Thrifting and memory

Some of the items Nancy and I remembered. A couple, like the coat (which my grandmother would have worn) and the little stove, were not exact matches, but they were so close that they stirred memory nonetheless. The roaster (middle), however, I just threw in for fun! 

For the whole past month I’ve been visiting family in the US, but during the last week of our trip my mom and I visited a cousin and her family in Louisiana, which is an entirely new state for me.

My cousin Nancy used to live across the street from me and for a while we went to the same school. So she and her friends were the first teenagers I knew. I admired them to the extent that, as we were looking at her old high school cheerleading photos, my mom said, “Who is this on the end?” and I answered immediately with the girl’s first and last name.  My mom, rightly startled because I can’t remember people she told me about five minutes ago, said, “How do you know that?!”

“I memorized the yearbook in first grade,” I replied

Nancy now has a grandson, whom we all love to dote on, but when he left to go back home with Nancy’s daughter, she and I decided to go on some adventures.

First we went to a catfish and crawdad shop in a converted gas station. The only thing converted about it, though, was that the gas pumps didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t gentrified. Deer corn was piled up in the corner next to the camouflage hats. The bubble gum machine sold gun and brass knuckle-shaped plastic trinkets. Workmen were lined up in their blue coveralls to order lunch. I was wearing a sleeveless housedress and pearls. I had thought we were going to a tearoom! I decided to ignore myself and hope everyone else would too.

After our lunch, Nancy and I drove to a nearby town to look at antique shops we had read about in a tourist article. After walking up and down the only downtown street, we decided that the chamber of commerce had written the article in an attempt to create a destination by psyching out local residents, but just as we were leaving, we walked into a shop with a vintage 50s Westinghouse roaster out front. This is where the fun began.

The downtown being half vacant, the antique/junk shop occupied the entire building: three floors worth of small back offices. The displays ranged from the bizarre (gaudily re-decorated objects and paintings) to the delightful (which is what this post is about).

Nancy and I had just started walking through the rooms when we started recognizing things. “Who does this hat remind you of?” Nancy asked, as she tried on a pillbox hat with a short net veil.

“Grandmother!” My grandmother sewed, so we were always dressed well.

Then came the treadle sewing machine, the 60s dress patterns, the Tupperware cake caddy and grocery store dish sets, the wooden purses decoupaged with mushrooms, the maxi dress with blous-y sleeves–the memories went on and on.  “Who had this, your mom or mine?” and one of us or the other would remember. Most startling were the items which I had utterly forgotten until I saw them lying on a table, for example a set of plastic thermal bowls I used to eat Cream of Wheat out of at my grandmother’s house before I was old enough to go to preschool. I may have been as young as two. Sometimes Grandmother would put ice cream in the Cream of Wheat to cool it down.

Nothing that we looked at in the store was valuable. Most of it probably came from other people’s grandmothers’ houses. But running across totally forgotten items which formed a part of one’s earliest childhood memories was disconcertingly intimate. Each time one of us confirmed the other’s hunch, it was as if we had opened a hidden door in the attic of memory, with its stories attached. This game held the same kind of intrigue as the first mystery novel I ever read, in second grade. Which, by the way, I inherited from Nancy.

Once Nancy was almost like the older sister I never had. Until our children grew up, we still saw one another at least every Christmas, but now that we have spread out into the next generation it’s very hard to visit. I only wish my younger sister had been there was well. Nancy was very kind to drive me all over her city and show me where she and her family live their lives, for context. I got to see my 89-year-old aunt, Nancy’s mom. For a little while, past and present felt as if they were finally together in the same room.


Tourists in our (former) hometown

Lower Manhattan with the new World Trade Center, which is taller than it looks here

This week our family (and our Italian guest Lara) have been staying in New York City.  It’s Sarie’s and my second trip back to NYC since we moved from here to Italy, but the first in which we have stayed in our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side.  Last year we stayed in a friend’s apartment in the West Village.

This week we’ve mostly been showing Lara around the city, since it’s the first time she’s ever been to the US and she’s excited about seeing New York.  So we’ve done a lot of touristy things that I usually wouldn’t do–like walking around on Fifth Avenue and going into famous stores–and some things that I would do anyway–like going to the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

On Saturday we toured Lower Manhattan. It has been very hot, so we mostly thought about how we could be comfortable and see a lot at the same time. We decided to get a good view of the Lower Manhattan, the newly finished Freedom Tower (or One World Trade Center), the Statue of Liberty, and the neighboring boroughs by riding the Staten Island Ferry. Lara had a great time taking photos to send to her family.  But I couldn’t help but notice that even after twelve years, the World Trade Center makes me sad. I chide myself about this, thinking I’m being maudlin, but the feeling doesn’t go away.

After spending the morning in Lower Manhattan, we went to the West Village for lunch.  Lara was feeling homesick for pizza, and the Village has a good pizzeria.  The minute we entered the restaurant we heard people speaking Italian, and the television was tuned to RAI.  The pizza proved to be quite close to what you’d get in Italy.  It had the desired effect.

At the table next to us, the waitress was chatting with a man who was obviously Italian.  He was wearing a white linen shirt and hat, and next to him sat a little white lap dog.  I took the dog as an indication of how Italian the restaurant was, because New York City has an ordinance against dogs in stores and restaurants, but most Italian establishments have their own dogs. (And it would be very Italian to ignore the ordinance.) We may have spoken a few words with the man early in the meal, but towards the end he realized that Lara was Italian and we ended up having a thirty-minute conversation about all sorts of things, from his life in New York to the prospects of young Italians. Lara noted later that most of the time, Italians from one city don’t feel that much kinship with those from another city (the man was from Rome). But when they meet somewhere else, they’re all Italians.

Meanwhile, Sarie made friends with the dog, who ended up licking her in the face.


Lara speaks Italian mostly, so she, Sarie and I spend whole days speaking almost nothing else.  As a result, I have had a tendency to turn to whomever we’re speaking to in whatever shop, restaurant or museum I’m in, and not make the language switch. I’m sure this is because I’ve gotten used to speaking Italian to all strangers. But it’s still embarrassing, especially since I’m in my own country. I have a new admiration for the many New Yorkers I know who are completely fluent in two languages and can also switch.

During the week, we’ve had some conversations about what it would be like if we could combine the best of New York and Italy.  I like New Yorkers’ sharp wit, talent, and the “you never know what will happen next” wackiness of living in Manhattan. But I like Italian warmth, elegance and hospitality.  If you could have both in one place, it would be ideal. But we finally concluded that these traits may be mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, a couple of nights ago, I asked Sarie what she thought of New York now that she has been away for almost two years.

“I never realized before how weird the people were,” she replied immediately. “Of course, I knew it, but I was so used to it that I didn’t think about it.”

I burst out laughing.  I had just written in my journal: “There are a lot of truly eccentric people in this city.  I did know that already, but that’s what strikes me after being gone for two years.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This year’s English class seems to be study in how far one can get from Western Lit. When I saw the book list in the fall I gave them (there are only two students in the class) until February to start throwing the books at the wall.  Sarie made it to the end of March, when the teacher showed the movie Blade Runner before Sarie had even gotten past the first chapter of the book version, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Sarie hated it so much that she closed her eyes.

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

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

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

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

Our little corner of the Alps


Time to add a new post, is it not?  We’ve been back for a week.

Last week was the first time flying back over the mountains that it seemed a bit like we were coming home.  Maybe it’s because the trip was so long, 20 hours with stops in Chicago and Frankfurt.  We arrived back in Europe at 5:45 a.m., also known as 11:45 p.m., feeling a bit stiff and fuzzy tired. The plane taxied past section after section of spotless German glass, revealing a cross section of a clean, gray interior punctuated with orange. Sarie and I had never been to Germany before this trip, and though we never left the airport, we enjoyed watching the other passengers and even appreciated the free, watery macchiato hidden away behind the Lufthansa gates (or I did).

We were really looking forward to the flight back over the Alps. Before Christmas, during the first leg of our flight to the US, I had noted every lake and creamy mountaintop as we flew across northern Italy and then to Germany in a prop plane, chased by the sunrise. On the way back, ragged clouds covered many of the mountains, but occasionally they opened up to reveal dramatic views.

Tolkien based his Misty Mountains on the Alps.


The first photo above is from a previous trip, but it approximates the altitude from the prop plane.  The second photo is from last week.

Shortly we were over to the Italian side of the Alps, seemingly back in the land of the sunrise (in winter the sun always comes from the south) and as the landscape flattened out, the pilot said, “To your left you can see Milan.”  This is what we saw (a little blurry because of the plane window).


Almost immediately we banked right, flew just south of Torino, banked right again, and flew into the Valli di Lanzo between Torino and the Alps, towards the airport.  As we did so, I could see all the small towns along the Stura and on up into the mountains. I had never realized the whole plain was so utterly full of houses and towns. And the Alps seem to form a corner there as they turn south towards the Italian-French border. We made yet another turn so sharp that I thought the wing was going to do a cartwheel in the pasture below, and we were home.

(Too bad I didn’t get a picture of the valley, but you can get the general idea with Google Earth.  Maybe next time!)

Piemonte–home to robiola, toma, gorgonzola dolce, dolcetto, arneis, gavibarbaresco and in general the biggest list of DOCG wines and cheeses in Italy.  Home to hazelnuts and gianduiotti and hot chocolate so thick you could walk on it, to vitello tonnato and bagna cauda. Home to a Frenchy sort of Italian known as Piemonteis. Home to charming old men in loden coats and checked berets who sometimes still hold hands with their wives on the street. And now, home to us.

There’s graffiti across the street from our building that says, “Leggi Hobbit.” (“Read The Hobbit.”) If the Misty Mountains are the Alps, the cozy valleys of Piemonte must be the Shire.  It’s a second breakfast kind of place.

Bringing home the tree


Last Christmas, which was our first in Italy, we never did find a tree.  So this year, I wanted more than ever to unwrap all our ornaments while listening to Handel’s Messiah.  I had collected a lot of ornaments during our 14 years in New York: a little cookie dough cab and penguin from Grand Central; old-fashioned glass birds from the Museum of Natural History, a Santa ball from a friend long since moved back to Australia; a 1-train ball from the New York Historical Society: and a variety of glittering shoes from the Metropolitan Museum. And from further back: a silver bell from each year since 1997, gifts to Sarie from her grandmother; red tin silhouettes of a boy and girl from Bob’s and my first married Christmas; one guitar ornament from my childhood tree. I wanted badly to bring a little bit of our Christmas history forward to Italy.

So I put out an APB for a tree, but something was wrong with all the solutions:  IKEA–too far away without a car.  Nurseries–too expensive. Fake trees, which are more popular in Italy–beside the point. US-style Christmas tree stands–non-existent.

Then last Friday I got a call from a friend. “I was just walking out of a Pam store near our apartment and I saw three Christmas trees!” she said. The store was two tram rides away, but I jumped at the chance.  I put on my coat and scarf and was out the door with two tram tickets, in evening rush hour traffic.

I got rather turned around on some back streets and never found the second tram, but eventually I found the grocery store. The trees were reasonably priced, if scraggly. And they had the root ball attached. I picked one up. Heavy! But I was determined to have a tree. I paid and left the store lugging my prize.

Not surprisingly, people stared. Christmas trees, I think I’ve mentioned, aren’t that common in Italy. Middle-aged women carrying 40-pound live trees that are as tall as they are, even less so. And I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, so I had to ask where the tram stop was. Finally I found it and gratefully set the tree down on a planter to wait for the ride home.

The tram that arrived was an orange 13, an old type of car with round wooden seats and high steps at the entrance.  When it came, I was able to get the tree up the steps, under the door (just barely) and plop it down just behind the driver, shedding a few needles. But as I tried to straighten up again, I realized I couldn’t. My coat button was hung in the netting. As I worked it free, I realized that there was simply no way I was going to be able to walk the distance between the stops for my transfer, which was to another line with old orange cars. So as I watched our progress out the front window in the dark, counting stops, I fished my phone out of my purse with one hand and called Sarie.

Finally she answered.  “Please meet me at the Porta Susa tram stop with the red cart in fifteen minutes.”


“Porta Susa!”


“Porta Susa!!”

Where at Porta Susa?!”

“The only south-bound tram stop there is!”

Here I was, a woman on crowded tram with live tree, button stuck in the netting, shouting into a phone, in English. At that moment, I heard gypsy music on a violin, inside the tram.  I started to shake with silent laughter. This was like something that would happen in New York.

One stop before Porta Susa, the tram engine sputtered and turned off. “This tram is going out of service. Everybody off the tram!” Down the steps I plunked with my tree.

By now I was tired. This time I really struggled to get the button untangled. And the next tram was coming. Just in time I got myself free and unbuttoned the coat altogether, but I couldn’t get the tree back up the steps quickly enough. A young woman kindly pulled up the other side from inside the train. “This thing is heavy!” she exclaimed appreciatively.

One stop later, I went down the steps again, into a huge crowd. I pulled the tree a little ways out of the crowd, where three men were smoking and shouting in Arabic. A woman ran across the street in front of the tram yelling “Aspetti!,” and trying to make eye contact with the driver so he’d wait, but he apparently  he thought she just meant, “Don’t run over me,” and didn’t. Trams came and went. My hands were cold, but I knew that holding the tree with gloves on would make them permanently sappy, so I left them in my purse.

Sarie called again. “Where are you?” I described the location. Eventually I saw her, pushing our huge old red New York folding cart, the kind with wheels that won’t turn unless you throw your whole body into it. But I was very thankful to see it. She helped me lift the tree into the cart and we started for home.

As we continued south down the porticoed avenue that runs perpendicular to our street, an old man stared wildly as we walked by. “You better water that tree,” he warned in a shaky voice, “or you’re going to kill it!” Did I mention that Italians are skeptical of live trees in houses?

It took another series of maneuvers to get the cart onto the tiny elevator and through the front door, but soon we stood in the foyer, shaking and happy–with a live tree.

Two nights later we were decorating our tree, which had been planted in our old tomato pot. We were listening to a new Baroque version of Handel’s Messiah.  The shoes and bells were too heavy to put on, and the velvet balls wouldn’t fit.  But we had plenty of “Oh, the bear ornament!” and “We need more red balls over here,” moments, and Bob remarked, “For the first time since we’ve moved here, it feels like we’re home.”




“Auguri!” That’s how people say “Happy Birthday!” in Italy.  Everyone in our family has a fall birthday, and yesterday was Sarie’s. She turned 18.

I told her she was almost grown up.  “Stop scaring me,”  she said. So I replied, “But you’ll always be our dear girl.” Then I started cooking, which at times is more reassuring than words.

This is our second go-round of birthdays in Italy. I’m trying to get my cake recipes adapted. For years, in both Georgia and New York, I made the Thunder Cake from Patricia Polacco’s book with the same name. Somewhere in the middle of all those years, though, we switched over to my friend Susan’s Beet Chocolate Cake, probably because beets were readily available at fall farmers’ market in NYC, and besides, it’s a very moist cake.

In Torino, you can’t get beets at all until October.  When they arrive, they are come already roasted, for bagna cauda. This is fine with me, but I still can’t use them for beet cake, because I still don’t have a working blender or food processor.  (This is one of those Italian stories that I’ve left out.)  So we’ve reverted to Thunder Cake.

And we’ve had to adapt our icing recipe. You can’t get bitter chocolate in Italy. I kept hearing rumors of unsweetened chocolate, but when I’d get to the store where it was supposed to be sold, it would turn out to be sweetened, though sometimes not with sugar. My icing recipe is just too sweet unless the chocolate is bitter.

So I asked the people in the grocery store how they make chocolate cake icing. From what I understood from their responses, they don’t really do chocolate icing. They pour sweetened cream over the top of their cakes. I asked, “What do you use for sachertorte?”  (Sachertorte is a seriously chocolate German cake with glazed icing, widely available in Italy.)  They said I should ask at a pasticceria.

At the pasticceria down the street, the baker naturally thought I was trying to order a cake. This would have been an expensive miscommunication, given the price of the cute little meringue ghosts I bought from them last week when we had guests. But in the end he told me that they used cream, chocolate powder, and powdered sugar.

When I got home, Sarie, sensing an opportunity to lick the spoon, said, “Just leave it to me!  I’ll figure it out!”  So while the cake was in the oven, Sarie got out sweetened chocolate bars, powdered sugar, chocolate powder, and milk, and heated some of each in a pan on the stove. In the end, she said, she substituted chocolate powder for half of the sugar. The result was very viscous, and it didn’t quite cover the cake. In fact, it started to tear up the cake when I spread it. But oh, my, was it ever chocolate! I think this is a recipe worth perfecting.

Then we moved on to dinner. Sarie’s request had been, “Something with pancetta.” Somehow I picked up that what she really meant was, “Fall comfort food.” So I went with a mushroom risotto based on a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa’s Back to Basics.

As you might imagine, you can get all kinds of wonderful ingredients for risotto here in Italy: Several different kinds of risotto rice. Saffron in tiny packages just right for one meal. Shallots year-round. Smoked pancetta. Real porcini mushrooms. Broth hens with feet. And of course, all the wine you want.

Admittedly, when I saw how much the mushrooms cost, I drew in my breath. But I trust this produce seller, and they looked first rate. When I cut them, they made a spongey, whooshing sound. And they were very light and flavorful. Next time I can use the regular ones, but your children don’t turn 18 every day.

Risotto was one of the things we worked on in cooking class, though I’d made it in the US too. But now I have learned that no matter which risotto you make, there are always certain steps, which have distinct names in Italian. American cookbooks seem to skip the step in which you stir the rice in the oil or butter until it becomes transparent, just before putting in the wine. In addition, I’m starting to successfully negotiate the fine line between crunchy, al dente, and mushy rice at the end.

At any rate, this risotto looked warm, smelled smoky, and tasted comforting. We ate it with a fizzy red lambrusco. I honestly don’t know if that’s what it goes with, since I think lambrusco is an appetizer wine, but it seemed to make sense. Then we had cake, with silly pink candles on top, and “cream” gelato, which was better than vanilla ice cream.

I’m not quite sure what it means to turn 18 in a country where people often go to high school until they’re almost 20, and may live with their parents until they’re in their 30s. But I’m proud of Sarie’s negotiation of the past couple of years, which haven’t been easy. Growing up doesn’t really happen at the flip of a calendar page, but this was a pretty good day to celebrate taking a step closer.

New York City, one year later


Pottery in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum

Yesterday was supposed to have been the one-year anniversary of our arrival in Italy.  Then Hurricane Irene intervened and pushed it to September 5th.  So next week will be one year in Torino.

I have a feeling we’re going to be here a bit more than two years.

Last month, I finally got to spend some time back in our old hometown, New York.  Though for once, I was by myself. I caught up with a few friends (like Julia and Monica, yea!  And Barbara–see below), went window shopping, and spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum.

Scenes from the West Village.  But wait, there’s Grom!

We stayed with my friend Barbara in the West Village. Her family all get haloes for hosting us for so long! But I do think it was easier to revisit the city for the first time while staying in someone else’s neighborhood.  For one thing, I enjoyed watching the progress close up on the new Freedom Tower, or World Trade Center One, or whatever it’s called these days. But for another, it was less emotional. One day I had to go deliver something to our tenants in the old building, and as I put the key in the front door and opened the mailbox in the lobby, it felt as if I’d never left.  I got out of there before I could get caught looking all verklempt in the lobby.

Sarie’s and Bob’s skyscraper photos.  Sarie’s is of One World Trade Center, while Bob’s are from his old office in Times Square.  Or someone’s office in Times Square.

It was a feeling I had repeatedly during our six-week trip to the US. Wherever I was, was home.  My parents’ house in Athens, my inlaws’ house near Atlanta, our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side, the subway, the Metropolitan Museum, even Newton Farm (though that was because it reminded me of somewhere else).  And now Torino. We’re back. We live here. We’re  home.

Putting together semi-disposable Swedish furniture

Maybe it’s because Italy is such a slow place.  Since April, I’d been putting all my energy into trying to figure out the conservatory requirements, getting Sarie through exams, and planning for next year’s academics.  But it didn’t feel like I was making much progress.  So one fine spring day, I thought, “It’s time to paint the IKEA shelves.  I always said I’d do it in the spring.”

Yup.  I mean those 1970s, hippy-dippy IVAR shelves, probably the first thing IKEA ever produced.  For less than 100 euro, or dollars (they’re the same price in either currency because of VAT tax), you can snap together a double set of shallow, open, pine shelves and paint them yourself.  I’d put mine together in utter desperation before the kitchen ever arrived, but I’d put off the painting until I could work with the doors open.  So I set to work pulling everything off the shelves and putting on the transparent varnish (avocado green, what else?), eager to accomplish something by the end of the day.

Only it wasn’t so simple.  The first coat looked awful.  Halfway into the second coat, I ran out of paint (even though I’d read the coverage instructions on the side of the can).  Another trip to IKEA being now inevitable, I started putting together another list of things that I needed.  The idea was to enable as much civilization as possible while spending little.  After seven months in our lovely apartment, it still felt like we were camping out.  We were still using cardboard moving boxes for wardrobes and lamp tables. To find more than the most basic files, I had to dig into cardboard boxes in the storage room.  We were embarrassed to invite people over to dinner because we didn’t have enough chairs. We were all ready for the next step.

So away we went, Bob and I, with a list.  Well, Bob went with a book–Crime and Punishment.  I needed him for chauffering and lifting, but saw no need to torture him with decorating.  An hour or two later, I emerged from the showroom floor with a list of printed out order sheets and a cart full of accessories.  He was sitting at a picnic table in the cafe, a table no doubt placed there to encourage people to think about holding barbecues and buying picnic tables.  But he was mentally in St. Petersburg.  It took another couple of hours to wait for everything, load it into the car, and unload it at our apartment, but Bob was happy to have his part over with.  Mine had just begun.

It has been a very satisfying, if still somewhat makeshift, week.  On day one, I painted shelves while listening to the teenager across the courtyard play bad American music on an electric piano, and the toddler girl a couple of apartments over chirp greetings at passersby.  Capitalizing on the funky 70s theme, I had bought a small, modern glass lamp for 13 euro and now put it on the completed kitchen shelves so all the light wouldn’t be on the side of the room with the sink.  Sarie was enchanted.  “It’s a mushroom!  It’s like something from Phantastes!” she exclaimed.  “It’s like the chapter with the glowing fireflies everywhere!  I really, really like this lamp!”

Day two was filing cabinets, put together while listening to one  of Dr. Keller’s sermons.  The cabinets are rather sterile and metallic (I keep wanting to stick big bold flower stickers on the drawers for some color), but now I have enough drawer space to make a drawer for Italian documents, a drawer for US stuff, a drawer for Bob’s work, and an entire drawer just for Sarie’s high school coursework.  I’ll be working on filing for quite some time.

Day three, after I’d taken down five loads of trash and boxes and shopped for food, was about dining chairs and arranging books and kitchen equipment on the shelves.  On day four, I took a break to go to womens’ Bible study, but was back home in time to put together a sofa table and empty some more book boxes.  Today, I’m back working on files.

Sometime during the week, I mentioned to an expat friend what I was doing, and she said, “Sometimes IKEA is just what we need, even if it is semi-disposable Swedish furniture.”  I love the phrase, which is apparently from the book Generation X, which is also the source for the name of people who at the time were in their twenties.  The irony of it is that, in a land in which people inherit apartments from their parents and accumulate furniture for a lifetime, in which elegance matters and life happens slowly, our family has just left most everything we’ve accumulated for a typically American entrepreneurial scheme.  Semi-disposable Swedish furniture just fits our lives right now.

I’m grateful for my new IKEA furniture. But I’ve reserved a spot in the front entry way for an Italian farm table.  And I’m going to look at a real wooden armoire this weekend.  And after that, I’m hiring someone to remove all those bare wires that are sticking out of the walls and ceilings, and look for something to put on the walls.  After all, this is home.

Warm-weather routine

This week it has suddenly become hot in Torino. It makes me realize that the seasons have almost fully changed and my routine has changed, too:

We open the doors, but close the shutters, at night.  In the morning, I keep them closed on the east side of the apartment, so that my kitchen and study don’t heat up quickly.  We don’t have air-conditioning, but we have good ventilation, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get used to not having it.  I get a cup of coffee, make some toast, and go read my Bible, pray, and write in my journal. And there’s a bird, undoubtedly a Blackbird, because it sounds like an American Robin, that sings every morning before dawn.

Right after we’re finished with breakfast and hot water for showers, I start a load of wash.  If I get the clothes out on the line by late morning, they may be dry by early afternoon. Sometimes I do a second load at night, after the electricity rates go down.  But since I can only run one major appliance at a time (besides the refrigerator), sometimes another appliance wins out. Usually, if I get up in the middle of the night, I remember to turn the water heater back on.

Clothes started, I go food shopping.  The markets are in the peas, spinach and asparagus season now.  Cucumbers, ox heart tomatoes, and even melons are starting to appear. There are always lots of interesting salad greens, mostly bitter ones. I never have quite figured out what to do with the barba di frate, though.  I think it’s almost finished, so perhaps I should.


Barba di frate (image by Stefan Proud) from Wikipedia commons

Sarie and I often watch Khan Academy videos during lunch.  Lately we’ve been watching cosmology/astronomy videos.  One day we got started investigating possible shapes of the universe–flat, sphere, and hyperbolic plane.  If the universe has four dimensions, you should be able to see the same stars in two places, albeit at different times.  Whoa.

In the afternoon, I do e-mail, or whatever desk work that needs doing.  I’m still working on that conservatory business. I’m planning for next year’s school.  I help Sarie with whatever she needs help with.

Then I do some cleaning, more shopping, some project, or perhaps even an ice-cream walk.  Sarie sometimes has classes in the afternoon.  I try to make some time to read, screen-free.  Then I start dinner.

Now that it’s warm out, the people whose apartments face our courtyard have their windows and doors open all day and often all night.  I hear renovation going on across the alley. I hear the upholsterer’s staples. I hear dishes at lunch (1:30) and dinner (8:00).  I hear people talking on the phone, and sometimes I even understand what they say.  I hear soccer matches on TV.

And there’s white fluff floating everywhere.  It floats past our windows.  It floats inside and piles up in the corners until I sweep it away.  It lands on the table during dinner.  It started on Monday.

All day, I hear socializing, and especially people calling for Angelo.  I’ve now figured out that Angelo is the balding man who wears rubber boots and runs the car wash behind our building.  Across the courtyard I often hear a toddler who stays with her grandmother all day. Today just before lunch the little girl stood out on the balcony calling, “An-ge-wo!  AAAAN-ge-wooooooooe!!!”  Of course Angelo showed up under her balcony, like Romeo.  Who wouldn’t?

We’re starting to experience the long daylight that comes with a European latitude.  It’s light when I wake up, and it stays light until after nine.  About an hour before sunset, swallows swarm overhead, crying continuously.  The light fades, their high circles swoop lower, and their loud screes become faint squeaks.  Imperceptibly, they’ve morphed into bats.

At the sun sets, we go to close the shutters, and I always look to the west to see a huge planet, almost certainly Venus.  Yesterday, as I closed the shutters, I heard the voice of Salman Khan, explaining how you can calculate the distance of a star by noting the angle overhead as the sun rises or sets, at opposite times of year.  So I looked straight up.  Because here, I can.