(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Category: challenges

Thanksgiving Monday

I was going to post about illustration today, but my drafts kept turning into Thanksgiving posts, so here goes:

I took last week off to catch up on errands and prepare Thanksgiving dinner. I find that studying illustration, like any other work, leaves me falling behind in the rest of life. So, for my week off I had such tasks in mind as doing a shopping run at one of the big suburban grocery stores, getting my Christmas tree from IKEA, and registering for my A2 level Italian language test for immigrants, in addition to food prep.

Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the rainiest week since we moved into this apartment five years ago. The rain started out as an inconvenience, but by Thursday it had become alarming and by Friday the rivers were so high that the tour boats came unmoored and wrecked themselves against the city’s main bridge across the Po. The  city’s trains were in such a snarl that the transit authority actually called off a planned strike, whether out of mercy or because they figured no one would notice it anyway, I don’t know. Sarie missed three days of work due to the flooding.

Against this chaotic backdrop, catching up on my postponed errands took a good bit of willpower, but I plowed through them anyway. The immigration process will eventually get a new post of it own, no doubt. I’ll just say that I had hoped that going to the patronato during a flood meant that it would be less crowded. I was wrong.

Meanwhile I had planned out an elaborate staging process for cooking Thanksgiving dinner–Making broth and pie crust on Thursday afternoon after the patronato; making egg bread for dressing, pie, corn pudding, preparing the table setting, transplanting the tree, brining the chicken, teaching my English student and making dinner for Sarie and Alberto on Friday;  baking the dressing, cooking the beans, preparing fruit and cheese, setting the table, and many other last minute tasks such as chilling the wine, reheating the other dishes, and making whipped cream for the pie, and decorating the tree, all on Saturday before 1 pm. Is it any wonder I didn’t sleep well on Friday night? I think I was too tired to sleep.

By Saturday I was beginning to think that perhaps Thanksgiving was an unhealthy expat obsession of mine and that perhaps I needed to let it go. But in the end, everything came out right and the dinner had other good fruits (so to speak) as well. But I did not take photos. After everyone left at around 6:00 pm, I lay down on the sofa for a little catnap before doing dishes and…woke again at 1:00 am.

A few take-aways from last week:

Carrefour LeGru carries Ocean Spray smooth cranberry sauce in their ethnic foods section! If you’ve ever read one of my Thanksgiving posts, you know how fixated I can get on cranberry sauce. But you can’t count on it being there when you need it, so if you’re an expat with a nostalgia for Ocean Spray, buy it when you see it. I bought mine during the summer.

There is no substitute for self-rising cornmeal. I don’t know why that is, but I have decided it’s worth smuggling a bag over every year in someone’s suitcase. There is no Italian substitute. I don’t know what kind of magic pixie dust they put in that stuff, but I’m not questioning it ever again.

I have finally made myself a list of all Thanksgiving dishes, ingredients needed, time required to do each task and on what day it needs to be done, with all measures and temperatures converted to metric, to make the job easier. It has taken five years to figure out Thanksgiving in Italy, but I think I’ve finally got it. The basic problem with Thanksgiving food is that it all has to go in the oven, one item at a time.

It’s much more fun explaining pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and dressing, Abraham Lincoln and the fourth Thursday in November, and why despite the fact that the pilgrims were giving thanks to God, Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, to Italians, than it is explaining the election. Anything is more fun than talking about this election.

And did you know that despite the fact that Italians don’t know when Thanksgiving is, they now have Black Friday? Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone charging any stores.

And now, back to the drawing board and my plate of Thanksgiving leftovers! It’s Advent!

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The attack of the furbi, Part 2

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Call it car shaming: This car I photographed in my lot today is not the one in the story, but his manner of parking is furbo nonetheless.

I said I’d tell this story once I knew the end of it, so here it is:

One morning back in early July, I went down to get in my car and found a large dent in the back.

I park it in a semi-private lot between my building and the neighboring one, fenced off from the street by an iron gate. Since it is a stone-paved area with no stripes, people frequently park askew (see above), but it’s best if everyone parks at a 45% angle, facing out, otherwise you may be obliged to make a 25-point-turn to exit. But in order to park facing out, there has be another space across the lot to nose into in order to back up into your space. So the last time I had parked, a week earlier, I had been forced to face in.

When I found my car with a basketball-sized dent in it, my first thought was, “However did anyone even have room to make such a huge dent? You’d have to be going pretty fast to achieve an impact like that!” Almost every car in the lot, including mine, has scratches on all the corners. But this was almost ballistically impossible! I made a flyer with a photo asking for information and put it on the door of each building that faces the lot, but then I had to leave, because I was trying to replace the contents of my stolen purse before I left for the US. The dent was so bad I could hear it scraping against the rear tire as I turned onto the street.

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My car on the day it was hit

When I got back from the DMV, one of my neighbors, who was leaving, said, “That was your car that got hit, right? The car that hit it was a blue one, either a Fox or an Audi. The driver was an old man who works for the accounting firm in the building next door, Mr. X. It’s the same guy who keeps knocking down the gate bar. He was hitting your car over and over again, but clearly he wasn’t all there in the head. I told him to stop, but he just ignored me. This was in the late morning or early afternoon, a week ago. I think [the car wash attendant for the garage in the alleyway] saw it too.”

I thanked him and went to take a look at the name plates on the building next door. Sure enough, there was the name he had mentioned. Later in the day, when the big building doors were open, I confirmed that it went with an office and buzzed at the entrance.

There was one problem with my comprehension of my neighbor’s story. I thought he had said,  “old woman.” The only difference was the vowel at the end. Also, unbeknownst to me, he had used a slightly disparaging term.

I told my story to the women behind the counter (all youngish and pretty) and they sort of looked at me and laughed. “Oh, there’s no old woman here,” they said. There’s the owner’s father, but he has been in the mountains since last week and he left straight from home.”

At that moment, the owner came out, and all the women gave each other a funny look. The man had an unctuous, condescending smile and a very natty suit. “There’s no old woman here,” he reassured me.

“Does your father drive a blue Fox?”

“Yes, but he left early in the morning on that day. It couldn’t have possibly been him.” And the women all closed ranks around him.

I had a familiar, infuriating feeling that I remembered from being a young woman in the Southern US. It was the feeling of working for a sexist boss or having to take your car to a repairman you didn’t trust. I could tell I was being lied to, but I didn’t quite have the mastery of Italian to catch him out and confront him. Nor, I suspected, would it do any good. It might even put him on guard. Better to approach this from another angle, I thought, and I left.

I went to my neighbor for more details. When he heard that the accountant had denied the story, he suddenly developed a very imperfect memory. And my other neighbors said, “Of course they lied. They also lied when the old man kept breaking down the gate.” One person even told me about an old woman (they used a different word this time!) in the other building who stood on her balcony watching the accountant’s father swipe cars as he tried to exit the lot. “Hey! You missed one!” she yelled after him.

The blue Fox, meanwhile, remained conspicuously absent.

So I went to the car wash attendant. He didn’t seem to know anything either, but explained my mistake about the “old woman” and pointed me to someone who actually had seen the whole thing. Someone who was willing to sign a statement. I took the statement to my insurance agent, spent my last day in Italy waiting for four hours at the immigration office for my last replacement document, the permesso (green card) I needed to re-enter legally, and then left to see my family in the US while the entire country of Italy closed down for Ferragosto.

Then, in late September, there was the Fox, with a rather interesting circular formation on its front fender. But by this time I had been assured that the insurance company had the situation under control.

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I finally received my insurance check in October, but by that time I needed to use the car daily because I was helping Sarie to move. So I got it repaired in November, four months after the hit-and-run. The repairman put a nice new bumper on it and my car was shiny and clean.

The next week, someone scratched the back bumper again. But at least it wasn’t a dent the size of a basketball. And I’m well on my way to having four matching corners again.

Another Passion excerpt

Here’s a new, recently-released excerpt from Alberto’s Passion According to St. John, performed April 25-26th of this year. It’s the finale. I’ve also inserted it into my original excerpts post, so they’ll all be in one place.

If you were a fund contributor and wonder where your recording is, they are still waiting on someone who promised to help them do the job. And that person too has a job. This is the way things happen in Italy sometimes, especially when you don’t have much money, but it will eventually get done!

It’s air! It’s moving! (I wish.)

Last winter I wrote about Italians’ attitude towards cold weather. (Short version: They don’t like it.) Given the unusually hot temperatures this summer, I figured this might be a good time to write about Italians’ attitude towards hot weather. (Short version: They don’t like it.)

To be fair, this July has been unusually hot in Europe. That is to say, it’s sort of like the weather in New York City, where we used to live, and cooler than in Georgia, where I grew up. The temperatures range from about 75-93F (24-33C). But the difference is that Italians don’t believe in air conditioning. Air conditioning falls under the same category as many of the Italian fears about winter: It’s air! It’s moving!

I’m sure there are other reasons that Italians don’t have air conditioning. It’s expensive. And in our home, it would trip the switch. Turning on the oven and the hot water at the same time trips our switch.

So instead we have two large fans. And shutters. And a routine with the sun.

It goes something like this: Wake up as early as possible and open all the shutters to let in the not-quite-so-hot air. Get something done. Anything at all. Run to close the shutters on the east-facing side as soon as the sun starts hitting the kitchen (8:30am). Close up everything after lunch and then sit immobile by the fan like a Victorian lady receiving visitors in the parlor, while drinking lots of water and looking for the least energy-consuming means possible to accomplish something. (Though being shut up in a hot room in dim light is a great temptation to grumpiness.) Around 4 p.m. start cautiously opening things up and trying to resume movement without becoming dehydrated. Move the fans back into the bedrooms before sleeping and close the shutters once again, but leave the windows open.

Does it work? Not really. I confess we’re not getting much done at all. I think this is why Italians go to the sea. If you aren’t going to get anything done anyway, you might as well be in some scenic location, so one day I went to Finale Ligure on the train with my friend Stella. But I prefer the mountains. And my car has air conditioning. So whenever I can find willing accomplices and a free day, I try to go.

And even here in Torino, some offices and stores have air-conditioning. It’s not turned up very high, but it’s still a great incentive to leave home.

Unfortunately, in the process of battling the heat, I’ve also discovered that I have raging summer dust allergies. Every morning after sleeping by the fan (positioned carefully to avoid my face) I wake up with red eyes and a stopped up nose. So I spend a lot of that precious daily movement washing everything (and using antihistamine eye drops). I think this new dust aversion is probably part of the Italian justification for their air-current phobia, but I do prefer having allergies to not sleeping at all, so I will continue to use the fans.

There is one great blessing in all this: Since Italians don’t have screens, either, many people get attacked by mosquitos at night. We have been incredibly lucky that the mosquitos have been few. I have no idea why.

And finally, during the last two days, the temperatures have improved, the skies have cleared a bit from their Po Valley haze, and I feel like the end to the heat wave may be in sight. I’m getting some stuff done again. And besides, I’m going to Georgia, where the air conditioning will be on full blast. I’ll be packing a sweater.

The attack of the furbi

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(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…

Learning Italian

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When I started this blog, I had in mind compiling some sort of guide to what it’s like to live in a foreign country. That got wiped out pretty much immediately by the effort it took to live here, and also by the sense that Italy doesn’t work that way.  But I haven’t completely given up on the idea.

After three-and-a-half years, something is emerging from the fog. But that knowledge is less like bullet points and more like a frame of mind.

Lesson one for Americans: Living in Italy is not like going to Florence for the summer. You really do have to assimilate culturally, and your language skills can’t stay at, “Un gelato cioccolato, per favore.” Drat.

Having to learn a new language is a big part of what makes living in another country stressful. Italy adds to that stress by having serious problems with organization, bureaucracy, and a long-standing tradition of nepotism, but language is even bigger. That’s because understanding what people around you are saying is a big part of absorbing the cultural expectations and figuring out how things work. You need to be able to pick up way more than you are explicitly taught. This is especially true of “hot cultures,” which are more context-based.

Another aspect of learning a new language upon immigration is that it absorbs enormous amounts of energy, especially when you start learning in middle age. It especially absorbs social energy, and you’re often not fully aware of it until you realize you’ve been holed up in your apartment for two days Facebook messaging people in English because you really, really need to stop thinking about every word you say. But the only way to get over that hump is to go out and start speaking Italian!

My own particular linguistic bête noire in Italian is using the formal and informal “you.” This is partly cultural: At my age, how many people do I have to use the formal Lei with, and when can I use the familiar tu? There are more situations in Italy where formality is appropriate than you’d think, and you don’t want to mess it up because you might look rude. Sarie tells me that her music colleagues (who are often in their 30s and 40s) will tell her, “Dammi il tu.” But this never happens to me, perhaps because I’m no longer at the age where people are just starting to use Lei with me. The confusion is especially bad with neighbors and friends of friends because I often don’t know where I stand. If possible, I hide behind the ambiguous voi (“you” plural, which doesn’t have a formal and informal) until I hear the Italian use the second person singular, then I follow their lead. But sometimes the other person does the same thing! And since the tu verb forms come more naturally, I’ve also been known to start with Lei only to revert to tu the minute I stop thinking about how I’m saying things!

As you might guess, automaticity is also important, because it cuts down on the energy expenditure and helps to reduce social awkwardness. As long as you’re aware what language you’re speaking, you can’t fully focus on the content of the conversation. To really make friends and get things done, you need to be able to plow through heaps of meaning without having to detour around linguistic roadblocks. You need to move on from being a Latka Gravas, because there are some pretty unpleasant cultural limitations that come with being an immigrant mascot. And if you are particularly verbal in your mother tongue, these limitations can leave you feeling like two different people. Not pleasant.

 

But there is good news. Once you finally get a handle on the basics, learning another language does start to snowball. You don’t have to be taught every little grammar point. Like a child, or like someone who simply moves to a different English speaking region, you start picking up the inflections, mannerisms, slang, strings of common phrases, and connecting phrases that you need to accelerate into automaticity. Energy is released to pursue other things. Sometimes you don’t even realize how you much progress you’re making until you look back.

Recently Sarie and I went to Dusseldorf, Germany for a few days. German has a good many words that are similar to English and which you can recognize when you see them written on signs, but I really can’t follow the flow of it at all. As we changed planes in Zurich on the way home, Italian crept back into the mix of languages I was hearing, and into the look of the people I was traveling with (Italians dress better!). As I boarded my flight to Milan and the woman in the aisle seat let me into my row, I said, “Grazie!” without really thinking about it. Then I saw that she was reading a German magazine, so I wondered if I had misjudged. It wasn’t until well into the flight that she started talking to her husband across the aisle in Italian. The sense of homecoming, of nostalgia, was palpable.

Funny thing, assimilation.

Translating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has passed now, but I thought I’d say a little bit about the preparation process. After all, before Thanksgiving, we were all too busy shopping and cooking, right?

Thanksgiving takes on a new dimension for expats. First of all, it becomes nostalgic. We’ve adopted a new language, new foods, a new way of life, and sometimes new holidays. Thanksgiving is our chance to be American.

Secondly, it’s a holiday that Italians are curious about. After all, it involves food, and almost all Italians love to talk about food. So right away we have an interested audience and get to be ambassadors, sort of.

But expat Thanksgiving requires a few adjustments to the menu.

Surprisingly, the turkey is easy. I just go downstairs and order it from the butcher, who has several American customers and knows the routine. “Ciao, cara! I’ll order you a female turkey,” he says, and I hear him ask the vendor to add another turkey to the order, and to make it as small as possible. The main problem is getting it into my IKEA oven.

Pumpkin pie has its own adjustments. Italians are curious about the Halloween pumpkin. I think this is partly because the idea of having a whole different word for one variety of winter squash makes them think maybe they’ve missed out on some category of good food. Then they want to know if pumpkin pie is connected to Halloween, since they don’t really celebrate that either. And they’re not really sure when Thanksgiving is (that floating holiday thing is confusing), so maybe they go together? And naturally they seem disappointed when you tell them that a Halloween pumpkin isn’t much good to eat. How American! What’s the point in getting rid of a few seeds when it ruins the taste?

Naturally there’s no Libby’s canned pumpkin available for the pie, but a large orange winter squash, sold in large slices this time of year, works just fine. What’s harder is finding a good pie recipe that doesn’t use evaporated or condensed milk. This year I made two using a new recipe. They look sort of fluffy and taste almost like they have the whipped cream already added, but I’m not complaining!

The dressing is particularly tricky. Since our family’s traditional dressing is cornbread based, I’ve tried to substitute with every possible type and consistency of polenta, including polenta mixed with flour, but nothing works quite as well as the old standby, White Lily Self-Rising cornmeal. This year I brought back a bag in my suitcase, and that seems to be the only acceptable solution.

And finally there is the cranberry sauce. Even before we moved to Italy, our family jokingly said that this was the one item on which we would not go organic, local or foodie. Nothing but Ocean Spray smooth jellied cranberry sauce, with the lines imprinted from the can, would do. But finding the necessary can in Torino is becoming increasingly tricky. At first there was a gourmet store, Paissa, that carried at least the whole-berry version in a jar, but they moved and when the store finally reopened, its stock was much reduced from its former exotic glory. Last year an American friend brought me two cans of cranberry sauce from the military base in Vicenza. But our friends moved too. This year I walked all over town, in the rain, following false leads and eventually discovering that the distributor of Ocean Spray had stopped carrying it.

Part of the problem with finding some of these ingredients in Italy is that it’s hard to describe what they are. This is definitely the case with cranberry sauce:

Sapete dove posso comprare un vasetto di sugo di mirtilli rossi? (“Do you know where I can buy some cranberry sauce?” Only I’m not sure sugo is the right word, because it means something more like a pasta sauce than chutney.)

Succo di mirtilli rossi? C’è un negozio bio in Crocetta che l’avrà. (“Cranberry juice? There’s a healthfood store in Crocetta that should have it.”)

Mirtilli rossi? Cosa sono? Vuol dire ribes? (“Cranberries? What are those? Do you mean currants?”)

È un tipo gelatina? (“Is it a kind of gelatin?”)

And finally, I heard one store employee say to another:

“Do we have cranberry sauce?”

“Cranberry sauce? What’s that?”

“You know! Americans use it to stuff the turkey on Thankgiving!”

But no can or jar, smooth or whole, made its appearance. Finally, on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I gave up and decided it was time to start cooking what I had. Sarie dejectedly posted on Facebook that this would be the first Thanksgiving in her memory without cranberry sauce. Within an hour, she had a message from an Australian friend, saying that she thought there was a can of unexpired cranberry sauce left over from our American friends’ dinner last year. A few more phone calls and a trip on the subway, and I had the precious jar of Ocean Spray in my purse. It may have been the last jar of cranberry sauce left in Torino. And we ate every bit of it.

For next year, I’ve figured out what to do about the cranberry sauce, at least. There’s an online American food vendor in France I can order it from. But the cornmeal, that will just have to go into my suitcase.

And all of the other days, I’m fine with eating agnolotti and ragù, polenta and turgia. Va bin parej!

Inductive reasoning and the academy

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 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.

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 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.

Anyway:

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 domestic animal, 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 some trouble 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, 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.

Habits for a new season of life

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Today’s lunch: squash soup with pancetta, and a salad with oil and balsamic vinegar. (The salad green is called valeriana in Italian, but I don’t think it’s the same as the herb valerian.) I’ll have some fruit, too.

Good morning! I have a lot more time to myself than I used to these days, and the circumstances are such that the most of things I always had in mind to do when the time came either aren’t an option any longer or no longer seem right. So, what to do? That’s the subject of this post. These are things that have worked for me, and I hope they might help someone else as well.

The first thing I say might sound abrupt, but that’s because I’m leaving out a big part my own period of adjustment on purpose. It’s this: I can’t just sit there and think, “Woe is me!” Sometimes big changes in life can come as a surprise and take some getting used to. There may be mourning to be done, relationships that need wisdom to handle, or a very blurry linguistic and cultural landscape to navigate. But I have noticed that any tiny steps I can make in a positive direction to tend to pay off eventually, even if I can’t see how it’s going to happen and it feels forced instead of pleasant. There has been genuine difficulty in my life over the past few years. But the best advice I got, at least for my circumstances, seems to have been, “Have a really hard cry for about ten minutes. Really give it over to God. Then get up and do something.”

So, in that spirit, here are some of the things I’ve been doing:

Meeting new people. I am used to making myself talk to people when I don’t feel like it. Yes, I’m an introvert. I’m even shy and easily embarrassed. And I fall on my face every time I try to speak Italian–I don’t even want to know how many mistakes I’m making or what rude things I unwittingly say! But I keep telling myself to get over it. I have found that many people have been willing to extend kindness and affection, even if I can’t speak well enough to easily forge close friendships. For this I am truly grateful. I have made friends with people of all ages and walks of life, and I trust that one day it will feel like I am really part of a community. But I won’t know if I don’t try, eh?

Good routines.  I notice that when I’m alone a lot, it’s easy to take the path of least resistance, so I’m trying to make sure I am disciplined. I read the Bible lectionary readings daily and have a regular prayer time. I make a to do list, and while I’m not driven by it, I do try to make progress with it. I try to eat attractive, healthy meals with a certain ceremony, as I do when I have family and friends around to serve. I ride my stationary bike, since I’m not close to a park. I walk a lot and use the stairs in my daily errands. I do housework and secretarial tasks, and balance between doing introspective activities and more expansive ones. Making sure I go out, and making time for friends, are part of this routine.

Putting out feelers. I don’t have a job right now, and I’m not sure what sort of job is appropriate and forthcoming at present. But I do think I have time for some purposeful activity that touches others, and so I try to take steps to figure out what this might be. I’ve talked to people in various programs, talked to people who might need art or English lessons, and I trust that putting out feelers will make the way clearer eventually, even if at first I go down some dead ends.

Getting outside myself. I love the merenda. And in general, I have remembered what I used to know well before I got so towed under, which is that looking other people in the eye and really listening to what they’re saying is a genuine pleasure, not just a duty and a means of charity. What a relief!

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A recent New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress

Do goofball things that make you laugh! Sometimes when I find myself at home alone during the evening, I put on some old movie, whether in Italian or English, and I don’t worry about whether it’s a “smart” film or not. It helps that I’m beginning to be able to understand enough Italian that a whole new world is opening up. While walking around town, I take photos of clothes I’d never wear and play with the bokeh button on Instagram. I don’t care how lame it is!  I put smiley faces after my text messages 🙂 🙂 :-). I send Facebook stickers. And yes, I even watch cat videos! Yes, I know that art is ever moving, and not sentimental. But life is too short to be overly serious.

Seek God’s will. This is huge, too huge to describe here, and it includes all of the things above, of course. But I’ve sought intelligent guidance, and benefitted from it. Among other things, I’ve discovered a blog and radio program that I really like, hosted by Greg and Lisa Popcak. Here’s a recent radio program they did on forgiveness. (It’s long, but I really like what they said all the way through.)

I’ve looked at where I did things wrong in the past, and tried to change them. And since not every circumstance or relationship is entirely within my own power, there are a lot of things still up in the air. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live in God’s will. And as Peter Kreeft says, seeking God’s will wholeheartedly never fails to bring joy (not giddy happiness mind you, but joy.)

And so there you have a few things that a person who is a bit at sea in a new stage of life can do to make things better.  I know that a lot of my friends are going through similar things. They may still have children at home, but maybe they’ve sent their eldest off to college and are surprised to find themselves in mourning.  Maybe they’ve had to move when they didn’t want to. Maybe they are facing disappointment or difficulty with work or in relationships, or facing serious illness in themselves, friends, or family members. All of these are serious things that require acknowledgment and sympathy. But at some point, we all face that moment when we’re alone and we say to ourselves, “Okay, what now? How to start moving forward again?” That’s what this post is about.