Monday, April 10, 2017

It's Questura time again

It’s been five years since Leif and I got married and the endless work of fulfilling the Italian lust for bureaucracy began winding down to its logical (but not necessarily logical, because you just never know with the Italian gov’t) conclusion. At the end of May the paperwork we spent months working for expires.

Well, that’s not technically true. If you’ll recall, when last we met over the topic of bureaucracy, the Questura, and my permission to stay in Italy I was ecstatic because instead of being granted a one or two year permission to stay I got a piece of paper that was good for five years. Five years! A giant weight lifted off my shoulders at that thought, because the Questura is hands down my least favorite Italian place to visit. It’s a soul sucking and mind bending experience that is only worth it because at the end you get the thing you most desire….permission to stay in Italy.

I dreaded 2017’s arrival because it meant going back to the paperwork of applying for my Permesso di Soggiorno. I remembered five years ago I was given a single piece of paper and was completely astounded that permission to stay with a spouse required less paperwork than the ½” stack for a one year study. I was fooled, of course, because they asked for more (see post from that experience here, I won’t bore you with recapping the whole thing) and we scrambled to get those papers from one government entity to another in a timely manner. I was legitimately freaking out over re-applying because even with all their schedules and footnoted directions it’s always difficult filling out paperwork in Italian. I’m not always sure about what they’re asking or if I’m answering correctly and so many of the questions sound very ambiguous till I ask an Italian and they tell me what they think it means and I’m seriously surprised that I didn’t even consider their answer a possibility.

It’s also important to start the paperwork early, like waaaay before the expiration date, several months at least in order to give the government time to do whatever it is they do to make sure you’re legit before printing your piece of paper, stapling your picture onto it and hermetically sealing it together with clear mailing tape. I had further motivation to get things done quickly and properly as we’re hoping to travel outside the EU this year and I need my Permesso to get back in.

I did a little research online about renewing my Permesso. It seems that many rules changed in 2016 and I wasn’t sure what the consequences would be for me. I even read blogs about those with work or just the funds to stay in Italy and it seemed that it would be more difficult with more paper and that didn’t ease my mind one bit. Which only freaked me out more. I was practically hyperventilating for days thinking about how to get the paperwork needed to get my new Permesso. I can’t even remember what prompted me to take out my Permesso and really read it but when I did I was both astonished and embarrassed.

Good Lord. For five years I’ve worried on and off about the prospect of renewing my Permesso. Sweated over the myriad ways I might find all the right pieces of paper that said all the right things so I could get the magical stamp of approval from Italy. Had myself convinced that at any moment Italy might decide it didn’t want me anymore and I’d be summarily escorted to the border, kissed on both cheeks and sent into a land more foreign to me than Italy to try and find shelter. Like France or Switzerland. Possibly Austria. Or Croatia, where I could drown my sorrows in slivovitz. I mean I really really worried about this.

All this time I thought I had this temporary permission to stay, something that I had to prove over and over again, always with the possibility that I’d say the exact wrong thing or present the wrong piece of paper to an Italian official having a bad day and the above scenario would unfold before I had time to pack.

The truth is I have a Carta di Soggiorno, which is a whole different animal from the Permesso. How is it different? Well, the Permesso, as I’ve said, has to be renewed and reviewed on a frequent basis and is always vulnerable to refusal. A Carta di Soggiorno has no expiration date. But every five years, whether to keep track of foreigners or to ensure a healthy income from fees, I have to update my photo. How did I miss this subtle yet important difference? Well, when I finally got my paperwork at the Questura five years ago I was so stunned and thrilled and afraid of losing it or something equally disastrous that I ran home with it, read it through once (thereby discovering I could pack it in mothballs for five years) and tucked it into a plastic sheet protector which I filed away in the place I put everything I don’t want to lose. I never thought to sit down and actually read it, even when my Italian reached a point where I might actually comprehend some of what it said. But when I was reading all the horror stories of others trying to renew their Permesso, I decided to read it again. Right at the top, in giant how-the-hell-did-I-miss-that letters it clearly reads Carta di Soggiorno. Five years of anticipatory stress for nothing. Argh.

Oh, I still have to fill out the stressfully worded paperwork and pay those fees at the Poste Italiane to a postal worker who really doesn’t want to answer any questions about why the fees are suddenly twice as much as I thought they should be. I’ll still stress about whether or not they’ll actually renew what is essentially permission to stay permanently without the need for review because I’ll still have to visit the Questura where uncertainty and hopelessness have permeated the walls. No one leaves happy, even when they get exactly what they came for.

I did get the first part done: paperwork filled out, the correct Marco di Bollo (tax stamp) affixed in the correct place, and the short but sweet conversation with the postal worker who shoved my paperwork back at me and said if I had questions get them answered by someone else to which I thought “Oh hell no” and paid the damn fees. She then handed me my appointment slip for the Questura.

Now I did all this quite early, I thought. We aren’t traveling until August and my picture on the paperwork with no expiration date is good till the end of May. Imagine our surprise (you didn’t think I went through this alone, did you? Of course, I brought Leif along) when we realized my appointment is for August, more than week after we fly out of Italy. Apparently the timeline has changed in the last five years. Instead of a couple of months lead time we should have planned on six months lead time. The only good news is that I can reenter Europe with my receipt and if past experience is any indicator my paperwork won’t be ready on time. In fact, it might not be ready when I come back six weeks later. Then again, because the universe loves to play with me, this time everything will work perfectly and my paperwork will be ready and waiting for me at 9:29am on 7 August. I just hope it'll still be there when I do finally get back into Italy.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Life goes on...

The elections are over....thank the universe for that. What happens now will be important to everyone and while we fight the good fight (whichever side you may align yourself with) life still goes on. Stomachs must be filled, bills paid, decisions big and small made, etc. With that in mind (and the fact that I've neglected writing here for far too long) it's time to share the utterly mundane story of changing apartments here in Florence.

After five lease-less years in an apartment that was large at 75 sq meters and boasted an actual space to store things, we decided to move. This wasn't a decision taken lightly or quickly. We watched our former apartment disintegrate around us. A leak in the roof, unacknowledged and in fact denied by our landlord, caused the ceiling to begin to fall in the kitchen and hallway. The few electrical outlets that worked became tenuous in their connections. We flushed our toilet with a bucket because the inner workings had become so old that the water ran constantly so we just turned it off. The boiler for the radiator was declared too old at its last inspection and would have to be replaced. No window or door except for the door into the apartment latched properly certainly putting pressure on the already old boiler as it struggled to heat the constant flow of outside air. In fact, we had to pile everything heavy we owned in front of the terrace doors to keep them closed when the wind was strong because the latch was broken. Right before we left the water heater started dripping....I couldn't imagine a winter without heat or hot water.

So we started looking for a new place to live. Still in Florence because our work requires access to transportation and tourists but closer to the south side where most of our riding and working happens. I'd look around in English language sites for adverts, call or email and discover that as soon as the ad was placed it was rented. Argh! Finally I called early enough to get a chance to actually view an apartment. We were one of the first to see  it and because he had a week filled with appointments to see the apartment we decided to take it that same night. And because I'm certifiably insane at times we placed our move in date a week later.

We had to give notice at our old place (don't laugh and say why...we're built that way) so we had a month to move between the two places. A month while I was still working full time at the apprenticeship to decide what to throw and what to keep and how to move it all. The new place is smaller by 20 sq meters so everything couldn't come with us.

Our rather fabulous new landlord helped us with his van a couple of times to move the big stuff. Everything else we moved by bike. Every day during the month of May both Leif and I made multiple trips across town filling bags and banana boxes, the do-it-yourself-movers box of choice.

That's right. Several times each day we would ride across town to the old apartment to pack up the next load. I would fill my 33 liter back pack with more than 33 liters of probably breakable stuff as my body cushioned the potholes. Depending on what we were moving I'd strap a banana box down to the rear rack on my bike and toss something usually too big into my rapidly disintegrating front basket. Sometimes I'd use a giant blue IKEA bag instead of a banana box because I could get more clothes into it. Leif would fill both panniers and balance a banana box on top of those while carrying his backpack too. Then we would start, slowly, across town. Half the trip happened on city streets, the other half on a disconnected series of bike lanes dodging pedestrians and cross traffic to arrive home. We rode along the Arno and bounced past the Uffizzi and Ponte Vecchio (cobblestones, wow) before crossing the river into the San Frediano section of town. I went head to head with taxis, other cyclists, scooter drivers, horse-drawn carriages and tourists who refused to allow an obviously overloaded, precariously balanced middle-aged woman on a POS bike to pass.

Repeat until your butt hurts, your back hurts, your knees hurt and the bike starts rattling too loudly to ignore. Then do it some more. And Leif did this twice as much as I did because he had some full days off that all he did was ride between the two places loaded down with stuff. He's the true hero of this story.

If you're going to ask my why, and that is what I answer with this blog as much as possible, my answer is that we have made the conscious choice to live as much as possible without a car. While friends and family shook their heads and laughed at us for taking, in their opinions, the hard way to move, we were taking the only option available to us. And face it, if we moved like everyone else there'd be no story to tell, would there?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Taking my life back

A couple of days ago I quit my apprenticeship. It was hard; I had poured so much of myself into it in the last seven months. Too much, in fact. Instead of enhancing our lives by providing a steady income it obliterated every other facet of my life. No rides with Leif, no painting, no writing (you probably noticed that) and no contact with friends.

For the first months I accepted this as normal. Basically giving my life over to another person or corporation and accepting their value of my time and talents is the very bedrock of the “steady job” as I experienced it in Minnesota. In exchange for X amount of dollars I willingly chained myself to a desk, accepted someone else's evaluation of my skills and personality and took time off only when it was approved. I wasn't surprised by it or bothered so much because, as I understood it, this was just the way things worked. This apprenticeship started the same way, which six years ago wouldn't have made me blink.

The difference is that I'm not in Minnesota anymore. I moved 4755 miles to create and experience a different kind of lifestyle. It was happening: I was training to be a cycle tour guide and learning how to help Leif manage the business better so we could live life on our own terms. I was seduced by the money and didn't anticipate the total destruction of the life I'd worked so hard to create.

No. I'm not being dramatic. I ate, drank and slept cake. For a time my sense of self was centered around this job and the unfortunate part is that I did it for free. I bought into someone else's dream for potential income and security. And then I began to accept someone else's valuation of my skills and personality. (that's right, my personality apparently needed work too) I think you can guess how things went. We can never live up to the expectations of someone else and that ate at me so much that I started losing weight, losing my hair and losing sleep.

At first I thought it was my fault, which only made matters worse. Then one day I sat myself down and thought hard...not about how I could do the job better, be a different person, whatever....but if what the job was expecting was realistic. If it fit into the lifestyle I had been working towards pre-cake making. The answer was no, and the relief that I felt when I recognized that was physical.

I didn't move 4755 miles from everything I knew and everyone I loved to have the same life I had in Minnesota. I moved here not just to live differently, but to be different. I don't want to live my life at top speed desperately trying to fulfill some one else's expectations at rock bottom prices. If I must work for a dream then by all means it should be my own. And so I'll go back to my bike riding, painting, writing, nap taking (I did miss those...), spending time with Leif and friends kind of life.

And so next week I start working for myself again. It feels good.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Workin' for a livin'

Anyone who has followed my life over the last five years has probably wondered "And just what the heck does she do all day?" Some days I wonder the same thing.

My stock answer, until a week ago, was "As little as possible," usually said in a half wistful, half boastful kind of way. Because yes, it's great to have all kinds of free time to pursue any idea that sparks your mind. I've had the chance to learn to ride a road bike. I've wallowed in my art. I've babysat. I've dogsat (is that a word?). I've taught English (a real English teacher would know if dogsat was a word).  I've attempted yoga.

I learned some valuable lessons. I learned that as cute and loveable as kids and dogs are, they are expert at pushing my buttons. Buttons I prefer to leave unpushed at this time. Being able to speak English like a native does not make me a passionate teacher of language. Yoga, well...let's just not go there. I'm incapable of attaining, much less holding, the pretzel position for any length of time. Which leaves the two things I really, really do feel passionate about. Cycling and art. Two jobs that only the extremely talented can really make a living at. So for the longest time I've been content to pursue the things I enjoy and practiced patience in waiting for that thing to come along.

Being able to contribute  to the household is important to me, and while all the stuff I do isn't exactly nothing, I still have always felt a little like I'm taking advantage. Like I'm making Leif do all the work while I lollygag around the apartment eating bonbons and reading trashy magazines. (By the way that's not true. I seem to have lost my craving for chocolate, and the last time I picked up a People Magazine I didn't recognize a single name or face. I'm rather proud of that.) So I do always keep my eyes open for opportunities.

I found one such opportunity on the Facebook page of a creative group I belong to. A group I wouldn't have belonged to three years ago because I hadn't really embraced my artistry yet. After several email exchanges, one phone call, one face to face interview and one full day interview/audition I have exciting news. I have a job! Well, let me rephrase that a little.

I'm participating in the centuries old, time honored tradition of apprenticeship. Appropriate, I think, to be doing this in Italy, where hand craft and hand made are still respected skills. The great masters have always had apprentices. I am so excited that I was one of two people chosen to begin training with one of the top wedding cake designers in Italy, Melanie Secciani of Tuscan Wedding Cakes. Like the great masters, she's pretty much going to share everything that she knows about her business with us, teach us the basic skills, then turn around and ask us "Now what will you do with all this information? What's your interpretation of the things I taught you?"

This job (because one day I will cease to be an apprentice and become an employee) is the perfect blend of art and food. Making something beautiful that pleases not just the eye, but also the mouth. Creating something that takes the breath away even as it fills the heart with memories. I've waited a long time for this thing to come along. This thing that I can throw myself into fully and probably become slightly obsessed with. I'm so ready for this.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

My least favorite topic in the world: Politics

4 years ago

I cringe every time I sit down with one of my Italian friend because lately the one question they always ask me is what I think about the political situation in the US. Then they go on to cite a European newspaper or news program that has reported on some aspect of the election or the latest stupidity to come out of someone's mouth.

They want to know what I think. They believe so easily what they hear from what they view as reputable sources and want to use me as a kind of fact checking resource for their next conversation with their friends. They know what politics is here in Italy. They want to hear that it's different in the US. That our choices are broader and less mired in back-room negotiations. They don't want to believe most of what they are hearing about the presidential candidates. I don't want to believe that they say and do the things they say and do. Most days to me the political news sounds like a poorly written soap opera, and badly acted as well.

I don't have the words in Italian, I practically don't have them in English, to explain how to view the political landscape in the United States. Because as much as we'd like to believe that we are different, that our struggles for democracy have somehow made us immune to the problems that other countries experience, the truth is that we aren't.

We throw democracy around us like a magic cloak and pretend that the things that are happening can't be seen and certainly can't be felt because they are part of the democratic process. During an election year we say and do things that we would consider the height of poor taste and crude behavior in any other year and chalk it up to political fervor as if that should excuse everything and anything.

The truth is, there is no truth in politics. Every word that we hear and read, every word that we speak ourselves is delivered with a political, commercial, corporate or personal agenda. The truth is there is no one neutral enough to deliver a fair estimation of the candidates in this election.

Today, 4 years later. Nothing has changed, except that the players are even more outrageous, the non-partisan reporting even more partisan, and the public even more confused than in the previous election. World events have muddied the political waters even more by throwing fear into the equation. My heart aches for everyone.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How simple stuff becomes complex

I recently discovered that to use a notary here in Florence isn't as easy as back in Minnesota; land where you can walk into your bank, many state or county offices and lots of businesses and ask if they have a notary and they'll say "Sure! Come on in and sit down. Show me your license, sign here." Then a flurry of activity as they stamp, date, sign and stamp again with a flourish. You put your license away and ask how much it costs. They quote you anywhere from "It's free if you have an account," to "Two bucks", which you happily pay and leave having spent less than 15 minutes from start to finish and with enough money left in your pocket for lunch.

At least this is what it was like when I got married 3 years ago and had to change nearly every piece of identifying paper I owned.

Fast forward to last week, when I discovered that my Power of Attorney wasn't specific enough for the state of Minnesota. Even though the definition of durable PoA is pretty clear, Minnesota has decided in the last five years that the definition is a little too loose. So no problem, I write a more specific PoA. This requires a notary to witness my signature. That's it. They don't check my document for content or correctness, just watch me sign and check my face against my passport photo.

Well, in Italy being a Notary is a full time job, not one small portion of the total job description, and they share offices with lawyers. I'm certain it involves an armada of stamps in varying sizes, colors and degrees of importance in addition to the stamp I'll still probably have to buy at a tobacco shop (not the PO). It requires an appointment and the cost is 100euro. Yikes. I mean, maybe there's more to this notary business than I understand, but mostly I see them verify my identity by looking at me and my passport (repeat twice,maybe that's where the cost comes in?) and stamp the document without caring what the document is.

In a true brain storm I checked online with the US Consulate. I still have to make an appointment but they only charge $50....with the caveat that Italian banks only accept bills in good condition so if you bring the equivalent in euros make sure they're pretty. I haven't been home long enough to attempt making an appointment....chances are even if it is the American Consulate it's in Italy and therefore fraught with danger and inexplicable rules, the first of which is probably that the appointment you make online isn't a slave to your schedule but to the Consulate's. You get what you get (it's all online and I'm afraid to go too far into the process and end up with an appointment I can't keep) and rearrange your schedule around it. So I'm waiting till after I get home next week to even attempt to make an appointment.

I'd like to think walking into the Consulate here is like walking into any American government office. In other words, not exactly a visit to Disney World, but a place that follows understandable rules and works pretty straightforwardly. But I've heard rumors that it's staffed by Italians and therefore I shouldn't be surprised by strange requests and unwritten rules and generally feeling like I should feel comfortable but somehow just don't.

I'll be sure to take excellent notes in case anything truly exciting or note worthy happens. For me, of course, the truly exciting thing would be for everything to go smoothly....they verify that I am in fact me, I sign my document, stamp stamp stamp, pay my $50 and head home for a well deserved and stiff drink.

A girl can dream. Right?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How to handle sorrow

I'm struggling today. Actually, for a few days. For the second time since I moved here I'm trying to deal with death from 7, 650 kilometers away.

Initially there's the dilemma of how to convey my sympathy to someone so very far away. My grief doesn't have words that haven't been rendered meaningless by eons of use and repetition. There are no new words to say that my heart is crying with yours, and I don't know when it will stop.

The fact that I can only communicate in the written word makes it even more difficult. I hope that they hear my voice as they read words that seem stripped of their emotion by the fact that they're framed by something as mundane as an email platform.

I'm also reminded that life begins and ends without warning and without mercy, and that I will have to do this many times. Sometimes, as with this moment, death will only brush the edges of my existence, but one day it will strike at the center of my world. While I can't  possibly prepare for it I must at least acknowledge that those 7,650 kilometers will both magnify and dull my responses.

And so now I'll sit down and have a good cry for a life ended too soon, a family surely broken and lost at least for now, and a community left wondering what if.