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.