(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Month: May, 2012

Bob in Turkey

One interesting thing about living in Europe is that it completely redefines the idea of a “short trip.”  Bob gave a talk last week in Istanbul, Turkey.  The plane flight was about the same length as the ones we used to take from New York City to Georgia.  Another way of looking at it is that Constantinople was the original eastern capital of the Roman Empire.  Sure, it was more than a two-hour trip back then.  But it was the same Empire, at least for a while.

At the moment, it’s a booming business city.  On the European side, it’s something like other European cities, an interesting mix of European-looking and Middle-Eastern-looking faces, clothes, and habits.  It has mosques, synagogues and churches.  The languages at the conference were Turkish, English, and Russian.  The Asian side of Istanbul, though, was much more traditional. Bob said he felt a little conspicuous there with his red hair and American accent.

He traveled with three associates from his firm, one of whom had lived in Istanbul before and spoke Turkish well enough to order food and talk to the cab drivers.  Although all three of Bob’s co-workers speak English very well, there would be times when they lapsed into Italian.  I can only suppose that he felt very far from home at such times.

Bob has been traveling more than he has been home since March.  But this is the last business trip until next fall.  We’re glad to have him home.

Since I wasn’t on the trip, I can’t comment very much on the photos, except to say that the dinner photo above wasn’t the only one I received via e-mail during the trip.  And Bob has no idea what the leeches were for, but they were on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.


The world on your laptop

This is the time of year when most homeschooling parents are busy choosing classes and curriculum for the next year. Though Sarie will be a senior according to the US system next year, there’s one more year of high school here, so we’ve decide to use it to get some APs while we figure out whether she can attend school here. If she doesn’t, it will still be time well spent.  It will also give her time to learn music and academics simultaneously. We just don’t know enough to say what’s the best thing to do yet.

Anyway, in my search, I’ve come across some really interesting online resources lately.  Most of them I’d at least seen in passing before, but as I sifted through them again during the past couple of weeks, I must say that online education opportunities have grown tremendously since we started homeschooling. When I first started researching, I thought I was pretty lucky to find one primitive message board and the first embodiment of Amazon.com.  Now we have Khan Academy, TED ed, Brightstorm, and online classes in abundance.

These sources have their different strengths and weaknesses.  I like TED ed for sheer big-idea provocation and gorgeous graphics, though occasionally I think there’s more style than substance.  Sarie is a big fan of Sal Khan.  I don’t know what the draw is:  his soothing voice, the patience of a math practice program that generates ever more problems until you get a lot of them right, the lure of self-charted progress, or the fact that he stops in the middle of explaining supernovas to say with genuine appreciation, “This is really cool!” But Khan math and science have been a life saver in this, our year of losing all our accustomed math/science resources. (Though we’re looking for something more systematic for next year.)

Sarie, meanwhile, recommends IMSLP, the free sheet music resource, for music, and if you live in NYC or another place with good library services, Freegal. And she also likes this:

Sarie was practicing the second movement of Bach Double this morning for a performance she hopes to do with the conservatory orchestra next January. Not only is the video mesmerizing, but it helps you to see the relationships between the lines of melody and other patterns. And it’s surprisingly close to how I visualize music that I’ve never seen performed live before.

And in another corner of the internet world, why not learn German in Italian?  (Now there’s one way to learn two foreign languages at once.) Or Italian in Italian?

(Update: For Dante, I substituted another video above, which Sarie points out is much better than the one put out by the education ministry.  In it, Roberto Benigni composes a letter to Dante, asks him if he’s getting his royalty checks for Benigni’s performances of The Divine Comedy, and rhapsodizes about the “gift of poetry” which, if I understand correctly, no one wants to pay for because it’s a gift.  I love this video, even the parts I can’t understand, because it’s so Italian.  It always seems to me that this is how the people next to me in restaurants are talking, and after watching this, wouldn’t you want to know what they’re saying?  Here’s part two. )

Of course, we’ll also be doing plenty of old-fashioned reading, writing, and discussion as well. And hopefully some field trips. After all, we are in a country full of fields.

Roman temple ruins in Luni, Liguria

What are some of your favorite online resources?

Now she’s just in Purgatory

Last week, the week before the AP Psychology exam, Sarie was scheduled to read Dante’s Inferno.  This was appropriate considering the circumstances. Finally, on Saturday, I broke the news to her that sometimes, kids in school have so much to do that they don’t finish the books they are assigned.  This was, in fact, such a circumstance.  “Just finish it next week,” I said.  She looked at me, horrified.  “Really.  I know you’ve wanted to read it.  You’ll catch up.”

This is next week.  To catch up, she has to read 17 cantos per day, plus study for her final in that class and a do some other schoolwork.  And go to conservatory classes.  Compared to last week, this is merely Purgatory.

Today was chamber rehearsal.  This trio got a late start (January), and today they found out that their exam would be on June 14.  The coach was a little crabby.  He accused Sarie of not working hard enough to learn the piece, Brahms’ Horn Trio in E-flat Major.

Sarie, who begs for extra practice time, apologized.  “I’m sorry.  I had a big exam last week and I’ve been catching up on my other reading.  I should be able to work a lot harder on this by next week.”

The coach looked sarcastic.  “What are you reading, The Divine Comedy or something?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.  One book per week.”

This pleased the coach.  “Ah, those American schools are good after all!” he beamed.  Because Italians feel the same way about Dante that English-speakers do about Shakespeare.

Little does he know, however, about Sarie’s “American school.”  Perhaps that’s just as well.

Warm-weather routine

This week it has suddenly become hot in Torino. It makes me realize that the seasons have almost fully changed and my routine has changed, too:

We open the doors, but close the shutters, at night.  In the morning, I keep them closed on the east side of the apartment, so that my kitchen and study don’t heat up quickly.  We don’t have air-conditioning, but we have good ventilation, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get used to not having it.  I get a cup of coffee, make some toast, and go read my Bible, pray, and write in my journal. And there’s a bird, undoubtedly a Blackbird, because it sounds like an American Robin, that sings every morning before dawn.

Right after we’re finished with breakfast and hot water for showers, I start a load of wash.  If I get the clothes out on the line by late morning, they may be dry by early afternoon. Sometimes I do a second load at night, after the electricity rates go down.  But since I can only run one major appliance at a time (besides the refrigerator), sometimes another appliance wins out. Usually, if I get up in the middle of the night, I remember to turn the water heater back on.

Clothes started, I go food shopping.  The markets are in the peas, spinach and asparagus season now.  Cucumbers, ox heart tomatoes, and even melons are starting to appear. There are always lots of interesting salad greens, mostly bitter ones. I never have quite figured out what to do with the barba di frate, though.  I think it’s almost finished, so perhaps I should.


Barba di frate (image by Stefan Proud) from Wikipedia commons

Sarie and I often watch Khan Academy videos during lunch.  Lately we’ve been watching cosmology/astronomy videos.  One day we got started investigating possible shapes of the universe–flat, sphere, and hyperbolic plane.  If the universe has four dimensions, you should be able to see the same stars in two places, albeit at different times.  Whoa.

In the afternoon, I do e-mail, or whatever desk work that needs doing.  I’m still working on that conservatory business. I’m planning for next year’s school.  I help Sarie with whatever she needs help with.

Then I do some cleaning, more shopping, some project, or perhaps even an ice-cream walk.  Sarie sometimes has classes in the afternoon.  I try to make some time to read, screen-free.  Then I start dinner.

Now that it’s warm out, the people whose apartments face our courtyard have their windows and doors open all day and often all night.  I hear renovation going on across the alley. I hear the upholsterer’s staples. I hear dishes at lunch (1:30) and dinner (8:00).  I hear people talking on the phone, and sometimes I even understand what they say.  I hear soccer matches on TV.

And there’s white fluff floating everywhere.  It floats past our windows.  It floats inside and piles up in the corners until I sweep it away.  It lands on the table during dinner.  It started on Monday.

All day, I hear socializing, and especially people calling for Angelo.  I’ve now figured out that Angelo is the balding man who wears rubber boots and runs the car wash behind our building.  Across the courtyard I often hear a toddler who stays with her grandmother all day. Today just before lunch the little girl stood out on the balcony calling, “An-ge-wo!  AAAAN-ge-wooooooooe!!!”  Of course Angelo showed up under her balcony, like Romeo.  Who wouldn’t?

We’re starting to experience the long daylight that comes with a European latitude.  It’s light when I wake up, and it stays light until after nine.  About an hour before sunset, swallows swarm overhead, crying continuously.  The light fades, their high circles swoop lower, and their loud screes become faint squeaks.  Imperceptibly, they’ve morphed into bats.

At the sun sets, we go to close the shutters, and I always look to the west to see a huge planet, almost certainly Venus.  Yesterday, as I closed the shutters, I heard the voice of Salman Khan, explaining how you can calculate the distance of a star by noting the angle overhead as the sun rises or sets, at opposite times of year.  So I looked straight up.  Because here, I can.


I haven’t been posting lately because:

  • I was in another one of those “Can you please help us understand what credentials an American needs in order to apply to your European university?” flurries and,
  • I was helping Sarie study for her first AP test, in psychology.  That is to say, I was giving her a study partner because it helped with motivation. She took the test in Milan yesterday, and it seemed to go fine.

I’ll just say right off that I am not a huge fan of AP.  It seems to be geared towards vast survey courses that have to be forced down and chewed furiously. Sarie likes to savor (always has), and what with everything else she was doing this school year, she was most definitely not savoring psychology. She was reading and typing as fast as she could, without time to supplement using other material that might have added interest and made connections, such as books by Oliver Sacks or Nicholas Carr.

But: Most European schools want to see APs to approximate the last, fifth year of European high school. And, since she had to take them, she did. And perhaps, looking back (as we finally can), taking an AP course got her through the material and showed her that she could do it.  Hopefully the class was confidence-building, and next time she’ll know better how to pace herself.

While I was waiting for Sarie to come out of the exam, I read from Sternberg and Lubart’s Defying the Crowd, a creativity study co-authored by a former Yale professor and President of the American Psychological Association.  I had grabbed the book off the shelf as we left Torino because I came across his triarchic theory of intelligence in Barron’s Guide to AP Psychology.  It discusses the investment theory of creativity, that is, the importance of timing for creative ideas, and what makes some more valuable than others.  But it also talks about how undervalued creativity can be generally, given the premium we put on analytical skills. Sometimes a creative and even analytically intelligent person simply doesn’t test well. Sternberg himself did so poorly on his introductory psychology course that he actually changed majors for a while. Now people have to learn who he is when they take the course he did poorly in!


To take the AP exam, we had to go to Milan and stay in an AirBnB apartment the night before.  We stayed in a spare bedroom in a young couple’s apartment.  I thought that might be a little risky considering the reason we were there, but it turned out fine.

As it turns out, Sarie was the only person taking this particular test. She was met by a retired British teacher who was dressed as if for a birding expedition, with slightly long grey hair and a khaki vest. I knew when we met him that Sarie would be fine. The school was bright and clean, and I sat in a glass lobby for three hours while the test was going on. The infirmary seemed quite popular.

Sarie and I independently became nostalgic on the Milan subway, which is dimly-lit, slightly dirty, multicultural, and encourages the trancelike stare that New York City subway riders know well.  Torino’s subway is so small and clean that it’s almost cute.

On the trip back to the railway station, a Filipino mother sat across from us, weary-looking in ripped jeans, a T-shirt and cheap rhinestone flip-flips, her brows creased in concentration and a finger in her free ear, talking loudly into a cellphone in Spanish.  It was noisy on the train, so she likely shouted because she was having trouble hearing.  In the next seat, her toddler son sat ignored and exploring. First he swung his legs out like windshield wipers over the vast expanse of seat afforded him, gently tapping the legs of the teenage boy next to him.  The older boy was staring straight ahead, so like many impassive teens I’ve seen on New York subways: Various ear studs, tattoos (including the Nike basketball logo), T-shirt with meaningless American logo, a white rosary, large dark sunglasses, and a mohawk variation that made all the top part of his hair stand on end.

After a while the toddler stood up, swaying and balancing gingerly with his hands on the back of the seat while facing forward. He had soft dark hair and his peachy face looked as fresh as his mother’s did worn. I glanced down for a minute, and looked up again just in time to see the toddler’s hand finish a nice swipe across the top of his neighbor’s mohawk. The little boy grinned, pleased with his finding, and took another swipe. Then he patted the teenage boy on the shoulder. The other boy turned and smiled genuinely, not annoyed at all.  Swipe, pat, grin, smile. The mom finished her phone call and took the boy into her lap. At the next stop, a very large college student, talking loudly with two girls and holding a purse perched primly on his knees, wedged himself into the seat between the older boy and the toddler. The teen boy now looked not only impassive, but positively shrunken. The woman and the little boy got off the train when we did. The toddler was already staring inquisitively at a stroller in the turnstile line.

If only we could learn by curiosity forever.