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
Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza
Who would have thought having a visa to live in Italy and trying to do everything by the book could be so time consuming and difficult? No wonder there is still a thriving black market and many people live under the radar. Every day it seems like there is a new government office to visit and some degree of bureaucratic labyrinth to navigate.
This week was no exception though we’ve been back here a month and a half now. Italy seems to operate in a continual catch-22 house of mirrors basis. Thing A can’t be accomplished until Thing B can be, which requires first, the completion of Thing A and let’s not forget the signing and stamping of at least 50 sheets of paper along the way.
My head literally hurts from trying to understand and be understood for hours a day.
The boy started full time Italian school this week and believe me, his head is hurting too. It’s middle school and the academics are pretty intense. There’s certainly no way he can keep up yet as his Italian is nowhere near fluent. We are going to have to hit the both the Italian and English books at home in order for him to not fall too far behind his grade level.
But on the other side of things, immersion is really the best way to learn and even though it can be frustrating and exhausting, it’s pretty cool to feel a foreign language just tumbling out of your mouth. As I think Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in "Eat Pray Love", there is no reason to learn Italian other than for the sheer beauty and appreciation of the language. And since it has always been my dream to be fluent in other languages, I might, be stint of sheer necessity, be on my way to realizing that!
Oh, why or why, does it have to be so good? Italy, are you just out to get me? I should seriously get a medal for the amount of discipline I exercise (is there a calorie burn in that?) on a daily basis as I walk past Mega Gelato and somehow manage not to stop in for a few scoops every time.
This little piece of heaven on the north side of Vicenza is run by the husband-wife team of Stefano and Jessica and they daily create such mouthwatering offerings as Ricotta & Fig, Crema Durando (orange cream & chocolate chunks), Menta (mint that taste like mint buttercreams melting in your mouth), or any of their insane variations involving nutella, coffee, and Baci chocolate, to name a few.
The list goes on and it is all made with incredibly fresh ingredients, no preservatives or artificial flavors, and using local fruit. This past spring, when we had to go back to the States for a couple of months, we stopped by to say goodbye and order a final ice cream. They were clearly sad to see us go. I actually hadn't realized, as they pointed out, that we had been in to see them and, you know, sample a few flavors, almost every day for the past 5 months. Yikes! Bad mother alert?? Nah! I decided we earned it. We bike and walk everywhere we have to go. Anyway, good customers get preferential leaving treatment. I'm going to have to leave more often. ;)
un cafe lungo macchiato caldo nella tazza grande
I’m sure I’m not alone when I suggest that a day seems somehow incomplete without a cup of strong coffee in the morning, rounded out by a glass of red wine in the evening. Thank God I’m living in Italy where both are cheap and plentiful. As a writer on a budget, this seriously enhances my quality of life.
As many words as Eskimos have for snow, there are coffee drinks in Italy. OK, well maybe not quite as many, but more than you’d think. And none of the Starbucks variety, thankfully. I like my Starbucks back at home as much as the next person but there really is no place for it here – for good reason.
At the bar, which here means a café where you can get a little something to eat, wine, cocktails or coffee, it’s easy to feel a bit intimidated sauntering up to the serious-coffee-drinking marble counter where everyone stands to have a quick cup, before being on their way. I admit, I am a very experienced traveler, I even speak Italian, but I stuck to my safe and easy cappuccino for a long time, with the occasional wild and crazy café (espresso, with 2 sugars, Italian style) thrown in. Because frankly, there’s never a convenient sign to tell you all the different coffee drinks available (because everyone already knows) and let’s be honest, no one ever likes to look like they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to ordering a cup of coffee.
I recently discovered an essay my mother wrote for an anthology in the early 1980’s about the challenges of balancing late motherhood (I was born when she was 50, after having had three sons in her 30’s and thinking all childbearing was behind her), and what she viewed as both her wifely duties and civic commitments. The local anti-nuclear and feminist groups counted on her to lead the next march or campaign, or host the monthly potluck dinner. She had a great dedication to community activism but at times, felt trapped by responsibilities and either resented them or her own inability to say no to others, and yes to her writing.
Jean was the kind of woman that men, women and children easily fell in love with. She had an infectious charm and she epitomized the adage of ageing gracefully. She was talented at many things – cooking, sewing, organizing people into action, writing – which perhaps made it harder for her to focus on one thing as our culture so often wants us to do. With an innate sensuality, a mane of white hair and a throaty laugh that belied her 5’3” frame, she was everyone’s savior but her own. Our Thanksgiving dinner table invariably included an assortment of lonely hearts and stray souls. She came from a generation where the idea of putting your own needs before others was unheard of. Perhaps not that much has changed for many women.
You can make out the words of her poem in this photo of the 'antique' compass.
I have never owned a compass, and I definitely don’t have a GPS, as I can usually rely on my innate sense of direction. Until recently when I came into possession of an antique compass unlike any other: it has a poem written by my late mother, a little known poet, engraved on the back of it. Only it was not a family heirloom passed down to me and no one in my family has any idea how the poem got there. And I bought it on Ebay. The story goes like this:
My oldest brother, Jon
, is a sculptor, a builder of large-scale stainless steel, geometric shapes that stand stalwart and otherworldly in parks and public spaces around the globe. One in particular is more earthbound and is called, funnily enough, “Compass.” It is made of mirror polished stainless steel tubes with four different blocks of Wisconsin granite at each node. He tells me it was inspired in part by an ancient Chinese jade disc called “bi,” symbolizing unity, peace, and wholeness of heaven and earth. It was also inspired by the Lakota Sioux story of the discovery of the four directions of the compass, each direction designated by a large stone. The sculpture sits on a ridge in Milwaukee overlooking Brady Street Bridge and Lake Michigan.
The last few days I found myself in Marseille, France. No, I didn’t happen to wake up there after having my apertivo spiked at an Italian bar, I assure you. It was a planned detour, by train on the way back to Italy, after having delivered my son for a 2-week holiday with his father in the UK.
I was lured by the southern Mediterranean delights as laid out by my fellow traveler and blogger Tanja Bulatovic
, enthusiastic advocate for the unsung arias of this notorious port city. The French government has been pumping money into Marseille’s regeneration as the city was chosen as the “European Capital of Culture” for 2013. Consequently, the famous Vieux Port is being dug up and a wide pedestrian plaza installed and facelift construction seems to be happening everywhere.
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).