Posted by: 4initalia | January 11, 2009


Our first week is done. A week out of a year. A week that started in a haze of jetlag and frozen fog (as much in my head as outside my window) and ended with a cell phone call from the United States. In between, trudges to unfamiliar stores to stock the shelves. I made so many lists: bathroom rugs (to replace the scary ones that coiled along the edges in horror of their own filthiness) a teapot, a cutting board, towels, a cover for the couch. And food – the things you need to get started – spices, sugar, pasta, bread, fruit, cheese, canned beans. But the market held many mysteries – what was the Italian word for bleach? What does “Pane morbido” mean? (It means “soft bread,” which is a lot less dramatic in English than it looks in Italian.)

Grumbling about having to walk to the store (minivan, where are you???) we were humbled to watch elderly Italians load their purchases into bicycle baskets and peddle away into the icy and crowded streets. Okay, then, I guess we can do this.

The apartment had been vacant for several months, and it had a smell, as tangible as a diseased beast, that clawed its way into my sleep. I spent a day scrubbing the pool-blue kitchen tiles of rancid garlic and olive oil steamed on by years of sauteeing. Then I swabbed the floors and rooted out clumps of old cleaning rags and rugs. The smell was stuffed into bags and flushed down the toilet, and the apartment was ours.

We’re on the 7th floor of an obstinately thick building. We have a balcony that overlooks a charming train station, with tiny tin trains that pass soundlessly beyond the trees. The floors are marble and parquet, and the furniture, once elegantly antique, is now in the earliest stages of becoming firewood. The tap water tastes like a bucket of rusty bolts; we drink frizzante, bubbling mineral water. There is no pressure associated with the water in the shower; in the morning, I could cry harder than the trickle of water that reluctantly emerges from the shower head.

On Friday, we signed the lease for the apartment. We included: Andy and me, Raimondo the landlord, Eugenia, a representative from the tenant’s union, who represented our interests, a translator, and someone from the City. Raimondo was also entitled to have a representative, from the landlord’s union, but he declined. We spent an hour and a half going over the lease, and it was all either standard language or somewhat in our favor.

We signed the lease in a crypt-like conference room nestled into the walls of one of Modena’s oldest buildings. To reach the office, we walked along a lovely curving arcade until Raimondo stopped and pushed a button on the wall. Silently, a pair of medieval wooden doors swung open. They were curved at the top, massively wooden and thick, and tall enough to admit a man on horseback. As the doors opened you expected to find a knight standing behind them.

We walked into an inner courtyard shaded in stone and lined with columns. We walked up stone steps, and were shown into the conference room. It was delightful and fascinating and so Italian. We waited for the translator and our union rep, who were late. While we waited, we tried to speak with Raimondo, but all of his brilliant knowledge of Italian history and art is lost to me until I can learn more Italian. We conjugated the verb “lavorare,” to work, and then Andy wanted to show off his understanding of the past tense. “I took the train yesterday,” he said in Italian. Raimondo looked unimpressed. “I’m not just saying that, I really did it!!” I wanted to pat him on the head and say “Goob BOOOY!” but the humor was lost on both of them.

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