My son, as I may have mentioned before, is I’m sure a lot like other boys his age (nearly 12) in that he likes to spend as much time as possible doing two things: playing soccer (insert sport of choice) and playing with his PS3 or computer games. Often trying to get him to do anything other than these things involves a form of very slow Chinese water torture (to be endured by me, not him). So it is with some degree of delight that this week I observed that Luc likes to get into the weightiest of topics at the strangest of times – always when we are biking in city streets, usually through challenging traffic, on the way to his soccer practice, which is at least 20 minutes each way.
On the way to practice the other day he posed the question: “Mom, what’s it like to be a woman?” which he has admittedly asked before. But after my initial glib response of “I don’t know because I’ve never been anything else,” he kept pressing for details. Now I know a window when I see one! I will certainly not ever miss the chance to help him grow into the progressive, aware, strong, and good man that I know he will become. So, this led to a discussion of what women’s place has historically been in the world and is today, in some places still.
I have to say it all came as quite a shock to him and in his lovely innocence he couldn’t begin to understand why a woman wouldn’t always have the same rights as a man, why they might get paid less for the same job, or why I have to be more careful going home at night by myself than he will ever have to as a grown man.
On the way back from practice the question was “Mom, what happens when we die?” which sparked a discussion on religion, what some people believe happens when you die, with each of us pitching our own pet theories on what awaits us all eventually, all the while dodging Italian drivers and navigating roundabouts.
I can’t quite figure out this predilection of his for heavy-duty conversations while in motion. It has happened before, sometimes in cars too, anything involving wheels apparently. But all I know is that his curiosity is alive and well and I’ll go with the probably still contrarian theory that gaming makes you smarter!
Check out these great TED talks on gaming:Gabe Zichermann – How Games Make Kids SmarterJane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World
We are back in Italy after a 3 month hiatus in the US to obtain my work visa. The Italian is rusty but words keep popping up that I'd forgotten I knew, so all is not lost. Nothing like try to learn a language to stretch brain muscles you never knew you had. Luc and I have spent the last several afternoons at Vicenza's Parco Aquatico
. It is baking hot and there is really nothing else to do but hole up inside until it's time to make a beeline for the pool. Thank God there is one! In this case, quite a deluxe public version that makes our beloved local village pool in Ohio look like a neglected and distant aquatic cousin.
The Parco Aquatico has two ginormous twirly slides, a sculplturesque pool with fountains with underwater 'tanning beds' -- places to recline that I can only suppose are meant to increase your tan, a main pool with a huge floaty 'mountain' that kids can climb with ropes or handholds and slide down the front. The pool is so big there are always two lanes roped off for lap swimming cross the width of it, which is the same as the length of most pools I've been in.
With less than a week of living in Italy to go, I will leave you with some parting thoughts. While living here has been both wonderful and difficult in many ways; it is not a cliche to say that it is a place of stunning beauty that time almost forgot and also a place where the business of day to day living and working can be made pretty damn hard. But it has, I can say, also been a very good place to get a lot of writing done. I have finished one screenplay, started another, and am working on a young adult novel. And I cannot close this chapter on Italy without acknowledging that our time here would never have been possible without the incredible generosity and hospitality of my friend, Marta, and her family.
Of course it is not just the inspiring environs, but keeping to a writing schedule that has been key. However, while sitting in my usual coffee bar this morning, I realized that one of the other main reasons is that I can so easily tune out all the Italian I hear around me. There are no English conversations to distract me, the Italian melts into melodious white noise that I cease to hear after a while. And there is also the fact, that because I am pretty obviously a foreigner, a tourist, it gives me a free pass to sit alone in any café, bar, or restaurant, while writing and observing away. I just don't seem to become self-conscious about it the way I would if I were back home.
I have my usual haunts around town by now that I frequent. The staff all know me and greet me like a regular. I am probably thought of as that lonely-woman-with-no-friends who comes in and scribbles in a notebook for hours. All right, I have to confess, when I have had friends come for a visit, I do take them back to these places, with no doubt some subtext of wanting the staff to see that I’m really not so strange after all, I truly am a well adjusted, somewhat normal human being!
The other reason it has been good for my writing is that free, or even paid, wireless service in public places in Italy is still relatively uncommon, at least in this town. All the months I’ve been here I have not seen one – not one – person sitting in a café with a laptop. We are not in Starbucks territory. So this means I must leave the greatest distraction – the Internet at home. A beautiful thing.
On the subject of writing, whenever I hit the wall and find myself stuck, which is often enough, I always go back to the most amazing book I’ve ever read that deals with any act of creativity: The War of Art
by Steven Pressfield. If you aim to compose a song, build a house, or start a business, and get stuck or have any self-doubts, read this book. It always manages to give me hope that maybe, just maybe, if I keep showing up every morning, like punching in at the factory, something good will eventually come of my efforts.
I really didn’t know, when we left home last August, how long this venture would last. I’m amazed and pleased that we have nearly reached 8-months of European living. Unfortunately, we won’t make it to Spain this trip, but I have promised L that will be our next destination. And with his new background in Italian, picking up Spanish shouldn’t be too hard. L came home from school the other day and said “I love my school and my friends there!” I couldn’t believe my ears. An all-Italian, Catholic school. Who could have guessed this would be a good experience for him? I so wish I didn’t have to take him out before the end of the year, but unfortunately the laws of tourist visas are bigger than us. But he has made some very good friends and we will be back.
Now, it is on to London for a brief stop, and then we are Midwest Bound. It will be good to be on home ground for awhile and recharge our batteries with friends, family, and a bit of small town American living. And so it is that now I will put this blog to rest for a while. I imagine it will be reborn eventually, in perhaps a different form. I will spare you any caterpillar to butterfly analogies right about now. The reality is much more prosaic. The months ahead will hold many changes for my superboy traveler and I, and now is the time for me to focus on the tasks ahead: Writing. Living. Work.
Thank you for reading!(L to R: my morning perch; taming the beast, otherwise known as Ralph; late afternoon in downtown Vicenza; a lizard).
Yesterday L played his first official match with the soccer team he’s been practicing with for months. While it may be hard to believe, given Italy’s reputation of being relaxed about so many things, they are uber-serious about even kids having to have resident’s status before they can play in any league games. Not only do you have to prove residency but you have to complete an opus of paperwork to be officially registered with the league. I’ve never seen anything like it. In Germany, it was one sheet of basic information, a copy of his passport and a photo, and he was a full member of the team, and of course the same in the States.
So the reason he was able to play yesterday is not that we are suddenly full-fledged members of the Italian club, but simply that it was considered a ‘friendly game’ and not an official one on the way to the tournament. That said, it seemed as official as any other match I’ve been to. Whatever the game was, it was a true pleasure to get to watch my son play again. This boy lives to play soccer and when you watch him you can understand why. He has a sort of gazelle-like grace with the ball that is hard to miss. I know I’m his mother, but when I heard the Italian fathers behind me say his number “Dieci-siete…” in approving tones, I know I’m not the only one who sees it. He scored the goal that tied the game, thereby cementing the respect of his teammates for his first game out.
The whole experience of watching the game as a parent in Italy was, you could say, amusing by way of just comparing the differences and similarities between cultures. In one way, parents going to their kids’ game is simply universal and looks the same everywhere. You don’t need to understand the language to know what everyone is saying. I of course could not bring myself to cheer, just because I would have been the only one for miles speaking English, and my Italian is not good enough to cheer beyond ‘Vai!’ (go!) and “Dai!” (come on!).
The biggest difference in the whole experience you could point to is the little refreshment hut which naturally, had the requisite cappuccinos, espresso, apertivos (a Campari or Aperol cocktail), and beer, plus candy. And I can certainly attest to everyone being quite expressive during the game, both coaches and parents. The coach for the opposing team yelled non-stop at the top of his lungs at his players. Finally, one kid, clearly in exasperation at one invective from the coach, threw up his arms in a typically dramatic Italian fashion, and yelled back, ‘Ma come?!’ – ‘But how?!’
Personally, I hate coaches who yell constantly. It’s hard to see how it helps them. I was grateful for our lovely, low-key Brazilian coach who kept his sideline instructions to low, concise sound-bites.
All in all, a lovely afternoon out and L was invigorated and proud of himself, as was I of course. And now we have a three-day holiday ahead of us this week as Italy celebrates ‘Carnevale’. The last few days it has gotten increasingly common to see people, mostly very young ones, walking the streets in elaborately painted faces, masks, capes, and various outrageous costumes. Methinks another trip to Venice is probably in order, the heart of it all.
The river we cross on the way to school every morning.
I have been a bad blogger lately and I was wondering to myself the other day why this is. It is true that I entered my flat-out- really-busy season with work, but I also realized that it is because life in Italy has settled into such a normal routine, that I don’t really feel like I’m travelling any more. I think this is mostly an excuse, but I’m going with it.
Our routine, since I’m on the subject, has been to attempt to get L into school by 8:30am, by bus or bike, where he stays until 2pm and I go back down and pick him up. He is settling in well and seems to actually be enjoying himself. He has individual Italian lessons twice a week with Nelly, the English/Italian teacher, and has an assortment of the usual classes while he is there such as math, history, English, music, computer, art, and a real bonus, swimming. He says the food served for lunch is mostly amazing and he enjoys playing soccer after lunch every day. The best part of all is he has made a really good friend – a boy who speaks enough English that they can communicate well enough between them. He went to his house the other day for a birthday party. This is monumental! READ MORE....
We are in London for the holidays and the other night we went to see the spectacle of “Slava’s Snowshow” at the Royal Festival Hall. It is no wonder it has been a hit in over 80 cities around the world. It truly transports every adult in the audience to a child-like state of wonder and glee. The kids don’t need any help – they’re already there. Slava Polunin is a Russian performance artist and clown who, along with his troupe of clowns, is the genius behind several other stage spectacles, including Diabolo, coined a “comical meditation on life, death and the beauty of the universe.”
What makes Slava Snowshow such a wondrous experience in simplicity and beauty is not only the humour in each skit, but I think the audience’s experience of becoming part of the spectacle itself. There is no dialogue throughout, but each segment is accompanied by any amazing soundtrack which is comprised of some familiar yet unexpected pieces – music from the film Black Orpheus, Paolo Conti, and Carmina Burana, for example.
‘Snow’ comes down on the audience, thick, tangly spider webs are passed back by the audience from the first row to the last, gusts of wind, light and snow are blasted at us in a climactic moment of Carmina Burana fervor, and finally, ginormous, brightly colored balloon-like balls are released into the theater and batted around the audience. The culmination of which turns the theater-going experience on its head as the clowns end, sitting on the stage, bemusedly watching their audience become children again and the auditorium is transformed into a joyous free for all where no one is left sitting down.
This might not appeal to everyone, but we certainly enjoyed it and it was oh so lovely to see L, who at times I can worry myself into thinking has become jaded by video games, swept up in awe and excitement at some good old fashioned theatrical spectacle.
Me on a beach in Senegal with two of my brothers
I have been pondering this question more than usual lately as I was challenged on this question at a dinner party not long ago. My reactions in such situations where I feel put on the defensive to explain my choices are akin to running in quicksand. They suck. And I spend the rest of the night and next several days kicking myself for not being as quick and adept verbally as I should have been.
This person’s take clearly suggested that I was not considering L’s emotional life and desires enough in my choice to travel with him and disrupt his stable life. I tried to draw on my own experiences growing up as the daughter of a travelling family, and that in fact I had much more upheaval than L has had, and yet I am still happy and grateful to have had those experiences, even though it wasn’t always easy. I also suggested that it is the natural order of things that kids follow their parents and these experiences shape who we end up becoming. In response to this, the person said that “was bordering on child abuse.”
The view from our apartment
The first thunderstorm we’ve experienced in weeks is raging this morning. Early October winds are blowing the wooden shutters back and forth on this grand, old Italian house. We are living in the top floor flat of my friend’s father’s house in Vicenza, Italy. Her ninety-something year old aunt lives in the ground floor apartment, her father on the next level, and now, L and I, on the top. My friend and her family live next door in their own house, yet to be divided by family needs. And then there is Ralph, the young, enormous and slightly scary German Shepherd, who belongs to her father and lives mostly in the front garden and his doghouse. We use the side entrance to avoid being overcome by his….er….affections.
A few days ago we said goodbye to Berlin, earlier than expected, and entered into Phase 2 of our journey by arriving in Vicenza, Italy. Sad to leave Berlin, but some opportunities came up in Italy, both for living and working, that were too good to pass up at the moment. Vicenza is in the Veneto region, about an hour west of Venice, at the foot of the Dolomite mountain range. The architect Andrea Palladio, considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of western architecture, put Vicenza on the map with the many formidable buildings he left behind here and in the region. It is an extremely lovely and navigatable small city. The remains of the city wall the Romans built snake throughout the town, which now leaks far beyond its original borders. To get here, we took a high-speed ICE train from Berlin to Munich, and then what was allegedly another fast train, from Munich to Verona. In reality, it chugged through the Alps, making every conceivable stop, as the train emptied out on its way down. Not that I’m complaining. The scenery was of course stunning and we sat in the dining car, sipping an overpriced Fanta and the last German beer.
We have mostly spent the last few days just getting settled, gradually finding odds and ends with which to further kit out the flat that hasn’t been occupied in many years. My friend’s 11-year-old daughter comes home from school at 2pm, eats her lunch (they don’t feed them at school here), does her homework, then she takes L with her out for the rest of the afternoon – down to the gelateria or to one of the nearby soccer pitches. Having a built-in friend here for L is a very good thing! He has been meeting kids and once again, the lack of Italian is not a barrier to a pick-up game of soccer. And there is my friend’s daughter to translate for him as necessary.
Since I first came to Italy when I was 15, to this very house and very friend in fact, I have long nursed a dream to live here. For many years I put that dream to bed, as nothing but the overly romantic idea of someone too young to know any better. After all, I knew well enough that the reality of living in another country was often quite different. And Italy, of all places, was a land full of mindless, archaic bureaucracy, bad, glitzy TV, and men who spent their lives living with their mothers or visiting their mistresses before coming home to their families, right?
Yet, and perhaps because I have returned several times over the years, it feels both comfortable and familiar to be here. Like I could stay awhile. And somehow I find myself almost surprised to be back here again. I can’t help but think that sometimes, when you are almost not looking, life has a way of granting your wishes. Or else you make those long held dreams happen behind your back. Because now, indeed, finally and for however long, I am living in Italy. And I may just be cursing my son with a long love affair with this country of his own. Allora, adesso dobbiamo imparare l’italiano!
View of the Fernsehturm from the football grounds
I’m pretty good at navigating my way around foreign countries, but Berlin has me in a state. I find the public transportation system byzantine and so unclear compared to London, and then of course throw in words as long as freight trains, most looking something like Beldungshinfreukenstrasse and you can understand why I am getting us lost at least three times a day. Plus, you have to learn to discern between the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, RE commuter trains, bus, and tram and all are inconveniently laid out on the map they provide in 6 point font that I can barely read even with my glasses on. So forget about running for trains because nothing is clearly marked and it requires a sit down study session to interpret. Add to that the fact that the system seems to be mostly automated and there is never any official person to ask – anywhere other than a mega-station where you can finally go to a ticket seller and they MIGHT speak English. Is it any wonder I’m exhausted?
I’m used to being able to at least get by in a foreign language, but not having a snip of German really does have its drawbacks. I can’t interpret websites of places we want to go or things we want to do and most do not have an English version. Plus I can’t understand any kind of automated voicemail answering service. Several times we have gone to museums or other places only to find them closed, or simply no longer existent (so much for my guidebook), no doubt because I didn’t get my info right before we went.
It might be an overused aphorism to say that soccer (or football, for the rest of the civilized world) is the universal game and transcends all nationalities and languages, but our experiences this week are definitely the proof in the pudding.
On Wednesday Lucas started practicing with a very diverse and international neighborhood team of 10-11-year old boys based in Mitte. The kids on the team hail from Germany, the Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, and Iran, to name a few countries. Enough English is spoken that Lucas can chat with some of them but mostly they get right on with the game. The coach is of course fluent in English, which is a relief for both of us with our complete lack of German. It seems if you can kick the ball and just get on with it, you are accepted, at least on the field.
The kids straggled into practice which started at 5pm on a very well turned out pitch at the end of Klein Hamburgerstrasse in Mitte, with the Berlin Television Tower cutting a retro-futuristic backdrop to complete the scene. I could not help noticing that the majority of the kids - all 10-11 year old boys - turned up either on foot or by bike, and most all on their own steam. And they made their way home at 6:30pm the same way. Not a soccer mom with mini-van in sight (no offense intended to said soccer moms), but I do find it interesting that in the small towns and suburbs of the world it seems we tend to ferry and shield our children more than our urban counterparts. I notice the same thing when I am in London: kids are navigating the city at a much earlier age than we often afford them freedom to in the allegedly 'safer' suburbs.
The Pick-up Game
Today we took a long walk along the canals in Kreuzberg to a sporting area in a park, which has a small, caged soccer pitch, much like an urban basketball court. Lucas was planning on just shooting the ball by himself as I sat on the bench with my notebook and worked. But within two minutes of his arrival, six Turkish-German boys showed up, seemingly on their recess from a nearby school, and clearly eager to partake of the boy and his ball.
Lucas kept smiling and saying “I don’t speak German”, as they tried to talk to him. Finally, the one boy with a few words of English was pushed to the front of the group and within 30 seconds, they had organized themselves into teams and a game was underway.
I am always impressed to watch kids self-organize and it reminds me that we should spend more time getting out of their way and letting them get on with it. And of course, I cannot help being proud of my son for not letting the language, or feeling shy, get in the way of him playing, meeting kids, and having fun. The point being, speaking the same language is so clearly not an obstacle to the primary objective, which is simply – to play.
Once Lucas is involved with soccer he truly could be happy anywhere. He is already intent on staying here. However, there a few other pieces that need to click into place for us to continue to stay and explore Berlin beyond the end of this month – namely, a very affordable sublet and some work coming in for me.
Flamenco in the Turkish Market
This morning’s beautiful game outing was capped with a mouthwatering stroll through the Friday afternoon Turkish market where one can buy anything from buttons and zippers, to organic produce and Turkish food specialities, all at great prices. It was hard not to get carried away buying great cheeses, fresh gnocchi and hummus. But the pinnacle for me was a Spanish trio of buskers singing and dancing flamenco tunes. The odd synthesis of being in a Turkish market in the middle of Berlin and listening to passionate and gut-wrenching Flamenco music, did, I have to admit, rival the beautiful game for me. Lucas however, kept pulling on my sleeve so we could get home with plenty of time to get ready for his next football practice.