Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Hospital Stay in Italy: Don’t forget to pack toilet paper!

This week’s blog was going to be about cursing in Italian, but it turns out fortune had other plans. Last Friday afternoon, our 2-month old daughter, Naomi, was sleeping peacefully while Paolo and I were eating lunch. From nowhere, she began what appeared to be a small seizure—her legs and arms shook violently and her head tilted back unnaturally; it appeared she was choking and could not breathe. I grabbed her and turned her on her stomach, slapped her on the back several times, and then put my finger in her mouth out of fear she had swallowed her tongue. She resumed breathing normally, and never even woke from her sleep. The entire episode last 15 seconds, maximum. It only felt like a lifetime. We called her pediatrician, who told us to take her to the pediatric ward of the hospital to have her checked out.

Which brought me to my latest experience with the Italian healthcare system.
Let me start by saying I am a fan of Italy’s national health system, and of socialized medicine in general. I’ve lived half my life in the US, and I’ve either skipped or paid out of pocket for needed medical procedures when I was uninsured or underinsured  (ah, the caprices of self-employment). For years, I advocated for my elderly parents, whose Medicare and Medigap insurance very often left them with deductibles they could not pay. I wrote letters asking for their medical debts to be reduced or forgiven. I phoned lists of doctors and specialists, searching for one who would accept their insurance. I negotiated payment plans with hospitals. All this for a couple that actually has health insurance. So when presented with the notion that of all a country’s citizens, regardless of their ability to pay, are entitled to free and/or affordable, quality healthcare, then yes, that’s an idea I can get behind.

Naomi in her hospital bed. Not happy.
My experiences with healthcare in Italy have been overwhelmingly positive. The care is thorough, modern, and attentive. Wait times are manageable, even if a lot of Italians think otherwise. (Any time I’m waiting to have some lab work done or to pick up a prescription at our hospital, and an Italian complains about the wait, I always defend the system, and tell him or her that in the US, you can wait just as long and then get handed a bill you can’t afford to pay, something that simply doesn’t happen in Italy.) When we took Naomi in last week, we were seen immediately, and she was admitted for monitoring within an hour. The pediatricians ordered a number of tests that would have had me hearing “cha-ching” in the US.  She stayed in the hospital and was monitored closely for three nights, then finally sent home with meds and an appointment to follow up in a week, and no bill.
And I can go on. When my husband broke his foot (he fell down a flight of stairs while trying to kick me in the butt, but that’s a story for another blog), we were in and out of the ER, with a cast, in less than two hours. No bill. When I had Naomi via C-section and stayed in the hospital for four nights, a nurse showed up to help me any time she cried for more than 2 minutes. No bill. Cancerous tumors, malignant moles, dialysis, you name it, Paolo’s family has faced it and overcome it, thanks in no small part to the quality of healthcare in Italy. And with no bills.  

But…here’s what you don’t get in public hospitals in Italy. A doctor with a bedside manner. A comfortable bed. A room with a fresh coat of paint. Marginally edible food. A knife, a fork or a coffee cup. Toilet paper. Yes, that’s right, toilet paper.
I should qualify my words by saying that this is my experience at one public hospital—I won’t name the hospital but readers who know my geographic location can figure it out—but I’ve been led to believe that this is typical of most public hospitals in Italy. The care is top notch; the comfort is bare bones.

So, if you find yourself having to stay overnight at a hospital in Italy, pack silverware and a coffee cup, because these will not be provided for you. Nor will paper towels or napkins. Pack toilet paper, because although there’s a clean and sanitary bathroom attached to your room, it won’t have toilet paper. Pack a comfy pillow if that’s a priority for you. Pack some snacks and maybe a salt shaker; because the food you’ll be served makes melba toast seem like a flavor explosion.
But most of all, pack your thick skin and your sense of humor. Because while customer service is never a priority anywhere in Italy, nowhere does it seem less so than in its hospitals. You’ll be well cared for from a medical perspective, but most of the doctors, nurses, technicians and support staff you encounter will make it quite well known that they don’t give a flying f**k whether you are comfortable or not, whether your questions have been answered, or whether you feel like the Worst. Mother. Ever. (In fact, I believe that feeling is encouraged.)

So with that in mind, here are my parting words for a few of the healthcare providers and workers I encountered over the last three days:

·       To the doctor who scoffed at me (I mean really scoffed!) when I told her that I bought organic baby formula for the times I occasionally need to supplement my breast milk: maybe you want your kid to drink milk from factory-farmed cows pumped full of growth hormones and pesticide-laden grains. I do not.

·       To the cleaning lady who came into our room at 6:45 am and told me I had to get out of the folding cot I was sleeping on and put it away: thanks for turning on all the lights and waking my baby. Next time you can breastfeed her, change her diaper and sing her back to sleep instead of just letting her sleep an extra hour or two.

·       To the cleaning lady who came in at 6:45 the next morning and commenced yelling at me because the bed was not folded up (I was still in it, nursing Naomi), yet refused to fold it herself and yelled at me some more when I moved to a chair: I’m sorry you have such an unhappy life that you have to try to ruin everyone’s day with your dictatorial attitude, but my baby comes first.

·       To the doctor who completed an ultrasound of Naomi’s brain: “O Dio” is not the thing to say when you’re doing an ultrasound of a baby’s brain and her parents are standing by. Next time you hit the wrong button on the machine, please, just say “whoops” instead.  

And my final words to all those I encountered during our hospital stay: Thank you for taking care of my baby. Thank you for being thorough, for leaving nothing to chance and for looking for all possible causes for her choking incident. Thank you for not rushing us out of the hospital because you had the finance department breathing down your neck, worried about whether we could pay our bill. Thank you for not telling me that the tests or treatments Naomi needed were not covered by our insurance. For all of that, I can accept your toilet-paperless bathrooms, your bad attitudes, your crappy food and your absent bedside manners. But for God’s sake, lighten up a little bit. They say laughter is the best medicine, after all. 

All better at home, with Daisy the dog keeping watch.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Saturnia: Roman bathtubs and bourgeois pee

The approach to Saturnia

Somewhere stumbling around the Internet, I must have seen a photo or two of the thermal waters of Saturnia, and I convinced Paolo that we needed to go see this natural wonder ourselves. The terme (baths) of Saturnia lie in the Maremma, the wild, wonderfully rough around the edges range of southern Tuscany. Now I know what you’re thinking, this blog is supposed to be about life in Umbria, but every once in a while I have to give poor, underrated Tuscany its props. (Of course I kid; if anything, Umbria is the red-haired stepchild of her more visited, better known and better groomed neighbor, Tuscany [said with a longing sigh, for emphasis]). Saturnia’s 37.5°C (99.5°F) waters bubble from deep underground, form a narrow, rushing thermal river, and then cascade over a fan-shaped series of travertine pools, whose edges have been softened over the millennia to resemble thick cake frosting. Water overflows from one series of pools to the next in fast-moving waterfalls one can sit underneath – Nature’s version of a hydro massage. With an old millhouse and the Maremma countryside as a backdrop, the steaming, crashing waters of Saturnia are a truly ethereal sight.

But reading about Saturnia is sort of like reading about an orgasm – until you experience it in person, you’ll never really know what you’re missing.

Yet when I announced to Paolo’s Aunt Maria our intentions to visit Saturnia, she balked. "The terme or the cascate (waterfalls)?" she asked. The distinction here is that the actual source of the thermal waters is in private hands, and a sleek modern spa sits right on top of the spring. So only paying customers get to sample the waters as they surge directly from the Earth’s core. (Well, maybe not from that far down, but from pretty far down there…) The water exits the spa and flows into the above-mentioned thermal river and cascades. These are essentially the cheap seats – one can just park the car nearby and wade right in. Maria’s inquiry was one of hygiene; she thought it distasteful that we would choose to sample the free waters of Saturnia, i.e., the ones that the paying guests had already soaked, sloughed, exfoliated and yes, possibly, peed in. 

The thermal river at Saturnia.
Doesn't that water look swift?
We left a smirking Maria and set off anyway, vowing that there was no way we’d pay to soak in the same water we could sample for free just downstream. Saturnia’s waters have been known since at least Etruscan times, and archaeological evidence in the nearby town of Saturnia shows the existence of a Roman settlement – one of the Empire’s many spa resorts in this seismically active peninsula. Did the Etruscans pay to bathe in Saturnia’s waters? I don’t think so. Did the Roman centurions have to pony up a €22 day use fee to soothe their war weary gams? Hell to the no. So what was good enough for the Romans was good enough for us.

Paolo finds his shorts
And the all too brief time we spent at Saturnia was divine. We first tried our luck in the thermal river, which is perhaps 10 feet wide at its widest part. The water moves through here at such a pace that to keep from being sent headlong down the shallow, rocky stream, you have to prop your feet, knees locked, against a submerged rock or tree trunk and enjoy the intensely pounding water on your neck and shoulders. Intrepid bathers have tied ropes here and there, as a means of either hanging on for dear life or for pulling oneself out of the water. At one point, Paolo did actually lose his foothold and went surging downstream past me, a look of bemused terror on his face. I clung to a frayed rope and contemplated becoming a widow very early on in my marriage, and considered what assets might be left behind when fortunately (especially since Paolo has so few assets), he bobbed to the surface, unharmed but sans swimtrunks, in a pool just below. 

Once we clung and crawled our way out of the river we moved down to the waterfalls, a much less harrowing way to have a warm soak. Known as the Cascate del Mulino, each mini-waterfall has carved out a marble bathtub underneath it, so one need only find an available tub in which to soak away all those fearful memories of floundering in the whitewater river. Or instead, let a crashing waterfall palpitate neck and shoulders, while those suckers at the spa upstream pay €50 and up for the same service, minus the great scenery and no doubt administered by a mustachioed, grim-faced, former Soviet-bloc matron.

Paolo and I left Saturnia vowing to return as soon as possible. I have admit, that was more than a year and a baby ago. Now when we return, we’ll be a threesome. We’ll have to skip the rushing river and even the waterfalls, as Naomi is still a bit small for either. And I suppose I’ll have to put her in a pair of rubber swim trunks, lest I risk the dirty looks of other bathers who don’t want to soak in baby pee. But I wonder if any of them have ever considered that they’re soaking in bourgeois pee, anyway.

Cascate del Mulino at Saturnia, AKA, the cheap seats
For more info on Saturnia’s free waters, visit: http://www.cascate-del-mulino.info/en/

Kidding aside, the private terme of Saturnia http://www.termedisaturnia.it/en/
is quite lovely, and offers a much more refined way to take a dip. And I’m sure no guests ever really pee in the water. Nope, never.

There are many reasons to love Susan Morgan’s blog, Half Year Italian, but my #1 reason is this sentence: "The relationship between Tuscany and Umbria can best be summed up by saying that the Umbrians think the Tuscans are snots, and the Tuscans think the Umbrians still go around in animal skins." Read more at: http://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/local-pride-part-i/

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Park Bench Clench

In an earlier post, I alluded to kissing someone other than Paolo on a park bench at Lake Bolsena. So, lest anyone think I've been recently kissing someone other than my husband, let the record show that a) the kiss occurred BP (Before Paolo), and, b) as the following will recount, I was an unwilling participant.

But first, some background. In Italy, it is quite normal for unmarried people to live at home with their parents, well into their adult decades. Single Italian men and women with their own domiciles are still a rarity here. And while most parents are content to have their grown children living at home (though no doubt worried that they've not met a nice girl or boy and gotten married), at least one Italian couple sued to evict their 41-year-old, gainfully employed son, citing the mother's exhaustion at having to cook, clean and iron for her bamboccione or "big baby."

Sunset at Lake Bolsena, prime make-out time
The upshot of this cultural norm is that when two unmarried, adult Italians want some romantic time together, they get busy on park benches, or they get really busy in parked cars, since they obviously can't get busy at home. So, if you stroll around the ruins of the Roman Forum after dark, enjoying the moody solitude of the dramatically lit columns and arches and imagining yourself a slave or a Caesar, just don't wander too near any benches or parked cars or you're likely to get an eyeful.

But I realize this doesn't explain how I wound up on a park bench at Lago di Bolsena. In my first couple of weeks in Orvieto (remember we are still BP), as happy as I was to be there, I was a little bit lonely. I took a lot of walks, exploring the narrow streets and alleys of the medieval centro, and when I needed to communicate with colleagues and friends in the States, I went to a very elegant cafe that sold Internet access for €5 per half hour (and that summer the euro peaked at $1.65 - ouch!). When I complained to the barrista, Ricardo (names have been changed to protect the lecherous) that the clock counting down my 30 precious minutes ticked too fast, that seemed to pique his interest. I got a free half hour and a cappuccino on the house. A few visits and several €5 later, I decided that the remedy for my loneliness was to make some Italian friends, so I handed Ricardo my business card. I wasn't terribly attracted to him in a romantic way, but he spoke a little English and seemed to know everyone in town, so I thought he'd be a good person to befriend.

At Lake Bolsena with my friend Barb, who did not try to kiss me.
On our first outing, I met him at the cafe, and we walked (no, trotted, really) briskly to his car. As we drove out of Orvieto, it occurred to me that I didn't really know this man and had no idea where he was taking me. We soon wound up at Lake Bolsena (Lago di Bolsena), a pristine lake formed by a volcanic crater, the former contents of which make up the tufa bluffs on which Orvieto and the surrounding hill towns are built. The lake is deep, cold, clear, ringed by picturesque little towns, and lined with bars restaurants and, you guessed it, park benches.

So Ricardo led me to a park bench, presumably to take in the sunset views. Before I had a chance to say, "how pretty", he turned to me and asked, "You like me, si?" I think I answered something like, "Um, okay," and on that, he descended with full on aggressive machismo. I was pinned against the park bench in a surprisingly toothy and tongue-y liplock, one hand clutching the back of my neck and the other moving with lightning speed to my right breast. I wrestled his hand away, he came up for air, and thank goodness I knew how to say, in Italian, "Troppo presto!" (I thought that meant "too fast" but it actually means "too soon." However, my point was made.)

Ricardo retreated to his side of the bench, dejected. Given that I hadn't planned on kissing him or anyone else that day, I'd worn a goodly helping of bright red lipstick for our appointment. Most of that lipstick was now smeared across his thin lips, making him look something like a drag performer in mid-preparation for the stage. That I stifled a laugh probably didn't do much for his ego. I told him he had lipstick on this mouth and began searching my purse for a tissue. He told me not to bother, but I told him he really, really needed to clean it off. No tissues to be found, I pulled out a cash register receipt (hmm, maybe it was for €5 worth of Internet access) and he dabbed with that.

Worried that he might descend for another big grope, I initiated a discussion about Italian politics, of which I knew next to nothing. I think Ricardo realized that his chances were now nil, and he spoke half-heartedly about the political left and right in Italy, as I gazed intently at his lipstick stained mouth, which now took on the appearance of a sad clown mouth. Our conversation was brief. He announced that he had somewhere to be and that we had to return at once to Orvieto. On the way back, I asked him the names of various of trees and crops we saw on the drive, but I'm pretty sure he was just making up his answers.

I soon found another cafe with WiFi service. There, the cost of Internet is neither €5 per half hour nor a copped feel. You just have to buy a drink or a snack and the Internet is free, no park benches attached. A month or so later, I met Paolo, a grown man with his own apartment (though his mother still did his laundry).

A swan at Bolsena. He too was a bit agressive.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Harvest, a Burial, and a Resolution

My first return trip to Italy to visit Paolo occurred in September of 2008. Though we'd already pledged our love to one another, during the two short weeks we'd been together in July, we did what most new couples do - we drank a lot of wine and had a lot of sex. So there was a lot riding on this first visit back. We'd already discussed linking our destinies together, but talk is one thing and action quite another. There were 4,000 miles and an even larger language gap between us. Could this relationship evolve into more than just kissy faces exchanged on Skype?

A week into my two week stay with Paolo in Allerona, I still wasn't so sure, nor, do I expect, was he. We were getting along, but there were awkward moments and often too much silence between us. (See paragraph #1: language gap.) We'd spent a night or two with his cousin in Rome, whom I found too rough around the edges (I now have great affection for him), and I felt Paolo reverted to a teenager in his presence. Back in Allerona, Paolo was working so I was alone in his apartment a lot, sending emails and Facebook posts to friends back home. Inside, I was wondering if my Italian honeymoon was already over.

Then on a Thursday afternoon, Paolo came home from work early and told me that he feared one of his friends was dead. I hugged him because I didn't know what else to do, and because I sure couldn't, at that point, offer any comforting words in Italian. I was able to discern that his friend Stefano had not come home the night before, hadn't been seen and was not answering his cell phone. Paolo set off with three other friends to go look for him. I think they knew what they were going to find.

Stefano had parked his car on the side of a gravel road in the forest above Allerona. His dog (very much alive) was in the car, I guess because he did not want to spend his last living moments completely alone. Leading into the woods, he left plenty of clues for his friends to follow: his jacket, his cigarettes, his phone, his car keys. He had hanged himself from a tree limb. His friends took him down, called the carabinieri, and waited for the ambulance to come and retrieve his body.

Afterwards, I was again at a loss for words (quite literally) to comfort Paolo. I hugged him again, but my gesture felt impotent. The distance between us seemed even larger, made more so by our lack of a shared language.

That Saturday, we did the vendemmia, or annual grape harvest. Paolo had a fever but he carried on with his usual good cheer, though the memory of what he'd seen just days before must have been impossible to shake. Stefano's funeral was that afternoon. Paolo offered that I could attend the funeral with him, or continue the harvest with his family. I did manage to say, in Italian, "My place is with you."

The afternoon turned cold, and we waited in the open piazza in a biting wind. The vans from the funeral home were the first to arrive. The drivers pulled out bouquet after bouquet of flowers, each arrangement wrapped in crisp cellophane. The entire town was gathered in the piazza but no one spoke, and the only sound I remember was the crackling of that cellophane in the wind.

The hearse arrived next, and Stefano's family assembled to walk behind the coffin. I remember seeing his mother, so small and sad, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The rest of the mourners fell in step behind them, and we all walked up the Via Centrale, where the tolling churchbells beckoned us to enter. The church was filled to capacity, so we stayed on foot in the back. It was warm inside, and I felt myself swaying and nearly sleeping on my feet as Paolo's fever took hold of me during the long funeral mass.

With the mass over, the mourners filed out in silence, and again I heard the crackling and crinkling of cellophane as the flowers were removed from the church. The bells tolled again as we joined the cortege for the long walk down the cemetery. Our priest, megaphone in hand, recited the five mysteries of the rosary, timing it just so the fifth mystery was read as the casket arrived in the cemetery chapel.

Paolo opted not to file past and give the casket a final kiss goodbye, as is often the custom here. He told me he would visit Stefano later, in private. On the steep walk back up to town, he had his arm around me. While I think his intention was to shield me from the cold, I felt him lean into me for support, as he told me how Stefano had been looking forward to meeting me and of how they'd talked of their next cook-out at Villalba, the park very near where he took his own life. Now, Paolo said, he never wanted to have another cook-out there again.

The day before I left, we went to check on the wine, which was already working down in Paolo's cantina. The crushed grapes were in two immense barrels, one for white and one for red. Paolo had me climb a short ladder so I could see the surface of the grapes, which was slowly bubbling and percolating with the fermentation process. It made a crackling noise, quieter but not dissimilar to the flowers from Stefano's funeral. 

Paolo harvesting the grapes

I don't know what changed in those few days between Stefano's death and funeral, but there was a palpable shift in the dynamic between us. Maybe Paolo realized the potential of having a partner to lean on, literally and figuratively, in bad times. Maybe knowing that Paolo needed me made me focus less on how much attention I was or wasn't getting from him, and instead on how I could comfort him. Maybe Stefano's death and Paolo's vulnerability made us each more sweet and tender to the other. But whatever it was, I left Italy knowing that we wanted to be together, and that we were both going to give our all to make that the reality. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Got Milk?

We live in a town of about 700 people. Everyone knows everyone else, and most townspeople are at least distantly related. Case in point: Paolo swears that had we not stopped at first cousins, and instead invited his second cousins as well, our wedding guest list would have doubled from 200 to 400. Most of the population is elderly, and there are far more funerals than there are births each year.

So, a new baby in town is not just a big event, but the big event. And the first question from every woman's mouth is, "Do you have milk?"

My first rule of response is to abandon any idea that my breast functions are in any way personal or my own business alone. The second rule is to decide how much to reveal: that my daughter wasn't attaching well enough at my breast in her first week or so of life, so to my infinite heartbreak, we had to supplement with powdered formula? My mother-in-law has already shared that info with several women. She has also told them that the reason our baby couldn't attach well was because my nipples were too big (not that her mouth was too small). I wanted to tell everyone that my nipples were just the right size, that they were lovely, in fact, and that Naomi was just a little too small and weak to get a good draw on the teat. But the hard truth was that she was taking less and less breast milk and was nearly 100% dependent on formula, and everyone was concerned.

After this news hit the circuit, the "got milk?" questions were asked with even more emphatic concern. At stage right, I heard the Greek chorus sing, "Poor thing, her nipples were too big so her milk dried up. The gods have abandoned her." The question, usually before I had a chance to respond, was generally followed by a personal account of the questioner's own breastfeeding experience: an inverted nipple, cracked and sore nipples, too small nipples, too large nipples, a missing nipple (!), nipples that gushed milk, babies who did fine on 100% powdered formula, and babies who thrived on a mixture of water, breadcrumbs and olive oil (seriously). Or there's the story of my husband's late grandmother, who was a paid wet nurse to countless babies in Allerona. Where was Nonna Gina when I needed her?

Then came the advice for how to make more milk: Drink two liters of beer a day. Drink red wine. Drink grappa. (At least my baby would be drunk enough to sleep through.) Eat red meat. Eat fennel, anise and fenugreek. Eat frascarelli, a soup of chicken broth and small pasta. Eat pasta made with eggs. Eat pasta made with just flour and water. Pretty much eat all types of pasta.

After my week in the hospital with Naomi, that my breasts are the subject of much discussion in Allerona is more of an amusement than a shock. One could say I'm used to the exposure. After all, I had more pairs of hands on my breasts in that week than I've had in my entire adult life (and trust me, that's not a few pairs of hands), squeezing and pumping and twisting in an effort to get her to attach. What seemed like 40 different nurses, Paolo, my mother-in-law, our cousin, all took a turn at squeezing and shoving my nipple into her wailing little mouth. My nieces insisted on kissing Naomi's head or stroking her cheek in the rare moments she was latched on. And I'm pretty sure that every one of Paolo's uncles and male friends got a good look at my naked tits.

The good news is that Naomi has taken a liking to breast milk and nursing. It was a struggle, and I shed more than a few tears on my screaming baby when she didn't want to attach to my breast. But now, we've found our accord. She's latching on to me and increasingly rejecting formula. We've tipped the scales so that she's getting a majority of breast milk, and I anxiously await the day I throw out the last canister of formula we ever have to buy.

So today at the market, when I was asked if I had milk, my eyes didn't cloud over, I didn't stumble over my answer, and I didn't offer a qualified response as to how I have some milk but maybe not enough milk but maybe it's getting better, and before I endured another "poor thing doesn't have milk" sympathetic gaze, I just answered with a simple "yes."

Of course I still heard the stories of cracked nipples and voracious babies and gushing breasts, but that's all okay. After all, I've got milk.

Postscript: About ten minutes after posting this, I took our dog for a walk and ran into our kind, elderly neighbor. She asked me...wait for it...if I was giving Naomi my own milk. When I answered, "Si," she threw her hands up to her own fallen breasts, praised Dio, and told me how content she was with this news, as nursing your baby is "la cosa piu bella in il mondo" (the most beautiful thing in the world). On that, I'd have to agree.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A non-linear narrative

My first grape harvest
My life has moved pretty fast in the last three and a half years since meeting Paolo, almost too fast for me to keep up with. I should have been recording my experiences in a journal or blog or in the book I keep saying I'm going to write; instead I was too busy experiencing them, and I was admittedly a bit overwhelmed as to how to record them in a way that would do them justice, and not come across as just another quaint recollection of those eccentric, charming Italian countryfolk.

In incomplete summary, in the time since I met Paolo and started visiting and then living in Allerona, I've attended five funerals, including those of close family members, two weddings, including my own spectacular event, and assorted baptisms, communions, festivals and masses. I've picked grapes, olives, blackberries and mushrooms. I've herded chickens and waited in country traffic jams caused by herds of sheep. I've become a halfway decent cook and baker. I helped my husband put a new roof on our house in a howling winter wind. And, I became a first time mother.

But rather than try to begin at the beginning and write a linear narrative that leads readers right up to the present, I prefer a more organic approach that jumps back and forth from past to present, that takes detours from the narrative and recounts a humorous story, a sweet or bittersweet moment, or an interesting fact about Italy, our region or our town. So my posts may be about kissing (someone other than Paolo!) on a park bench at Lago di Bolsena, the best pizza in Orvieto, Italian rules of etiquette, my pregnancy and the birth of our daughter, or watching the last brick be placed to seal the tomb of my father-in-law. I hope these small vignettes will convey the joy, beauty, sadness and quirkiness of life in our small town and our peculiar country, and bring some smiles and entertainment along the way.