(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Month: April, 2013

Laundry day

DSC_0050This view from my balcony is Italian on so many levels that I just had to take a photo.  (I confess that I didn’t notice one of the ways until I enlarged the photo just now.)

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This afternoon

It’s a sunny afternoon.  I’m sitting in the green armchair studying Italian, with three workbooks spread out on ottomans and chairs all around.  I’m looking once again for those charts with the direct and indirect object pronouns, because they continue to elude me. And those prepositions! Sono di New York, ma vengo da New York. This morning a girl from Brazil brought a birthday cake to share with our Italian class.  We all conversed in awkward Italian, because it’s our only common language. Sometimes the other American and I cheat a little.

The tall living room balcony doors are slightly parted to keep the sun from heating up the room. Down below I hear a little girl and her mom talking to Angelo. The girl is talking in a melodic voice; no, she’s actually singing, in the way of all three-year-olds, slightly out of tune.  I look at Sarie, who is sprawled on the sofa doing math homework, and she grins.  Could it be Nina, now a year older?  I take a peek. The girl I see has brown hair to her shoulders, a bright pink coat and orange hat, and she’s riding a scooter. We think she’s probably too old to be Nina, but we decide to reserve judgment until we see our little neighbor emerge on her nonna’s balcony.

The lui piccolo was back in the willow tree this morning. The workmen started renovation on that side of the building.  That is to say, they brought a pile of rusted hollow poles for scaffolding and then went to lunch. Regardless, birds are singing everywhere.

Alberto surprised Sarie outside her school at noon and they went to the park.

Meanwhile, I did a load of wash and hung it out before class.  It’s already dry.  I have to admit that the old man was right; I did finally kill the Christmas tree.  At noon I stood out on the balcony combing off the dry needles so they wouldn’t shed when I took the tree downstairs.  I had a momentary memory of our Israeli super on the Upper East Side, muttering under her breath in operatic contralto as she swept tree needles from the elevator in December.  But I didn’t mind sweeping needles in April.

Finally Sarie and I both finished our homework.  We decided to walk up to Grom for our first gelato of the year–caramello al sale and cioccolato fondente, because you always order two flavors in Italy. I grabbed my foam-green spring jacket from the closet and immediately found a tram ticket from November 19th in the pocket.  Sarie ironed a lightweight dress with a floral pattern and donned sunglasses. Coats from the morning chill lay abandoned on floors and chairs.  We started up C.so Vinzaglio, under the portici, admiring children and dogs, and ate our ice cream in the sun near the fortress.

For the past two weeks, all the talk has been about the spring that never arrives.  Finally, it’s here.

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Luì piccolo

Common Chiffchaff, or luì piccolo.  Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Common Chiffchaff, or luì piccolo. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Though the weather remains cold and cloudy, the willow trees outside our bedroom window have started to put out leaves this week.  This morning I looked out to see three of these tiny birds hovering and feeding among the new buds and leaves.  Having identified a lot of US warblers, I thought I could quickly memorize their markings, but when I went to look in my bird guide, there were a million warblers that looked like this!  But mercifully, one came back, and even sang.  The returning warbler enabled me to get a better look and make an identification.

He’s actually one of the more common European birds, but not too many of them come into the parking lot between our building and the one next door. And there will be even fewer next week when the workers start renovating the exterior of our building. So this morning’s appearance was a real treat!

May your day, wherever you are, contain a bit of serendipity, a luì piccolo of one sort or the other.

The power of narrative in the imperfect life

There’s an article from Relevant Magazine that’s making its way around Facebook right now, called “Stop Instagramming Your Perfect Life.”  In it, the author makes an impassioned plea for real community rather than carefully-crafted images of the perfect life. She keeps hearing people say things like the following:

“I stopped following a friend on Instagram, and now that I don’t see nonstop snapshots of her perfect life, I like her better.”

And then she adds:

Yikes. This is a thing. This is coming up in conversation after conversation. The danger of the internet is that it’s very very easy to tell partial truths—to show the fabulous meal but not the mess to clean up afterward. To display the smiling couple-shot, but not the fight you had three days ago. To offer up the sparkly milestones but not the spiraling meltdowns.

I liked some things about this article. I agree with the parts about admitting that you have weaknesses (in a general way), the part about realizing the limitations of Facebook or Pinterest, and the part about building real community offline (please do!). But documenting in detail the messes, the fights, and the spiraling meltdowns? I’m just not going to do that. And I’d like to talk about why.

Before I do that, one thing I have to get out of the way is the limitations of Facebook. It doesn’t even allow detailed documentation. It gives me a very superficial connection with various friends and relatives that I might not hear from otherwise, and sometimes it gives me a good laugh or a pause for thought, as with this article. But on Facebook, if you type more than a line or two, you are in danger being socially inappropriate. It favors the witty quip to the nuanced thought, and no one looks at an album with more than five photos in it. How much community can you build with that? How can you even connect your own thoughts on Facebook?

Blogs offer at least a little more. When I started my first blog, it was because I wanted to practice writing and to exchange ideas, and didn’t want my audience to feel obligated to respond, as they might do if I were a personal friend or family member. Looking back, I think that blog succeeded in what it was supposed to do. A lot of it was just vignettes about homeschooling, life in New York City, and some reactions to articles. But it wasn’t supposed to be a substitute for real life community any more than Facebook was.  And here are some other things my blogs are not:

My blogs have never, ever been a source of advice. If you get something useful out of one of my blog posts, fine.  But I don’t assume anyone who reads has enough of the context of my life to imitate what I’m doing, if they ever wanted to–which I doubt!  Our circumstances are rather unusual in several ways.

When reading my blog, I also assume that everyone realizes our life has its ups and downs. I would definitely consider my posts to be a highlight reel. I keep this blog sort of like a narrative scrapbook. When I’m taking the photos that go in a scrapbook (paper or virtual), sometimes life is not so pleasant. But when I look back at what I’ve put down, I’m often encouraged.  I realize that good things did happen during that period.  And hopefully I, or someone in our family, made the effort to create memories.  Memory-making is something you have to make an effort to do.

There’s another reason I try to keep this blog positive: Negativity spirals. Thinking about life’s difficulties and what might happen because of them really can deepen them. I have learned this through experience. During the past couple of years, a lot of things have been changing rapidly in our family. Some of these things have been quite challenging, and I don’t have the foggiest idea how they’re going to turn out. Just to give myself a reality check, I’ve occasionally written about them in my journals.  But even there, once I acknowledge that I’m not imagining things, I often end up tearing out what I write, because I realize the power that my own narrative holds. Instead I cry out to the Lord in the manner of the Psalms, and then I try for all I’m worth to make the wisest decisions I can and to forgive and accept forgiveness. Faith requires a certain effort on my part to keep focused on the Lord. And I do have plenty of blessings in my life, for which I am thankful. Just forget the glamorous expat stereotype.

And finally, I have to protect the privacy of the other people I blog about. That’s simple enough.

In short, the blog format simply won’t permit the sort of intimacy that allows for real community, and I assume people know that. It still doesn’t stop me from appreciating your blogs if you have them, enjoying your comments on mine, and looking forward to making more posts. If you’re a great photographer or have a gift for writing, I appreciate your art. If you have come through specific difficulties and have great advice for others, I appreciate that too. And I must say that most of the people I know both online and in real life are pretty much the same both places. But with my own blog, I mostly just do quick sketches of what’s going on, because frankly, nothing else feels right to me.

One last thought: There may even be a few people out there whose lives seem to be resumé perfect, online and off.  In that case, I can only say two things:

No one’s life is always like that.

And if it were, are these the people you’d turn to in a pinch?

Now, feel free to go enjoy someone’s highlight reel if you like.  But don’t think for a minute that it’s their whole story.

Local history in film

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A few posts ago, I mentioned that Sarie had a part in a movie.  This small production,  A.D. 1245, is based on local history at the time of Pope Innocent IV and Emperor Frederick II.  From what I’ve read of the script and seen of the trailer, the plot involves political intrigue, betrayal and an invasion in the Valle di Lanzo north of Torino. It’s the stuff of Sir Walter Scott novels, or their Italian equivalent.

Since this is mostly a medieval and swashbuckling sort of movie, most of the leads are male, but the Duke of Lanzo’s daughter does play a part in the story.  That’s where Sarie comes in. But I can’t give away the plot, now can I?

You didn’t know Sarie acted?  Neither did I. (Nor did she, she adds.)  But she’s friends with the director/lead actor, Alberto, who also organizes her Baroque group.  And apparently the part comes quite naturally to her.

The crew is very resourceful in making everything look proper to its era with very limited time, manpower, and money. Much of yesterday’s shoot took place in an abandoned building, with jury-rigged props.  Alberto put Christmas tree lights in the fireplace for embers and/or color correction, and will later create a computer-generated fire to go with them.  The fireplace itself is a transformed armoire.  The bed sits on bricks. To make the non-existent fire flicker, someone waved an arm in front of the lighting. And so forth.  But in the end, it all looks fairly convincing.

Since the movie is, naturally, in Italian, the crew initially planned to dub someone else’s voice over Sarie’s. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the Duke of Lanzo’s daughter to have an American accent. But they worked on the accent, and as the time for shooting neared, they decided that the main difficulty, her e’s, sounded reasonably Piemontese, if not exactly Italian. After that, she just had to avoid too many r’s in one sentence.

Sarie, meanwhile, was quite happy about getting to wear a medieval dress. Later on she gets to wield a sword for a bit and fall off a horse.  And get a gash painted on her face. And even build some sets.

Anyway, this is how she’ll continue to spend some of her vacation time until the movie is finished (hopefully) in December.  Not bad for the joint efforts of music students and a local historical society!  Then they just have to figure out how to distribute it.  I think that, given some English subtitles, it looks like a natural choice for homeschoolers, don’t you?

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Not-exactly-the-IB-type

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I let Sarie choose, from among several images, how to represent herself as “not-very-IB.”   This is the one she choose.  I’d say a 19th C. medievalist is pretty spot-on!

Our family has really enjoyed the Easter Break.  Bob is home, Sarie has several days off from school, and while Bob unwinds from his trip, Sarie and I are taking time to do the most un-IB things we can think of.  We’ve been spring shopping, we’re cooking, and I’m reading Tolkien aloud while she knits. She’s also practicing violin a lot and tomorrow she’ll will go work on the movie I mentioned earlier, which is based on local medieval history.  At the moment she’s playing Bob in chess.

Yesterday I read Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle.  If you don’t know the story, it’s about a middling painter who wants to complete one satisfying work of art during his lifetime, a landscape painting featuring a magnificent tree. But he doesn’t always use his time as he should and he’s often interrupted by bureaucratic necessity or piddling requests from others. As a result, his earthly reputation remains obscure to the end. But when Niggle arrives in heaven, he finds that his so-so work has not only been completed as he dreamed of it, but it has been made into a real country that helps others.

As I closed the book, I was thinking of some of Sarie’s frustrations and interruptions this past year: notably missing out on the violin teacher she wanted and having to enroll in the IB program. “Isn’t this a lovely story?” I commented as I closed the book.  “Maybe God has a way of redeeming the IB program, which you’ll only find out about when you arrive in heaven.”

Sarie looked aghast. “Oh, no!  I don’t want to get to heaven and discover that all my internal assessments have been completed!”

We both burst out laughing.  I think we both agree that internal assessments are anything but heavenly.

The IB program is billed as a critical thinking program, because it takes things apart.  What it is is bureaucratic.  It’s bureaucratic in the Swiss sense, that of having a million central procedures.  But apparently here the procedures take on an Italian twist.  Sure, there are standards, but it seems you can only find out what they are by not fulfilling them.

“It’s sort of like that book Epaminondas,” Sarie mused at lunch yesterday. She was referring to a Trina Schart Hyman book we used to read in which a little boy tries to perform various tasks to help his aunt, but since “He hasn’t got the sense he was born with,” he keeps following the instructions from the task before and thus bungling the job at hand.  What’s more, in the IB Sarie is apparently supposed to intuit these instructions. “Once I learn from my mistakes, they’ve moved on to something else that no one will tell me how to do.”

During a parent/teacher conference in February, I saw an example of what she was talking about. The teacher had taken off a letter grade from an otherwise excellent article, written during class in Italian, because Sarie didn’t guess that she was supposed to put her name and the title at the bottom of the paper (her name was at the top). There was another such paper, from January, in which the grade was unusually low. Sarie didn’t remember this grade at all and even the teacher didn’t remember what it was for, so I wanted to see it, but I was told that the paper in question had already been archived.  I requested that it be “un-archived,” since it had cost her yet another letter grade in a subject in which she does relatively well. I still haven’t seen the paper.

Still, Sarie is finding that over time, she understands the IB requirements better, even if they do seem like nonsense.  On a recent biology test, “I put down the same thing twice in slightly different ways, and got both points for the question,” she remarked wryly.

A couple of times a teacher has suggested that Sarie might not have enough of a social life, since she doesn’t hang out with the kids after school.  Little does she know.  But I don’t feel it’s my duty to supply the school with the details of Sarie’s music friendships, so I didn’t enlighten her.  I did say that she’d made a remarkable adjustment to life in Italy.

And then there’s the math teacher.  Every other Thursday, he hands back tests and spends half the class time yelling curses at the class in two languages.  He seems to pick a special victim to provoke, usually a girl.  One, who was admittedly being difficult on purpose, has already left the class. But he banished another student a couple of weeks ago when her behavior was quite reasonable.  That day the teacher was so out-of-control I got a text from Sarie asking me to call the head of the school.  The head was sympathetic and has sat in on the class, but admittedly it’s rather hard for her to catch the teacher mid-rant. Sarie isn’t being picked on personally, but that’s not the point with her. She’s upset at the injustice of the situation and the waste of class time.

Regardless, the reason Sarie was so glad for a break this week was English lit.

Last year she loved Western Lit to Dante with Dr. McMenomy from Scholars Online.  The class read Greeks, Latins, and medieval authors, including, of course, Dante.  Sarie read some of it in medieval Italian.  She had been hoping to eventually take his Senior English course.

This year’s English class seems to be study in how far one can get from Western Lit. When I saw the book list in the fall I gave them (there are only two students in the class) until February to start throwing the books at the wall.  Sarie made it to the end of March, when the teacher showed the movie Blade Runner before Sarie had even gotten past the first chapter of the book version, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Sarie’s reaction to the movie was visceral enough that she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to watch it.  I know it’s a critically acclaimed movie.  I saw it years ago myself.  But tastes vary, and Sarie felt trapped.

Sarie says next year the IB program will involve writing lots more papers on the material they’ve covered this year, completing their community service hours, and taking mock and real exams.  She’ll also be trying to prepare for a conservatory audition elsewhere in Europe, if she can find someone to teach her the specifics required for a top-notch audition.

The bright side to all this is that the teachers (most of them) do show concern for Sarie’s well-being and patience with her strong opinions.  I honestly think they mean well.  It’s just that they’re dealing with a bureaucratic system and furthermore they don’t really have a clue how her mind works.  It’s not the best fit for Sarie’s interests, but it’s the only option she has right now and besides, she’s approaching the halfway point.

So for the time being, Sarie leaves for school early and arrives home from conservatory late.  I miss her.  Sometimes I regret how she’s spending her last years at home to such a degree that I stand at the window wondering if we’re missing some obvious way to chuck it and make room for things we think are more important–or at least make room for more music. Homeschool habits die hard. But like Niggle, whose time was eaten by annoyances, in the end I just hope for redemption.  We’re obeying what we know the best way we know how.

Meanwhile, last night after dinner Sarie was at her laptop, happily typing away. She  said was writing a passage about coming home to the smell of flavorful cooking. It wasn’t an IB assignment, of course, but it was very Sarie. My once-reluctant writer now can’t seem to stop reveling in words.