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.
It is the beginning of Day 4 in Berlin, and slowly a structure to our days is taking shape. We are on a later schedule here even than we were in London, having not quite adjusted to the 1-hour time difference yet. So it is a late start for us every morning. Once Lucas rises, we go through our morning routine of a touch-typing course he is doing, reading his time travel book, math practice on Kahn Academy, and then some geography or other subject from What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know.
We are trying to explore something new each afternoon, while also trying to do all the ‘normal’ things life requires. The other day Lucas came with me for a run along the beautiful canal that runs through this neighborhood. He says I run too slowly for him, which is true, so he mostly runs ahead, walks and waits for me. Not exactly my ideal running partner, but I’m grateful to be able to run at all, so I am not complaining.
We also went to the Badeschiff Berlin, an outdoor pool created in a converted barge on the River Spree. It was quite the scene. Beach party atmosphere as people lounged on the dock areas and man-made sandy beach. The nearby bar pumped house music and the unusually hot day attracted a huge crowd of loungers of all ages. The pool itself was ice cold and deep throughout, so there was no wading in and getting used to it. It was plunge, catch your breath, and swim.
Yesterday, after our study period, another run, and buying groceries, we paid a requisite visit to the Zoologischer Garten & Aquarium. It is apparently one of the world’s largest and most important zoos, home to many endangered creatures. An impressive zoo, no doubt, but our favorite part was simply watching a seal being fed by a guy in a wetsuit in the water, and their incredibly affectionate and playful relationship.
How long we will have to explore this incredible city is yet to be determined. Much depends on finding another affordable sublet, after this one finishes at the end of the month, and also on me having work coming in. This is, after all, not a vacation, but life on the road. And discerning the difference between the two is essential for both of us in this unfolding adventure.
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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:
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad