(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Category: challenges

Coraggio!

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“Courage: The ability to face difficult, dangerous, distressing situations with all the force of one’s soul, to decide to face a situation head on.” –Graffiti on a postal relay box in my neighborhood.

Coraggio isn’t just the Italian word for courage. It’s also a common exhortation among Italians, akin to “You can do it!” It pretty much sums up my attitude at the moment.

This week I am doing studies of illustrators I admire. The works I am copying aren’t my intellectual property, so I don’t like to post them, but I do learn from them.

A lot of these illustrators work in traditional media, and it isn’t always easy to duplicate their styles digitally, which at times makes me wonder why I don’t switch back to traditional. But for now I am continuing with digital, because part of my purpose is to see how traditional I can make digital look!

I have also signed up for a “brick and mortar” workshop in Italy in July. I have to travel across the country to attend, but I think it will be worth it to have face to face interaction with other illustrators. If you have the ability to network where you live, make the most of it.

The trick, as always, is to keep up momentum and keep learning efficiently alone, without a specific structure to push me. This is especially true as summer looms, with its hot weather, no air-conditioning, people starting to go to the seaside, and a US trip coming up.

Along those lines, I’d like to thank all the people who have followed this blog in the past few weeks. You’re helping me to stay accountable, so I hope to have something to share with you soon. In the meanwhile, coraggio!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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…


The Bologna Book Fair–an illustrator’s glimpse

Bologna at night. (Apparently I needed to clean my phone lens.)

I got back from my first trip to Bologna and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Thursday afternoon. Even my initial impressions on the book fair are lengthy, but I will try to be as concise as possible. Just to be clear, this was my first children’s book fair ever and I purposely didn’t take a portfolio with me. Instead I went to get an idea what it was about so that when I was fully ready, I would be more effective in presenting my work. And even on the other side of the fair, I don’t regret this.

Since I always like to get the big picture first, that’s what I’m going to try to concentrate on, and then give a few specifics only where I think I can do so briefly. Because the Book Fair is overwhelming. I saw thousands of people there each day and in most cases I wouldn’t even know whether they were even the same thousands of people or different ones!

Also, a caveat: Everything I know about the fair is strictly from a beginning illustrator’s point of view.

Layout

There’s an illustrator’s wall around the periphery of the main hall where artists can tape up their work for others to come and see. It’s chaotic, and by the second day people were leaving things on the floor. I was told that publishers do actually come look at the wall, but it doesn’t seem to me that it would put any artist’s work in the best light, or at least it would be hard to get noticed. Again, that’s just a first impression, and I’m one of those people who even avoids large outlet stores, so that might explain my reaction in part.

The central hall includes the juried art show, a book shop, some exhibits, and a stage called the Illustrators’ Café for prize and other presentations. In general, I liked the Illustrators’ Café because even if you couldn’t get close, you could still back up to see and hear what was going on. Surrounding the central hall were several huge exhibition corridors (think airport terminal-size) with booths for every major publishing company, artists’ and writers’ associations, and art schools from many countries.

Services for Illustrators–portfolio review

The Illustrators’ Survival Corner is where the masterclasses, workshops and portfolio reviews for illustrators take place. Masterclasses are talks by publishers, associations and illustrators for anyone who wants to just show up and listen, if you can squeeze in. Workshops require sign up first thing each morning because one creates artwork, and that naturally limits space. Portfolio reviews are highly coveted spots for illustrators to get professional feedback. In the end, I did not participate in any of the activities that required sign up, but got a good bit from the masterclasses. Here’s why:

The portfolio review and workshop signup is positively Darwinian. When you arrive in the morning, well before the opening at 9:00 am, there are already hundreds of people outside waiting. The people from orderly countries are waiting in line. The ones from furbo (an Italian term for people who know how to get what they want) countries are finding a way to sneak up to the front. At any rate, on the one occasion I tried to sign up for a workshop, I was in the front part of the crowd at the door, and even so, when I got upstairs to the sign-up desk the line was already long, and the spots few. Someone told me that somehow people were getting in before 9:00 am, and I also saw a video taken from the sign up desk, proudly posted on the Bologna Facebook group, no less, of people sprinting for the desk at opening! It seems that you not only have to be an excellent artist to use this system well, but fairly athletic and also a bit aggressive.

There are some open portfolio reviews each day as well, but a friend waited in line at one for two hours (with a massive headache) only to be told that it was closing and they wouldn’t be seeing anyone else. She was able to get a scheduled spot on a different day, but the reviewer didn’t give any feedback. But other people got feedback, and the feedback varied with who gave it, so apparently some of it just depends on who looks at your portfolio. To give some idea of why these reviews are so coveted, some of the reviewers are from big publishing houses or are famous illustrators such as Laura Carlin. With opportunities like that, if I had felt really ready with my portfolio, I would probably have run to the sign up too!

Still, someone told me that the system at the SCBWI conferences in places like New York have big tables where everyone can put out their whole portfolio and business cards, and that people actually do come by and take them. That seems fair to me. The Bologna system seems, well…Italian. I love many things about my adopted country, but trying to make my way through a line is not one of them.

Services for Illustrators–Masterclasses

Author/illustrator Chris Riddell in the Illustrators’ Café

I did enjoy the masterclasses. In all but one very regrettable case, I did fairly well at getting to the event early or at least finding a place to stand in the back where I could see and hear. And you never know when someone might lose interest and leave, opening up a better spot.

Among the masterclasses I attended were: A talk by an Italian editor and first-time illustrator on what it’s like to work together on a first book, a talk by an illustrators’ association on pricing work and negotiating contracts, a New York Times talk on trends in children’s books, more than one talk in which an illustrator talked about his or her work (I particularly enjoyed the one by Tiziana Romanin), and a charming illustrate-as-you-talk chat by Chris Riddell. I enjoyed the last one so much that I went back for a similar event at the Illustrator’s Café. Never mind that only Chris Riddell could pull off some of the ways of getting work that he talks about, because he is already so famous. He is a great raconteur with a British wit, and he made me remember how, when I was a small child watching Romper Room and Mr. Rogers, my favorite segments were always the ones where someone would draw on screen and tell stories.

What Chris Riddell was drawing at the above moment…

It helped that I speak both Italian and English, because some of the talks were only given in Italian and those often had more room. The regrettable exception I hint at above was the masterclass given by Beatrice Alemagna, who is apparently not only one of my favorite illustrators, but seemingly the favorite illustrator of most everyone in Italy. I lost track of time in one of the publishers’ halls, arrived ten minutes late, and not only couldn’t get close enough to peak over anyone’s head (I’m not tall), but couldn’t even hear a word of what she was saying, despite speakers, because of all the ambient noise. Next year I’m setting phone alarms!

And then there was the day in which I repeatedly walked into masterclasses and conferences for which there were not enough simultaneous translation headsets, or for which there was supposed to have live translation but wasn’t. This is how I discovered that I still understood a passable amount of French, but not quite enough for comfort. Same thing with Spanish to a lesser extent.

Other talks

Possibly the most helpful and informative talk I listened to during the whole book fair was the NY Times presentation on their Best Illustrated Children’s Books award. This was a three-hour presentation during which I sat on the floor the entire time, trying not to lean too hard against a loudspeaker stand and thus cause an embarrassing incident. The upside of my discomfort was the I was sitting less than three feet from the aforementioned Beatrice Alemagna, and not much further from Sydney Smith, another of my top five illustrators, and at a similar distance from Suzy Lee, Laura Carlin and Paul Zelinsky, who are equally talented to the first two but I have to choose somehow. They are all past prize winners.

The New York Times illustrators’ panel, presided over by the Times’ s children’s book editor Maria Russo, center

The presentation included a history of the award and how it is chosen (unlike the Caldecott, it is open to illustrators worldwide and is chosen by artwork only), an editorial panel who spoke about their experiences with these illustrators, and comments by the illustrators themselves. Since I have followed this award and the NY Times for years, I found the whole conference very informative, though space won’t allow me to go into detail about it for now.

My only regret was that this time Beatrice Alemagna spoke in French instead of Italian, and I didn’t have a headphone. Zut! Apparently I just wasn’t fated to learn much about Beatrice Alemagna, except that she was self-taught and everyone wondered why she would write a book about someone doing nothing (The Magical Do-Nothing Day).

Publishers

I spent most of the last day just walking the publishers’ halls and trying to get an idea who published what, but it was overwhelming and I still have to sort it out. It’s not one day’s work, that’s for sure. Some of the major American publishers had booths that were as big as a book store and obviously designed by an interior design firm specializing in display (I have some experience in commercial interiors). And some of the publishers have their own portfolio reviews. I left the hall with a very full backpack, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the day I ended up having to walk up Via dell’Osservanza (a second-gear-all-the-way-up kind of hill) on foot! But I don’t mind exercise.

The illustrators’ exhibition

The illustrators’ exhibition had very interesting work from very talented illustrators, and it was especially nice to see how some of the artists worked precisely and intricately in traditional media, but for the most part, it looked as though it were more intended for artists than children. Often I couldn’t find much of a narrative thread in the works. Book illustration can be overly commercialized or sentimental in many cases. But I think the most endearing (and enduring) illustrations for children themselves are somewhere in between the two extremes.

Odd and ends, and tips for next time

During the fair I stayed at my friend and catechist Fra Pietro’s Franciscan friary. It’s up on a (second-gear) hill outside of town, and therefore, unlike at home, the friars mostly go out to serve instead of having people come to their doors. So it almost feels more like a monastery inside. The friars were welcoming and it was very peaceful to come back to, but it was a long way from the fair and more importantly, you can’t enter the city by car until after 8:00pm, which is when buses stop, causing traffic to stand still. This makes going out for dinner in the center quite difficult. Also, parking for the fair is €20 per day. So next time I go, I may try to find a place within walking distance and then go pay Fra Pietro a separate visit.

An Italian friend who was only there on the first day showed me an internal restaurant that not everyone knows about (you can’t leave the fair and return, and the traffic situation eliminated grocery shopping for lunch). So by eating light and supplementing with snacks I’d brought from home, I made out pretty well for lunch. But the lines for coffee after lunch were so long that I went without. Finally on the last day, I discovered a downstairs coffee bar inside the restaurant. The only catch is that you have to get lunch fairly early, which was fine with me because I prize a few minutes to regroup.

Amazingly, for a book fair that offered a free app and at which most everyone was constantly messaging each other and taking photos of artwork, I never found a charging station and so I had to use my aging phone sparingly. On the last day someone told me that they had seen people under a table in the Chinese exhibition charging their phones. But next time I’ll buy and take one of those battery packs.

A Bologna city center street in the market area

I had originally planned to return to Torino on Thursday morning, but since I hadn’t seen much of the city center yet, I took a walk first. Bologna couldn’t be more different in style than Baroque and Neo-Baroque Torino. It’s medieval, with narrow streets and a lot of brown brick or orange stucco buildings. The impression from the hill above is of a circular red mass punctuated by towers. And as I walked and drove around, I realized that it had once been ringed by a brick wall, now torn down but with broken bits still extant. Because of the traffic, motorcycles are very popular. And it is home to the oldest university in the world, the original Alma Mater. I always like getting to see a new Italian city!

Meanwhile, I met some really interesting people at the book fair, saw a lot of excellent artwork, and got a sobering reality check about where the level of my own work needs to be. But all of that is exactly what I wanted. The rest is up to me, and to both how hard, and how smart, I am willing to work.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

Quick illustration update

Now that the wedding is over, it’s fall, and I’ve got somewhat of a routine going, I thought I’d do a quick illustration update.

I have crammed down so much subject matter during the past, first year of self-instruction that it sometimes seems like I’ve got some serious artistic indigestion. Character design, Photoshop, studying favorite illustrators, marketing, perspective and environment, composition, textures and warp tools, endless experimentations with traditional and digital media, repeat. When I consider that this time last year I hardly knew what a Photoshop layer was, I can see progress. Still, it’s an effort not to count the years it’s likely to take to build a portfolio, compare them to the years I have left to develop a career, and suddenly feel quite sober about it. Then enthusiasm kicks back in and I get back to work.

The little painting above is sort of half-baked (that horizon line!), but I am posting it because it gives some idea where I am right now. I’m trying to keep the technique simple, and to that end I’m mostly just painting one character, in digital watercolor. The text was pure stream-of-consciousness because I wanted to consider how it should look on the page. And although I’ve got state-of-the-art digital watercolor brushes from Kyle Brush (as of this week free with a Photoshop CC subscription, but only available with a subscription), there is still an aspect of watercolor that really just begs for the serendipity of traditional media.

Where is all this going? I still don’t know. But at least it’s going.

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.