Friday, November 29, 2013

An awkward moment

Living in another culture and language means that I live in a series of awkward moments. Some are small and significant only to me, some scream out so loudly that people a block away sense the awkward and turn away in embarrassment.

Recently we were sharing a car with a friend. He was driving and we were sitting in the back as the radio played. Suddenly he turned to me and asked "What does this song mean Michele? What does this mean?"

The deeply thoughtful lyrics in question were "I'm up all night to get some. She's up all night to get some. They're up all night to get some. We're up all night to get lucky." (repeat twenty more times than you can tolerate)

His eyes in the rear view mirror were serious. He really wanted to know what it meant. (Or he was messing with me, also entirely possible, he's one seriously good actor)

I tried exchanging glances with Leif but he just looked out the window innocently, leaving the English translation to me. The chicken.

So I took a deep breath and tried to explain it without any specifics whatsoever. Which I discovered was impossible.

"They're out know....with friends and meeting new people. Ummmm......well..........." He still looked confused and I was sounding either like an idiot or a prude, that would be a point of view thing. I tried again.

"It's a song about dating. Speed dating."

The eyes in the mirror didn't look convinced. I gave up.

"It's about sex. (big sigh) When you say 'you're getting some' or 'I got lucky' what you're talking about is sex."

The eyes got big so apparently I finally had explained it so he could understand.

You're thinking that was the awkward part, aren't you? You'd be wrong.

The only thing more awkward than translating and explaining song lyrics about sex is doing it next to a fourteen year old girl who is getting top marks in English.

I probably don't even need to tell you how silent the car was for the next several kilometers, do I?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


My  Thanksgiving ritual is slowly (or quickly, depending on your point of view I suppose) winding down to a single event; a skype session with my family that will start out very organized and end up in a tangled heap of ten different conversations from which we all emerge feeling drained and filled and loved. Those who've had turkey probably also feel tired. I only feel tired because I've had to wait all day to talk to them after they finish dinner. (which is only called dinner on Sundays and holidays, the rest of the time it's lunch)

I'm not really on board with the practice people have started of publicly stating what they're thankful for during November, only because I hate that many people truly believe this practice can be sequestered into a single month and still make their lives different all year long. I hope that they enjoy the practice enough to set aside time each day to find one amazingly awesome thing about the day or the people in it.

That being said, I've realized that the distance between me and Minnesota means that if I don't come right out and say something (or as with most of you, write something) then you don't know at all what I'm thinking or feeling. You don't tune out my endless chatter or hear my profound silence. You don't see that the smile is real or there for show. You no longer know the two weeks leading up to my colossal meltdown and don't know if I'm over or under reacting. You just don't know. If you don't know those things, you might not know other things; important things.

I love my children to pieces. I don't know if they always knew that but I hope that they did. Zach and Jess are such fine humans and rich personalities that it's hard for me to believe I had any part in raising them. I didn't do it alone. Their dad has been amazing throughout their lives and we all need to thank him for that. He didn't have to be present; many fathers aren't, even those who share the same house. I miss Zach's ability to take a short story and turn it into a novel. I love his intense passion for the things that matter most to him. I miss Jessi's hugs. I miss her absolute faith (hard won on both sides) in my opinion. I love her adventurous spirit and take-no-shit attitude.

My parents have always been incredibly supportive of their "different" child. (that would be me) I really did listen to everything they told me growing up. Somehow though, 1+1 doesn't always = 2 for me. Sometimes it = blue or dog. I suppose it's little comfort to know that I actually do start with 1+1. All those lessons I learned from them have made my journey here easier. The majority of my little decisions are solidly straight out of my growing years. How a toilet works, how to ask the right questions to get the answers you need, how to be happy. I love them for accepting my decisions, as crazy as they seem sometimes. I hope they know that my craziness is preceded by a lengthy period of good old fashioned consideration.

I miss my sister, brother and sister-in-law terribly here. There is so much comfort in talking to someone who knows you so well that sentences don't need to be finished for them to understand how you feel or think. It's been hard living in another language, but harder still to find myself so distanced from the ex-pats here. Not many Midwesterners come here and if they do they're from a different socio-economic group. (to put it baldly, they're wealthy and I'm not) Even when we speak the same language, we don't speak the same language. So I miss talking to someone who knows me so well that I never, ever have to provide background. I miss being inside a family that doesn't have a list of topics to avoid at holidays or people not talking to each other. I miss the absolute acceptance we give to each other, although I think my move here has tested that acceptance pretty hard at times. I miss them.

I miss my nieces. I miss Emmy so much I bought a pair of socks with cows on them so I could think of her on a regular basis. She has forever changed my world view on socks. She's not just a sock expert, but also committed to saving our world. If anyone can, she's the person to do it.  I miss Carly's hugs and her voice. Like a magic trick, her voice can be anything at anytime. And like me, she can find the humor in just about any situation. I love her for that. I'm sad that I'm missing the part of Sidney's life where she is becoming. I want to hear her sing, play the piano. I want to watch her face while she tells me about the things that most excite her about life right now. I left before she had a chance to discover stuff. I miss Tasha. Lord, I miss Tasha. I miss her directness, her intelligence, her love. I miss my nephew James. He's crazy smart and rather talkative and very sure of himself. If you listen long enough (don't worry, he'll talk as long as you listen) you'll hear everything you want to know without ever asking a single question. Yes, I miss that.

I miss my friends, old and new. There is great comfort in knowing that there are people you can call and say, "Let's get a cup of coffee," and they will agree without question because they hear in your voice that coffee isn't what you need. They break diets if chocolate is what you need. When you call out of the blue they say "Gosh I haven't seen you in years....of course come over so we can make wedding invitations!" They ask the hard questions and listen to the answers. They truly would help you bury a body and instantly forget it ever happened. It may take decades for me to forge friendships like that here. If I live that long....

I''m grateful for all those things and more, but I'm also afraid. I know that doesn't fit into the Thanksgiving celebration comfortably, but there it is. I'm afraid of becoming a stranger to all these people I love so much, and of being estranged from them. I'm afraid that when I can finally come back for a visit we'll all perch on the edges of our seats in an uncomfortable silence wondering what to say the the person sitting nervously in front of us. My goal is to prevent that from happening. And to take every opportunity, like today, to tell them how much I love them. If I was there you'd be getting a real hug, not the typical Minnesota hug; only from the side and only for a moment. THAT'S how much I love  you.

Friday, November 22, 2013


I wrote this post the week after we got back from Sweden in August and it's just been sitting here waiting for the right moment to be published. I think the right moment is now for several reasons. We'll be going back to Sweden in December to spend Christmas and New Year there so I can hopefully re-enter the Swedish  language without too much trouble as long as I can remember the things I learned the last time around. And maybe more importantly, I'm too lazy to come up with something new and exciting to write about. So here it is as written the first week in September.

I've spent the last month living in Swedish. Sure, people who knew me talked to me in English (when they could) but not everyone speaks English and naturally every sign is in Swedish. Unless I carried my address around on a piece of paper in my pocket I had to learn to say a few key phrases. Street signs turned out to be great practice for me.

We spent 4 weeks driving around Sweden and all I did was make very lame attempts to read the signs out loud. Leif would patiently correct me. I do mean patiently...I don't think I could have maintained my cool after (X) hours of listening to someone butcher my mother language so brutally and then expect a cheerful correction or even a hearty brå! Which is Swedish for good.

I dare you to try. Go ahead.




I bet you get every one wrong. I know I did the first ten times I tried to pronounce them. I still can't quite get my tongue around the Ö. It's an "o" and an "eh" and a "u" at the same time, but not. If I get everything else right, people will always know by my Ö that I'm not really Swedish.

I can live with that. I mentioned my difficulty to one of our hosts and he started in on a dissertation about the vowels that left me speechless and a little glassy-eyed. Swedish has like 3 extra vowels and of course they're called as they sound so every time he mentioned a vowel I thought of the English ones which of course have nothing to do with the Swedish ones in sound. Somewhere between all the ah, eh, aoh, ee, and other sounds I got lost.

On the other hand, as we walked and drove around I continued to read the signs out loud and at one point he said to me that I sounded just like a train conductor. I took that as a compliment. I spent days on the Stockholm subways repeating every stop as the cheerful recorded voice carefully enunciated each stop, which I could also read on the little displays in the car. Yes, I got a lot of strange looks. I'm getting used to  it.

I do feel like I've mastered a few of the pronunciation rules. So does Leif, enough that he started giving me the dialect pronunciations. Like technically a word is said one way, but in this region they skip one letter or even a whole syllable. I had to get firm with him. No dialects unless I need them to talk to his dad. I'll speak the kind of Swedish that TV newscasters have to speak....clear and as unaccented as possible. I hope.

About halfway through our trip I started to flag in every language. I couldn't come up with the word for anything in English, Italian or Swedish. I was slowly becoming mute. Luckily this too passed and I was able to speak in full sentences again.

But of course I don't need Swedish for a couple of months again. Now I need to take my new-found language focus and get my Italian a little more fluent. Like being able to answer in a short but complete sentence instead of simply responding si.

I didn't exactly blossom in the Italian department on our return, but that will come. I'm almost looking forward to reading Swedish again (which, I repeat, shouldn't be confused with actually speaking Swedish) and working on making it less of an interpretive dance. Leif says I sort of throw my whole body into it sometimes. He's right, I do, but that's because it's the only way I can remember that nearly every syllable is stressed (not the measly one stress that most English words have). I'm also working on sounding more Sven & Ole without actually being more Sven & Ole. Here's hoping it's possible.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Happy birthday to me

It's been awhile, I know. I've been working waaaaaay to hard. Or maybe it's best to say that I'm working too hard at something that isn't my passion? That may be more accurate. I feel like one of those old people you see in movies who seem to attract children in droves but quite frankly don't know what to do with them. I walk down the street and every kid in a stroller smiles and waves, turns around in the seat to watch me walk away, like I'm denying them this perfect moment to play. Babies smile at me. It's a mystery.

But after multiple naps and a succession of nights with uninterrupted sleep I'm starting to feel human again. And just in time because....that's was my birthday!!! Let's just gloss over the fact that I'm 53 and don't really need to celebrate birthdays publicly to know they have happened and get to the important stuff.

This is the fourth birthday I've celebrated without my Minnesota family. While I've gone years without hearing (in excruciating detail) about the day I was born from my grandmother I've not gone this long without a good old-fashioned Hauck party or the first-thing-in-the-morning birthday song call (in parts, no slouches my family). It's one of those things you don't think about missing except for that one day, then you wish you could remember that you miss this when someone asks what you miss most. I know that eventually there will be a new birthday ritual, but this in-between period is a little unsettling. I know it will get better.

My first year here we celebrated at a small vineyard where we were practically the only people there. They put a candle in my tiramisu and sang Tanti Auguri to me. It was sweet but a little surreal, I'd only been here a month and nothing seemed completely real yet and I had to have tanti auguri translated for me. The second year we were in Sweden. I think Leif's dad made us meatballs. The Swedish birthday song (sung by the rest of his family at some point) has never actually been translated for me, sounds nothing like Happy Birthday, and ends with roof raising Hurrahs!!! His dad got me flowers, because he manages to find some excuse every time we visit to get me roses. Sweet man. Last year a friend who lives part-time here and part-time in Sweden brought shrimps back from Sweden and we totally pigged out on them and four bottles of outstanding brunellos. It took me awhile to recover from that celebration.

This year was different yet again. It's the year of cakes. We had friends over for dinner and I made pumpkin ravioli (from scratch, it mostly worked) and a pear cake with prosecco and honey sauce. I have to assume the cake was a hit as everyone had seconds. The next day one of my moms gave me another cake. A beautiful Italian cake with crunchy layers between creamy layers. This cake I carried home in a foil-covered bowl on top of the basket on my bike. I fully expected to arrive home with a bowl full of cake crumbles, but this is one tough cake. Other than some disarrangement of the powdered sugar on top it still looked perfect after 3 kilometers and numerous stretches of cobblestoned roads and random potholes that made the bowl jump around like a kangaroo.

And let's not forget the ride, because no (birth)day would be complete without a ride. 35 miles with a pastry and coffee stop in the middle, because I don't do rides that don't include food. I'm not a professional and I have nothing to prove to anyone...I require food. The weather was mild so it was a beautiful ride.

I think we're well on our way to constructing our own birthday ritual. A ride is practically mandatory, whether for my day in November or his in April. I will naturally make something I've never made before and hope that it works. There will always, always be beautiful wine. I'm all in favor of naps, call it something  special like The Nap of the Year so it seems more epic and important. And there will be the greatest gift of all, every year, time spent together doing something or doing absolutely nothing at all. Yup, I think this has the makings of one fine birthday ritual....

Friday, November 15, 2013


Iäm I'm working on a Swedish keyboard and tired from working entirely too much and feeling the effects of my superior happy hour, so this won't be the most gripping reading you will do this week. I just didnät didn't want to let more time go by without writing, or I might stop altogether.

Does that opening statement need explaining? The Swedish keyboard is mysterious. Punctuation randomly placed (in my humble opinion) and those extra vowels (öäå) where my most cherished and used punctuation normally sits. It's unnerving to type it's and instead see itäs. Over and over again, because I never learn, apparently. I could, I suppose, change the keyboard to a virtual English keyboard but that seems a little defeatist to me. I have no idea what the extra keys might hold and not enough curiosity to find out. I could just be lazy.

I worked more hours than a human being reasonably should in the last two weeks. Why, oh why, is the word no so difficult? I say no to lots of things and lots of people, but some twisted part of me just can't say no to the chance to earn money. On the upside, I earned two and a half months worth of salary in those two weeks, so January and February arenät aren't looking quite as bleak as they have in past years.

And finally on the topic of happy hour. Oh my, what to say. Iäve I've tried the cheap brand of brandy. It was disappointing, to say the least. Mostly at our supermarket they sell pretty top shelf stuff so I bought rum that comes in its own little suede bag and probably cost as much as the Phillips brand (conveniently bottled less than 40 miles from my parents house) half gallon jug. Possibly more. And Iäve ack! I've decided I donät don't care.

Because Iäm I'm worth it.

Well, that and happy hour happens rather infrequently so this small bottle could last me six months or more.

Probably best to call it a day and attempt this again on a computer more compatible with my language and cognitive abilities. Some days you just aren'ät (see how close I was there?) aren't gonna get me at my best. But Iäll (sigh) I'll never stop trying.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Doing the math

It's been a year since I bought my road bike and started riding. I've improved immensely since my first ride. There are many reasons why, the least if which might actually be me.

Yesterday I bought cycling shoes, real honest to gosh cycling shoes. I got them so that my feet would be warm in the winter. Leif wanted me to get them for other reasons. They're mountain bike shoes so that I can actually walk in them when I get off the bike, but they have incredibly stiff soles which is desirable for cycling. I've been told that the right shoes would make me 10% more efficient. Which got me thinking about the math.

When I bought the bike we knew it had a few issues. First was a new center hub at the pedals (no I don't know the actual name for it), then the new derailleur after the old one folded up on me. Those two things practically doubled the number of gears available to me, which of course makes me more efficient. Then I was given a set of wheels and discovered that my old wheels weren't turning much at all without lots of effort, so I have to add some more for the efficiency of wheels that actually turn. Now I have the shoes which are an additional energy savings. So a brief tally (using randomly chosen but probably realistic numbers) looks like this:

                    10% (new derailleur)
                    10% (new wheels)
                    10% (shoes)

So, as I figure it, without having  to train at all I've increased my efficiency by 30%. That's right, without getting on the bike my potential improvement is phenomenal. I totally rock.

Now, if I can lose my Minnesota driving habit of leaving enough space between me and the bike in front of me for a quick stop (should it be necessary) I can add 10-15% from the drafting. Seems a bit risky, and I probably should save some room for improvement next year. Don't want to peak too early in my career.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: At what time should I just say "Uncle?"

Seriously folks. It's like I'm a magnet for mechanical failures and assorted mishaps. The Black Hole of Bicycling. I should have t-shirts made. Someone should have a telethon to keep me in spare tubes and pumps.

If you've been following along then you know that I've had more than my fair share of flat tires this year. I haven't even told you about all of them. At last count we believe there were ten. Several happened right in the living room. Weird but true. All my flats while riding have happened while riding slowly, thank goodness. What if they had happened as I was throwing myself down a mountain? No, let's not even go there.

You can just about imagine the expression on Leif's face yesterday when he heard that little "POP" sound and looked back at me to confirm that it was just a rock, and I couldn't confirm that at all. A back and forth conversation of "Really?" "Really." "Really?" ensued. With just a little more practice I think we could have a great little comedy sketch there.

I was ready to carry the damn thing home and worry about it another maybe sometime next year, but Leif seemed to view this particular flat as a challenge. One I should strive to overcome. Since he was the one actually changing the tire I couldn't argue much. So he carefully changed the tire and we continued our ride that had started a mere hundred meters earlier. Soooo wish I was kidding about that.

Other than the now constant worry that every weird noise is another tire preparing to blow (accompanied by the vivid picture in my mind of both tires blowing at the same time, propelling me into the air and landing on my back in the middle of the lane of oncoming traffic, only to be run over by an elderly Fiat 500 driven by a significantly more elderly driver who can't see over the steering wheel) or just as bad, riding on a flat tire till it peels off in long rubber ribbons (and I lose control, hurtling over the steep embankment and into the mighty Arno River) and ruin my almost new I said, other than that, everything went well.

We made it to I did that while holding my breath waiting for disaster to strike I'll never know, but I did. On the way home we (as always) passed an older rider who viewed my passing him as some kind of challenge to his male-ness and did his damnedest to pass me. This time all he could do was benefit from drafting off me and making his ride 10-15% more efficient. I hear that phrase a lot. As in, "You know Michele, if you'd get closer to his wheel you'd be 10-15% more efficient. It would be easier." Obviously this guy decided if he couldn't actually pass me he would benefit from following me.

So...high fives all around when we made it home without another flat. I hate to celebrate too much though. I picture the assembled gods and goddesses of cycling mayhem looking at each other and wondering what to plague me with next. I'm still a little rebellious in their minds.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Second chances

This week I got to experience something I missed with my own children. See, I had to work when the kids were little. I think I only took a couple months off when my daughter was born. So all those things parents are supposed to be there for, all the milestones one should be committing to memory with pictures and videos and phone calls to everyone on the planet, well, they just somehow got missed because someone else was there when it happened. I got the news via short conversations or little notes, both easily forgotten and lost in the struggle to survive.

On Monday I watched a little boy take his first walk across the kitchen of his house. It was the most amazing thing to watch. He'd take a few steps and stop,  bend his knees a bit, straighten up and walk again. The closer he to to the other side of the room and me, the bigger his smile became, until he finally fell into my arms laughing at how brave he thought he was. I don't know who was prouder at that moment; Nicco for doing something he didn't even know he could do, or me for the days of work that went into convincing him that he didn't need me to get from point A to point B.

When I told his mom she got a look on her face, one that I felt all the way into my heart. She missed something so very important because she was doing something that was also important. It's those times when your heart stops for a moment and squeezes so tight and the fear of missing things becomes big. So big. And then you make a choice, one that has to be made over and over and over again. There's no right answer, there's no wrong answer. But I'm so grateful for the chance to experience some of the moments I missed the first time around, and these moments remind me to pay attention now, because let's face it, my kids continue to do absolutely amazing things and I have the time now to watch and appreciate them properly.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Some days I just shouldn't get out of bed...

I debated for some time about the title of this because absolutely none of this happened on a road bike. However the majority of it did in fact happen on a bike. My mountain bike, during a tour with fourteen Swedish dentists on Saturday.

I've done these tours a number of times now so I don't completely freak out but it's still new enough for me to feel nervous. And I've had a rash of flat tires this year (I think seven, which defies probability) so I approach every ride semi-resigned to the idea that I'll have to stop along the way and watch Leif change a tube for me. Truthfully, in my mind I see the entire bike falling apart beneath me, piece by piece. A flat tire is really more of an inconvenience than a problem anymore.

This tour started an hour later, which left Leif and me wandering aimlessly around the apartment dressed and ready to go, because an hour isn't time enough to do anything else. By the time we got to the meeting point it had started to rain slightly, really just a few raindrops here and there but enough to concern the dentists. We assured them (with fingers crossed) that the forecast didn't call for rain so this would go away.

Once we were on our way the rain did stop and I realized that this group wasn't what I expected from a group of dentists. I sort of expected them to be a little less fit, slower on the bikes. Only later did I find out that one of them was an avid "downhill mountain biker" which means taking the ski lift to the top of a mountain and then riding down that same, trail-less mountain as fast as possible. The rest just seemed to be naturally fit, even the ones who voiced concerns over being able to climb the mountain.

We got through town just fine (usually quite difficult as Swedes are law-abiding folk and Italians make their own rules as they go) and suddenly, going up the first hill, I felt as if I had never been on a bike at all. I struggled to breathe as I pedaled furiously (yet in slow motion) up the hill, all the while trying to figure out what was wrong. Had I really been off a bike that long that I couldn't even get up what has become for me a pretty easy hill? I was just about to start blaming the sports bra for unnaturally restricting my breathing (seriously, I was wheezing like an asthmatic bulldog) when I noticed that one side of my front brake was engaged. Fully. That's right, I was like a car trying to drive with the park brake on.

Of course, the tools needed to correct this little problem were with Leif at the front of the group so I moved things around as much as I could and pedaled my little butt off to where they had stopped to talk about olive trees. We managed to get everything fixed, but I was already tired and we'd barely started. Plus with the late start that meant that my coffee and pastry were later too and I was running out of fuel. But the show must go on and so we headed out to the next town and the little store where we get our coffee.

By the time we got there I was exhausted. I needed food and these dentists were riding as if this were a little bump in the road instead of the mountain that it was. We (OK, mostly me) refreshed ourselves with coffee and pastry and got back on the bikes. Which is when reality hit for part of the group. "You mean we're only halfway there?"

Turns out they weren't as fit as I thought, they'd just spent all their energy getting to coffee assuming that it was a the longest part of the ride. The rest of the trip finished much like most of our tours, with part of the group sprinting ahead, the bulk of the group maintaining a constant speed, and my little group that had to be coaxed up the mountain at whatever speed it took to get them there. I'm still pretty proud of the fact that I can take someone who looks me in the eye and swears they can't ride another meter and get them to finish the ride on their bikes. They're proud of themselves and have a glorious downhill ride as a reward. Granted, they do it with the brakes on usually, but still, it's a downhill.

After another great lunch we headed back down the mountain. As we came into town again I thought I could hear my tires more than usual. Kind of like I'd switched to snow tires halfway down the mountain. I looked down, sighed and rode to the next scheduled stop. I coasted up to Leif, looked at him as apologetically as I could and said two words. Flat tire.

He looked at me with big eyes, "Nooo..." "Oh yes," I said. "What now?" We decided that it would take too long to change the tire so I got into the support van with my bike and the group rode on without me. I was disappointed in myself, even though a flat tire is definitely a mechanical thing and no reflection of my ability on a bike. Leif told me when the group arrived at the bike shop that they missed me, were concerned that without me at their back they'd get lost and never get back. I felt a little better after that.

So we said goodbye to the Swedes and turned our attention to my bike. I needed to get the tire changed so I could go to my next job. Yeah, I took a babysitting job for after a full day bike tour. I've told you and told you, I need a keeper, someone to watch my schedule and question me when necessary.

This being Italy, you don't simply walk in, pick out a tire, pay for it and leave. No, you (read Leif) and the mechanic must discuss what kind of riding I do to determine the correct tire, discuss the pros and cons of several brands and finally arrive at a decision. This decision is carefully recounted at the desk as you wait to check out (because only one customer at a time can be helped, and they are only finished after a discussion of family and weather conditions as well as their most recent purchase) and finally you are able to actually start putting the tire on the bike.

I made it to the next job with one minute to spare. A miracle. The rest of the evening is kind of a blur for me. Baby, walking, playing, not sleeping. I didn't get to eat soon enough and so by the end of the night I was spent to the point of feeling sick.

Of course I blame this on the fact that on top of everything that happened that day I was trying to do it on the most difficult day of my monthly cycle. I was weak from blood loss, just a tad emotional and stressed about finding bathrooms when I needed them. Let's just say the last part isn't always easy when riding up a mountain into small villages on a weekend. I'm pretty sure the sports bra didn't help. I felt strangled all day.

I survived. That's enough for me this time. But I will be doing research into tires. Indestructible, possibly bullet-proof tires.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gardening again

Just my luck there's a plant show every spring and every fall. So of course I set out, walking the 1.9 kilometers (it was threatening rain) to reach my holy grail this year.

That's right, I got it. The lemon tree. Totally tiny and I'm still not certain if it's one tree with three shoots or three separate trees and I'm sure I did the wrong thing and picked one that has lemons on it already. Four lemons ranging in size from golf ball to shooter marble. Tiny and green and absolutely perfect from my complete novice point of view. The man who sold it to me was very nice. Between his little bit of English and my little bit of Italian we established that if I had any problems or questions I should call the number on the receipt. How we would communicate without visual contact is beyond me. I still rely heavily sometimes on gestures and visual clues.

I realized this last week, when I was babysitting for a family and their intercom rang. I asked who was there and the voice on the street said "Oooh-pay-essay (mumblemumble) con parco (mumble mumble) stamattina." I said in English "What?!?" and he repeated himself exactly, which wasn't exactly helpful to me. So I hung up on him, figuring he was either a serial killer (yes, at three in the afternoon) or really wanted someone else, someone who spoke Italian. The best translation I could come up with was that someone with an unpronounceable Italian name was at a park this morning. Not earth shattering enough for me to buzz him in.

He was persistent. We did this same thing two more times before I told the kids to stay put, don't hurt each other and I'd be right back. I locked them in and went down to the door to see who was so intent on getting into the building. I opened the super-thick-super-heavy ancient doors and there in his cute little brown shorts and shirt was the UPS guy (ooh-pay-essay) with a package (con paco) that he had tried to deliver that morning (stamattina.) He was in the process of calling a friend who spoke English so (I assume) he could put his phone against the speaker and have his friend tell me that he had a package for the apartment. I'm going to blame the traffic noise for my inability to understand exactly what he wanted. We both laughed, a little embarrassed by misunderstanding such a simple conversation.

Which, to come full circle, pretty much means that if I tried to have a phone conversation with the lemon tree guy, it would probably end up much like my conversation with the UPS guy. Eventually, I'd have to find my way to have a face to face conversation to avoid the untimely death or severe maiming of my beloved lemon tree.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Hahahahahaha

I would like to clarify that this is not hysterical laughter. Oh no. Pretty sure it's not. It's more like confused laughter.

First, I'm officially registered for the Tjejvättern in June. For a relative newbie to cycling this feels rather major, even though it's just a ride. I get nervous riding with two people; with 6,499 others I might start to hyperventilate and fall. Although I think I've shown that I fall with a particular style and grace that keeps me relatively injury free, if not embarrassment free.

Second, in my excitement (and because I suck at following directions) I left the rest of my group behind. Turns out I was supposed to be the very last person in the group to register, not the very first. Luckily my sisters are on spot in Sweden and actually speak Swedish so they managed to talk to someone and figure things out. I have a feeling that my jag älskar dig (I love you) wouldn't get me far. Or maybe it would...? It's also kind of funny that I spent a fair amount of time at each step, hesitating for up to a minute with the cursor over the ":next" button, afraid to commit to the next step, yet still managed to screw things up. I'm a master of misreading instructions.

Third and possibly the strangest thing is that my little whim has spawned a movement of sorts. Suddenly, besides the sisters in the 100k ride, we have all the men riding in the 150k ride. My husband, his brother, his sister's fiancee and his brother, and our champagne loving friend. The only people not riding in any Vättern-inspired event are the father-in-law and the nieces and nephew. Well, so far anyway.

I vacillate between feeling like a muse, inspiring people to do something they've never done before and like a siren, calling them seductively into a course filled with physical trials. But either way it's nice to know I won't be out there alone, if one could indeed be said to be alone when riding with 6,499 other people.

Now I just need to start riding.....a lot.

It's October again

It's that day so I'll tell the story again. I never get tired of hearing it.

Three years ago a (possibly crazy) woman dragging two suitcases and wearing a "pursuing happiness" t-shirt and a slightly scared smile walked off her plane and into the Florence airport and met a man wearing a suit and a smile to match hers. They kissed.

They're still kissing. I love a happy ending.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: OMG

Today I registered my intention to register for the Tjejvättern cycle event in Sweden next June.

That's right, I had to register to register, like pre-registering only I still have to register when registration is open. But I had to register my intent to get the magic numbers I will need to actually register tomorrow. It feels like I've fallen into a weird Swedish Abbot and Costello skit on wheels.

And they have this stress-inducing "count down to the ride" in days, hours, minutes and yes, by God, seconds on their website. I'm already worried that 249 days, 11 hours, 24 minutes and 54 seconds aren't enough for me to prepare. Which is ridiculous because it's not an actual race, just a timed ride through the bucolic Swedish countryside with 6500 other women from around the world.

I kind of feel like throwing up. Or at least I'd like to announce my intention to feel like throwing up.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


I'm from Minnesota, where the winters are long, cold, and snowy. Did I mention cold? There are already rumblings on the social networks that cold is coming and the feelings are definitely mixed. Those with allergies can't wait for the killing frost, the rest just aren't ready for it. Winterizing is something that happens every year and it happens in nearly every aspect of life. We used to change the tires on our cars to snow tires and change the oil from 10Wsomething to 10Wsomething thinner (I'm no car expert) We use special windshield cleaner fluid and carry an assortment of emergency things "just in case" like blankets and shovels and sand. We take the screens off and put on the storm windows. We insulate things we don't want to freeze, like pipes and plants. We bring out the big box of winter outerwear and make sure the boots don't leak. It'serious business in Minnesota, this winter thing.

In Florence winter isn't the life-threatening season I'm used to. It's a kinder, gentler winter. But as I approach my third winter here I have to be honest; even if it isn't -20F it's still pretty darn cold. Call me soft if you must, but when the temperature plunges down to 40F and it's so damp it rains all the time and the concept of heating has barely left the Middle Ages it's impossible to get warm.

This year we will winterize, as much as is possible. First on my list, mostly because they were on sale,  I can carry it myself and it will make life a thousand times more bearable this winter is a clothes iron.

I sense confused looks out there. I don't blame you. If you're from the States you consider a clothes dryer an essential appliance and can't even imagine life without one. Not so here in Italy. Dryers are inefficient users of energy and energy is expensive here so most homes don't have a dryer. In the summer laundry decorates every balcony and window ledge, in the winter it's a complicated system involving some time outside, then to a rack in front of a radiator (rotating everything so every piece gets some front row time.) It can take up to a week to dry thick items (so all those heavy snuggly hoodies we love in MN don't work here) and even then it still feels damp so the smart casalinga (housewife) uses an iron to finish the drying process. Who cares about wrinkles? What's important is getting the clothes dry before wearing them.

Today I bought my iron and I'm not gonna lie. I'm totally thrilled at the idea of wearing something not only dry but with that just-out-of-the-dryer kind of warmth that makes winter bearable. Bring it on, Jack Frost.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: The lost month

I think we just have to consider August a lost month when it comes to riding. Other than taking a few pictures of bikes and going to the Bianchi Cafe & Cycle Shop in Stockholm I didn't really get near a bike. Yes, there is a heaven and it's the bike shop that also serves espresso and sells  prosciutto and olive oil. You can sip your coffee while touching all the bikes in the shop and even take them for a test ride. Someone was having the time of his life surrounded by brand new Bianchi bicycles.

Even though I didn't ride, cycling was never very far from my thoughts. Impossible as nearly everyone who hosted us is a Cyclist or at least rides regularly (that would be cyclist with a little "c".) So I got my fill of looking at bikes and talking about riding.

Sometimes this was good for me. One friend gave me a pair of wheels that he had replaced "just because". I suppose just because there was a faster wheel available and he couldn't wait till this pair wore out. Possible, as this is the same guy who got all excited to get a super light cage for his water bottle. Honestly I don't see where a gram here or there makes a difference, but it does to the avid Cyclist. All I know is I have to thank him for his generous gift, which I've already tested out and, oh yeah, they're waaaaaay faster than my old wheels. I will have fun riding with them.

Which is good because I sort of got myself into a situation. The first week in Sweden we were staying with Leif's sister and I had the brilliant idea to suggest that we form a sisters group and ride the Tjejvättern. Go ahead, try to pronounce it. (shay-vet-tahn) It's a 100k race (but not actually a race) that happens every June and is open to any woman 15+ years old. So qualifying isn't tough. I was pretty surprised when Ingela said "Sure! It's a good excuse to start riding." Which pretty much means unless she pulls out I have to do it.

Well, Leif got pretty excited about the whole thing and started telling people that I would be riding in the Tjejvättern next year. I would have to say that by now hundreds (after this post hundreds + a couple more) of people have heard that I'm riding in this event. It no longer matters if my Swedish sister rides or not. I'm committed due to Leif's total excitement for me. I'm sure I'll thank him someday.

So as time goes by I'll keep you posted on my progress. My goal is to remember when I'm scheduling my work to block out time for riding every week. That's the hardest part for me. Not the riding, but remembering to make the time for it. Wish me luck...

Friday, September 13, 2013

Never, ever go grocery shopping without eating first

I broke one of the cardinal rules regarding grocery shopping. I went shopping hungry. We're lucky I didn't bring home one of everything in the store (except octopus, I still can't even look at them  as I walk by).

I thought I'd be paying the price for this mistake for days, but it turns out that 1) it's possible to eat an entire can of Pringles Sour Cream and Onion chips in one sitting and 2) Oreos only come in packs of 16 cookies here so it's not even really a dangerous number to consume in one or two days. I didn't even need the whole liter of milk.

So, crisis averted, kind of. Everything was eaten in less than 48 hours and I don't feel guilty at all. Really.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Remember the garden?

Before I tell you about my little garden-that-could I want to confess something. I think I have blog ADD. I have a million posts started and never finished. Perhaps I need to focus more, or drink more, or something. It's just that there's so much happening out there that I don't want to be stuck sitting inside typing something probably only my mother reads with regularity. And it's entirely possible that she fudges at times and tells me she's read it when in fact it's at the bottom of her list of things to do. I'm OK with that.

So, if you recall, I went to a plant sale in the spring and went slightly nuts buying green things that I was pretty certain had a very slim chance of survival but I just couldn't resist. I was doing really well; watering and weeding and pruning all summer. Everything looked lovely, especially my rose. And then, da duh DAAAAH, a month long vacation in Sweden.

Because I'm a heartless woman I just watered the hell out of them and said a quiet goodbye. Because I'm not completely heartless I did think about them several times while I was gone. When we came back I found a cluster of potted dried herbs and a rose bush that trembled and dropped dead leaves and petals every time I walked by it.

I dragged it out to the terrace, leaving a trail of crunchy leaves and brown petals behind us where I decided "what the heck" and started trimming off everything that looked dead. That left me with about five long green stalks with thorns and nothing else. Being a farm kid and life-long plant killer I thought there was an outside chance I hadn't killed it completely. 


I cut off everything that looked brown and kept the sticks that looked green. And I watered them every day...I may have hummed and offered words of encouragement like "You don't look nearly as bad as I though you would." And all this attention has paid off.

A few days after amputating all the dead stuff I thought I noticed little green buds forming along the stems, then convinced myself that I was simply so desperate for it to survive that I was imagining things. A few days later my imaginary buds had grown longer, and today they have the tiniest little leaves everywhere.

I feel like a surgeon bringing a patient back from the dead. A surgeon who walked away from the operating table a month ago and suddenly remembered (probably during a golf game) that I had left something undone and rushed back to see if there was any miracle working to be done.

I'm curious now to see if it will actually bloom or if I've killed it enough where it only has the energy to sprout a leaf here and there. Or (and this it totally my guilty conscience talking here) if this experience will only make it stronger and next year the blooms will be even bigger and more beautiful. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A month? In Sweden? Whatever did you do?

At the end of the trip we were still talking to each other.
Can't ask for much more from a month long vacation.
I should have put up a sign here, chiuso per ferie, or closed for vacation since that what all the businesses in Italy do for the month of August.

I didn't head for the coast as most Italians do but for Sweden and a month long road trip that covered both coasts and the lower third of the country. It's not like we set out to plan a trip like this, it just worked out that we had a car and friends insisted we come for a visit. We haven't been able to visit much on our other trips so this time we decided we'd do things right and visit as many people as possible while we were there.

I had the brilliant idea to take a picture of the city sign for each place we visited and for the most part I think I got it done, but there were times when I just couldn't remember. I blame Leif, not because he did anything but because I can't think of a good excuse for myself.

So without further ado, our trip in pictures and words. I hope either of them makes sense. I'm still feeling a little jet lagged, although I'm pretty sure that jet lag is impossible when travelling by car.

The trip started in Florence with a champagne breakfast.
Hey, it was in the fridge and wouldn't keep
till we got back. Not my fault.

Leif's home town. Base camp, so to speak.
We were actually able to go to the beach this year, unusual
for a Swedish August and the best part is that it's only
two blocks from the house.
Sorry, no picture of the sign.
We watched Leif's nephew for the weekend.
So kind of like work but more fun.
Again, no sign. There are probably supposed to be all kinds
of dots somewhere here. Besides over the i's.
A visit with Leif's Alpha Romeo friend Arne.
I'm sure we talked about something besides cars, but
I can't remember what.
Yet another sign I missed. Hmmm.
Adventure golf with Leif's sister and nieces.
I didn't totally suck and the sun was shining
so a great day all around.

I felt so great getting this hole in one shot, until
Ingela told me that the ball doesn't actually go
through the spiral. Totally surprised me there.

The bonus hole, getting the ball into the chicken's mouth
so it can "lay" the ball on the other end.
Stayed with Leif's sister and family in
Skänninge. No matter how you say it,
I'll bet you're getting the pronunciation wrong.
And sometimes the signs are in the old
spelling. Yeah, learning Swedish ain't gonna be easy.

And now the road trip begins in earnest.
We visited no one in this city but it had to be included

...they have an honest to gosh castle
with a moat. A must see.

Then a nice coffee stop on our way
in the city that does candy canes
the right way.
FYI polkagris are little peppermints.

Like Minnesota, lots of towns are on lakes.
This one is on a BIG lake. (not the biggest)

Our first stop.
We were lucky to stay with cycling friends Glenn and Lena
in a beautiful little town. They gave us the most
perfect Italian dinner. Made me homesick.
Also I've sort of agreed to do a bike race in Sweden
next year. More on that another time.
Off the next morning and stopped here...

...for a coffee with Ola. We're lucky that people
don't mind us calling out of the blue for coffee.
Here we stayed for a few days. Well, not
at the bus stop, of course. With friends.

We ate sushi (my 3rd time) and wore multiple layers.
Not as warm at the coast as inland.

Met with Leif's Danish friend Martin.
Again for coffee. We were adequately caffeinated
the whole trip.

Our host Peter. He was patience itself with us and
we were lucky to stay with him.

After days of cold and almost rain we headed back, stopping
once again in Gränna for coffee and the tastiest
little pastries. Candied almonds around
pear butter dipped in dark chocolate.
I wish I had bought a million of them.
You'd think I'd remember these signs,
especially since it's only 20k from home base.
Coffee (again) with our friend Fredrik who visited
us recently in Florence. Somehow I missed
getting him in the picture. Shy guy.

This was a visit we wish we wouldn't have had to make.
A former colleague of Leif's passed away.
The service was in a lovely church.
FYI, when they say that there will be sweets
and cake with the coffee, there will probably be
another cake besides the one you see on the table.
Totally surprised me...I was filling up on the
goodies I could see.

Next we traveled "up north". But not really, because
Sweden is incredibly long and this town is only a
third of the way up there.
Grill master P-O at work. A cyclist friend of Leif's. I'm aware
I say that alot, and he does have friends who aren't cyclists.

Several bottles of Italian wine were
consumed in the quest for the perfect meal.
Mission accomplished.

We stopped in Motala on the way back.
Swedes love candy. It's no secret or generalization.
The sign on the door says 500 different kinds of goodies.
The sign on the building boasts 600. I didn't count them.
These stores are everywhere.

Back to Skänninge and Leif's sister to share
our anniversary dinner of hamburgers and
prosecco with my father-in-law.
He's a closet romantic, he brought me roses.
Then to Sturefores for coffee (!) with the neighbors.

As luck would have it there was a bike race in Linköping
the night before we left for Stockholm. We even ran into
old team mates of Leif's. Not literally of course.

Our home away from home (away from home) near Stockholm.
Whose sign I never got a picture of, which is funny because
they're everywhere. 

Leif and Royne waiting for our steamship to board for the
trip through the archipelago. Part of it, anyway.
Sitting at the rail so we don't miss anything.

The island we went to for lunch.
I had fried Baltic herring with mashed potatoes
and lingon berry sauce. My goal this trip was to
try as many typical Swedish dishes as possible.

Sadly, I can't even remember the name of the town.
But you guessed it, another cycling friend Magnus and
his wife Greta. There's also a cat, but she was camera shy.
The main reason for staying so long, the wedding of dear
friends Per and Helena on a beautiful day in Stockholm.
Their happiness covered the city in sunshine.

Leaving the reception. We have yet to perfect taking our own pictures
in a way to show off my carefully considered wardrobe.
I mean really, there was no mirror so Leif had to take a picture
of me in each outfit till I found what I wanted.
A quick one night stop and dinner with our priest, Leif's brother and family, childhood friend Gregor and his fiance Mona, and Fredrik. I totally forgot to take any pictures so imagine yet another bottle of prosecco being shared with dear friends and family. The next morning we packed up the car (with less discussion about what goes in and what stays than one might think) and headed down south for our last visit before leaving Sweden.

A beautiful lake just north of Horn, where Leif's mother grew up.
Reminds me of Minnesota.

Lunch at the Swedish version of McDonaald's called Scan.
Probably not my brightest moment. It stuck with me far too long
and made it's presence known rather unpleasantly.
But the fries were great!

A beautiful little town, perfect for a final visit.
Our host Sten pouring one of his home brews.

He sort of looks like he's conquered the world, doesn't he?
Wonderful day seeing the sights.

Coffee at the top of the cliff. A perfectly silent and beautiful spot.

Leif and Eva, a former colleague and friend.. Oh, also wife
of Sten and our gracious hostess.
I have no pictures from this town, but Leif worked here
for two years at Volvo.

On our way to the beach. They have thatched roofs! I made him
stop numerous times. They just don't do thatch in MN.

The beautiful white sand beach at the Baltic Sea.
That black dot behind me is Leif. I swear.

Me doing my bit to thank Sweden for keeping its beaches free
(take note, Italy) by cleaning up my section of beach.
For me, this is where the trip became surreal. Like watching a movie 3/4 of the way through and then fast forwarding through the rest. It's a blur, other than my displeasure with Germany for charging more per liter for water than for gas.AND fixing all the taps in the bathroom so they only give warm/hot water. Something's wrong there. Also, the autobahn is definitely not the road to take if you want to enjoy the scenery. At 120kph everything you see is out of the corners of your eyes as you whiz by. But there are a few highlights.

The sign says "Last exit in Sweden" I suppose in case you really
don't want to go to Denmark.

The first of three bridges connecting Denmark
to itself and the rest of Europe.

Copenhagen. We never actually went into town. But now I can
say I've driven by it.

The second bridge. I seem to have forgotten to include
the third bridge. It's smaller. Denmark charges you
to use these bridges. Kind of a bummer but at least
they let me use my Swedish crowns.

As I said, the scenery goes by so fast it's impossible to sight see
I got bored. Here we are traveling at the speed of light.
At least it felt that way.

This isn't exciting till you know that the seat is twirling
around. That's right, it's being sanitized for my
protection as I stand there, totally amazed.

We went through Innsbruck. Quite a trip. There aren't those
big signs like in the US "YOU ARE NOW ENTERING MINNESOTA"
Just discreet little signs with writing too small to read inside
a circle of stars. Impossible to photograph.
Two days, four languages, five countries.I wouldn't recommend trying this if you're really interested in seeing the sights. But as experiences go, something that had to be done.