Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Whoa, ho, and Ho-Ho's

I may have already told you that I spend a lot of time explaining American colloquialisms and defining words for Leif. Sometimes there comes a point where words and phrases and ideas seem to overlap in his mind and then the discussion becomes, well, strange. Just a couple of days ago we had a phrase that intersected with a couple of other words we've talked about in the past.

Whoa, which in Minnesota is pronounced like "hoe", is what we said in my house when I was growing up. In cheesy Westerns it's what you say to a horse to make it stop. "Whoa, whoa!" is how we stop someone from filling our glass too full, from putting too much food on our plates or from leaving before we're ready. Leif heard this a lot when we were visiting my family in January and once I explained it he started using as many different situations as possible and with a look on his face that asked "Am I doing this right? Can I use this word here?"

Then one day when we were back home he was cooking dinner and asked me if there wasn't another word that sounded just like whoa, but meant something very different. Something not so nice. I suggested the shortened word for whore and he said, yes...that's what he was thinking of as some of his guests occasionally use the word. So I had to try and explain the how and why of that word, and how to tell the difference between "whoa" and "ho" and which one he could use. Because even if some people use certain words they aren't always the right words to use.

Which brings us to a couple of days ago when he brought home some bread from a bakery and I described it as the "Wonder Bread of focaccia" because that's exactly what it reminded me of. Of course I then had to explain the characteristics of Wonder Bread (consistently bland; always the same size, color, taste and texture; can be found anywhere in the United States; and that it lasts forever.) In a kind of off-hand way I said "Sort of like Ho-Hos." He gave me a funny look, thought for a moment and then asked if this was related in anyway to the ho conversation from several months ago.

Totally didn't see that one coming. But after laughing a bit I was able to say no, this was completely different. I then spent 10 minutes describing Hostess Ho-Hos, Twinkies, Cupcakes and Ding Dongs. I explained that they have been around for years and at least three generations of Americans would understand instantly a reference to Wonder Bread and/or Hostess Twinkies. I started a comparison to Little Debbies, then decided that he had enough to work with for one night. I think it's enough that he knows that there is a food to represent the American concepts of continuity, homogenization,  predictability and economy. Wonder Bread and Hostess. No surprises...always the same....affordable...year after year after year for generations.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Riding in the hills: Game Day

That's right! Yesterday was my maiden voyage as a bike tour guide. We were a team actually; he did the leading while I held the anchor position and made sure that no one fell behind and got lost. This becomes very important when there are more than ten people in the group because sometimes it's impossible to keep everyone in sight. These are the rolling hills of Tuscany after all. Switchbacks abound and buildings hug the side of the road.

Work, work, work
I'll start with the Minnesota statement to describe my day. It could have been worse. Which translated means it went pretty well but I don't want to seem like I'm bragging. My ideal group would have been a bunch of geriatrics and a close second would be a group of 40 somethings that sit at a desk all day. I know I could keep up with them. I wasn't expecting to see a group of 18-20 year olds excitedly chattering in Swedish about their chance to bike here in Tuscany. OK, I assume that was the conversation. I don't speak Swedish. But I know excited chatter when I hear it.

I also know I haven't been 18 to 20 years old for at least 18 to 20 years. But, it could have been worse. They could have been 16 years old and basically unstoppable. They could have been the national Swedish bike team here on vacation. They could have been MOPS (Moms Of Pre-Schoolers.) All these people would have wiped the road with me. I was lucky, really. A group of students with three teachers at the end of the school year? They're still numb from winter and exams. I could totally keep up with them.

Leif spoke to the group for awhile before we left. I heard my name and "Jag älskar dig" so I'm pretty sure he introduced me as his wife and told them that the only Swedish I know is "I love you" so they should probably stick to English when talking with me. Which they did. Thankfully. I wasn't ready to tell perfect strangers that I loved them.

Getting out of town took some time. Everyone was getting used to the bikes, and Swedes are very conscious of traffic rules and safety. Italians are not. I remember that it took me about six months to stop viewing Italian traffic as chaotic and death-defying. Sadly, there's no way out of town without going through at least one roundabout from hell. Between the Italian need to dominate every square millimeter of road and the Swedish urge to merge in an orderly fashion it took quite some time to get through, but we finally managed and continued out of the center of Florence. Probably a good thing none of us understands enough Italian to be offended by what was yelled at us through car windows.

Once we got out of the major traffic things went pretty smoothly. Leif and the boys (the larger part of the group) sprinted ahead while I stayed with the girls and teachers who moved a little slower. The sprinters would have to sit and wait while we caught up before they could sprint off again, only to wait again a little farther down the road. We just kept moving...slowly....but we kept moving. I got frustrated earlier when Leif was teaching me to climb hills because it seemed like so much work for so little gain, but I'm now quite comfortable with moving my legs at a sprint pace while moving only slightly faster than a killer snail. The point is that I'm still moving forward. They taught me this yesterday. I should send them a thank you card.

We climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and finally reached the villa where lunch was served. Wow. A beautiful place. Great views of the countryside. Great wines. A lot of really fantastic food. The most interesting new things for me were the polenta in béchamel sauce and prosciutto wrapped, broiled prunes. It might sound a little strange, but it tastes great! And I got to do it with my husband, which is sort of like the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks.

Drum roll please...the moment I'd been waiting for! Time to throw ourselves down the mountain and enjoy the wind in our faces on the way back down. Zoom, zoom...wait. I'd forgotten that the women I was escorting rode up and down hill at the same speed. (deep sigh) We sedately pedaled our way down the mountain, hands firmly gripping our brake handles so that we would reach the bottom safely. Imagine my disappointment...people who are on vacation apparently don't like to throw themselves down a mountain! Go figure.

So, I guess to sum up the was perfect. I got to help people see a little of the countryside without having to see it through the windows of a bus. I discovered that I can, in fact, climb a mountain on a bike. I assume the elegance that I see others climb with will come with practice. I got to try new foods and some truly beautiful wine. I met some new people. I didn't have to tell anyone that I loved them in Swedish except for Leif, who already knows that but likes to hear it anyway. Yes, a perfect day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Riding in the hills: The second try

Today we took our second ride up into the hills as my practice for being a kind of assistant tour guide on Saturday. My first ride wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't really a shining moment either. My plan is more to follow quietly than to do any real leading. I think I should wear one of those name tags with a little ribbon fluttering underneath that says TRAINEE! on it. Although it should probably say that in Italian or Swedish as we are riding in Italy and the group are Swedes. Then again the deer-in-the-headlights look I'll be sporting that day should be a big clue for them that I'm not the actual guide.

This time the ride went much better. The hills were still there (dammit) but I'm finally figuring out how to shift gears more elegantly so that there's less swearing and panting. Honestly, there's still some of that, but far less than the first time we rode here. And because it's a mountain bike it is rather loud when it does shift gears. Thank God there's no grinding sounds, but there is the occasional loud thunk as the chain finds the teeth on the new sprocket. Or, my personal favorite, the sudden metallic snap when the chain slips, the bike hesitates for a moment, and it sounds like the whole bike is going to start flying apart.

You'd think that a mountain bike would be the perfect vehicle for climbing up mountains. You'd be wrong. Or maybe it's only wrong when I'm the one riding the mountain bike. It has a sturdy frame, which translates into heavy, and shock absorbers, which translates into more weight, and fat knobby tires that sound like those off-road tires they put on Jeeps (whose owners then only run them on the asphalt and the whine sounds like the hounds of hell are chasing the truck.) It  isn't so easy pedaling a heavy bike with grippy tires up hill. Let me rephrase that. It's pretty damn hard to pedal a heavy bike with sticky tires up hill, especially when one is still learning how to smoothly transition from one gear to the next and learn which gear makes sense to use and trying not to get run over by the traffic whizzing by my left knee. They would have to run over me as most of the road has stone walls on both sides with the occasional shoulder, typically being used as a pedestrian walk by someone carrying 10 bags of groceries. I also seem to have trouble staying far enough behind the bike ahead of me so I have to watch out for him as well as the cars and pedestrians and scooters and cats and dogs. Hmm, why am I doing this again?

Oh yeah. Here's the thing. UP may suck, but down is amazing. Throwing myself down a mountain on a road barely wide enough for two small cars to pass and seeing the valley before me and more mountains behind that...well, it makes every sweaty, panting foot of climb worth it. The wind in my face as the trees and flowers rush by...the view is breathtaking in every sense of the word. It's like flying.

So I'm looking forward to Saturday. I will probably still curse and I can guarantee that I will sweat. I will pant and gasp, but only to make the guests feel better about their own ride. At least that's what I plan on telling myself. And when we're done climbing and sweating, after we've had a coffee and eaten our meal and rested sufficiently, we get to throw ourselves down the mountain. We get to fly. There will be pictures.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A local love story, with a twist.

Today I watched Gnomeo and Juliet on a TV screen the size of a Volkswagen bus. I sat on a big bed with the three year old I was babysitting and snuggled with her while we watched. I've never seen a screen that big in a private home...yikes. The movie was in English (with English helpful) and she kept re-telling the story in Italian and telling me to stop laughing at the parts she didn't think were funny.

I haven't seen the movie before but I really wanted to so I was happy when she picked this movie. I am just a few hours from the city where Romeo and Juliet lived, if the legends can be trusted. Sadly, while the story is great (and obviously timeless) the gnomes kinda freaked me out a little bit. And their English accents only made it stranger for me. Which is wrong, I know. I mean, why not English accents? Shakespeare was English. They just sounded a little rough around the edges to Gnomeo probably had some tough tattoos under his blue smock and Juliet was hiding fishnet stockings under that oh-so-quaint peasant dress.

Maybe it's just that gnomes are the sort of inanimate object that are kind of creepy when they come to life.  I have no problem with Thomas the Train, all those machines in Cars, or household furnishings in Beauty and the Beast. Of course in those movies the animators pasted a human face on objects that don't have them. Gnomes already have a face and we know it...and we know that those faces are frozen into one expression that never, ever changes. Until this movie.

Maybe I read too many Scandanavian folk stories when I was young that featured clever and impish elves, trolls and yes, gnomes. They were, in fact, always up to no good and couldn't be trusted. The illustrations always had an evil glint in the eye....

It would have been OK if they looked like, say, the seven dwarfs. Cute and cuddly and maybe just a little needy. Instead they looked angry and sturdy and like they were carrying a large plaster chip on their shoulders. Maybe it's just that the screen was so big and the room so small that they seemed more intimidating than they really were. Whatever the cause, the result was that I left their house today a little on edge.

So now I'm home...alone...and trying to shake the feeling that just around the corner skulks a cute yet deadly plaster figurine of an imaginary creature plotting my demise. Or just waiting to scare the shit out of me. I know we don't have any garden gnomes (hell, we don't even have a garden), but I don't know about the neighbors. And if the movie can be trusted...those guys don't stay in their own garden. I think I'll stay in the kitchen till Leif gets home.

Oh..and Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A walk through my neighorhood

It's been a strange day in this neighborhood, and it's not even lunch yet.

I went to the post office and it wasn't its usual efficient (in an Italian kind of way) self. The machine that spits out the numbers wasn't working quite right. The paper only came out far enough to juuuuusssssst get your fingertip onto it and with enough pressure you could slide it out. There were few people there and all five stations were manned (or womanned as was the case today). We all dutifully stared at the monitor waiting for our number to come up while most of the women at the stations stared back at us wondering where number A014 was hiding. The numbers kept changing, no one rushed up to the counter waving their ticket number in victory. Finally one of the woman simply asked the room at large if someone would like to be helped next. Sadly, her line didn't have a little picture of an envelope above it so I couldn't go to her, but the rest of the room looked happy that something was finally happening. One poor man had number A034 and as soon as he had wrestled the number from the machine his number popped up on the monitor. With a big smile he walked toward station 1 only to find an empty chair behind the desk. He looked at me. I looked at him. We both looked at his number. We both looked at the monitor. We both looked at the empty chair. I shrugged my shoulders as his eyebrows gathered into a bunch in the middle of his forehead. After a terse and slightly confrontational conversation with the woman at station 2 (who didn't like being interrupted) the missing postal worker was found and restored to her desk. He was still firing questions at her in a very peeved voice when I left.

On the way home from shopping for groceries I saw two local policewomen standing in a street corner next to a traffic cone. It seemed a strange thing to be doing (I've heard nothing about a rash of traffic cone burglaries) so I looked closer. There, closely watched by police in snappy uniforms and sidearms, was a medium sized pothole. They were guarding this pothole till someone came to fix it. If only Minnesota treated their potholes with such care and concern.

And finally...I always look at the posters that are hung everywhere on my walk from the store. Upcoming events like concerts and festivals and operas are advertised there. Today I saw a new one promoting a coming water rugby match. Water rugby? Rugby on the ground is dangerous...imagine fighting over a ball underwater with no air tanks. But the biggest question I have is Where do the spectator sit??? The best action undoubtedly happens underwater.

Obviously I need coffee...or chocolate...oooh, or both.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

My Mona Lisa smile

I babysat for a new family last night. Not that I want to start babysitting as a career...I think everyone who knows me (and doesn't live in Florence) would agree that I am not a modern day version of Mary Poppins. I'm not prepared for every eventuality. I'm easily distracted by playing and often miss the routine stuff. Fully expect that when I return from the park with any child, we will both be dirty and sweaty and hungry....and immensely happy. Mary had a bag with everything in it. I have a single Band-aid and sometimes colored pencils. Mary was a very proper lady. I doubt that anyone would describe me as proper. I certainly wouldn't.

I appreciate the referrals I've been getting. In fact, I've been told that they are glowing and that I am described as unflappable. Apparently this is a quality that every American parent in Florence is looking for...unflappability combined with mother tongue English. Throw in the fact that I have two grown children and I start to understand why suddenly I'm getting lots of calls about watching kids here. That these qualities are the figment of one woman's imagination (except for the two grown children, they're real) and probably not based in fact is beside the point.

The kids last night were a boy 3-1/2 years and a girl 11 months old. Both parents are American, kind of a rarity here. I had the best part of the day, in my opinion. I fed them dinner and put them to bed. I love the bedtime ritual: changing into jammies, brushing the teeth, reading books, talking about the day, tucking everyone in and then those last soft kisses goodnight. Even the ones who cry aren't a bother. Then I get to snuggle with them a little while. Win-win.

As I said earlier, I'm grateful for the referrals I've been getting, but honestly, every time a new parent says that they like that I'm unflappable I have to stop myself from laughing out loud. It would be bad for business. I can't imagine what I'm doing or saying that seems so calm and zen. I must be exuding some kind of Mona Lisa-like aura visible only to parents of small children. So far no one has said "You seem a little frazzled today," so my reputation is intact for now. Maybe I should have business cards made..

Babysitting by Michele Karlsson
Mother-tongue English*reasonable rates

 ...but then there would be all this pressure to actually be unflappable whereas right now it's really just a rumor that people are spreading.