Monday, August 22, 2011

Looking At Life Through Wine Colored Glasses: The In-Between Year

My last post told you more than you probably wanted to know about my earlier experiences with wine. Wine is not a Minnesota beverage. The University of MN may argue that they can develop a grape that will survive the winter and deliver the same flavor as a grape that has many more months to mature, but they are really just incredible optimists, I think. Whatever kind of wine comes out of Minnesota is appealing to some people only because it comes from a place so obviously unsuited for wine-making, and those who work so hard to make it happen deserve respect for the effort if not for the product. Minnesota is beer country, and that’s not a bad thing. If we were wine country we’d start to resemble California, and I don‘t think the world can handle another California.

Our first glass of wine together
 So I came to Italy in 2009 without any real appreciation for wine. My class lasted for three weeks, but even three weeks of great food accompanied by good wine isn’t enough to create a convert. Two people really helped me to give wine a chance. I became good friends with a classmate who had a real appreciation for good wine paired with good food and Matt shared that enthusiasm with me. The other person was our guide in the mountains who also happened to be a sommelier (professional wine guy). It was fun to listen to him and Matt talk about wines. I didn’t understand most of it, but they had me trying things I wouldn’t have tried if they weren’t there. It may have helped that I thought the guide was pretty cute.

When we returned to the States, Matt and I continued to meet regularly to eat and drink together. He introduced me to good wines, sometimes really, really good wines and great food during the next year and a half. It was quite an education for me. If I offend anyone with my next statement, I’m sorry, but beer has a very limited scope. It only makes a few foods really good. Pizza and brats and hot dogs at a ball game. Oh, and green olives. That’s it. I learned that wine can be like a magic trick; with the right food both things taste different…better.

During this same time I continued a friendship with the guide from the mountains here in Italy. He encouraged me (since I was planning to move to Italy) to find some wine tastings in Minnesota and start to find what I liked and what I didn’t. So I did, and discovered that it was actually fun and very interesting to try these different wines. I started to get a feel for what things appealed to me, and what wines I didn’t like. Our conversations almost always started with the question “So…what wines have you tried since we last talked?” I learned interesting things, like there’s more than one kind of grape and more than one way to make all those different grapes into wine. I found myself looking forward to talking to him about wine, although just a few months before this the idea of talking about wine would have made me laugh and change the subject.

My brother was excited that I was showing an interest in wines and now when he talked I actually listened (he is my little brother, after all). Dinners would be a chance to try several wines just to see what they were like. He loves to experiment, so sometimes things worked great, sometimes not. But it was always fun, and I always had some good impressions to take back to my conversations with the guide when it was over.

Ah, the guide. Life is a strange thing, don’t you think? Over the year and a half that it took me to finish things up in Minnesota and prepare to move to Italy I did much more than learn about wines. I ended up falling in love with the guide, Leif. Who just happens to be a sommelier. All those wines I tasted in Minnesota were just a preparation for living here, where wine isn't a special occasion drink but a part of every day life. Or maybe it might be more accurate to say that, for me, every day in Italy is a special occasion. And so began my adventure with Italian wines with a Swede as my guide.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Looking At Life Through Wine Colored Glasses: The Early Years

The first wine I ever tasted was Mogan David out of the gallon jug that my great-grandmother got every year for Christmas. I was very young, so naturally it was really a tiny wine glass filled with 7-Up and colored with about 5 drops of wine. But I felt oh, so grown up. Whether or not Mogan David can really be considered a wine by today’s standards is beside the point. It was my first wine experience and it’s one of those memories that marks a point where I felt like I was growing up.

My dad made wine in the basement for awhile. He used things like beets and dandelions. I was young, maybe six to twelve years old during this phase. There is nothing you can do to a beet to make it edible; the idea of drinking it was even worse. Dandelions are weeds. Yeah, I know, they are survival food, or something served in restaurants where the price of a trendy dandelion salad starts at like $50 a plate but when you’re seven, eating or drinking a dandelion just seems wrong. I don’t know if dad ever got the hang of wine making. Sadly every time I remember taking a tiny sip of one it was always given with the comment “I‘m not sure if I got this one right or not.” I secretly thought the answer was no, but I hope I didn‘t say that to him. There are still a few bottles lurking on the shelves of the root cellar, but no one has the courage to open them up.

The next wine I tasted was communion wine, which everyone knows isn’t supposed to be enjoyed but endured. It is supposed to celebrate a growing up moment in faith. Nowadays they have a grape juice option. I wonder if those kids feel as grown up as we did as we choked down the strong (smelling and tasting) wine that the church bought by the case and kept in a cupboard for months (and months and months. Possibly years.) I can’t imagine that drinking Welch’s grape juice, even up there in front of God and everyone, feels quite as grown up as taking the tiniest possible sip of wine (while not breathing) and trying not to swallow till you get to the back of the church so you can cough without anyone knowing. Maybe they serve that kind of wine on purpose, coughing gets the communion wafer unstuck from the roof of your mouth.

In my late teens and early twenties, when I wanted to feel particularly grown up I would drink Boone’s Farm or TJ Swan wine, usually from a plastic cup. Something nastily sweet like apple or strawberry flavor. Really it was almost soda pop without the fizz. It wasn’t so much the wine, as my ability to choose which kind I wanted and to buy it all by myself that made it so exciting, I think. It also seemed much more sophisticated than beer, the other liquor of choice in the small town I grew up in. The invention of the wine cooler was, to my twenty something mind, sheer genius. They managed to get rid of that awful “winey” taste and you could drink straight from the bottle without looking desperate. My new heroes were Bartles and James, even if their commercials showed them to be two old guys sitting in rocking chairs.

Wine just wasn’t part of my life during my thirties and most of the forties. Let’s face it, buying wine at a liquor store for the uninformed is really just a shot in the dark. Shelves of wines from floor to ceiling. Clerks who can only ring you up, not tell you anything about the wine. Lots of colorful labels, weird names and descriptions that are confusing. Aromas of one kind, but tastes of another. I never had to guess with Boone’s Farm. Their strawberry wine smelled and tasted like strawberries. A wine that tells me it has the aroma of plums and red flowers and tastes like raisins and black raspberries with hints of chocolate is just plain confusing. Much safer to stick with rum and coke. If you always buy the same brand of rum the only thing that can change the taste of that drink is bad ice or generic coke. Why take chances on something that requires special glasses and might not taste at all like you think it should?

In my mid to late-forties my brother got interested in wines and wine tasting. Dinners at his house started to include wine and he would try to educate us on why a particular wine tasted good, and what to eat with it. I tended not to listen too closely, especially when he would start with “This one should be interesting. Got it in the bargain cart for 3 bucks.” We all share a frugal streak we learned from our parents. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. I am going to make a sweeping generalization here…keep your expectations low when purchasing wine out of the bargain cart. It’s there for a reason. But I do thank my brother for introducing me to (good, really good) port and the food that goes with it. First, because port has given me many enjoyable evenings with friends and second, because it sort of paved the way for my future understanding and appreciation of other wines.

I share these (admittedly) uninteresting facts about myself because I think you should know that before I came to Italy, Land of Wine, I didn’t know squat about wine. I didn’t want to know squat about wine. I didn’t drink wine unless there was no other option available. I didn’t know that wine should, really, be taken with the meal. That all those TV shows where people stand around at cocktail parties drinking wine and not eating is an American invention. When I came to Italy for a class two years ago I experienced wine the way it should be experienced. It was the beginning of something new for me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Three days ago I was writing madly about a discovery I had made. It was about coming to Italy in part to practice my art and then breaking my elbow and finding after the cast was off that I couldn't connect with that artistic part of my emotions. How devastating that was to me. How after twelve days in the mountains I found my voice again and felt lighter, physically and emotionally, than I have in months. It was pretty good, with all kinds of comparisons between music, which I know so well, and drawing.

We came back to Florence a few days ago and I have been busy cleaning (just believe me when I tell you that with the house completely closed up the dirt of Florence manages to coat every flat surface after a few days) and babysitting. Two days ago I had my first chance to get out and draw. It was terrible.  It hurts to say that, because when it's working (to share one comparison from the post that wasn't) it's like playing a difficult piece of music with more than the right notes. When it's working you get goosebumps, the outside world fades into the background. It's a very emotional thing.

When I get it right, that's what drawing is for me. A completely absorbing, body and mind experience that fills my soul with joy. Sounds corny, and maybe it is, but I feel fortunate to be one of those people who can experience joy in many different ways.

That morning, when nothing worked and I walked for three and a half hours and had really nothing to show for it I felt sad. It's scary to suddenly lose the ability to do something. I know that drawing isn't a vital skill like walking or breathing, at least for most  people. But for me it is like breathing so it's like developing asthma. Suddenly, what always happened without thought becomes a struggle. And a frustration, because I could do it so easily before. This isn't some new thing that I am learning, but something I have done my whole life. This must be what writers' block feels like. Almost dead inside and so very very quiet.

Oh, I have no happy ending for you. I didn't get up the next day and find my muse standing at the front door with a "where the hell have you been, I've been here the whole time" look on it's face. I didn't open a sketchbook and hear violins playing as beautiful lines flowed off the end of my pen. Nope, I opened up my sketchbook and thought "wow, that page is white." That's it. I'm starting to wonder if my trouble is that I can't connect with this city the way I connect with the countryside. Which makes things very difficult, because I live in the city. This is where I need to trap, I mean find my muse.

So for now I will take my sketchbook with the very white pages out into the city and fill those pages with uninspired and crappy work, hoping that eventually my city muse will walk by and sit next to me for a bit. Any suggestions on what kind of bait works best for an artistic muse?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Bed...

I have had waaaayyy to much time to think up here. You are probably wondering if I do anything besides contemplate the big life questions and clean up doggie doo. Well, I do. Lots of stuff happens here. I try to talk to the housekeeper in Italian. She has started to flinch every time I come near her and as she’s talking she backs away from me. I practice conjugating verbs so I can dazzle her the next day with my new words. I draw. I read. I pick wild berries. I watch grass grow.

I do have to say that last night was the most exciting night we’ve spent here. Our experiences lead me to believe we should be asking for hazard pay.

It started out so innocently. After the usual ritual of counting dogs and cats, last night finding two dogs and one cat, we closed the doors so those inside couldn’t escape while we tried to coax the second cat inside. We were unsuccessful, but it’s a cat, it can survive one night in the yard without getting eaten. Once we had everyone within the walls we headed upstairs to get ready for bed. Two big dogs and one cat clattered up the wooden stairs ahead of us. Three flights of stairs later we arrived at our bedroom, which as you know is small. We fought our way through a flurry of wagging tails and wet noses to our respective sides of the bed and started to get ready for sleep. I finished in the bathroom and told Leif he could get ready now and I would get everyone settled in.

He walked into the hallway, looked up at the beam in the ceiling and said “That’s a big wasp.” And it was. It had wandered in through the open and screen-less windows or door of our terrace and wasn’t sure how to get back out. It hovered near one of the beams, the sound of it’s wings echoing in the stairwell. I told him to not to worry about it and he went up the short flight of stairs to our bathroom.

I sat on the floor between the dog beds, petting them both as the cat rubbed itself against my back and through my arms, purring the whole time. I was feeling pretty content. What a pleasant night. I turned to the door as Leif came in and said, “Stop! The wasp is on the floor in the doorway. Don’t step on it!”

He leaned over to look at it and said quietly, “That’s not a wasp.” It was hard to see well because the lighting in the hall is a bit murky. I looked closer (without getting closer) at the grey blob on the floor. It moved again and suddenly I could see it’s eight legs. I was frozen to the floor. I asked calmly (I think) if he could see past his principles to kill it. He looked at me, raised one of his eyebrows, said “Yes,” and grabbed one of his sandals. It scurried out of the doorway and I heard a loud SMACK! The sensitive dog jumped off her bed and into my lap. I tried to calm her and soothe Leif’s conscience at the same time.

He just stood there holding his sandal (turned discreetly away from me so I didn’t have to view the remains) and looking kinda sad. I motioned for him to come into the bedroom so I could comfort him. As I turned to the bed, something landed on the comforter. I took a step back, thinking this was the giant wasp. Then I looked closer and realized that it was a giant grasshopper. (for those who want to know, it’s body was at least 4” long) Again, the lack of screens allowed it in and now it couldn’t figure out how to get out. I put my arm out to stop Leif from coming closer and said “That’s the biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen!”

“A what?” he asked. But this was no time for a language lesson. “They don’t bite, they’re just really sticky,” I said. “You don’t have to kill it, but it has to be moved to the terrace.” he picked up his other sandal (the first one still had spider all over it) and tried to push it towards the door. Which works great if what you are pushing can’t fly. He would move the sandal behind it and push. It would jump and fly backwards. After a couple of tries he seemed frustrated. I told him it would be fine with me if he decided to kill it. We could spend all night trying to get it out of the room. Since he already had it cornered he nodded, turned away from me and again there was a loud SMACK! Again Siri jumped off her bed and ran to me.

Leif was looking a little flustered. I peeked over the edge of the bed and looked at the floor. There was a flat grasshopper shape with legs sticking up everywhere. “I’m going to get some paper for…..this,” he said as he waved his arms around to indicate that the entire room needed a good wipe down. He left, I soothed the dog, and he came back almost immediately with empty hands and a very strange look on his face.

“What?” I asked. “You don’t want to know,” he said in a very calm, very quiet voice. I looked at him, trying to decide if I really did or didn’t want to know. I decided that I did. “What?” I said again.

His face was tight; this was a man who had had enough for one night. “A scorpion. On the stairway,” he said slowly. “On our stairway? To our bathroom?” I squeaked out. "The stairway I just used a couple minutes ago?” He looked at me. “Yes.” My jaw dropped, my mind stopped working. All I could say was “aaaah.”

The poor man had run out of sandals. He took the grasshopper sandal and walked with great resolve out of my sight towards the stairs. This time there was no loud SMACK, just a dull thump. Only one. For a live and let live kinda guy he sure has good aim. He walked back into the room still holding the sandal. “Is it….gone?” I asked. It’s not that I felt bad about the scorpion, but there had been a lot of killing in the last three minutes and I felt it was better to resort to some other way of saying “dead.” Leif looked a little shell-shocked. “Yes,” was all he said.

He left me in charge of the animals while he cleaned up the carnage. How do you show your appreciation to a man who has killed three Neanderthal sized bugs (OK, I didn’t see the scorpion, but who cares how big it was? It's a scorpion for heavens sake!) in less than three minutes? By taking the entire bed apart to make sure that there were no other little surprises. By staying awake with him until the adrenaline rush wore off and he could fall asleep. By bravely staying in the house with him when every survival instinct I possess was screaming to leave, NOW. As we turned off the lights I sent up a silent prayer that we would have no more surprises during the night.

Everything seems better in the daylight, don’t you think? I felt fairly cheery as I got out of bed, carefully studying the floor before putting my feet down. I opened my suitcase holding a sandal in the ready position and found something to wear. I got dressed, first shaking all my clothes out over the terrace wall, just in case, then shaking my shoes out to be sure they were empty and then using them to beat on my socks, just in case something crawled in there…..

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Re-purposing My Life

I know that I have talked about this before. I have been a little worried about finding a job here. I struggled with two different ideas about how to live. There’s the conventional “find and keep a full time job”…but my nationality limits my ability to do that here and quite honestly, I don‘t want that anymore. Then there’s the path I ended up on, which is finding enough little side jobs to keep me in pasta and olive oil. So here I am, semi-retired at the age of 50. Or, living like a college student. Probably more apt, as I don’t have any retirement funds sustaining me.

It’s not that I’m having a mid-life crisis, a term I purely hate, by the way. I didn’t run away from a life I hated. In fact, it was hard to leave the life I was building after my divorce. But as time goes by I am finding it less scary to live without the security of a full time job. I enjoy spending less time at a kind of work. I draw, walk, ride bike, care for the house, or anything else I want to do without feeling like I am wasting my time. Given my upbringing, this sort of craziness never should have happened

I grew up in a home where making productive use of every free moment was glorified. Now, before my whole family rolls their eyes and says “nu-uh” and “stop being so sensitive” and other uplifting things, just take a deep breath and read further. Listen to what I have to say before you condemn my initial statement as some kind of put down.

Dad’s every waking moment, and many moments when he was awake but could have been sleeping, was filled with work of some kind. Even he won’t argue with that. When he came home from school he got on a tractor, when he got off the tractor he put on clean clothes and played a dance job. Weekends were a mad scramble to finish a 72 hour long list of chores in 48 hours. When he retired from teaching he didn’t retire from everything. He still farms and still plays music. He still tries to do 72 hours of work in 48 hours. This is how he shows his love, by providing.

Is it any wonder that I grew into a adult that feels slightly guilty about living a life that isn’t centered around work as a lifestyle choice? For a lot of years I worked and worked hard. I preferred working to being at home, because working was something I thought everyone admired and appreciated. And I thought my children and husband would understand that in my experience, if someone worked hard it was an expression of love and caring. I’m pretty sure they didn’t see it that way and felt a little abandoned by me.

About five years ago my life started to unravel, slowly at first and then so quickly I couldn’t take it all in. There I sat with a giant pile of the threads of my life and I had to figure out what to do with it. I could try and make something that resembled what it had looked like before, in my mind a useful and respectable cardigan that went with everything (but not with me) or I could experiment a little. Re-purpose my life, like old tires that become door mats (oooh, unflattering example) or old shirts that are made into shopping bags. Dye the threads anything but pastels and create something different. Something that maybe isn’t useful or needed, or appreciated by others. Something bright and beautiful and unexpected like a tapestry. A life I can point to and say, “Whatever this is, it is completely me, and it makes me happy.”

Do I need to say that I didn’t go the cardigan route? A lot of time, a lot of research and a lot of prayerful meditation brought me to the conclusion that I would rather work without the security of a “job” than be tied to a desk for forty hours a week. I want to rest for awhile and fill my life with experiences and people and just enough work to keep me fed. So, sadly, the cardigan must go. I am officially semi-retired and actually not afraid of it. But don’t worry, Dad. The memory of it remains, and I can always unravel the tapestry and make myself into the cardigan again if I have to.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm No Dr Doolittle

This morning I dreamt that Leif and I were traveling on a ship. His friend Mattias, the Swedish chef (not THE Swedish chef of Muppet fame) was the captain of our ship. With us were our four animals we are watching: Mollie, Siri, Meow and Mima. Why the animals were all wearing my Augsburg shirts and hoodies I don’t know, but they were. Meow looked especially fetching in my bright pink Holy Buckets Campus Ministry t-shirt. We were sleeping on the deck, Mattias was standing at the wheel looking all rugged, and the animals were milling around and nudging our hands to get us up and moving so they could do their morning business. Where exactly do dogs and cats do business on a dream ship? Somewhere down below apparently. As we all climbed down the ladder (they are talented dogs) one of the cats made a leap to some smooth, plastic, slanted surface and with a little yelp started sliding. At that moment a very wet nose nuzzled into the palm of my hand, a cat started purring and I heard a low grumbly growl from the other side of the room. The last part wasn’t the dream, that‘s how they wake me up.

Do I seem stressed about this pet watching job? Maybe just a little. I have never been a “pet person.” I grew up on a farm, where pets are transient creatures. You grow up knowing that they will, like every other animal on the place, die eventually. I have tried, on and off, to be a pet person because it seems like a very middle-class Midwestern normal thing to do and for years that’s all I really wanted to be. I give up. I don’t know how you all do it. I am exhausted after 4 days of caring for these four animals. They are the quirkiest group of animals I have ever known.

I am nervous because this is a wild area and so the dogs can’t stay out at night. Their owner would prefer that the cats come in too, which means luring them in with food. Of course, they can’t stand each other so one has to be closed up in a separate room overnight. Any of you with cats know that you can’t force a cat to do anything without gaining a scar or two, and bribing them is pretty hit and miss. They are very difficult creatures. Some nights I get them both in, some nights they just don’t feel like being bribed, I guess. Judging from the small “kill zones” I find around the yard, they can take care of themselves.

The dogs are a little easier. But not always. The property is fenced, but everyone knows that to a dog a fence is just a test of their intelligence and perseverance. We have already had to fix two holes in the fence…I feel like I’m the evil commandant of a prison camp. They keep trying to dig their way out and I keep plugging the holes. Yesterday I lost one of them for a couple of hours and spent those hours searching the house and the property and finally the road outside the property without success. I had just sat down and was mentally composing my “I lost one of your dogs” speech for the owners when she casually strolled onto the terrace. She had an idiotic smile on her face as she gave me an “I don’t know what you’re worrying about” look. I swear, I don’t know how you pet people do this without going crazy.

Dogs can be, and expect to be bribed with food to perform certain tasks. I had to use cookies to get them into their beds in May, but this time they just follow us upstairs without any need to bring cookies. In May they slept where they always do, in the owners’ suite. During this trip the first night they slept in their room, the second night the older dog came to our room in the middle of the night. The third night she didn’t bother going to the other room but came straight to ours and plunked down on the floor at the end of the bed. Last night in the middle of the night the other dog wandered into our room looking all lonely, so we dragged both their beds into our room. A little while later the cat came in looking for a place to sleep with the rest of us.

Our room is not as spacious as the owners’ suite. It’s a beautiful bedroom but small. This morning I sat up in bed and looked around. There was a cat on a blanket on top of Leif’s suitcase, purring so loud the air was vibrating. What we had for available floor space was now taken up by two doggy beds filled with two fairly large dogs. Who, by the way, snore and snuffle like grandpas sometimes do. It looks like a room with live bear skin rugs. There’s barely any place to walk where you won’t step on a tail or foot or head.

Maybe all of this late night/early morning shuffling around after almost losing a dog explains the dream I had this morning. At first I thought of myself as a kind of Dr Doolittle, but he could actually talk to animals and I don‘t understand anything about these guys. Even if I could hear them speak it would probably be in a strange mixture of Italian and Swedish that I wouldn’t understand anyway. Maybe (given the nautical theme of my dream) I am feeling more like Noah, cut off from civilization on the top of my mountain with only animals for company and the responsibility for keeping those animals alive and safe. But I’m pretty sure Noah was probably a pet person too, otherwise he wouldn’t have been given the job of getting them all back on dry ground. Of course, being on a ship, he didn’t have to worry about losing any animals lor having to explain to God that His zoo is one animal smaller. Lucky man.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I Just Don't Know What to Say Anymore...Really

I’m back in the mountains dog sitting, but this time for two weeks instead of a few days. So far it hasn’t been too bad. The weather is beautiful…cool evenings and warm days. The animals are behaving, thankfully. With two dogs and two cats to keep track of it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not all that hard either.

Today I had an experience that kind of shook me. The villa we are staying in is really two houses. The owners (and therefore we) live in one part, and there is another part of the house that is rented out to tourists. Right now in this other house there are two couples who live in Barcelona. They are very lovely people who are having a wonderful time visiting this area of Italy.

That‘s not the difficult part. Today they invited us to lunch with them. A three hour lunch held in Spanish, Italian and basic English, all at the same time. I sat through lunch, understanding most of what was said but completely incapable of opening my mouth and joining in the conversation. The few times I was forced to speak (because they asked me a direct question) I opened my mouth to speak and well, I’m not sure exactly what came out. A strange combination of Italian, Spanish and English…I think. I came away from lunch exhausted and started to write this down.

In the last couple of years in Minnesota I have lost my shyness and my discomfort with strangers enough to actually accept dinner invitations from people I haven’t known most of my life. I’m not great at small talk, but I’d reached the point where my hands stopped shaking and I didn’t feel sick to my stomach in new situations anymore. I might not have been eloquent, but I could carry my side of the conversation without resorting to “yes” and “no” answers. That was in Minnesota, where American English is spoken every day by almost everyone.

Here in Italy I’m back to feeling tongue-tied and awkward, which isn’t surprising because I am awkward and slow to speak in Italian. That’s how it works when learning a new language. I was doing all right when I first got here but I can feel myself pulling away from people again. I don’t want that. I have been studying and trying to practice my Italian whenever I can. But I have the luxury of resorting to English when I stumble, and if I don‘t the other person usually will turn to English so the conversation can move on. Then, when I’m with Leif and his Swedish friends I end up hearing and repeating at least a few words in Swedish every time.

Language has become very cumbersome for me. I have so many words in so many languages…English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish…then there are all the different accents I hear these languages in every day. English spoken with a Swedish accent, English spoken by a Swede with a British accent, English with an Italian accent. (Sometimes, and this is scary, I don't recognize English as English, I think it's some other language I have yet to learn.) Swedish with an Italian accent. Italian with a Swedish accent, with a New York or New Jersey accent. So confusing to listen to and understand. I’ve learned so many words and I even know how to use a lot of them, but I just can’t seem to put them together in a conversation. Even my English has to be thoughtful and planned so that the words aren't too complex and the phrases are commonly used ones, or I spend a lot of time explaining the meaning and origins of words and phrases.

Speaking has become like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. Not one of the easy kids ones with a picture of a clown cut into 5 pieces, but a picture of a giant pile of fall leaves cut into a thousand tiny pieces. Each leaf fits into the next one perfectly, somehow, but dammit, they’re all leaves. If I just pound hard enough maybe they’ll fit closely enough? Isn’t language like horseshoes and hand grenades, where close is good enough?

No, I don‘t think it is. Speech, in any language, is precise. It follows rules (with a million exceptions, but who’s counting) of grammar, but also social rules. When to say what, and how to say it are sometimes more important than the actual words, and I get so frightened by the thought of unintentionally saying the wrong thing at the wrong time that I say nothing at all, which naturally seems even ruder than saying the wrong thing.

I know I’ll figure a way through this. But I think (for now) I will have to get comfortable with the incredible uncomfortableness of speaking. Unless I want to become a mime, which, honestly, seems like a very good idea some days.