Saturday, June 30, 2012

I won't talk about the heat.

I won't talk about the heat. I think it's sufficient to say that I am learning to live like a desert nomad, sans camel. It gets easier every day. Really. Ok, the "really" was mostly to convince myself, not you. And it's not working.

There were many moments in Thursday that I considered writing about. I want to keep things short and sweet for you. If I'm to do that I'll have to do it in Italian because I only have like 20 words to use. I have the entire dictionary in English and I like to use as many words as possible. But I'll do my best. I was going to try to pick one moment, but I felt that really limited me so I'm going to touch on a few.

Thursday started early when I got a SMS at 6:15. That's right, in the morning. One of the girls I watch was sick overnight and they want to keep her home but am I available? These people actually have no other option. Their little girl is sweet once you get to know her, but most sitters don't make it past the getting to know her stage.

I said "Sure" but wasn't excited about it till I got there and there's AC in her room! Since I've been basically melting for a week it was pleasant to be with her. The air was cool and she wasn't actually sick anymore and we had tons of fun playing and blowing bubbles together. She has started to talk in complete sentences so I'm learning a lot from her. I've no choice...she speaks Italian to me unless I ask specifically for English. Then she only gives me the word I don't know and switches back to Italian. And she says everything ten times or more so I hear it over...and over...and over.

My favorite part of the day was on the ride home from babysitting. Tourists (and locals but tourists are worse) tend to walk, stand and talk in the bike lane which makes it very difficult to get around. There are curbs on either side of the lanes, it's not like I can just jump off and jump back on the lane. So there was one man who actually looked at me, then looked at the bike coming in the other direction and didn't move. I will blame my behavior on the heat. I rode by him ringing my bell over and over and over again. He just looked at me all disgusted like and my dream is that he spends a lot of time telling people all about the local woman who pissed him off by being so stuck up about the bike lane. Because that would make me a local. Awesome.

That afternoon (which is 5pm here, go figure) we went to the opening of an art show. We got all dressed up pedaled our way across town. Yes, it seems that everything except soccer is across town from us. The father of the man I dog sit for was an artist, well respected locally and even has one piece in the collections at the Uffizi, and it was his work featured in the show. The show is in one of the large museums in town and it's quite an honor to have his father's work hanging there. It felt good to be there for Stefano, he and his wife have done so much for me.

After the opening we stopped by a restaurant that Leif uses a lot for his groups. He recently sent twenty-eight Swedes to the restaurant (yes, all at one time) and the owner wanted to thank Leif. After telling us that the Swedes ate and drank everything in the place the night they came (and looking very happy about it) he asked what we'd like to eat. We asked him to choose for us and he sent us the most lovely dinner ever. Melon with prosciutto, Bistecca Fiorentino which is a Tuscan specialty, cheesecake and a lovely rose wine. It was a very lovely meal. He chose perfectly and I know that it was important for him to make those choices for us.

For a while we wondered why the restaurant was so quiet...we were only a little early for dinner and expected the room to fill up as we ate. But the only people who came were tourists, all English speakers. Then Leif remembered that the European Championships were that evening and Italy was playing Germany and every Italian was glued to a television somewhere. In the front room of the restaurant, in fact. So when we finished we walked to the front and watched with the rest of the staff and drank toasts to the victory they knew would come. Which it did, so everyone was happy.

That was my Thursday, in a nutshell. Today we travel to Lucca to see a friend from the States. I'm very hopeful that the train will have air and that no Italian will feel that it's too cold and open a window.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ah, technology!

Iäm a little frustrated today. Iäs easy to see why from these three little sentences. I canät find my punctuation on Leifäs keyboard.

Yesterday his computer (I will have to stay away from the possessive here) over heated and when we turned it back on it had a few issues. Issues that for the most part seem to have been solved by letting the computer sleep in a cool room overnight and leave it off all day.

However, the little icon that usually sits in the bar at the bottom of the screen that determines the keyboard language is gone. I usually change the keyboard to English when I use his computer because the default setting is for the Swedish keyboard. Makes sense, I guess, since Leif is Swedish. Where I am now running into trouble is that the physical keyboard of the computer is Italian. So even though the computer (dammit I cannot find the quotation marks) quote/unquote thinks it has a Swedish keyboard, all the little keys are Italian. They do not correspond much to the Swedish keyboard and there are more keys than the English keyboard has.

Since I do not want to spend the foreseeable future avoiding contractions and possessives and basically sounding like I have a stick up my ass, I will have to find the keyboard function and fix it. Then, of course, remember where I found it so that  next time I use the computer of Leif I can change the setting as it will always, always default to the mysterious and confusing Swedish keyboard where dots and os are the norm and apparently punctuation is optional.

I am sure I will be flooded with advice, and by flooded I mean one person will point out that the setting is right there in front of me. Until I find it I will do as I always do anyway. I start typing and as soon as I need that apostrophe and it is ä instead I silently (or not so silently) mutter stupid Swedish keyboard and change it.

Or, and this might be the better solution, I could just use my own computer with the tiny screen and miniature keyboard. It is always in English, but the shift key is in a strange place so I will have only replaced stupid Swedish keyboard with stupid shift key as my mantra. Decisions, decisions.

I found the apostrophe!!!! Now to remember it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's wrong to play with another person's mind, right?

Today I went for a ride, not "as usual" because it just isn't  usual yet. It's just frequently recurring. So I'm wearing my helmet and my new sporty looking sunglasses (my other ones were lost during the Midsommer fest at IKEA), my running shorts and my riding gloves. I think I looked reasonably bad-ass.

As I rode on the bike lane to the park a man in a blue business suit pulled out in front of me and proceeded to ride just a little bit slower than I was. Why, you might ask yourself, would a man obviously on his way to work and not anxious to work up a sweat purposely dash out to ride in front of someone just as obviously out to ride fast?

There's just something about the male Italian ego that doesn't let them follow a woman. And God forbid she should actually pass him. Knowing this as I well do I decided to play a little bit with his mind and fragile ego.

I rode at his speed and about one meter behind him. Not enough  to actually threaten him with being passed, but close enough to let him know that he was leading only because I allowed him to. Every ten seconds he threw a look over his shoulder to see if I was still there. I maintained a Mona Lisa-like smile which I'm pretty sure drove him just a little more crazy.

When he finally turned off the lane onto a side street he was sweating, not from the ride but from the stress of wondering if I would pass and when I would pass and if anyone would see it happen. His shoulders relaxed and he rode a little more slowly. It was way too much fun. I should find him tomorrow and apologize, but only after I follow him all the way to his turnoff. I'm becoming positively evil.

In other news...someone found my blog using the keywords "looking for a hello kitty fax machine" and read my post in which I totally dump on Hello Kitty. I'm guessing they were just a tad disappointed.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My local alternative to the Fourth of July

June 24 is the Festa di San Giovanni a Firenze, the feast day of Saint John the Baptist and patron saint of Florence. It is naturally a day off for anyone not directly working in the tourist industry. Families get together and eat and drink and generally have a good time.

All my running friends will be happy to hear that there is a marathon run the night before and apparently it's one of the oldest marathons in Italian history. I've never seen it run, nor will I ever run it myself. I wonder if San Giovanni was a marathon runner or if someone at some point just decided it would be nice to have something besides church services to celebrate the day with.

Yes, there's church in the morning, whether it's Sunday or not. It just happened to be Sunday this year. But he is a saint after all, so church for those so inclined is pretty much a must.

And this is where a day dedicated to a religious figure becomes a little weird. The sacred becomes secular in a big way. I hear there are parades and rowing races on the Arno River, but I haven't seen those yet. Maybe next year. Soccer in some form or other has been played here forever. One of its earlier forms is played on this day, a bloody and violent game called Calcio Storico, (read about it here) or Historical Soccer played in medieval costumes on hard sand without pads or rules. It's so violent that it was banned for several years and only recently resumed. At some point I'll watch a game because even though I don't like the violence I hear that eventually all the players lose most of their uniform and run around shirtless. And they're real athletes so it's worth watching. I'm not as evolved as you think I am.

After dusk the fireworks fly from Piazzale Michelangelo, this year for over a half an hour. It was spectacular. We rode our bikes to the river and stood in a crowd of people, half of whom were watching or listening to the European Championships. You can all relax, Italy is moving on in the contest. If you lived in the City of Florence, you couldn't ignore the fireworks. Even if you couldn't see them you could hear them and feel them. The air pulsed with explosions and the ground shook while the crowd politely applauded every time it seemed the end had come.

Children, who are much more fun to watch fireworks with than adults, oohed and aahed, described every explosion and rated them by color and sound and size, and begged to stay just a little longer because obviously it wasn't finished yet. A little boy of about seven years standing behind us just kept whispering "bella....bella....bella." He's right, beautiful...beautiful....beautiful.

As we rode home against 5 lanes of traffic (sorry Mom, but it was the quickest way home and they weren't really moving anyway because they all stopped their cars on the street to watch the fireworks or to listen to the game AND I was wearing my helmet and using lights) I wondered if John the Baptist would understand any part of this celebration supposedly dedicated to his memory and thanking him for his intercession on their behalf with the big guy. I decided probably not. All this must seem a little over the top to someone who expected their story to die with them.

It does seem like fate though, that the town I move to has a ready made holiday with fireworks so close to the Fourth of July. I will always be able to sit in the hot air of summer, swat mosquitoes and feel like I'm seven again. Bella.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I've started talking to myself during my rides. Out loud. This can't be good.

I went for a ride early this morning. It's the only time to ride comfortably this time of year. Later in the day the heat is overwhelming. Like wearing a wet electric blanket set on high while I ride. I don't do heat very well and this kind of heat makes me hide in darkened rooms behind my pretty green shutters praying for the smallest breeze to make it through the slats.

The heat makes these early morning rides feel so good. A cool (if slightly damp) breeze keeps the sweat from becoming a waterfall. People I pass look happier. Later in the day they all just look like they're trying to survive, and the effort to acknowledge me is not just annoying but threatening their very survival. The grass looks green and perky, whereas later in the day it just looks tired and washed out. The birds are moving and singing in the early morning. Later in the day they too have moved to whatever shade they can find.

This morning was a beautiful ride, except for one thing. I realized that I'm getting tired of riding alone. Tired of having one way internal conversations. Conversations that have the potential to become destructive rather than instructive. Tired of saying "Oh, look.....!" and then realizing I'm the only one there to look. A teeny bit embarrassed that sometimes my internal conversation becomes external and I haven't realized it soon enough.

On the up side...I'm so desperate for conversation that I've started saying good morning to everyone I meet, even the ones with earbuds in who obviously don't want to talk to anyone. To the little old ladies who look at me like I'm a spider...but when I speak they smile and say hello back and when I see them later on the way back they smile big and say hello again...and the next day too. I do the farmer nod to the other bikers (but not the farmer wave, I'm not sure yet if that's something rude) and sometimes they nod, sometimes they say hello. Mostly they ignore me, but I think I'm wearing some of them down.

What I'd really like is another woman to ride with but there seems to be, not a problem really, just a hurdle involved with it. For the most part, women here fall into two categories. The cyclists, who ride road bikes, worry about how many grams they carry around, and wear special shoes and spandex at all times. It is possible to replace "road bike" with "mountain bike" but the rest of the description remains the same. They don't ride around in packs like the men do. They're either alone or with one other person. Rarely another woman. Focused. Serious. Athletes. I don't think they ignore me, they simply don't see me.

The other group are those who have a city bike of indeterminate age and condition. Their bikes clank and groan and rattle with every bump. They prefer a bike with lots of baskets so they can carry as much as possible. They dress to be seen when they get off the bike and I think they secretly pray that no one they know sees them while they're riding. Most of them don't even wear a helmet. The bike is transportation from point A to point B and nothing more. Certainly not fun. They most certainly see me but you can tell they are asking themselves why any sane woman would ride the way I do. I'm actually sweating, for heaven's sake.

I'm sure there's a group of women just like me riding around Tuscany alone. Women who are strong enough to ride well, but without the money or the knowledge or the desire to break into the super cyclist group and completely unchallenged by the city bike group. The trick is going to be to find them. And once they're found to convince them to ride with me.

I feel like I'm headed out into the jungle to hunt down and capture an elusive prey. How can I get close without spooking them? Once I have them trapped, I mean once I've found them, how do I befriend them? Once they accept my presence how do I get them to commit to riding with me?

Because really all I want to do is ride a little every day and have someone to share it with. In Italy life is ordered by connections. You find things through your friends. So I'm telling you, my friends. Who I hope will share with one of their friends, who will tell one of their friends. And somewhere down the chain of friends of friends will be a woman wanting the same thing and voila! Where once there were two women riding alone there will be two women riding together. It'll be my own personal Italian miracle.

This is why I don't have eight children

For those who haven't heard, I babysat eight children Thursday, ages two to twelve. On rare occasions I work for one of the companies that my husband works for here in Florence. This is one of those rare times. I'll give you the highlights of the day. Since I'm here to give you these highlights it is safe to assume (and therefore not a spoiler in any way) that I survived relatively unscathed.

First I had to get up before 7am. I'm just not used to this anymore. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't as much fun as I remember getting up early used to be. I like to think that I'm maturing.

A van with the owner of the company (an American) and the driver and the tour guide for the day (both Italians) picked me up and we headed out of Florence and up into the mountains. Thus began forty-five minutes of guy talk in a curious mix of Italian and English that I think I will call Itanglish. Some of the English was for my benefit, while most of it is just the way the company owner talks. One sentence can switch between English and Italian several times. Between the switchback roads barely wide enough for the van and the constantly changing languages I was getting pretty dizzy.

We arrived at Greve in Chianti, which is where we picked up the other van and the woman who is supposed to help me babysit. I leaped out of the van to escape the flood of words and to feel solid ground again. The owner introduced me to my new associate, lifted and eyebrow and asked "Cafe?" I nodded and said "Oh my God, yes!" in what I hoped was a totally casual I-can-take-it-or-leave-it tone and headed across the piazza towards the smell of coffee.

I savored every drop of my cappuccino and scraped every last bit of foam off the side of the cup. Good thing too. My eating and drinking for the rest of the day was pretty sparse. I was getting ready to pay for my coffee when my new associate, a nice girl named Elena, said "No! The American will pay." Which kind of made me feel good once I realized she didn't mean me. I was one of them, not one of the Americans. Awesome.

Another fifteen minutes of Itanglish and goat paths, sorry, hairpin turns got us to the villa. A truly beautiful place in the middle of nowhere with a view that really is breathtaking. But I was distracted from all this by the lack of English I was finding in the woman who was supposed to help me watch these eight children. Because I think, rightly so, that it's almost impossible for someone with only a few words of English to care for eight kids from Utah for ten hours. Or maybe I'm just being a hard ass. No, I'm not. She should have English, have children herself, or at least have watched a child at some point in her thirty-some years. So far she was batting zero.

And this moment, as I meet the parents, is the first time I hear anything about the kids, other than their force in numbers. I get ages, names, preferences, etc all without the benefit of having the children there because they're all still sleeping.

At nine in the morning on a day when all the adults are leaving no one thought it was important enough to wake the kids up, say good bye and introduce me to them. I wasn't worried about the big kids, but the younger ones could very well freak out at waking up to a complete stranger, in a strange house and country where every routine and comfort is gone.

But they seemed confident in their kids. It could have been simply a desperate need to get away for a day too. I don' t know them. I had to trust the man that hired me, who I haven't learned to trust yet, that everything would be fine. To use a very Minnesota phrase, I was afraid I had really got myself into a pickle here.

I probably had that unflappable look on my face. The one I don't know I have. The one that makes me look completely confident when I'm not. The one that says "Bring it on...snakes, spiders, elderly Italian women, a four way fight over the remote control, volcanoes. Bring. It. On." Reliable sources tell me it's there, and it's awe inspiring. It must go. If they could see behind that unflappable look they'd see abject terror and clutch their children to their breasts and refuse to leave me alone with them. Clearly I have the world fooled.

So I went off to search the three buildings to find children, trailing a noticeably uncomfortable and confused Elena behind me. I located all their positions and most of them were still sleeping. By ten we had them all up except for two. We had the six year old twin boys, who if we were playing the odds should have been terrors but weren't. Another family of two boys aged ten and twelve who also got along great. The still sleeping duo who were two and five years old were really sweet once we got them awake. And the fourth family had a boy age eight and a girl who was twelve.

That's right. Eight kids and only one girl. Until I met them I was mentally counting the band-aids in my bag and finding all the available bathrooms for emergencies. Once I met them I realized that today was going to be far better than I thought it would be. Even if Elena kept saying "O Dio," and muttering to herself that this was just too many names to remember.Asking me to confirm that I, too, would not remember a single name. I lied so she would calm down. I remember them all; their names, their ages and what they like to eat.

All the kids were great. Their parents are all friends so they know each other pretty well and they all took care of each other and themselves cheerfully. I think I was really there because the rule is that no one goes to the pool without an adult. Otherwise they could have done it on their own. Or maybe I provided more guidance than I think I did. Yeah, let's go with that.

Everyone, from the twelve year old to the two year old had their own piece of handheld technology. iPods, iPads and Kindle Fire. I'm not a fan of technology and kind of like to have the rule that games and the TV are reserved for emergencies. But then again, I don't usually watch eight children at a time.

One iPod went into the speaker dock and we listened to music (I Like Trains was repeated a lot) while they played games in the coolest room in the house. It wasn't like I expected though. Instead of each kid holding their technology of choice and ignoring everyone else, only two or three of them played at a time. The other kids piled around them. The twelve year old killed zombies with someone perched each arm of the chair while another kid laid across the back of the chair and a fourth and much smaller spectator draped himself over his knees. The other three boys huddled over an iPad and all three had their fingers on the screen in a team effort to win at, I think, a car race. All this totally disproves my theory that hand held games keep kids alone instead of interacting with others. I should send my kids an e-mail and apologize.

When it came time for the pool I got everyone into suits and sunblocked in record time. We got to the pool and jumped in. Well, the kids and I jumped in. When Elena took off her clothes she had on a bikini clearly made for sunbathing and not much else. Maybe sipping spritzers under an umbrella. Definitely not for rough housing in the pool with eight children.

It was fine, though. I don't mind getting my hair wet and I'm used to having kids hang off me, they're actually lighter in the water. So she set up her chaise lounge for maximum sun exposure while the rest of us splashed and yelled and screamed and raced and had a thoroughly great time. Her moment to shine was when we all got out of the pool and she rushed around madly wrapping us all in towels so we wouldn't catch a draft in the 90+ degree sunshine.

It was a great day, and the only reason I was really happy to see the parents was because they had eaten almost everything in the house. All that was left were things they didn't want like pasta salad and wine. I think I was wise not to push the wine but I sure tried to get them to eat the pasta.

This was the other area where Elena really stepped up in her own way. No ever ate without a napkin and the littlest one had his face washed after every bite, it seemed. These are things I never think to do. Well, unless the mess is super big and the face unrecognizable. For me it's just not worth the fight. She seemed to enjoy it. Judging from the googly-eyed looks she was giving the two year old, children are pretty high on her list of things to do in the near future. This is Italy, so of course she'll have to marry her boyfriend of over ten years first, but right after that...children.

All in all, a good day. I met some very wonderful people, earned some money and got to swim on one of the hottest days of the week. Win-win-win. Plus, I didn't get car sick on the way home and I think I understand Itanglish better than Italian OR English. Scary.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It's hot, and it's only June.

It's 9 o'clock in the morning and already I feel like I'm melting. I woke up sweating. The sun burns my skin and reflects off every surface, magnifying itself into a death ray kind of blinding hot that sneaks in the slats of the shutters and sends tiny wisps of smoke up from the places it touches inside the house. OK, the smoke part might be an exaggeration, but everything else is true.

I grew up in Minnesota, where we chase the sun, because the sun is a sometime friend that disappears for months and becomes a weaker version of itself. It offers a few hours of light every day during the winter, but lacks the power to truly warm anything. The moment it becomes its summer version we chase it...we throw open our windows and draw back the curtains. We find every excuse possible to be outdoors with the sun. We accept the heat, glory in it really, because we know that there will come a time, sooner than we like to think, when this memory of being too hot will seem like the only warmth left in the world, because the sun will have become like a picture of itself and have no heat.

The heat in Minnesota is tempered by the environment. There are lakes and rivers surrounded by acres of trees that keep the cool in and balance the effects of the sun. The weather patterns there have a kind of rhythm...a time of extreme heat will end with a glorious thunderstorm that scrubs the tension of the heat out of the air. And we laugh at it and accept it because we know that winter is coming.

We have become masters at creating buildings that protect us from the elements. Northern climates have given the world the insulated glass window that allows as much light as possible to enter without giving up the heat inside, or allowing heat to enter from the outside. Because we don't want to lose sight of the sun; winter is coming, you know.

You would think that coming to Italy would be like heaven for me. In some ways it is. My access to the sun here is reversed. Winter is short and the time of the sun is long. My life has always followed the same pattern. Spend the winter trying to stay warm and thinking about the summer. When summer comes spend every available moment enjoying the warmth and the light of the sun. The feeling of freedom that comes with the sun. Freedom from four walls, freedom from clothing that covers from head to toe. The freedom of choice which becomes so limited in the winter.

The first year here I woke up every morning, always joyfully surprised that the sun was shining and rushing to get out into it because in my mind it was still going to disappear for a long time. Not right now, but eventually and there's no time like the present to prepare for eventually. I'm sure Leif thought I was crazy or remembered his first year here, when all the sunshine dazzles the eyes and the body. Eventually this enchantment wears off a bit. Not that I will ever lose my love for the sun, but I've learned to respect it as well. Now I wake up and think "Can I get to the market before it gets too hot?" I can get across town without spending more than 5 minutes in the sun. I always, always carry water.

Here in Italy the heat goes on...and on....and on. The entire country is built out of stone and concrete. It's one gigantic heat sink in a place that doesn't need to store  heat during the summer. Air conditioning is rare here because, well, I guess I don't really know why. Electricity is expensive and Italian have perfected the art of shuttering the windows to keep things as cool as possible for as long as possible. Maybe by the time they start to think they should do something to cool things off nature does it for them and they forget about it till next year...when the same cycle of suffering, realization, preliminary thinking cut short by nature doing it's job starts all over again. Maye it doesn't seem hot to them? Who knows?

I'm not gonna lie to you, it can be tough. There are no malls here. Only 50% of the buses and trains have AC. The stores that do have AC tend to leave their doors open (yes, they also heat their store in the winter and leave the door open, it's a strange country) so it's only marginally cooler inside.

So I spend my days chasing the shade here. Crossing the street for it, forcing little old ladies into the sun for it (they still avoid me like the plague), trying to fit my entire body into the shade of a tiny no parking sign. I still wake up every morning, look outside and think "Ooh, the sun. What can I do outside today?" Then I remember that the sun is always present here and I don't have to chase it. It will hunt me down and bend me to it's will as soon as I put one foot out the door. I'm learning.

I can't believe I'm saying this. I'm kind of looking forward to winter.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Back to the Questura

So I haven't really talked about the latest trip to the Questura for my new permesso, but that's really because compared to the first visit over a year ago it's pretty anti-climactic. There just isn't enough of a story here in my opinion, but then I realized that just because it wasn't thrilling or chilling for me doesn't mean you don't want to know about it. So here goes...

The Questura is a huge monstrosity of a building. A giant block of red brick with whimsical round topped windows that lose their whimsy when you notice the sturdy black bars that guard each window from top to bottom. There is, in fact, only one way in and one way out; through the front door. It might be my own experiences there that color my impressions of the building, but I have heard others agree with me that the building is unhappy. Sadness and helplessness and  frustration seem to seep out of the brickwork and ooze out of the windows like fog. No one smiles there, not the visitors and not the people behind the probably bullet proof glass. The chairs rival those of bus, train and air terminals for discomfort. The entire room is made out of concrete. It's noisy and uncomfortable and manages somehow to be hot and cold at the same time. This is where I start my quest (ha) for a happy life here in Italy.

Instead of a form with over ten pages and a stack of supporting documents like the first time, I filled out a one page, one side only form that simply said that I want to stay here because my husband lives here and that he will take care of me. Copies of our passports and marriage documents attached along with the ubiquitous four passport sized photos, front face on a white background. At least this time they took all four photos instead of carefully cutting just one out of the middle of the strip of four identical photos.

This time there was no appointment-that-wasn't-really-an-appointment. I just showed up at 7:30 and stood in line for a number. I hoped it would be a number to do the actual work I was there for. If you remember from last time I had an appointment which turned out to not be an appointment and my first number was really only to get the real number some hours later. If that's confusing don't worry, it still baffles me a little bit. Luckily this time everything went the way I imagined it should. I still had to wait, but only through 12 numbers, not 112 like last time (twice).

There was a very lovely lady behind the glass. Bless her heart, she didn't look like she was having the worst day of her life yet and blamed me for it. She was helpful and polite and considerate and I left (after providing extra documents that weren't on the list of things to bring in, this is the government after all) 15 minutes later with instructions to come back in 30 days for my permesso.

Naturally there were a couple of things I would have to drop off the next day because even though I brought every piece of paper I could think of with me, I didn't think Italian enough to anticipate needing his residency card for Florence. When I got home I panicked briefly because I didn't think I had a receipt from them so that I could prove I had paperwork in progress. Leif pointed out that if I simply turned over the paper that she wrote down what to bring in the next day I would have seen my receipt, but hey, it had been a tough day. I had spent several days preparing myself for the worst and the adrenaline had nowhere to go. I'd gone in ready to do battle and sit for hours and well, just show them I could take whatever they dished out and more.

See what I mean? It's a very anti-climactic ending. Things went pretty much they way they were supposed to, except that no one expects things to go that way in an impersonal and foreign government office.

Of course, I don't actually have my permesso yet. There's one more visit to the Questura for that. I still have stuff I can obsess about. Like, how do I get the piece of paper that says I am here to pick up my permesso? You have no idea how mean those guys in uniforms at the doors are there. They're like the soup nazi from Seinfeld. You never know exactly what pisses them off, you only know that you have, in fact, pissed them off. "No permesso for you today!" How do I know when it's actually ready? What time do I show up? What else do I need to bring besides my lovely self?

I guess I'll just practice my deep breathing exercises and remember to relax. This is Italy, where things happen when they happen and not before, and where information is handed out a little bit at a time. If it wasn't happening to me I'm sure I would find it quaint and refreshing. Who knows, maybe someday I'll be Italian enough to take it all in stride.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Short and sweet

Technically, today I was supposed to leave Italy. I woke up and looked out the window and watched a plane flying through the sky and thought "That's my plane." Then I turned over and hugged my husband close and thanked the universe for my wonderful life.

The tiny scrap of paper that is my receipt from the Questura means I stay here wrapped in love and rapt, in love. Oh, what a beautiful morning.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

You're probably tired of hearing about cycling.

You must be really tired of hearing about biking. But it's just so new for me. Until a couple of years ago my biking experience dated back to when I was ten and I had the most beautiful purple and silver Schwinn. It had sparkly metallic paint and a silver seat (also sparkly) and big fat tires and the only speed it had was determined by how fast I pedaled. I shouldn't really say "had" because I still have it. It's rusty in places and the gigantic white wall tires are flat and the seat is losing what little stuffing it had and the chain is frozen in place, but I still have it. No, not here in Italy, but I have it.

I write about my cycling experiences mostly because I seem to find myself in the strangest situations. I just don't know how I get convinced that I can do some of the things I try to do. Probably some kind of weird brain disease caused by the consumption of too much olive oil. Since I'm not going to stop eating olive oil the stories will continue, and this brings us to Thursday.

I got a call that morning from a woman who got my name from a friend (who I've never met) who got my name from another friend (this one I've met) and she was wondering if I could come babysit that afternoon. She sounded a little desperate and I felt bad for her. I said OK because I remember what it's like to be the mother of two toddlers. We all sound a little desperate sometimes because we feel that way a lot of the time. I asked what time and she said maybe 5 or 5:30. Hmmm, that's verging on evening in Minnesota. Calling it afternoon is pretty bold. But she said I would be done by 8 (I didn't want to ride home in the dark) so I said yes and told her to SMS me the address. She asked how I was getting there and I told her my bike, as I don't have a car.

She hesitated a moment and then said that her house was up a pretty big hill. Now, one thing I've come to understand is that everyone's idea about what constitutes a "hill" is different. Leif's hills seem like mountains to me, while my hills seem like mountains to some of the women I know here. So I did some mental calculations, threw in a little psychology, grossly overestimated (as usual) my ability to handle the situation and said "Oh, I'm sure I'll be fine." I should have that printed on a t-shirt. And FYI, she downgraded her mountain to a hill. But there would be no story if she hadn't called it a hill.

We agreed on 5 as the meeting time. I left at 3 giving me two hours to find the place and cool down a little before knocking on her door. Nothing worse, I think, than showing up at a new client's door with sweat pouring off of me like Niagra Falls and glowing like I'm nuclear powered. The map (here it is if you want to see the ride) said it was less than 6 kilometers. I wrote my directions on a piece of paper, highlighted the street names and turns and placed it carefully into a plastic sleeve. This is important, the plastic sleeve. Eventually that paper will be stuffed between my bag straps and my body and I don't want it to get wet. My directions would become blurry lines on thin wet paper and cease to be functional. Not good when heading out into the unknown with nothing really except for a great deal of unsupported confidence in oneself.

The first half of the route was a piece of cake. Flat, in town and with plenty of streets and traffic to maneuver around in. At about 3k though, things changed. I started to head out of town which surprised me. I didn't really expect that. Traffic became lighter. Which one might think is a blessing, but even though they scare the crap out of me on a regular basis it's comforting to know that there are other people out there with me. Because the roads outside of town become small.

Maybe at this point some of you need to know what the roads are like where I come from so you can understand how difficult I find the streets here. I come from a flat place, divided into mostly neat and geometric 1 mile square sections by wide gravel or paved roads.So if worse comes to worse, you drive maybe an extra mile before you can turn around, less if there are driveways on the road. A driver can usually see for at least a mile, sometimes waaaayyy more. One way streets are rare, reserved for those freeway messes and older parts of towns where it's impossible to upgrade a street without moving some historical landmark.

Back to the Italian countryside, where the roads are small. One car and maybe a bicycle wide. There aren't shoulders and more often than not they are actually roads with traffic in both directions, even if the road isn't wide enough for them both. The roads hug the curves of the hills/mountains, making visibility sometimes less than the hood of your car. Oh, did I mention that many (many, many) of these roads also have picturesque stone walls on both sides that are probably over two meters tall? They're like a cattle chute for people.

So I'm in this chute tooling along, wondering if it's a one way street or a two way street because I don't like surprises. And I'm hoping that I don't miss my turn because there are only two exits off this street (seriously). And suddenly I start to climb. On a paved road not wide enough for me and a car. Between two picturesque stone walls that look very unforgiving. Suddenly a break in the wall appeared next to me and I turned quickly onto the next road, hoping the incline would be less steep.

No such luck. If anything it's even steeper. But it's the right road, which totally makes up for the fact that I'm still climbing, for now. Except for one or two turns I really didn't even need the directions; the road would come to a T and I just had to pick the right direction. This was a blessing because I became totally focused on climbing the hill. I did all the correct gear changes (whew!!) and so I wasn't climbing fast, but I was in fact climbing. I didn't see any other bikes on the road and the drivers of the few cars I saw looked surprised to see me there.

I overtook an elderly woman walking uphill...I'm kind of ashamed to say that I felt a small thrill of victory when I passed her. She looked at me, looked down the hill, frowned a bit and then decided to go all superior on me and ignore me, so I said a polite "Salve" as I passed and she grudgingly gave me one back. Yes, there was plenty of time for all that to happen as I passed her. I was going, like, 1 mile an hour. Actually in my memory it's almost a slow motion kind of event. All I know is I left her eating my dust and that gave me the confidence to go on. Then again, I was an obviously foreign woman (Italian women don't ride bikes in the hills) on a fire engine red mountain bike wearing a pretty flowered skirt, a Timbuktu bag and a very, very determined look on my face pedaling madly up the road to the top of a mountain. Add in the sweat pouring off my body and the bright red glow on my face and, come to think of it, I probably terrified that poor woman. No doubt she evil-eyed me till I rode out of sight.

And so I continued to climb, hemmed in on both sides by picturesque and really hot stone walls except for those times when houses crowded the side of the road in their place. Occasionally the wall lowered for a stunning view of the valley, which I couldn't truly appreciate because my breathing was getting pretty labored and my legs had started burning a bit and my mouth was drier than a desert. I think the air was thinner up there.

Suddenly I remembered that she mentioned that her house was the second #54. Holy cow, I totally forgot to look at the gate numbers! The numbers at the bottom of the hill started with #8 (very disheartening) and only advanced in fits and starts. I got excited when we jumped from #12 to #20, but then there were #'s 24A, 24B, 24C and 24D. If this kept up I'd be at the top of the mountain before I reached #54, which I'd only now remembered I should be looking for. For the last eternity I had been so focused on getting to the next flat spot that I completely forgot to look at the few gate numbers I passed. That's right, in my single minded devotion to making it up I forgot that I had a definite destination to look for. Which, in fact, might be well before the top of the mountain. At that moment the road curved slightly and before me was a gate with the number 54 mounted on the picturesque stone wall next to it. Of course I didn't know if this was the first or second #54, but I was hopeful. Well, as hopeful as someone who has given up all hope of surviving the climb can be.

My guardian angel (who was probably as light headed as I was from the altitude) was on the job, because yes, this was the second #54. There was her name next to one of the bells. But it only took me 45 minutes to get there so I had over an hour before she was expecting me. Haha, did you hear that? I said "only". Yeah, by then I was getting a little giddy from the lack of oxygen, the heat and the stress of trying to climb a mountain by myself and find a complete stranger's address on that mountain.

Once I confirmed that it was her address I did the logical thing. I looked up the road and saw a medieval and, yes, picturesque tower above the trees. I figured that had to be the actual top of the mountain and that it wasn't very far away. It would have made no sense for me to ride all that way and not go that last little bit to the top. Besides, I figured there would be shade up there, and maybe, if my guardian angel hadn't passed out from the lack of oxygen, a cafe bar.

While I will mourn the loss of my guardian angel and subsequent lack of coffee, there was shade and a breath taking view. I looked down on the entire city of Florence, it's suburbs and the surrounding countryside. In fact, I looked down on practically everything. There was very little that I looked up at except the sky. I sat on an ancient stone bench in front of an equally ancient church and eventually I stopped sweating and my face no longer felt hot. My legs stopped shaking. I'm pretty sure I looked like a completely normal person when I met her at the gate an hour later. She probably thinks I'm some kind of cycling maniac because I arrived looking as if I rode across the street instead of up a mountain.

So that's my little bit of pride for Thursday. I took a job with a complete stranger in a place I'd never been to and ended up climbing almost 450 feet up the side of a mountain by myself. Wow, when I put it like that....if I were your teenage daughter you'd ground me for life.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Asking for my friendship

I don't really like the phrase "being friended on Facebook." Even the notification "You have a friend request" sounds terribly impersonal. I like how Leif phrases it..."so-and-so has asked for my friendship." It implies something more than skimming the latest posts and getting your own witty remarks out there before someone else does. It's an invitation to enter your life.

About the time I moved to Florence something unusual happened. Two women living on separate continents and separated by the Atlantic Ocean accidentally became friends on Facebook.

"Accidentally?" I hear you smirking at me. "How can you become friends with someone accidentally?"

When you put two technologically impaired women in their 40's on a computer anything can happen. So a woman in Central America asked to be my friend because (and this is truly weird) she knows someone with my name and thought I was her (or him?) Then I, in my infinite wisdom, meant to not accept and instead ended up accepting this request. The buttons are too close together...they've highlighted the wrong was dark...I've got more excuses if you want them.

And there I sat, looking at my computer screen and wondering what the hell I had just done. It's like inviting a stranger into my living room and taking out the family photo albums without even knowing their name. Like handing my wallet to the person behind me in line, saying "Could you hold this for a second" and turning my back on them. Sure, they could be someone you can trust. Or they might not be. I don't even consider this to be a 50/50 chance anymore. More like 30/70. Or maybe I mean 70/30...statistics are not my strong suit.

So now I had a friend I didn't know, from a place I'd never been and whose first language I barely passed in college. But I figured the beauty of Facebook is that my interaction with friends is totally controlled by me, so as long as I didn't do anything, she wouldn't either.

Then one day during my first visit, I was sitting in my kitchen in Florence playing on Facebook and suddenly there she was, wanting to chat with me. I spent valuable seconds playing "should I/shouldn't I?" before answering her. I mean, really...she was supposed to wait for me. I am in control here.

She said she had read my blog and wanted to talk a little about my experiences which lead to a discussion about her life. It's amazing to me how two radically different lives can contain so many similarities. We talked (Ok typed) almost like old friends, understanding the shorthand that chat forces on us. When we finished that day I knew that our combined mistakes weren't mistakes, they were an opportunity for two people to connect. That needed to connect.

I'm glad she took the initiative because I never would have. I would have totally missed out on an actual friendship with someone special. We have a similar age and experiences and children; we've loved and lost and found our way back. We've struggled. We've discovered a courage we didn't know existed. We can share our thoughts knowing that there is no past to cloud our listening and filter our response. We can afford to be honest with each other, because we really have nothing to lose...yet.

Every day I am amazed at how all the little, seemingly loose ends in my life slowly come together and form a whole I've never imagined. But I've also come to a point in my life where I know, with absolute certainty, that even when I don't know what's going to happen, something great is going to happen. And sometimes those great things hinge on something as silly as hitting the wrong button on my computer. The result, a true friend, is indeed a miracle.