Posted by: 4initalia | October 4, 2010

Are You Packing for Europe? How To Blend In Now

Americans are easy to spot in a European crowd because of the way they dress. Paying attention to those differences can help you blend in.

In general, Europeans dress more formally than Americans.  Have you seen Mad Men, or Leave it To Beaver?  Europeans dress like Americans did in the 1950 and 60s. Americans also wear styles from the 1950s – but they dress like Wally and “the Beave.”  Americans, in sneakers, jeans, and baseball caps, dress like the children of the 1950s.

Americans are obvious in a European crowd because the color and cut of their clothing is distinctively American. In general, Europeans wear muted tones and form-fitting clothes in black, gray, and olive, with splashes of bold color, in scarves and shoes.  Here are specific tips for men, women, and kids:

What Do European Men Wear?

While American Baby Boomers favor loose cotton pants, especially khaki-colored Dockers, European men wear well-cut  rayon or wool pants in dark colors. In summer, European men wear cotton pants, but they’re slim cut and in muted tones. One odd exception: Italian men wear bright-brick-red pants; don’t try that at home. American men of all ages prefer boxy cotton shirts in plaids or bright colors, or baggy t-shirts, while older Europeans choose fitted polos in darker shades that would look right in a country club dining room.   European shirts are cut close to the body. European men also wear shades of pink and salmon, and look fabulous in lightweight scarves in colors like pumpkin and gray. Younger men flaunt their flat abs and narrow waists in tight-fitting polos or dress shirts and scarves, and look great in skinny jeans.

The term “European Cut” is, ahem, fitting:  based on size alone, it’s easy to pick Americans out of a crowd. But well-cut clothes in darker colors are slimming and help Americans to “fit” in.

There are also definite differences in the way European men wear shorts and shoes. When vacationing in Europe, American men dress like they’re going to a baseball game.  Europeans may dress more formally because they’re on their way to work, not play. But even on vacation, European dress to impress. When it’s really hot, European men wear shorts, but those tend to have slim-cut pockets. When they wear cargo shorts, the pockets do not bulge.  Why not? Bulging pockets are a pickpocket’s dream.

What about shoes? Europeans wear athletic shoes, but the style of the shoe is different. Americans wear tennis shoes, running shoes, or sneakers, that have thick white soles, uppers that are bright white with lots of contrasting trim, and thick white shoelaces.  European athletic shoes tend to be black or in muted shades of leather, with dark laces. The sole of the shoe is thin, and the shoe itself is tapered, not clunky; European athletic shoes look more like regular shoes than sneakers. The exception is athletic shoes in neon shades.  Bright white American sneakers do stand out, and you can be recognized as an American for wearing them.

To blend in, American men should wear fitted pants and real shoes.  Don’t wear Dockers – they are distinctly American.  Don’t use a fanny pack or stuff your cargo pockets, get a man-bag in leather or a dark color, which will also foil pickpockets. Don’t pack a baseball cap, either – that’s totally American, and let’s leave that to the Beave.

What Do European Women Wear?

To dress with Euro style, think dresses in muted shades in body-hugging fabric. Boxy cotton in pastel or bright shades, and prints that would look appropriate on the wall of a nursery will mark you as an American tourist.

Women blend best in muted colors, in rayon or polyester. Black works everywhere in Europe, and travels well. In Italy, the most popular colors are black and shades of plum, olive, brown, tan and taupe.  Deep reds also work well, as do sophisticated prints in deeper shades. In the summer, there is a lot of coral, turquoise, and bright white cotton, but white is hard to maintain while traveling. So if you bring whites, a bright cotton scarf will help keep your look fresh and your shirt clean. Always err on the side of simplicity, elegance and understatement. While jeans and jean jackets are fine during the day, dresses work well any time and everywhere.  Skirts are dressier than shorts, and both look great with flats. If you wear shorts, they should be long (to the knee or lower) and not baggy.

In the fall, a dark trench coat travels beautifully; for the winter, a well-cut black wool coat is chic and stylish. If you’re wearing sweaters, go for solid colors in darker shades, no plaids or prints. A black sweater you can dress up with a scarf is a great choice. Black pants with a touch of Lycra hide stains, city grime, and excess baggage.

In any season, lose the bright-white, thickly padded sneakers! By all means wear comfortable shoes: for city strolls and treks over hard marble floors and uneven cobblestones, you’ll need them. Leather sandals or ballerina flats are classic and comfortable; Italian women also wear leather and suede boots even in the summer. This summer, the sandals are bejeweled, and the heels are sky-high. It’s impressive to see women striding over cobblestones and riding bikes, in stilettos. Only try that if you have great insurance.

A foot-saving tip: If your shoes hurt, check pharmacies or supermarkets for “Compeed.” Unlike plastic bandages that look unsightly and fall off after a shower, these are clear silicone pads that attach directly to the foot and provide a comfortable and lasting cushion. They come in a bright blue package in several shapes and sizes – some wrap around the toe, some around the heel, or cover the ball of the foot.  Look at the photo on the label to decide which type you need, and buy several packages to bring home – they cost around 7 euros, and are the absolutely best way to pamper your feet while you indulge the rest of your senses.

Always avoid flashy jewelry – that only gets you attention from people who want to steal it. Souvenir bags and cameras mark you as a tourist, so carry a big black shoulder bag for your camera and purchases.  And pick up scarves in silk or cotton – they’ll keep you warm, dress up and outfit, and help you blend in.

What Do European Kids Wear?

European kids look like kids everywhere: they wear jeans, t-shirts, and shorts. European teens tend to wear clingy shirts, hoodies, and skinny jeans. Kids wear Converse sneakers in bright colors.

Oh Darn, You May Need to Go Shopping

Americans may be able to pull off a European look by scrounging in their own closets, but you may have to go shopping. Where?  You don’t have to spend a lot to fit in. Before my last trip to Europe, I went to a discount chain.  They had racks of dresses, in black and white and jewel tone prints that were straight from the pages of  ’60s fashion magazines. Perfetto. (If you’d like to know how to shop in street markets, see “Retail Euphoria: How to Shop Italian Street Markets for Fun and Exhilaration” on this site.) 

Keep in mind that many hotels do not provide irons. In summer heat and humidity, cotton separates, even in black, wrinkle easily, absorb perspiration, and dry slowly after washing. After one wearing a cotton outfit is either dead weight in your luggage, requires pricey hotel laundering, or you’ll waste hours in a lavanderia.

But even after 16-hour days scrabbling onto planes and trains, climbing towers, and blasted by the heat of dusty streets, my polyester print dresses were cool and comfortable, and I never got that look. If I washed my dress in the hotel sink at night,  in the morning I was ready for another day of feeling as crisp and cool as Audrey Hepburn.

Of course, you’ll want to shop in Europe. Stores are tantalizing, and street markets in Europe are loaded with fashion finds at great prices. If you go to the street market, be sure to bring a size conversion chart, because you usually can’t try things on. For more advice on how to shop Italian street markets, see:

If fashion is your passion and you would like the expert advice of a fabulous fashionista, Melanie Payge of PlanMilan can show you the best of Milan fashion – and help you   find what looks best on you. For a fun expedition for yourself and your friends, schedule a makeover with Melanie;

Are you ready for Europe? In any culture, it’s good to look less like a tourist and more like part of the crowd. Especially when that crowd looks so fabulous.

Want to know more about how to get the most out of your European adventure? See “13 Lessons From Travelling in Europe”:


For cooking in Italy, see “Reality Bites”:

For a walking tour of a town considered one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, see “Italy is God’s Attic:”

A funny story about Venice:

How about getting rescued by Italian fire fighters? See “Rescue Me.”

If you love Italy and love reading funny stories about living there – keep reading. And please, leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

Posted by: 4initalia | June 1, 2010

Thirteen Lessons From a Year of Traveling in Europe

Carpi Diem. No really, the town is called Carpi.

1. Pack light. Unless it’s cold where you’re going. Then pack heavy, so you don’t have to buy another jacket just like the three you left at home.

2. Always pack a bathing suit, so you don’t have to buy one that’s way less flattering than the three you left at home.

3. Europeans invented a lot of languages so Americans would feel grateful for pharmacists who speak English.

4. Living like a local is a lot more fun if you’re living like a local rich person.

5. Don’t try to craft the ultimate travel experience. Have fun with tourist traps, and spend time off the beaten trail – but always enjoy just being out of your element.

6. Humidity matters. As water vapor increases, so do bugs, laundry (because of either sweat or need for extra layers), fatigue, and crankiness. When packing, consider temperature and humidity.

7. Never look a Romani in the eye if you’re going to say no. Her contempt will burn out your corneas.

8. Don’t buy anything made in China, unless you’re in China. That will eliminate most foolish purchases.

9. Local spices make great gifts.

10. Guidebooks are written to make you feel bad about all the cool stuff you don’t have time to see, and all the fascinating facts you won’t remember.  The only people who have time to see every”Highly Recommended” site in the guidebook wrote the guidebook. People who write guidebooks are compensating for some major personal inadequacies.

11. Never let a junkie help you work the train ticket machine.

12. Never tick off a junkie who wants to help you work the train ticket machine.

13. No matter who you are and what you’re wearing, encounters with Turkish toilets always end badly.

Posted by: 4initalia | February 22, 2010

Let’s Get This Straight

I just had an American haircut, my first in a year.  As usual, I was uncomfortable the whole time I was in the chair.  I never know what to say to a hairdresser. Do I chat about the weather, ask about her kids? Or relieve her from the agony of having the same conversation with every person held captive in her scissors?

In Italy, I had a fabulous hairdresser named Patricia. She sold me the only bottle of shampoo that ever made my hair shiny. That shampoo was confiscated in an ugly incident involving carry-on luggage and airport security. I accept the apologies of the flying public, whose safety was secured with my sixteen ounces of Schwartzkoff’s Hair Restorer.  Although Suspect Schwartzkoff was shipped to Guantanamo for questioning, that bottle was totally cleared of any involvement in terrorist activity. So I ask that it be released into my custody.

Like a bout with airport security, I always had to brace myself for a haircut with Patricia. Stepping into her mango-colored salon, I was enveloped in a creamy mousse of captivating conversation and rich laughter.  We laughed about everything women talk about: men, kids, politics, religion. We spoke in rapid Italian, and I was always a few syllables short of full understanding, so with every new topic, my brain veered like an exhilarated kid on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. When my appointment was over, and I stepped back onto the sidewalk, my heart had been rattled like a maraca, and my crankiness gently fluttered to the pavement, like hair clippings.

Patricia was only hairdresser I ever understood, and I didn’t understand a sizeable chunk of what she was saying.

We were friends, so every time she cut my hair, Patricia became more invested in passing me off as a real Italian. Although many Italians are born with ebony curls, Italians do not accept the limitations of nature, they subdue and triumph over it. Italian women defy gravity with fabulous bosoms and stiletto heels.  Men scoff at summer heat in close-cut gabardine suits.  Michelangelo didn’t make his David life-sized, Michelangelo made him big enough to live forever.

Italians don’t covet natural beauty. Nature envies the art and allure of every Italian.

So Italians manage their natural resources. They dye their hair, in colors on the russet spectrum between copper and Lambrusco. Although Modena had many elderly residents, gray hair was sparse; male and female brunettes over forty tinged their locks to a brickish hue. Younger women opted for a high-gloss pomegranate finish. Their hair sparkled audibly, like wind chimes. But to make it sing, you have to take out the kinks.

Patricia hoped that I would go burgundy, but her first priority was curl removal. Every visit, as I sank into her swivel chair and faced the mirror, she would plunge her fingers deep into my unruly mop, and pull. Then she’d flip open a pamphlet of hair straightening products.  She’d point out their various merits, hoping to begin with one that lasted only three weeks: surely, I’d come to my senses.

I demurred but never wavered. Patricia was so intent on performing a humanitarian service this didn’t dissuade her. Not until she was sure  the pamphlet had convinced me to go straight at my next appointment would she pull out her scissors. She did a wonderful job. When she finished cutting, my hair was wild and tousled and I looked twenty years younger and impossibly chic.  I have never been able to accomplish that at home. So I would say: “Mi piace molto, come questo.” I like this a lot, just like this. But these words merely unleashed a tsunami of wave removal.

In this phase, Patricia would grab a metal roller brush used to pave highways, trap a ringlet in its bristles, and turn on the blow dryer. The heat was so intense it melted the fillings in my lower molars.  She dug the bristles into my scalp and pulled so hard my head would have qualified as Pilates equipment.

When she was done, and all of the waves had been wrenched from my scalp, I didn’t look ravishingly Italian, I resembled the Beatles in their Love Me Do period. Sometimes I looked like Paul, with impermeable bangs and a mahogany fringe that plummeted to my collar. Carrying  a sitar, I would have been mistaken for George. On a stormy day, I approximated Ringo in a wind tunnel.

I am philosophical about my hair, because I once experienced Hairmageddon. In my senior year of high school, I kept my hair short, and blew it dry, so for some inexplicable reason, I didn’t know that it was curly. In search of a little wave, I got a permanent.

The hairdresser wound my hair into the smallest curling rods, plastered on permanent solution, and left it in for an hour. When she took out the rods, all of the fine strands that had formed my bangs broke away, and the remaining frizz seized into a dense mushroom cloud on top of my head. I was short and pudgy, and my physique was arranged in a graduated series of ballish chunks, so with my new do, I looked like a gristly snowman. The compassionate souls at my high school called me Poodle, but they were so doubled over with laughter, I couldn’t make out what else they called me.

This is not the kind of character building experience that lends itself to greatness, but I certainly kept my perspective on the importance of a Bad Hair Day.

So when in Boston, a salon made me look so much like Hillary that Bill Clinton cheated on me, I reacted diplomatically.  In Denver, a stylist made my head into a helmet. She’d cut my hair into a ball, fluff it into a sphere, and coat it with so much hairspray I’d draw blood breaking through the crust. No worries, it wasn’t permanent. And no matter what style I tried, my curls would revert to the same lunatic fringe.  After every shampoo, my freak flag flew.

I didn’t need a magenta mane to feel Italian all the way to my roots; I love my hair just the way it is. And I loved Patricia, who made every moment in her chair a dizzying ride into her world.

She loves you ya ya ya yaaaaah…..


 My top 10 Favorite Things to Do in Italy. Okay, 8, Because the Site Wouldn’t Let Me List 10.

Posted by: 4initalia | February 5, 2010

We Are the Worllld…Okay, Not

Now that I’m back in the States, and have learned to froth milk on my cappuccino maker while sustaining only second degree burns, I can reflect on My European Experience. What did I learn? That Europe has a lot of extremely old and cool stuff, and that being surrounded by beauty is so exhilarating, Americans should try that at home.

And that in an international arena, being a jerk can get you labelled as a Nazi and an imperialist. And that’s just on a mommy blog.

First, the good news: America has many natural wonders that Europeans want to visit. The US, like the chests of Italian women, overflows with the bounties of nature. The Founding Fathers scored a continent that was the Marilyn Monroe of the Americas, a land of ample splendors.  But what did we do with our bodacious booty? We clothed our purple mountain majesties in the aesthetic equivalent of a lumpish cardigan festooned with Bud Light logos.   We schlepped our assets into saggy sweatpants, jammed ourselves into Day-Glo rubber shoes, and finished off our “look” with a big ole foam finger.  Americans, go watch a Rick Steves travel video!!  We’re not Number One, we look like Number Two.

We were blessed with vast rolling plains,  lovely wooded hills, craggy peaks, and crystalline shores.  But we flooded our landscape with asphalt,  then sealed ourselves into human storage modules with the aesthetic appeal of the shelving systems sold at The Dollar Store.  When we finished uglifying our cities and Tupperwaring our towns, we crept home to identically beige boxes.

Why doesn’t America dress to impress? It’s  not a lack of time or money.  As much as I appreciate the post-modernist appeal of a WalMart parking lot and a string of fastfooderies, the creation of beauty has always been a key expression of the power of the human spirit. But we seem to have left that off of our national To Do list for the last four hundred years.

All over the world, in every agonized age,  artists created architecture under much worse conditions than we face now. Europe is beautiful because during endless wars, famines, and the scourge of disease, Europeans continued to create, and to preserve, lovely and enduring structures.  Other countries with less moxie and lower GNP look better in photo ops. So it’s not too much to demand better from the developers who design the places we live and work: “If you’re going to build it, make it beautiful, and make it worth saving for future generations. Then we’ll come.”

In Europe I learned that humans and landscapes can make my soul shimmer.  That’s a souvenir worth keeping.

I also learned that Americans have to stop milking US heroics in World War II, because Europeans are totally over it. Sure, the little French town facing Omaha Beach holds a photograph of returning WWII vets, with the caption “Welcome To Our Liberators.” The town of Arromanches is stuffed with WWII memorabilia, including American flags and miniature US tanks. And everybody agrees that American soldiers helped to eliminate the Nazi menace. What a glorious thing to be proud of!! And we are!!

But Europeans, who actually lived, and in mass quantities, died, in Europe during the war, have a slightly different take on things. For instance, “That is soo great that you bombed the bejeebers out of the German army!! Well done!! Unfortunately, both you and the Germans were camped in our cities at the time!!”  Europeans might also point out that while America was giving itself a big ole group hug for heroics, it wasn’t that the French and the Italians and the Dutch weren’t really interested in throwing off the evil invaders, they were kinda distracted by mass starvation, and the shooting of civilizations, and deportations to death camps.

So what you read on the war memorials tucked all over Europe is: “In this place in the public square, beloved citizens of our town were shot and killed by the Nazis, and died a heroic death in the defense of our own country and its proud people. We will never forget their sacrifice.”  No really, it is about them. And giving them McDonald’s and bad coffee is not helping their mood.

But what was most fascinating was finding out what being “an American” meant.

During the peak of the H1N1 flu scare, I learned that being made in America could help, or it could hurt. Because I was outside of the Italian health care system, covered only by an international insurance policy of uncertain dimensions, I was nervous about getting sick. The fact that H1N1 was actually killing people, especially children, was somewhat of a worry. Okay, that painting of The Scream expressed my fears nicely.

Andy and I taught American undergrads in a study abroad program. So when Andy was hit by flu symptoms on a field trip to Rome, we tried to quarantine him in the apartment until he was no longer contagious. To prevent him from spreading the flu to our students, he stayed away from the office the whole week he was sick.

He tried to avoid infecting our kids, but with little hot water, and in a small apartment, it happened: Annalise got the flu.  She developed a high fever and a headache. To minimize the spread of the flu, the kids’ school requested that students stay home for two days after the fever was gone, or until sick family members were free of symptoms. Though Alex was fine, we kept him home for a few days.  After three days,  Annalise’s fever broke, and on the second day without fever, we were happy she could go back to school. But 48 hours after her temperature returned to normal, her fever came back, and brought with it a cough.

This was a scary time, not just because I was reading in Modena’s newspaper about high numbers of children with H1N1, and flu fatalities among young and healthy people. Our internet connection was spotty, and just when I needed to communicate  with our doctors, I couldn’t reach them. My concern that Annalise’s cough was the secondary pneumonia that seemed to be killing kids. But I had no one to ask, and how would I know?

So I called Melanie, who of course knows everything. She said to go to a Pronto Soccorso, an emergency room, where we would wait four or five hours to be seen. But if Annalise didn’t have Andy’s flu, she had a great opportunity to catch someone else’s. Okay, no. Or we could call Italy’s home health service, where EMTs would come to our apartment, but Melanie was skeptical of their medical prowess. “Go to Pronto Soccorso,” she insisted, but without a clear sign that that was necessary, we continued to worry and wait.

When her cough and fever lasted a second day, we took a cab to the only hospital we had every used, Hesperia. Hesperia is a private hospital where our doctor once sent me for tests. After four nights without sleep, I stood in front of Hesperia’s lovely receptionist, and could say nothing. I had no Italian words to explain what we needed, and she didn’t speak English. So I dialed Melanie, and gave the phone to the receptionist, who told Melanie that Hesperia didn’t have an ER and didn’t take walk-ins. Melanie begged the receptionist to take pity on the clueless Americans. The receptionist  called a pediatrician to examine Annalise.  Thanks to Melanie, we didn’t have to wait four hours in a room full of people spewing various germs, we sat on a hall with women waiting for face-lifts. Sometimes cluelessness has its advantages.

By the time the pediatrician arrived, I had translated Annalise’s symptoms, and our fears, into Italian. The fatherly doctor checked her thoroughly, found no sign of pneumonia, and sent us on our way. Phew.

The kids went back to school, symptom free. And then on Monday morning, Alex’s class left on a seven-hour train ride for a five-day field trip to Germany. On the train platform, I said goodbye to my son and heard something about his roommate being home with a fever that weekend. When later I learned that the roommate’s brother was very ill, and that the roommate was sick as recently as Saturday afternoon, within the two-day contagion window, I emailed the mom on Tuesday to ask how her son was doing.

What happened next was very funny, if your kid wasn’t sharing a hotel room in another country with a kid who might contagious with a potentially fatal disease. The mom’s emailed response was breezily oblique. She said she hadn’t spoken to her son, but he was fine when he left on Monday.  Fine on Monday, is he fine on Tuesday?  I dunno. So my next question was more precise: “At what date and time did the fever end?” She answered: “Saturday afternoon.” My own child got sick again after 48 hours, and so did that woman’s younger son, which left open the question: Was my son’s roommate still sick? And contagious?

So now it’s Tuesday, and I don’t know if my son is in Germany with Typhoid Mary, I don’t know if the teachers know that the child could be contagious, and Roomie’s Mom couldn’t have been any more terse if she were texting with two hands tied behind her back.  Apparently my two questions were the maternal equivalent of water boarding:  They didn’t yield any useful intel.  But I felt like I had to know what was going on, for my son’s sake, and the sake of the other kids.  So I emailed “If you don’t call the teachers, I will.”  The response?  “Be my guest, dear.”

That made me feel much better about the entire situation. And then I read the mom’s blog, where I learned that my questions constituted a witch hunt. I learned about the tedium of having to muster fake concern for other moms who were actually worried, since this mom believes in abandoning her own kids to their viral fate. This information stuck in my craw like an exploding land mine. So did the part about flu not being a big deal because Germany has excellent hospitals. I responded with a comment on her blog, from the perspective of the mom whose son was sharing a room with a potentially contagious kid.

That’s when it got interesting. Roomie’s Mom provided me and the blogosphere the critical information that although she hadn’t talked to her son, her son’s friends said he was fine, and that the teachers were aware of the fact that he might be contagious, and were watching him to make sure he was okay.  But I totally understand that you wouldn’t want to put that in an email response to a direct question.

Now I was angry because I worried for no reason.  I had plenty of other things freak about, like our lack of dependable insurance. I didn’t need to add new items to my Basket O’ Noivus Condition.  I tried to point out that she should have told me before they left, and that she could have told me in the email that she knew that her son was fine.  But the comment space in her blog wouldn’t accept the War and Peace version of my response, it wanted three characters or less.  So I spit something out, and fumed.

The mom replied to my comments, and so did her blog friends.  The mom responded that my worry was overblown: eight moms with small kids were invited to lunch while her younger child was home sick with fever. All eight moms came, and they all laughed off fears of the danger of flu.  The lunch moms, and sundry friends she polled, agreed I was rude to demand that she call the teacher to make sure her son was fine.  And let’s not forget that Germany has excellent hospitals. See, that part about Europe laughing in the face of danger is totally true.

The mommies at lunch scenario, tittering over a lunatic who had no respect for German hospitals, was maddening.  Especially because I didn’t know if they were the mothers of my daughter’s friends.  Or if the mommies she polled were the mothers of my son’s friends.

I am an idiot, and I like to argue. So I tried to respond again.  “If letting moms know is a courtesy extended for a lunch visit, it’s even more important when a child is on a class trip in another country. And I don’t want to hear that the hospitals in Germany are first rate!”

And then came the return volley.  Several mommy bloggers said I was paranoid, one sighed that it was too bad that moms at our school weren’t particularly nice, and two others sniffed that when they had once admitted that their kids were sick, they were mercilessly hounded for illness updates, and  would never disclose a symptom again. But one mom was the Mother of All Mothers: She called me a Nazi, for worrying about such piffle.

The purpose of the class trip to Germany was for the kids to visit a concentration camp. You know, so we never forget.  And I was called a Nazi for needing assurance that the kids were alright. Sometimes irony is funny, sometimes not so much.

Roomie’s Mom came back with one more response, and added a few painful zingers about other troubling aspects of my behavior that Had Been Noted by other moms. That stung, mostly because they were true, but also because I had no idea who these women were.  But she concluded her blog post with an admission of guilt on both sides: her friends said she was wrong to not tell me what what going on, but that I was wrong to ask questions in the way that I did. The final verdict? The mommybloggers denounced me for acting like an imperialistic American: That’s not the European way.

Wow – my problem wasn’t that I was acting like a worried jerk, the problem was that I acted like an American, which is all wrong for European germs.

How did it end? I realized I was being an idiot. I was arguing online with people I didn’t know, shadow boxing  in a crawl space, fighting over a  misunderstanding that only got more bitter as it continued. I apologized, and never looked at that blog again.

When the field trip ended and we picked up the kids at the train station, I kept my back to the crowd of moms on the platform. I didn’t know who the eight moms were, or whether any of these people answered the poll, and I didn’t know if the woman who called me a Nazi was within choking distance.  To her credit, Roomie’s mom approached me, and gave me a hug. We embraced, and I let go of my anger.  But I was no longer interested in bonding with the school moms, I was embarassed and uncomfortable.  Although I really liked some of those women, the anonymous attacks made me distrust the whole bunch.

It was another Teachable Moment in my European Adventure. I learned a lot: We aren’t the world. We’re wearing labels that define us, but maybe not the labels that we think we’re wearing. I’m an effete easterner leftist liberal vegetarian who didn’t have good insurance. I’m a lawyer: I love to argue. That’s enough to be called a jerk in any country. But on an international mommy blog, I became a  rude and paranoid imperialist, because sometimes that’s the label that explains American behavior: adopt a certain tone, and all of a sudden you’re Dick Cheney. I considered emailing His Surliness, to see how he handled the hate, but I decided that if the mommysphere thought my problem was that I was an American, my response was “So?”

I learned a lot from Europeans. I learned a lot about how America sees itself, and how others see us. I learned that nationality can become an explanation for purely human behavior, and that using your words can raise a lot more questions than it answers.  I learned how quickly trust erodes, and that when you put the name of a group on that mistrust, you eliminate a whole lot of options to move forward.

It was a relief to come home, and get my labels back:  Pinko Easterner Liberal Lawyer. Here, the label of American doesn’t explain anything. But out of gratitude for my European Experience, I’m sorry that I didn’t turn into that crowd of mothers, and smile.

Posted by: 4initalia | January 11, 2010


Every morning of 2009, I awoke to the walls of my Italian bedroom. I’d see and smell paint applied just after the founding of Rome, and smile: “We’re still in Italy!!” Not today. This morning I woke in my own room, in Colorado. I love my bedroom, it’s airy and light, with periwinkle walls and shimmery cream sheers. The paint in my Modena apartment wasn’t as much a hue as it was a residue of passing years, soaked in mold and laced with cobwebs. Beyond the windows, the sienna scales of ruffled rooftops skitter above streets that wander like poets lost in thought. The colors of Modena, the shades of history and endless expectation, are back in that apartment. And next week, the apartment will have fresh paint.

If I had stayed until the walls were redone, getting me on the plane would have required sedation. If our apartment had had water pressure, a washing machine that didn’t require a full-time assistant to keep it running, or maybe just an occasional splash of hot water for bathing and washing dishes, I’d want to stay forever.

Because what I left behind in Modena was an inherently interesting life. Every Monday in Modena, there is an open air market, where the bazaar meets the bizarre, and you might find the perfect purple sweater, or a great jacket for fifteen euro, but just riffling through heaps of fabric was endlessly fascinating. Modena also holds Elana’s skeptical laugh, Piero’s sun-softened studio, Annamaria’s home made pasta, Giovanna’s smile, and the beauty of Michele and Yael, a gorgeous young couple who will make Italy what it will be next. And bells and buildings and fabulous art.

Living in Italy was heaven for me, a perpetual afternoon in the library of a long-abandoned palace, with hours to explore shelves of intimate treasure: illuminated manuscripts, illustrated histories, carefully folded love letters and memento-stuffed diaries. In Modena, a city made modern by people who pre-dated the Romans, every building was a volume of secrets, every view held exquisite surprises of rich color and the living work of long-dead artists.

Heaven for me is an endless museum. But although I lived in my idea of paradise, I had to function in most Americans’ idea of hell. Italy is not efficient. Italy is not convenient. Living in Italy is not particularly comfortable. It’s a fabulous place to relax, but it’s a very hard place to get anything done, unless all you want to do is lunch.

The most basic tasks were insanely complex. How do you ship a box to the United States? The shipping rules of the Italian post office depended on the day, on the post office, on the mood of a particular employee, maybe the pollen count. The rules were never the same once, never mind during multiple transactions. Trying to complete a simple task in Italy was like trying to fill out a mortgage application while being held hostage by drunken bipolar pirates. Every transaction was a swashbuckling adventure into what I didn’t know.

But what marvelous things there were to learn! Where does this conga line of ochre buildings lead, whose heroism does this plaque remember, how does every fruit stand look like it was created by a Renaissance painter? What made each generation of Italians preserve all this, so terracotta trim and the roar of a carved marble lion still catch the afternoon sun, after five hundred, eight hundred, a thousand years?

Italians have always made an art of living, and they still do. Italians today transform automotive steel into raw power and growling desire. Italians create edible art, spend hours enjoying it, and orchestrate every outfit like they’re staging a private opera. Italy doesn’t hide its beauty in museums, or within the pages of magazines, Italian beauty is woven into everyday life, so the packets of sugar on the counter of a coffee bar are a fanned and festive sculpture, and the diplay of even ordinary objects (nail clippers! sewing kits!) beguiles the passerby.

Italians created a cult out of culture.

Such a fine basis for a civilization. Now if Italians could organize government as well as it organizes crime, establish a power grid that can support a microwave oven, and just maybe, ask dog owners to pick up the poop under the portici, Italy would be the clear winner in the You Should Be Like Us sweepstakes.

Back home, at my comfortable computer desk, with a tray that rolls out, and carpeting beneath my feet, I can only remember the colors and sounds. I have so many memories, so many photographs. In the past year, we visited fifty European cities, many of them several times. We went to Rome in early spring, in blazing summer, and dampening fall. The statue of David is an old friend. On the second visit, I spent twenty minutes just taking in the perfection of his calves: Great art takes time. Only on the third visit to the Sistine Chapel could I drop my eyes to the Botticellis surrounding the walls of the chapel, find all the places where Moses was painted, in green and yellow robes, and recognize a view of the Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum. So many Emperors, so much time, how do I learn enough to appreciate what I have seen?

This year we walked the beaches of Normandy, had dinner with Andy’s relatives in Poland, and with mine in London. We skipped rocks in Sardegna, ate lasagna as it was served in ancient Pompeii, and retraced Galileo’s steps up the tower in Pisa. We saw Dante’s home in Florence, the church where he was married, and his tomb. On one of our last days in Italy, Annamaria poured into my palm three hundred year old aceto, her family history distilled into sweet thick drops. And Piero gave us a watercolor that he had painted, of the Duomo. I not only lived in a museum, I ate in it.

Now that I’m home I notice the differences. Everything in America is bigger. The streets, the cars, even the spaces between things, are all built on a larger scale. Toothbrushes look painfully swollen here, and mammoth stores sell them in sets of eight encased in packaging that can be opened only with wire cutters: How much plastic do we need to remove bacteria from our teeth? I bought juice glasses in Italy like some I had at home, but the American ones are double the size. Bigger glasses create bigger portions, even when you’re just drinking water. No wonder Americans have grown larger – our big cars carry big boxes over wide and unwalkable streets: our bodies can’t burn off enough calories to keep up with all the effortless consumption.

In America I am comfortable. Stores are always open; I can buy a lifetime supply of toothpaste at 3 a.m.. I know how to mail a package, I can wash and dry a week’s worth of clothes in a few hours, and have time left over to read Dante. But I can’t walk where Dante walked, I can’t climb Galileo’s tilted tower. I’m not spending an afternoon in an enchanted museum, I’m trapped in a 24/7 superstore. One that will sell me a million of anything I want, but that doesn’t hold anything I need.

I wonder if the paint is dry?

Posted by: 4initalia | December 10, 2009

Italy is God’s Attic

A Dampening of Enthusiasm

We’re ten days from leaving. Has it been a year already? How can I leave now? I just found out that the Tabaccheria can recharge my bus pass. And Piero tells me that the best shoes at the open-air market, with the best leather at the best price, are sold by a vendor named Il Professore. And Elana showed me two new sweater vendors…. And….

But it’s getting cold, and a wet winter is a lot harder when you have nothing to ride in. I’m tired of getting soaked as I walk to the store, my head from leaky clouds, my feet from the puddles I can’t avoid, and from the side, as cars speed by and leave a sluice of mudspatter on my long black coat.

But I’ll never tire of Modena. It is a painting, with a million strokes, of shade and light and subtle color. It’s a thousand years of history, in buildings that have embraced for hundreds of years. It is the sound of bells, such proud voices, that for so many centuries have marked the hours, and warned the town of approaching danger. Piero told me that there is a language of bells; when he was a boy, every morning at 6 a.m., bells rang out the day’s weather: One bell for sun, two for clouds, three for rain, and four for snow. In the evening, while people pass below, the bells call to each other, “Are you still there?” “For eternity, like you.” “Till we meet again, my friend.”

Without a car, I walk in Modena to live, but I also live to walk. I have favorite rambles, to see places that satisfy every one of my senses. My walks begin in Piazza Grande, an ancient square studded with rounded cobbles gracefully bested by Italian women in stilettos.

Perched on the edge of the piazza is the Duomo, a grande dame draped in a luxurious stone cloak in vari-colored blocks of rose and creamy marble, like the coat from Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” Behind her is the bell tower, Torre della Ghirlandina, which for our entire year here has been sheathed in restoration scaffolding, but only recently has begun to emerge, like a butterfly from her chrysallis.

Last week I had a few hours to myself, so I struck out for my usual haunts. As I passed the Duomo, and its two medieval lions standing guard before the battered wooden door, I heard the organ playing. The door was locked, so I stood outside and listened. I love the power of church organs, but not the sound. Church organ music is often an annoying blither of ecclesiastical kvetching, or a towering crunch of cacaphony, a loud and loutish smudge.

But not this time. This organist literally pulled out all the stops. He tore up and down the scale in soaring crescendos, crystalline arpeggios, the music so monumental it could flutter the wings of an angel. Outside the church, I gloried in the melodic surge, a thousand tones clinging in harmony from every stone surface, falling lightly to my ears, in the square. Heaven sounds just like that.

Inside the Duomo – Pavarotti Sang In The Choir Here

The organ fell quiet, so I moved on, to the front of the Duomo, with its carved beasts of every description, and two Renaissance lions, snarling in agony with their stone faces upturned. Across from the Duomo, there is a secret street, Via San Eufemia, where buildings wrap around me, push away the cars and noise, where old Italy lies.

Italy is God’s attic. Along the streets, between commercial buildings, there are churches. For Italians, these are used for daily worship, for baptisms and burials, where families gather. But for a jaded American, accustomed to big box stores of stultifying sameness and graceless chapel beams of raw oak, an Italian church is gloriously disconcerting.

When I first arrived, I was afraid of open doors. I was afraid to step inside, because I wouldn’t know what to say when I got there. But now, in the freedom of language and leaving, I try them all. Italy has thousands of churches, tiny Venice has over one hundred of them. Modena has so many this town feels like a living Advent Calender. And every time I push open a church door I am astonished at the age and the art and the architecture of these buildings.

One of my favorites is La Chiesa Di San Eufemia. You would never know from her facade, but inside, she is as tiny and as gilded as a Faberge egg. I walked into San Eufemia the first time one evening in the middle of a service – and the church is so small, when I entered I was in the middle of the service. The mass, in Italian, held the velvet hush of bowed heads and softly rolling vowels; Italy, or God, is trying to claim me for Catholicism.

Still astonished by Eufemia’s trompe l’oile ceilings, painted to look like carved marble, I meandered down a cobblestone street, peering up at shutters hung centuries ago. Above the street, on the corner of a building, is perched a terracotta bust of the aristocrat who once owned this palazzo. A lovely sienna man who has been waiting for company for five hundred years.

My Terracotta Friend

The street ended in a long block of gray stone, with light radiating from a doorway cut into a dingy wall. I pushed on the glass doors They didn’t open, but a workman in gray overalls stepped up to help me: the doors slide apart. I stepped inside, and there was La Chiesa di San D’Agostino, a mammoth Renaissance behemoth built on a majestic scale: columns as thick as sequoias were topped with massive marble angels, pilasters, carving of every description. The ceiling was a series of murals – Moses with the stone tablets, the Arc. The marble and the paintings are dimmed by the smoke of centuries, but the audacity of the spectacle is impressive. And the altar, a wall of carved gold, glows.

All this, through a doorway I’ve passed a hundred times. My mouth would not close – how does Modena have so many treasures? And fabulous shoes, too??? These churches are all over Italy. I am overwhelmed each time I enter one. By a feeling is of hushed serenity, of the greatness of a God that can coax such beauty from its people. And by the thought of so much money spent by wealthy people to secure a spot in heaven.

San D’Agostino is amazing. But I have more time, and more places to see. There is a bicycle shop, “Bicycles Equipment, and Books or Curiosity” which looks like a shop window from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There are antique bicycles, artfully arranged, and antique books, and old valises. How do Italians do this? Make ordinary objects look like movie sets, make a walk so fascinating?

American Bike Shops Do Not Look Like This

I had never been to the Duomo Museum, so I stopped in. Three euros to enter, and there is no one there but me; lights click on as I enter each room. Filled with the treasures of the Duomo, the small museum proudly displays golden candlesticks, chalices, and reliqueries, elaborate containers for sacred relics. And there are vestaments, creamy silk embroidered with the palette of spring: powder blues, blush pinks, the fresh green of new shoots.

On the staircase of the Duomo museum, the sound of a voice lesson fills the chill air. A soprano voice learns “Adeste Fideles.” She sings in Italian, and her voice is more beautiful because she can’t control it. When a note is wrong, it sounds of burnished suede, but when she finds the pitch, it is lightest silk, floating to the sky. All of this on a stairwell, in a museum: I will never take another elevator.

Walking back on Via Emilia, a road built by Romans, I stroll beneath portici, covered walkways. Shops line the portici, and I savor every window. My favorite is a lingerie store. Such confections in lace and satin, on mannequins that revolve to show off every curve. One black number, a black satin thong, has a jeweled clasp at the back. Not a place I would put glitter, but Italian bodies are made for this kind of thing. On them it’s a fabulous idea.

Italians look good on the inside, too

I walk home, having had my fill of all my senses: in two hours, I’ve been carried into the sky with bells, an organ, a soprano. My eyes have drunk in the Duomo soaked in sunlight, the glittering letters of the bicycle shop, the spires of the ecclesiastical candlesticks. And I have breathed sewer gasses, tantalizing scents, the worst and the best of Italy. I’ve felt the cool air on my skin, I’ve tasted the satisfaction of having lived well.

This is my Modena, and this I will miss. But for now, I have to wash some clothes.

Did you know that Modena holds a memorial to 9/11, and in 2009, she held a ceremony to dedicate the memorial? See

Pavarotti sang in the colors of Modena, and his town honors him with a concert every September:

Or did you know about Modena’s street market? Laugh with me about trying to buy pants….

Or then there was the time we had to be rescued by Italian firefighters…..


Posted by: 4initalia | December 2, 2009

Reality Bites

Taglietelle, Modena. During this meal, Andy obsessed about the Chinese economy. China who??

I have so far resisted talking about Italian food. Americans who go to Italy all write about the amazing cuisine. It’s impossible to read about Italian food without getting viciously hungry. Unless you are in a restaurant in Italy, you cannot have what they’re having, so to describe what it is like to live this food is cruel.

In an American pantry, it’s hard to find freshly made, hand-stuffed pumpkin ravioli in fresh butter and basil. So if you read about great food you have to satisfy yourself with what is readily available. Then you and a bag of Cheetos get sucked into a downward shame spiral from which you emerge with very orange fingers and very tight pants. I can’t buy new pants; I know how important it is to maintain one’s clothing size. So for your sake, I’m trying to keep you from making a beeline for the salty snack aisle. (All right, go, but at least buy a small bag.)

I love the food here, but I don’t feel like writing about it. Because 87% of my time here is spent cooking, cleaning up, washing clothes with food on them, trudging to the store to buy groceries, and dodging traffic to carry it home. When you live with a teenage boy who is growing exponentially and eats his weight at every meal, writing about food is like an inmate writing about cell door design: Why wallow?

Writing about Italian food makes me tired; eating it makes me cry. The first time I had pizza here, tears ran onto the perfectly crisp crust. I’m a vegetarian, so vegetables rule. Pizza here offers toppings from all over the produce aisle: artichoke, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and onions, spinach. And a variety of cheeses: gorgonzola, parmigiano, different types of mozzarella (fior di latte is made from cow’s milk, fior di latte di bufala from water buffalo milk), provolone. Pizza dough cooks very quickly, so if you use fresh vegetables, the toppings are crunchy and can be bitter. Here the veggies are marinated in olive oil, gently roasted, then seared into melted cheese.

Pizza is a revelation, but there is so much else to eat, even for a vegetarian. When I first tried tortelloni in butter and basil, I understood why butter should be served fresh. Fresh melted butter is a handful of sunshine splashed across the plate. Ligurian trofie with plump green beans and pesto is comfort food made magnificent. Why bother with the expense and fuss of prison, when Italian waiters could keep felons on their best behavior just by handing them a menu? It’s worth a try.

Just like Olive Garden! NOT!!

My relationship with Italy is sadly dysfunctional, because of the food. When postal employees refuse to sell me stamps because they. must.weigh each. letter. of. each. word. before I seal the envelope, I am enraged. But all it takes is a cup of cappuccino, and I love them again. A cloud of milk, sprinkled with sugar, and swirled into perfectly roasted coffee makes every cup a short but memorable visit to heaven. Why be mad? When I can’t buy a cell phone without providing seven forms of identification, just a single scoop of gelato and I’m completely snockered again. So help me, I’m Whitney Houston and Italy is my Bobby Brown.

The produce, even the hack produce at the supermarket, is fresher than the crates of styrofoam sold at Costco. Slice into an Italian carrot, and the blade is slick with juice. Garlic cloves bead with moisture when cut. Mushrooms are packed just as they’re harvested, with balls of soil clinging to the rounded bottoms. The fruit is heavy and sweet. Blood oranges, plump with intense flavor, are an explosion of fireworks to satisfy all of your senses. Grapes have both a tang and the mellowness of good rain and steady sunshine.

Food here is sold locally; I’m probably eating grapes from vines I can see from the train. Produce is sold in season, so in the grocery store, there are no brussels sprouts in the spring, no broccoli until the fall. Produce isn’t covered with wax or preservatives, so it goes bad quickly. Peppers last four days at most, green beans dry out, broccoli yellows in three days. So you cook it fresh, eat it fresh, and smile.

Even snack food here brushes greatness. Classica potato chips are thick, crunchy, not greasy. Cheese puffs aren’t neon orange and metallic with chemicals, they shed flakes of real parmesan.

And the cheese – oh my, the cheese. American provolone tastes like a rubber eraser, but here, provolone is nutty, mellow. Provolone piccante (sharp, not spicy) is a transformative experience. Fresh grated parmesan adds shards of brilliance to anything it falls on. But I have to take the stairs, so the cheese doesn’t transform my thighs into mozzarella.

I’m trying to learn to cook Italian. No more bottled lemon juice, now I buy a bag of fresh lemons and squeeze them over everything. It’s easy: try brussels sprouts roasted in the oven with olive oil, garlic and the juice of one whole lemon. I remember the frozen olive wads my mom boiled and plopped in a bowl; the citizens of Brussels should demand reparations for what Americans did to their good name.

Here in Italy every dish awakes your senses. Salad starts with fresh greens with all of the aroma of newly-cut grass. I add sliced carrot, fresh tomatoes, olive oil. And balsamic vinegar, which is made in Modena in a loving, patient process that takes a minimum of twelve to twenty-five years. American balsamic vinegar is painfully acidic, but aging makes balsalmics sweet. A great bottle of old Modena aceto costs 180 euros, and you eat it from a spoon. But after only twelve summers in a wooden cask, traditional aceto pools on the lettuce and flirts with the olive oil; every bite tells you why those two have stayed together all these years.

I have no idea how real Italians cook. But in a huge humanitarian gesture, my  landlady Giovanna taught me to make risotto from scratch. It’s not as hard as I thought: you saute rice in olive oil, add broth (I save the broth from broccoli for that), and wine, Parmigiano Reggiano, a pinch of saffron, and you own a pot of molten gold. It’s easy to make lasagna when the local supermarket sells sheets of soft pasta. You layer it with balls of mozzarella, (getting those out of the bag always makes me laugh) sauce, vegetables, and more cheese. I make another pan and layer the vegetables with pesto. Or I love new potatoes, with slivers of fresh onion, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with rosemary.

You can buy tiny jars of pasta sauce, but that’s really expensive. So here you buy a bottle of tomato puree, and make it your own. But even the spices are stronger here – the first time I used Italian black pepper, the same amount I’d use at home, the sauce growled. The best tomato sauce? I used to load it up with basil, oregano, and garlic. But Andy made the best sauce I’ve ever had, and it’s simple: saute onions and mushrooms in butter. Add pureed tomato, and simmer. If you want to add spices, go ahead. But you don’t need them, and now I don’t like the heaviness of more complicated sauce.

Soup is good: Roasted vegetables, cabbage sautéed in butter, with vegetable stock, and some beans. Mmmmn. Or creamy potato soup, with fresh grated parmesan, and cheese toast.

We never have leftovers, so my favorite lunch is fresh pugliese bread, provolone piccante, salad greens, tomatoes, and sweet balsamic vinegar. With Classica chips. It’s best eaten overlooking the rooftops of Modena. And I’ll miss our Friday night supper: takeout from Pizzeria Ragno, around the corner. For months I was hooked on Verdure: eggplant, onions, and zucchini, but I just discovered Arcadia: eggplant, mozzarella, provolone, and parmigiano. So many flavors, all found in nature.

Told ya so. You shouldn’t read this, because now you’re hungry. I’m hungry, and I used up all our reserves cooking last night: mussels sautéed in garlic and butter with the juice of two lemons, artichoke ravioli, mushroom tortellini, sliced fruit, and hearty pugliese bread for the broth.

Most nights, I go into the little blue-tiled kitchen, take up a sharp knife, and slice and saute and stir, and listen to Pavarotti. I chop and stir and saute until my arm stops working, and only then have I made enough to tide Alex over until dessert. Only if Andy is here to help cook, is it physically possible to make too much for Alex to consume. So I chop and I stir, and Pavarotti and I look out my little window onto the roofs of Modena, and I don’t feel like talking about food, I’m too busy living it.

Posted by: 4initalia | November 28, 2009

Uh Oh. What Happens Next Year?

Every year on my birthday, I make a list of the things I did for the very first time. It’s like making New Year’s resolutions, in reverse: What did I do, for the first time, this year?

Here’s my list for 2009:

1. Quit my job at a staff meeting. Still smiling about that.
2. Figured out what to pack to live for a year in Italy. Still don’t know.
3. Bought a cell phone, a bus pass, a train ticket, groceries, and contact lenses in Italian. It’s not so scary, after you’ve done it 700 times.
4. Grew tomatoes on my balcony.
5. Made risotto, from scratch.
6. Bought pants at the open-air market, then bought some that fit, and even returned the ones that didn’t. Lots of learning, there.
7. Went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, took a boat ride on the Seine, strolled along the Champs Elysees, and climbed the Arc de Triomphe. All on the same day.
8. Took an overnight train to Paris, and another from Gdansk to Katowice, Poland, and Amsterdam to Denmark. Like sleeping in a blender, except there’s no sleeping.
9. Had Welsh rarebit in Wales, an English Muffin in England, and pierogie in Poland.
10. Talked to a Palestinian about living in Israel, a Bulgarian about living in China, and my mom’s cousin about living with my great-grandmother. So many stories.
11. Went snorkeling on the Cote D’Azure, where we stayed in a lovely villa with my fascinating cousins.
12. Saw Anne Frank’s house, Oscar Schindler’s factory, and the remains of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow.
13. Met Andy’s Polish relatives. For the first time in my life I loved people I could communicate with only in hugs and smiles.
14. Using only my crack navigational skills, took my kids on the Tube in London, the metro in Brussells, and a water taxi in Amsterdam. And found the hotel every time. Phew.
15. Went to Legoland Denmark, Legoland Windsor, and MiniEurope in Brussells. The fried fish in Legoland Denmark tastes like bilge spew. In MiniEurope, which had menus printed in English, French and Belgian, ate in a restaurant that looked unnervingly like a cheesy Mexican place in the U.S. They served mayo with the burrito, a first, which was disconcerting in any language.
16. Saw the Gdansk shipyard where Lech Walensa started a movement that brought down the Iron Curtain. Amazing stuff can happen in ordinary parking lots.
17. Got a scary spider bite, which bloomed into a raised ring o’pain. Ew.
18. Saw a Ferrari and a Maserati in their native habitat, on the streets of Italy. The paint, like the engine, simmmmmers.
19. Rode my bike to the grocery store. And lived.
20. Bought a long gown in an Italian shop, with Italian ladies cooing over the dress. Priceless.
21. Went to the Canary Islands. Didn’t see any canaries.
22. Fell in love with Van Gogh’s electric brush strokes, and Pavarotti’s soaring voice: he sings in the colors of Modena.
23. Walked Omaha Beach, in Normandy. Understood the bravery of American and British soldiers who landed in the surf and had to cross a beach and climb cliffs while under fire from German machine gunners. Those soldiers, boys really, broke the back of evil, and we can’t forget their sacrifice.
24. Started a blog.
25. Spent ten hours in the Louvre, six hours in Westminster Abbey, and hundreds of hours in a million museums, learning, with my kids. My kids are awesome.
26. Floated in the acquamarine glass of the Ligurrrian Sea. One of my favorite things, ever.
27. Picked up beach glass in Sardegna. Sardegnians must spend most of their time hurling windows and bottles into the sea, or they wouldn’t have so much beach glass.
28. Had gelato shaped like a flower petal, and learned how to say my favorite flavors: amarena, malaga, fior di latte.
29. Talked to a plumber about water pressure. Understood him. In Italian.
30. Went to an accetaia, an Italian farmhouse where they make traditional balsamic vinegar. (It’s sweet, and thick, not bitter and astringent, like what is sold in the U.S.) On the way home, watched my mom’s cousin and her husband scramble into, and out of, a drainage ditch, as we all ran to catch the bus back to Modena. They’re in their 70s. Not the first time we regretted not having a car in Italy, but probably the best reason to regret not having a car in Italy. If you’re going to invite relatives to Italy, make sure they’re as amazing as Clare and Eric.
31. On the train back from Venice, my brain had to simultaneously process: (1) the guy in the seat behind us wearing full Joker makeup: white face, red lips, black jagged lines radiating from his mouth and eyes.(2) Alex sneezing incontrollably. (3) A Sikh in a bright orange turban who politely asked whether this was the train to Parma. Italy is complicated.
32. Tried grappa. Grappa tastes like what you’d drink with the fried fish at Legoland Denmark.
33. Rode in a gondola on the Grand Canal.
34. Ate at a Pompeii restaurant that serves authentic ancient Roman food. The precursor to lasagna was good, but the sauce, heavy on the oil and the anchovies, tasted an awful lot like the bad fish at Legoland Denmark. Hmmmn.
35. Saw the Coliseum. And the Roman Forum. And the Pantheon. And the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s. And threw a coin in Trevvi Fountain. Threee times. Every time, I learned how little I know about Roman and Italian history.
36. Went to Pompeii. On the train back to Naples, feared Alex would be offed by a seething Naples thug. Scary.
37. Bought boots. Italian made. Finished outside and inside – on outside, glossy black leather. On the inside, buttery suede at the foot, soft beige leather above the ankle. Exquisite.
38. Saw London from the London Eye.
39. Rode on a boat down the Thames.
40. Saw Shakespeare’s school, and his grave.
41. Saw Stonehenge.
42. Did our laundry in Bath.
43.Tried to syndicate blog stories. Was rejected (this was repeated several times.)
44. Responded to a rejection letter with the closing line “Perhaps you can spend next Friday evening clubbing baby seals.”
45. Celebrated the end of Easter mass in Notre Dame Cathedral. Although the cathedral is heavy and dark, during mass, lights lift the massive stone. The service ended with a surge of the organ, rolling waves of sound, that washed the Rose Windows and filled the cathedral.
46. Watched Murano glassblowers turn molten blobs into a crystal horse and a vase.
47. Saw the statue of David. Still smiling.
48. Climbed the 666 portici to Bologna’s San Luca.
49. Saw the Giro D’Italia.
51. Saw Mont-Saint Michel, a church in France that is built on an island that is cut off from the land with the tide.
52. Ate lodi – Polish ice cream. It’s an eight inch tower of swirled chocolate or vanilla. But it’s almost all butterfat – so it doesn’t melt. It’s like eating a stick of butter.
53. Joined the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
54. Went to an Italian soccer match.
55. Watched my kids eat blackberries in Wales. Watched my son return some, in the back of the rental car. Ew.
56. Saw Dante’s house, and the church where he was married.
57. Saw Galileo’s grave, and Machiavelli’s.
58. Had dinner by myself in Vernazza, one of the little towns of Cinque Terre. Watched the cops arrest a drunken guitarist.
59. Read my favorite short story, by Edith Wharton, about two women who visit Rome, in Italian. Reading it in another language made me slow down and savor the words.
60. Watched my son cook his own pasta sauce, my daughter order in Italian, and my kids laugh about the differences between British and American English. We’ve all learned so much.
61. Climbed a million bell towers, and was there when the bells went off. Every cell vibrated with the amazing sound.

Now your turn: every year, on your birthday, make a list of the things you did for the first time this year. Make it better than this one.

Posted by: 4initalia | October 8, 2009

Game On

Bologna Flags: As Cool As Foam Fingers?

At an Italian soccer game, (Bologna v. Genoa),  the Italian obsession with security made me a little insecure. It starts before you get into the stadium. On the way in, we passed a van full of carabinieri, Italian military police, who looked ready for a medium-sized war. Unlike the relatively wimpy Polizia Municipale, city cops, who look and dress like bus drivers, carabinieri are heavily armed. The jauntiness of their berets is offset by lethal weapons – machine guns and pistols. And their rigid faces convey  the reassuring warmth of oncoming tanks in Tiananmen Square.

But the van guards were just the vanguard. Most of the parking spots on the street along the stadium were taken by the vehicles of  polizie and carabinieri. It felt like we had a formal invitation to the end of the world.

Fans are permitted to enter the stadium through only one door: the one closest to your seat.  To enter, we handed our tickets to a smiling matron who slid the bar codes over a super-cool 007 glass panel. That released a high-tech revolving door, an iron pole studded with steel spikes. When the spikes swung shut,  we were sealed inside the stadium with Italian soccer fans, and military and city police, who were there to stop the fans from doing whatever it is cops expected the fans to do.

What fun?

The stadium holds 39,000 people. It’s slightly more modern than the Coliseum: the seats are molded plastic fanny rests glued onto gray concrete.

In addition to soccer, the stadium holds track and field events, so the soccer field sits inside a ring of running track. Positioned all along the track was a ring of security guys. They wore bright yellow vests and construction hats and sat on buckets to watch the crowd for signs of trouble. Security guys were also posted all the way up the stairs in all four quadrants of the stadium. Under the vests, they wore street clothes, so you got the feeling that next week, these same guys are still going to be looking for a fight, but from slightly more comfortable seats.

The game had already started, and because soccer is played in two forty-five minute halves with no chance to stop the clock, the game was actually going to end. Limiting the games to ninety minutes must save the Italians a fortune on overtime expenses for all those cops. Italians use the extra money to fund socialized medicine, so they can provide free medical care for guys who get hurt in fights as soon as the police leave. Soccer is very efficient.

Italian soccer is very different than American baseball. The most startling difference is the relative silence. American sports fans are bombarded by a constant wall of sound. There’s a booming announcer, a leering organ, pulses of music, calls to “MMMAAAAke SSOOOOOooommmme NNNOOOOOOIIIIIISSSSSE!!!!” Every time a baseball player passes gas, the Jumbotron blares with his lifetime stats and maudlin backstory. Vendors passing within feet of the fans cajole the crowd to buy food and drinks. American baseball fans are never left alone long enough to realize that they spent six hours and $130 to watch chunky guys pick at their clothing while nothing happens.

Soccer is quiet. In the soccer stadium, the only time the announcer spoke was when he announced a score or a penalty. Occasionally the score board chimed gently to announce a score from another game. But otherwise, the fans were left to their own devices.

With no sports-otainment, Bologna fans just watch the game. There are no mindless color-coded races of a sponsor’s product. “Which coooooolor Haaaaaarley will wiiiinnnn????” There are no roving cameras to catch fans watching themselves on the Jumbotron. There are no mascots, no naked beer-barrel guys, no huge foam fingers waving maniacally. No waaaaves. Or announcer-led song fests, or even half-time shows. Weirdly, Italians go to a soccer match to be entertained by…soccer.

And they don’t eat themselves into a stupor. We arrived twenty minutes into the first half, and when we sat down, I didn’t see anyone near us eating. Anything. I did see a few 16 oz. drink cups, but no one was drinking from them. In an American stadium, at any point in a game, about a third of the fans are walking to and from their seats, on a quest to consume or deconsume vats of food and drink. But in the soccer stadium, the whole time the players were on the field, people remained seated. At half-time, about 40% of the fans got up, to find a cop, or to visit the snack bar. But Italians are really only going to get a snack.

Our stadiums are ringed with restaurants that serve heart-stopping fast food of every description, but not Bologna’s. One stand served only Coke in paper cups, and had one of those clump o’ customers that make Americans wonder why Italians can’t form lines like regular people. Andy and the kids found another stand, with a real line, that sold Coke and a snack product called Stella Chips. Stella Chips are made from fried potatoes that are molded into a ruffled disc the size and shape of a crenallated Catholic Host. And that’s how they taste, but maybe those are the ones they sell on Sunday.

There was a family seated in front of me. At halftime, the dad braved the snack bar. He brought back food for himself, his wife, his parents, and his eight year old son. Five people shared: two sodas, a box of fried Host, and a small bag of pistachios. They finished the chips, ate half the pistachios, and re-sealed the bag. On my left, a two-burly-guy combo plowed through a drink each, a box of fried Hosts, and a small ice cream cone. Americans would starve at a Bologna soccer match.

So Bologna fans don’t watch themselves, or eat, they watch the game. The watch the game, and get mad. The Bologna fans were getting mad because they were losing, and clearly that was an affront to their civic pride and to their manhood. The Genovese were waving their manhood at the Bolognese. I don’t think the Bologna fans appreciated that.

Seated next to us was a squat man, whose face and scalp were a single roiling scab of boiled skin that unhinged at the jaw to let him scream. Sitting silently beside Signor Bollente was his teenage son, a studious-looking boy who wrapped his scarf around his face to protect himself from cigarette smoke, or maybe flying spittle, from his crazed father.

Signor Bollente followed every moment of the game, and was enraged by most of it. He yelled at the refs, the players, and the Genovese. At one point, he fell two rows into the seats below us, but he got right back up and started shouting again. He used all the swear words I had learned as a toddler, from my dad. In a lovely moment, a Bolognese fan in his twenties looked up to shake his head at the crazy man. We exchanged looks, and started laughing. “What’s up with that guy?” Italian soccer fans don’t boo when they’re mad, they whistle. There was a lot of whistling. But to me, their anger sounded like cheering. I so don’t understand sports.

Instead of foam fingers, the Italians waved flags. Big beautiful ones, red and blue for the Bolognese, a yellow shield on a blue background for the Genovese. The banners rippled gracefully across the stands. Beneath the fluttering flags, there was singing. These songs were mournfully lyrical, songs about home. The teams for both fans sounded like soldiers on their way to war. Deep voices joined and ready for battle seemed a little more dignified than the Bronco’s naked barrel guy belting out “Hey, Baby…I wanna knoooow, will you be my girl….”

Bologna was losing, Genova was gloating, and the game was coming to a close. I wondered about all those cops: Where were they, and why were they here? I saw that the Genoa fans were held in what could only be described as a cage: The visitor section was fenced in by iron mesh walls twenty feet high; a shoulder-high barrier was topped by steel spikes, and a line of security guys blocked access to the entrance.

And then I understood that all the precautions are meant for the moment when somebody loses and somebody wins, when the fans meet outside, and those beautiful city songs are still ringing in everyone’s ears. Unlike American sports fans, Italian soccer fans have met not just on the field of dreams, but on the field of battle. Italy has been unified only since 1861. For hundreds of years, Italian city-states were at war; for centuries, men from these same towns raped and pillaged and fought to the death. That’s why my name and passport number was printed on my ticket, that’s why the visiting team was caged, and that’s why the carabinieri were prepared for combat: they were ready for fans who forget it’s just a game.

As Signor Bollente and his studious son walked past the jeering Genovese, the teenager hurled his paper cup at the steel mesh wall. For his sake, I was glad that the carbinieri were outside.

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