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
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).
Gondola parking lot, Venice
This week I have been preoccupied with trying to understand the byzantine Schengen Visa laws for tourist travel in Europe. I have spent far too much time on traveler message boards where people with too much time on their hands swap a mixture of advice, warnings, or horror stories of scrapes with immigration authorities in various countries. The Internet can be both a wealth of information and a dangerous place for travelers. Sort of like when you have an undiagnosed health ailment and you decide to google your symptoms. If you’re not catatonic with fear after this little exercise, you obviously have too slow of a broadband connection. The same can be said when looking for travel advice.
As to the Schengen Visa laws, well I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t even know they existed when we started out on this journey. My information was a bit outdated, I admit, as I was relying on past experience from my backpacking through Europe days 20 years ago. At that time, you could indeed spend up to 3 months in each European country and easily execute ‘visa runs’ to another country, then turn around, re-enter and set the visa clock ticking again. Oh, those days are long gone, my friends.
The Schengen Treaty, signed in 1995, now mandates, in simplest terms, a 90-day in a 180-day period rule. This means that you can spend up to 90 non-consecutive
days in any 180 period in the Schengen territory (most of what we consider Western Europe) as a whole
, not per country, after that you must exit the Schengen and remain outside of it for another 90 days before re-entry is permitted. Now apparently, different countries are more strict about enforcing this rule on travelers, than others. According to all the reading I’ve done, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are the toughest. But be careful where you exit to: the UK and Ireland can be tough on Schengen overstayers, either deporting them directly back to the country they left or on to their home country. Deary me. Unfortunately, I’m fairly sure that ignorance of the law is not a defense against violating it. Although it seems like it should be! At any rate, it will certainly mean some readjustment of plans for us.
Meanwhile, back at the Italian ranch, this week we took an afternoon and went to Venice to pay a special visit to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum
which is housed in an old church, la Chiesa di San Barnaba. I know ‘old’ and ‘church’ in the same sentence are rather redundant when talking about Italy. More of an exhibit, than a museum, it was nevertheless fascinating. There were actual reconstructions of many of da Vinci’s machines and many of them you could get your hands on, turn the cranks, and see how they worked. L’s favorite were the flying machines and Archimedes’ screw, which I gather da Vinci experimented heavily with and perhaps improved upon.
We actually walked a hugely circuitous distance to get to the museum, following our noses (with a little help from the smartphone GPS), rather than the map, which requires far too much stopping and studying along the way. The temperatures were frigid as the wind was blowing off the Adriatic. This was alleviated somewhat by frequent ducking into bars for hot drinks, cicchetti (tapas-like snacks), and even gelato. For L, it is never, ever too cold for gelato.
The week ended especially well for L, as he got to go on a ‘field trip’ with his school which was basically a day out sledding and playing in the snow in the foothills of the Alps. It was hard, but someone had to do it. Clockwise from L to R: the fate of shoes left in gondolas; a group of cadets visits the school; 'It is NOT a tea cosy mom!'; tired mama; the school; Italian political poster pulls no punches.
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....
Happy New Year everyone and seeing as this is the 10th of the month already and only my first post, it looks like I’m off to a slow start. But really, I have been busy! After a packed two weeks in London, and a harrowing flight through high winds and dense fog (I really thought I was going to pass out), we are happily back in Italy for what I guess you could call Phase II.
As much as I love London, the days there were grey and dark with some of them never seeming to get past twilight before the sun disappeared altogether about 3:30pm. With some degree of relief that I would be forever suffering from sunlight deprivation, we returned to sun-filled Italy on Befana
, or the 12th night festival, which is a big holiday here. In popular folklore, Befana is the witch who visits all children in Italy on the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany and fills their stockings, presumably with very nice things. Needless to say, Everything was closed and people filled the streets, bars (read: cafes), and restaurants.
L started at the very imposing sounding Catholic school this week, Patronato Leone XIII Scuola. I am surprised and thrilled to report that he seems to really like it so far. Who knew? It seems more welcoming than imposing so far.
There are several other boys in the class that speak enough English for them to communicate, plus they all play football at recess (seriously key point for L) and, he reports, that the food they are served for lunch is great. As he is technically ‘auditing’, they will not expect him to keep up with everyone else in his studies in Italian. He is there mainly to learn Italian, learn about Italian culture, and socialize with the other kids, and they seem happy to have him. While the school seems almost antiseptic in appearance, the grounds are nice, they have great sporting facilities, and most important of all, they seem like kind people. One of his classmates told him the first day as he was introduced to everyone, “You help us learn English and we will help you learn Italian.” So far, so good.
My Italian is coming along too. While I am still far from fluent, so far this week I have been able to navigate sorting out mobile phone problems and school registration, all in Italian. Something must be starting to work right! But more likely, it’s just that Google Translate is my very good friend. But I do find I acquire vocabulary as I need to use it. I know enough basic verbs and conjugations that, with the appropriate vocab words, I can manage to navigate and be understood. And as I’ve said before, so much of understanding a foreign language is context.
Finally, the reason for the random photos this time is that it seems I left my camera downloading cord in London. Ack! So while I would have liked to post some pics from a weekend bike trip up to Monte Berico, you will just have to imagine the stunning, panoramic, picturesque views of Vicenza in the dwindling afternoon light. There…you saw it, didn’t you?
This past week I visited the ancient walled city of Lucca, just west of Pisa, in Tuscany. It was an amazing introduction to Tuscany. The weather was mild, the leaves were turning, and the roosters crowed every morning on the hills just outside of the walls of town. A climb up hundreds of very narrow stairs led to the top of Torre Guinigi, or known as the Treetop Tower, that provided a well earned vista of Lucca and the surrounding hills, hence my new photo header for this phase of the blog. Apparently, the tower was originally built for the Guinigi family, who once ruled over Lucca and protected the city against the Medici of Florence. It’s 44 meter high rooftop garden sprouts Oak trees that can be seen all over the city.
A fly-by stop in Pisa, on the way to the train station, offered a lovely view of the leaning tower and Duomo, no less impressive in real life, after years of only seeing pictures. I will have to go back when there is more time. Although the swarms of cheap-goods-from-China peddlers who get insistently in your face and don’t seem to want to take ‘no’ for an answer, were a bit of a turn off.
One also has to be deft at dodging the hoards of tourists stopping suddenly to snap photos of each other cutely ‘holding up’ the tower. I never understand this behavior. I can only imagine what it’s like in August. But wandering far down a side street, sufficiently away from the center of the action, a gem of a restaurant was found which yielded mounthwatering gnocchi with white fish cooked with I-can’t-even-begin-to-describe spices, Osso Bucco that fell off the bone it was so tender, and equally delicious and tender wild boar.
On the home front, homeschooling was resumed this week. I could not find an equivalent to Borax here in Italy so sadly, our science experiments thus far have gone splat, rather than pop. I tried replacing it witih copious amounts of baking soda, but clearly this did not work.
The struggle over math continues. This perhaps has been too painful to even mention previously. It might not be an understatement to say that L would rather endure having a filling without novacaine, or maybe even a week without the PS3, than math homework. After throwing up my hands and deciding to give it a rest for a while, a friend suggested the Saxons Homeschooling math series which, as a vetern homeschooler, she swears by. It moves incrementally, with lots of built in repetition, before moving onto the next concept. Perfect for someone to whom math doesn’t come easily. Although it is easy to get caught up in the worry of L falling behind, I am trying not only to keep in mind the macro picture, but also, remember that not everyone’s brain is ready to learn math at the same time. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. There has been some research to suggest that kids who are either homeschooled or in some form of progressive education and are able to postpone math until the middle school years, are able to grasp the concepts much more quickly than their younger counterparts, and move through it with much greater ease and competency.
On a final random note for this week, I have discovered that in Italy, you can have your pizza and salad all-in-one, thereby eliminating any lingering guilt for eating yet more pizza in the first place. It's called The Breruga at our local pizzeria, and is cooked with the usual tomato sauce, mozzarella, topped with bresaola ham. Then once out of the oven, it is thoroughly covered with fresh arugula and roughly grated parmesan cheese. The result is pure heaven!
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.”
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London
When you tell people you are going to take your child out of school, spend the next 6-12 months traveling around Europe, that you have transitioned your work online, have sold half your stuff, put the other half in storage, and boarded your cat with friends, you will get reactions ranging from admiration and envy to criticism and not so subtle hostility.
For many, the concept of extended or long-term travel is still the purview of the rich, idle or both. Far more so than the British or Europeans, for most Americans, travel abroad is still a relatively rare occurrence. Making long-term travel still a bit more out there
. Granted, not everyone has jobs they can take a sabbatical or leave of absence from without serious impact on lifestyle and well-being. Whatever your circumstances are, for those of you determined enough to orchestrate the necessary work and family arrangements, either by taking unpaid leave, getting your employer to let you telecommute, or saving money then quitting (for more useful advice on quitting your job, check out www.i-resign.co.uk
), deciding to homeschool, the following are some thoughts to keep in mind if you still find there other things holding you back: