Posted by: 4initalia | October 1, 2009

Race for the Cure Bologna

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure raises breast cancer awareness and money for research. One of the five European events was held in Bologna on September 24, 2009. Italy held two other Komen races, in Rome and Bari.  If any country has an interest in maintaining the health of breasts, it’s Italy. Mother Nature would be proud that Italy is out front in protecting such an impressive natural resource.

Bologna is only thirty minutes from Modena by train, but to get there required a 90-minute transport trifecta of private enterprise, public transit and brute force. On Sunday morning, Modena’s busses don’t run, so we took a cab to the train station, and then a train to Bologna. In front of the Bologna train station, the bus stops are meticulously labeled for each of the routes. We confidently waited at the designated stop for our bus, Number 33. Of course that bus pulled up on the opposite side of the square, and we had to run like lunatics to catch it. How Italians maintain their cool in the face of incessant institutional anarchy escapes me.

In Bologna, a bus ride requires a one euro coin. Bus company employees board the busses, checking for tickets. If you don’t have one, it’s a 30 euro fine. Depending on whom you ask, children ride free, but a child of ten, twelve, or thirteen pays full price. Alex is thirteen, but his height and feral red mop push him well past the child fare mark. With only two euro coins between us, Andy and I were prepared to renounce Alex to the authorities, who would agree that he really needs a ticket and a haircut.

Andy already had his t-shirt and race number, but we needed to get to the race early to get the rest of us in gear. Within minutes, we had our shirts, racing numbers, and heavy burlap gift bags stuffed with free samples. Alex’s and mine were loaded with mouthwash and tanning cream. Annalise’s had fun kid stuff and black licorice that tasted so much like tar I actually wanted to use the Listerine.

Andy had signed up for the noncompetitive race, because competition brings out the best in Italians, and who wants to deal with that? Competing with a spandex-clad Italian engaged in any sport is like lining up against a Ferrari in a Formula 1 car race. Recently the Italian leader of the Renault Formula 1 race team ordered a Renault driver to crash his car, so another Renault driver could win. You certainly wouldn’t want that kind of thing in a mini-marathon.

Around tennish, the noncompetitive racers ambled over to the starting line. A gun was fired, and several minutes later, we shuffled forward. Apparently we all were competing to be the last to start the race.

Eventually Andy and the kids bolted for the finish line, leaving me to hold their effluvia. I used to run seven to ten miles a day, for no apparent reason. But before Alex was born, I snapped my calf muscle during the Boulder Bolder 10K, and whenever I run, it threatens to tear again. So I was happy to walk the course.

And oh, what a course. The race started in the Giardini Margherita, a park that looks like the parks at home, except it was full of gorgeous people speaking Italian and wearing amazing shoes. The walkers moseyed out of the park and strolled along streets lined with porticos, some of them covered in frescoes from the Middle Ages. Above the portici are arched and shuttered windows lined with finely etched columns right out of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. The sidewalks beneath the portici are softly colored and polished marble, but at eye level the walls blare with graffiti. I hardly notice, I spend most of my walk time swivelling between the portici frescoes and the fabulous shoes.

We made our way along Via Santo Stefano. The street meanders sinuously and the buildings lean companionably together, so as you walk you drape Bologna on your shoulders, like a scarf.

We passed familiar Bologna landmarks, like the Neptune Fountain, where the gloriously muscled God of the Sea holds his trident high above his surging torso, bulging thighs, and manly buttocks. Neptune’s flagrant masculinity sneers at steroids. Below him, at the base of the fountain, luscious mermaids cup their breasts, and their cups literally overflow. These ladies raise breast awareness every single day.

After Neptune we ambled past Bologna’s Wall of the Partigiani, a display of two thousand photos of men and women who gave their lives defending Bologna from Nazis and Fascists in World War II. There are walls of such photographs all over Italy.

Minutes later, we reached Santo Stefano, a cluster of ancient churches, the oldest built in 460 A.D. One of the churches has a dome that’s not covered with paint or plaster, so you can see how a pile of rectangular bricks becomes a smoothly curved hemisphere.

Between the churches is a roughly cobbled courtyard. In the spring, graduating students gather here to celebrate with friends and family. Graduates wear wreaths of laurel leaves that fluttter with ribbons, placards that announce their degree, and silly and risque costumes. They pop champagne corks while beaming parents look on. One afternoon we watched a group of friends hold a jousting match, with cardboard horses, swords, and a giggling maiden who dipped her scarf to begin the contest. I think she won.

We passed the tombs of four professors who taught law in Bologna in the 13th century. The tombs are carved marble sarcophogi, set on high thin pillars, and carved with pictures of students from eight hundred years ago. Italian law students told me it takes a very long time to get an Italian law degree; some of the original students may still be working on it.

Parked at an angle, a row of sleek motorcycles awaited their next adventure. On the cobblestones a silver Ferrari napped in the sun, throwing off daggers of light from polished chrome and paint so rich the finish simmered.

We passed the Torre degli Asinelli, one of 100 defensive brick towers that warring Italian families built in the Middle Ages to protect themselves from other warring Italian families. The tower has more than 500 rickety wooden steps that are best climbed in the swelter of August with two kids who think that plummeting three hundred feet to their deaths, or making their mother think she will, is a good way to pass an afternoon. Next to the Asinelli is the Torre Garisenda, a leaning tower that Dante mentioned in the Divine Comedy.

As I walked, I thought about a question casually asked by one of our students: Was I walking in anyone’s name? That’s a painful question, because cancer runs in my family, and it kills my relatives relatively quickly. My grandmother survived two years. Before she died, she endured surgery, chemo, a colostomy and radiation, her thin skin cold against the icy metal of the radiation table. My mother was diagnosed with arthritis in her hip, but afraid of a death like her mother’s, she ignored her steadily worsening pain. She had exploratory surgery, but her hip had already rotted away from cancer. Ten weeks after my mother’s diagnosis, we held her funeral. My cousin Cornelia had a normal ob/gyn exam in March, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in April, and six weeks later, she was gone. My grandmother lived to be eighty, my mom died at sixty-four, and my cousin at forty. And yet I have friends who have fought breast cancer and won.

I’ll walk in everyone’s name; I walk because I can.

And I walked through paradise. We looped past San Petronio, on the Piazza Maggiore, a hulking beast of a cathedral whose grandeur was designed to rival St. Peter’s in Rome, but before construction was complete the Pope cut off funding, leaving its striped pink and white marble facade unfinished. The exposed red brick of its upper half looks rough and lumpish, like a coarsely knit sweater. We doubled back past the Via dell’Archinginnasio. Tucked into two streets here are a fish market where the fish glitter like Maseratis, and vegetable and fruit stands, where the produce glows in crystal shades of amethyst, magenta, vermillion, and sunlit lime.

There were no water stations on the course, but in the last stretch, a runner stood on the sidewalk, sleek and cool in white. He looked back and stretched out his arm, like a water bearer at a marathon; he was offering a drink, and a smile, to his wife. She laughed as she passed and grabbed the tiny porcelain cup: he held out a drink of espresso.

At the end of the race I found my family. We stood with hundreds of other racers to celebrate. The loudspeakers played Melissa Etheridge’s Race song, “I Run For Life.” Above the crowd pink and white balloons bobbed and swayed against the clear sky. We all cheered for the race winners, whippets in their twenties who would no doubt walk off the stage and light up cigarettes. The announcer asked everyone holding balloons to release them at the same time. Fumbling for my camera, I missed the moment. But I won’t forget a step of that lovely walk, on behalf of the family I lost, for my friends who won, and for the women who today and tomorrow will benefit from breast cancer research.

We all win, not because we walk, or run, but just because we live. Congratulations to you, too.

Posted by: 4initalia | September 11, 2009

Modena Remembers 9/11

As I shrank from the sting of yet another icy shower, I heard voices. Not the ones in my head, telling me to call my landlord to complain about the lack of hot water, but deep Italian ones, from outside. I peered over the balcony and saw that a crowd had gathered in the piazza in front of our apartment building.

The piazza is ringed by a chaotic traffic circle, but in the center of the circle is a grassy area with an odd bit of sculpture: two chunks of metal enclosed in circular bands of steel. I passed it many times and assumed it was a modern war monument, until I read the plaque: It’s a memorial to 9/11.

My family is spending a year in Modena, Italy. This ancient city holds many surprises; it was Pavarotti’s birthplace, and Il Maestro is buried here. But Modena also holds a piece of New York: two sections of steel girders from the World Trade Center, enclosed in open steel spheres, stand on twin concrete towers.

The memorial was the first thing we saw when we got off the bus from the airport. I’ve never seen anything like that in Denver, and here, in the small town of Modena, they not only put up a memorial, but on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, they held a service, in remembrance.

The crowd was gathered around the monument. I threw on shorts and a shirt, tried to smooth my wet hair, and slipped to the back of the crowd. My husband had our camera. Should I go back for the camcorder? No. Don’t miss this just to record it.

The piazza bristled with uniforms: there were generals, policemen, and dignitaries in fabulous Italian suits. But there were also people from the town, casually dressed in jeans and sandals. More than fifty Italians attended the ceremony. They all came to stand with America and remember its tragedy. I felt my wild hair curl and unfurl in the light breeze.

The memorial was flanked by flags: tall stately banners representing the City of Modena, the Lion’s Club, and Leo, the Italian Lion’s Club. The rusted girders were softened by rich cloth in jewel tones; the flags held proudly aloft by caring people half a world and eight years from the day the Towers fell. There were two huge laurel wreaths, regal with gold ornaments and gilded velvet ribbons. Off to the right, a fire engine waited.

Several dignitaries spoke, of the fallen, of our unity, and of a global need for peace. I heard the words Stati Uniti and was deeply honored: this town has suffered Nazis, Fascists, and even the bubonic plague, and yet these people have chosen to share America’s sorrow. And America doesn’t even know they are here.

At the close of the speeches, the fire engine siren wailed briefly, like the wild grief of a bagpipe. Standing at attention next to the truck were the vigili del fuoco, firefighters. They are the Italian brothers of the heroes of 9/11, and these are the people who walk into hell for us.

I always wondered who built the monument, and I met the man who spent three years ensuring that Modena would remember. His name is Paolo, and he looks like a New York skyscraper: he’s tall and and steely in a gray suit with steady gray eyes. He’s from Modena but had moved to New York and was there when the towers fell. Paolo walked to Ground Zero, stared at the jagged shards of the building that stood long after the rest had gone to earth. His eyes lowered with the memory, Paolo said the city smelled like smoke and burning plastic for three months. It took nine months to comb through the rubble; the wreckage went to Staten Island. Pieces of the buildings, even firetrucks, were buried in a mound.

When the City was about to seal over the pile, Paolo asked whether he could take some pieces of the World Trade Center to Italy. Working with the Lion’s Club, the Leo Club, and the City of Modena, Paolo and his friends raised money for the project. It took three years, until 2004, to bring the girders here, build the statue, and dedicate the monument. Paola thought these were the only pieces of the WTC to leave the United States, but pieces of the building were used in memorials in six countries, including Germany, France and an American base in Afghanistan.

Paolo now lives in New York, and missed the dedication in 2004, but he arranged to be here for the eighth anniversary. Looking at the monument, Paolo said it was hard not to cry, because he remembers.

Paolo has applied for US citizenship, and will be an American citizen within a year.

Welcome to America, Paolo, and thank you. Thank you, Lion’s Club. Grazie, Leo Club, Grazie Modena.

We will remember you, too.

Posted by: 4initalia | September 7, 2009

Il Maestro

Modena was the home of Luciano Pavarotti. He sang in the choir of the Duomo di San Geminiano, and his funeral, attended by Bono and the Edge, was held there.

Pavarotti died on September 6, 2007. Last night Modena held a tribute to Il Maestro in the public square. Piazza Grande was packed; hundreds were seated in the piazza and hundreds more stood in the streets.

They came to honor a son of Modena, in a cobble-paved square where people have gathered for over a thousand years. Modena is small enough that many of those standing together in the night knew him. As photos of Luciano played against Duomo walls built in the 12th century, the square hummed with pride and respect for un paesano who achieved greatness.

The experience was quintessentially Italian. In Europe, you can stand on ancient stone surrounded by bricks laid civilizations ago and honor someone who will live forever on YouTube. That is progress.

An ambulance was tucked into an alley with doors open and ready for action. I never know whether the omnipresent ambulances in Italian squares are a sign of the success or the limitations of socialized medicine. Is the point of the ambulances to demonstrate that the Italian health system provides the ultimate in customer service? Or to whisk away any evidence of failure?

Sure enough, in the opening notes of the concert, we had a downer. There was no dramatic call for a doctor, merely a muffled yelp from the crowd. The EMTs moved in, surgically removed the concert-goer, and quietly moved off into the night. Within twenty minutes the ambulance was back in position, waiting. Soylent Green is…Italians?

There was a stage set up in the square, which held a large orchestra. In front of us, a short gray man directed the musicians, often in contravention of the conductor on stage, with great passion and energy. He was a priest; at intermission, he sang light arias to the evening.

A soprano sang, and a tenor. Their voices soared into the night sky, their instruments as complex and powerful as a symphony. For the first time, I understood how opera feeds the soul. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to hug a priest.

During the concert, color-drenched photos of Pavarotti were splashed against the ancient walls of the Duomo, while a cross-shaped window at the top of the church glowed with a soft and comforting light. At Caffe Concerto, across the square from the stage, the crowd murmured over drinks and dinner.

The concert didn’t begin until 21:15, or after nine p.m.. In Italy, you have to stay up late to experience anything. Reputable restaurants don’t open their doors until seven p.m., the better ones not until eight. Modena has frequent fireworks displays to mark holidays and sports events, all of which are visible from our roof. I miss most of them because they don’t start until after eleven p..m, and I don’t want to celebrate by falling eight stories to my death.

My husband Andy assumed that Sunday night here is like another Saturday night at home. But Italians stay up every night of the week. Concerts are held on weeknights, and nothing starts until after nine p.m. Every Wednesday night during soccer season, the cafe near our apartment overflows with locals who flirt and talk until well past two in the morning.

This is a town for grownups and grownup pleasures. It’s like a perpetual Rat Pack movie, with Sinatra and Dean Martin suavely drinking and smoking all night. And no one ever looks tired, although that could explain the ambulances; it’s got to get to you sometime.

As we walked home through the winding streets, I watched Italian women, breathtakingly beautiful in fabulous shoes, navigate the wobbly cobbles of the sidewalks. In stilettos, they sashay where Tevas fear to tread. Belle donne, laughingly elegant in dresses and heels, ride bicycles across stones that would rattle a yogi. These are the dames that broke Sinatra’s heart. And Luciano’s, but he made it work for him.

When we got home, I watched Pavarotti’s funeral on YouTube. There was Bono and the Edge, in the Duomo I love, such an odd juxtaposition. This town will never forget Pavarotti. That’s beautiful.

There’s a video of Pavarotti’s funeral at But better yet, next September sixth, come stand in Piazza Grande and watch Il Maestro’s towering image flicker against walls built at the edge of time.

Grazie, Il Maestro.

Posted by: 4initalia | September 3, 2009


Uh oh. My little pretties, the sand in the hour glass is running down, and a big bucket of cold water is about to be sloshed all over my cackling persona. Work? I can’t go back to wooork. Things are going so well here, with the cappucino, and the gelato, and the infinitely fascinating forms of pasta and Italian shoe design. Only four more months till splashdown, and I’m not ready for re-entry.

All right, there are things I miss about American suburbia. On a good day, our shower spits out a few drops of cold water; for long stretches nothing comes out at all. I could cry harder than the trickle that comes out of the showerhead, and on some mornings, I do. The water in the kitchen tap, if left to fester in its own juices, is the acrid yellow of a mosquito coil, and the coil tastes better. So we lug all of our drinking water in sixpacks of two-liter bottles, from a convenience store around the corner. Our apartment toilet has all the feral charm of a freshly-dug pit. We have not progressed all that far from bathing in a stream and carrying our water in buckets. It’s like camping, with tile.

Mornings are tough. But then I make a cup of tea, and look out over the sun-soaked clay roofs of Modena, and I’m thrilled to be here.

We left Modena for sixteen days. We started with a visit to friends in Hull, in Northern England. To get there, we rented a car and drove two and a half hours, entirely on the wrong side of the road. After a while, you get used to it. I wonder, if you drove for two hours on the wrong side of the road in the US, you’d get used to that, too.

On the way to Hull, I remembered why I haven’t driven with Andy in seven months. Besides that we don’t have a car here:

Andy believes that changing lanes requires him to ignite the rear license plate of the car in front of us. He gets so close that our license plates set off sparks. Only when he sees an actual flame leaping past the hood will he lurch the wheel and careen into the next lane. On a day with a lot of lane changes, the kids can roast an entire pack of marshmallows on the front grill of our car.

I was perfectly comfortable with this level of terror when my sweetie upped the ante. On the drive to Hull, between lane changes, Andy would suddenly stomp on the gas pedal, thrash his legs, and bellow in pain. We’d surge forward into whatever direction the flailing led us, and when my screaming stopped I learned that he had a leg cramp.

Andy gets cramps only when he’s driving. We can sit on the couch, chatting quietly, and out of nowhere, nothing happens: his leg is fine. In the low hum of a restaurant, just when I least expect it, he’s as still as a country pond. But in a speeding car, with people on all sides of us driving in the wrong direction, he’s yelping and stomping the gas pedal like Jed Clampett at a hoedown. I love a relationship full of surprises.

I reached Hull with my vocal chords hanging in shreds. The next morning, for brekkie, we had English muffins. This disturbed me. Brits have given perfectly innocuous things perfectly adorable names: sausage and mashed potatoes are “Bangers and Mash,” leftover vegetables are “Bubbles and Squeak.” But for some reason, no one bothered to come up with a good name for toaster muffins. It’s not as if the United Kingdom didn’t have good writers handy, they had Shakespeare, and Dickens, and a pack of Bronte sisters. But when they got to naming muffins, they put in no effort at all. With all the credit they get for literary excellence, they should get a few demerits for that.

We left our friends to drive to Wales. It was the height of summer, so of course it was cold and raining. In Wales, August is just another opportunity to wear thick wet fleece, but in flirty tropical colors.

We stopped at Shakepeare’s birthplace, and Stonehenge, and Liverpool, at a museum dedicated to the Beatles. Fab, those four. Then we drove to Leeds, where the weather forecaster describes the day’s cumulo-nimbus activity in colors ranging from white to black. “”Light gray cloud in the morning, followed by dark gray clouds in the afternoon. Tomorrow, rain.” British landfills must be full of the cheery sun magnets sold to television meteorologists all over the world.

In spite of the weather in the UK, it was a relief to be in a place where I could read all of the signs, although most of the time I didn’t know what they meant. In the hallway of our British hotel, a glass door held the words: “Only for emergency evacuations. Not for hotel guests.” I guess we’ll have to fend for ourselves, then. Other signs said: “This door is alarmed.” “This fire extinguisher is alarmed.” I’m a little alarmed now, too.

Many of the clothing stores had “Sale!” signs in their windows, with the usual mannequins. But most of the shops also displayed a placard that said: “Sale continues inside.” What was that about? Do British people assume that the sale applies only to the items in the window? Where else would the sale be held, if not inside the shop?

Retail signs are dangerous only if they advertise prices up to seventy percent off. But when you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, clarity is key. The most frequently-used British highway sign said: “Give Way.” I found this confusing. Give way on what, exactly? Socialized medicine? Pointless spelling differences? (Okay, I’ll give way on theatre, they do have Shakespeare. But Colour? Centre? No, I’m not yielding on those).

Give Way was the clearest of the bunch. What on earth do they mean by “Discontinuous Emergency Refuge For Two Miles?” “Que After JCT?” “Works Unit Only?” No wonder British drivers all started going the wrong way: they were trying to escape the highway department.

In Wales, signs warn of road hazards, but Welsh sounds like a spoon caught in a garbage disposal, and looks like a game of Scrabble when you didn’t get any vowels. Welsh warning signs are shaped like tall triangles, with a large exclamation point at the peak. The reason for alarm is printed in the middle, in Welsh and English. You’d better catch the English version, because “Yr Wyddgrug Moldnear” does not tell you what to watch out for.

For many miles, roadside signs warned us to be on the alert for daerafochen, bilingual badgers. I wondered what that was all about. As we travelled the Welsh byways, would we be set upon by annoyingly persistent rodents? How would that play out? “Saaay, are you going to eat that yyllwwsyws?” I suppose a polite refusal wouldn’t suffice, because they’re, you know, badgers.

You can buy a computer program that will teach you to translate Welsh road signs, at But I don’t think it will help you to avoid actual Welsh road hazards; the program’s dictionary has no word for ‘badger.’

We spent the rest of our vacation in the South of France. The Cote D’Azure. We visited Clare, my mom’s cousin, at her villa. Clare’s mother and my grandmother were sisters, and together we explored our family history. We mapped our shared genes in a scrawl that spread like fan coral across a notebook page. For every name, a story, some inexplicably tragic: an aunt with schleraderma, a sister who lost one new husband to cancer, and then a second to war. Clare answered the door when that dreaded telegram came: how do you tell your sister, who has two small sons, that she is a widow? For the second time?

Clare went to grad school at Stanford, where she met and married a man who was knighted. They live in London, surrounded by their five beautiful and brilliant daughters and grandchildren. She was a young wife in the 1950s, an American who married a Brit and never looked back. Her road was revolutionary. The hours we spent over that notebook are some of my most precious memories of this year.

We’re back in Modena. I can read the signs, and they all say “It’s almost time to go home.” So every morning is precious, and every cup of cappucino brings me closer to Costco. What more is there to say?

Yr Wyddgrug Moldnear.

Posted by: 4initalia | August 11, 2009

Cover Me

Leg pain? What leg pain?

We’re seven months into our Italian Adventure, and we’ve taken some casualties. In Cinque Terre, a set of gorgeous villages strung along the Ligurian coast, my son Alex sliced his foot.

Now that he’s thirteen and his foot is no longer under warranty, we considered amputation. But we had just bought him a new package of socks, and we wanted to make good on our investment, so we made him soak it and apply antibacterial spray.

The bacteria hissed and melted away like the Wicked Witch after a sponge bath. Phew.

Why didn’t we take him to the doctor? In case of emergencies, we can call Dr. Williams, an American doctor who lives in Bologna, a half-hour train ride away. The kids have a wonderful pediatrician, but she’s a thirty minute train ride and a twenty-minute bus ride away, not a good option for a foot injury.

We’re in a weird insurance limbo, so we’ve paid for doctor visits here in cash. There are local clinics and ERs, but who knows what that would cost? We haven’t yet received our Permesso Di Soggiorno, which gives us permission to live in Italy but may or may not entitle us to free medical care. We have private insurance that covers us internationally, but what it covers us for is a mystery.

So we’re handling injuries with an arsenal of Tylenol, a small bottle of antibacterial spray, and several verses of “Que Sera, Sera.”

The day Alex hurt his foot, I blew out something in my left leg. My thigh swelled, and it hurt mightily. But we were in Cinque Terre, where architecture, nature and scrumptious seafood compete to make you cry. There are houses stacked on houses, in gelato colors, reached by tiny winding steps of stone. The water is aquamarine glass, clear and deep. I had no time for agony, there were stairs to climb, and long walks on cliffs bordering the Ligurian Sea.

Liguuuuurian. Seeeeeea.

I wanted to wrap it around me like a crystal cloak, and I did: I floated in emerald laced with silver, and the fish juussst out of reach of my toes spoke Italian. Swelling, schmelling.

For the rest of the day the leg pain was outvoted by the rest of my senses, which were trying to decide whether to swoon over the stunning views or the spinach ravioli in a creamy tomato sauce flakey with smoked salmon. With a rabid shark affixed to my thigh bone, I still would have continued to smile.

Beside the Ligurrrrrian Sea.

Later that evening, we took several trains home, which involved dragging my aching muscle and my rolling suitcase up and down several million stairs. The next day, when we finally stopped moving, my leg was on fire.

Fortunately, I had access to the best medical care my international insurance can buy: I looked up leg injuries on the Internet. I researched various leg parts, and what happens when you harm one, and concluded I had blown a muscle in my thigh. Ignoring the injury caused everything else to, in medical terms, go kablooie.

In keeping with the treatment information available to me, most of which was delivered by my friends over Facebook, I kept my leg elevated, iced it, and watched to see whether it would get better or fall off.

My treatment plan was flawless, except for the icing and staying off it parts. Hello, Italians don’t do ice. In the blaze of summer, Italians are relentlessly cool in sweater sets and impeccably pressed suits. They are too cool for ice. They don’t sell it in stores, they don’t make it at home, and people with dubious insurance need to get over that.

I had ice cube trays I bought at the open-air market, but they produce single-cell ice chips. In the undulating heat waves of our apartment, the chips melted on the walk from the refrigerator to the couch. I had an entire leg to freeze, and sandwich bags that left a pool of water in my wake. Not cool. Fortunately a Facebook friend suggested I try a bag of frozen peas.

We had two whole bags, but when you have no car, a teenaged boy, and a constant need to buy groceries, the decision to sacrifice a food item is harder to make than a pot of risotto. I had to make a choice: Give peas a chance, or crawl north until I found an ice floe. I seized a bag of peas and applied it to my leg. Who needs an orthopedist?

So I had ice, but the second part of my treatment plan, resting, was problematic. Only Andy, Alex and I can carry groceries the quarter-mile home from the grocery store. So the three of us eye with suspicion anyone who claims to be unfit for a walk to the market. When one of us is horizontal, life in the apartment takes on all the bonhomie of the Donner Party. So I had to get back in the traces or I’d have a one-way ticket to dinner. Hoping to avoid a fatal test of family loyalty, I settled the peas on my leg and listened for signs of trouble, like the opening of a bottle of steak sauce.

The peas cooled my leg, and then warmed into a comforting bag of pea soup. When the smell became offensive, I boldly claimed the second bag. With that the pain receded, and the vultures at the foot of the couch shuffled back a few paces. The kids, who had been asking probing questions about the contents of my life insurance policy, grew resigned to their two-parent status.

A few days later, I could walk without screaming, at least when the kids weren’t blaring Guitar Hero. (I’m developing an allergic reaction to Ozzie Osbourne, but that’s a separate issue.) We were back to a three-mule family.

And then Andy attacked an innocent suitcase in a train station. One minute he was reading the departures board, and the next his toenail was ripped like a cheap piece of Formica. Blood was involved, and fainting, but the fainting part was just me.

Although my grandmother and aunt were both RNs, I do not have the Nursing Gene. I once got woozy when my sister described how her Saint Bernard, 150 pounds of determined stupidity, wrapped her metal chain around Paula’s fingers, and bolted. Paula described blood blisters and popping fingernails, and then the room started to go gray.

Worse, in a traumatic vacuum cleaner injury, I once rolled an upright over my toe. That actually did suck, and led to the surgical removal of my toenail. When my podiatrist had completed the nail extraction, he recommended that I check out his fancy footwork. I demurred, explaining that if I looked at my toe, I’d either faint, or blow chunks.

Podiatrists are not good listeners.

“You really need to see it,” he insisted.

I didn’t faint.

So taking a hard look at Andy’s foot wasn’t going to happen. But I asked, every four seconds, whether it was bleeding, or if the toe had developed pus, or gangrene, or scurvy. I like to think these requests for updates were a comfort to my spouse.  Message: I care.

As a vegetarian, I posed no danger to him in his weakened condition. I love him, and I also had an intense interest in his return to health. Wounded, he couldn’t carry groceries. Or the huge bottles of water that we rely on for drinking. Or go pick up the pizza, on Fridays, from Pizza Ragno, around the corner. Things were bleak. So I looked for signs of recovery, without actually looking. And he…heeled.

But then I woke up with a new leg thing: my upper thigh sprouted a small angry blister, surrounded by a huge red circle. The whole area was raised, hot and painful. So of course I sought medical assistance on the Internet.

Half the web sites suggested that it was no big deal, as if discovering a crop circle on your leg that was actually on fire wasn’t a cause for alarm. The other half predicted I would die within minutes, in which case there wasn’t much point in trying to see Dr. Williams in Bologna, or going to an ER that I couldn’t afford..

Further research revealed that I had either a harmless spider bite, a poisonous spider bite, or a serial-killeresque bacteria that would devour my flesh with audible chomping. Two out of three of those options were fatal.

To determine my fate, I needed to scroll through spider bite web sites and play “Match That Wound.” I faint at the mere description of injuries, and the spider bite web sites displayed 3D gore. While scrolling through photos of gelatinous flesh studded with glistening maggots, I was reminded of Jello desserts at the office potluck.

I refused to die with that image in my head, so I turned off the computer and hoped that there was time for one last cup of gelato.

Que Sera, Sera.

Posted by: 4initalia | August 3, 2009

Winging It

Bzzzzzz. I’m sleeping, and right in the middle of a good dream, when all at once I wake up, at something that keeps knocking at my brain. No, it’s buzzing, and it’s another mosquito.

Italian mosquitos are like Italian cars – they’re very small, fast, and loud. But because of their size, getting nailed by una zanzara is like getting hit by a Fiat – for all the screeching, there’s not much damage. Italian mosquito bites itch for a moment, plump into a welt the size of a pimple, and fade quickly. Which makes me wonder why I’m spending all this energy trying to avoid them.

They’re out there, and I have no way to keep them out. Our apartment doesn’t have screens, but hardly anyone here does. All those charming photos of Italian streets, with painted shutters flung wide, and geraniums sunning themselves in the windows? No screens. You can’t water geraniums if you have to pour it through little mesh holes. And you can’t drape yourself alluringly onto the sill if you are sealed inside by fine wire mesh. What if the Capulets had window screens? Romeo would have looked up at Juliet’s bedroom and said: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? I can hear muttering, but I can’t see a thing.” So window screens may put more of a damper on young love than the Republican Convention.

Although I searched for evidence that Italians were interested in screen technology, I found it only twice. Half way up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, an opening in a wall was covered with the same thick mesh that surrounded American sun porches of the 1950s. Aha! I’ll bet Galileo put that on there. Historians assume that Galileo threw balls from the Tower to test whether objects of different masses fell at different rates. But I think he was trying to kill mosquitos in the courtyard when he discovered it was more efficient to screen them out. This could also explain why Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic Church: along with indulgences, the bishops may have been selling fly swatters, and didn’t want the competition.

With Galileo’s screen idea squelched, for the next five hundred years, the window of opportunity remained wide open, and it still is. I finally spotted the kind of screens we have at home, while walking through a neighborhood in Parma. In three identical windows, there were three American screens. In three different lengths. The gap between the screen and each window ranged between between six and twelve inches. Apparently Italian mosquitos aren’t good at measuring.

Instead of screens, Italians use retractable slats that slide down over doors and windows. The slats are lowered by a heavy chord. You drop the slat curtain, and then pull up slightly, to expose tiny holes between the strips. The holes are supposed to be too small to let in mosquitos. But they’re also too small to let in air molecules. And many of the slats in this apartment are made of wood, which have warped over time, so the holes are big enough to let in feral badgers.

In desperation, I asked friends here what they use for mosquito control. “Try those coils they sell at the supermarket,” someone suggested. I remembered those coils from my childhood, they’re thick flat punks the color and texture of mustard. You light the end, then blow it out. Thick, acrid smoke slithers from the smoldering tip; it could be mustard gas. As the room filled with poisonous fog, my kids gagged and disappeared. They don’t make the mosquitos go away, but they work nicely on children.

Another friend suggested Vape, a liquid in a dispenser you plug into a wall socket; it works like air freshener, in reverse. Insecticide, warmed in its plastic pot, becomes airborne, and drops the varmints in their tracks. But in order for the Vape to work, we had to seal up the windows and stay out of the house for twelve hours: I felt that meant the mosquitos had won. Besides, I didn’t want to live in a No Pest Strip.

With no other workable options, we closed the windows against the winged beasties. With no fresh air, we were trapped in the summer heat with our own fetid funk. Modena’s humidity is so thick that water vapor remained aloft and created cumulus clouds around the apartment. Rivers of sweat ran off our faces and stayed airborne at eye level. If someone sneezed, it rained.

I finally asked Melanie, who knows everything, what to do. Her response? Electric fans. Mosquitos are small, and can’t fly in wind. So we bought fans. I can’t tolerate white noise, it masks the soothing gurgle of monsters salivating under my bed. But Annalise’s legs were a Braille version of the Gettysburg Address, and when the mosquitos started high-fiving each other when they entered our apartment, it was time to take action.

So we cranked up the fans. After being pinned to the wall by high winds, I learned it’s hard for me to sleep on my side. And like a dog with his tongue hanging out of a moving car, I found I was eating a lot more bugs than usual.

So far the only real solution to zanzare seems to be winter. In the meantime, I’m going to break open a vein, and fill the little Vape dispensers with my own blood. Why fight it?

Posted by: 4initalia | August 1, 2009


Growing up, I watched the 60s sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. Sitcom Nazis were bumbling fools easily defeated by the intelligence and charm of the Americans. My dad had books about the Third Reich, so when I was seven, I saw photos of
Jewish families, dressed in wool and clutching suitcases, herded onto cattle cars that took them to concentration camps. Other photos showed what happened there, hills of bodies with rubber limbs, shaved heads, and gaping mouths: a diorama of the Silent Scream. How could I laugh at Colonel Klink?

In school I read Anne Frank’s diary, and learned later that in the camps, Nazis killed six million Jews, and twelve million people in all. As I got older, the violence of the Nazis became personal: I read about an SS officer who grabbed a baby from his mother’s arms, stabbed him with a bayonet, and ripped him in half. When I had a baby of my own, his heft in my arms made me think of that child, and his mother. After I had children, I couldn’t read about the Holocaust: I loved too much.

But my children, who are seven and thirteen, are old enough to know what the Nazis did. Not the way I learned, from Hogan’s Heroes and photographs in books. We’re living in Europe, where the people were herded onto trains, where the suitcases were carried and the photographs were taken. How will I teach my children about the Holocaust? In small pieces that connect to a big idea.

While in Amsterdam, we visited Anne Frank’s hiding place. The faded wall paper has gone sepia with age, and holds the ache of smothered youth and stolen lives. For two years, eight people, including three teenagers, lived in those rooms, a fragile shell suspended just out of reach of the Nazis.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father, cut from a newspaper a small map of the Normandy invasion, taped it to the wall, and followed the advance of the Allies with tiny blue and red pins. So much hope was pinned to those walls, but liberation came too late for Anne and her family; they were arrested and herded onto cattle cars, and everyone but Otto died in the camps.

My kids saw the diary, read Anne’s name on the list of Jews on the last train to Auchwitz. Anne Frank’s real name was Annelies: my daughter’s name. Annalise connected with the young girl who adored her father and clashed with her mother. “She shouldn’t have had to die.”

After seeing the house, I re-read Anne’s diary, and my horror deepened into anger. At not only the Nazis, but Germans. The systematic annihilation of a people isn’t accomplished only by men with bayonets. The death of twelve million people was aided by civilians who watched trains pass. Trains stuffed with families deprived of food, water, even air, as they rode to the camps. The Nazis were aided by ordinary people who kept the machine of death in motion. And those ordinary people were Germans. Germans watched their government seize Poland, Italy, France, drop bombs on Westminster Abbey and London train stations full of people just like them. When the Germans retreated from Florence, they blew up every ancient bridge in the city, leaving only the Ponte Vecchio. They killed children, they smothered hope, they shattered history.

When we visited Poland, we saw the Krakow Ghetto. Before the ghetto was liquidated, it held 4 families per flat, crushed behind a wall made of cement panels shaped like Jewish gravestones. We saw the factory where Oscar Schindler kept 1200 workers safe.

Nazis killed Jews and anyone who resisted them. Anne Frank wrote that in Amsterdam, for every act of sabotage, German soldiers grabbed ten people off the street, and shot them.

In Polish cities like Warsaw and Krakow, nondescript buildings sprout gray plaques every few blocks. The plaques commenerate the deaths of Polish citizens shot by the Nazis. They’re everywhere. “On this site 50 Polish Citizens were killed by Nazis.” With every memorial, my anger at Germany, at Germans, grew. During the war, many of Poland’s cities were completely destroyed. After the war, Warsaw was 90% rubble, Gdansk was 75% destroyed. Because of a war started and stoked by Germany.

And so when we met Andy’s Polish relatives, who were too young to have survived the war, but who grew up passing grim gray plaques, I wanted to know: “Are you angry at the Germans?” I was suprised by the answer. “It was sixty years ago, the people who did those terrible things are dead.” Many Italians said the same thing: the people responsible died long ago.

But for Poland, the war and its aftermath were more complicated than for Western Europe. Alicja, a Polish social worker in her early thirties, explained to me that World War II started in the city of Gdansk, when German sailors fired on Polish soldiers. But Germany had always considered Gdansk German territory; the Germans were taking back their own land. The Germans held Gdansk, but didn’t destroy it, because Germany considered Gdansk a German city.

Western Europe was freed of Nazi occupation by the US and Great Britain, but Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union. So during the German occupation, Gdansk was left intact. Gdansk wasn’t destroyed until the Russians invaded to liberate it from the Nazis. And then the Poles were trapped, by their Soviet liberators, behind the Iron Curtain, for the next forty years.

So much for liberation. For Poles, freedom had to wait, until Lech Walesa defied Soviet rule with his Solidarity Movement. Alicja thought that the Germans had preserved the city because they valued it. but the Russians wanted only to rout the Germans, and it was because of the Russians that her home town was laid to waste. Since the war, Poles have rebuilt their cities and worked well with their German neighbors. Alicja’s anger is not for the Germans, but for the Russians. History is a lot more complicated than a Hogan’s Heroes episode.

I asked Tomas, an engineer born in Poland, what he thought about the war. Was he angry at the Germans? No. He and his mother moved to Germany when he was eleven years old. His grandfather, Edward, was a Polish soldier who was captured by the German Army. Edward could either fight for the Third Reich, or die. Edward chose to fight, and his grave bears a Nazi insignia. But because Edward fought for the Germans, Edward’s daughter was allowed to leave Soviet Poland for the freedom of Western Germany. Tomas grew up in Germany, and lives there still, a German citizen. Is he angry about the Germans? No, and I’m now appalled at the ignorance of my question.

While we waited for our train to take us out of Poland, I thought about what I learned about history. Until I talked to people who lived there, my anger was as blind and foolish as Colonel Klink.

I waited for our train. And just then, a long, low cattle train crept along the rails, a war relic still in use, a despicable, haunted thing. Its cars were the same airless boxes I had seen in my father’s books; this was the kind of train used to carry Anne Frank and her family to Auschwitz: Angry again. But at whom? At Colonel Klink, for making me laugh? At Tomas’ grandfather, whose daughter built a life without anger? Edward’s grandson taught me that history and his story can mean very different things.

How do I teach my children about the Holocaust? My son Alex has a school friend from Germany, and is appalled that I would still be angry at Germans for what happened in World War II. “That’s ridiculous – the people who did it are dead.” Why didn’t I know that?

What did Annalise learn? As we left Oscar Schindler’s factory, Annalise said “I want to do great things and help people, like that man.”

Maybe my kids should teach me about the Holocaust.

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.

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.

Posted by: 4initalia | June 16, 2009

Fabio on the Balcony

To you, a clothesline. To me, a heart attack in the making.

We are halfway through our year in Italy, six months closer to driving a minivan to Costco, drinking water from the tap, and using a clothes dryer. Dear God not a dryer, that will mean the end of Fabio on the Balcony.

Fabio is the painfully stunning, bronzed Adonis who lives in a nearby apartment building. When I use the clothesline on the roof of our  building, I overlook the enclosed terrace that is Fabio’s lair. I can also see Fabio’s balcony from our bathroom window. It’s hot in Italy, very, very hot. So I need to keep the bathroom window propped open.

For, you know, ventilation.

When I’m not busy maintaining air flow in the bathroom, I’m drying our clothes on our roof-top clothesline. To get to the roof, I climb a medieval iron ladder and fling open the creaking metal door. The sunlight is dazzling as I walk across the searing pebble-tiled floor and gaze upon the oasis that is Fabio’s terrace.

Don’t make me come over there….

I lusted after Fabio’s terrace long before I knew who lived there. Fabio’s balcony is a cool sanctuary soaked in the warm colors of a Tuscan sunset. The walls are chilled cantaloupe, the floor is ochre tile; plants add tropical lushness to the corners. A striped awning and high walls provide partial shade, protecting it from Modena’s glaring sun, and the terrace doors open directly into the apartment. From my perch on the roof with only scorching tiles to sit on, I yearned for the terracotta haven just below.

And then I saw Fabio.

When Fabio is on the balcony, the view is literally breath-taking. The sight of Fabio sucks the air out of my lungs, vacuums the oxygen from my veins, and plucks any remaining O2 from my individual blood cells. An instinctive need to recharge my hemoglobin causes an involuntary gasp, which prevents me from blacking out. But the recoil makes my knees give way, a difficult injury to explain to an orthopedic surgeon. “How did you blow out your patella?” “Hanging out the laundry.” “Oh. Be careful. Don’t you have a dryer?”

What is causing my lungs to collapse? Let us review the splendor that is Fabio: He is impossibly tall, with a broad, tanned chest, a narrow waist, and neatly carved, flat abs. His hair is as dark as polished cherry, with a slight curl that softens the granite edge of his jaw. But I have no clear idea of his facial features, because I have only so much time before I start to get faint, and I need to look at his chest before I pass out.

There have always been people of exquisite beauty: Redford in his Butch Cassidy prime, Baryshnikov in tights, Audrey Hepburn in classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s couture. Michelangelo’s statue of David is a living man whose human body is infused with purest marble. But Fabio is not stone, he’s not wearing makeup, he’s not airbrushed. He is alive, in 3-D, on a balcony I can see from my apartment.

And he mops.

I am happily married. I am too old for this. But there he is, a living embodiment of the perfection of Italian design, every time I do the laundry. Every time I hang out the towels, my blood pressure rises, and my heart is deprived of essential fluids. Life is funny. Painfully, searingly funny, especially when the cardio infarction starts, and it feels like there’s a ton of concrete on my chest. That usually happens when he leans over the balcony, but it can flare up when he just strides across the tile.

I am not sure whether insurance covers this.

Fabio has a chaise lounge the nautical blue of beach resorts. His chaise is tucked into the coolest corner of the terrace, and I can see him arranging his muscles for repose, before he mercifully slips from view behind the wall. He sunbathes a lot, to keep his melanin in top form, so sometimes I don’t know he’s there until he sits up suddenly, which causes all of my heart valves to slam shut.

I am developing a cardiac condition from hanging out socks.

Last week Fabio upped the ante: he cleaned the balcony au natural. He scrubbed the floor in his blindingly white briefs. I must say he has bleaching down to a science. As he swept and polished every corner of the cool clay tile I wondered, as people do, whether he was wielding a Rasta-wild string mop, or a sponge one that slooowly squeeezes the water out.

Then he watered the plants. He had to bend down really low to water the ivy. He gave that hydrangea a long, slow drink. And the exertion brought a gloss to his pecs like the sparkle of a precisely-cut gem.

I have a fear of heights, and am not mechanically inclined, but I wondered whether wire hangers and paper clips could be assembled into a zip line long enough to reach his balcony railing. Of course that would be impossible: in this apartment, most of our hangers are plastic.

As if the tanning and the mopping were not enough, the next day, Fabio installed a patio umbrella, to shade his table during lunch. The totally cute kind with a liquor logo and fringe, like they have at swim-up bars. How much more of this can I stand? If he sits down at the table in his cleaning attire, and pours himself a Limoncello, I’ll have no choice but to hurtle myself off the roof and try to claw my way onto his balcony.  If I miss, and drop all eight floors to the concrete below, the pouring of citrus liqueur would constitute homicide.

If he adds ice, I’d recommend tacking on a charge of premeditation.

I mentioned Fabio on the Balcony to my Facebook friends, who demanded photos, which would make me a stalker. Although I am unemployed, this is not in my job description. But because my friends cleverly argued that Signore F was a figment of my imagination, I agreed to take a picture of him.

This weekend, Fabio was joined on the balcony by Sofia. Sofia is clearly not Fabio’s sister; I suspect their home moves are so hot you couldn’t watch them without a welder’s mask.  I didn’t want a photo of Fabio with Sofia, and a woman who has a boyfriend like Fabio is going to notice whether a neighboring apartment has a camera, tripods, and a camcorder aimed in their direction. So I had to wait until Fabio was alone. And then the creepiness of taking a picture slowly dawned on me: looking at Fabio is wrong.

I have to stop.

In college, my favorite story was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. I was fascinated and repulsed by the tale of an old creep who becomes obsessed with a beautiful young man. The geezer tries to look younger, and more attractive, by dying his hair black and wearing make-up. As the rancid Romeo decays, his pursuit of the boy becomes a greedy but insatiable desire. How hideous. And here I am, writing to Facebook friends about Fabio.

To my credit, my only attempt to enhance my allure was to keep my Costco underwear off the clothesline. I’ve had a literary epiphany: there’s no fool like an old fool.So no more Fabio Watch; it’s over.

Well, maybe not.

Today, while I was letting cool air into the bathroom, I glanced outside, and there was Fabio, preparing to sunbathe. The sun’s rays melted over his copper skin, and when he slipped his thumbs beneath the waistband of his Speedo, I learned that he was preparing to unleash the melanin on every inch of Fabio. Every inch of Fabio would be available to anyone willing to rent a helicopter, and to pay many thousands of euros, a pittance, really, to hover there, above his balcony.

Thomas Mann don’t know nothin’ bout no Facebook.

Friend me, and I’ll have film at 11.

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