Christmas season has officially begun in Italy!  Yes, it’s even earlier than in the US, but that’s because the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (on December 8th) is a big holiday here.

Since we never found a live Christmas tree last year, we ended up adding to our nativity scene instead. In Italy, presepi are very popular and most people have one instead of a tree.  We even found a store that had a wonderful assortment of moving figures working at all sorts of trades.  The store carried the type of figurines we collect, so last year we bought a Roman soldier (welcome to Italy!), a bridge (for the pig, in honor of the one at the Metropolitan Museum), and a little fireplace with a flickering light, for the shepherds.  Thus we are starting to build a little Bethlehem–albeit a very Italian one.

A week ago we went by the same store on the way home from Sarie’s school (it’s close by) and bought this year’s additions: a girl with a basket, two small geese, a ball of cheese and a prosciutto.  Never mind that prosciutto isn’t even kosher; Sarie was just fascinated with the fact that it and the cheese (scamorza, perhaps?) looked very realistic. But when we got home, she couldn’t find a graceful way to incorporate them into the scene. (No, not even on the camels!) Typing this, I looked up see where she finally ended up placing them, and finally spotted them in a tiny attic loft in the barn, behind the angel. Looks like the young shepherd has found them too!

And the wise men, I’ve just realized, are traveling through the land of National Geographic.

During Advent, we always play Handel’s Messiah, though Sarie has thankfully decided to forgo the concert in France.  So here’s a bit of one of my favorite parts:

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,
get thee up into the high mountain.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid;
say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god!
Arise, shine, for thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. 


And I’ve just realized that the reason these photos are all so dark is because it has been raining for two days and it is dark!


A Thanksgiving conversation about school

This year we did not have the traditional Thanksgiving dinner that makes for a heartwarming blog post, but it was pleasant in its own way.  Since it was a school day for Sarie, Bob was visiting with family in the US, and my polenta-based cornbread dressing was too dubious (to put it charitably) to feed to Italian guests, I just made a pared-down version of the usual meal and we invited some of Sarie’s school friends over for a squash (a.k.a. pumpkin) pie aperitivo.

I was impressed with these girls, who were mature and seemed grateful for their IB education after years of traditional Italian high school.  Two of them travel to Torino from opposite sides of the country and board in a convent during the week, just to attend this program.  They said that in liceo, they’d had to cram in far too many subjects through sheer rote learning for any of them to stick.

“So by learning less, you actually learn more?”  I suggested.

One girl did a double take, perhaps thinking she’d missed something in English, and then she smiled as she made the connection.  “Yes!”

Sarie, on the other hand, is in full swing now with both school and conservatory, which is making it very hard to do either well.  She will be playing in La Traviata this weekend, possibly a Handel’s Messiah production in France the next, and with her Baroque group after that.  But my guess is that something will have to give.  There’s a lot of pressure involved in trying to do both, but European regulations require she get a diploma.  And that means school.

I had a meeting with the IB school’s administrator this week.  She’s an Italian who grew up in the US, which makes her a valuable link between the two cultures. Among other things we discussed, I mentioned that Sarie had observed a lot of cheating in the school. I knew I had to be the one to say it, not Sarie. And I knew I had to say it lightly, so as not to come across as a self-righteous American. But it was rampant. The administrator agreed with me. She said it grew out of the arbitrary liceo system and was hard to control, but that hopefully the strictly-proctored IB exams would make it self-evident that cheating didn’t pay.

Meanwhile, a friend sent me an article about an Italian study that seems very relevant to the whole situation:

WHAT is the connection between executive pay, petty crime, and plagiarism by students? Economics can help us with the solution. It all links back to the concept of externalities.

…The idea is that the impact of a social choice can be magnified. Behaviour, whether good or bad, may be copied and generates social externalities.

In this vein, two Italian economists, Claudio Lucifora and Marco Tonello, have just published a study on cheating in exams. They found that the more people do it, the more likely it is that yet more will follow the example. A snowball can turn into an avalanche.

The authors trace the origins of a wave of plagiarism back to the classroom, to things which by themselves seem innocuous, like teachers tolerating minor homework copying. It’s the same thing as the “broken window” effect on petty crime…

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put back in. As such, the instinct of government to do more and to regulate more is wrong. We don’t need more government. We need smarter government, using the waves of information on the web and modern tools of analysis to identify potentially harmful trends at an early stage. Fixing the broken window does not need armies of bureaucrats. It just needs to be done early enough.

Never mind the term “externalities,” which apparently just means “ramifications.” What it means is that students who learn to cheat because of an arbitrary educational system later learn to cheat on taxes because of an arbitrary accounting/tax system. People use whatever privileges they can gather to give themselves more perks, at the expense of the whole. This leads to more regulations that people get around by cheating. Eventually the culture becomes so geared to regulations and workarounds that everyone is invested in it and there’s no incentive to reform. In Italy, there’s even a word for this sort of person, a furbo. I’m not convinced it’s an insult.

At the risk of being totally obnoxious, I sent the article on to the school administrator, who seemed happy to receive it.  But in all honesty, these problems go deep, and I don’t know how to fix them, especially in a culture I don’t understand.  We can only start with ourselves, and I’m just thankful that our homeschooling years taught Sarie to enjoy learning before gaming the system became an uncontrollable temptation.


Unwrapping my market eggs was interesting today.  First, there was the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Then there were blonde actresses in clingy dresses. (Italian men seem to like these.)

And finally, there were the inevitable winter vacation ads, and the eggs. Never a dull moment!  I made scones.

Degas in Torino

A woman at her toilette, drying her feet, Edgar Degas, pastel, 1886

On loan from the Musée D’Orsay, Paris

Today I went with a friend to see a jewel of an art exhibit at the Palazzina della Società Promotrice delle Belle Arti in Parco Valentino.  This made me very happy, as I miss the Degas paintings and pastels (especially the bathers) at the Metropolitan Museum. The Bellelli Family portrait was also part of the exhibit, as were several other early paintings.  But there was a bit of everything.

I also found out what happens when you take an adorable seven-month-old, blue-eyed baby girl into an art exhibit in Italy.  People made a fuss.  They touched the baby’s hands. They paid her over-the-top compliments. They forgot to look at the artwork!  And on the way home, as I surfed down the tram’s aisle with the baby in one arm so my friend could get the stroller off the tram, a woman pulled on the baby’s jacket and said, “Pull down her jacket. She’s going to get cold!”  I smiled, preferring to keep my balance and thus protect the baby’s head.  It was 65 degrees out.

Both the Degas exhibit and the women telling my friend to overdress the baby reminded me of New York.  Some things are the same in either place.

Fall market

View of the Alps near my apartment.  It doesn’t look this clear every day! But to get an idea of how big they are, consider that they’re an hour’s drive from here.

Today is a föhn day, and one of those rare days when Torino really looks like my welcome photo above, with clouds just peeking over the back of the mountains.  While crossing the avenue on the way out to take out some drycleaning, I looked to the left and got a startling view of the Alps with snow. The wind is blowing so hard I can’t keep my shutters open. In fact, you can hear them banging all over the neighborhood. My laundry outside is whipping around itself and rolling up on the line, but it’s drying quickly!  Meanwhile, I’ve been inside cleaning while listening to Brahms on the iPod.  I am utterly silly over Brahms’ chamber music.


This weekend I met a woman who is a paralegal for Bob’s firm and we went shopping for food. This is the follow up to some arrangements we made earlier in Busca.

I met Carolina outside Eataly on Via LaGrange and we went to Porta Palazzo, the main market. The entire time we were walking there, she was explaining how the same conservatory teacher mixup happened to her son that happened to Sarie, but it turned out to be a good thing, because the new teacher was great! In the middle of the conversation, she’d stop in the middle of the street because she wanted to emphasize some point. It took quite a while for us to get to the market this way, but by the time we arrived, I understood a lot more about the conservatory.

(Update after I posted this:  Sarie was actually quite happy with her first lesson with the new teacher today. So maybe this bureaucratic mistake will turn out well!)

At the market, she wanted to show me a special apple stand. People were swarming all around it–even my friend Jacqueline!  I put some of my favorite kinds of apples in my bag, but Carolina didn’t think those were enough, and kept putting other kinds in that I’d never seen before, and pears. “Oh, you’ll want these. Get the ones that are more golden.”  When I got home, I noticed I had a couple that I didn’t remember picking up at all.

Carolina also found raw, just-picked olives, another fall specialty. Again, she wanted a particular kind.  They looked like big cranberries.  When we got back to her apartment, she fried and salted them and they tasted like grilled radicchio.

While standing in the market, she explained how to make potato, winter squash and chestnut gnocchi.  She made sure I bought the right kind of potatoes and squash for them. Later when she realized I didn’t have a food processor, she said to leave out the chestnuts for now, but I have the squash gnocchi on my menu for this week.  Since Italians don’t tend to use recipes, but just tell you how to do something, this may take more than one try on my part.  That’s fine.

On the way out, we got cachi (a squishy fruit something like a kiwi and mango that I only later realized was what Americans call a persimmon), and fichi d’india, which are apparently a cactus fruit.  Then we passed a  stand with some large yellow melons.  Carolina didn’t seem to be as familiar with these, but they’re just coming into season (probably from Sicily), so we got some. Turns out they’re even better than the summer ones! In return, I showed Carolina where the Arabic men sold cilantro, which she wasn’t familiar with. So at least in one small way, I was able to contribute something to the cultural exchange.  Even though I really can’t imagine it going with Italian food.

Back at her house, Carolina whipped up a risotto while one of her twin sons treated me to a piano concert. He’d had enough of all the discussion being about the other son’s instrument, violin. He played Chopin quite well, and didn’t quit playing even when his mother warned him that the risotto needed to be eaten right away. (Italians aren’t as shy about their playing skills as Americans are.) Sarie joined us just for lunch, and the conversation turned to skiing. We still haven’t been, and we want to!  There was a lovely, shiny chocolate pudding for dessert.

After lunch, Carolina took me around her neighborhood: to Eataly, to a particular cheese shop where I got goat’s milk robiola, and to a pig butcher (yes, only pigs), who was closed for siesta, and then we did some window shopping. Somehow, by the time we did all of this, it was five o’clock. I’d had a lot of fun and had been speaking Italian for seven hours. I was exhausted and energized at the same time. But it was a day well spent, and our family is going to be eating fruit for quite a while!

Top to bottom: Various kinds of red-gold apples and pears, squash for gnocchi, fichi d’india, a caco, half a yellow melon (that looks a little too lemony in my photo), and yet more apples and pears, including the kind that you’re supposed to buy more golden.

A red-letter day in our bureaucratic lives

As of today, our family is finally part of the Italian health-care system. We can now go to the doctor. It took one year and two months. Part of the problem, admittedly, was that I had no idea how to find out where you sign up, nor did anyone else. Another part of the delay was that there are a number of pre-requisite documents that you have to have first. In the end, I discovered that the health care system is one of the very few things in Italy that you can apply for by e-mail—I don’t think even many Italians know this! Very thankfully, we’ve not been sick with anything worse than a cold since we arrived.

In other bureaucratic news, two of us received renewed permessi di soggiorno (immigration permits) today.  All we had to do was pick up the cards, but we waited an hour.  The questura, which is the immigration office for non-EU/EEA immigrants, is hands down the most unpleasant building in Torino. It has no (or little) heat, no air-conditioning, and looks like a jail. In fact, it is a police headquarters. In true “Harrison Bergeron” fashion, buzzers go off approximately every ten seconds, for one of three different number/waiting systems. Bob thinks all the people waiting ought to arrange a flashmob to brighten things up–each country doing its own choreographed dance. My own morning was brightened when I ran into a woman from church who was helping her husband to submit his paperwork.

Sarie’s permesso wasn’t ready.  I spoke cheerfully to the woman behind the counter about Sarie missing school, and she wrote on the back of Sarie’s receipt, “Ritira senza numero.”   This means she can go straight into the main room after school, without waiting for the buzzer!  Our first bureaucratic favor!  And I’m happy that these new permessi are for two years, which means we don’t have to do this again next year.

As I came back to the apartment and picked up the mail, there was an envelope from the anagrafe.  The anagrafe is the office that controls residency–for everyone, not just immigrants. We don’t have anything like it in the US. They had found Bob’s lost carta d’identità, the one Turkish customs accidentally kept when they were checking his passport.  He doesn’t need it now, because he’s already gone through the whole process again and gotten a new one, but we did laugh that it was addressed to sig. Anderson.  This idea that our name should be Anderson seems to be so universal that we think we should create an identity for our bureaucratic alter-egos, as in Prokofiev’s Lt. Kijé.

The strangest bit of bureaucratic news this week: Sarie missed getting the talented teacher she wanted at the conservatory because no one told her she had to send in a written request to the director. Mind you, this isn’t posted anywhere, nor did anyone tell her this is what you have to do. Knowing how arbitrary the process was, Sarie had even asked for help at the office with her re-enrollment. And furthermore, everyone knew which teacher she wanted and her previous teacher (who retired) had even said he was “handing his students over” to this teacher. But now she’s been assigned a new teacher that no one even knows, so we have to hope for the best.

But, we’re getting used to this sort of thing by now. An Italian friend told me that the same thing happened to her son. Things don’t always work according to merit in Italy, but if Sarie continues to work as hard as she has been lately, I don’t see how they can’t not notice. Or at least, eventually she’ll get her official European diploma and go study somewhere else.

The weirdest thing about all of this is that no situation in this post would have even occurred to me before we moved here last September.  But here, not only does it happen, but no one even thinks it’s strange.

Oh, and we moved into our apartment exactly one year ago today.

Short Sandy post

(I made a few corrections below based on your comments!)

I know this blog isn’t a place to go for Sandy updates, but needless to say, I’ve been following the news.  And I just thought that I’d post that I’ve heard at least indirectly from some friends who comment here, like Julia and Barbara, and know that they are okay for now. Barbara, though, lives downtown where there’s no power, there was flooding on the lower floors of their building, and when I last heard from her directly, seven of them were home together.* MacBeth is without power, I suspect, in Long Island. Silvana seems to be fine in upstate New York Connecticut. My guess is that Monica, because of her husband’s job, is way out of town. (Actually, she wasn’t!) And our neighborhood and apartment, so far as I can tell, got off relatively light.

*Update: I had an e-mail from Barbara on Friday night.  She told an incredible story, elaborating on the one-sentence version above.  But it’s her family’s story, so I won’t share it unless she wants to later, and naturally she has other priorities at the moment.  I’m hoping they’ll get power back today, but that’s just from reading the papers.  They ask for prayers for their neighbors.

Among other friends who aren’t necessarily blog readers, everyone I’ve heard about so far is okay.  This doesn’t mean they’re back to normal, but just that they’re coping with things as they are. Bob’s former colleague and now family friend Rachel, an Upper West Sider quoted in this story, says she didn’t really yell at the cab.

This photo, from the Do-Something page on Facebook, is one of my favorites from the storm.  It’s a guy who set up a hub on the street to charge people’s cellphones

Most updates and news I see are rather typically New York-under-duress: stoic, generous, creative, exhibiting a clever gallows humor, but I’m aware that for some people, things are much worse or may become so.  I feel somewhat the same way I did after September 11, which was the event that took us from being temporary New Yorkers (we arrived in early 1998) to long-term ones.  Only I don’t live there now.

I’m reading the NY Times, which is free right now, but I find that NY1 and Gothamist also have useful news.  And I’m following a couple of Twitter feeds, but I’m new to Twitter, so don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. If anyone else finds another good news source or has first-hand news, feel free to post it here.

My thoughts and prayers are with you, New Yorkers and metro New Yorkers.  I know you’ve got other things to worry about right now, but check in if you get a chance!