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 Smarter
Jane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
I am back in the saddle of Have Son, Will Travel after a couple of weeks off in London where L visited with his father while I buckled down to get a chunk of work done, as well as enjoy a bit of time to myself.
We have now returned to life in Vicenza, which we are calling home for the next few months. The apartment is shaping up to be extremely comfortable, Italian vocabulary and verbs are accruing in both our brains, and I am learning how to cook dinner in three courses (1) pasticcia (or pasta), 2) meat and veg, and 3) salad and/or cheese). I have found my favorite ‘local’, or Enoteca/wine bar, just down the road where I have learned to drink my espresso standing at the bar, black and with lots of sugar. It’s also where I can enjoy an apertivo and an assortment of tapas-style bites of food and write while L is off at his football practice or hanging out with neighborhood kids.
This might sound petty but one of the things I truly enjoy about being in Europe, or even just a more urban setting, is that one can dress with raising the ire of the locals. Meaning, back in the Midwest, if you put on a good pair of shoes, or a dress and jacket, you will undoubtedly be asked repeatedly throughout the day, ‘Where ya headed?’ or ‘What’s the occasion?’ which always, I must admit, make my blood slowly percolate.
So today I relished not turning any heads when I wore my new, black, spikey Donald Pliner boots, bought for a song in a London charity shop, on the bike down to the market at Piazza dei Signori. Two things that I’ve noticed about Italians and bikes that you’ve got to love: 1) they’ll wear anything and ride bikes – 4” heels or a tuxedo, no matter, and 2) if it rains, they ride their bikes, steering with one hand while holding a large umbrella with the other -- the rain will not ruin the look. How they do this balancing act safely, while navigating city traffic, I’m not sure. I’m not yet so brave as to try it.
All this talk of fashion leads me to another observation that I have been making for a long time and at some point I will produce a photo study of it: that British and European men wear their shoes so damn well. Or more precisely, they choose their shoes with care yet manage to project an effortless sense of style. They are, of course, largely working with a greater stock of well-made shoes, and such a man’s shoe is a beautiful thing to behold indeed. All right, let it be known: I covet European men’s shoes. They are also not afraid to pair them with colorful socks, and such a subtle nod to expressive style does not automatically suggest a sexual preference, as it might in America, the land where the utilitarian still reigns supreme and men are trapped in a suffocating sandwich of black, brown and grey.
While L is happy to be back in Vicenza as well, and playing soccer with 'Club Calcio' again, he has been suffering a bout of homesickness and there have been ample Skype playdates with friends back home. He insists he still loves travelling but just wishes that everyone could be in the same place. Then all would be right with the world. I just keep telling him his friends will still be there, and his cat, and be happy to see him when we go back.
Setting bikes, shoes, and umbrellas aside, after raining biblically most of the week, Vicenza is gleaming in a smoky, late autumn light that sets the hills surrounding it, and the silhouette of Monte Berico, perched above the city, in stunning pastel hues that no doubt have inspired many a poet, painter or architect for ages. Meanwhile, we crack on with our more mortal work, on a plane much closer to the mundane, but perhaps, important in its own way.
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad