Monday, July 30, 2012

Do I look like Mary Poppins? No.

Yesterday I babysat for yet another new set of parents and children. This time on my side of the river and even on my side of the train station. Practically in the neighborhood, except that their neighborhood is slightly more upscale than mine.

Naturally it's still uphill to get there but this time it was really only about halfway up the mountain. Still some rather awesome views but with slightly less sweat and lighter heavy breathing, if such a thing exists. And when I got to the house I realized I was stepping into another reality. Bright white stucco walls covered (I do mean covered) in decades old ivy topped with a loggia supported by tall Doric columns. OK, that was the house geek in me coming out, I'll try to keep her reined in for the rest of the post. Although the state of the house brings much to the story. Maybe it's just enough to say that it's a beautiful house, the kind of house you might see in a magazine and say to yourself  "Yeah, I'd have that too if I had a kajillion dollars laying around. And someone to clean it."

It was an interesting day. I was going to say I don't know a better word for it but that's not true. "It was an interesting day" is the Minnesota euphemism for other words that are stronger and more descriptive but potentially more offensive. In Minnesota we don't do offensive unless threatened with bodily harm. I believe the term political correctness was coined when someone heard a Minnesotan say "That's different!" and thought "What a delightfully bland and inoffensive way to avoid saying it's (ugly, crazy, insert the appropriate highly colorful description here). If they get offended it's their interpretation, not my words." It's a tough habit to break, this habit of speaking words that offend no one, but I'm working on it.

You should know that these kids have had an English speaking nanny since forever and so speak and understand it almost as well as American kids their age. Maybe better. Quite a treat for me, I must say.

First the parents said to take them outside to play, but then told me they shouldn't get hot and keep them out of the sun. It was a beautiful and sunny Mediterranean morning. We went in soon after we went out.

It was while playing with Playdoh that I got my first view of how their relationship works. A fight over one item ended up in a grabbing, hitting, wrestling match that fizzled as quickly as it started but still left me breathless and afraid. I didn't grow up resolving issues like that.

She got tired of Playdoh and while I was cleaning things up she went into her room and suddenly she was screaming. I went in and somehow she had managed to get a metal sand bucket stuck on her head. I'm sure her screams echoing inside the bucket only made it worse but she was fine once I got her unstuck. While I was getting her unstuck her brother disappeared. Holding her tightly I walked around calling his name and finally his mom told me he was with her. Yes, she was home but apparently doing other more important things.

For awhile they played nicely together but separately with blocks. He built a low to the ground ship and she built a tower. You can already see this coming, can't you? This was followed by a discussion of why it's important to apologize for certain behaviors. Which he  grudgingly agreed with...eventually.

He took a toy away from her and after wrestling for a few seconds she bit him. Pretty sure I yelled at her then and grabbed the toy. So she bit me. I almost walked out right there. But I was raised to admit defeat only when it's staring you in the face and I wasn't quite there yet. And after my short but firm "never bite me again" lecture they settled down and we had fun.

Glad I stuck around. There's something about seeing the lives of people who live so differently yet the same as I do that's fascinating. It had an almost National Geographic feel to me. Men in white pants and navy blue jackets silently carried clothes up from the laundry and reverently placed them into closets that looked more like retail displays than kids closets. A woman was packing their bags for their coming trip to the mountains. She carefully laid bright white tissue paper between the single layers of minimally folded clothing. Not even kidding here, folks.

Now I have to decide if I'll sit again if they call...and the deciding factor won't be the ride up the hill.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Some days are just a headache

I woke up this morning with a headache. Not a monster one, just an annoying clingy kind of one that threatened to become a monster with very little provocation. I blame it on a variety of things:

1.  We haven't had rain in weeks and lately the air has been heavy and filled with moisture that just won't break out into a full fledged storm. It just hangs teases with little bursts of winds and the occasional cloud cover that could become rain but never does. I also think the humidity works like a magnifying glass, making the sun seven times hotter than it actually is. I'm surprised things aren't spontaneously combusting left and right.

2. Leif has decided that the airline wants too much to check a bag when we fly to Sweden and so would like to ship his suit and my wedding dress and as many of our clothes as possible through a common carrier to save money. My new lifestyle has its foundation built on flexibility and less attachment to things but this one I'm struggling with. I spent hours making that dress and girlishly want to look pretty on the big day. Who knows, maybe it'll be all right if we don't mark it fragile or note that it shouldn't be submersed in liquids. And it has to be ready on Monday, so I need to decide what I am willing to do without for the week preceding our trip. And the week after it, since we'll have to ship them back the same way. Luckily Sweden is pretty much a different climate from here so I don't have to pack up my hot weather stuff and sit naked in the apartment till we leave.

3. Yesterday I got a call from a mom I babysit for and who has been an absolute angel about referring me to other moms. This time she wanted me to sit on the only free days I have before we leave the country for her sister-in-law. Who, by the way, has a nanny for eighteen days of the month but needs (her tone implied obviously) someone to cover the other thirteen and would I like to consider it? I agreed to one day because she basically begged me to do it. Yes, I do kind of regret saying yes.

4.  I may be over-reacting a bit on No. 3, but I've taken jobs before that were supposed to be temporary and years later I was still there. Committing to thirteen days a month for the foreseeable future feels like a career move. Might as well get a tattoo that says "babysitter from hell" and start carrying baby wipes and Chupas everywhere I go. Leif thinks it's a good idea for my cultural growth. I understand what he's saying. I don't know if I agree or not, but I understand. Aside from the cultural thing let's face it, there's no upward mobility in babysitting. It hovers near the bottom of the employment totem pole and stays there.

5.  I know what you're saying to yourself right now. "If you don't want to do it just say no, Michele." I'm telling myself that very thing. But I know me. I'm firm and confident alone in my apartment, but when I'm face to face with someone and they ask me to do something and I open my mouth to say "no" what comes out is "sure, no problem." It's a sickness. So I'm stressed about wanting to say no and being pretty sure that I'll accidentally say yes and then I'm stuck. I wish it was some figment of my imagination, but it just happened to me last week, so I know how dangerous I am to myself.

6. And finally, of course, I'm worried about not getting rid of the headache before I start tomorrow. Not only will it be an tough day for me, they won't be able to experience my awesomeness and I'll have used all my energies combating the pain and when she wants to discuss a more long-term agreement I'll say " problem!" when that's not what I mean at all.

I need, not want, but need a real honest to God American happy hour. Complete with best friends and fathers and sisters and recognizable snack foods that masquerade as dinner. Sigh. Since I can't have that I'll continue my search for an appropriate yet fulfilling Italian substitute. It may take some time but really I have all the time in the world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A whole lotta nothin'

Lots of things happen here....too many for me to tell you about in writing. I miss the immediacy of a phone call. So much easier. I see something, I call the appropriate person and we talk about that and every other little thing under the sun. Hang up and repeat.

Now I have to somehow remember those unforgettable moments and then find the time to write them in a way that's entertaining for you and me. Cuz if you think it's tough reading this stuff, you should try writing it.

Like I want to call my dad and tell him my refrigerator sounds like a diesel engine on it's last legs and what can I do to prolong it's life? Can I polish a terrazzo floor without using an orbital sander? And there's this joke about a tuba player I heard...

I want to tell one Michele about all the great shoes, bags and men here (not necessarily in that order) and the other Michelle about the great scooters I saw yesterday. One tiny and ancient Vespa with a Puddy Tat sticker on the front and later that day in the same spot a huge one that still had that new Vespa smell. Both parked in the lane of traffic because the mechanic uses that spot for diagnostics and sometimes as his shop. The really funny part about that is that no one gets outraged by it. They just find a way to drive around them.

I want to tell anyone who'll listen that the little girl who a year ago cried every time I came to babysit and clung to her parents like a leech, the kid who cried for hours sometimes when I watched her, ran and threw herself into my arms two days ago, said a quick "ciao" to her mom and dragged me by the hand to her room to work her new puzzle and play dolls.

I want to tell Reema and Michael about the coffee culture here. How easy their job would be because no one orders anything "skinny" or "soy", no extra shots and no flavors. Nothing "to go" and only one size. OK, they'd have to ask them if they wanted cocoa on their cappuccino. That's about it. Of course they'd have to pack the grounds by hand, no one trusts a machine here, but that's a small price to pay. All that time spent ordering and then making a complicated drink can be spent more usefully in gossip and frivolous conversation, as it was meant to be.

I want to tell Jon that people are finally noticing that I actually understand Italian and often respond in the same language. Dinner with the neighbors is still a stressful event, but I can tell them that now. Not that I would.....

I want to tell Andy that every time I hear Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen I think of him. This happens more than one might think.

There's probably a hundred more thoughts I've had in the last week that didn't make it here. Mostly because I have no memory. Or I do remember but can't for the life of me think of why I though it would be so darn interesting to anyone. I refuse to become one of those people who talks into a little recorder like their thoughts are precious pearls of wisdom. I could start photographing everything, but I'm afraid of living my life through a viewfinder instead of showing up in person. Sometimes the most interesting stuff happens in our peripheral vision.

Maybe it's just self-absorption on my part, this idea that what I see and think and do is of any interest to anyone besides me. Then again, a blog is just that. A one-sided conversation where I can imagine that you are sitting on the edge of your seat breathlessly reading every word and thinking how lucky you are to know someone like me. So much better than a phone call, where call ID can get in the way of a truly scintillating conversation about MY day.

Interesting. I'm feeling a little better about things. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There's something in the air

For the last couple of weeks things have been a little strange for me. I've tried attributing it to the moon, but it's no longer full so that argument flies out the window. It could be the heat, but that usually makes people cranky and difficult, not...whatever it is they're feeling. I have no explanation. But today it reached a point where it's just ridiculous.

Men have been smiling at me a lot lately. A lot. Young, old, fat, thin, alone or even while with a doesn't seem to matter to them. They stop talking, or worse yet the whole conversation reorients itself to watch me walk by. Men walk the length of a scaffolding on construction sites to watch me walk by

Today it reached new heights. I hope they've peaked. I can't take it anymore.

I went for a ride early this morning and as I crossed one street one of the serious road bikers saw me, slowed down and watched me ride by with a big smile on his face. To be perfectly honest I thought maybe he was laughing at me but I checked and there was no toilet paper trailing off my shoe and my clothing was all where it was supposed to be so if he was laughing it must have been some kind of road cyclist inside joke.

Then on the bike path a man I've passed quite a few times became even more insistent today, waving his arms around like he was drowning as we passed each other. I stuck with a subdued one-handed and once across the bike wave. He went by smiling like I'd just made his day, an impression I was trying to avoid but obviously gave anyway.

Those were just the ultra-weird moments. The worst moment was when I was walking to join a friend for coffee and a scooter riding abreast of an SUV and another scooter almost ran into them on a roundabout because he was busy looking at me. I know this because I watched his helmet slowly follow me until he was looking behind his shoulder instead of at the other cars and I wanted to point and yell but I was trying to pretend like I didn't notice that he was staring at me. And no one seemed bothered by this. Not him, not the other drivers. Weird. Oh no, maybe they were looking too.

Later, on my way home from the store an elderly man on a bike rode slowly by me and as his head swiveled to watch me walk by he leaned so far over that he almost fell off his bike.

In the last weeks I have watched men walk into buildings, into other people, and into the path of vehicles; they've stepped into holes in the sidewalk, off curbs and over tables. Leif wants to call it "The Leif Effect" because it's his theory that I glow from knowing how much I'm loved and it's impossible not to want to look at it. I'm wondering if it isn't something in the water or the air.

I don't mind a little subtle appreciation but it's reached a point where it's not only ridiculous, it appears like it's becoming dangerous. And I'm not the only woman this happens to. I see it happen all over town to other women. It's like a weird epidemic and we have yet to find the cure, although there probably isn't a cure for being an Italian male and if there was no one would want it. I've decided never to leave the house without an escort until this phenomenon ends.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A pastry-(free)filled Sunday

Due to circumstances beyond my control there were no pastries this morning. OK, maybe not totally out of my control, but my "Minnesota nice" bubbled to the surface and when I tried to say no to someone it sounded like yes instead. There I was, babysitting instead of eating the most delicious tasting and beautiful to look at pastries in Florence.

I'm kind of afraid that the nice is rubbing off on Leif. Or maybe it's one of those weird customs that came over on the boat with a Swede and what we call "Minnesota nice" is really "Swedish nice." When the same man called him 15 minutes later ask him to work today he also said yes, so his plan of riding to the pastries and bringing them home for me was over too.

A friend told me that Oprah said that God gave us the word no to use. She added that if Oprah said it, it must be true. It would be crazy of me to argue with God and Oprah. I could probably handle myself all right in a discussion with one or the other, but if they've joined forces I'm outnumbered. I should just agree and find a way to say no more often.

I realize that we have to do something more than once for it to become our Sunday ritual, but I was so hoping this ride to the pastry could be it. A slow ride with a worthy goal at the end. But no. So we heave a large sigh of disappointment and hope that sometime in the future I will be eating pastries fit for angels.

Update: The awesome man I married rode to the pastries as soon as I left and brought some home so that when he got home we could have them together. So the pastries happened, just not in the morning. They tasted almost as good as they would have in the morning. He's the best.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Funny is...

I just tried to explain a joke to Leif. It's a pretty good one in my opinion.

A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What is this, a joke?"

I couldn't find the words to say that there are hundreds of jokes that start out with a rabbi, a priest and a minister doing something together and the joke is their religious differences affect their world view. What made this funny was that it wasn't about the rabbi, priest or minister but about the fact that there are hundreds of jokes told about them. A full minute after my explanation started he smiled and said, "Oh, I get it." I don't think he does. I think he just said that to get me to stop talking.

It's times like these that I realize how limited we are by language and experiences, and how much we have to learn about each other and our respective cultures . There are few Americans who would need this joke explained. Well, I know a few people but they shall remain nameless. I grew up in a house where jokes never get old, they are told over and over again. I just assumed that Swedes also tell jokes about rabbis, priests and ministers. I was wrong. So I asked what was to me the next logical question.

Do Swedes have comedians or tell jokes? ( I think now would be the appropriate time to remind you that there are no stupid questions)

Yes, along with the raised eyebrow he told me that of course they do. But it's more of a "thinking humor." More British.

Aaahh...I have no idea what  that means. Maybe he was implying that American humor requires little thought. Maybe he was saying that Swedish humor requires a superior intellect. Maybe he was saying that Swedes like to work for their laughs, while Americans just like to laugh. I have no idea. Obviously we need to explore this topic of humor a little more thoroughly from both cultural viewpoints. I'm kind of afraid that in Swedish I'm going to be that person who needs to have jokes explained.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Done apologizing

I got an e-mail from a good friend recently. She said that she had suggested my story for a magazine article and asked for some scans of my art. Then she wrote "Please do not make any apologies for the creative and multiple streams of income you pursue to love, live, and make art in Firenze. You are pretty darn amazing."

 At first I was taken back by that statement...what did she mean apologize? Why would I do that? Then I realized that apologizing is exactly what I do for every decision I make. I have no real understanding of why I do this all the time. I could theorize all day about it. It excuses my immanent failure. Because in my mind the possibility of failure is always stronger than the possibility of success. Even though I succeed far more often than I fail. Or it excuses the goals I choose to pursue. They tend to be a little different than most of my peers. The list naturally goes on and on...

She's right. I shouldn't apologize for anything. I live a life that feeds my body and my soul, my mind and my heart. Yes, it's a life very different from the one I used to have and different from the lives of those I love. But here's the thing...even though I was very good at living my other life I am far better suited to the life I have now.

There is a serenity in my heart that I haven't experienced before. Part of it comes from being loved, part of it from loving. Another part is participating in the act of creation every day. Part of it comes from using my body every day; using it pretty hard some days. Part of it comes from spending more time in the present than in the past or in the future. Being aware of these things and remembering them every day helps that serenity to grow and fill me up.

So I'm done apologizing. I watch dogs poo and I watch other people's children so that I can live and love and create every day with a joyful heart. It's enough for me.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Regular maintenance

First  off, there were no pastries yesterday. I know I swore there would be. I was ready for it. Prepared. I had my camera. I was dressed and breakfasted and brushed and ready. He wasn't. He was in no hurry whatsoever. Apparently we don't feel the same about these pastries. Next Sunday I intend to be more forceful about my need for sugar covered bread. He's already been warned.

On the other hand, he did change the tubes in both tires on my bike. He said the rear tube was basically glued to the tire and that's probably why I kept losing air in it. It was too old to work anymore. He also washed my bike. I would have been happy with just the new tires, but he seems to feel that a clean bike rolls better. Or something like that. Who knows. Periodically he disappears downstairs with a bucket, a sponge and a toothbrush (!) and comes back up shaking his head and tells me every time "It's clean again." Like I get it dirty on purpose. Like he would never get it that dirty.

Just like it's impossible to ride through rain without getting wet, it's impossible to ride on a gravel road without getting dusty and dirty. I do my best to avoid puddles (when it actually rains, that is) and ride slower through loose gravel (OK, that's probably not true). I'm just not a maintenance kind of girl. I don't worry so much about keeping the gears super clean and greased because to be honest I tend to use just one gear and use about 3 other gears only in extreme emergencies. The other 20 are just for show. Unless there's a hill, of course. Then I fumble around a lot and still end up using the same 4 gears and only changing the front gear.

I probably shouldn't be allowed to own anything that requires regular maintenance, because I just don't do that. I'm lucky that the universe has given me someone who understands the value of maintenance and actually knows how to do it. Oh, and who does it for me cheerfully.

It sounds like I'm taking advantage of his good nature, but actually we've struck a deal. He maintains the bikes and in return I do things he can't. Like hem his pants and fix clothes. The last pair of pants he bought (before me) he pinned to the correct length with super-sized safety pins. I also provide another valuable service. I remember things. I remember dates, I remember where he put things, I remember things he never thought he'd have to remember but suddenly realizes he should have.

Come to think of it,  he may actually have the better end of the deal here. He only has to maintain my bike every couple of weeks. I have to remember stuff every day. On the other hand, reopening negotiations could open a can of worms best left closed.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lost and found

So today it really kind of hit me that my ordeal with the Questura is finished for awhile. Yesterday I was just trying to survive. I know this because I couldn't concentrate on anything yesterday. The most basic functions were beyond me.

The best example of this being as we stood next to our bikes when we left the Questura taking the various locks off of wheels, frames and signs. As I got ready to put my helmet on I reached up to take my sunglasses off the top of my head. I patted my head maybe a dozen times convinced that I was somehow missing the glasses that I clearly remember putting up there and now vaguely remember setting on the counter in front of the bullet-proof glass inside the Questura.

Slightly panicked I looked in my bag, inside my helmet and patted my head again for good measure. I looked at my hands (front and back) to make sure I wasn't actually holding them with one hand while looking for them with the other. Not that this has ever happened before, but...

"Oh no!" I told Leif, "I think I left my sunglasses in there!" I was nearly paralyzed at the thought of going back inside.

He looked at me kind of funny. "What?" I almost yelled at him. I'm tired of losing sunglasses on every continent.

"You're wearing them," he told me quietly.

I was speechless. I thought he was nuts. I would know if I was wearing them. It would be darker out. I would feel them. Then that he mentioned it...I didn't even put a hand to my face to feel them there and I refused to look for the frames I knew I would see, now that I knew I would see them.

I opened my mouth a couple of times to say something, but nothing brilliant or even just face-saving came to mind. If he were an American husband he would have totally laughed at me. Thank goodness he's Swedish. He just followed my lead, putting on his helmet and getting ready to ride home without saying a word.

And this, my friends, is just one of the reasons I love him. Even when I'm being a complete and total fool he acts like my behavior is nothing out of the ordinary. Even when it's clearly not normal and possibly verging on hysterical. He's a keeper.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday the 13th at the Questura

Really, I wanted to put off writing about this until tomorrow but I knew that some of you are waiting to know what happened. Possibly more anxious than I was. So even though I have a cut on my index finger and the band-aid makes typing really hard and it hurts like hell, even though I'm kind of an emotional wreck...I'll tell you about my day.

Friday the thirteenth here in Florence began normally. The sun rose at the right time, the birds were singing appropriately perky morning songs and all appeared right with the world. Breakfast was consumed without mishaps. There was a little confusion about our departure time. I was awake and ready to go around 5:30, which Leif correctly noted was pointless as the offices don't even open till 8am. He suggested leaving at 9 in an attempt to repeat Wednesday's easy-in-easy-out performance.

I spent the time before we left mentally conjuring up worst case scenarios and then solving the problems (again mentally) with ninja-like stealth and cunning. I wish I was that brilliant in real life. I stopped this when we rode to the Questura. Rush hour traffic is a bear and I wouldn't suggest practicing anything during the ride. Just keep your eyes and mind on the cars and other bikes. Except for a few minor skirmishes with other bikers the ride went well and we arrived at the Questura safely.

Now, even if it weren't  Friday the thirteenth it would still be a Friday. Regardless of the date I am guessing that Friday is the day when everyone's nerves are a little tense, when tempers flair and misunderstandings abound. The goal is to survive the day. Any attempts to maintain grace and dignity are forgotten in the need to survive. All I could think was "What the hell are all these people doing here? I want to get my Permesso and leave, then you all can get back into line." My attitude was getting very close to sucking.

Also, I was working very hard on keeping quiet. The last time we were at the Questura Leif mentioned that I tended to talk a lot there and it was distracting for him. As if that mattered to me right now. I'm the one trying to get some kind of official permission to stay here. He's already here and no one will ask him to leave.

See how quickly things can get emotional? It's all done for me and still I feel a little put out about this. Talking is how I get rid of stress. Some people pace, others drink, I talk. But I wanted to be nice, so I kept all that chatter inside. It didn't stop, it just didn't happen out loud. I sat there quietly while I mentally deflected nasty remarks and answering questions in fluent Italian. I was practically hyper-ventilating I was thinking so hard. I tried meditating but all I could hear was my own breathing and it sounded like I was running a marathon. Not relaxing at all. But I was quiet. I get points for that.

Sadly we weren't able to repeat the quick trip from earlier this week. We sat there, and sat there and then he said he didn't think we would be spending hours there. I didn't remind him that I had in fact told him just the night before that it would be lovely if we would be able to get out of there quickly, but that it might be too much to hope for. So don't.

I started to worry that I would have to jump through even more hoops before getting my Permesso. Like having to do whatever happens behind that door that's guarded by the man in the white coat and latex gloves. Or something equally horrible that I haven't even seen there because it's too awful to let the general public witness it. No, I don't know exactly what that might be, but I bet it's pretty terrible. Or, the worst possible option, coming back another day. Too horrible to even imagine.

Finally our number came up (D431 for those keeping score) and we rushed the window, anxious to be as helpful as possible so we could leave. The man behind the bullet-proof glass didn't smile. Even after my smiling and poorly accented boungiorno! He took my receipt and found my file. He wordlessly took out a stack of papers, stapled them together and slid them together with a pen through the slot at the counter. He pointed (again wordlessly, not even any Italian) to the place for me to sign. I signed. He ripped his copies off the back and handed me my single sheet of paper and pointed to the doors. Leif started to ask a question but the look on that man's face stopped him from asking it. This was a man one single manilla envelope away from going postal. We left.

I was of course brimming with observations and after hours of limiting my conversation to a few words a minute I couldn't stop once we hit the sidewalk. First things first, I had to actually look at the paper. My Permesso when I was here as a student was an electronic card (not unlike a credit card) that had all my info on it as well as my fingerprints. It had nifty holograms on it and had an air of permanence about it. It was thick and waterproof and wouldn't bend or fold. I assumed my new one would look like this. You have to imagine this and much, much more pouring out of my mouth so fast there was almost a sonic boom.

I went on to voice my surprise that my Permesso (good for five years people!) was printed on impermanent and highly delicate paper. Paper that had my picture stapled to it with a single staple, then covered with mailing tape. Paper that can rip, tear, fold, holy cow it could even burn! Just one spill could render it unreadable and therefore null and void. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the completely Italian idea that temporary visitors are issued cards that could probably survive a nuclear attack while people intending to live here for a long time are given permission to stay on something as temporary and fragile as paper.

Obviously I haven't completed my assimilation to the Italian culture yet. Or I would have simply shrugged and said "OK." When I finally ran myself down a bit and started sounding less like a chipmunk Leif suggested we get going, he had things to do today. Oooooookay. No parade, that's for sure. Not even a tiny happy dance. A few quick kisses to acknowledge the end of what for me has been a journey with no certain outcome. Now that I'm several hours away from it all, I have to say that he does have a lot on his mind right now with his exams coming up.

But I still have this really weird, where'd all the excitement go and why don't I feel more accomplished about this project feeling. Because I've been working on this since before I got here. I have documents translated into Italian that no one has even looked at. I've spent hours, maybe days in a building that depresses me. I've done everything they've asked and maybe I'm just pissy because after all the hoops I've jumped through no one even said "Welcome to Italy!" Well, actually they'd say "Benvenuti in Italia!" but you know what I mean. I don't feel accomplished, I only feel a great sense of relief that despite the obstacles they put in my way I survived. I guess I'm maybe looking for that five minute victory party where we both go a little wild because we won, dammit, and in my mind it was never a given and having the paper in my hand seems like a miracle.

And he has just agreed to drink something bubbly and celebratory with me out of pretty glasses as soon as I finish this, so I'm going to stop writing and end my day on a high note of happiness. Because unless I break the law I can stay here for five years before entering the Questura again. Maybe it'll burn down in the meantime. And if it does.....I had nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Working together

Last night was a very special night. Not romantic or fun-filled or any other way you might define special. It was special because for the first time Leif held a wine tasting that was his alone. Rather than being contacted by another tour operator to contract through them, he had a villa contact him directly and ask him to hold a private wine tasting for some of their guests.

Living the dream.
And so began the realization of a dream that started with a school report on Italy when he was about eleven and continued to grow when he moved to Italy and learned everything he could about wines and wine-making and took its first shaky but determined steps last night. He has finally become known to enough people who respect his skills to work for himself. And I was his lovely assistant.

Naturally it wasn't as simple as showing up at the villa and talking about wines. We ended up catering the event ourselves which is far more complicated.

See, there's always this little give and take that happens during the discussions to finalize details. It started with the call to be the sommelier for a wine tasting, followed by assumptions on both sides about the scope of the project and the audience and ended with Leif and me riding our bikes around Florence three hours before the event buying (and transporting) a dozen fragile wine glasses and heavy (I know, I carried them on my back) plates, plus wine, salami and cheese. Then renting a car to take everything to the tasting because it's in the hills and it wouldn't be finished until after 10pm.

I bet you thought I was going to say that we rode our bikes to and from the event loaded like pack horses with all the things we needed. While it would certainly be impressive to say that (we did the same ride when I was his assistant guide for the Swedish bike tour, It would be impressive), it would have been crazy to try. And I'm not that crazy. Yet. He did drive the little yellow Fiat Panda like an Italian on the switchback roads up to the villa so there was some element of know how much I love those switchbacks.

We were told to prepare a wine tasting for twelve Germans. What we didn't find out until part way through the tasting was that they arrived at the villa directly from the airport right before we started. Without dinner. We were prepared to remind them that this was a wine tasting, not a wine drinking....but how do you politely tell someone who's hungry that all you have to eat are snacks, and only enough to compliment the wine? I should have known something was up when the villa, who up until that day had been saying we were responsible for everything about the event except for the space it was held in, started bringing things down to fill out the table. Jams and honey for the cheese, breads and olive oil. They fluttered around me the whole evening saying "The dishes look empty" and I kept saying that I had to keep something back for the third and fourth bottles of wine.

It was like a swarm of locusts had landed on the table. When we were finished all that remained of the food were some slices of bread, a few lonely pieces of salami and a tablespoon of honey. The tablecloth was littered with long thin threads of salami casing, bread crumbs and dirty plates. The bottles were drained of every drop of wine. The Germans finally started to look less frantic about eating. One woman stopped me and asked anxiously "We can get more to drink, yes?" Not from us she couldn't, but I didn't say that out loud. I just told her to talk to the woman from the villa and I was sure there was something they could drink. She looked relieved.

Then there was the inevitable (I guess) tussle to get our brand new, beautiful wine glasses away from the Germans and replace them with smaller, less beautiful glasses from the Villa. It was a little more difficult than it should have been because they had moved outside to the pool and were sitting in the dark drinking and talking. We must have looked slightly crazy walking around, getting our faces up close to everyone's glass to see if it was ours or the villa's. Then nicely but firmly taking ours away and handing them a new glass to drink from.

I have to say that Leif handled the whole situation beautifully. He managed to keep most of the twelve Germans on track and interested in hearing about the wines they were tasting. He made sure that even those who wandered off to the corners of the room had the option to try every wine. He got most of them to forget their hunger long enough to try food and wine combinations and really think about what they were tasting. And when he had identified the real wine lovers in the group he talked to them and let the rest listen if they would or wander off if they must.

I'm sure that at this point he would like me to list the wines and foods. There were four wines; Chianti Classico, Morellino, a Super Tuscan, and a Brunello. They were accompanied by some classic Tuscan bread and salami and a young, slightly spicy pecorino cheese along with the olive oil, marmalades and honey. He would probably say a lot more about the wine than I just have, but then that's why he's the professional and I'm the lovely assistant. I make sure everything runs smoothly and he does the wine.

How he managed to keep the pace of the event perfect in the face of his guests hunger is beyond me, but he did it. They gave each wine the attention it deserved and at the end of the evening we left them happy and content with their first few hours here in Tuscany. He has cemented a relationship with the villa that should prove to be good for our future and now we have started to gather the tools (glasses and plates) for our own wine tastings. We both went to sleep last night with smiles because we are one step closer to an independent future. Very exciting stuff.

Giving the Questura another try.

Today we tried our luck again with the papers needed for my Permesso. We did fax our question in and wonder of wonders, someone called us back finally. The answer is that they simply want a piece of paper from the Anagrafe (the city office that deals with residency questions and lots more) that says I live at the same address as Leif. And that, according to our last visit there, will cost us a mere 15 euros and the time  needed to wait in their office for our number to pop up.

Amazingly we had a short wait at the office AND what are the odds that out of 15 desks we would get the same exact woman who helped us last week? We should buy lottery tickets.

She did have to think carefully about the wording of this document. After one short consultation with the woman at the next desk they came up with a way to say that only Leif was attesting to my address. They were simply putting their rubber stamp on it (numerous times in fact) to show that in front of them he signed the document that states we share the same address. It's also printed on official paper with a special background which by the way doesn't show up on copies. Side note: no one here wants to touch your originals. There are big signs in many of the offices to be sure to have copies of all your documents as they will not accept originals.

Once we had that paper we could head back to the Questura, with a little side stop to make the necessary copy. We stopped at the uniformed man who was actually pleasant today and got our number and headed into the main room to see how long we had to wait. Our number was D446 and we looked at the monitor hoping for a short wait. "Holy crap!" I said. Really I did. The number on the screen was D445. We were pretty much going to walk in and walk right to the window. Screw the lottery...where does one go to gamble significant amounts of money in Europe??

And then it gets even stranger, because as we were watching D445 deal with the paperwork for what appeared to be his four wives a man stepped up to the window next to him and asked if we were waiting for a Permesso. The day was seriously verging on weird now. Things were going too smoothly. Wheels were mysteriously greased. I tried valiantly to maintain my skepticism for a system that has let me down more than lifted me up but it was hard. I almost smiled.

I was hoping that we would be able to have an exchange of documents, like a hostage exchange, but no. He disappeared into a back room with our newly minted "swear on a stack of Bibles we live together" statement and returned with a grim look on his face. I wondered what office he was going to send us to, and what we would have to do there. Were there going to be more documents to sign, probably in blood this time?

He apologized. Whoa. That never happens. Actually, he asked to be excused for what he was going to tell us, which here kind of amounts to the same thing. I held my breath for a moment. He said that my Permesso wasn't ready yet. But, it would be ready on Friday morning. No more papers. No more questions. Just bring my receipt on Friday morning and my Permesso will be waiting there for me. The almost apology was because he knows I was told that it would be ready last Friday but obviously here we are at the following Wednesday and it isn't ready yet.

We didn't stick around to hear more and once we left the window I didn't look back. I learned that lesson last week. We left the Questura maintaining an outward calm but I know I was doing a small and hopefully inconspicuous happy dance inside. I don't want to seem to be celebrating too early, that just brings out the gremlins that cause trouble. We had a coffee and tried to talk the extra adrenaline out. We had gone in prepared for battle and ended up shooting through the system like a greased pig. It was great, but a little frustrating all the same.

We were halfway home before it hit me. I laughed out loud and Leif looked at me with that one raised eyebrow. "It'll be ready on Friday morning, right?" I asked. He nodded. I laughed again and said "That's Friday the 13th." What are the odds? I think I'll hold off on those lottery tickets.

Well played, Italy. Well played.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sunday ride

Today Leif and I went for a leisurely Sunday ride together. Sort of like all the farmers do in Minnesota, drive to church at 40 miles and hour looking at everyone else's fields and generally seeing what there is to see. Except that we did it on bikes...and didn't look at any fields...and didn't end up in church. But other than that I swear, it was exactly the same.

We rode 37k. I would love to tell you all about the scenery and every single town that we went through. But I can't. The tangled maze of one way streets is impossible to untangle in my mind. One would think the signs would help, but no. A sign that states senza unico translates literally into "without only", google translate gives me "no one" but according to Leif it means "one way."  It seems like such a simple principle to adhere to. Traffic goes in only one direction. Here however I think the translation ends up being "YOU will only travel in one direction at a time when you are forced by extreme circumstances to drive against the traffic" because inevitably either a bike (yes, guilty) or a scooter or even a car will do just that. Other signs are less helpful, relying on pictograms rather than words.

But today, except for a little part of the ride where we momentarily went off the grid and rode through some bushes and a park, then the wrong way only because there were no right way streets, we pretty much followed the most important rules of the road. I just read that last sentence and realized that I'm well on my way to becoming streets were going the way I needed to go so naturally I had to go the wrong way. Wow.

It's a nice ride that's pretty much flat but peppered with roundabouts. They're fun but also a little dangerous on a bike. When there's little traffic like today it's easy to ride normally and swing around to your turnoff, but in heavy traffic roundabouts become...let's try this another way. Imagine Hwy 36 (or any major two lane highway), take out the interchange and make it a roundabout. Now take those four possible exits (and entrances) and add one or two more. Now, just for fun, in your imagination make it rush hour. Now ride your bike into the center of that vortex and make it out alive. Repeat every mile or so. I'm not bragging, OK, maybe I am. I can do it. If you're feeling really lucky you can even gaze admiringly at the sculpture displayed in the center of each roundabout, just keep one eye on the traffic.

I do remember two of the towns. We stopped in Sesto Fiorentino for a coffee. A truly amazing coffee and pastry. They make their own pastry there. I know because I could see into the door next to the shop and there were all the little pastry chefs having their own coffee break. Yes, pastry chefs. Sparkling kitchen, gleaming stainless and un-fingerprinted glass surrounded men in tall white hats and bleached white shirts with Chinese buttons and stiffly pressed black pants. Their shoes were unblemished by flour or eggs or, ahem, mystery liquids. I had a momentary flash of jealousy, then realized that the shirt probably wouldn't go with my motorcycle boots.

It was here, at the Neri Cafe and Pasticceria, that I had a pastry that must somehow find it's way to the May Day Cafe where I used to work. Those guys may overdress for their work but they know what the hell they're doing. It was flaky like a croissant but folded instead of rolled, creme filled and baked just long enough to caramelize the creme that oozed out in the oven. Soft, flaky and creamy with a crunchy brown sugar flavor on the bottom. (I'm kinda swooning just writing about it. Heavens.) If it sounds like I'm in love with a pastry, I am. I will ride the 10k every Sunday for this pastry. Only on Sunday because the rest of the week the traffic is killer and I wouldn't survive to enjoy my brioche.

Long ago in Minnesota, even when I was young, Sundays were the day you drove around and "just dropped in" on people and it was socially acceptable. We have a (naturally Swedish) friend who lives here so I told Leif we should call her, then stopped and asked just how Italian he thought she had become because in Italy you never stop without planning it in advance. Then asked if it was acceptable in Sweden to just drop in on people. Then said forget it, this has become a cultural morass that I can't get my mind around on a Sunday. And he whipped his phone out and called her. She wasn't home so any cultural crisis was averted but it was sweet that he called.

We headed out to the next town I remember which was Calenzano. I'm sure it's famous for many things, but for us only that we have yet another Swedish friend who lives there. This time, without my asking, Leif called this friend and asked if she was home. She was out of town but I would like here and now to give Leif all sorts of credit for going outside his cultural comfort zone and attempting a spontaneous social visit.

We were 0 for 0 on visiting people, but the rest of the ride and the pastries were a resounding success. With just 80 meters of climbing we didn't have to work hard at all. Just enough kilometers to stretch our legs a bit and work off that pastry and get plenty of fresh air. I can't wait for next Sunday...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Questura...the saga continues

Finally 30 days have passed; the magic number I was given, albeit verbally, to return to get my Permesso. I waited an extra couple of days, just in case. Also because I wanted Leif to come with me. My Italian is improving, but in times of stress I lose both my Italian and English, leaving me pretty much speechless. I needed him there to intuit my very important questions and ask them for me if I suddenly went silent and looked upset. And I wanted the company.

So Tuesday morning we headed off on our bikes across town (have I already mentioned that everything seems to be across town from where we live?) to check on my Permesso. We walked in and Leif decided to skip talking to the mean men in uniforms at the door and just stepped into line behind about a hundred other people waiting to get a  number. One of the uniforms noticed us and called us over. Yikes....we hadn't done anything wrong that I could remember in the 10 seconds we had been in the building. He asked why we were there and then handed us a number and told us to just go in and wait.

Naturally I was a little suspicious of this. The last time one of those guys handed me a number it was only to wait several hours to get another number. How does that go? Fool me once, shame on you...(fool me twice we must be speaking Italian!) I mentioned to Leif that I thought it might be a bait and switch; that they were having a little fun with us and we were going to repeat my first visit to the Questura. He just looked at me and raised one eyebrow.

We had a low number and I took him around the corner to where few people go to sit. We found a quiet corner (not an easy thing to do there) and waited for D423 to come up on the monitor. Luckily, because of my last visit I knew that the D's started with 400 so we weren't in for a long wait. We sat on a concrete ledge, watched the other people and I talked. A lot.

I talked about having the right papers, or only having the wrong papers, of misunderstanding the date, of having to come back because it wasn't ready  yet, really the list goes on forever. He listened patiently for quite some time and then did that eyebrow  thing again and told me that maybe I was obsessing too much about things. Yes, he used that word. Yes, he's new to the married kind of conversation where neither partner accuses the other one of obsessing about anything. We may worry, possibly fret, but obsessing implies something beyond normal emotions. But he was right. I was obsessing. So I tried to stop, at least outwardly. Really, he just wanted me to stop talking because when I get nervous I talk way too much. He tells me this is very Italian, this talking through a problem to find a solution. But still, he would prefer it if I would just stop for awhile. He asked so nicely that I did stop.

Suddenly we were only a couple of numbers away from 423, so we walked around the corner to the one window that took the D numbers to wait our turn. When my number flashed on the screen we walked quickly up to the window and I handed him my receipt.

He looked at my name and got one of those "oh yeah" looks on his face and walked directly to my file. I was not comforted by this at all. People whose files have no issues aren't remembered by complete strangers. Right? He handed me back my receipt and told us that it would be ready the end of the week. So apparently I misread his recognition of my name. He was probably thinking of another Michele Marie Hauck Karlsson. It's a common name. He said arrivederci and smiled.

We turned away from the window and took a few step toward the exit. But wait! From behind the glass he was telling us to stop and come back...well I assume that's what he was saying, he was behind thick glass with a tiny hole cut into it that you need to put your ear on to hear and your mouth against to be heard. His mouth was moving and he was waving his arms at us so we walked back. When we got close enough to hear we thought he asked if Leif was written in Florence (in other words, was he written as a resident here) and we said yes because he is. He said that we needed another piece of paper from a different government office and waved us off.

My obsessing was justified right there. Neither of us knew what the paper was that he was asking for and we didn't think to ask if they had to have it before the Permesso was granted. I'd like to think we can show up on Friday and do a fair exchange of paper for Permesso. Sort of like a ransom. I'm such an optimist. On the other hand, he had already told us that the Permesso would be ready on Friday, so apparently the paper wasn't holding up the process. I think. We went outside where it was cooler to get the bikes and strategize a bit.

Neither of us had any appointments or work so it made sense to visit this other office and see if we could get everything taken care of today. So we headed off to Palazzo Vecchio (town hall) to see about this mystery paper.

This is how things work here. Never never never is the whole process revealed. Each visit only gets you the information you need for the next visit. Each person only knows their own job, they seem content to be ignorant of what another office might want or need. I said it up front; I knew that the one page form and a couple of supporting documents couldn't possibly be all they would want. Each visit brings another request for paper.

A lateral ride across town brought us to the city hall. The office we were looking for had moved but the woman at one desk was able to tell us that the paper was a "state of the family" paper. Whatever that means. Also that the office we needed was back across town and slightly north. So back on the bikes for another tooth-jarring ride across quaint cobblestone roads to the right office.

We hardly had to wait at all for our number to come up and when we got to the desk and Leif finished explaining that we need this paper but we don't understand what it is and can we get one she typed his name into the computer and frowned. Oh no.

The paper, she told us, is to show that we are both residents of Florence and live at the same address. Leif told her that he's a resident but that I'm not. She said she knew that because she's looking at her computer and my name is there as his wife but not as a resident. So....drum roll.....she can't give us the paper we need. A lengthy discussion in complex Italian ensued. She called over the person at the next desk for moral support.

First they told us all the reasons they couldn't give us this paper. All the problems. Fifteen minutes later they agreed, in lowered voices, that they might be able to find a way around the give us the paper, but never claim I was a resident and with an addendum that says Leif says I am living with him. She said that the Questura asked for it because he must have asked if we were both written here (not just Leif) and we should find out first if we really, truly needed the paper. And if we do need it it will cost 15 euros.

We left, a little dizzy from the amount of information we had been given in the last couple of hours. We also left with phone numbers for the Questura so we could call and find out if we really, truly need this piece of paper. When someone finally answered that phone she said that she wasn't the right person to answer our question. The best way to get an answer would be to fax it in. Yes....fax it in. She gave him the e-mail address as well but told him that e-mail wasn't answered as quickly as faxes were. Wow. The mind boggles.

We are now one day away from the end of the week, when my Permesso is supposed to be ready for me to pick up. Needless to say, we haven't gotten an answer to our e-mailed question. He's such an optimist. Even he is getting impatient enough that he is faxing the question even as I write. Leave no stone unturned and all that.

So this is a story without an ending yet. It's a story filled with intrigue, bureaucracy, and because it isn't over till it's over, hope. This whole residency issue could turn into a huge obstacle, or it could be just a tiny bump in the road. Only time will tell.

Monday, July 2, 2012

I'm not in Minnesota anymore: Manners

Every once in awhile something happens that reminds me that I'm living in a very different place.

Stop rolling your eyes. What I mean is I've been living here long enough to become accustomed to the obvious differences that exist here. The trees, the buildings, the cars, the people. Different stores and humongous historical buildings. Coffee in itty bitty cups. Those visible differences hardly register with me anymore, unless it's something very unusual or newly discovered. Like I will never get used to seeing frozen octopus in the freezer section or the unfrozen variety in the fish section. The days I forget to avert my eyes I am suddenly and profoundly reminded of where I am, and where I'm not.

It''s the subtle differences that kind of sneak up on you. Like when I realized that if I held the door open for someone I may as well settle in, because taking turns isn't part of the Italian psyche. If I'm foolish enough to hold the door open they're going to walk through it. So I stopped holding doors open for anyone who appeared younger than me. I can't shake the habit completely, but I can adjust it.

I had another one of those moments yesterday. Typically when we eat with others it's at their home or at a nice restaurant. These experiences couldn't possibly prepare me for the free for all that is dining "family style" at an Italian restaurant at a tourist attraction. Servers race past tables carrying big serving bowls and platters. They are careful to give everyone a good portion, but then just as quickly disappear back into the kitchen.

One of the woman at our table ate so quickly she finished her first pasta (vegetarian) and get a second helping (meat sauce) the only one at our table who ate fast enough for seconds. Then she and her husband used half the grated parmesan on their dishes without waiting for everyone to get some first, a big cardinal rule at our house growing up.

We don't need to talk about the second dish or the french fries. You can relax, they got their share and more.

One woman on our end of the table ordered the salad. She offered it to me and Leif to share because it was so large. Leif said he would like some, but he had to finish his meat first. (side note: each dish is given it's own moment. You will never see a plate in Italy that is filled with pasta and meat and salad. Unless you're at happy hour.) The couple from the other end of the table grabbed the bowl and filled their plates leaving two lettuce leaves clinging to the bottom.

Without offering the dish to anyone else at the table first. I know I used to complain about all the manners my mom pounded into my head, but I'm grateful now. I wouldn't want to appear like they do. Even if most of the rest of the country is like that. Because it is

I have to take my lifetime of standing in lines and taking turns and sharing and adjust it to the rules here. Which appear to be absent, but in fact do exist. Now to be fair, not everyone acts like they were raised in a barn, but those with manners accept the behavior of others unless it's totally outrageous. My favorite is at the grocery store. It is acceptable to leave your cart or basket in the checkout  line at the grocery store and run back for "just one more thing" till you've finished your shopping and never had to stand in line. Everyone does it at some time but there are those who do it every time. In their mind they're just being smart because they have things to do and can't wait in line like everyone else.

It's like they all have rich people syndrome without being rich. I think I'd rather be rich without the syndrome.