In which we drive into France, but not very far

After lunch today, we drove into France, just because we could.  We’ve rented a friend’s car for the month, and France is only about forty minutes away.  We drove to a lake just on the other side of the French/Italian border, in an area called Moncenisio, or Mount Cenis in French. Down on the Piemontese plan, there had been a sunny haze that bordered on a fog, and visibility was low. As we drove up into the Alps, the haze dissipated and the sky became piercingly clear.

When we got to the lake, we realized it would be an excellent place to hike, but we had gotten a late start, Sarie had forgotten her passport, and it was plain that the French border police only let us through to have a quick look. Still, the view was beautiful. We were just above the tree line, at what was probably a dammed up melt lake. All along the road on the way up were what had probably formerly been old roadside inns, now abandoned, and as we approached the border, we started to see partially melted snow (there was one cold, rainy day in Torino this week). Terra cotta roofs gradually gave way to slate ones, and sometimes there were both materials on the same roof. Signs, too, were a mixture of Italian and French.

On the way back down the mountain, we stopped for an afternoon macchiato at the first Italian bar we came to, in Clòo. We realized that we felt at home hearing Italian and following Italian customs. Still, we’d love to return to the Alps soon for a hike. Crossing the border almost makes me want to review my French–one day.

Clòo, where we stopped for macchiato.  It has both slate and terra cotta roofs



(the inspiration for our new kitchen, from the 2010 IKEA catalog)

Italians take their kitchens and wall fixtures with them when they move.  This means that Americans who move to Italy not only buy all new appliances when they arrive, but they also buy kitchen cabinets.  And lighting fixtures.

I ordered our kitchen at IKEA yesterday.  I attempted to order something similar to the kitchen in the photo above, but since ours is a difference space, it won’t look exactly the same. (See below.) To begin with, our floor is rust-colored tile and the existing wall tiles are much larger. The wall tiles had a 1980s-style chicken design on them, but thankfully the owner agreed to paint over the chickens with warm gray tile paint. Also, I omitted the desk and the expensive tambour door, because our kitchen doesn’t have the column that this one does. I tried to order the snazzy black-laminate counter top with the silver side strip shown in the photo, but it was backordered, so I got one with a mineral effect  laminate in black instead. Our refrigerator will be a grey one from a local appliance store rather than a built-in one. And there is a wall-mounted hot water heater right in the middle of those nice glass doors, so after much fiddling, I gave up and opted for two glass doors on either end of the upper cabinets.

But still, the photo shows the basic idea: The layout is very similar, as is the light source, and there will be medium wood cabinets (which unfortunately don’t look quite as much like cherry as they do in the photo*), a silver hood over a gas stove, and some of those lovely and useful little tracks that run just under the upper cabinets.  IKEA has a fun assortment of stainless accessories in their Grundtal line, from little cups that can hang from the tracks to hold silverware or herbs, to hooks for utensils and mitts, to magnetic bins with clear tops for spices (see the range hood in the photo above).  And those parts, at least, are inexpensive.

Originally I had planned to use Udden freestanding kitchen cabinets in black, but there were so many problems trying to jury-rig that series into the long, narrow kitchen in our newly rented apartment that I eventually gave up and opted for the Faktum line with Adel panels (birch, I think, or whatever the Italian term faggio means).  I was strongly tempted to go with one of the ultra-shiny, modern, very European-looking lines for a change, but it just didn’t go with the tile floor.  As the kitchen planner said, “In Italy, we never start from the ground up.  We have to work around what’s already there.”  Well, yes, and so do most Americans.  Even more so!

The empty kitchen in our new apartment.  (It has at least been cleaned now, and they will paint the tiles.)

This kitchen cost less than half of what my new countertops cost in New York (the ones that were supposed to make the apartment sell), but still, it was a strange experience taking my bar code up to the self-service checkout at IKEA and running my card through the scanner. It felt like buying milk in a suburban US grocery store!  My aim during the whole process has been to try to get as much quality and style as possible for the money.  I really have no idea whether I’m buying this kitchen for two years or twenty, so it made sense to balance my priorities as much as possible.

The kitchen should arrive the week after my birthday, which is to say, in the middle of November.  IKEA will mount and install it, and meanwhile, I’ll find an Italian plumber, electrician and someone to hook up the gas.  And get lighting for the kitchen and baths. And order a refrigerator, washer and yes–a dryer! (Many Italians don’t have dryers, but Torino is raw and damp in winter, as it is today.) Hopefully, all this will be finished by Thanksgiving week, because my parents are coming to celebrate this quintessentially American holiday with us, in Italy!

Many, many thanks to my friend Francesca, who has gone to IKEA with me, not once, but twice, to bounce ideas off of and help me when I get stuck ordering in Italian.  And she’s done this while having her own apartment renovated. I think she deserves dinner from the new kitchen when it’s finished, at the very least!

*Update:  I finally figured out why this was. It’s because IKEA US has a color that IKEA Italy doesn’t, medium brown.  It looks like cherry, and no doubt that’s what’s used in the photo above.  The ones I ordered are beech, which is a slightly lighter, yellower shade.

Esperienza Italia

One of my favorite things about New York City was that I never knew what I was going to find when I went out the door.  I’m happy to report that I can say the same thing about Torino.

Yesterday Sarie and I went out for a walk about town.  We were walking back home through the elegant Piazza San Carlo, and found this group of old men performing traditional folk tunes, right by the entrance to our bank.  They were surrounded by a crowd of Italians, almost all of whom were in their seventies, and some of whom looked almost misty-eyed, or at least intent.  One woman was doing some dance steps from time to time.

The man in the suit and ascot is the leader and vocalist. But note the guy off to the far right, in the tan sweater.

Tan sweater man goes from bystander to guitarist to cheerleader.  He also had a bottle of wine, corked and lying on its side, that he would occasionally take a swig from.  But not too often, as Italians are not fond of drunkenness.  I think his enthusiasm was more driven by the music, which as Sarie points out, was quite good.  I wish I could share some of it with you, but alas, I don’t even know the name of the group.  I’ll have to go back and listen some more, and perhaps find out.  But if you watch Pane and Tulipani, you’ll get the general idea.

The man in the ascot, when Sarie took the picture, was singing directly to the woman next to us.  She had black curled hair and was wearing heels and big plastic drop earrings.  At one point, he stopped singing and started talking to her, and she responded quite comfortably.

Above the men’s heads is an ad that reads: “Esperienza Italia.”

A casa–another temporary home

View from our friends' balcony of the sunrise over the Collina (little hill)

This weekend we moved into our fifth temporary home, the apartment of some homeschooling friends from New York who moved here just a couple of months before we did.  (Pause to consider:  What are the chances of another homeschooling family from New York moving to Torino ever??)  They live just a few blocks from the photo I posted earlier as one of my favorite parts of the city. They are in Sardinia right now, and I’m very happy to be back in town!  Immigrants need to live where they’ll always have interaction with other people.

As Sarie and I plopped exhaustedly into a cab after dragging the last of the 50 pound suitcases down the stairs on Friday night, she mused, “You know, by the time we get into our own apartment, we will have moved seven times.”  I hadn’t stopped to count, perhaps for good reason.

But this move back into town for two weeks was voluntary, and it has been a very nice one.  We hope to sign a contract on an apartment this week, and move in by November 1, so there’s lots of business to do.  (The other apartment were negotiating fell through.) Meanwhile, I’m looking at the IKEA catalog to see how cheaply and yet attractively I can furnish a kitchen. I really like what my Brooklyn friend has done with her Udden kitchen:

This family also has some nice views from their balconies.  If you look far down this street where the tiny steeple is, that’s the block where our hopeful apartment is.  It’s a ten minute walk from this apartment.

View from the balcony in the other direction: the Alps

It’s seven-twenty a.m., just getting light. Bob has just left for a day in Milan. There’s a moka pot with coffee on the stove.  Church bells were ringing just a few minutes ago and through the wide-open windows in the kitchen, and I’m starting to hear people leave for work. If I go stand out on the fifth-floor balcony in the bedroom, I can see people getting on buses and trams, and the sun coming up over the big hill. In the other direction are the Alps (you can see them today!).  People in California, Oregon and Washington are just going to bed.

It’s nice to be here.


At Monday’s market I found some nice shell-like buttons and spent the afternoon sewing them onto my old coat.  I’d lost one of the previous set of brown buttons and knew I really didn’t want to wear the coat minus an obvious button for another year.

Never mind that I can’t take a self-photo to save my life, that this one has all my laundry supplies in the background.  Or that when I took the photo, I noticed that I’d positioned one of the buttons too high. (I covered that one up.) This is my first step towards being a little less “frumpy Upper West Side,” and a little more Italian.  I had to start somewhere!

A casa–San Mauro

Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II and the town of S. Mauro. Photo by Sara Peluso, from Wikipedia Commons.. Original uploader was Sasha74 at it.wikipedia

We’ve now moved from the residence hotel where we spent our first month in Torino.  Instead we are living on the outskirts of town in the apartment of some friends of ours.  Our furniture has arrived in port, but we are still in negotiations with various apartment owners.  And then there is always some work to be done to the apartment you choose, and we’ll almost certainly have to buy a kitchen.  So it will probably take about another month before we’re ready to move into our long-term home in Torino. We’re hoping that our furniture will be allowed to move in before we do.

Our friends’ tenant backed out at the last minute, so it worked out for both us us that we stay here while they look for another sub-letter. Now get two bedrooms, a stove, and a washer for a much lower rate than the residence.  And hopefully our friends get a little more time to find another tenant while they get settled back into NYC.

Our new home is in a suburb of Torino that doesn’t look so attractive at first glance.  There are lots of more recent, sprawly apartment buildings at all sorts of angles along a busy road.  Our view out the window is a typical suburban combination in northern Italy, the faint outline of the Alps in the background and construction cranes (sometimes called “the national bird of Italy”) in the foreground. Our bedroom is right next to an intersection, so we hear traffic stopping and starting all day and night if we open the windows. There’s a lot of concrete generally.

But take a walk a couple of blocks back from the roadway, and the scenery improves dramatically.  It’s like there’s a little town back there, with its own church, bar and pizzeria.  Our friends told us that this is the neighborhood where all the people used to live who did laundry for the Torinese, because no one was allowed to do laundry inside the city.  (Perhaps this was the origin of my 18 euro laundry bill in the city each week?)

Walk a couple of blocks further and you get to a bike/walking path.  The path is next to the Po, the sun sparkles on it in the morning, birds sing, horses neigh, people ride bikes and walk their dogs, church bells ring (the old kind), and it just keeps going and going.  I took a walk this morning to the bridge to S. Mauro, and then crossed over into the town itself.  It’s less than a mile away and both bridge and town are very picturesque.  Near the bridge I saw people filling up water bottles (still water for free, 5 cents for carbonation) and even milk bottles, at a vending kiosk. When I got to the other side of the bridge at a little before ten in the morning, the sun was just warming up and people were coming out in droves. There was a bike event starting along the river.  A bar with outside seating was open next to the walkway and people were sitting there reading newspapers and talking to the waitress.  I walked as far down the river as I could and watched some grebes and herons for a while.

On the way back, I looked out over the river at the open view.  I was surrounded on three sides by Alps (rather faint, but there) in the distance, and on the fourth side by the Collina, or hill, very close with houses on it.  When I looked south over the bridge towards the direction from which I had come, I could see the Mole Antonelliana, the main landmark of Torino, in the distance.  My friends tell me there’s a market in the town on Mondays.  It feels almost like I’ve moved to the country. This should be an interesting month.