Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Workin' for a livin'

Anyone who has followed my life over the last five years has probably wondered "And just what the heck does she do all day?" Some days I wonder the same thing.

My stock answer, until a week ago, was "As little as possible," usually said in a half wistful, half boastful kind of way. Because yes, it's great to have all kinds of free time to pursue any idea that sparks your mind. I've had the chance to learn to ride a road bike. I've wallowed in my art. I've babysat. I've dogsat (is that a word?). I've taught English (a real English teacher would know if dogsat was a word).  I've attempted yoga.

I learned some valuable lessons. I learned that as cute and loveable as kids and dogs are, they are expert at pushing my buttons. Buttons I prefer to leave unpushed at this time. Being able to speak English like a native does not make me a passionate teacher of language. Yoga, well...let's just not go there. I'm incapable of attaining, much less holding, the pretzel position for any length of time. Which leaves the two things I really, really do feel passionate about. Cycling and art. Two jobs that only the extremely talented can really make a living at. So for the longest time I've been content to pursue the things I enjoy and practiced patience in waiting for that thing to come along.

Being able to contribute  to the household is important to me, and while all the stuff I do isn't exactly nothing, I still have always felt a little like I'm taking advantage. Like I'm making Leif do all the work while I lollygag around the apartment eating bonbons and reading trashy magazines. (By the way that's not true. I seem to have lost my craving for chocolate, and the last time I picked up a People Magazine I didn't recognize a single name or face. I'm rather proud of that.) So I do always keep my eyes open for opportunities.

I found one such opportunity on the Facebook page of a creative group I belong to. A group I wouldn't have belonged to three years ago because I hadn't really embraced my artistry yet. After several email exchanges, one phone call, one face to face interview and one full day interview/audition I have exciting news. I have a job! Well, let me rephrase that a little.

I'm participating in the centuries old, time honored tradition of apprenticeship. Appropriate, I think, to be doing this in Italy, where hand craft and hand made are still respected skills. The great masters have always had apprentices. I am so excited that I was one of two people chosen to begin training with one of the top wedding cake designers in Italy, Melanie Secciani of Tuscan Wedding Cakes. Like the great masters, she's pretty much going to share everything that she knows about her business with us, teach us the basic skills, then turn around and ask us "Now what will you do with all this information? What's your interpretation of the things I taught you?"

This job (because one day I will cease to be an apprentice and become an employee) is the perfect blend of art and food. Making something beautiful that pleases not just the eye, but also the mouth. Creating something that takes the breath away even as it fills the heart with memories. I've waited a long time for this thing to come along. This thing that I can throw myself into fully and probably become slightly obsessed with. I'm so ready for this.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

My least favorite topic in the world: Politics

4 years ago

I cringe every time I sit down with one of my Italian friend because lately the one question they always ask me is what I think about the political situation in the US. Then they go on to cite a European newspaper or news program that has reported on some aspect of the election or the latest stupidity to come out of someone's mouth.

They want to know what I think. They believe so easily what they hear from what they view as reputable sources and want to use me as a kind of fact checking resource for their next conversation with their friends. They know what politics is here in Italy. They want to hear that it's different in the US. That our choices are broader and less mired in back-room negotiations. They don't want to believe most of what they are hearing about the presidential candidates. I don't want to believe that they say and do the things they say and do. Most days to me the political news sounds like a poorly written soap opera, and badly acted as well.

I don't have the words in Italian, I practically don't have them in English, to explain how to view the political landscape in the United States. Because as much as we'd like to believe that we are different, that our struggles for democracy have somehow made us immune to the problems that other countries experience, the truth is that we aren't.

We throw democracy around us like a magic cloak and pretend that the things that are happening can't be seen and certainly can't be felt because they are part of the democratic process. During an election year we say and do things that we would consider the height of poor taste and crude behavior in any other year and chalk it up to political fervor as if that should excuse everything and anything.

The truth is, there is no truth in politics. Every word that we hear and read, every word that we speak ourselves is delivered with a political, commercial, corporate or personal agenda. The truth is there is no one neutral enough to deliver a fair estimation of the candidates in this election.

Today, 4 years later. Nothing has changed, except that the players are even more outrageous, the non-partisan reporting even more partisan, and the public even more confused than in the previous election. World events have muddied the political waters even more by throwing fear into the equation. My heart aches for everyone.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How simple stuff becomes complex

I recently discovered that to use a notary here in Florence isn't as easy as back in Minnesota; land where you can walk into your bank, many state or county offices and lots of businesses and ask if they have a notary and they'll say "Sure! Come on in and sit down. Show me your license, sign here." Then a flurry of activity as they stamp, date, sign and stamp again with a flourish. You put your license away and ask how much it costs. They quote you anywhere from "It's free if you have an account," to "Two bucks", which you happily pay and leave having spent less than 15 minutes from start to finish and with enough money left in your pocket for lunch.

At least this is what it was like when I got married 3 years ago and had to change nearly every piece of identifying paper I owned.

Fast forward to last week, when I discovered that my Power of Attorney wasn't specific enough for the state of Minnesota. Even though the definition of durable PoA is pretty clear, Minnesota has decided in the last five years that the definition is a little too loose. So no problem, I write a more specific PoA. This requires a notary to witness my signature. That's it. They don't check my document for content or correctness, just watch me sign and check my face against my passport photo.

Well, in Italy being a Notary is a full time job, not one small portion of the total job description, and they share offices with lawyers. I'm certain it involves an armada of stamps in varying sizes, colors and degrees of importance in addition to the stamp I'll still probably have to buy at a tobacco shop (not the PO). It requires an appointment and the cost is 100euro. Yikes. I mean, maybe there's more to this notary business than I understand, but mostly I see them verify my identity by looking at me and my passport (repeat twice,maybe that's where the cost comes in?) and stamp the document without caring what the document is.

In a true brain storm I checked online with the US Consulate. I still have to make an appointment but they only charge $50....with the caveat that Italian banks only accept bills in good condition so if you bring the equivalent in euros make sure they're pretty. I haven't been home long enough to attempt making an appointment....chances are even if it is the American Consulate it's in Italy and therefore fraught with danger and inexplicable rules, the first of which is probably that the appointment you make online isn't a slave to your schedule but to the Consulate's. You get what you get (it's all online and I'm afraid to go too far into the process and end up with an appointment I can't keep) and rearrange your schedule around it. So I'm waiting till after I get home next week to even attempt to make an appointment.

I'd like to think walking into the Consulate here is like walking into any American government office. In other words, not exactly a visit to Disney World, but a place that follows understandable rules and works pretty straightforwardly. But I've heard rumors that it's staffed by Italians and therefore I shouldn't be surprised by strange requests and unwritten rules and generally feeling like I should feel comfortable but somehow just don't.

I'll be sure to take excellent notes in case anything truly exciting or note worthy happens. For me, of course, the truly exciting thing would be for everything to go smoothly....they verify that I am in fact me, I sign my document, stamp stamp stamp, pay my $50 and head home for a well deserved and stiff drink.

A girl can dream. Right?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How to handle sorrow

I'm struggling today. Actually, for a few days. For the second time since I moved here I'm trying to deal with death from 7, 650 kilometers away.

Initially there's the dilemma of how to convey my sympathy to someone so very far away. My grief doesn't have words that haven't been rendered meaningless by eons of use and repetition. There are no new words to say that my heart is crying with yours, and I don't know when it will stop.

The fact that I can only communicate in the written word makes it even more difficult. I hope that they hear my voice as they read words that seem stripped of their emotion by the fact that they're framed by something as mundane as an email platform.

I'm also reminded that life begins and ends without warning and without mercy, and that I will have to do this many times. Sometimes, as with this moment, death will only brush the edges of my existence, but one day it will strike at the center of my world. While I can't  possibly prepare for it I must at least acknowledge that those 7,650 kilometers will both magnify and dull my responses.

And so now I'll sit down and have a good cry for a life ended too soon, a family surely broken and lost at least for now, and a community left wondering what if.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Visiting Milan

Big news! For years we've been going to Milan, but only to catch a plane. Because that's where Europe's cheapest carrier flies out of regularly. So I've seen the central train station (a lot) and Bergamo (a suburb, again, a lot) I've never seen Milan. This week we fixed that.

On Tuesday we took a new train service called Italo, which by the way arrives at a small station (which is near the historic center) instead of the big central one (which is not even close to the center), and walked into the historic center to see the sights and look at bikes. In fact, the bikes were the focus of the trip and we took the extra time in town to look around.

Striking curved glass building outside the center.
Milan is different from Florence in a lot of ways. It's modern sections are incredibly modern and big parts of the historic center are about a century younger than Florence's center. The people are more likely to talk to a stranger. The pizza put me into a dairy coma.....seriously like an American pizza which I'm not used to anymore.

Our story begins as we get off the train and try to find our way out of the station. It reminded me of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. No signs (that I could see anyway) and too many options to take. Luckily Leif has been there before and managed to get us to the street. If I were in charge we'd probably still be wandering around the station; starved, dehydrated and slightly insane. I thought once we left the station the hard part was over. I was wrong.

We brought a map along. It's large (Milan is a large city) and on the cover is a picture of a labyrinth. I should have known it wouldn't be easy after seeing that. We walked to a bench and sat down to look at the map and a very nice older woman stopped and asked us (in English) if we needed some help. I kind of gasped and looked at her with my jaw at about knee level. I'm not used to this kind of thing. She noticed my surprise and took it for confusion. "Should we use English, or perhaps French?" she asked with a bright smile. I kind of stuttered out "Parliammo l'Italiano," and she looked confused, then smiled again and started in (at about a hundred miles an hour) in Italian. She gave us very complete and precise instructions, said "Va bene!" and left us with a spring in her step, confident that she had saved us from wandering aimlessly.

We looked at each other and shrugged because her directions were useless; she directed us to the tram line and we wanted to walk. But it was so lovely to have someone offer help without having to ask for it and having language options was almost unbelievable. We took our bearings from the map, folded it up and walked a few blocks in the direction we were certain we were supposed to go and realized we had no idea where we were. We unfolded the map, found that where we thought we were wasn't at all where we actually were, even though we took the street the map told us to. We got our bearings once more, folded up the map and walked confidently in our chosen direction. After a few blocks we weren't finding the cross street that we were supposed to turn at.

Hmmm, this was starting to be difficult. And before you all start rolling your eyes and thinking that we just had an old map I want to say one thing. These streets have been here for centuries. An Italian city may grow outwards (like any large city) but the streets that exist, especially in any historic center, are set in stone...pun intended.

During our wandering we found lots of cool things like these
rental bikes....stations like this all over the center.
Back to our wandering, which continued in much the same way for about the next hour. We would locate our destination, find our current location, and decide on the most direct route possible. 20 steps into our next leg of the journey always found us scratching our heads and wondering how we could be on the same road we started on, yet headed in a direction that seemed to lead somewhere else. We nearly circled our destination, the Bianchi Cafe & Cycles shop, without actually seeing it. I found myself yearning for the tried and true grid system that much of Minnesota is laid out into.

At the risk of offending certain friends, it was like someone from Minneapolis trying to find an address in St. Paul. (or any of the bedroom suburbs that have hundreds of cul de sacs and no actual downtown) Streets in Italy wander, they change names frequently, the signs are difficult to find and more often more difficult to read and every town is dotted with Piazzas that everyone uses for landmarks (but when you really need to find one it's not clearly marked).

If I hadn't started getting hungry it might have been quite an adventure, but hunger made me a little testy. Leif might revise that to mighty testy, but I'm sticking with just a little. After that long wandering around I began to understand why the woman was kind enough to try and help us earlier. She's probably seen people sitting on the curb weeping in frustration, never knowing that the place they've been searching for is right around the corner. They've been circling it because the street isn't marked. I also understand why she seemed so intent on getting us to the tram. We would have gotten most of the way there without getting lost. Well, in an ideal world perhaps, but we stood a better chance with the tram.

Finally Leif said "Take the next left, it's on this street." I hate to say this, but I doubted. Seriously doubted. I was in the grip of a low blood sugar, sun stroked doubt of epic proportions. But there is was. The mecca of our trip. His one goal for the day. Looking at new bikes. We walked in and stopped. But where were the bikes? ! ? All I could see were tables and chairs and a few (precious few) bikes firmly attached to the walls. But Wait! A sign....coffee floor 1, cafe floor -1, bikes floor -2. That's right. The bikes were in the sub-basement. Interesting.

Once in the basement shop we ate a few almonds and raisins to hold us through to lunch and got down to the serious business of looking at bikes. I'm not gonna lie to you, I was seriously disappointed to see a single woman's bike among all the other bikes. Then again I was already disappointed because this shop was tiny compared to the one in Stockholm. AND they don't let you try the bikes. Which is weird because I understood that part of the purpose of these kind of shops was to show off and try out the new bikes. I will probably always have these languages difficulties.

We spent a good hour touching all (I do mean all) the bikes and asking maybe a million questions and generally making ourselves kind of a nuisance. But in our defense we will someday be buying one (or more) of these bad boys, so our questions are a small investment in a later sale.

All good things must come to an end. We ran out of bikes to touch and questions to ask and I distinctly heard lunch calling my name, so we said good bye to the guys in the shop and headed out to find lunch and to see the sights, in that order.

Fortified by my pizza, which had a ton of cheese on it (hence the dairy coma), we headed towards the dome. This was easy to find because 1. it's ginormous, and 2. we passed it about 5 times in our trek to find the store. The Duomo in Florence is a huge solid block of colorful stones held in place by the large dome. The Duomo in Milan is more like Notre Dam, still large but appearing lighter because it's capped by dozens of thin spires pointing to heaven while the walls are covered in intricately worked, irregularly colored stone. The only jarring point for me was the billboard tacked to the side of the building. Basically a giant TV screen with rotating adds for things people don't need and have no place in or on a place of worship. But that's just my opinion.

We walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, a tunnel shaped, glass covered street with a lot of fancy shops. We walked by Teatro alla Scala opera house. Then, (my favorite part) we went to the Castello Sforzesco. We wandered through the castle walls and courtyards, reading every sign and learning a little of the history of the castle and Milan. Then we walked through to the other side, which is a large public park. We sat for awhile just enjoying the day and being off our feet.

Seriously cool.

I do have to say that finding our way out was far easier than finding our way into the center. We found the station with no problem. Finding our track proved to be difficult because the station remained as like the Paris airport as before, the sign for our track was at the bottom of escalator. So you have to get  where you're going before you can see the sign to where you need to go. Did that make sense?

Once on the train we could relax, laugh a little bit about the day and look forward to getting home. It was fun, but I'm glad I live in a city that no longer confuses the hell out of me every time I step out the door. I suppose if I lived in Milan, someday I'd be better at finding my way around, but I don't think I would like living there. Yes, it's more international because so many businesses are based out of Milan, but with that international exposure and resulting openness to strangers and strange things also comes a more cosmopolitan attitude about everything. Things cost more. People are dressed more outrageously. Street vendors are downright aggressive in their quest to put a selfie stick into the hands of every tourist. Manners are less elegant. More modern doesn't always translate into more beautiful or more desirable. I think I'll just put this in the column of "a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

Totally cool buildings I read about that have full size trees on the terraces
and a lot of other energy saving and producing details.
read about it here

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Revolution of a cyclist: best pick up line EVER

It's been a good week for me in the cycling department. I've ridden four times. Two of the rides were long and included climbs that I would have avoided like the plague last year. I just don't think I can pull off this "I'm new to cycling" thing much longer. People are catching on.

Today I rode with friends Barbara and Rossano. A nice easy ride to the most beautiful pastry I've had in a while. Seriously. Just out of the oven sfogliatina with cream inside. Warm, gooey cream. Flaky pastry. Cinnamon sugar on top. I nearly swooned.

I thought the pastry was going to be the most memorable part of the ride. I was wrong.

After saying goodbye to Barbara I headed across town to my home. This route takes me on a large street which has three painted lanes but since all the drivers are Italians (or lost tourists) the reality is that there are anywhere from three to five lanes and that number is always changing. The traffic here doesn't march along in single file like ants carrying food back to the anthill. It's more like a buffalo stampede. If your car fits, shove it in. If you can intimidate the driver next to you, do so. You can signal your turn if you want to, but who has the time? More efficient to use the horn. Don't even get me started on how to drive those hypothetical three lanes when one lane is strewn with randomly double parked cars who will only be there for a minute.

This is the gauntlet I run every time I come home from the park. Just to make it even more fun there are two underpasses that descend and ascend quickly and sharply. I have around two feet between a concrete barrier and the moving cars. In an effort to get it over with as quickly as possible I tend to treat this section of road like a sprint however I'm always pretty tired so I'm never sure if the speed I feel like I've reached is really there or only in my mind.

Today I can say with confidence that I had some actual speed going. How do I know? Someone told me.

After sprinting uphill through my 2-3 foot wide lane I stopped at the unfortunately red light and sort of wheezed for a bit. (it's hot, I wheeze when it's hot) Suddenly, from over my shoulder I heard a voice.

"Fai il Giro d'Italia?" (Are you doing the Giro d'Italia?) Funny man.

I should have trusted my instincts and kept looking straight ahead, but he kept repeating it as he slowly inched forward (sorry my metric friends but centimetered forward just sounds wrong). Slowly the driver, a  man with longish greying hair, aviator shades and a killer tan got the car, a smallish Ford convertible, far enough forward to make eye contact. Because I couldn't ignore him anymore. The scooter drivers around me were starting to look at me like I was being sort of a bitch for not acknowledging the guy. So I looked over and he asked me yet again if I was doing the Giro d'Italia, confident he had chosen the perfect pick up line for this situation.

Instead of doing what I think he expected me to do, which would be to flutter my  eyelashes, wave my hands around, blush (like that would be possible when my face was likely already a gorgeous shade of magenta), say "Who...me?" and possibly giggle, I just said no.

Obviously not one to take a little bump in the road seriously, he tried to joke with me about my riding. Thankfully the light changed and I started to roll forward.

"Di dove sei?" he shouted after me. "Germania?" (Where are you from? Germany?)

"No! Stati Uniti!" I shouted as I took off, thinking this ended the conversation.

I seemed to have forgotten just how relentless the Italian male is when in the grip of the delusion that every woman wants him.

He pulled up next to me, matched my speed (much to the chagrin of the drivers in that hypothetical lane) and shouted "Parla Italiano! Bene!" and then entered into the negotiation phase. As the horns started honking behind him and I started riding slower to encourage him to move on he peppered me with questions.

Can we have a coffee? Perhaps a drink? But of course you want to clean up, how about after you get home? Why not? How long are you here? (gasp) You live here?!? Just a coffee. Or perhaps a drink? No? Insert a no after every question and you have my contribution to the conversation.

Finally he gave up. With shrug and a smile he slowly pulled away from me, leaving me to endure the angry looks of all the drivers who had been stuck behind his car as he tried to woo me into a date.

On one hand, even though it was a pretty cheesy line, I must have been riding hard enough to kind of impress him. On the other hand, I looked good enough while stinky, sweaty and covered in that cottonwood fluff stuck to my sunscreen to be worth the significant time he spent trying to persuade me to have a drink with him. Or perhaps a coffee.

Is it bad that I feel complimented by a cheesy come on line?

Monday, March 16, 2015

How I ended up in Italy

It occurs to me that not everyone knows the story of how I got from small town Minnesota (Ronneby pop.16) to Italy (Florence pop ~320,000) so here it is in gruesome detail.

2008 was the year that everything changed in my life. My husband of 18 years left...left me bankrupt, left me homeless...left. I got laid off in the collapse of the construction industry. I was starting from zero but with the love and support of my family and friends.

It's important to know what happened that year because those are the things that made me strong, fearless and open to every possibility that presented itself to me. Granted I wasn't all these things at first, but eventually I became these and so much more.

While all this was happening I was also finishing college, something I had put off when I had my children. I went to a small liberal arts college and it's not an exaggeration to say that being there at that time saved my life. In the interest of keeping this sort of short (I'll try!) I'll just say that I found some of the best friends I didn't know I needed there and through their love and butt kicking I never got to wallow in despair very long. For that I am eternally grateful.

And through the college (here's where the story really starts) I decided to participate in a three week study abroad program combining spirituality and art in Italy. My two favorite topics. Part of the course included a four day hike through the Tuscan hills following a pilgrimage trail.We had a guide for this part of the trip; a Swedish man named Leif.

Leif and me during the hike in the mountains.
Our group was small, only fifteen people, and we all became pretty close. When Leif joined us he became friendly with everyone (we are Minnesotans after all, everyone's our best friend) and as time went by he and I naturally gravitated toward each other because we were close in age. Naturally because except for one other student and the instructors everyone was under thirty years old, most under twenty-five. I had the teeniest crush on him. But after four days his time with us was over and we continued on to Asissi.

My instructors, both good friends, spent the days asking me questions. Sometimes really hard questions. They knew that this was the perfect opportunity for me to sort things out in my mind free from the routine and familiarity of life in Minnesota. As the days went by I found myself relaxing more and more fully into the rhythm of Italian life and discovered that this life felt right. I learned to live in the moment, something that absolutely flies in the face of my upbringing which focused on the need for planning and living for the future.

When I got back to Minnesota I felt strange. Sad. Blue. Lost. The first day I attributed it to jet lag.

The very next day I had lunch with a friend and his family and of all the places to go they chose The Rain Forest Cafe at the Mall of America. I spent the entire meal hugging my plate (the waitress kept trying to take it away from me. I don't know why) and jumping every time the weird mechanical monkeys started their thing or the fake thunderstorm started shaking the floor beneath my feet. I was practically crying from the stress of eating a simple meal.

Now I'll grant you that the restaurant choice was completely wrong for me, but it wasn't my choice and I'd never been there before and had no idea what I was in for. Take my advice and never eat there. I couldn't tell you a single thing about the food, I was so distracted by my environment. I don't think I even tasted what I was swallowing.

That's the event that triggered my decision to move to Italy.

The next day (once I'd recovered somewhat) I told a friend what had happened and said "I'm moving to Italy." This is a true friend. She didn't question my motivation or my decision she just said "That's a great idea!" At that moment I started planning my move here. I had about a year and a half to finish college and downsize my already severely shrunk life in preparation for moving.

I'll admit I went into this whole project rather blindly and without planning everything perfectly. I was immersed in enthusiasm but had a drought in the knowledge area. One thing I knew for sure was that I needed to know somebody. I mean know in the Italian network sense. You don't do anything here without a network. My network started with Leif.

We started emailing back and forth. The attraction we felt during our trip wasn't diminished by time or distance and in a short amount of time we graduated to regular Skype sessions too. He was a fountain of information as he moved here 6 years earlier and understood what I was trying to do. I also fell madly in love with him. I don't want to diminish the role that our romance played in all this. I may have given up at some point if it weren't for the fact that I had someone here I couldn't live without.

I know you're wondering what my friends and family thought about this. Look at the title of my blog. "Why?" was a question I was asked constantly, as if I was saying that life in Minnesota wasn't good and I was escaping to something better. That wasn't it at all. My life in Minnesota was good but I knew exactly what it would  be. Life in Italy would be a mystery and I was ready for a little less planning and a little more living by the seat of my pants.

I came to Italy first as a tourist....a three month try-on if you will. Those three months only confirmed for me that this is where I should be so I went back to Minnesota to do the paperwork for a study visa (a friend of Leif's has a language school).

Italians invented bureaucracy so I had a million hoops to jump through. My favorite one is when getting a visa you must purchase your ticket before you send your request for a visa to the consulate. Yes you have to buy a ticket not knowing for sure if they''ll even grant you the visa to live here. You must also provide documents showing you have a program you're enrolled in (already paid for), a place to live (already paid for), insurance (already paid for) and what assets you intend to live on while here because they don't hand out work permits often.

My first year here was wonderful. I learned so much. Some Italian, some Swedish, about wine and food and their place in daily life, about Italians. It wasn't always easy but I never thought about moving back to the States. I knew that this is where I wanted to be.

Now you have to understand something. Italy isn't thrilled to have a lot of foreigners living here. Their bureaucracy was built on the premise that if you make something hard enough most everyone will throw up their hands in exasperation and quit. Student visas are only issued for a year at a time. I couldn't afford another year of lessons and by the end of my year I was getting pretty stressed about how to stay. My hair was falling out. I lost my appetite. Because I'm not independently wealthy and simply didn't have the resources to live without working and without those the Italian gov't didn't want me. I had no idea what to do.

At Cinque Terre before I knew he was going to propose.
One month before I as scheduled to leave Leif and I took a trip to Cinque Terre to hike the coast and there on the Via dell Amore he asked me to marry him. I said yes. All that was left was to go back to the States (because my visa was up) and plan a wedding in two short months that included the Christmas holidays.

And that's how I got here. A semi-abbreviated but thorough telling of the story. We live in Italy, we visit Sweden for several months during the year and I Skype with Minnesota as often as I can. We are slowly building the kind of life we both dreamed about when we moved here. It's not always easy but it's always worth the effort.
Life is good. A cliche that works because it's true.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hi, my name is Michele. I'm an artist.

So a few months ago my mind was officially blown. For those of you who think that is a task too easily done....hush and read on. You'd feel the same way.

I'm guessing very few of you reading this know that I'm a painter with watercolors. It's not something I've ever really announced out loud or in fact even whispered softly. Too often it's been something I've almost apologized for; as if being creative is some sort of character defect to be ashamed of. I cringe when friends who know or my loving husband tells complete strangers "Yes, she's a watercolor painter!" I used to look around and wonder who they could be talking about (not ever for a moment thinking it could be me) and now I've learned to stand there and say "Why yes, I do paint," and hide the fact that I wish a hole would open up under my feet and swallow me whole.

This is ridiculous really because I graduated from college four years ago with a degree in, you guessed it, studio art. Ever since I can remember  I've drawn, colored or painted my experiences. I was just brought up to think that it wasn't a responsible or sensible thing to do as a vocation. It's a nice little hobby but don't put all  your eggs in the art basket; it's sure to break your heart and certainly won't feed you.

Then, as I said, a few months ago there was some kind of shift in the universe and some lovely things happened that still make my head spin and my heart sing.

First I shared a painting with an online art group and the response was phenomenal. To the point that people were asking if I'd consider making prints of some of my work. So that was revelation number one. People would actually be willing to pay for things that I had painted. Doesn't even matter if it would be $50.00 or $500.00, just the fact that someone was moved enough by a picture to want to see it every day simply boggles my mind.

The second moment came during an "art crawl" with a friend here in Florence. She's a textile designer and several of the studios we visited were textile designers or clothing designers and each time we talked to one of them she would introduce herself, then introduce me as her friend, the amazing water colorist. And this incredibly talented woman would then talk about how the three of us could find some way to collaborate. How she thought to lump me in with a bunch of professionals is beyond me, but it did help me to realize that the thing I tend to play down as a hobby many people view as a marketable skill.

The third amazing thing that happened was when a woman who is running an artists workshop online asked me to be a guest artist. This just shocked me because, without any previous friendship connection that might force her to include me and without really knowing anything more than what she saw of my work and my writing from another online group, she felt I had artistic skills to share and the verbal/written skills to share it.

She recognized me as an artist.

I wish I had the words to explain just what it means when complete strangers (ie people with no emotional ties or obligations to you) think of you first and foremost as an artist. I've been many things in my life...student, teacher, drafter, committee chair, the list is long. What I've never been until now is an artist. I was, for instance, a mother who liked to draw. Or a wife who painted sometimes. Or a co-worker whose cubicle was less cubicle-like.

I should have been thinking as I do now. I'm an artist who is also a wife. I'm an artist who cycles. I'm an artist who paints. I am an artist.

Has anyone ever died from menopause?

This is a completely serious question. I can't ask my family because keeping the uterus is new to my generation, and I'm the oldest. I didn't watch anyone go through it and there are no stories handed down (ie horror stories) for me to reference.

For those wondering why I don't just go online and look it up well I have a good reason. I know people so suggestive that just reading about symptoms inspires the body to have those symptoms. I don't want to be one of those people who asks WebMD what I might have and instead of menopause I have some rare cancer or jungle virus with no cure.

But I think it's entirely possible that my uterus is trying to kill me. For real.

There was the first flush of excitement when "that time of the month" skipped a few months. I thought the absence of hot flashes and wild emotional ups and downs meant I'd simply skipped over the nasty stuff and headed right into the last gasping moments of my fertility. I was wrong.

After the blissful quiet of those first months everything kind of exploded around me. First in the short span of eight weeks I had my period five times. It sounds physically impossible but it happened, thankfully without the PMS or physical discomfort that typically comes along for the ride. Apparently my ovaries started popping out eggs like a Pez dispenser (after years of a very casual attitude in that regard) and the rest of the process struggled to keep up. I was confused and so very grateful when that stopped.

This next phase I'm currently in (if indeed it's a phase of menopause and not some terrible disease) is where my cycle crushes me like a fly under a flyswatter. I'm perfectly fine, better than perfect in fact, when suddenly I have crushing headaches, impossible nausea and mind-numbing inertia and exhaustion for about a day and the next day my period shows up and all is fine again. Since this follows the rigid schedule that a normal woman's cycle would have I'm probably correct in attributing it to this. Also I would say that three months in a row can be considered a pattern and not a general OMG panic.

Oddly enough all the symptoms I've come to expect from this blessed time of life haven't occurred. No hot flashes. Well, unless they happen on the bike. I suppose that's possible. I do have problems at night. I don't feel hot, but the sheets practically burn the skin off my body. (Maybe the linens are going through menopause.) No crazy emotional roller coaster. I'm going to blame the slight roundness I've accumulated over the winter to overeating and less cycling instead of to a change in metabolism. I do like to eat.

So what do you think people? Am I in the grip of menopause or am I just lumping a group of symptoms together that in reality should stand separate and alone? And the original question....can menopause kill you, or only make you incredibly uncomfortable for what feels like forever?

And, I'm almost afraid to ask, is this as bad as it gets or is there more to come? On second thought, maybe I don't want to know.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Swedes vs Italians

OK. I know my husband hates when I compare Swedes with Italians. I think he feels that I'm harsh on the Swedes, and being a Swede he takes that rather personally. Can't argue with that. But still, after spending another three weeks in Sweden, living in Italy and most importantly, being an American and so not defensive about either position (and not claiming a preference either way) I try to give a neutral view and just report the facts as I see them. It's not my fault if it's funny too. So my apologies to him...I'm not mocking his culture. I'm mocking them both. I hope that helps.

Two Swedes discussing a soccer game:

Per: (hands in pockets) How about that game? Vad sägs om det spelet? Wow. Oj.

(5 second pause as his friend considers the question first)

(another 5 second pause to form a response that is clearly his own opinion but not confrontational or too enthusiastic)

Magnus:  (hands in pockets) Yeah. Ja.

(short pause for emphasis)

Magnus: (with a half nod in the general direction of Per) Wow. Oj.

(a companionable silence ensues)

Two Italians discussing a soccer game:

Mario: What a game! Unbelievable!! Che partita! Incredibile!!

Luigi: (begins talking before Mario can finish) That game?!? What were they thinking?!!? Quel gioco?!? Quali sono state pensando?!!?

(thus begins a 45 minutes discussion of the players (and their history), the referees (their faults and snide references to their lineage), the coaches (whose minds are certainly a mystery to everyone in the discussion, which has probably grown by several people), the fans (who are great and terrible at the same time) and a general history of soccer. There is a flurry of waving hands, shaking heads and eye rolling during the entire discussion. In fact, the discussion continues until they've walked out of earshot of each other.)

All this observance brings to my mind two questions.

If Italians couldn't use hand gestures would they become mute?

What does it look like when Swedes play charades?

And now that I've offended nearly everyone I think my work here is  done. Till another day.....