and it’s hard for me to follow along. I occasionally look up and smile and nod, then go back to playing some game on my phone while trying to look like I’m doing something important. (I’d check Facebook or send emails if I could, but there’s no phone signal in the waiting room.) Yesterday I said, “It’s cold in here,” as it seemed like I should somehow join in the complaining. “Un freddo della Madonna,” (a cold of the Madonna—a common expression but seriously, I don’t really know what that means) someone added.

Once in a while, someone will look at me and ask, “La bimba?” (the girl?), inquiring about Naomi’s wellbeing. Yesterday, I felt like I’d really crossed an important hurdle when I was able to share that she’s been very sick, and rattled off a colorfully-described list of her maladies, but that she’s doing much better now. God protect her. God bless her, sang the Greek chorus.

Most importantly, the doctor’s waiting room becomes the place to share one’s latest health woes, or those of a relative. And let me tell you, Italians do not hold back when they talk about their health problems, even—or especially?—when they’re gastrointestinal in nature, or, for women, related to their reproductive systems. I’ve heard of tales of tumors and phlegm and oozing sores, of faulty hearts and soaring blood sugar. I’ve heard vivid, vivid descriptions of shit—too much shit, shit of the wrong color or consistency, lack of shit, and hard-won shit. I once teased one of my family members about talking about shit (as opposed to talking shit, I guess) too much, and she was actually offended. “I’ll talk about shit if I want to!”

And then there’s the uteruses.

In a past life, I wrote medical coding newsletters for the billing departments of ObGyn practices. As a result, I have more than a layperson’s knowledge of problems and conditions of the female reproductive system, including uterine prolapse. For the uninitiated, uterine prolapse is basically when the muscles in the pelvic area no longer support the reproductive organs and things start to fall…out. It’s very common in women who have had multiple and/or difficult childbirths. One option for correcting uterine and other types of prolapse is a surgery that puts in a mesh-like sling to hold things in place. But these surgeries can fail over time, particularly if the woman engages in a lot of strenuous activity, say like picking olives or lifting sick and infirm husbands or fathers in an out of bed, shower, toilet, etc.

Suffice to say that several women in town, including a family member who shall remain nameless, have either opted not to have their uterine prolapse surgically corrected, or their sling surgery has failed, as my relative’s has. I sat in Dr. Marco’s waiting room one morning, recoiling in horror, as a trio of these women started comparing notes as to just how much of their uteruses had fallen out of their vaginas. One woman held out her hands, fingers and thumbs touching in a downward-pointing diamond, and said, “I’ve got a piece like this sticking out.” My family member said, “Oh shut up, some days I can barely walk.” “Oh my God,” said another, “don’t get me started.” (Please, please, don’t get her started…)

When she’s not complaining at the doctor’s office, my family member complains to me from time to time about her uterine prolapse, as it seems to come and go, or at least, wax and wane, depending on her activity levels. Every time she mentions it, I mumble something about how maybe she should see a doctor about getting that sling surgery redone. And then I excuse myself, race home and do some Kegel exercises. I’m hoping this ensures that in the future, when I sit in the doctor’s waiting room and watch for the shadow under the door, I’ll have neither a starring role nor a spot on the chorus line of our little Umbrian tragedy.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My Italian Driver’s License Part 2: A Scofflaw No More

So it’s been more than a month since I posted Part 1 of my Italian driver’s license saga. And it took me more than a year to get my license, three years after the deadline had expired for me to do so. Do you sense a theme here? Procrastination, thy name is Liz. Well that, and I’ve been busy driving.

You also have to memorize all these road signs,and all the rules that go with them.
Still, when I finally decided to get serious about getting my Italian driver’s license, it’s not as though I had smooth open road before me. Italian driver’s licenses are notoriously difficult to obtain, even for Italians. The reason for this is an extremely difficult written test, which consists of 40 true/false questions. That might not sound so bad, but consider that you can only miss up to 4 questions and still pass the test, and that there is a pool of more than 3,000 questions from which your 40 are randomly selected. So the only way to guarantee passing is to memorize each question. Each and every one.

Consider too that the questions are intentionally tricky. For every softball question like, “A helmet is not required for motorcycle passengers” (umm, false) or “If you see an old man with a white cane attempting to cross the road, but he’s not in a designated crosswalk, you must stop anyway” (umm, true), there are 10 convoluted ones, with excessive wording, double negatives and hyperbolic scenarios. There are hairsplitting questions that could easily go either way. A few examples:

- “The maximum speed limit for a vehicle up to 3.5 tons on secondary roads it is 90 km/h.” Umm, no idea. How much does my car weigh, anyway? - “In one second, a vehicle moving at 150 km/h travels 20 meters.” Seriously, this test requires math?
- “On motorways and main roads it is prohibited to drive bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles with a cylinder capacity less than 150 cc.” I need 150 ccs of prosecco, stat.
- “In case of accident or breakdown, the mobile triangular danger signal should be placed on the roadway so that it is visible at a distance of at least 50 yards from approaching vehicles.” Sure, I guess? But unless I was in one of those approaching vehicles, how would I know it was visible at least 50 yards? 

Did I mention that the test is in Italian? And that it’s timed? And that foreigners can’t bring with them an English/Italian dictionary or any kind of translating device. And that it’s in Italian? 

She needs a license, Godfather.
And she needs it now.
So many Italians have difficulty with the test that there is a huge black market for driver’s licenses, most likely controlled by the Mafia. If you know who to ask and you have the money, you can get a real, valid license, issued to you by a corrupt government official. “Go to Rome and buy one,” Paolo’s aunt told me. “How much is it?” I asked, though I wasn’t seriously considering an illegally obtained license. “Only 1,200 euro!” his cousin chimed in. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I replied. I’ll take my chances going legit.

I began studying for the test by taking online quizzes on one of the many free websites designed as study tools. I started slowly, but intensified my efforts in the Spring of 2013, when the cabin fever was getting to be just. too. much.

By July, I was passing more quizzes than I was failing, so I was starting to feel like I was ready. Paolo helped me get all my required paperwork together. This involved a form completed by my doctor saying I was of sound enough mind and body to drive. It involved an eye test. It involved several francobolli, or tax stamps, attached to various declarations, which were then stamped fervently by persons of authority. Then, it involved me getting to Terni, the seat of our province and about an hour away, to take the test. I’d arranged for a friend to drive me down, and I felt my chances of passing were at 80% or better. Except the night before, Naomi was up sick with a fever all night long, and I got no sleep. I arrived to the test site tired, agitated and with entirely too much caffeine in my system.

For the sake of brevity, let’s just say I failed the first test. Test results are posted in the testing waiting room, for all to see. Once the test proctor tacks the results on the bulletin board, all the nervous test takers gather round to see if they passed. So while a dozen or so teenagers squealed and jumped up and down and hugged and high-fived—fuck all those little ingrates, anyway—my heart sank in disbelief as I saw my name on the list, with the number of errors I’d made right next to it. I’d missed 7. Seven. I could only miss 4. I walked out and got in my friend’s car, and we rode in near silence on the way home. “It’s a dumb test,” he said now and then. “Even Italians fail it.”

After a brief period of mourning, I attacked my studies with renewed vigor. I switched to a different study website ( for those in need) and spent at least an hour a day studying. When I was missing no more than 1 or 2 questions per quiz, I felt I was ready to try again. 

Rather than wake up at 6 am to get to Terni by test time, Paolo and I left Naomi with her nonna and went down the night before and stayed in a hotel. I took an Ambien to make sure I got a good night’s sleep. We had a leisurely breakfast and arrived to the test site about 10 minutes before I was called in.
I was all ready to do this...

Still, on my second attempt, I walked out feeling like I probably hadn’t passed. I counted 7 questions I wasn’t sure of. I changed my answers back and forth on several of them. Paolo, who could watch the test takers on a closed circuit TV in the waiting room, saw me put my head in my hands several times. I walked out and looked at him defeatedly, shaking my head in dismay.

When the proctor came out about 5 minutes later with the results, I elbowed a few skinny teenaged girls wearing too much eye makeup out of my way. There was no number next to my name to tell how many questions I’d gotten wrong. That could only mean one thing—I had passed! I gave Paolo a thumb’s up from across the room, then checked the results again. Then one more time.

But my driving school instructor
was all ready for me to do this.
It took me weeks to actually believe that I’d passed the test. I would be driving somewhere with Paolo—I had my foglio rosso, or leaner’s permit now, and I’d announce, incredulous, “I still can’t believe I passed that test.”

In truth, I still can’t believe I passed that test. I’ve spent a lot of time in college studying for difficult tests, and none of them gave me the anxiety this one did, and none of them did I study so hard for as I did the test for my Italian driver’s license. Yes, I still had to attend driving school and spend a set number of hours behind the wheel with an instructor. I still had to take the physical driving test and pray that I had unlearned enough of my lazy driving habits in order to pass scrutiny. But the worst was over. So over. So completely over.

Valid until 2024, bitches!

Within a month, I had my Italian driver’s license. To say that my outlook on life in the Italian countryside has improved considerably is a bit of an understatement. I am back to being taxi driver for my female relatives who don’t drive. I’m back to running errands and taking Naomi for spins farther afield than Allerona Scalo. I’m back to having lunches and cocktails with friends in Orvieto, because I can drive myself there. In short, I’m back. And freedom is a beautiful thing, indeed.

Now I can do this again with my friends! 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Italian Driver’s License Part 1: House Arrest

Gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. I’m sure you all have been just dying to know what I’ve been up to. Well, between picking olives, baking birthday cakes, surviving gale force winds and piling extra blankets on the bed…I have been driving. Yes, I finally got my Italian driver’s license, and I’ve been driving here and there, to and fro, hither and yon. I’ve driven over hill and over dale. I’ve driven over the river and through the woods.

But getting my Italian driver’s license wasn’t easy, and, like any tale of mine, it didn’t happen quickly. In fact, it took so long that I’ve had to divide the written account of the saga into two parts. You lucky readers, you!

Part 1: House Arrest

I’ve been driving a car since I was 16 years old. I’ve driven up and down the East Coast of the US countless times, once with all my worldly possessions shoved into a Nissan Sentra, another time at the wheel of a panel truck, and still more times for vacations and family reunions. I’ve crossed national borders and driven through forests, swamps and deserts, logging thousands and thousands of miles at the steering wheel, sometimes with travel companions and sometimes alone.

But for the last year, I’ve not driven past Allerona Scalo, which is 5 km from my house. It’s not because I’ve lost my confidence, or my desire to drive. It’s because for the past year, it’s been illegal for me to drive past my driveway—and even driving in my driveway was illegal. But now, after a year of what felt like house arrest, I am now legal to drive in Italy again, and I’m finally ready to share my tale of woe.
A random "papers please" stop, and yes,
one of them usually has machine gun drawn. Seriously.

Let me start by saying that my tale of woe, like so many woeful tales, is All. My. Fault. About 6 months after I arrived in Italy, I was stopped by the carabinieri, or military police (not as scary as it sounds) who set up frequent traffic stops to “check for papers”—essentially to make sure you have a valid driver’s license and current insurance. I was told then that I had until February—one year from the date that I established residency in Italy—to get my Italian driver’s license. After February, my Florida-issued US driver’s license would no longer be valid. This was 2009. I had until February of 2010. It is now near the end of 2013. Do the math. Given that by this point I was beginning to fully assimilate into Italian culture, I did as the Italians would do. Which is to say, I did nothing.
It could happen anytime, anywhere, when you least expect it.

Last summer, June to be exact, I was stopped again, this time outside Orvieto. I innocently offered my US license and hoped for the best. “Where do you live?” he asked. “Allerona,” I replied. “Do you have another car?” Odd question, I thought. “My husband has a truck for work,” I told him. “Your husband is M____?!” “Siiiii!” I exclaimed joyfully, figuring I’d just dodged a bullet and promising never again to curse my small-town, everybody-knows-everybody-else chosen lot in life. The carabiniere was an old friend of Paolo’s. 

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t in trouble. He was incredulous—incredulous—that three years had passed and I still had no Italian driver’s license. It turned out that I was no longer legal to drive with my US license, and every moment I spent behind the wheel was pushing my luck, big time. If I was ever in an accident, my fault or not, our insurance would not pay damages and I could get tossed in jail.

He admonished me to get busy and get my license right away. If I were stopped again, the car could be impounded and I could be left on the side of the road, hoping I was somewhere with cell service as I contemplated a 1000 euro traffic ticket. So I promised the officer I would get right on it, and I drove off in a flurry of waves and grazie milles. And I proceeded to do nothing.
They're not all this handsome, mind you.

A few months passed, and my parents were visiting for Naomi’s baptism. On our way back from an outing, right before the turn off to Allerona Scalo, I got stopped by the carabinieri, again. Fuuuuuuuuuucccccc*****. I even said to my parents, “Oh this is not good.”

It was the same carabiniere friend of Paolo’s who’d stopped me before at Orvieto. “You still don’t have your license?” he fumed. “I’ve been studying,” I offered weakly. And the truth was, I had looked up some information online about how to get an Italian driver’s license. Maybe I’d even looked more than once. “But I stopped you three months ago,” he said. “It was two months,” I protested, my arsenal empty.
Pleading doesn't work, sister.

He looked in the car and saw my nearly 90 year old parents. He fumed some more.

“You cannot drive any more until you get your license,” he said. “Basta!
This would totally be me the next time I got stopped. 

That was a little more than a year ago. From that point on, I drove only as far as Allerona Scalo, along a stretch of road where I knew the carabinieri never laid in wait. When I had to do “big grocery shopping” at Orvieto, or get my hair done or see a doctor, I had to rely on Paolo or others to take me. And while I love my little village in Umbria, it doesn’t take long for cabin fever to set in, especially when you know you can’t escape for a few hours.

A few times I ventured past Allerona Scalo, when some absolute urgency compelled me to do so. But I always timed it when it’s been very, very hot (too hot for the carabinieri to be out), pouring rain (they don’t come out in the rain) or at lunch hour (nothing, not even escaped murderers on the loose, can force the rescheduling of the sacred Italian 1-2 pm lunch hour). And even then, when I knew I was relatively safe, I drove with my heart in my throat, terrified that at the next bend I’d encounter a traffic stop and have that little paddle waved at me, ordering me to pull over. So when I was brave or foolish enough to hit the open road, I’d always stay on the tail of another car, so that it would get stopped instead of me. And when a car turned off in front of me and all I saw was empty pavement ahead, I’d pull over, wait for a car to pass and then jump on its tail. We desperate and lawless types know our tricks, after all.
The thought crossed my mind, but violence is never the answer.

Still, Paolo was getting sick of driving me where I needed to go. I was getting sick of begging rides from other people, and doing all my shopping at our local grocer, which is smaller than your average 7-11. It was time to get serious about studying for my license, both for the sake of my sanity and the sake of my marriage.

Stay tuned for Part 2: A Scofflaw No More

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Best Lie I Ever Told My Mother

Note: This post has nothing to do with my life in Italy, but everything to do with my life. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and please share if you do.

My mother died in June of this year. And several years before her death, I told her a big lie. My dad knew I lied; in fact, he was in on it. My sister and brother knew, too. Now that she’s gone, I can finally talk about the lie, and why it was the best lie I ever told her.
At their wedding in 1949

When they became engaged in 1948, my father gave my mother a diamond ring. At just under a third of a carat, it was modest, and in proportion to his salary. It was a simple solitaire, and certainly not big enough to be showy or garish. She wore it, along with her wedding band, every day of her life. If she had to take her rings off—for a hospital stay or some injury to her hand or ring finger, she wouldn’t put them back on herself. She’d give them to my father, who would slip them back on her finger, just like he did for the first time when they married in 1949.

In the late 70s we lived in Florida, and my mother was a teacher’s aide at the elementary school I attended. One day at school, she realized her diamond had fallen out of the setting. She was beside herself with grief over losing it. She posted signs at the school and offered a reward. That same evening a janitor, while vacuuming, saw a tiny glint on the carpet in some classroom—my mom’s diamond. He returned it, and my parents gave him $100, though they didn’t have it to spare. I remember how kind the janitor was and how genuinely happy he seemed that he had found the stone; I imagine he would have returned it even with no promise of reward.

Sometime in the 1990s—I don’t remember when—she lost the diamond for good and took off the ring. Years passed, and I always yearned to replace the diamond for her, maybe because it was a symbol of all the things she and my dad had sacrificed and missed out on through the years. My dad, too, longed to get her another diamond, but we just couldn’t afford it. My mom said it didn’t matter, that it wouldn’t be her diamond anyway.

In what has always been a minor footnote for our family, my father was married once before. He and his first wife, Anne, were childhood neighbors and teenaged sweethearts. They married a month before he was drafted to go to war, and they filed for divorce shortly after he came home, three years later. They didn’t have any children. He met my mom a few years later, and they were engaged after a shockingly brief courtship.

My dad had bought a diamond ring for Anne, too. When they divorced, she gave him back the ring. He gave it to my grandmother, who had the stone reset into a cocktail-style ring, which I inherited when she died. I never wore the ring. It was old-fashioned and not really my style, so it sat untouched in my jewelry box.
Waiting for the subway, Paris, 2002

During one of the periods when my dad and I were trying to replace the diamond, I suggested to my mom that we take the stone from my grandmother’s ring—Anne’s diamond—and have it set in my mom’s ring. Oh no, my mom said. She didn’t want anything to do with Anne’s diamond. She didn’t say so out of spite or jealousy—my mother was virtually incapable of either—but just because she had no sentimental attachment to another woman’s diamond. And maybe knowing the details surrounding my dad’s divorce made her even less enthusiastic about the swap. So we once again tabled the idea of replacing the diamond.

In 2007, when my parents lived with me, I started to notice my mom’s memory slipping. She was always a bit forgetful, but now she was making gross errors, like overdrawing their checking account by hundreds of dollars because she’d forgotten about purchases and payments she’d made, or leaving something cook on the stove and walking away, until it started smoking and set off the fire alarm.

In summer of that year, she was diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s. The news was neither a surprise nor a shock, but still very hard for us all to accept given how these stories seem to end. My mom didn’t completely absorb the significance of her diagnosis, but I repeatedly assured her that it was in the early stages, and that she’d never get as bad as her sister or mother, both of whom had developed severe Alzheimer’s.

It was at this time that my dad got back on the idea of replacing her diamond. Maybe he was afraid of losing her to the disease, and before the woman he knew escaped from him completely, he wanted to reaffirm their love and vows with a new diamond. So my dad and I took her old, diamondless setting to a local jewelry and inquired about getting the stone replaced. The jeweler was sympathetic, but really didn’t have anything close to our modest price range.
On their last trip to Italy, for my daughter's baptism, 2012.
The rings are on her necklace.

And that’s when I decided to try the lie.

One evening when my parents were in their bedroom, watching TV in their matching recliners, I walked in with my grandmother’s ring. “What if we took the diamond from Grandma’s ring and put it in yours?” I proposed.

“But that’s your ring,” my mom said. “That’s the diamond from Grandma Heath’s engagement ring.”

My dad and I exchanged a secret nod.

“But I don’t really like the style of the ring,” I told my mom. “And besides, when you don’t need it anymore, you can leave it to me.”

The jeweler was more than happy to help us with this solution. Setting the new old stone meant rebuilding the setting a bit—Anne had apparently gotten a slightly larger diamond than my mom did—but the final cost was a fraction of what we would have spent for a new stone.

When the ring was ready, I drove my parents to the jewelry store to pick it up. My mom took the ring, handed it to my dad, and had him slip it on her finger. They kissed as the ring slid into place, over her gnarled knuckle and up her arthritis-bent finger.

In the weeks afterwards, I’d catch her holding out her hand, admiring her diamond ring. She gushed like a schoolgirl about it when a neighbor came to visit, and told my siblings how nice it was to have her engagement ring back on, even if it was Grandma’s diamond. When her knuckles finally became too swollen to wear the rings safely, she wore them on a chain around her neck and when my dad died, she wore his wedding band there, too. Three months later, she no longer needed the rings. She died in the US and I am in Italy but when we go back to visit next year, her diamond ring will be waiting for me.

Alzheimer’s allowed my mom to rewrite a tiny little bit of our family history. Maybe if prodded enough, she would have remembered that the diamond was originally intended for the woman my father loved before he loved her. But neither my dad nor I, nor either of my siblings was about to remind her of that. She had her diamond. And I was more than happy to let her live with that lie.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

5 Crucial Mistakes Expats Make in Italy

Sometimes, it's like this.
I am the first person to admit that life in Italy is not always a bed of roses. Or rather, it is a bed of roses, but someone neglected to remove the thorns. So, just as you get comfy and cozy on this sweet smelling bed, you get pricked, and it hurts. Then, you curse the bed and the whole idea of the bed and whose idea was it to lie down in this stupid bed anyway and why can’t it be like all the other beds and why isn’t it like my old bed back home?

But this isn’t any old bed. It’s made of roses, after all, and that don’t make beds like that where you come from. And that’s why you laid down in it.
Sometimes, it's like this.

I know I write from a privileged position. My emigration to Italy and more importantly, my transition to life here, were made infinitely easier by the fact that I married an Italian. This enabled me—forced me, really—to learn the language, the customs and the culture. It taught me patience and perseverance, and it thickened my skin—a lot.

So maybe it’s because of this position that I can observe a lot of mistakes that I see my fellow expatriates make in Italy. And I’m not talking about the newcomers—I mean the people who have been here for years, decades even.  I doubt that it’s easy to relocate to any country, especially when that country’s language is not your mother-tongue. But I’m gonna judge my fellow Anglo-Saxons here a bit, so brace yourselves for the top five crucial mistakes expatriates make in Italy.

So maybe you're expecting this...

And instead, you get this.
Seriously scary...
1. They don’t learn the language. This one seems like it should be fundamental, and yet... too many expatriates don’t ever learn Italian sufficiently to function here, or at least to function smoothly here. Outside of cities and touristic areas, Italians as a rule, even young Italians, do not speak English. This isn’t France, after all, where they speak it and just pretend that they don’t. The result is that English speakers get frustrated, often. It’s delightful to fumble through a discussion in Italian when you’re at the bar or the produce market, and you can laugh, gesture and makes faces to help make yourself understood. Try doing that on the phone with the cable company, or the gas company, or when trying to make an appointment to get some important medical test run. Hell, it’s brought me to tears before, and that was with Comcast, in the US!

The first year I was here, every time I needed to make such a call, I’d try handing the phone to Paolo and get him to call for me. He soon started handing the phone right back to me, and I’d whine like my toddler does when she doesn’t get what she wants.  But he was right to make me talk on the phone. I have expat friends who still have to have someone—often me—call for them or be present to translate when they need to talk to the gas company or request service from their internet provider or speak to a contractor. When they try to do it on their own, as often as not, disaster ensues, because they thought they were explaining what they wanted or understood what was being told to them, and they were wrong.

This is what I call "Italian by immersion."
2. They stick to their own kind. See item #1. You can’t learn Italian if you speak English all day long. This is understandably more challenging for couples, who speak English to one another all the time. But the end result is most of them never sufficiently learn Italian. And beyond the language skills, they don’t integrate fully with their communities. In larger towns, they are the Americans next door who wave at their neighbors and say buongiorno but little else; in smaller towns, they are the curious stranieri whom the locals tolerate, may even like, but really don’t understand. And the reverse is also true. An expat who doesn’t socialize with Italians, invite them to dinner and accept invitations, participate in community festivals and pitch in and lend a hand where possible is never going to integrate into Italy. I’ll admit that stranieri in Italy are always going to be looked on as stranieri—I’m Paolo’s wife but I’m still always “la Americana.” But you don’t become part of a community while sitting in your living room talking to your spouse in English.

You can fight it, or you can embrace it...
3. They expect Italy to accommodate them. I spent several summers in Italy before moving here permanently four years ago. During those summers, I learned two things about how to cope with a culture and attitudes so very different from “back home.”  1. Accept that Italy is not a service-oriented culture, and 2. Suspend your expectations.

Expats who come here expecting good customer service, whether it’s in a restaurant or clothing store or on the phone with Sky Italia are going to get very frustrated, very quickly. I’m not saying it’s right that Italy is like this; I’m just saying that it is, and that it’s not going to change for a tableful of whiny Americans upset because they can’t get extra cheese on their pasta. In America, it is the norm to ask for extra cheese, expect free refills and happily exchange pleasantries with a bank teller, salesperson or customer service rep. But in Italy, these people do not give a fuck about you. Maybe they don’t in America either, but here, they don’t even try to fake it. 

Italy is far from perfect,
but you don't see this just anywhere...
That brings me to my second point, about suspending your expectations. Expats who come here expecting that things will go smoothly, according to their wishes and in a timely manner will be disappointed, every time. Italians themselves do not have these expectations, ever. On the plus side, when you abandon these expectations, on the rare occasion when things do happen in a smooth, timely manner and according to one’s wishes, it’s all the more gratifying since it is so rare.

4. They expect to change the culture. We all came here because we love Italy, right? And then after a while, we discover there are many unlovable things about Italy. At the top of my very long list is hunting, poor treatment of domestic animals, littering, and an every man (or woman) for himself attitude. The truth is, some of those hunters are our friends and family and while I may not like what they do, they are not monsters. So I just wince every time a shotgun goes off during hunting season—which where I live is pretty much all fall and winter—since I can’t stop the hunters from hunting.  I’ve ratted out my neighbors to the veterinary police, and I’ve picked up other people’s garbage. These are the things I can control.

Sure, there are things you can't get in Italy,
like a big American breakfast.
What I can’t control is how Italians do business, what time they eat, how complicated it is to get a driver’s license, or their exaggerated sense of the bella figura (essentially, saving face). Yet I have an expat friend who hosts his dinner parties at 6:30, wants to write letters to every state agency with which he’s been frustrated (and I’m guessing that’s a lot of letters), expects his Italian business colleagues to adjust to his very aggressive, very American style of doing business, and will regularly send restaurant food back if it’s not exactly to his liking. I’ve told him before and I will tell him again: you’re not going to change Italy, and Italy isn’t going to change for you.

5. They compare cultures—way too much. Yes, I miss peanut butter, Mexican food (fellow expat blogger Toni DeBella and I are of a like mind here), TJMaxx, air conditioning and customer service. Yes, I will, in conversation with Italians, occasionally and quite carefully say something like, “You know, in America, maybe we do ___ a little better than in Italy.” But expats who constantly wax nostalgic about how much more orderly, efficient, friendly, affordable, cleaner and less corrupt their home country is make me wonder why they left.
Or a gratuitously large burger...

I’ve noticed too that this waxing nostalgic (which is really just my nice way of saying “complaining”) has a snowball effect. Before you know it, you find yourself among a group of expats who are condemning just about everything about Italy and Italians—from how they drive, dress, smoke, drink, eat, probably even how they have sex. (For the record, in my limited experience, I have no complaints about the latter.) By doing the group lament, expats put even more space, more “otherness” between themselves and their adopted countrymen and women. It’s negative, isolating, and completely counter to their presumed mission of feeling happier and more at home in Italy.

Then again, maybe I’m lucky. Every time I start to miss the USA, another mass shooting occurs in the land of my birth, and I’m glad I live in a far less violent, trigger-happy, inexplicably prideful nation. I’m glad I live in a country and a continent that doesn’t poison bees and consider protest an act of treason. Sure, I still love the USA and I do miss it at times. But I made my bed of roses, and I’m willing—grateful, really—to lay in it, thorns and all.
But you don't get sh*t like this
just anywhere, either.

Monday, August 19, 2013

11 Things I Love About My Village in Umbria

I’ll admit it—I've been a bit down on Italy lately. I’m sure that’s attributable to a number of things, first and foremost being the loss of both my parents this year. Despite having a husband, child, house, in-laws and pets here, the deaths of my parents has left me feeling like I somehow don’t have a base. That, combined with the grueling heat of an Italian summer, my continued frustration with obtaining my Italian driver’s license and a host of other minor annoyances has left me, frankly, with very little positive to say about my adopted homeland.

But rather than write a blog post recounting all the things I don’t like about living in Italy, I challenged myself to come up with a bunch of things that I love about living in Italy, particularly in my little corner of Italy. As it turns out, if one looks through the right shade of glasses, it’s not so hard to find the good things about living here. (Cue collective awws, please.)

So in no particular order, here are some of my favorite things—at the moment, at least—about life in my little village in Umbria.

1.       Summer visitors. Allerona is a small, sleepy town where about half the houses stand empty most of the year. But that all changes in July and August, when those homeowners come for their summer sojourns. There are more of them this year, no doubt because of Italy’s economic crisis. Allerona may not seem like much of a vacation in the high heat of August, but compared to Rome, it’s downright Arctic at our elevation. All those out-of-towners fill the bar and the piazzas and they patronize our few stores and they just liven up the place. I’m sorry to see them go.
Mario the cat is among our esteemed summer guests.
Photo by Frank Clemente
All them outtatowners keep the bar jumping.

2.       The stand. On summer weekends, Allerona’s volunteer cultural group, the pro loco, opens its “gastronomic stand” adjacent to our community tennis court and soccer field. While “gastronomic” might be a bit of an overstatement, the stand is a fun place to eat dinner and socialize with friends. There are kids and dogs and balls for Naomi to play with, and someone is always willing to entertain her for a while so Paolo and I can eat.
The stand is run by volunteers,
including Paolo's sister, Anarita.

3.       The bar. While I like bars in general, I have a special affection for our Bar Antico Borgo, and I finally found the place where everybody knows my name! Whether we go for prosecco or gelato (and let’s face it, it’s usually prosecco), there’s always someone we can chat with and—are you sensing a theme here—always someone wanting to play with Naomi. When we’re at the bar and someone asks me where my kid is, my favorite response is “I don’t know.” But she’s never far away, and she’s always in good hands. And did I mention that a prosecco costs just 1.60?
Someone's watching out for her, right?
Future bartender in training

4.       The festas. Summertime in particular is the season for several nice parties in Allerona. We recently ate dinner with about 150 of our closest friends at the piazza dalla chiesa, on an evening so blessedly cool we needed long sleeves. Even better than that, the pro loco, along with our summer theatre program, organized a fairy tale festival for the little ones, which featured costumed performers acting out classic fables in the candlelit alleys and little piazzas all over town. Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental, but it was a sweet, magical event.
At dinner in our ancient piazza.
Photo by Sonia Catania Volpi
Portrait of the artist as a young woman
 - Naomi at a children's festa

5.       My mother-in-law’s orto. Just about everyone with a square meter of free land plants an orto, or vegetable garden, in the spring and reaps the bounty come summertime. So instead of searching in vain for organic produce in the grocery store, I can just go pick my own chemical-free tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, zucchini (OMG do we have zucchini), green beans and fresh herbs in Franca’s backyard. Our uncle brings us huge bunches of red grapes, and we know where all the good plum trees and blackberry bushes are. I will admit though, I’m running out of ideas for how to prepare zucchini.
Better than Whole Foods


Fresh-picked plums from a secret tree

6.       Lake Bolsena. Sure, in Florida I had the Gulf of Mexico, which wasn’t too shabby. But here, just a half hour or so away, I’ve got Lake Bolsena, one of the cleanest, deepest lakes in Europe. When I’m standing in neck deep water I can see my toes very clearly, and it’s nice to know I’m swimming in the same water in which the Etruscans used to bathe. They probably peed in it too, but that’s okay; I’m happy to dive in anyway, as is Naomi. Check out Susan Morgan’s recent blog post, which describes all sorts of things to love about Bolsena.
Descendants of the Etruscans take a dip.
Swimming and sunning make a girl thirsty!

Under the Etruscan moon...

7.   This guy.

8. I never need look far for a babysitter. 

9. Sometimes, this is my view. 

10. Other times it's this.

11. And best of all, it's this. 
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Ladish

So, there you have it, a short and by no means complete list of the things I love about living in our village, my village. As long as it stays longer than the list of things I don’t like about living in Italy, then I’m staying put.