Posted by: 4initalia | June 26, 2009


It’s been six months, and I’m peering with horror down the slippery slope that will carry us back to our lives in the United States. Soon we will be in our suburban house in Lakewood, Colorado. If you’re thinking that that will be a huge relief, in some ways, it will. Here every transaction is a Rubik’s cube – I get one side all lined up, and the squares click into a coherent block of color, and I get a Surge O Smarmy. But there’s always a facet I didn’t notice, and my brain has to twist and turn to make sense of another jumble of tiles. It’s very frustrating, but so entertaining.

Like the Cowardly Lion, I don’t like to plunge into new situations. If I had a tail to chew, it would be threadbare. But I’ve mastered the basic tasks: I can shop in the market, take a bus, recharge my cell phone. I even bought pants that fit, but first I had to get over my fear of trying stuff on.

Every time I played Size Roulette at the open air market, I lost, so I finally got up the noive to ask the vendors if I could try on the pants. Some of the stalls have tarp booths that close with Velcro, some provide the back of a van loaded with boxes. But none of the market “dressing rooms” have mirrors inside; to see yourself in the clothes, you have to subject yourself to the scrutiny of fabulous-looking Italians.

Unlike most of the female population of Italy, I am not built like Sophia Loren. Italian women have breasts in bounteous abundance. Their rib cages are narrow, their waists are impossibly small, and their rears are fabulously not. Italian curves are as sinuous and dramatic as the winding roads used for car commercials. I’m built more like a sidewalk with uneven sections; a dress cut for an Italian may not be cut out for me.

I like to receive bad news in private, and I don’t want to judge how I look by the horrified faces of the lovely citizens of Modena. Remember those movie scenes where the freak show curtain is thrown back and the child Phantom and the Elephant Man are revealed to the gaping public? No thank you.

I thought I hit on a clever solution: I held my digital camera at arms’ length and took photos of myself in the clothes. The pictures are funny – my face is twisted from trying to find the right angle, and if this is what I look like when I’m confused, I’m never going to ask another question. While I was clicking away in one van, the Narcissistic Papparazza, the vendor politely tapped on the door to ask what the Sam Hill I was doing in her vehicle. She laughed and got me un specchio – a mirror. Oh, why didn’t I think of that??

Every day I pin my Courage medal to my tattered fur, and hit the Giallo Brick Road. I’m thrilled with every bit of progress. We take books out of the library, I bought fruit at the local fruit stand, I spent a delightful day in Bologna. My Italian is improving, but there’s so much I can’t express. My kids have bikes, and the last time we went for a ride in the park, Annalise veered into the path of a man in an elegant suit, wearing fabulous shoes, who was neatly balanced on a prim upright. He peered at me with cool indignation. I’d like to respond: I don’t know why my daughter is trying to kill you, but please don’t take it personally. But none of the phrase books teach you the things you really need to say.

Just when I thought I was one cool cat, Andy left for five days to give a presentation in the United States, and I was alone in Modena with the kids. To be a single parent of my children for more than an hour is scary. To do it in a foreign country, with no car, no real grasp of what is covered under our health insurance, and a huge fear that I’m going to have to find out, is terrifying.

People scoff at “it takes a village” but when you are una straniera, a foreigner, having a social network is a matter of survival. At home we had excellent insurance, specialists, and pediatricians down the street, but here, we have a cell phone that sometimes works and an American doctor who lives in Bologna. I can call him in a medical emergency, but we may have different definitions of what that means. “Dr.Williams? We have no milk for tea, and no drinking water, and I can’t carry milk and six liters of water at the same time. I can’t live without caffiene. How soon can you be here??”

I have a list of emergency numbers on the fridge, and one of them, #118, is for “Emergenza Sanitaria,” which apparently summons an ambulance. Conveniently, Italian ambulances prowl the public squares, trolling for patients. I see them in Bologna, Milan, Modena, Rome. I don’t know if I should be comforted they’re so eager to serve, or unnerved they know something I don’t. Either way, I’m not sure what happens after you dial 118. So I try to avoid allowing the children to spurt blood or break bones.

I’m an attorney, and lawyers analyze every situation to determine What Horrible Things Can Happen If You’re Alive. For example, when I say “Don’t climb on that wall,” and my seven year old asks “Why not?”, I give an excruciatingly detailed explanation of potential consequences for every misstep. “If you climb on that wall while your brother is standing next to you on his bike, he’s going to bump into you, and you’re going to pitch forward and split your head open on the dirty concrete, which will result in a concussion, stiches, and quite possibly a dangerous infection. In the alternative, you’re going to reel backward, fall into that rose bush, and we’ll be picking thorns out of your ribs for the next three weeks. If the medical care is negligient, you’ll spend years in depositions, may have to testify against the doctor, and for all your trouble, you probably won’t see a dime.” The threat of depositions always stops her cold. It’s good to have a variety of parenting tools at your disposal; how do doctors keep their kids off the wall?

I wouldn’t be so nervous about health care if we weren’t still in limbo status. After the horrific visit to the Questura, we’re still waiting for our appointment to finalize our Permesso Di Soggiorno. (The Permesso gets us a medical access card, which for me will include a photo that will get me immediate access to emergency care.) A delay in receiving a Permesso is common. Andy’s university sends some students to Bologna for their whole junior year. Within days of their arrival, the students have to report to the Questura to apply for their Permesso. The Permesso isn’t granted for many months, sometimes not until after the students leave. And then the next batch of applicants is dispatched to the Questura.

The futility of processing documents for the Italian government must take its toll. Maybe that’s where mimes come from. But to wait for a document until you no longer need it is as Italian as the icy swirl of gelato. For every bureaucratic inconvenience, there is gorgeous compensation.

For example, while waiting patiently for the permesso, in Modena’s square, I had a spectacular buffet lunch. The restaurant is beside a bell tower that tilts slightly away from an ancient church, which also leans, but in the other direction. The bell tower is new, it’s 700 years old. For seven hundred years, the bells have warned Modenese of fires, approaching invaders, and passing hours. I was inside the tower when the bells went off: low sonorous notes reverebrating against the sun and sky. No really, I can wait.

The tower looms beside Modena’s Duomo, an 800 year old church. Pavarotti’s funeral was held here. We were in the Duomo at the beginning of 10 o’clock Mass. The priest sang the mass in Italian, accompanied by a choir of angels; the notes of the organ soared against the ancient stone. I can leave this place only after I have heard the Christmas service in this church that has celebrated eight hundred and twenty four Christmasses. Kicking and screaming, I will leave.

Across the square from the church lies a slab of granite, larger than a tomb. Now it holds students cradling laptops, but for a thousand years, this stone held public speakers and public executions. Italian efficiency is a marvelous thing.

A two-hour lunch ended blissfully, with a cappucino. Drinking milk with coffee after 10:30 is heresy for Italians, so to have an afternoon cappucino marks you as a straniera. But the hour glass is running down, Toto, and Antie Em makes awful coffee. Let’s have one for the road.

On the way home from lunch, I stopped at the optician’s to get some saline. It was closed. Chiuso. I pulled and pushed the door. Niente. So I stepped back to read the dizzying array of small clocks designating the store’s hours. Open at 9, closed at 1, open at 3:30, closed at 6. There were still a lot of clocks left to read, so that was only Monday’s schedule. While I was still deciphering the little hands, a man opened the door from the inside.

He was tall, with a rag wrapped around his splayed gray hair, and a bulging black t-shirt with faded silver lettering that staggered across the globe of his stomach. He looked more like a pirate than an optician, and he spoke in rapid Italian. I was a few arrghhs behind, so I didn’t understand what he said, but since he held the door open, I asked if I could buy some saline.

“E’ giovedi pomereggio” he explained, with all the gravity of the announcement of the death of a head of state. “E’ giovedi pomeriggio.” We shook our heads together: E’ giovedi pomeriggio. It is Thursday afternoon, when most of Modena is closed. The fact that it’s also closed Monday morning, all day Sunday, and a million national holidays does not seem to diminish the need to close on Thursday afternoon. He asked if I were from Modena, implying that only a straniera would approach a Modena shop door on Thursday afternoon. He could probably smell the cappuccino on my breath, another sign of stranierosity. “Sono Americana,” I responded, and we had reached complete understanding: Americans do not know about Thursday afternoon.

In Lakewood, I can buy saline at Costco, enough to create a salt water acquarium, on Thursday afternoon. I can try on clothes. I wait hours, not months or years, for government documents. But I cannot drink cappucino next to an 800 year old church, and I cannot speak to a pirate in Italian. Arrrrrgh.


  1. We lived for a couple of years in the Middle East. The concept of “old” and “new” are vastly different than they are here! So I snickered at the 700 y/o “new” bell tower.

    Love this slice of Italian life!

    • Thanks, Lori! There’s a whole dang pie – grab a cappuccino, and try another slice!

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