Saturday, March 24, 2012

The safe one

I don't get it...

Every day this week as I've walked around town strangers (tourists) have thrust their cameras into my hands and asked me to take their picture. In a variety of languages.

Strange behavior in this world of mistrust and suspicion. Handing over valuable cameras or iPhones to a complete stranger anywhere seems to be questionable behavior; to do it in places where you have been warned to watch for pickpockets and thieves seems to be courting disaster.

Just as strange was the grandfather at the park who trusted me with his 9 month old granddaughter while he was busy with his older grandson. Italian grandparents don't even trust the parents of their grandchildren, much less a foreigner they have never formally met. Really, if they don't trust their own children with those precious ones why would they trust me?

All I can figure out is that I appear harmless and safe, the kind of person your grandmother would approve of. I bet I could apply for a job at Disney and be cast as a Princess immediately, based on my totally trustworthy appearance. Of course I'd rather be Tinkerbell because she may look all cute and cuddly, but she's mischievous and cunning and just the right amount of trouble. I could totally pull that off if people would just stop handing me cameras.

In other news I spotted my first Italian sunbather today. It's fine with me if he wants to lie in the issue is when he felt the need to strut along the edge of the river, hands on hips, wearing nothing but a speedo and a cigarette dangling sexily from one corner of his mouth. I imagine he was thinking of how lucky all the women passing by felt to see him standing there; so close, yet so far away. Not far enough away in my opinion, but I'm sure he would just say that as a newly married woman I can't appreciate him properly.

Friday, March 23, 2012

An update on "the bag"

I can't believe how many people have asked me about the briefcase. I had no idea that an ugly leather bag could be such a great curiosity for anyone but me. Some have even offered to give it a new home. If you don't know what I'm talking about you and want to know you can read about it here.  After a lot of thinking and feeling I have asked my Mom to ship the bag to me, filled with all the art supplies I had stashed in storage in Minnesota.

I had a lot of reasons for asking "Why" on bringing the bag. Aside from all the memories it has for me I have moved to Florence, a city known for it's leather arts. There are schools here that teach nothing but the art of leather craft. Every third store is dedicated to leather purses and suitcases and briefcases and wallets and belts and shoes and anything else you can think of that could possibly be made from leather.

So the totally shallow side of me thought bringing possibly the ugliest bag on the planet to a place known for its beautiful leather would only get me looks of either pity for not being able to replace it with one more beautiful or disdain for daring to own something so tacky and actually bringing it out into the public. That's the shallow end of my pool.

The deeper end feels that if everything about this bag means freedom to me, then it certainly needs to be with me for this part of my journey. After all, if throwing all caution to the winds leaving everything I've known and moving to a foreign country isn't freedom then I don't know what it is.

"Freedom from what?" some people (OK, many) ask. I think I'd have to say freedom from trying to live my life one certain way and hope for a mythical result. That if I stay put and work smart and sacrifice I'll have the kind of life I've been brought up to expect. But I did all those things and life hasn't turned out at all like I expected. I'm not angry about it. I also know that I'm the exception rather than the rule in this situation.

That's why I've started living outside the rules. Living what I'm starting to call my "exceptional life." Moving to Italy is just part of that journey. Allowing myself to fall in love again, when it has rarely turned out as I expected, is another. I think I'll use the bag for yet another part of living my exceptional life...I'm going to use it to carry my art supplies as I wander around the world and pursue an outlet I've denied myself for decades. I'm going to let my inner artist out and let her stay out. And for that she needs an absolutely tried and true bag, one that has experienced freedom and isn't afraid of it. Kinda like me.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Working again

Today was my first day back babysitting with Mia, my little three year old charge here in Florence. It was nice to see her again. It was also nice (this is sarcasm by the way) to be thrust into an entirely Italian language afternoon at the park. I must have done all right. One grandfather even asked me to watch the little princess while he took the little prince off to the edge of the park to pee. So I figure basically I'm in.

On another unrelated but during the same outing note I saw an elderly man whose feet turned out so far they looked like the first position in ballet attempting to speed walk and sporting the most violently orange fake tan on the planet. There's some things you just can't un-see.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Time travel

I have to say that this time flying back to Italy has been a very different experience. In so many ways.

For the first time ever I was able to check my bags, walk through security and get my passport checked in less than ten minutes. What to do with the extra two hours and fifty minutes that I had budgeted for Sunday travelers and officious TSA agents and long lines? Well, I walked the entire airport visiting gates I had never seen before and wondering who in their right mind buys stuff at the airport when it's marked up probably a hundred percent? Because you're sequestered there behind the security check, unable to leave it's somehow right to charge more? I also heard a typical Minnesota announcement. "Would the person who left their cell phone (or jacket or single car key) at the security check please return to collect your item." This is the only airport I've been in, and I can now state that I've been in quite a few airports, where I heard an active quest to return an item to the owner. Every other airport only offers the usual fare, "Please supervise your luggage at all times. Do not accept items from strangers. Blah, blah, blah." Only in Minnesota do security agents care if someone forgets something.

The plane was a trip back to the 80's. No giant airbus with all the comforts of home. No, for this trip I got a Boeing 767, narrower by three seats and offering only a screen at the front of the cabin for my viewing pleasure. On the up side, I was offered wine with my meal at no extra charge. Somehow that just didn't make up for the fact that I had to watch the animated airplane trace a blue line across the Atlantic Ocean for most of the trip instead of choosing from a variety of movies with my own personal screen as I've had on every other trip. Plus the large screen lit up the cabin so it became impossible to sleep. Luckily it was only an 8 hour flight.

After a gentle landing at Charle Degaulle airport in France we were allowed off the plane and left to our own devices inside the terminal. Signs led to dead ends or became endless loops for some of my traveling companions. I didn't follow them because I only had two hours to find my next flight. I swallowed hard and approached someone at a ticket desk, ready to be haughtily ignored or redirected to an unused hanger somewhere. I smiled my best smile and asked for directions. The man behind the desk told me that "Yes, the signs are not very well made. Don't follow them...go through those doors and wait for the shuttle bus to your terminal." Without him I'd probably still be wandering around Charle Degaulle, muttering to myself in a weird mix of English, Italian and  the language of my new country (till I find my way out) French.

The universe was smiling on me this day because I made it to the correct terminal and passed successfully through security in plenty of time to make my flight. I waved my boarding pass under a machine that claimed to give me the correct gate number. G32, I was happy to know where I was going. But wait! Those screens that tell you which gate to go to were blank and a small sign at the bottom stated that gates would only be posted twenty minutes prior to take off. What if they changed my gate and I had no way of knowing because I trusted a machine? I decided to wait, just in case. There were  hundreds of people forced to wait in a too small area surrounded by shops and cafes. How convenient for the shop owners! Every time a gate was posted there would be a mad dash for the doors while another hopeful wave of people moved forward for a better view of the screen.

I should have gone with my gut, the gate was G32. But it was fine, I was the first one through the door and so the first person on the plane. Which honest to God looked like a Little Tykes toy plane as I walked across the tarmac to the steps. I've flown in small planes before, but never one where the wings were attached to the top of the plane and my window looked out to a perfect view of the bottom of the wing. There are an amazing number of moving parts on a wing. I was mesmerized, alternately impressed by how everything worked together and then terrified imagining what could happen if just one thing didn't do what it was supposed to do. My curiosity couldn't compete with my exhaustion and I fell asleep with my forehead and nose pressed against the window. When I woke up the wings were doing their Transformers impersonation and with a loud bang the hatch for the landing gear opened up and obstructed my view of the ground.

After landing successfully (good thing my head wasn't still on the window, it was a little bumpy) we were loaded onto a bus and driven 50 meters to the baggage claim/customs area. I could have walked it faster. I watched as the bags started to twirl around the carousel. I claimed my first bag and patiently waited for the second to come through. Ten minutes later four of us were still standing there, with that look on our faces that said  "What the hell?" I headed over to the help desk accompanied by a nice woman from Mexico in the fashion industry who looked like she was ready to kill someone. Using my not inconsiderable Minnesota-nice skills I managed to get the form filled out for them to deliver my bag when it arrived on the next flight from Paris, while the other woman spent a lot of time hissing and yelling at the woman on the other side of the (understandably) bullet-proof glass.

I left through customs, which consisted of a German Shepherd sniffing at suitcases when not playing tug of war with the customs agents. I usually feel a lot of distrust and outright anger when passing through customs, so this was the perfect way to end a flight. Dare I say that American customs could do with a little more tug of war with the dogs and a little less hostile suspicion and frowning?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What to bring, what to leave behind.

My life, all 51 years of it, fits into 6 boxes. If there were an award for down-sizing I’d probably  be nominated for it. Naturally it would be a virtual award, as an actual award would take up valuable space and pretty much contradict the whole concept of down-sizing.

I have opened every box and taken everything out, turned it over in my hands and asked myself one question. How does this thing fit into my life now? I know what it meant at one time, because it’s in this box and not already at Goodwill or in the trash or gifted to someone I love. Those things I put into boxes hold memories of happiness and sadness, of birth and death, of love and hate, of excitement and anticipation and fear. It went into a box because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the memory it held; that I felt I couldn’t recreate my memories without the help of those things.

I found something interesting in my year abroad. My memories are reawakened by the strangest things. A tiny, dark-eyed woman in a park yelling at her grandchildren in Italian reminds me of my slighty larger, very pink and white grandma only because of the way her watch sits on her wrist. A particular taste will remind me of a long-ago holiday with friends, which leads to the bigger memory of that friendship.

That’s a very comforting thought, that those memories don’t reside in one particular place or can only be conjured by a certain object. It means I can get rid of stuff and not feel that I’m leaving a lot of loose ends for someone else to manage for me. So I threw things away, gave other thinigs away, and sent yet more stuff to Goodwill.

Six boxes is probably still far too much, but right now  there are things I just can’t part with but can’t take with me because it costs too much and I just don’t have any storage space in Italy.

I have one dilemma. There’s a bag I want to bring with me, but don’t know if it’s worth the time and money to have it sent over. It’s an old., worn leather briefcase bag that hardly holds it’s shape and some of the leather is starting to stiffen up. In fact, there are places where the leather is worn off on the corners. It’s not attractive, but could be made beautiful again with a little love and care. Sadly, bags are for me what shoes are for some women. I feel that I’m abandoning a loved one.

More importantly, I got this bag right after I graduated from technical college in 1994. My degree meant that I wouldn’t have to waitress again unless I chose to. I could get a “real” job. My bag was my constant companion on job interviews and my working days. It carried my kids toys and snacks when I wasn’t at work. When I decided to go back to school for my bachelor’s degree it came with me again. I only stopped using it when I sold my car and started biking, because it just isn’t suited to cycling.

My bag.
I took it out this morning to get it ready for Goodwill. I pulled it towards me and opened it up (the latch always sticks a little). I held it on my  lap and ran my hands over the leather, feeling the little nicks and scratches and remembering when they happened. As I lifted the flap I could smell textbooks and sharpies and Teddy Grahams and old leather. I started emptying the pockets and sections. It’s like a time capsule. I found hightlighters from school, business cards from long ago collegues, the key for the lock (seriously, how could I NOT have lost that over the years?), and a small mountain of cracker crumbs. While some people might call me too sentimental, to me this bag is a symbol of my freedom. It has followed me everywhere except Italy.

Of course my practical side says that it’s old and ugly and not important enough to ship. Is that a strong enough argument for leaving it behind? Or is it the perfect accessory for building a new life? I would be willing to winnow my belongings even more and get rid of one more box of things if I decide to bring the bag with me. What to you think?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Getting married: Meeting the family

Not that he hasn't met my family before, but the first meeting was a whirlwind event in the Bavarian countryside in the summer of 2010. So technically they've met him, but actually they met a person I know and probably weren't able to form any real opinion about him. Since I've moved to Italy they've had a number of conversations with him on Skype. Not as good as in person but definitely a different experience than talking on the phone.

So here we are, almost two years later, and they finally got to spend some time getting to know Leif. We didn't do as much sightseeing as we could, and we didn't see as much of our friends as we would have liked, but we spent as much time as possible with my family during the three weeks that he was here in Minnesota. I guess my thought was if they can't understand what it is I'm doing living on another continent, they can at least be comfortable with my choice of companions. They should know now that he's not an ax murderer or a weirdo, but that he's an intelligent and compassionate person who cares about me. That should be enough for anyone.

We managed to get the whole family together a couple of times to eat and laugh. It was really a blessing that he understands English. I know what it's like to be surrounded by a group of people that you know you will be spending several weeks with and not be able to understand a word that's being said. It's a strain on both people when one person is relying on the other to translate what's being said all the time. It would have been impossible for me to translate everything for him, as my family tends to have about five different conversations going at the same time, and everyone manages to participate in more than one at a time.

Professionals at work. Who doesn't 
open their wine with a pliers and an assistant?
The highlight of our family nights has to be the night we decided to bring a few bottles of my dad's home made wine up from the cellar. My dad used to make wine back in the 60's and 70's. It was quite the experience. We tried four different wines. One bottle had lost its label so we had to guess at what kind it might have been. One was actually made by another person. It was originally a sparking wine, but by the time we opened it the wine was really just sweeter and obviously less bubbly. We had rhubarb wine and beet wine and I think something with apples and finally the mystery bottle that we believe may be dandelion wine. Quite a variety for a central Minnesota cellar.

We had a great time talking smart about wine that was well past its prime, if it ever actually had a prine moment. We used pretty glasses and fancy words and in the end decided that none of the wines would be our first choice in any civilised setting, but they were fun to play with.

Yup, a good time was had by all.

I hope when he left for Italy my family felt they knew enough about him to trust him with me. I hope he left with a better understanding of me. And hey, he still wants me to come home so things went well, right?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Some example I'M setting...

I just had lunch with a friend who expressed an interest in writing as a career after college. I told her to start blogging because it's a pretty easy to start and relatively free from criticism. I think I made it sound like the proverbial walk in the park. I failed to mention how difficult it can be to maintain at times.

After leaving her I realized that I have been far too lazy with my own writing. I've just spent too many days not knowing what to write. Feeling tired and depressed and trapped in a vacuum waiting to go home to Florence. Telling myself that no ones reads this shit anyway. I can't carry a thought through to the end, much less a logical and lucid one. And finding the words to convey it to the real world? Forget about it.

It could be physical I suppose. Not enough wine and olive oil. Too much happy hour. Not enough sun. Not enough snow. Not enough sleep because I'm afraid that a Japanese beetle or a winter-lethargic fly will fall into my mouth as I sleep in my childhood bedroom which is really just glorified storage space now. Too much coffee, because Minnesota is awash in coffee. It's rude to say no. Did I already say not enough wine?

So I think the best way for me to combat this inertia is to write something, anything. And here it is. It's not brilliant. You'll learn nothing new about me, unless you only recently started reading this. If you're new here now you know that I can be lazy and have fine tuned procrastination into an art form. Sometimes I swear but not anything too shocking. And also that I probably have nothing of real consequence to say.

But I'm not going to let that stop me. I'll say nothing for as long as you'll read it. In fact, it doesn't even matter if you read it. I just need to get some of the weirdness out of my head and onto (virtual) paper where it can't harm me anymore. So look out folks, here I come again.