Friday, December 16, 2011

I hate flying

I am pretty much not a fan of international travel, mostly because it has to be by plane. I hate flying.

5am Florence, Italy- I got to the airport at the crack of dawn and had to go through the line twice because my hand luggage was over the limit, which she said was 8 kilos but I couldn’t find anywhere that this was written down. I did the Ryanair shuffle, putting lots of stuff in my purse and my coat. (yeah I know, still in the plane, but rules are rules.) The second time through, I think because she hated my “let’s get through this together” smile as much as I did she then told me that she thought my bag, which has always met carry on rules  before, was too big. “They may tell you at the gate that it’s too large,” she said, implying with a look that I was foolish to take the chance. Extra bags mean extra money for the airline. For carrying the same piece of luggage in a different place on the plane. Maybe she gets a commission.

I forgot my sunglasses in the plastic bin at the security check because I was busy trying to remember my computer and coat and passport and didn’t notice that I didn’t have my glasses till I was out of the area. Not my fault totally, it was dark out yet people.

The lady at the gate frowned at my hand luggage, visually measuring it and finding it “piu grande.” I channeled my inner Italian and said it has been flying as cabin luggage for years and no one has questioned it. She rolled her eyes as she let it through,  probably mentally writing  the speech she will give when my piece of luggage causes the plane to crash. The funniest part was that they still took away all our hand luggage and stowed it below anyway, for free.

When I looked out the window next to my seat all I could see was prop (tiny plane) and decided this was good. When it inevitably fell off in mid-flight I wouldn’t feel a thing and for once I’d be the first to go.

The lady in the seat next to me closed her eyes and crossed herself as we took off. God must have talked to her because as soon as we were level she took out her 2012 calendar and started planning. Even that couldn’t comfort me as I got a National Geographic view of the Dolomites as we flew over, barely missing the peaks. Good news is I got to see snow up close and personal.

9am Munich, Germany- The passport check guy (not to be confused with the security check people) asked a bunch of seemingly innocent questions designed to get me to incriminate myself. Of what I don’t know. He was fascinated by the Italian spelling of Philadelphia, which has no ph’s, Filadelfia. He said weird, I said no, Italian. He gave me a piercing look, did something on his computer and let me go. I’m probably tagged for life as a flight risk, or at least someone with a crappy sense of humor.

The security check (handled by Lufthansa) was handled by two women who made me feel as if I had done something wrong, or was on the verge of doing something wrong, or simply had a bad thought that one time and this would stop me from getting on my plane. (In their defense [which I hate to do, but fair is fair] the problems in Belgium and Italy probably making everyone hypersensitive right now. Although neither incident happened in an airport, or on a plane, or even under a flight plan.) She asked me lots of questions about my luggage: who packed it, where was it after it was packed and who was with it? Apparently I should wait till the last moment to pack, or sleep with my suitcase until I leave. She finally  let me through, although her look said it was against her better judgment.

It’s been such a great morning, I can hardly wait for the transatlantic part to start. To celebrate I bought an outrageously expensive and therefore totally American coffee once they had me sequestered at the gate. What else could I do?

12 noon Somewhere over the Atlantic- A minor miracle as I was one of the first people in economy class to board. My cabin luggage was stowed directly above me and my seatmates were sleepers. My friend who used to work at a place that supplied parts for the Airbus A330 says they are the best planes in the air. I was seriously hoping that was the case as I watched the overhead luggage bins vibrate back and forth. Almost 10 hours in the air meant plenty of time for movies…something I haven’t seen since I left the States. (well in English, I don’t think watching a movie in Swedish counts cuz I don’t understand a single word they say)

Funny thing, each seat has its own screen on the seat back in front of it so each passenger can watch whatever they want whenever they want. Awesome. And to buy a pair of cheap ass ear buds (which they recommend on their announcements to “keep for use on future  flights with US Airways!“) it’s only 4 euros or 5 dollars. Lucky me I had my own on my ipod so I didn’t have to buy them. Waste of money.

I will admit to being incredibly tired and unable to sleep, so I watched three movies. I think that I changed a bit in the last year. Something happened that never, ever happens to me. I cried. Yes, watching a movie. I didn’t cry during Black Swan, but I seriously cried during My Life in Ruins, a cheesy comedy that shouldn’t make anyone cry. That story, my friends, will have to wait till another day, because I’m pretty sure that typing the things I was feeling at that moment would make me cry again. Not something I want to do at Gate C23 at the Philadelphia airport. The last movie I watched was something with penguins and Jim Carey…I have no idea why I watched it.

4pm Philadelphia, PA - I could blame my emotional state on new batch of security and passport checks I had to endure here, but truthfully it’s been such a long day that I’m pretty numb to the whole thing. I think I could be cool with just about anything except someone trying to wrestle my bags out of my hand for “further inspection.” Gotta draw the line somewhere, and that’s my somewhere. I gave the little Agricultural Products sniffing dog a dirty look and it bypassed my bags completely. Good to know I can intimidate a miniature daschund wearing a uniform. That’s right, wearing a little jacket with just enough room for the words “Agricultural Products Agent.” Must be why they chose a daschund. Looooong body.

Here’s hoping that the last leg of the flight is uneventful, and that my parents show up to get me. I was unable to remind them as they are “at the cabin.”

8pm Minneapolis,MN - I made it. I have no energy to write more than that. It’s all that matters. My parents got me at the airport and we drove home without incident. Life is good.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Packing my suitcases (again)

I know that I started late (for me) but I have officially begun packing for the trip back to Minnesota. This time it's a little tricky.

I want to bring as few things back to Minnesota with me as possible because I want the room in my suitcases to bring back to Italy all the things I already know I can live without but would rather live with. Like some of my kitchen stuff. Like more of my clothes. Family pictures. A few treasured books (just a few, they weigh a ton.)

I toyed with the idea of putting one of my suitcases inside my big suitcase. But the one that fits inside is a good one with good wheels, which we all know means it weighs too much. I wouldn't be able to bring much else along for the ride, and there are a few things that I absolutely have to bring with me. I'll be there for almost two months and I'm getting married. There are things a girl needs.

Aside from a few clothes, some essential paperwork and a couple of presents for the family I have to bring wine and olive oil. The wine because this is Italy...the land of wine. It would be like going to Napa Valley and not bringing a bottle of wine back. Many would ask why you even went. Were you even in Napa Valley? Probably not, or you would have brought back a bottle of wine. So I'll have to bring a bottle with me. I'll even share.

The olive oil is something else. That is purely personal and I might get a little tetchy if someone wants to share. Because I will be in Minnesota for almost two months. In the year I have lived here I think I've become addicted to olive oil. It makes me happy. It makes everything taste better. And I can't afford the good stuff in the States.

So I will bring two suitcases with me, one checked and one cabin. I just have to figure out how to pack my nearly empty checked bag so that nothing bounces around too much. I need those giant bags of air that retailers use to fill the empty space in boxes with. Then again, they might blow up as the pressure in the plane changes, causing panic amongst all and pretty much  ruining the trip for everyone. And my wine and olive oil will still bounce around my suitcase. I'll come up with a better plan. I hope.

I'm pretty sure I can do this in two re-packs or less, which may in fact be a personal best for me. Now coming back to Italy, that's gonna be a little harder. It will take a couple of weeks, a sturdy scale and some creativity. And a really big purse.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Getting married: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a groom.

I know, the basic premise is that if there is a wedding there must naturally be a bride and a groom...or two brides or two grooms.  A marriage requires two people, and until two days ago I was the only one with a ticket to Minnesota. Since this is where the wedding is being held it was definitely a priority to get Leif a ticket to Minnesota, post haste.

We have been working to get the necessary block of funds together to get him a ticket. Through the generosity of several people we were finally able to book his flight on Monday. Thank you to them for making this possible.

The process of booking a flight online should qualify as premarital counseling. If two people can huddle over the same computer for hours, first finding the cheapest (yet not longest) flight on the planet and then get it booked before 1) they change the price or 2) it becomes unavailable, without slapping each others hands away from the keyboard or something more extreme then they can manage just about any obstacle that comes their way. I'd like to think with grace and style, but honestly I'm happy with surviving the bumps. I don't care what it looks like anymore.

It was difficult. We had to try a bunch of different combinations of arrival and departure dates to find the cheapest ones. You'd think that checking the +/- 3 days button would work, but trust me, it does't always find what you're looking for. We found what we wanted, then had the frustration of watching the website claim that every ticket we tried to book was unavailable. Which was an out and out lie as it was right there on the screen just a few minutes earlier as available. Just for fun (I'm sure) after a couple of tries it told us that the price had changed for this ticket, leading us to believe that the ticket was available if we wanted to pay the extra money. To which we said "Yeah, sure, of course!" Well, actually we hit a button that said we would like to continue with this booking, but we did it with great enthusiasm. Then it told us the flight was unavailable. See how much fun this is?

Being the internet savvy people that we are we changed the dates slightly, found something for the same money as we had before, and before anything could change we put all the info in and hit Book. We sort of held our breath as we watched the little dots make their circle telling us that the computer was thinking about our request and would give us an answer when it was damn well ready to. And a miracle happened, right there in our kitchen. He has a ticket to Minnesota on January 10.

I'm thinking of asking at the marriage license offices if we can use this experience as premarital counseling and get the $60 knocked off the price of the license. I don't have much hope, but it's worth a shot. So if you had any doubts before, you can put them away now. He's coming. I'll be there. Happiness will abound.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Can a person be allergic to a country?

This is a completely serious question. Every time we go to Sweden I get what seems to be a cold. Sneezing, wheezing, endless running nose. I'd like to blame it on Ryanair (because even though it's super cheap, I feel less like a customer and more like a piece of luggage) but I can't. We don't always fly with them. I don't think I can handle being allergic to a country I will be visiting at least once a year for the rest of my life.

Some people might say it's the stress of living in a third language, one which I have absolutely no instincts for yet. If I look confused here in Florence people switch to English, when I look confused in Sweden they rephrase the question in ever simpler terms (I assume), eventually giving up and concluding (maybe rightly so) that I'm not all there. Who can blame them? I look so Swedish.

This time I guess I can blame it on 1) the recirculated air on the plane, 2) 4 days of public transportation in Stockholm and 3) the vent in our romantic room on the ship which blew hot dry air directly into my berth (I love talking like a sailor) all night long.

Sadly, this time the cold/allergy/whatever has stayed with me. The last two days it has reached epic proportions. I couldn't breath when I laid down, my head hurt, my left ear ached, and my left eyeball throbbed. All in all a very unpleasant experience. I bought some cough drops at the supermarket in an attempt to clear my head up, at least long enough to fall asleep. They are called Monk's so I mistakenly assumed they would be Christian in their treatment of me and my cold. Leif also put some orange juice in our basket that had vitamins added.

I popped one of the drops in my mouth as soon as we got home. It did wonders for my nose. Leif poured me a glass of juice as I reached the end of the drop. I don't know which thing to blame, the drops or the juice, but halfway through the glass I started to feel like throwing up and the feeling didn't leave me until the next morning. If it was the cough drops their treatment of me was very unchristian-like. If it was the juice,well, that's just wrong. It's orange juice, the healthiest thing on the planet practically.

I'm remembering now that in the States those drops with liquid centers tended to make me feel a little queasy. I'm also remembering that I have been told that sometimes Italian products are stronger than their counterparts in the US. So whether it's the cough drops or the vitamin enriched juice I don't know, but I won't be trying either one again. Ever. It's just not worth it.

I made myself some chicken noodle soup yesterday. It must have been entertaining to watch. I propped myself up against the counter and tried not to sneeze directly onto anything. When standing got to be too much I sat on the love seat in the kitchen. I didn't lay down because I was afraid I would fall asleep and burn the house down. I know, I said I couldn't fall asleep but experience has taught me that just when you think something can't happen, it will. Leif said it was good. I couldn't tell you because I couldn't actually taste anything at that point. But I'm a firm believer in the power of chicken noodle soup so I made it and I ate it.

I hear some of you in the back asking "Why not just go to the pharmacy and get something?" Good question. My answer to you is that I was barely functioning in English, Any attempts to describe my symptoms or to ask for a product similar to something in the States would probably have reduced me to tears and given the pharmacist a good laugh for the next week. Neither of these scenarios would result in my feeling better.

Luckily this morning I woke up feeling a whole lot better. I was starting to get a little frustrated. Somewhere in my early years I got the idea that being sick was a personal failure. There's nothing worse than feeling like crap and beating yourself up mentally for not being able to will yourself better. So I'll continue to take naps. I can do this without guilt now as the rains of November have finally arrived and I won't see sunshine and feel like I should be out there enjoying it (a very Minnesotan reaction to the sun, any time of the year).

outside seating with heaters
and fur chair covers-
how awesome is that?
Because I have tons of pictures from my trip I will now share pictures totally unrelated to this post, but I hate to waste perfectly good travel pictures on myself. Here are two places we went to for coffee during our visit to Stockholm.

the tree is growing inside the building

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Swedish castle

We went to a wedding while we were in Sweden. It was a weekend event at a castle. Before you get all excited and think "ooooh, a castle!" it's important to remember that what you and I might think of as a castle is not always right. In Sweden (according to the guide for our tour) a castle is simply a dwelling that was owned by royalty or a home where three different church steeples could be seen from the top floor. So castellated walls and towers, giant fireplaces and stone everything is not necessarily true. This was a 18th century building that has been renovated a number of times over the years.

Still, it's a beautiful setting for a wedding. All dark woodwork and candles everywhere. The afternoon started off with "Tea" and the quotation marks are intentional. It's a real tea, with breads and scones and sweets and savories plus all the beverages. Very classy if you can ignore the giant stuffed swan that presides over the whole affair. It sits in a niche above the bread table. Impossible to ignore. I assume the swan is some previous owners trophy and difficult to unload at a garage sale. Or, and this is possible, they actually like it. Tough call.

After tea we went on the guided tour of the castle, because I love seeing old buildings. Naturally the tour was in Swedish, so Leif spent the hour breathing translations into my ear. Very distracting, the breathing I mean. What I managed to gather from his translation was that this was more than simply a was a haunted castle. By at least four ghosts. Let me be the first to say it. Awesome. So on top of the creaking floors and candlelight and dark paintings, in addition to the sort of creepy swan in the foyer, there were ghosts. I was hoping to meet up with at least one of them. That would be something to write home about. Maybe not the little boy who died  from TB at age six, that would just be sad, but the woman who wanders around the halls wearing a white dress with puffy sleeves sounded interesting.

The wedding was performed (unattended by any of the ghosts), the toast was drunk, and the dinner eaten accompanied by wine. (side note: the menu for dinner changed that morning to venison. I was the only one who laughed when I said "Oh, someone hit a deer on the way to work this morning?" Maybe they were laughing inside...) After dinner we went downstairs to one of the parlors, which is romantically (or sinisterly, depending on your frame of mind) lit by a few strategically placed candles and lamps with 5 watt light bulbs. We watched the bride and groom open their presents while sipping the local after diner wine.

I was sitting near the piano talking with one of the bride's relatives when I happened to look over my shoulder and just about fell off my chair. I didn't scream, I don't think I made any noise at all. But when you've had more than a few glasses of wine and are sitting in the near dark in what has been recently described to you (albeit in Swedish) as a haunted castle a person gets a little jumpy. This is what I saw when I looked up. I dare any of you to say that you wouldn't have been at least surprised, if not scared, if you saw that after listening to ghost stories just hours earlier.

Once my heart stopped racing and I took a better look at it I realized it wasn't alive (my only real concern because something alive can randomly decide you're threatening and really, truly attack you) and I was able to pretend it wasn't hovering over my shoulder for the rest of the evening.

I went back the next morning, just to confirm that there was a bird perched on the piano ready to pounce on unsuspecting guests. I mean, I never drink enough to hallucinate but if a castle is haunted it also has the potential for enchantment and anyone who has read King Arthur knows that nothing good can come from enchantment. In fact enchantment is usually followed 15 years later by the arrival of a son or daughter "unbeknownst to him." King Arthur's knights weren't the sharpest swords in the armory. But I digress. The bird was still there but after a good night's sleep it didn't look near as bad as it did the night before. In fact, it looked kind of fake, but it's not, I checked.

Sailing in Sweden, kind of

It is now about two weeks until I have to leave Italy for awhile. Well, long enough to get married and then come back. Still, it's something I don't like thinking about or writing about so to distract myself I'll tell you a little bit about our last trip to Sweden. Oh, which was 10 to 24 November.

Stockholm by moonlight.
We stayed in Stockholm for the first 4 days because I've never been there before. It's a beautiful city. Lots of water. It's called the "Venice of the north" or so I'm told. I can see why. I innocently asked if the water was a lake or a river and got the funny look that said I obviously didn't know my geography. Which is true. All that water is actually a sea. I will do my best to remember this in the future.

We were treated so well by Leif's friends who had us for dinners. His sister's fiance's brother (whew, talk about shirt-tail relations) put us up for two nights and showed us the city by night and fed us magnificently. We had three day passes to the subways, buses and trams in Stockholm and used them constantly. OK, I didn't enjoy taking like four escalators down (deep into the ground) for some of the connections, but by the time we were done I was pretty comfortable getting around town.

Our hostel.
Here is a picture of our hostel where we stayed the last two nights in Stockholm. We stayed on a ship in the harbor. Totally cool, even if we had to share our room with  4 complete strangers (that we never actually met) and sleep in bunk beds. We would go to bed early (because we were tired from walking all day) and they would slink in anywhere between midnight and 4am, and we would wake up early and try to sneak out quietly. I don't even know if they were men or women, everyone seemed to sleep with the covers over their heads.

Our very romantic bunk beds.
We're calling it our early honeymoon even though sleeping in separate beds surrounded by strangers is probably not everyone's definition of romantic. Who cares? We spent 4 days walking everywhere in the city and eating great food and seeing one of the great cities of the world. We do the romance at home every day. And honestly,  what's more romantic than a ship?

Leif had fun crawling all over the ship and pretending he was a sailor. I tried to act all cool, like I didn't really know him, but it's hard when he keeps saying "Take my picture here!" It was too, too much fun. Oh, and the reason I'm not in many of the pictures is because it's my camera.

He's new to sailing.

Just so people know I was actually on the ship with him...

The Florence Marathon

Today was the Florence Marathon. No, I didn't run it. I'm a sprinter, not a distance runner. And you runners can tell me that a marathon is just a series of sprints, but the reality is I only have about 5 good sprints in me on a good day. That and a bus ticket will get me to the finish line.

I went  for a walk today and couldn't believe my eyes. There, casually walking down the street like they hadn't just run a bazillion miles were some of the runners on their way home. They weren't staggering down the sidewalk. They weren't using the buildings to hold themselves up. They weren't being tenderly carried by loved ones. They were walking. Many of them were smiling. I don't get it.

I spent a few blocks thinking hard about what must go on in the mind of a runner. I certainly couldn't run all those miles and then still walk home. I'm sure there's some kind of runners wisdom that says you should keep moving after running and not collapse into a boneless, muscle-less heap. I can't think of what it might be, but I'm sure one of you will tell me. I still think I would like to be carried home like Cleopatra on a divan carried by four extremely strong and beautiful men. Not that I could do anything with them at that point, but the view would be nice.

I was walking towards the finish line and suddenly I seemed to be surrounded by people wearing shiny foil blankets and pretty metals. I was starting to feel a little lazy and thought a climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo would make me feel more athletic. And it did, at first.

I climbed the 200 or so meters to the top and congratulated myself on making it up without stopping. I turned to look out over the city and behind me were some of the runners climbing up behind me so they could have their picture taken at the overlook after running the marathon. I felt a little less pleased with myself then.

On the walk home I wondered if perhaps I should, just once in my life, do something athletic. Not running, because we have already established that I am not a runner. But if we use the broadest definition possible I could be called a cyclist. I think I should just once in my life participate in a long ride that ends with me wearing a silver foil blanket and wearing a pretty medal. Just so I can say that I did. And I can feel less like a couch potato and like a more active and upright vegetable, like a snap pea.

Or this could be the lamest idea I've had in years. I guess we'll find out.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wearing our rings

We finally got the rings. We didn’t realize when we chose them that they had to be made. In a US jewelry store they simply go into the back and find the right size and you pay your money and you leave with your rings in a little bag. Not here, at least not all the time. On the other hand, our rings are hand made. Not exactly one of a kind, but definitely not something that we will see hundreds of other couples wearing wherever we go. And they were made for us.

I have a clear picture in my mind of the person who made our rings and the place it happened. This is Italy, where time hasn’t necessarily stood still but it has slowed down quite a bit. I imagine a dark basement workshop with small leaded windows covered with intricate and sturdy iron bars. In some ways it resembles a mad scientist’s lab, with the flames from the wood furnace reflecting off the surfaces of mysterious tools and precious stones. It is a slightly chaotic atmosphere that inspires the genius that works there.

The jeweler is naturally short and slightly bald with a magnificent handlebar mustache, wearing a vest with a watch chain spanning his stomach. He wears glasses that magnify his eyes. He is an intensely focused person. He is an artiste.

The reality is probably far different. I’m sure our rings were made in a highly efficient, brightly lit lab-like atmosphere. They probably work the metal in one of those boxes that looks like a baby incubator with the rubber gloves attached and all the gold shavings are gathered up so there is no waste. My jeweler probably wears Levis and converse tennies under his hazmat suit.

But I can’t be certain, so I think I’ll stick with the more romantic and improbable vision I have in my mind. Everything about our romance has been magical, I think the rings and the person who made them must be magical too.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Getting Married: The circus is coming to town

Naturally, whenever we share the news that we are engaged and going to be married people ask us when and where. I wish it were a simple question to answer, because they look so disappointed when we say we don't know yet. Honestly, we're still kind of enjoying the excitement of the proposal and buying the rings. (side note: we don't actually have the rings yet. It's entirely possible that they are mining the gold before they make our rings. And holidays like All Saints Day slow the process too.) I hate the disappointed look but there's more to this than simply choosing a date.

Not that I haven't started thinking about these things. I have. In fact, being the totally organized American woman that I am, just last week I went to the dollar store (I am also a frugal woman) and bought a folder and a notebook so that everything would stay in one place. If you care to know, a lime green folder and a notebook with flowers on it. The selection of notebooks at the dollar store is not large. There were Japanese anime notebooks and dirt bike notebooks. At one point I almost got a Hannah Montana notebook, because that was the only one I could find without swords or engines on it. Well, she was wearing a motorcycle jacket, so I guess an engine was implied, but I didn't have to actually see it. I wasn't really looking forward to sitting in some official office and saying "wait, I have to get out my totally awesome Hannah Montana notebook to write down these important notes about the most romantic day of my life." Soooo, I dug down to the bottom of the stack and found a few kind of neutral covers and chose one with white flowers tranquilly floating on water. So assuming I ever have details to organize I'm ready. If I don't have details I can stare at the cover and feel calm as I wait for details to arrive.

As of last week, we knew exactly what we wanted. We wanted to get married in Florence. We had our witnesses chosen, we knew where it would happen, we even had a date in mind. Our visit to the marriage office in the town hall changed our minds significantly. The requirements for getting married in Italy are pretty large. Every public record about your life beginning with the day you were born, translated into Italian and stamped by numerous authorities have to be produced before they will even give a couple a civil service appointment. I would have to swear in front of two separate authorities that I can legally marry, with the accompanying fees and stamps. It is impossible to get married quickly In Italy. I don't know how anyone does it. Actually, I do. They hire a wedding planner. I think there's a conspiracy at work here. We were hoping to be married before December 15 so that I could return to Italy any time after my visit to Minnesota for the holidays. If we aren't married by then I have to wait three months to come back to Italy.

This was pretty hard on Leif. For him the proposal was the equivalent of standing at the altar saying "I do," without the luxury of the year long wait for the actual ceremony like American men get. In his mind (and his cultural upbringing) the proposal really means that as of now we are married, committed to each other for the rest of our lives. I feel the same way. We are doing the ritual because it is the only way to make our relationship legal outside of Sweden and allow me to stay with him. To have all these requirements and half-answers and flat-out noes from the various offices we visited was discouraging and emotional for us both.

We went home and sat around kind of shell-shocked for a bit. And started talking about options. We agreed that it wasn't the kind of decision we wanted to make quickly and that we should wait till Sunday night to talk about it again. We spent the weekend thinking about what we personally wanted from the experience and how flexible we felt we could be on the details.

Fast forward to Sunday night, because it was a very quiet and thoughtful weekend  for both of us. Lots of online research into requirements and costs. Lots of wishing the world were a friendlier place. There may have been a discussion about forming our own country and abolishing paperwork completely. (Still kinda kicking that one around but I don't expect anything to happen on that front any time soon.)

We talked a bit more about the pros and cons (OK, mostly cons) of Italy, Sweden and the USA. After looking carefully at all our options and practicing a little calm acceptance we are happy to announce that we will be married somewhere in Minnesota sometime in January. I can return to Italy whenever I want to as long as I hold in my hand a certified, translated into Italian and stamped by third party authorities marriage certificate. That's all we really wanted to begin with. And so, having run away with the circus, I am now bringing the circus to Minnesota. That's as detailed as it gets right now.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Getting Married: Buying the rings

I forgot to tell you the day we got engaged...18 October. One of my new favorite days of the year.

My head was kind of spinning after he proposed. And as soon as we got back to Florence he was working again, so we didn't get a chance to look for rings till about a week later. We spent the week in a happy kind of fog, remembering every time we looked at each other that we wouldn't have to say goodbye again.

He was excited to shop for rings. In Sweden, both partners wear a ring during the engagement period. Of course, in Sweden the engagement period can last a lifetime and there is no need to actually get married. So we looked for rings that both of us would wear for the rest of our lives.

He has a lot to learn about shopping. We went to a store close to our home and spent some time looking at what they had, discussing the pros and cons of each (in English) and making suitable comments (in Italian). We narrowed the selection down to three. He wanted to buy something right away. I said no. We need to look more. And if we don't look more, we need to spend twenty four hours thinking about it because we will be wearing these rings for eternity.

He agreed...reluctantly. He's one of those guys who makes decisions and then acts on them, never looking back. I took the extra day to do a little research. I walked the city checking stores to compare styles and prices. I mean, I knew that we would go back to the same store and buy the ring we both loved, but I was raised on comparison shopping and needed to get that out of my system so that I could agree wholeheartedly  with him  that, yes, those are the rings I want too.

We went back a few days later and bought them. Naturally the one we chose is hand made in Florence by a goldsmith as they are ordered, so we don't have them yet. There will be pictures as soon as we have them. But trust me, they are beautiful.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Getting Married: The proposal

On the trail.

So I assume people want the longer version of how Leif proposed. It’s a pretty good story. Of course it starts with me being all freaked out because I was facing the prospect of leaving in a couple of months and really, really not wanting to. But quietly freaked out, because men are like wild animals, they frighten easily and I didn’t want him to run away from me in terror. I tried to ooze cool. Not sure if I succeeded. Actually, I know I didn’t, but he handled it very well.

We had been talking about a trip to Cinque Terra. He has been there with groups several times every year and thought it would be a nice trip for us. We prefer trips that are active, and Cinque Terra is kind of a National Park for hikers. There are trails that connect five villages on the coast and thousands of people every year go there. It's very beautiful.

Locking our love in Italy
(corny, but fun)
He made me work for this. We climbed and descended about a thousand feet in four miles of hiking before lunch. We had seafood (naturally) in a colorful little village sticking out into the sea. The last path we hiked is called the Via dell’Amore (the way of love) and that’s where he proposed to me. On the coast of Italy with the fresh sea air blowing around us. Yeah, as my friend Jo says, he’s a keeper.

We toasted our future from a common blue plastic cup (we were hiking, you can’t carry too much and he already had a bottle of wine in his pack) and left our own remembrance of the day on a lock someone else had left there.

We are very, very happy. Now to figure out how to get married in Italy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Cultural differences

Yes, I have been curiously silent lately. I have been experiencing a lot of different emotions and sometimes when all you feel is emotional it's hard to write about any one thing. I think I end up sounding like I'm simply writing to write, automatic writing that ends up being nonsense. I suppose real writers would disagree with me.

So my real crisis day came on October 15, which is just two months from the date of my return ticket to Minnesota. I'm not gonna lie to you. I kinda freaked out, very quietly. I don't want to go. Leif could tell something was wrong. I think complete strangers could see I was preoccupied with something. Because while the only way I can figure to stay is if we get married, I don't want to get married just to stay here. I know, picky.

Those closest to me would certainly say that I'm making more of this than there needs to be. Of course, they're not living it. Sometimes I think their issues are pretty simple to fix, from my thousands of miles away point of view.

Manifestation of cultural grey zone. Eats airplanes.
I sort of feel like I'm navigating a cultural grey zone, a Bermuda Triangle of Love if you will. Our two countries couldn't be farther apart on the topics of romance and marriage. Italy should be neutral, but that would would be impossible for an Italian. I personally find the grey zone between these points to be filled with the kind of dense fog that  makes a person feel alone and swallows  up sound so silence is the loudest thing to be heard.

I was raised with a particularly American concept of romance. My Barbie had a wedding dress, like every other little girl my age I put a pillow case on my head and pretended I was a bride. Movies and magazines just reinforced in my mind the ritual I came to think of as romance.

A couple meet and fall madly, hopelessly in love. They date for an appropriate amount of time. I don't know what that means, but there's talk when things are "rushed." No longer able to live apart, they get married. Again after an engagement of the appropriate amount of time to avoid talk. All the family weddings I attended were big affairs. Anyone who got married without a big wedding had some kind of secret problem that adults talked about in low voices and even though I didn't understand exactly what was going on I knew it was bad, so obviously a big wedding meant you were a good girl.

So that's the culture (and generation) I come from. Somewhere under all the tulle is the legal reason for getting married. I have such a different life now that I want to throw this fantasy out the window and figure out what love and romance mean to me.

Leif is from Sweden. This is the only thing I know for certain.

Everything else I think I know about the Swedish concepts of romance and marriage come from discussions with Leif, various other Swedes I know and online research. Chances are I will misrepresent a large portion of what I think I think I know. First, I know that there are lots of couples in Sweden who are engaged or living together and never get married. A little online research tells me that cohabiting couples in Sweden have pretty much the same legal rights as a married couple. Marriage is a ceremonial ritual that people who want to do something traditional might choose, but it isn't a common thing. An engagement isn't a part of the process to becoming married like in the US, it is an end unto itself.

We live in Italy and want to continue to live here. And that's why this whole discussion is happening. Italy isn't Sweden, and the only way I can stay is to marry someone who lives here. It doesn't even matter what the cultural norms are here because the Italian government has clearly defined how an American citizen without a job or ginormous bank account can stay here. They lay it all out for you. Where, when, and by whom with an imposing stack of paperwork. In Italian. Not impossible, but fraught with hidden pitfalls and traps.

So there you go. Three completely different views on love and marriage. How do we bring all these opposing views together? Do we try to find a common ground or just let things go and see what happens? Being the outgoing American that I am, do I ask him to marry me? Wait for him to ask me? Get him drunk?

I wish that staying here wasn't all tied up with something as important as getting married. Because in the end all I want to do is be with him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I want to say goodbye to Hello Kitty

On the day of my most exciting adventure to Dicomano I spent a lot of time at the train station near my house. Quite an education for me, I have to say.

They have great vending machines there that sell just about everything. There are machines for drinks, machines for snacks and machines for coffee (not to be confused with other beverages). There is also a machine, handy to the main doors to the station, that sells toiletries. You know, for those times when you forget to pack stuff.

It happens all the time. Guys forget their shaving cream. Someone always gets a boowha (or boo boo) and needs a band aid. Lucky for us all that Trenitalia has our needs and comfort in mind and thoughtfully provides machines that handle those little forgetful moments we all have.

How often have I packed for a trip and forgotten my Hello Kitty wet wipes? I can't even begin to count.

In fact, Hello Kitty has gone way over the edge, in my opinion. Not only are there the wet wipes, there is also Hello Kitty shaving cream. I assume it is for women/girls for shaving their legs. Unless there are some very confident men out there using Hello Kitty shaving foam in the locker room. Until I studied this particular vending machine I had no idea just how far reaching the Hello Kitty branding had become. Just below the shaving foam were packs of Hello Kitty sanitary napkins and panty liners. I wish I were kidding. And right next to them were extra large condoms. I didn't know they came in extra large. FYI these were not of the Hello Kitty brand but the placement is strange and just a little awkward, to say the least.

My luck, someone who dearly loves Hello Kitty will read this and write to the company about product placement, quoting my blog, and then I will banned from using the trains in Italy. Or maybe just the vending machines, which is fine with me because I never use them anyway. I am an awesome packer.

It's not enough that I have to wend my way through scores of tourists toting Hello Kitty backpacks, wearing Hello Kitty t-shirts and texting on their phones tastefully covered with a Hello Kitty skin. No. Now I have to avert my eyes every time I see a machine filled with shaving cream and condoms. Except that I won't because of course now I will be checking out every vending machine I find to see just how hard Hello Kitty is working to be the provider of all things necessary and not. But I swear, the day Hello Kitty has their own line of condoms is the day I move to a farm in the Australian outback and live off the land.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The train trip that almost wasn't

Last fall Leif and I went to a chestnut festival in the rain hoping to see the ceramic work of a friend of his named Lena. (Yes, she is Swedish. There are so many Swedes here I'm beginning to wonder if Sweden is actually trying to very quietly and sneakily colonize Italy.) Because it was raining that day she decided not to go to Maradi so we never saw her stuff. We had fun anyway. Today she was in a different city at a different festival with her work. I decided to go. I had nothing going on anyway. Leif left today for a five day tour so I'm alone. It sounded like fun.

I bought my ticket at 8 this morning after Leif caught his train for Rome. According to the machine selling the tickets there was a train every hour to Dicomano. I considered taking the 9:57 train. But that seemed a little early for my new kind of life. (When we were young trips to the state fair started before dawn and ended before lunch so we would miss the crowds. Even though it drove me nuts it's a hard habit to break.) So I decided to come back to the station to catch the 10:57 train.

I only live about 5 minutes from the station so about 10:30 I went to the station and looked at the printed departures to see which track to go to. Instead of a little number in a blue circle next to the train listing I saw a little blue bus. A little confusing. I checked the monitor for the latest info on trains leaving the station and behind the 10:57 train to Dicomano were the letters PE instead of a track number. I still have no idea what PE stands for, but I am at a loss as to why Trenitalia, a train company, would sell me a bus ticket. That's what the many bus companies in Florence are for. The machine that sold me the ticket didn't tell me that it would be a bus. I wasn't sure where to catch this train/bus or where it would drop me off. And I was just a little po'd that the machine didn't give me the information up front. I decided to take the 11:57 train, even though every fiber of my being was now screaming that daylight's awastin'.

One more trip home and back to the station at 11:30, where I discovered that contrary to what the machine that sold me the ticket said, there is no train at 11:57 on Sundays. The next train (this time I checked with the printed schedule and the monitor) was at 13.01. My day was rapidly spinning out of control. On the other hand I was so pissed at Trenitalia for their callous treatment of me, a valued customer, that I decided there was no way I wasn't getting to Dicomano today. I triple checked the times before leaving the station and headed for the park near our house. I didn't want to climb the stairs to our apartment yet another time.

At the appointed time (12:30) I went to the station prepared for any disaster they might throw at me. The train was five minutes late, but other than that things went smoothly. And as the train was pulling out of the station I think "Hmm, the machine was wrong about these departure times...what if the return times (I already bought my return ticket) were as much of a lie as the departure times?" I felt the laughter bubbling up, the kind of laughter that could become hysterical or become tears...tough to say. And once I got that under control I decided that I'd get back somehow.

Really, I've never been truly stranded anywhere. There are always options. I just usually have Leif with me. He is so calm. Sometimes it drives me crazy, that calm. But the longer I'm here the more I realize that there isn't any need for the stress that I put myself through. It really does all work out in the end. I knew that there was nothing I could do till I got to the station and looked at their schedule, being careful to look for those "this train doesn't run on Sundays" note. So I sat back and enjoyed the ride through the mountains of Tuscany.

Once at the (tiny) train station I checked the schedule and found that the machine didn't lie about  the return trips. I had 2 hours to whoop it up in Dicomano before the train left. I walked out of the train station into a little street and thought (I've done a lot of thinking today, haven't I?) "I have absolutely no idea where this festa might be at. But certainly not on this little dead end street," and walked away. Trying to remember a few landmarks cuz I have to get myself back to this station somehow. I didn't bring my bread crumbs.

I stopped a man on the street and asked him in my worst Italian (probably) where the festival was. He looked at me mutely for about 5 seconds before repeating my question and finally telling me where it was. This is a common reaction. I am not some kind of stunning here. I'm just blonde and blue eyed and they need a moment to take that fact in before they can concentrate on what I'm saying. Thank goodness he was right with his directions. I would never have chosen that street if it weren't for him.

It was your typical small town festival. The local rotary (or whatever it might be here) had a stand with chestnut ravioli and roasted chestnuts, wine and beer. All the good things in life. Almost everything being sold there was handmade or antique. Jewelry, needlework, wood working, ceramics, soaps, you name it someone was trying to sell it. My favorite (besides Lena's booth) was the man making shaped felt hats. I freely admit I was this close to buying one. I love hats. Lena was there with her ceramics and her dad had driven his genuine Swedish wood crafts all the way from Sweden. I bought myself a sweet little coffee cup and saucer with little ladybugs and flowers on it.

There was a Harley ride through the mountains, but there were more Ducati cycles than Harleys. They had their festival princesses dressed up in period costume, walking around town wearing paper crowns and carrying their wine glasses greeting the crowd. I was sitting in the central piazza in town and it was slowly filling up with other folks in costumes. I was pretty excited because I thought I was going to get to see one of those Medival pageants that happen just everywhere here, but that I never get  to see.

As the minutes slowly ticked towards my departure time I started to get anxious. I really was looking forward to seeing some sort of costume parade, maybe even with flags. But this is Italy, and even if it was scheduled to start at a certain time it's important to remember that it's only a guideline, this schedule thing. They'll get to it when they get to it. And not before. You can't rush them, it only makes the wait longer. Finally I had to leave so that I wouldn't miss my train. I was disappointed (still am) but I will find a costume gala to attend and photograph and be completely awed by. I bet it totally knocks the socks off anything that happens at Ren Fest.

I managed to find my way back to the train station in plenty of time for my train. It gave me lots of time to eat some of my chestnuts and watch a family who were waiting for the same train. Their youngest  daughter (about 2-3 years) had the greatest outfit on. She is proof positive that marketing, no matter how ridiculous, works on the young mind. She had on a red/black plaid skirt, pink Hello Kitty leggings, yellow and sky blue socks with some other character on the sides and white Strawberry Shortcake sandals. Maybe she's a Highlander fan, which would explain the tartan skirt.

It seems a little anti-climactic to say simply that I got home all right. But I did. And the whole trip would have been worth it just for the ride home. In a brand spanking new train, the kind that are articulated so that there is a clear view down the aisle to the front and the back of the train. It's too bad that "that new train smell" resembles a porta-potty, but nothing's perfect.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Envy is my four letter word for the day

Thursday I babysat for a new family. First, I would like to repeat that someone needs to slap me when I even think about watching two children. And when they are one and two years old I should be slapped twice. Maybe even really hard. But that's an issue for another day.

Today we are talking about apartment envy. I've heard our friends here talk about how they would like a larger apartment, or one in a different place, or one like someone they know has. Let's face it, there's always someone out there with nicer stuff than our own. But apartments are small here in Florence, and most of them are extremely expensive. Most of them are also very dark, as in few windows and those are close to an adjacent building.

We are very lucky. Our apartment is pretty large, by local standards. It's fairly modern (built in the 1930's) but in desperate need of paint and some love. New furniture. Maybe a few pictures on the wall. It has oodles of potential, which in real estate terms translates into looks like crap but can be saved if enough time and money are lavished on it.

Today I spent a couple of hours in an apartment anyone, in any city, would be thrilled to live in. Well, unless you're filthy rich, but it would make a nice "roughing it" getaway. Two floors, fireplace, three (!) bathrooms, two terraces and a roof garden. An elevator. OK, some of it's over the top. No one needs a genuine zebra skin rug. They probably photoshopped the picture of themselves with the Pope.

I shouldn't be feeling this way. I've been here a year and this whole time I have been truly grateful just to have a place to live that wasn't the size of a phone booth and that remains bugless,  if you don't count the mosquitoes, which we won't. I've seen first-hand what that urge to keep up with the Joneses (or the Martellis, or whoever) can do to a life. I don't want to go there again. I don't want to spend all my time working for the apartment or on the apartment. It's so easy to start with paint and end up with all new furniture and floors and windows get what I'm saying. It's so easy for "want" to be understood as "need" and suddenly there's never enough money. And then, instead of enjoying each day for the miracle that it is, I could find myself wondering how many jobs I have to work for this or that thing that I need.

So I either have to start nesting a bit and practice incredible self-control or continue to live in a place that was last painted in the 1980's. None of the plaster has actually fallen onto our heads yet. And it's warm(ish) and dry. Everything else is just  frosting on the cake.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Running water

Yup, those are our drains and
the mighty fine drain cleaner.
So the big news today involves plumbing. I know I talk about it alot, but hey, when it doesn't work it's more than a little annoying. You have read about the haunted bathroom and it's little quirks. You'll be happy to know that (and this is a little scary) everything works the way it's supposed to in that room.

Of course once the bathroom started working the kitchen developed an issue of it's own. The drain there started to run slower and slower. And then one day we found that draining one sink filled the other, unless it was done super slowly. And forget about laundry. That filled both sinks with some pretty nasty stuff. Yeah, eventually it would drain out, but it took longer than I really wanted it to.

The day before Leif's dad was coming to stay with us the drains in the kitchen gave up working at all. It took a half hour for the water to drain out after washing dishes. Running any water into the sink resulted in standing water. It wasn't completely clogged, because if you waited long enough it would drain. But I have better things to do with my time than watch water drain. Really, I do.

Leif had gone to the store where they sell "everything household-like" and talked to the guy behind the counter, who recommended a drain cleaner. He brought it home and we tried to read the directions. First, the letters are so small no one old enough to use the stuff can read it, and second, directions in Italian always seem to lack real direction. We managed to figure most of it out.

1. Be careful when pouring into water. Darn right, be careful. It makes a sound like acid eating through steel and this hideous smelling smoke comes out of the drain. Of course I worried that it was eating through the plastic pipes, but Leif said he told the guy that our pipes were plastic and he still recommended it. Little comfort when the drains are making crackling and snapping sounds and smell like they're burning.
2. Leave in drain for at least 30 minutes. No indication of how long might be "too long." Remember, the drain is belching out foul smelling smoke for most of this time. Every time we used it I hovered near the door so I could dash in and start running water if I sensed that the pipes were in danger of being eaten away. The rinsing directions are just as vague. Rinse with water. How long? Hot or cold? I need way more information than this.
3. Keep away from anything that isn't a drain or stainless steel. We set the bottle on the floor one night and when I came back in the morning the tiny little drips that had run down the side of the bottle had eaten the surface of the rock flooring. Yikes. Now I carefully wipe any drips off immediately, extremely aware that the thin layer of paper towel is probably not enough to stop my fingers from being dissolved if I'm not careful. But that's better than coming in one morning to find a round hole in the floor and the bottle in the neighbor's kitchen.
4. Don't drink, get in your eyes or get on  your skin. Duh.

It also didn't tell us how many times it's safe to use it before it actually does start dissolving the pipes. Which would have been really useful information to have. We used it probably six times in the weeks before his dad was scheduled to come hoping that we would have the problem licked before he arrived. As I said earlier the drains pretty much stopped working the day before he came. So I put on my big girl panties and poured way more cleaner in than I thought was advisable, I left it in for much longer than I ever had before and I left the apartment so I wouldn't be tempted to rush in too early and rinse it away.

I finally went back into the kitchen and started the water running. The water seemed to be running out the drain perfectly fine. So of course I yanked open the cupboard doors below the sink expecting to see gallons of water pouring out of pipes that looked like swiss cheese. But it was dry. I looked at the sinks again. Yup, everything was working now. The bathtub was making satisfying glugg-glugg sounds (don't ask or judge, just know that all the plumbing comes together in one glorious mess somewhere under the bathroom floor and that sound means all is well) and I finally relaxed.

But not too far. I know better. I'm sure that there are new plumbing horrors yet to come. But until it happens (probably when we start up the radiators) I'm going to enjoy the relative peace we have.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A year in florence

Last night Leif and I celebrated the anniversary of my arrival here in Italy. A little sparkling wine and pasta, then a bottle of wine from last year with the steak. He gave the bottle to me at the airport when I landed and we just never got around to drinking it. Last night seemed the perfect time to open it and drink to a year of life together here in Florence. We're buying another bottle this weekend to keep for next year's anniversary.

It's been a great year. I've experienced living in another culture, which is completely different from visiting another country and being mildly amused at the differences and the inconveniences caused by those differences. Living here means learning the language beyond ordering a meal and asking where the bathroom is. It's learning bus and train schedules and how to ride my bike through a crowd. I've had the time to spend with myself. Which sounds a little nuts, I suppose. Wherever I go, there I am, as the saying goes. I mean that I took the time to ask myself some tough questions and then took more time and effort to actually try to answer them. I thought about what my life has been in the past and where I think I might like it to go in the future.

It's taken a year for me to make friendships and connections that are strong enough for people to recommend me to others. For people to believe that I'm not here for a little while and then gone. To convince them that I'm tough enough to stick it out here. For people to know me well enough to hear of a need in the community and think of me. I have another babysitting possibility and a chance to tutor a larger group of ten year olds in English. I am at a point where I could make enough money to live. This is a bittersweet victory for me, though.

So here's where I share probably more than I should. And really, I just need to get some of this out of my head. I welcome your ideas. I have been thinking about this for a year and haven't come up with a good answer. My visa expires in December and I have to leave Italy.  For three months. Then I can come back. For three months. (repeat endlessly) I can't split my life into two pieces like that. It's financially impossible and I think the constant moving around would eventually break me down physically and emotionally.

I have to tell the moms of the students that I am leaving in December and don't know when I'll be back. Leave the decision whether or not to hire me in their hands. I would love to tutor these kids. I think (after years of denying it) that I am a good teacher. I enjoy teaching. I have to be sure that the parents of the kids I babysit understand that I won't be here forever. Which is hard, because I really do love watching Mia. And just this week her mom sent me a text saying that they hope I don't stop watching Mia because she loves me and when Mia is with me she knows she's safe.

I also found my love for Leif growing every day. He's an exceptional human being; strong, thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, loving, and tough. I know when my body leaves Florence that my heart is safe with him.

Yes, there are options. If you would like to see them you can go to the Italian Embassy website and read them. You might see something there that I missed. Believe me when I say I have looked at this from as many angles as possible and I see few options. Those are tough words for me to say. I've sacrificed a lot and worked very hard to get here.

So there you go. Like I said, bittersweet. It has been a wonderful year. I have never felt so relaxed and happy. I didn't worry myself to death and yet there was always food on the table and a roof over my head. I didn't work fifty hours a week and I still had clothes to wear and the chance to travel to a few places and see the country.

For a couple of years I have been saying that the universe will provide. But for those years I also worried and worked to give the universe all the help I could give it. This year I said the universe would provide and trusted that it would. And it did. So I suppose I should take my own advice and watch  for the answer the universe provides for me. Kinda hard to do while mentally packing my suitcase, but I'll try my best.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The week in review...or...veckan i översynen

So much has happened this week while Leif's family visited. I will try to give you the highlights,  but once in awhile a little detail is bound to creep in. Bear with me...

Getting ready
Quick trip to IKEA for breakfast food for his dad, who will be sleeping on our couch. IKEA sadly lacking in the caviar department, which is apparently the cornerstone of his breakfast. Quick call to the sister insures breakfast will include his favorite things. Whew. Making out said couch into a completely uncomfortable bed. If he keeps to one side of the bed and on top of the extra air mattress he should at least be able to keep from falling off or through the bed. Oh, I wish I was kidding.

Monday: The arrival
Actually, their arrival is far less interesting than what happened directly before it. I took the train to catch the bus to meet them at the airport (no car, remember) and while I was at the train station a man proposed marriage to me. This is significant because I have never been asked before. My first husband told me we were getting married and my second threw the ring box on the dashboard and said "So how 'bout it?" I only wish the first time someone asked me  to marry them that it wasn't a complete stranger at a train station. Looking like a young George Clooney does not guarantee a good relationship, even with the totally sexy accent. I said no.

We got everyone to the hotel and his dad to our living room safely. I told you the first part was more interesting.

Tuesday: Getting familiar with Florence
We spent some time walking around town finding the places they would need like a grocery store and gelato and markets. His two nieces are kind of picky eaters and were horrified to discover that I didn't have ketchup in my refrigerator. What were they supposed to eat on their spaghetti? So when we went to the store they presented me with my very own bottle of ketchup (for their dining pleasure) which I will probably never use now that they are gone.

We fed them all lunch in our apartment. All nine of us stuffed into our little kitchen. The girls only like plain pasta (with ketchup) and his dad can't eat garlic or onions (which is all I cook with so I was a little stymied as to how to cook for this group) so we creatively  used every pan and dish in the place and everyone managed to eat what they liked. Whew.

We had dinner out. I didn't get the message that I should bring the ketchup with and there were some long faces at the table. Ketchup is an ingredient here, not a condiment. Asking for it is, well, not done.

Tuesday was brought to you by the word smör. Butter, for you English speakers...yes, this is "teach Michele Swedish" week.

Wednesday: Exhaustion sets in
I personally took two naps this day. I'm sure the rest of the group did too. But in between naps we managed to see the city from the overlook at Piazzale Michelangelo and eat yet more gelato.

One note about gelato. It is typical to get more than one flavor in your cup/cone. Even the small ones. And when you buy a big one like Leif's dad always did, well, the more flavors the merrier. Your server will be confused if you don't want at least two flavors (because they certainly would!) His dad wanted only one flavor in the biggest cup. I got used to saying YES, he only wants one flavor, everywhere we went. They were baffled and amused. So much banana, or cafe, or passion fruit in one cup. I don't know how he did it.

Wednesday was brought to you by the words Tack så mycket. Thanks alot, in English.

Thursday: The big birthday
Leif's brother had a birthday this day and the whole day was dedicated to celebrating. First we surprised him at the hotel. When my family plans a surprise there is always noise and possibly water involved. Something unexpected. We knocked on their hotel door and when he opened the door we all stood there. I don't know how to say surprise in Swedish so I understood why I wasn't making noise, but I didn't understand why the rest of them were so quiet. He said "Oy" or something similar, Rebecka handed him the flowers and we all trooped into their room single file to sing happy birthday. I think there is a cultural gulf between what his family considers surprising and what mine does. Mine would agree to show up at noon and then show up at 7am, talk the hotel into giving them a key and enter the room singing happy birthday in 4 parts, ending with a group hug on the bed.

We ate lunch on the roof of a store downtown with a view of the dome. I forgot my  ketchup. They survived.

His brother got a massage while we ate gelato. Win-win. But after this week I would kill for a massage.

Then we took the whole family on the city bus across town for drinks with a Swedish couple Leif knows here in Florence. Naturally, Swedish was the official language at this event. I kind of sat to one side and tried to look not too lost. At one point Mariann waved a bottle at me and asked something in Swedish. I naturally replied, "No, tack." In Italian she said that I understood Swedish pretty good. I'm pretty sure I just got lucky there.

Friday: Pisa
They all wanted to go to Pisa to see the tower and then to Viareggio to swim in the ocean. Leif and I both had to work a little so we stayed in Florence and sent them off on their own. I went with them to the train station and rode with them to the first stop to make sure they got going all right and that they understood how to read a train schedule. Leif's sister, his brother's fiance and I were standing in the door of the train while everyone got on. They were talking as I was counting heads and I said, "It's OK, we have all nine of us." They just looked at me and Karin said, "You do understand Swedish." No, I don't. I am just too absurdly lucky.

They headed off for the beach and I went back home. A little disappointed, I have to say. Two different train stations and not one proposal of marriage...

Saturday: Feisole
We took the city bus with Leif's dad up to Fiesole so he could see the whole valley. I think (although I can't say for certain, since Tord only speaks Swedish) that he is starting to understand a little better what drew Leif here and what his life is like now.

We had the birthday dinner tonight at a little seafood restaurant by our house. We don't live in a tourist area, so the server didn't understand Swedish or English, and quite frankly didn't want to even try. Eventually everyone found something they liked and Leif got our order placed. None of that American, namby-pamby stuff when the pasta with lobster has little bits of meat in the sauce. Oh no, not here. Here your lobster comes in it's shell, on top of the spaghetti. Too much fun. No one even asked me for ketchup. They were so sweet to celebrate my birthday also, since they were here with us. I got a giant pasta pot for when we have company. It must have been painful to watch us boiling water in two different pots just to feed 9 people.

Saturday was brought to you by the words (phonetically spelled, and poorly at that) vair-so-guut. All my Swedish friends are rolling their eyes right now. I feel it. You're welcome (I think) in English. Leif's dad practiced his "thank you" with me a lot today. Showing off. I can't say vair-so-guut so good.

Sunday: Game day
Most of the group was ready to watch a football (soccer) game this afternoon at  the stadium by our house. Through a strange set of circumstances I had an appointment to meet some American tourists and show them a little of Florence for the afternoon.

They just wanted me to take them around Florence without going to all the usual places. So I took them somewhere for lunch and then we walked little streets to gelato and then more little streets back to their meeting point for the group they were traveling with. They brought me ziploc bags (I asked for them, it's not some weird black market kind of thing), bought me lunch and gelato and then (unexpectedly) they paid me for my time. Weird.

We made a final supper for the family at our house. Ketchup was consumed. Rebecka said that Leif's spaghetti was the best, even better than at home. That's a strong statement coming from a 6 year old. We said good-bye to his sister's family then, because she thought it would be easier for the girls than if we came to the hotel in the morning.

Sunday was Swedish word review day...I barely got passing grades.

Monday: The vikings return to their homeland
We walked Leif's dad (and his suitcase, and my suitcase filled with wine) to the hotel so his brother, fiance and dad could take a taxi together to the airport. His sister left earlier that morning. One more gelato, because you can't have too much gelato, and we packed them into the taxi and waved good bye.

When we got home it was very quiet. They aren't my family, but they kind of feel like family. Don't tell anyone, but I think I miss hearing Swedish.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Is olive oil romantic?

I really need some sort of a mentor for this dating thing. Other women get flowers or jewelry or other fancy (and therefore expensive) gifts. How do they do it? Is is a question of picking the right man, or is it an expectation that she has from the start and makes sure she gets it? And how exactly does she go about getting it? I'm baffled by this because the gifts I get are very, very different.

This is what he has given me so far
(that I haven't already eaten)
My boyfriend brings me olive oil. Sometimes he brings other food like fancy pastas, herbed salts, or sauces, sometimes chocolate which is at least within the realm of romantic gift giving. But usually it's olive oil.

Not that there's anything wrong with olive oil, I love it. We have it for every meal in some way. Usually with a nice piece of schiaccata or some other kind of bread. Always on the pasta. For those of you thinking "Oh my God, she must be kidding. She doesn't eat bread and pasta for every meal!" yes, we really do eat that much bread and pasta. And we eat it with olive oil.

The olive oil here is wonderful. Some are spicy and some are mild. Some are filtered, some aren't. There are organic oils. And it seems that everyone produces olive oil. Vineyards typically sell olive oil as well as wine. Every house has at least a few olive trees around it. If you are fortunate you have enough olive trees to keep your family in olive oil for the year, with maybe enough left over to give a little to special friends. Everyone's oil tastes different which is part of the reason he keeps bringing me new bottles. Part of the flavor comes from the soil the trees grow in and part of it is the age of the trees. Part of the flavor comes from the press that's used to bring the oil out of the fruit. Filtering the oil changes the flavor too.

Everything I own has had olive oil dripped on it at some time. My computer, my ipod, my shoes, my purse. Every article of clothing has an olive oil stain on it somewhere. It's entirely possible that I have started sweating olive oil.

Maybe he's better at buying gifts for me than I'm giving him credit for. I do love olive oil and even though there's lots of it here, the good stuff isn't cheap. I just hope I don't become like Pavlov's dogs and start salivating every time he comes home and his bike bag is extremely heavy. Because I know it's either olive oil or wine. The bigger his smile is, the more likely it is that I am getting another bottle of olive oil. Yup, I think I need to add olive oil to my list of extremely romantic gifts to receive.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music is a language without words

Tonight I went to a Swedish choir concert held in an old catholic church in the center of Florence. Sounds a little conflicted, I know. It looked like it too. All those Scandinavian looking people wearing white with pink and lavender scarves lined up in front of the alter next to a statue of the Virgin Mary while a devout (we'll give her the benefit of the doubt) woman lit candles to Mary next to the alto section. People in the  audience looked at the confessional booths and wondered what the heck they were for? I think the couple in front of me told their child that's where bad little kids have to sit. Applause was you clap because they were so good or do you not because after all you're in church? The group seemed to feel that no more than ten seconds of discreet applause was appropriate. Obviously a Protestant crowd.

They were very good. I didn't understand a single word they sang, because they didn't sing the "thank you, goodbye" song, the "I love you" song, or the "hugs and kisses" song, which is the extent of my vocabulary. Oops, I forgot I also know "cinnamon bun" but they didn't sing that song either. But you know what? I didn't need to understand the words, because the harmonies and rhythms were pure protestant. I could have been in any church in Minnesota listening to the church choir there. They were sounds I have been listening to and making since I was born.

Most of the women looked like lunch ladies from small town central Minnesota schools or possibly home ec teachers, except for the eighty-nine year old woman. She just looked old. The six men who were talked into joining the group looked like librarians. But they all sang beautifully, and with great emotion. More than I would have thought possible from Swedes. In this small group of people, complete strangers from a strange country, I saw the people from my church family in Minnesota. I saw Marg and Marlys reaching every high note and glorying in the sound that came back to them from the vaulted ceilings. They had their own tenor equivalent of Jim Johnson (whoa, he might have actually been a Jim Johnson!) and their accompanist was Aggie through and through.

And I cried.

Silly, I know. I don't know why I cried, except that it reminded me of life before all the big changes. It's kind of like remembering something so very sweet and knowing that it had to end but sad that it did at the same time. Like remembering Christmas when you were six and all the grandparents were still alive and it was a great day. Except I wouldn't want to be six again. And I didn't really heaving sobs, heck I didn't even need a tissue. More like misty eyed, really. But I'm glad I went.

PS Dad, I think that there is only one textbook on conducting techniques for choir directors. It has been translated so well that Swedish directors look exactly like directors from Minnesota. And you would have loved the organ here. They have regular organ concerts (glad we don't live close to that church) and one set of pipes is laid horizontally across the choir balcony and has bells like trumpets. He played part of the Hallelujah Chorus before we left. Yikes. Of course the Swedish choir started singing along. You would have too. It's hard to resist.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lessons learned

It's funny. If I hadn't moved here I would never (really, never) started babysitting. And watching someone else's child has given me a lot of insight.

As a mom who worked outside the home, I spent most of my time at home getting ready to be gone the next day. I let myself be convinced that the money I earned would be appreciated by my children more than my presence would. And that it was reasonable to fit them in between meetings and housework. I rarely had the chance to focus on them. I was always thinking three steps ahead of the moment we were in.

Now, when I watch Mia I don't think of anything except her and what we are doing at that precise moment. I wish I could have been my children's babysitter sometimes, instead of trying to be super mom all the time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Back in the saddle again.

Ok, no. I didn't get hurt. I've been on my bike riding around town for errands and work. But I haven't been out on a long, recreational ride in a long time. It has been in the 90's to 100's consistently for most of August and I just didn't want to ride in that kind of heat. But the weather has changed and I'm ready to ride again.

As you may know, I am tutoring 4 little girls in English. This isn't happening in Florence, but in a town about 20k from my home. I have been taking the train because it seemed the easiest way to get there. But I started thinking about it. It costs me 3,80 euro to take the train there and back. Not a huge amount, but I do need  to count my pennies. I already have to ride my bike to the train station. I can see the bike road for most of the train ride. Piece of cake.

Of course I only had to mention to Leif that I was going to try riding to my tutoring address to see how long it would take and if it would be possible to ride instead of take the train, and there we were....riding off to Lastra a Signa. I put on my little bike shorts (it's not a long way there, but we have to get back too), filled up our water bottles and we headed out early while the weather was still cool.

Most of the ride I have done before because I ride to Signa pretty regularly, just for fun. (I can't believe I actually said that.) Lastra a Signa is just over the river south of Signa, so I figured it couldn't be too hard to find the house where I tutor once I found the bridge over the river. I love it when I'm right. In a town where there are maybe three street signs I was able to take us right to it.

(slight pause while I give myself another high five for finding my way around the countryside)

Of course we didn't go back the way we came. Leif has been riding here for seven years and likes to take different ways to the same place. we went to find our way back to Florence on the south side of the river. Instead of the simple gravel road along the river we followed a twisted path of one way streets through a series of little towns outside Florence. I haven't been on this side of the river much, so it was fun. At one point I was a little nervous. You know how in Minnesota they took a lot of the old rail beds and made them into bike trails? There's one of those here too, except that the bed is only about a meter wide and the drop off on either side is incredibly steep (I would say cliff-like, really) and the bottom is a long, long ways down. At the end of a ride I am never at my most graceful, so even though the ride was flat and very smooth, I was happy to be off that path and onto something that seemed a little closer to the ground. You know what I mean.

As experiments go it was  fairly successful. I don't think I'll be taking the alternate route back on the south of the river as the twists and turns will certainly get me lost and then I'd spend the whole day trying to get back to Florence. It was a great ride and I have decided that I could just as well take the hour that I would normally take cycling, riding the train and walking and instead just ride straight to their house. Until it starts raining in November. Then I am absolutely taking the train and carrying my umbrella, just in case.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Breaking news!!! After months of being pretty much shunned by the Elderly Ladies of the Blessed Esselunga (my supermarket of choice, because it's close) one of those adorable older ladies spoke directly to me today.

This is  BIG.

Typically they will cross to the other side of the aisle if they see me coming, clutching their purses tightly to their chests and squinting up at me in what I'm certain is the modern version of the legendary "Evil Eye". If I surprise one coming around a corner they get this terrified look on their face, throw their hands up in the air and back up as quickly as an eighty-year-old woman can. They don't actually shriek, because it's a public place, but they sure look like they want to. Standing next to me in the checkout lane appears to be torture for them. They kinda twitch. Their eyes are always darting from one line to the next, hoping to find another lane moving slightly quicker and offering them the chance to move away from me. If they drop something and I pick it up for them, they take it (almost between two fingers) and seriously look like they are considering telling the cashier that they don't want the item anymore. It's tainted; it's been touched by a foreigner.

If only I were as dangerous as they make me out to be. Maybe I am, if occasionally riding without my helmet makes me dangerous. Or running with scissors.

Today one of those tiny white haired ladies smiled up at me and asked me to hand her a carton of yogurt that she couldn't reach. Me. When there were plenty of tall(ish) Italians standing right next to her. Then she said thank you and went on her way, without sanitizing the carton or anything.

Those of you thinking she's either blind or senile can just keep it to yourself. Don't harsh my buzz, people. I feel good.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Checking under the hood

You know how when someone gets a new car (in rural Minnesota) and all the men go out and stand around the car, regardless of the weather and pop the hood? They kick tires and point at things, and eventually the proud owner (and ONLY  the proud owner) gets in and starts the engine. After a moment of breathless anticipation he gently revs the engine and they all nod their heads and look knowingly at each other. They talk about carburetors and heads and horse power and torque, comparing this little gem to every other car they have ever owned or that a good friend has owned since they first got their drivers license. This stops only when it starts to rain  or snow, or dinner is on the table. This is also true for tractors, combines, motorcycles and lawnmowers. Anything with a motor.

On Sunday I witnessed the Italian cycling version of this phenomenon. I mean , I expected to see this with cars. Italy has some awesome cars. I just didn't think that it was possible to have this same sort of communal ritual around a bicycle. It has no motor. I was wrong.

I was near the finish line at a cycle race waiting for Leif to finish his 170 kilometers. It was interesting watching the different riders as they came in to the finish. It was a nasty, hot and humid day. I would have said, no way am I riding over a hundred miles today, but thousands of men and women in Tuscany disagreed with me. Crazy. Anyway, as I'm watching people come into the finish I noticed a group of men gathered at one side of the course around a bike. They were pretty close to me and once I started watching them I knew what I was watching. The "checking under the hood" ritual.

The owner stood  on the right side of the bike with one hand protectively on the handlebars and the other on the saddle. He looked as proud as a man who has just finished riding 170k in 100F temperatures can look. Eight men gathered around him, not exactly holding their hands behind their backs, but looking like they really wanted  to touch the bike but knew they couldn't. They complimented him on the new bike and started to ask questions. He answered a few questions and the crowd looked skeptical. I don't have enough Italian to tell you what was said, and of course I had to appear that I wasn't actually watching them, so I couldn't hear everything that was said. Not that I needed to. I'm sure it was a conversation that revolved around derailers and torque and other technical bike things. Weight is important for road bikes and he was telling them his weighed very few grams. Grams are so important in fact that one man told me he needed a bell for city riding, but couldn't put one on because it would add a few grams to his total weight and he just wasn't willing to do that. But I digress...the crowd didn't believe this bike was as light as the owner was claiming.

Finally, in an effort to convince them that he wasn't exaggerating about how great the bike was, he invited one of the men to touch it. The chosen one entered the sacred circle reverently, that space where a rider mounts his bike. He tentatively stretched his hands out. They hovered over the bike, one hand floating above the handle bars and the other behind the saddle. Slowly he brought his hands to the bike and gently, like holding a newborn baby, he lifted it off the ground. His face glowed as he shook his head in disbelief, looking at the crowd as if to say "It's true. It's weightless." He lowered the bike slowly down to the ground and waited till the owner had a firm grip on it before letting go. Finally, the ice broken, everyone got a chance to approach the bike and hold it for a few precious seconds. Hushed conversation became louder as they all complimented the rider on his bike. Everything on the bike was beautiful...the frame, the saddle, the brakes, the gears. The owner stood next to his bike, looking alternately like he was the happiest man on earth or like he could fall down at any moment from fatigue.

It was kind of comforting to watch...just like home except that it was a bike, and it was in Italian, and there was absolutely no chance of rain, and no one called us in for dinner...but it felt like home.