This morning I was cleaning up the kitchen and listening to a lecture on You Tube.  Oh, you know me–it was Tim Keller talking about The Crossing of the Red Sea as a metaphor for salvation. I was, as I am so often lately, alone, and know I will be for the entire day, except when I go out and buy food for dinner. But since my Italian is limited, so is my conversation.

As I was putting on a second cup of coffee, Dr. Keller got to the part about the crossing proper (about 35:00 into the video).  There’s a wall of water on the left, and a wall of water on the right, and the Israelites start crossing.  Some of them are confident to the point of cockiness: “The Lord is on our side!  Eat your heart out, Egyptians!” and they swagger across.  Others are looking at the walls of water (maybe thinking about the physics they learned while building pyramids) and thinking, “I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna die…!” But of course the point is, they get across.

I know which one I am, temperamentally-speaking—the latter. Whether the proximate cause is February, too many mid-life changes and reminders that the world is broken, or a mild chemical glitch, I don’t know. It could be worse, I’m sure, but there are days when all my best counsel, which I truly believe, doesn’t make a dent in my mood.  And what I like even less is the effect of my moods on others.

On Sunday, a chance conversation with my pastor got me reading about the poet Cowper. William Cowper was an 18th C. poet, a friend of John Newton’s who not only wrote the well-known Olney hymns, but he was also an early-Romantic inspiration to Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Yet he was orphaned, bullied, forbidden to marry his first love, and though he became a Christian, he was haunted his whole life by fear of damnation.  After his wife Mary Unwin died, he sank into a depression from which he never recovered.

Does this mean he didn’t believe the gospel?  Not from what I can tell. More likely he had clinical depression, brought on by his early traumas or his genetic makeup.  “Oh! with what a surprise of joy,” wrote Newton a few days after Cowper’s death, “would he find himself immediately before the throne, and in the presence of his Lord! All his sorrows left below, and earth exchanged for heaven.”

So when I heard Dr. Keller talking about the fearful Israelites, I laughed out loud.  Alone, in my kitchen.  Because if my witness depended on my faith, and on my mood, it would be in big trouble: I collapse under a lot less pressure than Cowper. But it doesn’t depend on my faith; it depends on the object of my faith, God in Jesus. Good heavens, what a relief! And yes, I knew that, but it was good to get a reminder.

Now, that said, the sun is out for the first time in days.  I’ve made my confession.  Now I’m going to the market, to do the next thing.


Losing myself on the Collina

White-Wagtail600px-Regulus_regulus_60North_cropped 600px-Gold_Finch

Ballerina bianca (White Wagtail), regolo (Goldcrest), and cardellino (European Goldfinch)

Yesterday I took a long hike. Torino has a lot of trails on the Collina, the large hill across the Po, but I had never hiked any because I couldn’t find the trailheads. But this week I found a place that sells trail maps, got directions, and so I was determined to try one.  It was February and I just wanted to be outside for as long as possible. My goal was La Colle della Maddelena, a park at the top of the Collina.

The day wasn’t gorgeous. In fact, it was sort of typical Torino winter weather, 30s-40s and overcast, with a damp cold. I put on my layers, packed the map, binoculars and some lunch (and my documenti, of course), and took a bus just across the river to the trailhead.

The first part of the trail was along the Po.  There I saw a tree full of cormorants, a river full of gulls, a few ducks, and the usual people rowing.  As I looked more closely, I also saw little black and white birds that flew in scallops and pumped their tails up and down. I remembered them from a sign I’d seen in the park–ballerine bianche (white dancers, or in English, White Wagtails). Later I saw a flock of small birds feeding along the path. At first I thought they were just sparrows, but then noticed that they were more delicate flyers, with touches of bright color. Goldfinches!

The European goldfinch is more exotic-looking than its American cousin.  I recognized it from a coffee table book that I used to look at growing up, which had a copy of Rafael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch in it. Of course it was a local bird. In Italian, it’s called a cardellino, a little cardinal.

Soon the trail left the river and started to climb. The paved trail went past a ruined villa and then ran out.  My destination was about 3km of trails and 715m in altitude away, but that wasn’t the main challenge.  Soon I realized how much snow was still on the ground.  And mud from melted snow.  I briefly wondered if I was getting myself into something foolish, but then kept going.

I went by a church, through a park, and along some roads that were labeled “antica strada,” which means they are old (usually medieval) roads that have been superseded by modern ones. Often they’re just footpaths that join a paved road here and there. After the roads on the outskirts of town, I spent a long time walking through the woods. Some of the trails weren’t clearly marked. Sometimes the mud caked on my shoes and made the going slippery. I lost some time. But I kept going.

Two hours later, I saw the last switchbacks before the Colle. They were lined with the names of war dead. At about the same time, I heard a very tiny and familiar “seep.”  It sounded like kinglets!  (My favorite birds.) And that’s what they were–Goldcrests, the European cousins of the Golden-crowned Kinglet.  In Italian they’re called regoli, or rulers. These had a slightly more pronounced pattern on the backs of their wings than American kinglets do, but they were very similar. It was nice to see one again.

And then I heard an even stranger noise, and looked up to see a small black and white bird waving its long tail in the air and making a strange tsk. A codibugnolo. In English, Long-tailed Tit.

Finally I reached the top. The only other time I’d been up to the Colle, in a car, it had been bustling with dayhikers and cyclists. Now there was not a single other soul around. You couldn’t see the Alps across the valley because of the clouds. And the bar that serves the park was closed. The weather, in fact, was so inhospitable that I decided against my original idea of a picnic lunch. Instead I went across the street, drank my requisite afternoon macchiato, put all my warm wraps back on, and started downhill while munching my piadina.

Given that they way up was so muddy, I decided to try a different route down. This one was snowy and muddy, too, but at least I was going faster now. Occasionally I even descended in a controlled skid. This path was even more deserted than the other one, and the trails less marked, but with my map, I recognized enough landmarks to keep going.

Just when I had been alone and away from farmsteads for so long that I began to feel I was hiking in the wilderness of Oregon, I came to an intersection in the path, where I saw another woman my own age, walking along so calmly and in such civilized clothing that she seemed to be on her way to a city bus stop. We greeted one another, but at first she didn’t seem to want to talk, so I went on ahead. But as I got around the curve and hit another slippery downhill, she started calling out some instructions.  Then we started talking.

She was on her way home from work and said she often took the trails instead of the bus, because it was more relaxing. She preferred them in winter, when there weren’t so many people (I’ll say!).  And she had the right kind of shoes. (Here she pointed to her feet.)

I mentioned that I was surprised the trails were so deserted, and that I’d asked some friends if they’d wanted to hike, but no one could.

“I know,” she commiserated, “They think you’re crazy.  They do that to me too.”

I told her where I was going and showed her my map. About this time, we came to an open field and she said we were supposed to walk through it. I decided she must have been my guardian angel, because there was no trail or sign anywhere. But walk we did, and then we came to a road, where she pointed out a lovely square, white manor house.  “The house of my dreams!” she confided. Her name was Anna.

We went along together for about thirty minutes before she turned off to where she needed to go, and by this time, we were back in the hilly outskirts of Torino, where there are lots of large homes surrounded by land and walls. I kept following the map, managed to get myself lost a couple more times and once found myself amidst donkeys and sheep. But eventually I made it down to the intersection where the bus stop back home was.  I plopped gratefully into a seat, vaguely aware the I was alarmingly dirty.  In fact, when I arrived home and Sarie saw my muddy jeans, she said, “You walked down Corso Vittorio like that?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sure I looked pretty odd,” I admitted. Most women on Corso Vittorio wear elegant down coats and boots. I was wearing a Patagonia pile zip jacket, a hand knit  cap, and an ancient backpack with the straps hanging down. And a considerable amount of mud.  But I was satisfied.  I’d given myself a challenge and completed it.  I was tired enough to sleep. I’d seen some birds.  And I’d maintained my American independence, or something like that.

375px-SchwanzmeiseCodibugnolo (Long-tailed Tit)


(Update:  I added a couple of new photos below.)

I’ve not been adding the blog as often lately: Bob is busy doing his things, Sarie is busy doing her things, and their lives are, for the most part, their lives. And my own, which has followed theirs for so long, hasn’t had time to take a decidedly new direction yet. I’ve hit the “in betweens.”

But there’s some news:

Bob is about to embark on a travel-intensive month. Among other places, he is going to Japan. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan! So I’m hoping for a repeat in a few years during which I will be free to go along, having let him work out all the glitches. Meanwhile, I think I’m going to invite some people over for dinner while he’s gone.

He’s also studying for his Italian driver’s license test. Because US driver’s licenses are issued by states, few European countries have worked out reciprocal agreements with the US for license exchange. So you have to start over like a new driver. Also, the test is much more comprehensive, coming from a bank of 6400 questions–in Italian. You can miss 4/40 of them. Bob says it’s the hardest thing he’s done since passing the bar.

So for now, no one in the family can drive. Thank goodness there’s public transportation!


Sarie’s and friends’ baroque group (photo credit Sergio Patria, the cellist’s father)

Sarie doesn’t much care for the IB program.  She is literally making X marks in a paper calendar until she’s done.  But she’s hanging in there, and it’s likely good practice, at this age, to simply manage something for two years whether you like it or not, because it shows you why it might be worth working hard and thinking creatively to find a way to do something you like instead. And in the end, she’ll get the piece of paper she needs to proceed with her music studies.

Meanwhile, she does like her Baroque group.  They’ve played in two other venues since my Castle Concert post, and they’ve added two new members to the group. I hear rumors that they’re searching for basses and lutes. And yesterday they tried a vocal encore that went over well. They don’t seem to have much trouble getting venues and press. And they even get paid!


A couple of photos from yesterday’s concert in Biella (photos by Sergio Patria).

Yesterday Bob and I went to Biella to hear them play at, of all things, a medical conference. Before the concert, we found ourselves listening to a lecture on medical developments in the 17th and 18th centuries (microscopes, mapping the circulatory system, the last widespread plague, and smallpox vaccines). It was like a review of the first week of tenth grade biology, which was fine with me because I used it for a language lesson. And now I know, in addition to tenth grade biology, that the Italian classic I Promessi Sposi includes an outbreak of the plague.

During the concert, I was amused to hear all the old ladies in the audience whispering to each other, after each movement, the name of the next one.  “Adagio…allegro…siciliana…” Until, during one of the Corelli pieces, Bruno stamped. That shook them up! All throughout, of course, there were the requisite “Che bella!”s


As for me, I’ve been shuffling a lot of papers lately and I think it’s time for a break.  Today I think I’ll do some housework, listen to a movie in Italian, and try some more artwork.

Che bella!

Conversation over Sunday lunch

For the past couple of Sunday afternoons, Sarie has gone somewhere with friends after church, so Bob and I have eaten lunch out. Last Sunday we wandered around the northern part of town, which we like for its narrow streets and city feel, until we found an Italian version of a vintage diner. There we ate lunch–caponatina siciliana, polpette (Bob, because he always orders the same thing at least twice), and carne crudo or bucatini (me, because I rarely order the same thing twice).

The restaurant’s name (Pastis, meaning anisette) and menu were vaguely French, but not really. The chairs were 1960s-style laminate in fiesta ware  colors, and in the back room there was a glass-covered inset in the floor with a brightly colored piece of cement displayed underneath. It looked similar to something I’d seen in New York.

“What is that under the glass in the floor?” I asked the cashier as we paid.

“A piece of the Berlin wall,” he said lackadaisically. I’d guessed correctly. That was because I’d seen another piece of the wall at the Intrepid Museum.

The other employees were more enthusiastic. The first Sunday, we ordered a creme brûlée and were trying to figure out what gave it a slightly different taste. Nutmeg, perhaps? When we asked, the very young waitress brought out…a box. We laughed to ourselves that she had admitted the cream came from a powder, but the box did have all the ingredients on it. No nutmeg.

This Sunday we sat in the front room of the restaurant. There was no Berlin wall, but we could see more customers. Shortly afterwards another couple came in with their eight-year-old son. He was an only child and obviously much beloved, though he would occasionally get a bit carried away. At one point we heard him rather loudly sing-song, “Na-na-na-na boo-boo!” and I whispered, “They do that here, too?” Bob responded, “That was a very American-sounding ‘a.’ Do you supposed he’s been watching movies in English?” We looked at him amusedly, at which his parents gently quieted him.

About halfway through our meal, while a waitress was standing at their table, we heard him say, “Bye-bye!” in English. The waitress said something back to him, and we heard him say in Italian, “If you can’t at least say ‘good-bye’ and ‘hello’ in English, you are poorly-educated.” At which Bob muttered into his plate, “Sono maleducato in italiano.”

This week our young waitress was wearing a neck brace. A run in between her motorcycle and a car, she explained. Thankfully nothing broken. We ordered bonet, a Piemontese chocolate pudding cake, for dessert instead of the creme brûlée. The homemade bonet Bob had tried at his office was better, he decided.

About the time we were finishing our coffee (coffee is always after dessert), the little boy got up and walked by our table.  As he passed, he suddenly did a double-take. Then he kept walking slowly, but his eyes were glued to Bob, and his mouth slightly open. Bob slowed down his speech and started using simpler words, to see if he could understand. Suddenly the boy ran back to his parents, crying: “Parlano inglese!!”

We had become a living field trip.

We purposely went up and paid at the same time they did. As both families left the restaurant, Bob turned to the boy and said, “Buona giornata,” and then repeated in English, “Have a nice day.”  The little boy suddenly looked shy.

Il tuo italiano è molto meglio del mio,” I offered. (Your Italian is way better than mine.)

“See you later,” said the mom, in English, smiling, and we went our separate ways.

I really want to speak Italian now. I want to expand our ability to make friends. I’m reading books, looking up extra words, and trying to have more extensive conversations with people. I still butcher the grammar every which way.  But I’m learning.