Keeping focused

It was only natural that after the end of the SVS Turbocharging Your Creativity course, the Bologna Book Fair, and Easter, I would have to deal with a bit of reality.

First there are American taxes. As an expat, I do get a bit of an extension, but it’s only because documents come out so late in some countries (like Italy). And those who owe, still owe in April. But the requirements–oh my! My days using simple filing software are over. I’m getting somewhat used to the routine, but still, the US is the only country in the world with a citizenship-based tax requirement, and nothing is simple about expat taxes. I have to file in both countries each year, and to keep all the requirements straight I have to hire an accountant (in reality a tax lawyer) versed in international taxation. Don’t get me started…

And then there’s the Indagine ISTAT. Funny, everyone’s reaction when I told them about it has been, “Are you sure that’s not a hoax?” If only it were! Basically I’ve been chosen at random to fill out a 45-question (plus subsections) survey from the Italian government for myself and another for my husband, based on everything from what we eat for breakfast to our opinions on the rail system–which everyone knows depends on whether you take the lovely but expensive Frecce or the cheap and dirty regional trains. Supposedly the survey data is kept secret, but it looks pretty identifiable to me. And there’s a hefty fine if you don’t turn it in. Bleh.

And there are the usual teaching, housework and errands, some personal matters, and another one of those week-long, pouring-down rainy spells. When it rains here, it rains.

But I am determined not to let annoyances plow me under where illustration is concerned. I’m reviewing all my course materials, my Bologna notes, and trying to keep drawing at least something. It’s bound to happen, even for successful professionals, that sometimes between all the things one has to do to keep afloat, it’s hard to keep focused. That’s when motivation, a routine, and incremental progress are more important than ever.

So here’s one of today’s exercises (below)–turning figures. My default is something akin to realism–must be my portraiture background. It’s not perfect, but that’s not the point. Happy drawing everyone! Or cooking (I’m making lentil soup for dinner), or working, or whatever you’re doing today…


In which I buckle down and get to work

I’ve been sort of a hermit lately. Well, I did go to the Langhe wine region with friends last Sunday, and I’ve been chatting with people on the phone, and I’ve been to mass, and I’ve gone to various appointments. But in general I’ve been leading a very simple existence and using the time and headspace created to get some art done.

Scenes from the hermitage: Watching illustration tutorials while eating leftovers. The flowers are my overgrown chives. I also made pesto from my balcony basil. 

On Wednesday night I printed out over 50 pages of documents for a patronato appointment. Perhaps I can get my carta di soggiorno (long term immigration card) in time for my trip to the US in August. And unlike the permesso di soggiorno, it doesn’t have to be renewed. You have no idea how glad that makes me.

As part of the carta process, someone had to come to my apartment to make sure it was big enough for me to live in. Such an odd concept. Next I have to get a document that shows I’ve never been in jail. And then there was the three-month-long process of getting American documents officially translated and stamped by the uncommunicative Italian consulate in Miami. The carta di soggiorno has opened up new horizons in bureaucracy.

But mostly, I’m sitting at home with my new Cintiq (which I have never figured out how to get to run at 4K, by the way), lassoing my way through three iterations of Princess Carla of Spaniel. I set myself a deadline of today, which means I’ve had to let go of a good bit of perfectionism, but it does make me feel good that I have set a goal and accomplished it.

My first color comp is the scheme of the original painting. The second one was inspired by a Downton Abbey still. (I think I haven’t realized the potential of this scheme yet.) The third? Grand Budapest Hotel! I’ve discovered there’s a whole world of color study via film stills, which I’m pretty sure was part of the point of this assignment. That and learning to use the lasso and gradient tools. And I learned a third lesson as well: If you want to get something done and move on, don’t choose an iridescent Velasquez dress.

To muff or not to muff? That is the question…

There’s more to do on this project, for sure. But one thing at a time. Maybe soon I’ll even get around to posting some photos of the most famous wine region in the world outside the Loire Valley.


The attack of the furbi


(No, not this kind of furby.)

This has been a summer chock full of bureaucratic mishaps, which, as you know by now if you are a regular reader, are one of my favorite themes. That’s because, once having wasted so much time doing things no one should logically have to do, I figure should at least get some redeeming value out of it by making it into a story. So let’s begin…

It all started when my purse got stolen. I was arranging grocery bags in my car, very proud of having planned out and bought a week’s worth of meals. The problem was that one of the bags, the one all the cans were in, was my huge purse. It was too heavy to keep on my shoulder, so I put it in the front seat and opened the back door. I was right next to the cart rack (no one hidden inside) and there was no one around. I never saw anyone. Nor was I ever more than a couple of feet from the car. And yet it happened.

I realized what had happened right away and ran into the shopping center, to the Apple Store, to try to trace my iPhone. Too late, it was already turned off. Then I went to security to block the credit cards. I was able to block the Italian ones (a good thing, because there’s no theft protection on cards in Italy), but I couldn’t make an overseas call from the security office to block the American ones. So I drove home, without a driver’s license. Everything was in my purse. It was, naturally, a Friday evening. That’s when things you need to remedy right away usually happen, right?

As soon as I had blocked the American cards using Skype from home (we don’t have a land line), I went and took care of the first and most essential part of Italian theft bureaucracy, the police report or denuncia. The police told me that the anagrafe was open on Saturday morning, so I could take a of my denuncia and a copy of my old identity card and go get a new one, then come back and get a provisional driver’s license. By the time I got home, it was 10:00 pm. At least we had groceries, though some of them had to be pitched after spending an extra hour in a hot car. And of course, all of the canned goods were in my stolen purse.

For the next few days, there was also the problem of the keys. Since the thieves had the keys and also my address (everyone’s address is on their identity card), someone had to be in the apartment at all times to keep it bolted from the inside. And Sarie had to go to Milan the next day for work. I called my neighbors and thankfully one of them volunteered to sit in my apartment the next morning while I tried to get the document replacement process under way.

On Saturday morning when the phone store opened, I was there with my ancient cell phone and some cash I had borrowed from Sarie, ready to transfer my old number to a new SIM card. Outside I met the first of many people who responded to my story with their own stories of having purses and billfolds stolen. It seems to have happened to about 80% of the people I’ve talked to. This man said it had happened to him three times. There’s a word that everyone uses to describe thieves in Italy: They’re furbi. The literal translation is something like clever or sneaky, but in Italy it’s taken to a whole new level. To start a conversation on thievery in Italy is to enter a complicated discourse on the downfall of a country. Obviously not everyone in Italy is a furbo, but those who are, are furbissimi.

Once I had an operational phone in hand, I was off to the anagrafe. We don’t have anagrafi in the US, but it’s a sort of civil registry. It’s where the identity cards come from, which you need to do just about everything in Italy. And on Saturday morning, the anagrafe is apparently open literally only for life and death. That is, they only do paperwork for births and deaths.

I was, however, able to get a prepaid credit card from the bank before it closed at noon. Now there was nothing I could do but stay home in my barricaded apartment and wait until Monday.

On Monday morning, the locksmith showed up and gave the dreaded diagnosis: Our entire Ft. Knox-like system of locks (necessitated by the furbi) would have to be replaced. They’d be back on Tuesday, because they aren’t open on Wednesday.

I went back to the anagrafe during lunch, because the woman at the bank told me that was a good time to go, since everyone would be eating. It was not. Of course, once there, the people at the anagrafe told me that no, I couldn’t just get a new identity card with a police report, a passport, and a copy of the old card. As an immigrant, I’d have to bring a receipt proving that I had a valid permesso di soggiorno (like a green card). Not knowing what was required to get a stolen permesso replaced when all my other documents were stolen as well, I went directly to the patronato, a charity agency that helps people with bureaucracy. (These don’t exist in the US either, so far as I know.) There I waited for two hours, but at least they were able to put my package together the same day and send me off to the post office to wait for another hour and pay a hefty sum for my replacement permesso. (Post offices in Italy are where you pay all bureaucratic fees. You didn’t think they’d actually take the fees at the bureaucratic office itself, did you?). But by the end of the day, I finally walked away with the all-important red bolletino receipt from the post office.

On Tuesday, I went back to the anagrafe first thing, got the identity card, went to the police station, got a provisional driver’s license, and then went to the public transportation office to get my permanent bus card replaced. Meanwhile, the locksmith sawed and drilled right through dinner, but at least at the end of it we could leave the apartment unoccupied.

On Wednesday, I waited in line for an hour just to get to the information desk to ask which line to get in for my tessera sanitaria, or national health service card. You get the picture.

And so it went, in addition to some other stuff, like waiting for hours to replace a car part and my computer. My patience was wearing a bit thin by the end of the week. But I was making progress. Most of all, I was happy that I could drive again.

Meanwhile, I was also planning our summer trip to the US. When I went for my slated permesso di soggiorno appointment at the unairconditioned, cement-with-a-glass-roof immigration center (an ingenious form of punishment—the place literally used to be a prison), the woman had a look at my requisite red bolletino receipt and other documents and fingerprinted me. Then she said, “You should be able to pick up your permesso card in a month.”

“And in the meanwhile, I can travel to the US with this receipt?”

“No. You have to have the original.”

Knowing that no one ever asked for the thing unless I traveled through Germany and that the card would be waiting for me upon my return, I gave her an imploring look. She backtracked. She asked the woman at the next desk. Finally, she came back with, “You can enter Italy as a tourist.” Just to make sure, I called the patronato to clarify matters. And then I bought a return flight with a plane change in the US instead of in Europe. I’m not taking any chances with the Germans.

Once I bought the tickets, I called the Georgia DMV to find out whether I could drive with my provisional Italian license. They too said I’d have to have the original. (My New York State license was, naturally, stolen.) I called Rome, where the police had sent my paperwork, and they told me, in the typical Italian way, just to show up at the local DMV and ask for a rush. You don’t call ahead in Italy. It’s useless. You won’t get the same information twice anyway.

So yesterday morning I got up early, packed my police report, provisional license, and a few extra pieces of paper for good measure, and went downstairs to drive to the DMV. When I got to my car, there was a huge dent in it, but that’s another story which will have to be continued later.

When I finally got to the motorizzazione (Italian for DMV), I sat patiently with my high-numbered ticket until I could talk to the lady behind the window. She told me everything I had to do, which, of course, involved going to a post office to get another red bolletino receipt, and also making some extra photocopies. (This is another rule of bureaucratic offices. They never make photocopies.) She didn’t know the address, though, and since I was in the suburbs, snarled in a labyrinth of access roads 25 minutes away from the center  of Torino where I live, I didn’t know how to find the nearest post office or copy center. I played around with the (replacement) GPS, set off towards the nearest town, and I found the post office anyway. But the copy shop was harder, and before long the DMV was closed. So it was all the way back home to make the copies and wait until 2:30.

When I arrived back at the DMV after lunch break, there was, of course, a long line outside, with the people at the back pretending not to be cutting in line, while, of course, cutting. I stood in the sun, sweat rolling down my back, watching the furbi like a hawk. Once inside, they all swarmed the same counter I needed. I took my number, 14, and sat down with a book, because the number displayed was 4. But I did ask the man next to me what the swarm was about. “Oh, they’re picking up their licenses,” he said. “It’s a typical Italian mess.” The word he used to indicate a mess, casino, literally means brothel. It’s not an obscenity, but it’s not quite polite, either.

The swarm died down a bit as people started leaving with their shiny new licenses, but an unruly blob remained at the counter. Then the number suddenly shot up to 15. I got up and made my way to the yellow “proceed no further” line. “What’s your number?” I asked the man standing there. “Oh, this line is a bit of a mess,” he responded evasively. Meanwhile, my neighbor had stood up as well. I started looking around, and all at the people standing in a blob near the line, about to advance to the window once the current occupants left, were holding numbers in the 20s. “Wait,” I said to Mr. Evasive Furbo. “You have 28. This man has 12 and I have 14. He’s going next, and then me.” And we brushed past the whole casino. For possibly the first time since I moved to this furbissimo country, I didn’t let someone didn’t take advantage of me just because I am a foreigner who actually expects for things to work.

I presented my copies and my red post office bolletino receipt to the man behind the window, explained the whole situation for the thousandth time, and he told me to come back to pick up my license in ten working days. And he never even looked at any of the missing copies that had caused me have to go back home during lunch. I think I’ll show up in eleven days just to make sure.

UPDATE (July 27): I went back this morning (after ten days, because I realized I was cutting it close) and there is was!! Now if only I can get the permesso before I leave…

Inductive reasoning and the academy


 Powdered pigments at a local art store

This week was the start of the Accademia Albertina. As usual, the Italian inductive-learning process has collided with my not-quite-infallible Italian language comprehension to produce confusion. But slowly, my faulty model of the Accademia is being replaced by experience, and soon enough I’ll know what I’ve gotten myself into.

I arrived at the Accademia on Monday morning at 9:00 to find a courtyard full of Goth-lite teens chatting and smoking. I noticed a sign with an arrow and the room number for my course, etching, but the number was nowhere in that cul-de-sac of courtyard. Eventually, a school employee told me which entrance to use, and I realized that the numbers outside were only for the room just inside the door. You had to walk through several interior rooms to get to the correct one, which wasn’t listed outside.

Finally inside my classroom, I found three other women, none of whom looked anything like the Goth-lite students outside, and none of whom I had ever seen before.

I did recognize the man who had proctored the exam, though. Turns out he was the printmaking professor. He started talking almost immediately, and kept on talking for an hour-and-a-half. He gave a history of the course at the Accademia from the 19th century. He went through every item on the materials list in great detail, without giving out the list. Then he described some of the printmaking procedures we’d be doing.

All this time, students were coming in and out of the room. Some just poked their heads in the door, looking lost. Occasionally some came in and stayed. One group stayed until the professor asked them what their major was, at which point he told them they had the wrong room. Many of the students were Chinese and seemed to know one another well. At one point, all the Chinese students went up to the desk for some instructions from the professor, and left.

The professor explained that there would be a completely different group of students tomorrow, so he would have to give the same information again. Finally I realized that these students all had different majors, and the coming and going corresponded to the number of hours they needed for their major. Never mind that they many of them didn’t get all the information because the professor had started his talk an hour ago!  Eventually his speech slowed and I realized that we could leave. It was 11:00 am. and I didn’t need to return until Wednesday.

This morning, Wednesday, I went back for the figure drawing course, which was what I originally signed up for. I didn’t take any art supplies with me. I figured that since Monday’s etching class was just a presentation, today’s figure-drawing would be as well. Besides, several people had warned me not to bring my stuff until I knew whether the room was well-secured, because there was a lot of theft.

Once again, there was an entirely different group of people waiting to enter the classroom, none of these whom I had seen before, either. The same professor let us in, and other students dribbled in as well (including some of Monday’s), until eventually a group of about 20 students accumulated, mostly retirees. Most of the retirees seemed to know one another, and there was general round of fond greetings and cheek-kissing, as well as introductions to the five or so of us who were new.

The professor started talking again. He talked for an hour-and-a-half. He started out with how it was okay to use student-grade paint, because we were students, and why buy a top-notch racing bike when you didn’t have the legs for it yet? This morphed into a lecture on the spirit of art, and eventually I recognized that he was touching on the same familiar lecture themes I had heard in my years at the University of Georgia: Copying vs. bringing out something of the soul, technical facility vs. searching, the inner silence required for an appropriate level of concentration, modern painters’ appropriation of various aspects of their classical predecessors’ work, etc.

I noticed that he often used modern Italian artists as examples. I knew who all save one of them were, but other than Morandi and Giacometti, they weren’t names American art students would be likely to know. They also called Mark Rothko “Roch-ko.” But then, Americans call Michelangelo “Michael-angelo.”

Eventually the professor left, and the students who had brought their materials started working with the model. Meanwhile, I had asked when the art history lectures were and was told to check with the secretary’s office. So one of the other new women and I went up to the office to check. We saw two class times posted outside the door, but we knew there should be several more, so we went in to ask.

“We’re closed,” said the woman behind the desk.

“Oh, sorry,” said my friend. “We just wanted to know, what are the times for the other art history classes?”

“You know as much as we do,” was the answer.

So, anyhow, at least I knew that there was an Ancient Art History lecture tomorrow at noon. For art history, I have decided to concentrate on the types of art that I can see fine examples of here in Italy, which is to say, Western art through the Baroque. I’ve already seen a lot of first-rate modern art in the US and other parts of Europe, and I am fairly familiar with non-Western art from the Metropolitan Museum.

When I took the entrance exam for the Accademia in September, I had no idea how much work the course involved or what the hours were. When I arrived for the beginning of classes on Monday, I knew there were three subjects involved (etching, the model, and art history) and thought that the course lasted every morning from 9:00-12:00. I had planned my other fall activities accordingly. Now, two sessions into the actual course, I can see instead that etching lasts from 8:00-2:00 on Monday and Tuesday, and the model sessions last from 9:00-6:00 on the other three weekdays, but those hours really depend on how long the model is there, which seems to be until 3:00. I still don’t know when art history is, aside from Ancient Art.

But the inductive reasoning technique (a dribble of data points which, long after you have made your decision, eventually produce a big picture) is pretty typical of Italian institutions. Thankfully, since I am in a non-traditional course without exams or a diploma, I can really pick and choose what times I want to show up, though I am partial to showing up at times when instruction is given.

At least I’m not like a grad-student friend, who started her master’s in psychology last month but didn’t know which program (of three, with different requirements) she had been admitted to, because the results wouldn’t be posted until the morning classes began. In fact, thirty minutes into the first lecture, the results were posted online, but then then they were immediately taken down and students were told that due to some mistake they wouldn’t know which program they were in until they were three weeks into their classes!

And then there’s Sarie, who re-enrolled at the conservatory in June expecting to switch to Baroque violin only to have them close the program. This week classes have started at the conservatory, but she’s still waiting to hear from a private school about an alternative Baroque violin program.

Perhaps the situation in Italy is best summed up in a sign I saw this morning. It said:

“Tranquilli. Ho tutto fuori controllo.”

“Stay calm. I have everything out of control.”

This should probably be the national motto of Italy. And of artists. Which kind of makes sense.


 A gipsoteca, or plaster cast store, near the Accademia.

Driving quiz


In honor of getting my foglio rosa (learner’s permit) last week, I’m going to have a little fun with Italian driving. This will involve some translating, which may or may not make for a fun exercise for the reader. If not, my apologies.


Drivers’ licenses are not convertible between the US and Italy. To get a learner’s permit in Italy, an American has to master some 25-30 subjects (with subcategories) covering such subjects as the definition of a street, how and where to park, the meaning of about 100 road signs, which car goes first at dozens of hypothetical intersections, how to hook up a trailer, and how to render first aid to someone in a state of shock. There are about seven categories of licenses according to type of vehicle, with detailed rules about who can obtain each, and some categories have age progressions. And naturally different vehicles have different speed limits, which also depend on the type of road. All in all, the question bank contains about 6000 true/false items, which can be tested in Italian, French or German–but not English.

In short, it requires some studying. But I passed! And I start learning to drive a manual transmission car next week.

I’m sure you’ve thought of the obvious question by now: Does anyone really obey all these rules?

Well, if you feel up to some Italian, I have a little mini-quiz for you which should answer that question nicely: Watch the trailer above from about the first minute mark to almost the second minute mark, then answer the following questions as true or false based on the clip. For your convenience, I have provided translations into English for each question:

1) Sui veicoli è consentito il trasporto di un animale domestico, comunque in condizione da non costituire impedimento o pericolo per la guida. T/F

(It is permissible to transport a pet, as long as it doesn’t pose an impediment or danger to driving.)


2) Sui motocicli è vietato trasportare oggetti che non siano solidamente assicurati. T/F

(It is forbidden to transport objects that aren’t solidly secured.)


3) Il carico dei veicoli deve essere sistemato in modo da evitarne la caduta o la dispersione. T/F

(The vehicle’s load must be arranged in such a way as to avoid being dropped or scattered.)


4) Il carico non deve superare il limite di sagoma stabilito per ogni tipo di veicolo. T/F

(The load must not exceed the limits of the outline established for each type of vehicle.)


5) Su strade coperte di neve occorre evitare brusche manovre. T/F

(On snow-covered streets you must avoid sudden maneuvers.)


5) Su strade coperte di neve occorre moderare la velocità. T/F

(On snow-covered streets you must moderate your speed.)


The answer to all these questions happens to be true. Did you pass?


As for the film clip: Sorry I couldn’t find this clip from The Return of Don Camillo with English subtitles.  If anyone is interested, the basic idea is this: Don Camillo, Italy’s favorite pugnacious priest, has been reassigned to a distant mountain hamlet because got into a fight at the end of the first film.

The scene begins as he arrives at the train station near his new home. He seems to be greeted by cheering, but he soon discovers that the welcome is for a local cyclist instead. Standing forlornly on the platform with gifts from his old parishioners, Don Camillo meets an old man who tells him that the priest he is replacing has recently died, but he was a gentle man who was loved by all. He further tells Don Camillo that the town he is assigned to is 10 kilometers away, but he can offer him a ride part way.

The next scene is the one that concerns the driving test and doesn’t have much dialogue, but my favorite bit is at the end:

Don Camillo: “What do you do for a living, anyway?”

Old man: “I’m a road inspector.”

Don Camillo eventually arrives at this new parish, where he is greeted by a terrified old caretaker who calls him an earthquake and a cyclone, insists she’s heard all about him and isn’t afraid of him, and yet shrieks and defends herself with a broom. Don Camillo then walks into the sanctuary of his new church, where he sees that it’s leaking and in terrible shape. There he has a conversation with Jesus, via the crucifix, about how badly they’re both being treated. But Jesus, for once, doesn’t reply to Don Camillo, because the priest’s self-pity has gotten in the way of his ability to hear. More antics occur, in the Guaresci’s simultaneously comical and touching mix of postwar Italian life.

If you’re interested, here’s a set of the first two DVDs with English subtitles, zoned for American viewers.

Accademia dell’arte update

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how I went to the Accademia delle Belle Arte to find out about their non-degree course and all I could find out was that I had to take an admission exam.

Well, that’s done now, and it wasn’t so bad.

The terror of it, of course, is in not knowing what to expect. I’ve found that this is a frequent tactic of intimidation in Italian schools. It may be partly a function of the fact that the people who run the administrative offices aren’t professors themselves and so either they don’t know what’s going on, or they want to throw their weight around. I don’t know which. But typically secretaries in state schools are a severe bunch, at least until you get to know them.

I didn’t sleep so well the night before the exam.  I wasn’t nervous about the drawing, but I couldn’t imagine what they’d have us doing from 9-4:30, and wondered whether they’d allow us to eat, or to take our phones into the room, etc. Because in addition to being known for having super-long exams covering an enormous amount of subject matter, Italians are also known for cheating on said exams and administrators are known for taking extraordinary measures to prevent said cheating, which of course generates workarounds so that the cheating just crops up in some new form. That’s why I could so easily imagine a scenario in which no one was allowed to take anything into the room or leave it.

In reality, what transpired was something I’d done many times before, a perfectly normal drawing session from the model. Newsprint would have come in handy for warmups, but the proctors allowed me to take an extra sheet of paper and so I was able to do a couple of extra sketches before ascertaining the model’s proportions and settling into a composition I liked. I just had to have each paper signed on a stamped seal and to turn in all the sheets (again, very Italian!). It became evident during the session that everyone was pleased with my work, so I didn’t worry about my drawing after that. I just kept working for about two hours until I had made a drawing that I liked, for the fun of it. After all, when was the last time I had an opportunity to work from a model?

Before I left for the day, I asked about the art history exam: “Do you think my Italian language skills will be a problem?” The guy behind the desk responded, “Have you ever heard Chinese? I don’t think you’ll have a problem.” And in fact, I noticed that a large proportion of the students taking exams (though fewer in my section) were in fact Chinese. I talked to one of the girls who was waiting near me and she’d only been here for three months. She didn’t understand what I said in Italian even when I spoke very slowly and simply. I have yet to figure out why there are so many students from China, but it’s interesting.

The only other English speaker I met was an older woman from Australia. She was married to an Italian and had lived here for twenty years. She said that she’d been trying to get into the program for years, but had never gotten as far as the exam. The first time they wouldn’t let her try out because she didn’t have a birth certificate. After that, she was blocked because she’d graduated from high school at 15 and started taking college courses. On the other hand, one Italian woman of my age had been taking night courses at a liceo artistico for two years. In Italy, you can apparently go to high school at night, and at any age!

I also found out why there were so few students taking the exam, and most of them were older: liceo students are automatically admitted.

So, back to the art history exam: This morning they had us wait outside again, then let us in, then changed our room, and after that they had us wait some more. Then they told us that the professor going the examining would be in at 10:00. It was about 9:30. One woman rolled her eyes and went out to take a walk. I talked to a few of the people I’d met yesterday, and some of them were very nervous, even the Italians. I wasn’t.

Five minutes after the announcement of the 10:00 a.m. start, I heard someone say, “Let’s get started,” and they called my name. (This comes of having a surname that starts with an A.) I went up to the desk, thinking about the Mannerist to Baroque transition in Florence. The man behind the desk smiled and said, “So, we’d be very glad to have you join us. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve done before?” So I told them I had an art degree from the US and once had a portrait business, but I’d been a stay-at-home mom for years. Now I wanted to get back into art. This seemed to satisfy them, and they told me a bit about how the program worked. I’m glad they did this, because it gave me the opportunity to clarify some things, and I found out that the program offered more opportunities than I had previously thought, such as an etching class and art history lectures. And that was it. There was no art history exam at all!

There should be an official posting with enrollment in a few days. So, now I just have to decide if this is how I want to spend my mornings pretty much every weekday this year. It’s not a job, but it might lead to one if I use it wisely.


Here’s a photo I took of my exam drawing, some time before I finished it. Among other things, I decided that the eye socket was too compressed and enlarged it.

In which I walk through the mine field of logistics for the sake of art…

Once again I’ve let this blog go dormant for a while, even though I really like writing. The reason is that I wasn’t satisfied with merely posting photos all the time, and yet I wasn’t ready to reshape the blog into something new yet.  My thoughts are undergoing one of those caterpillar to butterfly moments (I hope, haha!) and who wants to see all that gooey mess inside a cocoon?

Anyway, I’ll give a short update, and then we’ll see what comes of the blogging:

Last week I walked into the Accademia Albertina delle Belle Arte di Torino (the local art college) and stood in line to ask for some information about their non-degree figure-drawing course. Their site said they were taking enrollments through October. What followed was a typical Italian bureaucratic exchange: I got no information whatsoever about the course except that there was no teacher.  Instead, they informed me that since I didn’t have a diploma from an Italian liceo artistico (art high school) I would have to sit for the entrance exam. And incidentally, this was the last day to sign up for it–the last hour, in fact. The exam would last from 9:00-4:30, take place on September 17 (this Wednesday), there was an oral art history component, and of course they told me nothing about what either component would entail.

So, knowing there was no use in arguing with the humorless woman behind the counter, I went out to the street and asked directions to the nearest post office, filled out my bolletino and paid the exam fee, filled out the admission exam form, and stood in line again to submit everything. After that I went across the street to the art store, bought a variety of soft pencils, charcoal, and a pad of newsprint, and went home.

Since then I’ve been trying to get myself back into the habit of fitting quick gesture drawings onto large sheets of newsprint. I’ve done a couple of more detailed drawings as well. Since I don’t have a model, I’m having to use art books instead. And naturally, after such a long studio hiatus, I get distracted easily by all the other work I have to do. But I’m keeping with it. Taking up figure drawing again is sort of like starting to run again after getting out of shape; It makes me extremely tired, but after I work for about an hour, I feel great!

Am I worried about the exam?  Not really.  I’m more worried about the logistics: Getting myself up and over to the Accademia at 9 a.m., working for that long without coffee, and not knowing what’s allowed in terms of lunch and bathroom breaks! But if a former portrait artist can’t pass a figure drawing exam for local high school students, those high schoolers must be pretty darn good, and I should want to be in the class all the more next year, eh?

And the art history oral? Well, if I can’t convey something of my love of painting, as seen across time and geography, to the jury, then that probably says more about my Italian language skills than my knowledge of art history. That is a real possibility, but there’s not much I can do about it between now and Wednesday except look up some art terms. For both exams, it helps that I don’t have any idea what the expectations are, so I’m sort of walking into the experience like a child.

Anyway, I had to decide everything so quickly that I’ll just have to take the exam and figure out the rest later if I pass. I don’t even know for sure whether I want to take the class yet, as I don’t know what the hours are and what the course costs! I had simply been thinking about starting to paint portraits again, and thought that a figure-drawing course would both get me back into shape and introduce me to other artists in the city.

So, as usual, the order is: Do the bureaucracy, submit myself to the experience for which I underwent the bureaucracy, and then figure out what the heck is going on. And last of all, perhaps a couple of years into the experience, I might know whether it was worth it. That’s pretty much the opposite order from what people think is wise in the US, but in Italy there’s really no use fighting it.  In Italy, wisdom means learning to live well even when things are out of control.

18 September: I’ve added an update here.



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.

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 hated it so much that she closed her eyes.

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 they can’t pay much attention to individuality.  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. She is a once-reluctant writer who now can’t seem to stop reveling in words.

From foreign to familiar


A gathering of young adults from our church, representing in various proportions and length of residency and with some margin for error: Nigeria, Ghana, the US, the UK, Australia, Swedish Finland, Indonesia, Brazil, and both northern and southern Italy.

My pastor’s wife recently lent me a fascinating book about navigating cultural differences, From Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier.  Lanier is a consultant to foreign missionaries who has lived in many different parts of the world. Upon taking the book from the shelf, I immediately flipped it over, scanned the blurb, and exclaimed, “Sarah Lanier.  Well of course she would be from Georgia!  That’s a very Georgian name.” It gave me a funny feeling to immediately sense that familiar context in a foreign country.

As a matter of fact, I had just confirmed myself as a member of what Lanier herself calls a “hot culture.”  Hot cultures tend to have a strong sense of context, maintain a friendlier environment, value relationships over tasks, feel obligated to invite you if they mention an event in public, feel obligated to share food if they eat it in public, talk delicately around problems instead of addressing them directly and accurately, show deference to authority, have a strong sense of what dress and manners are appropriate for a given occasion, have a stronger group identity, and have a more relaxed sense of time.  The Southern US, at least when and where I grew up, was a fairly typical example of a hot culture, with the possible exception of the group identity.  (Southerners tolerate certain types of eccentricity quite readily, as long as the eccentric has good manners.)

I lost a little bit of this strong cultural identity as I grew up and moved on to larger cities within the South during the 70s and 80s.  I learned to tone down my accent and deal with sarcasm, because it was absolutely necessary in order to attend a big, suburban high school along with transplants from Chicago and New Jersey. But I’ve never quite lost these initial Southern habits and preferences, and in fact, often felt a bit flabbergasted in New York City when I’d try to arrange spontaneous get-togethers for other moms and kids. And I never quite got over my need to chat to sales clerks using colorful idioms, even though I knew better.  Even after fifteen years, I always felt a little too warm and sensitive in the context of that highly structured, achievement-oriented culture.  But I learned a different, more direct and efficient way of dealing with people, for sure.

Then we moved to Italy.

Obviously, not everyone in Italy, or even in Piemonte, is the same. Some people are much more formal and have a more developed sense of organization than others.  Some are warmer and kiss-ier than others.  Some are dressier than others, more extroverted than others.  But still, you don’t know where the assumptions lie until you’ve observed for a while.

Remember my initial frustrations with bureaucracy? I’m now convinced that the reason that, for example, it took me five months to enroll Sarie in the conservatory was that I made a couple of initial and egregious mistakes in dealing with Italian bureaucratic culture. And how could I have known better, since I was in (and from) the United States? Italian bureaucracy is a very high context procedure.  You really don’t know what it’s going to take until you’re right in front of the bureaucrat–perhaps for the third time.

Perhaps my principal mistake was trying to obtain a clear-cut enrollment procedure at all, and especially via e-mail.  Even though I didn’t have the option of meeting people in person, I needed it!  For another thing, there is a definite protocol for writing business correspondence in Italy.  By NYC standards, it seems incredibly formal: using the titles dott. and dott.ssa for just about everyone, using “illustrious” in the greeting, adding lots of flowery adjectives, and ending in “Porgo i miei più distinti saluti,” which the literal translation of “I send my most distinguished greetings,” just doesn’t seem to convey properly.  And furthermore, no one does anything until the last minute.  So no wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere!

But of course, I had no way of knowing this, and to this day don’t really know what the proper solution would have been.  The actual procedure not only required a passable knowledge of the Italian language and bureaucratic conventions, but also of Italian commercial procedures, such as filling out a postal check and having the proper identity information (which isn’t even used in the US). And furthermore, the same procedure that finally worked for us may not have worked for the next person. Sarie is still, to my knowledge, the first full-blooded American to have enrolled in the Torino conservatory.

But bureaucracy was only the initial and most aggravating problem.  I realized after some time here that I would require a different sort of wardrobe, a different sense of time and hospitality, and that I was likely offending people regularly by not following the proper greeting procedures when I entered stores. I’m slowly learning how to do these things, but I’m pretty sure I still step on toes.  Now I try to ask: Do I need to bring something to dinner?  Do I need to pay for that gift, or will that offend the giver?  And I understand, for instance, that even the most professional businesspeople will likely not return my e-mail until they have an answer, even if it takes weeks. Or plan any event more than a few days in advance.

I personally find the Piemontese to be about right on the hot/cold culture spectrum. They have a reputation in Italy for being cold and reserved, but aside from a few apathetic bureaucrats, I usually find them to be not unlike myself, at least in their comfort with emotion.  As I’ve learned how to address them, I find that they can be almost conspiratorially friendly. The nicer manners, the sense of proper dress, the family connections, the indirect way of getting information, respect of elders, and the greetings in stores, all remind me of the culture of the Southern US. But a culture as group-oriented as Naples or Sicily might have overwhelmed me completely.  So, I feel like I’ve landed in the right part of Italy.

I may list more of these “foreign to familiar” differences as I run into them. I certainly don’t have a handle on them yet, but I’m starting to get a little more comfortable, at least. And at our international, English-speaking church we have plenty of Africans and Filipinos, and smaller numbers from many other cultures, who provide yet other perspectives and greater variety along the hot and cold culture spectrum.  Interesting!


(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!