Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Government Office In Italy Is Still A Government Office

Today I had to go to the Questura here in Florence, which is their Immigration Office. If I am at a loss about what to write it’s not for a lack of words. Just the opposite, in fact. I have too many words for this day, and many of them aren’t rated PG.

Anyone who comes into Italy with a visa also has to apply for their Permesso di Soggiorno or permission to stay for a length of time. Italy grants you a visa to enter the country, Florence (or whatever city you reside in) gives you permission to stay in their city for that period. Both processes are lengthy, filled with unnecessary paperwork and a boatload of fees.

The visa application is where your fate is really decided. Most of you know my story there. They take great care to inform you that you are not to assume that because you apply that you will be approved. Kind of like a home mortgage. But, no bank would tell you to change your address and have all the utilities changed into your name before they approve your application. A visa is different. Before you even know if you will be allowed to go, you have to buy health insurance for Italy, have paid your rent and tuition, and bought your ticket. And send those receipts in with the application. You won’t even be considered without them. Once you reach a “certain age” they also want to know your motivation. I had to produce papers showing my major in college to be art, which the consul felt was an acceptable reason and eased her mind about approving my application.

When you get your passport back with the visa page in it there are also instructions to go to the post office within eight days of arriving in Italy to fill out the appropriate paperwork for the permesso. It is a booklet, really, that you have to fill out and include copies of all the paperwork you have already sent into the consulate for the visa. You must affix to this booklet a special stamp that you don’t buy at the post office (which would make sense) but at a tobacco shop (which makes no sense). All of this goes into an envelope that you again take to the post office, where they charge you 30 euros in postage to send it across town. I would have walked it over for free, but rules are rules. They gave me a piece of paper with instructions to be at the Questura today at 10:23am with yet more copies of papers in my hand. Just a formality, Leif tells me.

Being the good Minnesotan that I am I showed up for my “appointment” at 10am, asked the nice men in uniforms at the door where to go and showed them my paper. They gave me a number and told me to wait for it to come up on the screen. When I got inside I saw that I would only have to wait through 120 (that’s right, one hundred and twenty) numbers till mine would come up. Of course I had no idea how long this might take, but I figured even a couple of hours wouldn’t kill me. I did wish I had brought a book or something to do, but when I left my stomach was in knots and I didn’t think I would be able to concentrate on anything but worrying so I contented myself with watching people and eavesdropping as much as I could on other conversations. I don’t know why they put a time on my paper. There is no such thing as an appointment at this office, but I didn’t realize that till about halfway through the day.

It only took a little over an hour for my number to come up, partly because some people just never showed up when their number was flashed on the screen. I was nervous, but pretty excited to finally get to finish this part of the process up and not have to worry about applications and such for awhile. I walked up to the window, handed him my number and letter. He typed something into his computer, picked up something off the machine behind him and handed me…another number.

What?!? I just spent the last hour sitting on a plastic airport bench with some Chinese woman’s bare feet almost in my lap for this? But I was brought up to follow the rules so I just smiled (he might of thought I was growling, hard to say) and went to find a different place to sit. I couldn’t take anymore of her feet if I was going to get through this. When I had calmed down a little I looked at my number H850. What the hell number were they on now? A quick look at the board made me want to cry, or punch someone. They were only on number H720. My first number had started with a C and those moved along at a fairly quick pace. Which, in retrospect, makes sense if all they were doing was handing out another damn number. Anyway, the H numbers had several more windows, but still advanced to the next number about every 15 minutes. If everything went well.

I did some deep breathing and sat back to watch people. The Chinese woman (now with shoes) ran by on her way to a window. I considered tripping her and taking her number but I really do want to start off on the right foot here. (Ha, foot) I sat and I worried. Did I have all the right paperwork? Did I remember the pictures? (You need four, on a white background) Passport? I tried to guess why some people seemed to move quickly through their time at the window, while others lingered forever. No one got mad or frustrated that I could see. Children ran around or played quietly. There was little crying and no tantrums. If I had to point to one good thing about today, it would be that whatever Italian parents do with their children certainly works. They accept that this sort of thing happens and they make the best of it without much complaint. Awesome, really, when there is a crowd in an airless room waiting for government employees to get around to them.

Several hours went by. I continued to watch people. A slight diversion was created when a bird flew in one of the big doors and couldn’t figure out how to get back out. It just flew around the ceiling unworried. It was still there sitting on a cubicle wall when I left. That really was the excitement for the day there. It didn't do tricks or burst into flames. I don't even think it poohed on anyone. I turned from watching my fellow prisoners, I mean citizens, to watching the work at the windows. I started to get a feel for the rhythm of how this thing worked. I watched the guy at the window in front of me for hours.

A number flashes on the screen as a beeper sounds. Someone jumps up waving their number in the air and runs to the window before they move on to the next number. (They don’t wait very long.) Breathlessly hands guy their number and various sheets of paper carelessly stuffed into their passport.. Guy’s lips move as he hands back extraneous papers. Client laughs nervously. Fingerprinting exercise begins with right hand thumb, followed by the fingers of the right hand. Extend left hand and repeat. Additional print of both thumbs. Everyone smiles. Guy disappears briefly. Reappears, hands paper through little hole at bottom of window. Client looks confused, takes paper and leaves, being careful to avoid getting run over by the next person running up with their number in their hand.

When it became lunch time and they closed all the windows except one I started to get a little nervous. I was trying to think of which of my friends I could call tonight to ask what happens when you get a number but they don’t reach that number during the current work day. I worried on that little problem for awhile while I watched the guy at the remaining window continue to work. I was really starting to hope I got this guy. He seemed to be such a helpful person. I named him Brian, don’t know why. I was really disappointed when the rest of the office came back and it appeared that Brian was leaving. I knew that he understood English and I had hoped that would make it a little easier for me. But he left, and when he did the whole bank of windows on this side of the building changed from H’s to F’s. Oh my god, what now?

I had to go around the corner to find the windows that were now serving the H numbers. I was starting to feel anxious. After five hours of watching the time and the numbers roll by it was unsettling to have to move to unfamiliar territory. I had only 20 more numbers to wait through. And who was there behind one of the windows? Yup, Brian. He must have sensed my need and stuck around to help out. They were on number H848 and Brian was busy flirting with some woman at the counter. If he would just hurry up a little bit. H849. Aaaaaaaand, H850, two windows down from Brian. Men are so fickle…I ended up with a very nice man and we managed to get the papers back and forth, and the fingerprints done, and the mysterious piece of paper handed through the window at the end. (side note: they tell you to bring 4 passport size photos. They carefully choose and cut one out of the four identical prints for the card. Are they nuts?)

So I finally had the permesso. No food, water or bathroom for six hours, nothing to read and no music to listen to, but finally the prize. I staggered out to my bike, breathing fresh air and feeling a little less like punching someone in the face. Honestly, I thought, this dirty looking piece of paper is that important? I took a stab at reading it (it’s in Italian, you know) and you’ll never guess what it says…I have an “appointment” on 25 May at 15.04 (3:04pm) to pick up my permesso card. Hahahahahahahahaaaaaaaa…………..ha.

I’m showing up at 8.15 with food, water, a book, and someone to talk to.

Monday, April 25, 2011

In Hot Water

This week we are getting a new (to us) electric hot water heater that will hang on the wall in our bathroom. It all started during that fateful dinner with the neighbors last week…

Leif had been asking Alfonso if there is something we can do about our hot water heater. (I now know that it is called a caldia) The gas heater in the kitchen cupboard has two thermostats…one for the hot water taps and another for the radiators. I know this because they are labeled with pictures. That college education continues to pay off...As you might know the weather here is warm. So we had turned that thermostat as low as it would go.

We noticed a change in our hot water availability immediately. Like, we couldn’t take a whole shower with hot water or finish a sink of dishes. After some discussion we decided that we should maybe try a few things out, whether they seemed to make sense or not. Turning up the hot water tap thermostat didn’t do anything at all for the water temperature, even though the dial showed the water to be super hot. So, and here comes the nonsensical part of our scientific experiment, we tried turning up the thermostat on the radiators.

And there was hot water. Hmmmph, like I said, makes no sense. But if this means hot showers then so be it. The next day I couldn’t figure out why it was so warm in the apartment. Ooooh yeah, we turned the heat up. So I went around and closed the valves on all the radiators that work. That took care of the radiator problem anyway.

And we thought our problem was mostly solved, till we agreed that the water heater (which makes a dramatic “thwump” sound when the burners ignite) was running way too much. Aah, we thought. The radiators are turned off, but there’s all that piping going to each one through cold floors. The system is still probably trying to send water through to those radiators.

Our next solution, and apparently the one the former tenants used (according to Alfonso) is to turn the heat up about 10 minutes before we need the water, and try to remember to turn it down again when we are finished. Not a perfect solution, I know, but I have lived in a lot of older homes. There are always adjustments to be made. For all  you amateur plumbers and DIY's out there, please...for the love of God, don't tell me I'm wrong. I'm the one living through showers that alternate between cold and scalding. Whether you believe it or not, this is what is happening. Just accept it and read on.

Which brings us to dinner and the new (used) heater. Alfonso and Anna said that we should talk to the landlord (Anna’s sister, by the way) about an electric water heater in the bathroom, like was originally in the apartment. Well, they said we should just tell them to change it, Leif I am sure phrased it as more of a request. Whatever he did worked because Luigi showed up late last week to look at the plumbing and electric in our bathroom. He said that the vacant apartment next to us has one of these heaters and it will be no problem to just bring it over here and hook it up. I laughed hollowly, but in English so he didn’t understand. It is never, ever that easy.

He and Alfonso (Leif is gone working and apparently no matter how hard my dad might work me, here women do NOT do this kind of work) will lift the heater down and carry it from next door to our bathroom. A little plumbers putty, plug it in and we are ready to go. At least that’s what I think he said. I’m pretty sure that no matter what system we end up with, it will require some manual adjustments on our part. Or it will work beautifully but turn the batrhroom into a sauna.

It’s just the way it is here in Italy. Things work, mostly. I am pretty sure that all our outlets work, for instance, but I know for a fact that when you want to unplug something you need hold the plate against the wall with one hand and pull the plug with the other or you pull the wires out of the wall. As you already know, the toilet flushes, but you have to jiggle the button or it will just keep running water into the bowl. The doors to the terrace will only latch if you put your foot against the bottom of the door as you turn the handle. The keys for the front door only work if you slam the door hard or use all your weight to pull it towards you as you turn the key. The doors on the wardrobe have to be closed simultaneously or they don’t actually close together. We have a ceiling fan in the kitchen, but can’t run it at the same time as the lights or the whole apartment electric blows (this is a rumor, never tested. I don’t think I want to try though,) Naturally we have the requisite mystery switch. And a bedroom without a single electrical outlet, but a mighty fine chandelier with most of it’s crystal doodads intact.

See what I mean? Nothing drastic, just a few little things to remember and life rolls along smoothly. Wish us luck, I think we're gonna need it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Where's the Easter Bunny?

Easter was different this year. Duh, I know. But I didn’t expect it to feel quite so different.

Christmas and Easter are two holidays that have always been days filled with activity for me. It has only been recently that my holidays haven’t been filled with performances. My family is hyper-musical. I don’t know a better way to put it. I don’t think I can remember a time when we weren’t somehow involved with special music for holidays. Less so in recent years, but my brother and sister make up for that in their own churches.
The whole day would be spent with family, doing those things we always do. Church (however umpty-million services we had to play for) and then to someone’s house for dinner and “other activities” weather permitting. Easter is usually our first attempt at kite flying for the year. It’s always loud and busy and fun.

This morning I woke up alone. And I was faced with the prospect of spending the entire day alone. It was gloomy and grey and cloudy (the sun finally came out around 7pm). I ate my breakfast alone. I didn’t go to church. I listened to each of my neighbors in turn carry their flowers and food down the stairs and out the door to spend the day with family. I indulged in a tiny little pity party.

I didn’t expect to feel quite so alone today. I have been alone a lot in the last few years and I usually enjoy the solitude. I guess I always knew that there would be certain times that I wouldn’t have to be alone, and Easter is one of them.

OK, this part will sound a little strange. Yeah. So those of you who know me know that I can, at times, be a little stubborn. As a person alone in a foreign country, I wanted more than anything for someone to invite me to Easter dinner. But, being me, I didn’t want to ask and I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone that I would be spending the day alone. I didn’t want a “Christian duty “ invitation and I didn’t want a sympathy invite either.

Nothing kills a happy family dinner faster than some stranger with limited language skills sitting at their table. Everyone becomes uncomfortable. Where normally there would be ten different conversations happening at once there is only one or two, and the poor visitor (me) can hardly eat the food on their plate because the stress of holding up their end of the conversation is so intense. And inevitably I do something wrong, like carry a dirty dish to the sink, and then I become afraid to do anything, for fear that I am crossing some sort of cultural line in the sand. I'm not exaggerating here, the reaction to something as simple as carrying a dish across the kitchen is dramatic. If I was a dog they would hit me on the nose with a newspaper, but I am a person so they just jump at me, eyes bulging out of their heads, all the while saying  "no, no ,no ,no."

I’m not looking for pity and I’m not actually complaining (I don’t think). I just feel that you should know that even when it seems that I am “living the life” in a beautiful country, there are days when I struggle to feel content. If what I am doing sounds easy, then I haven’t done a good job of presenting this experience to you. Some days I just feel blue, like anyone else does in their own particular way and language. Today is my day for this. I know it’s my own fault that I am alone today. I have to become better at asking for the things I need, and I have to get more comfortable using whatever language will best get my point across. Next Easter will be different. I’m not sure how yet, but it will. Maybe I’ll go see the Pope.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Feeling Strange

Sometimes I struggle with what exactly to write about. There are days when so many things happen, things that I wouldn’t experience in Minnesota, that I can’t write enough. Well, I don’t want you to have to read a minute by minute account of my day, no matter how interesting it was to me. I try to be a little discerning about what I choose for you. Other days, like today, I don’t know exactly what to write about.
It was just another day here in paradise. 75 degrees, sunshine and except for the cottonwood fluff flying around, a pretty beautiful day.

I guess I am feeling a little thoughtful. I don’t know if that’s the right word. I got an e-mail from an old friend yesterday. She’s beautiful. She’s incredibly successful in her career. She will never have to worry about money (at least the way most of us do) in her lifetime. But she is unhappy. As she puts it “unhappily divorced.”

That’s a tough statement to reply to. Because I think that for all the success that she has in her life, it is more than the divorce that makes her feel unhappy. Every since I have known her, her make up has had to be perfect. Her clothes need to be “right” as well as the people she associates with. What people think about her matters so very much.

How do you tell someone you love that she need to start trusting her own heart instead of relying on others for her sense of self-worth? How do you put her in front of a mirror without bringing along all the other eyes she carries inside her head? How do you prove, after years of believing money is the root of happiness, that happiness is free?

I wish I could empty my head for her and share the things that I have found through my own experiences. I want to say “See this, you don’t have to do this because I did, and this is what happened.“ But I remember thinking how preachy people sounded to me when they told me things I wasn’t ready to hear. I guess I love her enough to let her come to these things in her own time and her own way. And when she does find her happiness it will be a joy that no one can take away from her.

Speaking of preachy, today I saw my first Italian Mormons. I may have seen others because it isn’t as strange here to see men riding bikes in suits and ties as it would be in Minnesota, but I looked hard to be sure about these two. White shirts, black ties, black pocket protector name tags and bike helmets. The only thing that seemed out of place were the expressions on their faces. In Minnesota they are almost always smiling; rain, snow, 100 degrees in the shade, they are always smiling. These guys weren’t smiling at all. In fact they looked like they had eaten something bad and just heard that their cat died. It struck me as odd so I thought I’d share that. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling odd…today even the Mormons are having a hard time smiling.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Not Another Peep Out of Me About Peeps

Easter is quickly approaching. It actually snuck up on me this year. I’m not in school anymore, and since I live thousands of miles away from my family they aren’t pestering me about bringing the corn for Easter dinner. I should have known something was up as the stores are filled with football (American) shaped packages wrapped in shiny paper. Apparently these are chocolate eggs filled with goodies. There is still much about the Italian supermarket that confuses me, so I guess I just chalked this particular package up to one more thing I can’t buy cuz I’m too embarrassed to ask what it is.

Yesterday Leif and I talked a little bit about this holiday: here, in America and in Sweden. Of course the discussion turned to candy, as this is the main function of Easter for many people. I was shocked to discover that while he is familiar with chocolate and jelly beans, he is ignorant of robin’s eggs and Peeps. Who hasn’t heard of Peeps?

I struggled with how to describe this staple of many Easter baskets. “Sticky sugar, coated with neon-colored sugar” sounds redundant, if true. “Shaped like chicks and bunnies” as long as you squint your eyes. To me the chicks look like artful doggy pooh while the bunnies look like the kind of rabbits you might dream about after a night of spicy Thai food and too much plum wine. He understands what marshmallows are but the thought of putting all that sugar on them made him wince just a bit. (side note: the man has never had a s’more. This must happen when we visit MN.) The conversation ended in a lot of laughter. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m pulling his leg.

Thinking that maybe I somehow described Peeps poorly, I visited their website to see pictures and get some accurate information. You must go there: it plays music (showcasing the tuba, an instrument born to sell candy) while you shop their online store of candy and other merchandise.  Need a Peeps t-shirt? Need to buy a gross of electric blue Peeps bunnies for the Sunday school class? This is where you must go. A thorough history of the company and the candy are there too, if you are interested.

Feeling that only one website presented an unbalanced picture, I then visited Wikipedia for a more scholarly look at this American tradition. I would suggest that if you are a Peeps lover and don’t want to be disillusioned that you skip this site. First there is no lilting (if annoying) music playing as you read about Peeps. It is filled with information on history, ingredients and little tidbits like the scientific experiments that have been run on Peeps. For example, the eyes don’t dissolve in any substance they have tried, including acid. Their footnotes do include a whole lot of fun links to research, videos, company promos and recipes.

There‘s more…the Pioneer Press was the first paper to hold a Peeps diorama contest. They get hundreds of entries every year. Go St Paul! There is a Peep eating contest called the Peep Off and the record is 102 Peeps in 30 minutes. I’m feeling a little queasy just writing that down. Do you suppose he washed them down with a two liter bottle of Coke?

After this short investigation into Peeps, I am finding that I don’t miss them as much as I thought I did. And I don’t feel a need to convince anyone else that they are the kind of candy to get all homesick about. Sick, maybe; homesick….no.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Putting Down Roots

Today I did something a little crazy. OK, from my perspective. You will probably wonder why I bother writing about it, it is so mundane an activity.

Our first olive tree.
 Today I bought an olive tree.

Wow, do you hear crickets too? I told you it would sound boring. And maybe it is, until you think about it a little more.

I bought a tree. It's little right now, only about a foot tall. It has tiny little leaves on slender branches and in it's squat little pot it doesn't take up much space on our terrace. But it is a tree's nature to grow and if I don't kill it accidentally (I am good at killing plants) it could in fact live for centuries. This is no exaggeration, there are olive trees that are two thousand years old. They are tenacious with a root system so strong that even if the tree is destroyed above ground it can regenerate itself from below.

Olive trees and the oil they produce are a part of this culture that I live in. No meal is complete without olive oil. It is spicy and rich. Those lucky enough to have their own trees proudly offer visitors a taste of their last pressing.

In Minnesota the dream is to own a little piece of lakeshore to enjoy. In Italy the dream is to own a little piece of land with olive trees. Just enough to provide your family with oil for the year.

So I bought an olive tree. This symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, power and pureness sits on our terrace. What does is mean to me? (Oh, a very Lutheran question!) It's my desire to be here in this place with this man. It's hope that I will be caring for this same tree when I am 100 years old, and that my children and grandchildren will feel the same way about it and about Italy. It's a commitment to a way of life that I continue to enjoy learning. It's a dream that maybe, someday, we will have enough land to keep ourselves in olive oil. This small tree could be the start of the family olive grove.

Seriously, you don't buy a tree if you  don't plan to be around for a good long time. Especially one that is almost impossible to kill.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Can I See Your ID?

Yesterday I wrote about how sneaky Leif has been (I'm going to say it is unintentional, though) about getting me on a bike. Well, today, for whatever perverse reason I might have had in my mind at 8am, I decided to go for a ride. Without Leif. In fact, while he is 60 miles away riding with a bunch of Russians on a training tour. I'll show him...what I'll show him I don't quite know. Maybe that it is MY choice to ride. I am actually starting to enjoy it, but after all the whining I have done I doubt that he's going to believe me.

So I got dressed in my biking stuff and borrowed a shirt of his that I have used in the past. I do have to say that those shirts are kinda nice. There are three pockets in the back, and you can fit quite a lot of stuff in there if you pack carefully. And so...phone: check. Keys: check. A couple of euros in case I get hungry: check. Three pockets, three things to carry. This is working out pretty sweet. People also seem to have a little respect for people wearing actual cycle clothing instead of an old t-shirt and khaki shorts. I blend as much as a blond woman on a bicycle can blend in Italy. So not much, but they at least say hello now.

I head out into the brisk morning and enjoy the fact that I have thought ahead enough to leave before rush hour really starts. It makes for a nicer ride if  you aren't fighting with everyone for a piece of road. I was pretty sure I could find my way to the park and if I couldn't it didn't really matter as there would be no witnessses. I could spend three hours wandering around Florence looking for the park and no one would be wiser.

I'm thinking I'm doing all right when I suddenly remembered something. Well, remembered something that I forgot. I have no identification on me at all. No drivers license (useless here, in case you were wondering), no passport, and no insurance card. Naturally I began to worry about sudden disasters like an accident that would give me amnesia and I would be lost in the hospital system for months before Leif found me. Suddenly every intersection became dangerous. A scooter following a van too closely nearly ran me over. A car appeared from behind a hedge and only my reflexes saved me from running into it. Little children seemed intent on running into my path. Cobblestones that I swear were there yesterday disappeared overnight leaving gaping holes that could swallow my bike whole.

All that worrying sort of sucked the joy of riding directly to the park without getting lost once. I decided to celebrate reaching the park alive with a refreshing drink of water. Humph. Where was the water I had filled and left by the door? Ah, yeah, still by the door. Maybe I should have just gone home at that point, but in Minnesota we aren't brought up to be quitters. I know there's a fountain at the other end of the park. I'll just tank up there and ride sensibly.

I decide that riding sensibly today means moving quickly enough to keep upright, but slow enough so that I won't sweat. I don't want to lose any valuable fluids that I won't be able to replenish immediately. It's still pretty cool, so I don't have to contend with heat from the sun. I've got that going for me anyway. I focus on breathing through my nose so that I won't lose precious fluids by breathing through my mouth. Yeah, I'm a little nuts, but I fugure every little bit helps. This wasn't as hard as it might seem. Riding slow enough to NOT sweat meant that I wasn't panting like a dog and I took some allergy meds before I left so my nose actually worked as a breathing apperatus instead of simply something to hold my sunglasses up.

Out and back I ride, stopping at the fountain again to rehydrate. Of course, I wasn't out of the woods yet. I still had to get back home. This was two hours later and Florence was awake now. Every slow biker in town was going my way. I think there was a baby stroller convention going on somewhere. It was exciting. I didn't relax till I was back inside my apartment with the door locked. Most car accidents happen within five miles of home (I may be wrong, but I think that's a fact the insurance companies have spent billions of our dollars to discover) and I'm sure that distance is shortened when on a bike. With my luck I would be run over at my front door by someone trying to park their car on the sidewalk. Yes, on the sidewalk. This is a common practice here and the main floor of our building is a car repair shop.  Someone is always parked on our sidewalk.

I got home and sent Leif a text assuring him that I got home safely. Of course, now that I think of it, he has absolutely no idea that I had all this mental anguish during my ride. He's probably not too impressed by the fact that I got home and is assuming that this is some American term he isn't familiar with. Maybe I'll just leave it at that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I just can't say no...

The man I love is sneaky. Didn’t expect it from him, but there you go. It started out so innocently too…

He picked me up from the airport in February and after hauling my suitcases across town, up three flights of stairs, and into the bedroom he said, “I have a surprise for you.” I thought I saw a little eyebrow wiggle with that statement and thought to myself “I have just spent twenty hours getting here: I know I smell like it, pretty sure I taste like it, and I feel I am not at my most attractive right now. Can he really want THAT now?” Smiling nervously I said “oh yeah?” (witty huh??) He lead me to the living room (hmmm) and said, “Look! I got you a bike!” I was speechless.

I can hear you now. “Aaawww, isn’t that sweet?” There’s more. He lifted a helmet off the couch and told me it should fit, it was too small for him. AND he has extra clothes so I don’t need to worry about that either. All the time he was grinning from ear to ear, so excited to give me the gift of wheels. He didn’t insist on going for a ride immediately (I kinda think he wanted to), but it was just a few days before I realized what I was in for.

As we sat down for breakfast one morning he said, “So, Michele, should we try out your new bike today?” It sure looked like rain to me, and he agreed, but thought we should give it a try soon. This same question was repeated every couple of days for a few weeks before I finally said OK. He wasted no time getting everything I would need in my hands before I changed my mind. And off we went for a short ride. I’m sure it was short, but the cobblestones made the ride feel like it would never end. He said I would get used to it.

Just a few short days later he asked again. Would I like to ride somewhere with him? He asked, I’m sure, because I didn’t take the bike out except when I was with him. Mostly because I was deathly afraid of getting lost. This is not a modern city and it isn’t built on the grid system I’m used to. Streets ramble off in odd directions, they change street names at nearly every intersection and it is difficult to keep your sense of direction because you often lose sight of the sun (narrow streets and tall buildings) He has been persistent about this. When he doesn’t ask if I am riding at breakfast, he asks me at dinner if I went for a ride today, with this kind of hopeful look on his face. I was starting to feel like the Grinch every time I said no.

He has shown me a fairly flat route I can take to get some good miles in, and marked on my map the way to get to the start. He has gone with me now about four times to make sure that I can find my way to the park. Saturday while I talked to my sister he was downstairs cleaning my bike with a toothbrush and making a few slight adjustments. This morning he put me in one of his “Florence by Bike” shirts and dropped me at the park on his way to work. He casually said “Let’s take a picture of you in that shirt,” and so now there I am in spandex in front of some statue with my bike. I’m sure he will share this picture with people and now there is no way I can say, “No, I’m not a biker” because they just won’t believe me.

I really do like riding. It has been the only way I have had to get around for almost two years now. I have nothing against cycling, It's fun and keeps me in shape and in Florence it's actually easier to get around with a bike than with a car. I just know that I am not the kind of cyclist that rides far and fast and actually looks for hills. That's just nuts. But I understand better now. He just wants me to share a little bit in something that he  is passionate about.

He came home just as I was finishing this blog about his insidious nature (when it comes to cycling). "Happy birthday!" he said as he handed me something black. He was all excited as he handed me a rack and bag for the back of my bike. “Now you can carry your camera, and a jacket, and food, and your drawing things,” he said with a big smile. See what I mean? Insidious and sneaky and just about the loveliest man on the face of the planet.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Night at the Symphony

Leif called me yesterday morning and said that the woman I am dog sitting for in May had called him with an interesting proposition. They had tickets to a concert that evening, but she wasn’t feeling well and they were going to stay home. But they had already paid for them. Would we like to use their tickets for the symphony? He said that, if it was all right with me, he would like to go. He had never been to a formal concert like this before and would like to see what they were like.

He knows that my whole life has been spent with music. My father is a retired band conductor and teacher, my sister is a conductor and teacher, and my brother is still playing regularly in the band he has been with since college. Holidays are an opportunity for the whole family to bring their instruments and play together. Dinner table conversations often, no usually, include discussions of players, or certain pieces of music, or musical instruments themselves. (dear family, if you think about it, it’s true) I believe I have been attending concerts since I was born. I can’t imagine a life without music. How thoughtful of Leif, on HIS birthday, to think of doing something that helps him to know me better.

So we put on our good clothes and headed out for the concert. We even took the bus instead of our bikes so yeah, this was a special evening. Unfortunately we got there after the concert had started. Naturally they wouldn’t seat us during the performance, but we could wait in the lounge until the interval. We didn’t have to miss a thing just because we had been put in the lounge. There were drinks or café and a giant screen where we could watch the performance. So we got to sit in pretty chairs and drink freshly squeezed blood orange juice while watching the performance from a vantage point that no seat in the house had.

Finally the interval came and we took our e-mail ticket confirmation to the door. “Oooh, sir, this isn’t an actual ticket,“ the woman at the door told us. This then becomes a long and involved story in which four Italian ushers huddle over the e-mail, reading each sentence aloud and conferring in hushed tones, all the while shooting suspicious glances our way. Maybe they thought we might run for it. I don’t know. Finally one woman came to us and said that they would seat us this time, “but in the future, please follow the instructions and get our tickets from the ticket office before the concert begins.” I honestly think this is one instance where my blond hair and blue eyes helped. As an unsophisticated American I can’t be expected to do things the right way.

Once the usher had removed the two squatters from our seats we settled in for the second half of the music. Mozart, if anyone is wondering.

Concerts are different here. The audience listens in rapt silence. This isn’t a pretty turn of phrase but a factual account of what happened. Absolute silence as they listened. The man in front of us broke into air conducting at frequent intervals. One unfortunate man sneezed (and as always happens, during a tranquil moment in the music). Every head turned, eyebrows raised and hands were flung up in exasperation. When it happened again a few seconds later the reaction was twice as eloquent but remained silent. The amateur conductor in front of us actually buried his face in his hands for a moment. I imagine ushers rushed to the scene and discreetly removed him to the lounge. Hopefully this is his first offence and he won’t be stripped of his concert privileges. There was no applause between pieces. This is the time everyone takes to cough, whisper and adjust their seating for comfort. Thunderous applause and shouts of “Brava” are saved for the end, and last forever.

I have never been to a concert where the conductor didn’t use a score. Wow. If you have ever seen the conductors scoring of a piece of music you know that every note that every instrument plays is there. Everything a conductor needs to know about the music is printed there. To me it looks like someone spilled (a lot of ) ink on the page, but a conductor knows what it all means. Maybe they are the kind of group that doesn’t need a leader, but custom demands that someone stand up there and move a baton up and down. Whatever the situation was, everyone started and ended together, and there were no embarrassing moments where sections started looking at each other with a “what the hell?” look. That my friends is a successful concert.

We had seats high on the right. I have never had this view of a performance before. I could see everyone. As they played (beautifully, I might add) I noticed something unusual. There were seven French horns, the largest section of instruments in the wind portion of the orchestra. Usually it’s hard to get two or three French horns together to form a section. Instead of being tightly ranked together like the rest of the brass and woodwinds, they were seated with plenty of space between them. I wondered why. From our vantage point I could see each player clearly. As I watched them closely I began to understand why, I think. If you aren’t familiar with the French horn, it is the brass instrument shaped like a circle. Each time a player came to a measure of rest, he (yes they were all men) turned his instrument around in a circle. Twirled it, you might say. It wasn’t synchronized twirling, they didn’t perform this part as a group. Each player had their own little ritual they performed at their rest measures.

Again, for those not familiar with the instrument, it is without a doubt the moistest instrument in the band. It’s entire length is curved into a circle and the condensation from the player’s breath gathers in the instrument. If this condensation (it’s spit, folks) isn’t removed the horn eventually begins to sound like it is being played underwater. It loses some of its’ majestic sound when you can hear the bubbles forming. Because it’s a circle they have to turn the instrument to lead the moisture to a point where it can be removed. Hence the twirling. Because they have more rests than notes what you see are seven French horns twirling like majorettes. But randomly, each one marching to the beat of a different drummer. For me the music became a mere backdrop for the spectacle of flashing brass instruments. I’m thinking if they could get the percussion section to juggle their sticks and mallets they would really have a show on their hands.

Even with all these distractions, they were amazing musicians. The concert was beautiful and Leif enjoyed it. Well, what he said was that he enjoyed the music almost as much as he enjoyed watching me enjoy the music. He is one special man and it was a great way to spend an evening with him.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Getting To Know the Neighbors

Leif has many friends here in Italy, and they all treat him like a favorite little brother. So we have been invited into many homes for dinner and I have finally become comfortable with the idea of sharing meals with people I know only slightly, but who love Leif and are willing to hold at least part of their conversation in English so that I don’t feel completely lost all evening. Two nights ago we were invited to dinner by the couple who live in the apartment below us. She is the sister of our landlord and they have both been kindness itself when we have dropped various pieces of laundry onto their terrace from our wash line. Well, I’ve never dropped anything. What made this dinner different than the rest is that these people don’t speak English. Well, maybe ten words between them, and they were pretty darn stingy about using them.

They are a lovely older couple who have their grandchildren over frequently and who have the most beautiful garden you can have when everything must be in pots. They also have the largest collection of umbrellas I have ever seen. I believe there are 6 different umbrellas crammed into the stand outside their door. Stefano is an amateur handyman and Leif consults him regularly, most recently about our hot water heater. Anna takes care of her grandchildren. She must do other things, but I still don’t know her well enough to ask what. I think they know about Leif from her sister Milvia and I know they are curious about me. I think that is what prompted this invitation. That, and Italians love to entertain. At least the ones I know.

So last night we took our bottle of wine and flowers downstairs. It is important here to never show up without a little gift of some kind and as I don’t really know them flowers seemed to be safe. I found some beautiful yellow roses tipped with red at the market. Leif always brings wine. Hmmm, maybe people don’t love him as much as I think. Maybe they just want the wine he brings? No…they love him.

My hands were sweating a little as we rang the bell. I may have been silently praying that they forgot and weren’t home, which would be very strange as Stefano had come to our door only hours before to confirm the time. It’s not that I didn’t want to have dinner with them. I just wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a dinner entirely in Italian. This isn’t bad, a little fear keeps you on your toes.

So they met us at the door and we were ushered into their kitchen for dinner. Things were going smoothly. She made an awesome lasagna with a white sauce and spicy meat which we had with our Prosecco (spumanti for those who are wondering). I didn’t contribute to the conversation, but I was understanding almost all of it, which honestly thrilled me to no end. So I drank my aperativo and finished my lasagna and listened to the language kind of roll around me and felt just a little proud of myself. Big mistake.

The second dish was a beautiful rare roast beef sliced thin and peas with mushrooms and eggplant. We had a nice red wine with this course. I was still feeling pretty proud of my ability to understand the conversation when Anna turned to me, looked directly into my eyes and asked me a question. She probably thought I was having a stroke, I’m pretty sure I looked like a fish out of water. My mouth opened and shut a few times, my eyes bulged out of my head and not a sound came out of my mouth. I floundered (no pun intended) for a response. I tried looking at Leif for a translation, but she gave him A Look, shook her head and said “NO,” and waited for me to answer. I hadn’t understood a single syllable of her question. I couldn’t even remember what they were talking about immediately before that. I regretted that last glass of wine. I prayed for a natural disaster like a tornado or earthquake. Food poisoning. Anything. She just sat and smiled and waited. I was beginning to think we weren’t going to be good friends.

She repeated the question and I got a couple of words that time. No, I can’t remember what the question was, nor can I remember my answer. But I had taken the precaution of looking away as she repeated the question and that seemed to help. I think it’s the eye contact that throws me off. I continued to drink wine I was sure to regret as the conversation moved to other topics. She graciously allowed Leif to translate pertinent parts of the conversation, but she decided what was important for me to really understand. Direct questions continued to come without translation. I am no longer sure if I answered them correctly or not, but I’m pretty sure I at least made a stab at answering them.

I did understand when Stefano decided that we weren’t going to decide between the tiramisu and strawberries, but have them both. Nothing like a little sugar rush after a tense meal. The final nail in my coffin that night was the grappa, a shot glass of alcohol that can probably be used to clean engine parts. I have no idea if I even tried to enter the conversation after that, but have a sinking feeling I might have, with mixed results. Thankfully the meal started to wind down. Leif offered to take the rest of the tiramisu off her hands and she carefully stowed it between two plastic plates. I guess neither of them really wanted to have it around the next day as a temptation.

We drifted toward the door, everyone expressing (in their own special way) thanks for a good meal and great conversation and all. It might have just been my imagination, but I think they were looking a little relieved at not having to continue to try and communicate with me. As expected, they love Leif. I have a vague memory of climbing the stairs to our apartment, and even less about how I may have ended up in bed. Grappa makes me tired.

The good news is I no longer have to enter the stairwell and worry that I might not be able to communicate with my neighbors if I run into them.. I know that I can’t…

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I Can Hear "Them" Now: You're Gonna Do What?

I have been struggling here with a big question: what kind of work should I be doing? No answers yet, but the question keeps running around in my brain. It's getting to crunch time in the bank account so I can't just drift anymore. To that end I have been gathering a small assortment of short jobs for the coming months. When I say that they are nothing like people would expect from me, believe me when I say that I am just as surprised as you are.

I have spent nearly my whole adult life working. Sometimes not so much (outside the home), sometimes far far too much. I finally got my college degree last summer, only 31 short years after I started college two weeks after high school graduation. So here I stand, newly minted degree in one hand and a TEFL certification of the same vintage in the other. With those two pieces of paper I should be able to take Italy (any country, really) by storm. Forge a career out of whole cloth but without a pattern. Make something of myself, for God’s sake.

As millions of college graduates before me have found, oddly, the perfect job doesn’t fall into your lap complete with awesome benefit package and a future bright with promise. It becomes exponentially more difficult when searching for work in a different culture. It just works differently here. They can and will ask your age, marital status and a whole bunch of other questions that are either illegal or in very poor taste in the United States. They will consider your gender when hiring. Not that these things don’t happen in the States, but it is less obvious there.

Then there is the problem that, contrary to everything I have been brought up to strive for, I really don’t want to find a full-time, sit behind a desk for eight hours job. (insert  dramatic pause for the collective gasp here) For the first time in my life I have the time to savor living. I don’t race from one place or project to another, never really focused on what I am doing now but instead on what I will be doing next. For years I have done the things I am “supposed” to do. Plan for my future, think ahead, be efficient with time and resources, did I mention think ahead?

Not that these aren’t important and not that those who do live this way are doing anything wrong. Not at all. But I didn’t realize until I was forced to stop just how much of my life I was missing. How much time I spent just getting from one obligation to another. How much sleep I missed because I was already thinking about tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day… How much time I wasted in front of a television thinking about nothing. Maybe less than nothing. How large a role the mythical “they” played in my life. “They” say you should start planning for your future at twenty years old. “They” say responsible citizens hold down a full time job, vote in every election, pay their taxes and live like everyone else because to do differently upsets folks. Most of those obligations I talked about earlier I took on because I thought “they” felt these activities would make my life more productive. This realization that I was living "their" life instead of my own started before Italy, by the way. I started to walk this walk in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of South Minneapolis. Thank you.

I gave “them” the kind of power that hypothetical people should never, ever have in the real world. And now that I have that power back I want to find a way to live that keeps that power with me, where it belongs. And for those who know me well, the first few choices will, in fact, make you laugh. It’s OK, I laughed too.

I will be babysitting a few days in June. Yeah, babysitting. I don’t know, it sounds kinda like fun: watching two American kids in a villa in Umbria while their parents tour some vineyards. I survived the kindergarten Sunday school class from hell so I feel prepared for this. I will also be dog sitting in May and August. Um, yeah, this is where it becomes a little surreal. I don’t want pets, true…but I don’t dislike them. I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life being mastered by a dog or cat. So I will be watching two sweet dogs while their owners travel. Again, in a villa but this time on a mountain top in Tuscany. I’m still hoping to work a little bit in a hotel kitchen here, but not on a regular basis. I am also going to advertise for tutoring, to help students prepare for their final English exams.

Right now I just want to earn enough to pay my portion of the rent and food. I want the time to continue to enjoy each day as it comes. I want to savor it like the gift that it is. So for now I will take these jobs, as menial as some might think they are. I shouldn’t say no on the off chance that the “brilliant career” my college promised me will suddenly show up. And I get the chance to spend some time in places I wouldn’t normally go, places with housekeepers who clean and do laundry, places where the landscapes are a little wild and a lot more beautiful. I think at least having something to do in the future is a good choice for now. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

This post includes dead animal humor, read at your own risk.

For those who didn’t feel that the title was sufficiently filled with warning…please listen.
I will be talking about animals today, and they won’t be sitting next to us while we eat our organic salad, artisan whole wheat bread and humanely gathered honey. This is not an attack on vegetarians, but a discussion about food. If you don't want to read this kind of stuff, close this window now. Nuff said. Back to the fun part.

I can hear you all asking “So…what are the boys up to now?” They’ve been busy during these last few days of their visit. I have one request…please, please, please when Michael tells his stories don’t say “oh yeah, Michele wrote about that.” I am not the story teller that Michael is, my way of telling things does not do justice to his turn of phrase or the expression on his face. My retelling loses something in the translation I am sure. Listen and love everything he tells you. Pinky swear.

They came to lunch at our apartment yesterday. Our e-mail confirmation of the date included the time, date and location of our meeting, so everyone was exactly where they were supposed to be this time. It was nice, as I have said before, to kind of have a witness to my life here. They have seen where I sleep and where I eat and where I brush my teeth. It is real and not a figment of my imagination or a very lovely dream. It was fun to sit with them and hear about the last few days. While they had exciting stories to share about their day trip to Greve in Chianti, their stories of the market they visited that morning were the highlight of our lunch table conversation. OK, the stories were really Michael's. Lewis sat next to him looking alternately wise and confused. His contribution to the stories was "My dawgs are still barkin'."

They had decided to go the big central food market and see what “real Italians” buy for food. The first stall Michael wanted to talk about was the one where they sold “absolutely everything tripe.” Apparently the delicacy called Lampredotto (the fourth stomach of the cow, slowly cooked, sliced and served on bread with something resembling barbeque sauce) is only one of the organs that Italians eat. According to Michael they had displayed the brains, stomachs, livers, and I suppose whatever remaining organs someone thought were edible. Definitely in the camp of using everything but the oink, or moo as the case may be.

The next stall he became fascinated with sold poultry, or to be more exact, birds. I don’t know if you can call songbirds poultry. He said there was a whole case of little tiny birds, plucked and cleaned and ready for roasting. I thought they must be pigeons, because those are seen on some menus here, but he maintains that they are songbirds. “They’re tiny,” he said and besides, when they were at the Boboli Garden they saw nets out and learned that they were for catching song birds for eventual sale in the market. NOT as live song birds. Of course he couldn’t ask, because his Italian consists of “Si, grazie”, but he sticks by his theory and who am I to argue?

“At the same stall,” he continued, was a man holding a partially plucked rooster.” How did he know it was a rooster? Because the head was still attached. Now before you all go “eeewww”, this little fact is essential to the story. I probably still would have left it in, but without the rooster’s head the story sort of goes nowhere. According to Michael, who has never been known to exaggerate (ahem) this man was treating this noble bird as a puppet and was flirting with a couple of girls with it. He made it talk to them, and apparently , somehow, implied that it was winking at them and generally having a great time playing with his food. And the girls were loving it. He said they giggled and talked back and stayed for quite some time to be entertained by an old man holding a half dressed and all dead rooster in the middle of a bustling market.

Seriously, can you see this happening in your hometown? Nope. In our politically correct world it is wrong to see the humor in a dead chicken, although decades of clowns with rubber chickens will probably tell you different. Jokes about tripe span the centuries. It’s too bad. Humor is the thing that saves us from becoming too pleased with ourselves. It saves when we are sad, lonely and lost in this great big world. Humor should never require so much thought that you foget to laugh. Without rubber chickens the world would be a much less happy place.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Missed Connections

I wish I had more exciting stuff to share sometimes. All I have now is a series of missed connections with Michael and Lewis, my visiting friends from Minneapolis. They don’t have an Italian phone and the one time Lewis tried to use a public phone it went horribly awry.

The first day here after their train ride from Rome they were in the train station trying to call their landlord and tell them they were on the way. He confidently (I assume) walked to the pay phones to make the call and that’s as far as his confidence went. He became so frustrated that he managed to pull an actual Italian into the process, a very nice man who did his best (from what Lewis says) but he was also confused by the phones. Lewis read the instructions in English, and the man read them in Italian, and between the two of them all they could do was put coins in the top and watch them come out the bottom of the phone. During this entire process the Italian man was holding his cell phone in his hand. I know because this is when I walked up to them. They had just realized that they didn’t need the pay phone…

Lewis was so excited to find an internet café across the street from the apartment. OK, excited might be putting it a little mildly. If he could have groceries, tobacco, wine and such within 20 feet (for those madly converting to meters, just a bit over 6 meters) of their front door he would be the happiest person in Florence. He e-mailed me one of the first days and that is the method we have been using for communicating. I think he may never use a public phone again after his experience in the train station.

He sent me an e-mail on Friday morning, they would like to go to a church service at 6 that I had told them about, could they come to our place around 5:30, look it over and then go to the church? I replied that coming to my house was fine, but come earlier because I live over half an hour (on foot) from the church. OR I could meet them at the Duomo, a mere 5 minutes from the church and leave our apartment for another day. But I’d be home all afternoon, come earlier if you want.

He replied (at 4:30ish (1630 for those converting to the 24 hour clock although why anyone would want to do that is beyond me)) with “we’re on our way! Well, soon anyway.” I naturally assumed they would be coming to the apartment within the hour. That is technically soon.

At five minutes to six I decided I must have misunderstood this message. I do this a lot, I read “we will” when it really says “we will not”, I don’t know why. So I ran down the stairs, hopped on my bike and rushed off to the Duomo. Yes, mom, I wore my helmet and obeyed every reasonable traffic rule. Some are just meant to be broken, that’s all. I got there about ten minutes after and loitered on the front steps of the Duomo, wheezing like an elderly race horse and probably looking like one too. It’s warm here. There was sweat. After another ten minutes I decided they probably weren’t going to show here either, so raced back home on the off chance that they were standing on my front step, ringing the bell and wondering where the hell I was. Which, dang it, they were.

When I got home at 6:35 (can you believe every light was green? Really!) they weren’t there, but there was a message on my phone. Now, there’s a lot about my phone I have figured out in the last 6 months, but how to listen to my voice mail…no. I need to figure this out. Someday someone other than Leif might call and leave a message that I will need to hear. Maybe. Luckily, Lewis leaves nothing to chance and sent me an e-mail. “Sorry we missed each other, etc, etc, but there’s a phone in this café so I’ll call you tomorrow. See you for dinner tomorrow night.”

Saturday the boys were going to host us in their apartment for dinner. I got an e-mail in the morning that they were just too, too exhausted (I believe he referred to dogs and barking) and could we do dinner another night? They needed time to prepare. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but they are on vacation and can have all the time they want. We agreed on Sunday. I realized about 9:30 last night (2130 for those still insisting on the 24 hour clock. I have to say, 2130 sounds ridiculously late) that none of the stores are open here on Sunday.

Unfortunately, while they can call me anytime the internet café is open, I can’t call them. I had to wait for Lewis’s phone call this morning to tell them that they may have to hunt far and wide for an open grocery store. Probably not something they want to do during their vacation on a lazy Sunday morning. He will call this afternoon and let me know if they ran across an open store on their rambles about town, or if we will put it off till tomorrow night. I am trying to figure out how to do the things I need to do today and still maintain constant contact with my phone so I don’t miss their call. I forgot to tell him that leaving a voice mail on my phone is like putting a message in a bottle and sending it out to sea. Maybe I’ll carry it in my bra…

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Bidet, or Not to Bidet: A Question That Needs To Be Asked.

The first night that Michael and Lewis were in Florence Leif and I made them dinner. So much nicer than getting dressed and finding a restaurant. It was fun to cook for them and listen to them talk while we worked. I asked how they had found this apartment, because it is a very nice, newly remodeled place. I mentioned that the bathroom was especially beautiful (because it is) and he said, “Oh! So you tried the bidet?” Yes, this was dinner table conversation. If you are squeamish stop reading now, because it just gets deeper into the bathroom topic from here.

Of course I didn’t use the bidet! I’m pretty sure social norms forbid the use of bidets when visiting, even with the closest of friends, even in Italy. I know I turned about five different shades of red as I shook my head and said no. I tell him that we even have one in our apartment but that I’m not really sure how they work so I haven’t tried it. In fact I try not to make eye contact with ours when I am in the bathroom. We use it as a drying rack for the cleaning bucket.

Now, Lewis is from the South. He has lived in Minnesota a long time, but when he becomes excited about something his vowels get broader and words become seconds longer to accommodate the extra vowels. Bidets excite him.

Owh my Gawd! You have a beedaaaay and you don’t use it?” His face is all scrunched up in confusion. He can’t understand why I don’t use it, and I am too much of a lady to try and explain in mixed company. “Everey time I seeee one I use it. I just feel so, soooo…fresh. It’s lovely, you must try it. It’s so eeeeasyyy! You just splash off, dry off and go!”

He went on like this for some time but thankfully Leif introduced a new topic and the conversation moved on. I think he didn’t want to start answering questions about his own bidet use, as that’s where the conversation was headed. It’s only a short leap from “Do they have bidets in Sweden?” to “When’s the last time you used one, Leif?” No one wants to answer that question if they can reasonably avoid it.

There are a number of reasons why I don’t use the bidet in our apartment. The biggest reason being that I have absolutely no idea how to use it. I don’t come from a bidet culture. In Minnesota you don’t want to have more fixtures in your bathroom than absolutely necessary. First there’s the risk of freezing pipes. We are too busy making sure the water continues to run to the essential fixtures, who wants to spend extra time on something like a bidet? Second, who wants to have yet another shiny porcelain surface to keep clean? And where, in this tiny farmhouse, do we find room for a luxury like a bidet? The living room? Better to hope the water filtering down from your shower does the job well enough.

Lewis sounded absolutely rapturous about his experiences with bidets. Minnesotans don’t wax rhapsodic about “down there”, it is a necessary evil that we deal with in a very matter of fact way. For all we know, the road to hell is paved with clean tushies. And anything that is that much fun must, in fact, be totally wrong. Period.

Truly, the reason I don’t use it is because I have no idea how to use it. There is no instruction manual and I don’t know who to ask. Or more to the point, if I ask, it implies that I might at some time actually use it. Then there is one person on the planet that knows I have the desire to try being squeaky clean. Kinda embarrassing. So, instead, I sit and look at it every time I use the toilet (they face each other in our bathroom) and feel like an unsophisticated country hick because I can’t even figure out a simple bathroom fixture.

The day after our dinner I went into our bathroom, determined to at least touch it, to try and figure out some part of how this thing works. I turned the handle for the cold water. Nothing happened. Hmmm. This could be a lot easier than I thought. It’s broken! I tried the handle for the hot water…damn, water slowly leaked out one of the holes in the back of the bowl. I turned it further and the leak became a tiny arch of water, nothing that promises a forceful cleaning experience but if your bottom is small (and if I am correct on which way to sit on this thing) it will at least get wet. If it is supposed to work like one of those “no touch” car washes then we are in trouble. But it would explain Lewis’s great affection for their use.

Lewis made the bidet experience sound like an exciting adventure, one that I should probably explore. But I am thinking that a nice piece of plywood, a small cloth and a basket for towels is the best use for our bidet. I can’t have it staring at me accusingly every time I sit down and I can’t have it removed, so giving it a new purpose in life is probably best for us both.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Florence With Friends

I spent the day with Lewis and Michael yesterday. I was going to change their names for this to Mario and Fabio, but was afraid they would fight over who got to be Fabio, so I will just stick to their real names. I don’t need to protect their innocence. I’m pretty sure they lost their innocence years ago and don’t really miss it all that much.

I should have known I was in trouble when breakfast included mimosas. I now know that 9:30 is too early for me to start, even with a drink as pretty as the mimosa. After breakfast Michael and I took a stroll around the neighborhood while Lewis took a short nap. It was a fairly uneventful walk, till at a crosswalk directly before a roundabout Michael decided to cross against the red light. The elderly woman next to me kept saying “Aspetto” (wait) over and over, louder and louder as he inched toward traffic. There was a lot of traffic. I grabbed f or his hand, but he moves quick for an older guy and he was across the road before I could get there. She started yelling at him for ignoring the red light and started telling the crowd (oh yeah, by now there was quite a group of us waiting for the light) what an idiot he was and that he didn’t respect anyone or anything.

I pretended I didn’t know him and waited with the rest of the sheep for the light to change. When I caught up with him he mentioned that she seemed a little put out with him but he was onlyy guessing as he doesn't speak Italian. Yeah. We could still hear her telling anyone who would listen that the light was red, was he blind? He laughed it off and her voice faded as we walked away, but I don’t think I’ll forget how personally she took his disregard for the light. Something to remember as I wander through town.

We woke Lewis up and got started on our walk to…well we never really had a destination now that I think of it. I have to say that walking anywhere with two gay men is memorable. I hadn’t really noticed the men in this town. I mean, of course, I noticed that there were men, but I guess I wasn’t looking at them that way because I am happy with the man I have. As we walked they would point out someone and comment (good or bad) on him. It’s kind of like walking around with a couple of best girlfriends. We walked to the old Town Hall so they could take the obligatory picture of themselves with the copy of the David that stands there. When I suggested we take a picture of them holding "some part" of David they looked at me like I was crazy. This look from the man who is seriously considering buying an apron with the torso of David (shoulders to mid-thigh) emblazoned on the front to wear to work when he gets back. I am confused and embarrassed, what was I thinking???

Then we strolled over to Santa Croce to pick a restaurant for lunch. We found a nice little café with seating on the piazza. I don’t think they would have cared what we ate, they were too busy looking at the waiter. Lewis like the way he smelled. I didn’t notice any particular odor, but maybe I‘m just insensitive. Michael liked his eyes and particularly his ears. I didn’t ask why. They both perked up a little every time he came to the table. I know they were disappointed when a different waiter brought our food out, but they were brave and smiled anyway. Oh yeah, just to keep the breakfast buzz going, we had a glass of house wine with lunch.

We walked across the piazza to Santa Croce. Michael wanted to see the church, Lewis wanted another nap. We all went into the church because Florence is made of stone and not comfortable at all for napping. Lewis thought he might find a quiet corner somewhere while Michael and I looked at the church. “We’ll find each other later,” were his last words before disappearing toward the exit and the green grass of the courtyard.

Michael and I had a great time trying to read the markers and finding the memorials for Marconi (the inventor of the radio), some scientist whose name I can’t remember, oh, and Galileo, Michelangelo and host of other Florentines. He was frustrated that the Latin he had worked so hard to learn was gone from his head, and I’m pretty sure that what we couldn’t read we made up.

When we finished we began the hunt for Lewis. He wasn’t in the courtyards, the bathrooms or the chapel so we walked out the exit and there he was looking at postcards. Michael asked him if he had seen the marker on the wall showing the flood level. Lewis said, “Uh, no.” Michael asked if he saw the ceiling? Lewis said, “Hm, no“. I asked if he had looked at anything in the church and he said, “well, no.” He had pretty much paid for his ticket, walked from the entrance to the exit and looked for a quiet place to nap. But they kicked him off the grass so he waited here for us. “But I think I’d like a gelato soon,” he said.

So again we walked, ever so slowly, and found gelato and a flea market and an ATM and then back to their apartment. Our walk was littered with men. Men with nice shirts (code for nice pecs?) nice pants (code for nice ass?) and one with a nice bag and bird legs (code for something but I have absolutely no idea for what). I am beginning to realize that there are in fact a lot of men in Florence and some of them look darn good.

Who knew two older gentleman could so thoroughly exhaust me? When I posted on face book that I was too tired to breathe, I wasn’t kidding. I had to rest at their place for a little bit before getting on the bike for the long ride home. It was all I could do to boil water for pasta and slice a few mushrooms. I was in bed by 8:45. I was sunburned and tired. Michael made me think all day. When I left, Lewis was drinking a beer and contemplating yet another nap.

It was a great day and I am so happy to share my new life with someone who means so much to me. Sounds a little crazy, I know, but no one from my past is sharing my experience. You are thousands of miles away and only know what I tell you. Finally there is a first hand witness to my life here in Italy. Up until now, I could have said I was in Italy but actually be living in North Dakota. All my experiences could have come from my imagination. When Michael and Lewis return to Minnesota, the memories of me they carry back will, in some weird way, make this all very real.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Private Concert

I know that I already shared something today, but seriously, does anyone ever have ONLY one interesting thing happen in a single day?? No, I’m just the only one crazy enough to write them down and this is one that must be shared. Sooooo…

I walked to the outdoor market in my neighborhood this morning, because I am having visitors from Minneapolis and we are cooking for them tonight. I wanted fresh everything. So I moseyed on down the street and bought my fruits and veggies, and looked at the other stalls because I could. I can finally do more than point and say “si” so shopping is becoming rather enjoyable.

I was walking home when I saw an older woman in a beautifully tailored suit walking ahead of me. She appeared to be conducting an invisible band, and as I got closer (I was about a foot taller than she was, so I naturally cover a lot more ground) I could hear her humming. Quite nicely, too. When I got closer she stopped humming and began singing. Her conducting (I am certain this is what she was doing) became more animated as she lifted her eyes to the balconies above us and really started belting it out.

I smiled, because smiles are safest when you aren’t sure just how stable the other person is. She noticed me, stopped for a moment, and then sang to me alone. Whoever she may have been courting on the balcony apparently couldn’t hold a candle to me. I think she wanted me to sing along, but naturally I didn’t know the words. Yeah, something Italian and probably opera, which is far beyond my capabilities at any time. Eventually she noticed that she was still singing solo and stopped. She looked at me for a second, slightly confused but ready to keep trying. When you are that happy, you don’t let a little thing like me stop you.

What followed was the longest, most poetic and heartfelt praise that I have ever heard for a breakfast. You would think angels had personally flown her sweets in for her that morning, and the chocolate? Apparently almost something to die for, and the café? Nectar of the gods, just for her, just this morning. For almost a block she spoke of this breakfast, which I was starting to think I wanted too. We were almost best friends; she talked about herself, and I smiled and nodded and threw in an occasional “oooh” and “aaaaah”. Those go a long way for me in many conversations.

Suddenly she stopped talking and looked to the left. There ahead of us were six quite good looking young men in pretty snappy uniforms. She threw open her arms, greeted them all as if they were her best friends and that’s the last I saw of her. I haven’t been ditched that effectively since high school. A less confident woman would question herself a little bit, but I didn’t sing along, and the boys were awfully cute, so I left the scene as gracefully as possible.

A Baptism

Yesterday afternoon we attended a baptism here in Florence. Lara’s parents, Lia and Lorenzo, have been good friends to Leif since he moved to Florence and we were so honored to be included in the family and friends asked to witness her baptism.

We biked to the church with Barbara, another friend of Leif’s (and now mine.) Yes, biked. I wasn’t going to walk 3k in heels and the bus just seemed like a crazy idea on such a beautiful day. I have to say we looked pretty snazzy cruising down the street. Barbara felt there should be a picture, so here we are at out most elegant while still being able to climb on a bike.

Four children were baptized that afternoon in a beautiful little church. Dust danced in shafts of sunlight coming in through the windows at the bottom of the dome as we watched the ritual of baptism. It is awe-inspiring and emotional to watch this. It is quite an affirmation of faith in this day to watch parents bring their children and place them in the hands of God. To entrust family, friends and their faith community with the spirit of this child that they love so dearly is truly a gift to us.

Once the ceremony ended we all walked out the door of the church, took about 20 steps to the left, and turned into the neighborhood park. There we found a table filled with goodies. Sweets and snacks, meats and pizzas (oh yes), fruits and naturally a little wine. Lara lay in her stroller, looking and acting like a little angel as everyone fluttered around her. She accepted this attention graciously and the rest of the afternoon was spent talking with other guests and eating good food while standing in glorious sunshine. Green grass tickled our ankles (well, mine anyway), butterflies fluttered from place to place and children were everywhere laughing and running and enjoying life.

When we left we were given a box of confetti. I wasn’t sure why they were giving us little pieces of paper, but I am in a different country so I smiled and took it. It seems that what confetti means in Italian is sugared almonds. So I got to spend the day in the park with great food, great friends, AND they gave me candy. It was a great day!

This afternoon I have friends arriving from the states. I am so, so, so excited to see them. I am officially apologizing in advance for probably not writing as often as I have been. But only for about a week. Then it’s back to the grindstone. I mean, back to sharing my experiences with those I love so dearly.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sleepless Nights

This morning I am up at the unbelievably early hour of 6AM. I know that 6 AM used to feel late, I was usually at work by this time. But here it feels like the middle of the night. There is not another light on that I can see, there is no traffic, not even the birds have really started to sing yet. Just so no one thinks I am a total wimp, we didn’t finish eating dinner until 9:30PM.

Why am I up this early? Well, being the supportive girlfriend that I am, I am up to make coffee for Leif, who is riding in a practice cycle race today. I will have my breakfast later, but it would be just mean to make him drink his coffee alone. I decided to write this while the sun came up. I didn’t write yesterday because it was just too, too beautiful to be inside. OK, except for the nap, which was necessary because I spent all morning out in the sunshine.

Two nights ago I was sleeping soundly when I jumped about a foot off the bed. I felt a pain in my shoulder that woke me up, and by the time I hit the bed again I was wide awake. I know something bit me, but I am not sure yet what that “something” might be. But when you are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night it is pretty hard to get right back to sleep. So you lie there and think. Never a good thing.

I was trying to figure out what had bit me. We had our first mosquitoes as we fell asleep that night. But I have never had a mosquito bite that felt like that. I am pretty sure it was either a vampire bat or a the mamma spider from the movie Arachnophobia. As I said, when you can’t sleep all you can do is think, and this can often lead to unnecessary panic.

I remembered my friend Mia talking about checking her boots (in Minnesota for gosh sakes) for brown recluse spiders. I am pretty sure they are poisonous and I was also pretty sure that I could feel the bite growing hotter, with little tentacles of pain starting to shoot down my arm. Poison travels fast, you know. I couldn’t remember anything about these spiders, but was pretty convinced that I would have to have some kind of amputation, either of the left arm, no great loss as I am right handed, or possible everything from the waist up. This might prove a little more challenging, but I am from Minnesota. It will be fine.

Then of course you start to wonder if whatever bit you has left the building, left the room, or died. Died, preferably in some distant location, is of course the best that you can hope for. Left the building would be good too, but simply left the room, maybe for a drink of water before coming back and finishing me off? Every little sound became the stealthy footsteps of a giant insect returning for a snack. I didn’t get a lot of sleep after that.

I did get up to check the bite in the bathroom mirror. I couldn’t see anything, but I blamed that on the early/late hour, the difficult location of the bite, and the crappy lighting in the bathroom. I am sure I was too distraught to see clearly. OR, the poison had reached my brain and I couldn‘t see at all anymore.

I went back to bed and watched the room grow lighter. When he finally woke up (I know, you would think that all the biting and tossing and turning would have woken him up) I asked him to look at the bite. At first he couldn’t seem to find it, which I could hardly believe. How can you miss an angry red, probably bleeding bite with red lines of poison radiating out from it? Hmmph. He looked around a bit and said it looked like a mosquito bite. What? No, I tell him, he must be mistaken. Ah, he says, it might be bigger than a mosquito bite. I am blaming the language barrier for our inability to agree on the seriousness of this bite.

Well, it took a day, but he is finally willing to concede that it might be something other than a mosquito bite. I am willing to throw the giant spider theory away, but am still holding strong to the idea that it must be something other than a mosquito bite. All I know is that if the mosquitoes in Italy bite like that, something will need to be done. There are no screens on the windows here in Florence. Bugs can come and go as they please. We may have to get one of those nets that drape around the bed. They look terribly romantic, but I am pretty sure that I will spend most of my time getting tangled up in it trying to get into or out of bed. It’s gonna be an exciting summer.

PS Last night I saw bats flying around outside our terrace. I am happy about the drop in the mosquito population, but rethinking my position on the vampire bat bite theory…

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Conversation with Myself

For the last three days a migraine headache has had a death grip on my body. I couldn’t eat or sleep, I just sat around the apartment feeling (and looking) miserable. I used to get them all the time, but they have become a very rare occurrence in my life. For those who get them or know someone with them, migraines are difficult to manage because everyone has different triggers for them. Mine are typically perfumes and stress. I am guessing that this latest one is due in large part to stress.

I can hear you all saying now (sarcastically, I might add), “what do you have to be stressed about?” Well, my German-Norwegian-Lutheran upbringing can create stress where none exists. I have become mostly immune to those voices, but every now and then they try to have their own little “come to Jesus” meeting with me. Hence the headache…

The Norwegians are represented by my Grandpa G who was a minister in the Assembly of God Church, the Germans by my Grandma Hauck who was a master of getting the “good” out of everything, and my Lutheran heritage by a committee (naturally) of old friends who believe what they believe because they’ve always believed it, period. I am representing myself.

The reason for this meeting, I think, is that I am happy; happier than a German-Norwegian-Lutheran really ought to be. To some it would appear to be a life without purpose, whatever that means. I find my days to be very pleasant. They are filled with food and wine and sunshine, walking and cycling and making love, new friends and old friends and friends yet to be. I do all this under endless blue skies to the sound of centuries-old church bells and Italian conversation. I‘m not homesick, I am unafraid of the future and thoroughly enjoy each day to its’ fullest.

No one at this meeting seems impressed with my happiness. Grandpa G drums his fingers on the table, obviously troubled by the fact that his oldest grandchild has taken to drinking wine. And not just at dinner, but for lunch! Drinking in the middle of the day can only mean one thing, you know. AND I’m living in sin. He is watching me closely…but I just don’t seem very sorry about my slide from grace. I am very afraid that this is the one time he will be unable to find a Bible passage that captures this moment for him. Well, not one with any comfort in it, that’s for sure. Probably one that involves smoting and I am on the receiving end.

Grandma Hauck clears her throat every five seconds but finds it hard to actually speak. She is concerned because I am eating my fill at every meal. She always made sure that people at her table were fed in the correct order…Men first because they worked the hardest, children next because they were growing and the women eat what’s left. Or not, if you can save enough for another meal. Saving is the key word here. If I’m not saving something back then I am not planning for my future. She saved everything: tinfoil, plastic bags, newspapers, sweet-n-low packages from restaurants. She wore her clothes till you could see through them, which wasn’t indecent because it showed just how dedicated she was to not wasting anything. She struggles with how to nicely tell me that I am not being careful enough and having too much fun now only means trouble later.

The Lutheran committee, after gathering the coffee makings, deciding who will take notes and telling a couple of bad jokes to lighten the mood get down to business. Somehow I seem to have misunderstood the message of Luther. Life is not about my own personal pleasure. They aren’t concerned about my life now, but want to know…what I am doing about my eternal life? In this orgy of food and drink and love, where is my struggle to know God and to understand His purpose for my life? My purpose certainly isn’t to simply enjoy the life He is providing for me. Nope, if I were truly devout, I would turn away from the pleasures put before me. If I am feeling at peace with God, and worthy of this kind of life, well, they are certain I am mistaken. Life is supposed to be a struggle, you get to rest in heaven. If you rest here, what’s left to look forward to?

No wonder I got a headache. All good arguments, as far as they go. But each of them is speaking out of their own experience, and not mine. Their ways to peace and fulfillment aren’t mine. In their own way, each of them is right. But not completely. It is also probably good to remind myself that I can stop listening at any time.

I know can’t simply float along enjoying each moment and not consider the future. But I don’t have to go to the other extreme either. I need to find a balance between work and play, or find work that is play…oooh, I think I may be on to something there.