Posted by: 4initalia | June 29, 2009


While our kids played, we had a cappuccino in the park with our friends from Bulgaria. It was intensely satisfying. They grew up in a Communist country behind an Iron Curtain that has rusted and fallen away. What was that like? Mariana laughed. “The government was not Communist, there were a few ruling families with all of the power. The children and grandchildren of those people were sent to good schools. Now the children and grandchildren of those same people are in charge of the government. There is no difference.”

I hear the sound of friends’ voices long after the conversation, and my brain speaks in that voice. In my head, Mariana’s voice sounds like Meryl Streep in Sophies’s Choice.

The kids go to an international school with one hundred children from seventeen different countries, and only four kids, including our own, are American. The school attracts people from all over the world because the parents work on contract for international companies. The contracts last from one to five years. If the contract is not renewed, or for other reasons, the family moves, to a different country, or to a different part of the world. Some American friends think we’re crazy to spend a whole year away from home, and the contract families think we’re crazy that it’s only a year.

I have only a year, and there’s so much to learn. So many stories. Before living in Italy, Mariana and her husband and son lived in Shanghai, for four years. “Can you imagine?” Mariana says, in her Italian apartment with the Chinese silk table runner, and over coffee, I try. Nikola was enrolled in a Chinese school at the age of four, and he learned to speak Chinese. And English. And now they live in Italy, and he’s learning Italian, and he excels at that too. Can you imagine?

In the park, Mariana makes a slip that is funny. Describing a friend that she met when her friend was in her 30s, Mariana says “She committed suicide. At sixteen.” I corrected her “She tried to commit suicide.” We laughed. But Mariana speaks Bulgarian, Chinese, Italian, English, some Russian; I can’t remember them all. I’m correcting the grammar of a person who speaks so many languages I can’t list them. We laugh, and I apologize that my Bulgarian and Chinese are a bit rusty.

I want to know what it was like for Mariana growing up. She lived for a time in Siberia, a small girl with four huge dogs, wandering the wilds of Russia. Can you imagine? No, please tell me all about it. And thank you for learning English, or I’d never know.

The kids have friends from all over the world. Alex’s Canadian friend has lived in London, Switzerland, and Italy, and he’s leaving for boarding school in Scotland. Annalise’s friends, twin boys, are from India, but lived in Seattle. Others are from Brazil, and Serbia, and Spain. Annalise’s teacher, who is British, spent four years in Poland. Alex’s teachers are from Australia, England, Scotland, Italy.

Not having a car is an inconvenience that I feel most when there’s a school function. In order to socialize, I have to ask for ride. To get to a lunch for a friend who’s going back to America, I was offered a lift by a friend from England; we stop for cappucino, and talk about the endless battle with mosquitos and the frustrations of hitting a plateau in Italian.

Most of the women at the lunch have kids in the international school. I talk to an Italian mom, who lived in London for ten years, about why she sends her Italian kids to a private school. She confirms Mariana’s fears about the way stranieri are treated in local classrooms. The parents here have the same conversations we had with parents at our kids’ private school in the U.S. “It’s not tough enough. The teachers let the kids slide.” “There’s too much/not enough homework.” But these parents compare this school with ones their kids have attended in France, in Singapore, in Sweden.

I get a ride home from Nicole, a gorgeous Italian. She has huge blue eyes in a flawless Mediterranean complexion, and she holds herself with the langour of a feline, gracefully at ease. We talk about Revolutionary Road, and her perspective, as the wife of a very traditional Italian man, is fascinating.

So many of the people here have perspectives based on living in different parts of the world. A mom at a school party is from Lebanon, but she spent four years in Tehran. What does she think about what’s happening in Iran? What should America do? Stay back, she says. It takes her a while to be comfortable enough to say that America is too close to Israel. She doesn’t want to offend us. She doesn’t hate us for our freedoms. She’s articulate and her opinions are based on living there. It’s fascinating to listen to people whose opinions are based not on viewing the world from a soapbox, but from buying soap in a market that may have been the site of a bombing. Can you imagine? I’ll listen, and I’ll try to remember that when bombs fall, the market is filled with good moms like this one. She left, but like many Americans, others stay home. The news is full of what happens to good people who stay.

We are offered a ride home from the school party, by friends of Annalise’s Indian friends. So kind. But most families don’t have cars big enough to carry an extra four people, so Andy and the kids went back with our Bulgarian friends, and I got a ride with this wonderful family. Their son is irresistable, he’s three and is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and carrying a toy electric guitar. They arrived In Italy at the same time we did, in January, and we laughed at how cold it was. “It was so hard” said the mom. “I couldn’t figure out what to buy in the market, like how to buy bleach!”

I had the same problem. Italian bleach doesn’t look like Clorox, it’s in a container like Softscrub, and it’s called “Vanish” like our toilet cleaner. This beautiful woman, with blue eyes and a lovely sari, was wandering the market in the same confusion I was, looking for bleach. Can you imagine?

I asked the family where they’d like to live. If not here, then India, or an English speaking country. “The United States?” I ask. “No, many Indians have the American Dream, but not us. The United Kingdom, or Singapore.” Australia is too far from family. Like my British pal, the Indian mom is frustrated with Italian. “I learned French and German well. But Italian has been difficult.” I ask what other languages she speaks, and she already knew her native Indian language, and Hindi, and English, before she tackled French and German. Italian is her sixth language. “Your brain cells are full” I said, and we laughed.

What will I miss about Italy? The world.

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