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?
Venice at dusk, on the way to station.
There is a well worn truism that every parent knows, and possibly those who have chosen not to become parents: if you want to come face to face with the deepest, darkest, and ugliest part of your soul – have children. For through parenting you are forced to view yourself anew, and often those parts of yourself you would rather not contend with are reflected back to you through the eyes, and behavior, of your children.
Of course, it’s not all sturm and drang, there are occasional pinnacles of great joy, with a more common peppering of cozy, contented moments. I believe this same truism can be applied to the light that is shed upon yourself from the experience of travel. My friend Scott, a journalist among other things, conducted an interview with the well known travel writer, Pico Iyer, who said that “[Travel] confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home.” I couldn’t agree more.
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.”
a Prosecco Aperol outside at La Piccola Osteria
This is one of my favorite places in Vicenza. The perfect little Enoteca, or wine bar, where I can sit and write, and be familiar yet anonymous. Italian tumbles around me. The servers and owners know me by now. I am an island with my notebook and neon-looking Prosecco Aperol, yet I greet enough people as to not feel marooned. I watch the regulars and wonder whether my observations of their characters are as spot on as I think they are. I enjoy the sweetness of the apertivo against the saltiness of the complimentary bowl of chips they give me, against my far better judgment.
The 1980’s disco tracks provide just the right slightly ironic ambiance. The ceiling is framed by wooden beams, wine bottles line the walls, along with cobbled stones. The glass case by the bar displays all the mouthwatering tapas-style bites – or spunciotteria – available to pad your alcoholic intake. The door stays open no matter the weather so people can sit or stand outside or in.
This particular evening there is the dandy man in his silk suit and nearly wing-tipped black loafers sitting next to me who, after studying his iPhone and waiting for 45 minutes for his date to arrive, moved to the bar to make his eventual exit a bit less noticeable, or so I imagine. Then there is the couple – work colleagues perhaps – safely flirtatious, sharing a drink and smoke just outside. A house painter stops by on his way home from work to have a glass of wine and small plate of fresh anchovies.
The other night I attempted to go to an English-speaking networking drinks-do at a bar in downtown Vicenza while L was at soccer practice. Apparently, my interpretation of ‘Happy Hour’ – when it was supposed to take place – needs an Italianesque revision. I showed up at what I thought was a respectable 7:15pm to find the place utterly empty. I found out today that it didn’t get started until nearly 9 and went until after midnight. Since I decided not to hang around waiting, looking like an adrift tourist, desperate to speak English, I left. My motive for the whole outing was to hopefully meet some other expats in Vicenza who either might have a lead on private Italian lessons, or even better, might have kids L’s age. But it was not meant to be last night, and I rode my bike back to the neighborhood where I stopped in at Piccola Osteria before heading home. It was of course, warm, bright, full of people and welcoming. The bartender poured me a glass of a new Montepulciano, which I savored, along with my own plate of fresh anchovies, before biking the rest of the way home.
Piccola Osteria, Via Alfonso Lamarmora, 147, 36100, Vicenza, Italy.
Some weeks I just don’t know what to write. It’s not that nothing is happening, but that what’s happening just doesn’t seem blog worthy. In the scheme of things, I’m still pretty new at this. And I have some old fashioned hesitation about ‘over-sharing’ my personal life and thinking that anyone would find that worth reading about amidst the information overload that is already every day life.
Our adventures have plateaued for the moment, as we are staying put in Vicenza for a while. I am trying to navigate the Italian bureaucratic requirements in order to enroll L in school while we are here. I’m also trying to sort out more insurance requirements so he can practice with the local football club and we’re both studying Italian.
I have found a wonderful indoor pool just down the road where I can swim laps while L is at football practice or with his new friends. I have continued to swim my laps (my personal sanctuary) in whatever country we have been in. So it is with this cross-country perspective that I do just have to note how much I have been struck by the fact that the majority of both men and women I see at the pool – of all ages – seem to be incredibly fit. The difference between what I have observed in Germany, the UK and of course, the US, is stark enough to make one pause and ask, “Where the hell if all that pasta going? Because it does not seem to be sticking to most Italian’s thighs, ass, hips, etc.!
It really is quite astonishing. I am tempted to attribute it to all the cigarettes that most of them still smoke. At a dinner the other night of 10-12 people, at one point I noticed I was the only one in the room not smoking – I am not exaggerating.
More likely it comes down to portion size. Italians will have a small serving of pasta of some various form, followed by a meat and vegetable. Bread is available but never served with butter or even olive oil, like some trendy American restaurants like to provide, for dipping. Or maybe it is still the relative scarcity of fast food available. It’s there – even in Vicenza there is a McDonalds (but no Starbucks) – but good, home-cooked food is still deeply embedded in culture and tradition here.
However, the highlight of the week for me was a lazy Sunday lunch at a trattoria on a hillside outside of town. Gnocchi with shrimp and porcini mushrooms, followed by an assortment of grilled meats, and of course, plenty of prosecco. For L, the highlight was a guided tour of my friend’s pharmaceutical factory (see above and below) where they make, package and ship everything from suppositories to high end skin and beauty products. It was a treat for L to get to see up close how everything works. Meanwhile, for me it’s back to the pool to work off the gnocchi as I am not so confident I am going to absorb the Italian’s Teflon girth-fighting ability!
My pace of progress
I realize that I subtitled this blog ‘Adventures in Parenting, Traveling & Creativity’ but I have not really even begun to touch on the creativity part. It would probably come as little surprise that between traveling, parenting, working, and homeschooling I have had little time for my own creativity. This is a problem, but one I’m used to. In my laptop I have two screenplays that need major overhauling, one chapter of a young adult novel completed, and several plays that I should be sending out to try to find production. I am lucky to get two blog posts in a week though right now.
While the limits on my time are plenty, I don’t think that is ever not the case as a writer, or just a person alive today, plain and simple. Believe me, there is always something easier to do than to sit down and write! If I were on home turf my time would be equally filled with things to do. In my ongoing battle with time and procrastination, I have become somewhat of an expert on the Creative Process and reading everything I can about it in order to inspire, understand, conquer, and of course…procrastinate.
One of my favorite things to do in any foreign country is to go food shopping at a local supermarket. I thoroughly enjoy pouring over and deciphering the every day food options that I can take home and attempt to perform some sort of alchemy with. It is sometimes more successful than others. Yesterday my friend Marta took me to the Auchan to buy food for the week. Auchan is actually a French supermarket chain, which has expanded into Italy and probably far beyond.
It is as overwhelming as any American megastore chain and they sell everything from houseware products to foodstuffs from Croatia. It was also a late Saturday afternoon when we arrived and we were both quickly overwhelmed by the number of shoppers. Marta informs me that it is now considered trendy for Italian husbands to go and do the weekly shopping. They make ‘shopping dates’ with their friends and go for a coffee or apertivo after the groceries are loaded into the family car. So nice to know that progress in the world of domestic duties must come with a little back end bonus.
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!
I have a son for whom the order of the day, if it were left entirely to him, would go something like this: 1) get up, eat, and play hours of soccer; 2) play hours of PS3 games or have other such electronic experiences; and 3) eat, sleep, get up and do it all over again. I’m not meaning to suggest that he doesn’t have other interests, but these are just the overriding ones. He does actually have a vibrant curiousity about the world around him, he loves animals and nature, he is social and makes friends easily. And he is quite a conversationalist – he can hold his own well with adults.
However, when it comes to academics and sitting down at a desk to do school work, the neighbors would think I’m administering slow Chinese water torture, to hear him tell about it. I am really not the strictest parent in the world, nor am I, hopefully, the most lax either. The same can be said about our homeschooling style which is probably somewhere between formal and Unschooling. I am using the Core Knowledge series (What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know) as a touchstone. It is a great series and I particularly like this book. It’s laid out well, easy to read without being pandering (to parent or child) and I’m fairly sure it includes more information and knowledge than your average fifth grader in public school covers in one year. No doubt more than we’ll actually cover. There are comprehensive sections on language, literature (excerpts from classics like Huckleberry Finn, Little Women and the Secret Garden), geography, European and American history, grammar, visual arts, music, math and science.
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.
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad