Monday, December 24, 2012

The United States of the NRA

Dear Readers,

I’m taking a break from our regularly-scheduled programming of (usually benignly cockamamie) things Italian to paint a picture for you of (often grimly cockamamie) things American. For the past twelve years, from my perch across the Atlantic, I’ve had frequent cause to regard my fellow countrymen and their shenanigans with bemusement, if not outright shame: their penchant for junk food and uber-processed Frankenfood and their obsession with dieting; their bizarre evangelical creationist zealotry and their rampant consumerism; their shouts of ‘freedom!’ and ‘constitutional rights!’ and their proposed bleakscape of an armed renegade citizenry and schools-turned-bunkers with gun-toting guards. My countrymen seem to swing like rutting baboons from one form of extremism to the other, failing to see that their actions exist on a continuum in that great jungle of cause and effect. They do not seem to understand that the mess is of their making, that they cannot have their cake and shoot it, too.

Another distasteful tendency my fellow countrymen often display is that uniquely American moral tone with which most issues get injected, if not downright inflated. Rather than view the significant topics of the day with the cool detachment born of an Enlightenment heritage, the warring factions thump their respective literal/metaphorical Books of Holy Writ, playing unabashedly to groundling sentiment and infusing every argument with the farcical conceit of Good vs. Evil. Please, America—get over yourself.

The only rational nugget sifted from the muck of the Sandy Hook carnage is that guns kill. That assault weapons and high-capacity clips kill to the nth degree. That dangerous guns in the hands of dangerous people is a bomb that will keep exploding until we defuse it. Permanently. There is no moral issue here, no Good Guys vs. Bad Guys as the NRA and other righteous fear-mongers would have us believe. There is the stark, simple fact that having a lot of guns around is an invitation to spill blood; there are those who act on it—tragically, horribly—and those that don’t. The real issue is whether or not we, as a nation, are comfortable living with that risk, and if not, what concrete steps we will take to minimize it.

The NRA tells us that the only way to combat the Bad Guys is to protect a gratuitous reading of the 2nd Amendment and protect our tender little children by outfitting our schools with more firepower. An armed society is a polite society, they are fond of saying, without thinking of the grave societal implications of this. Imagine, then, life in America under an NRA regime…

The family that shoots together has a hoot together
source: Armed America 


I wake up in the morning and make myself a cup of tea and load my Glock 9 with fresh ammo. I pack the kids’ lunches into bulletproof lunch carriers (because you never know when an armed, psychotic hungry person might raid the cafeteria) and place these into their bulletproof backpacks. After breakfast I strap on the blingy rhinestone-studded red leather holster hubby got me for Valentine’s Day and load the kids into our new Ford bulletproof mini-van. We pass several neighborhood militia checkpoints on the way to school, but otherwise the streets are bereft of pedestrians, and with the absence of foot-traffic, most of the local business are shuttered except for those that can afford armed guards (like the Hallmark store [condolence cards being big], the Christian Science Reading Room, and a score of funeral homes).

It takes the kids 10 minutes to pass through school security—they wave to me with that strained, apprehensive expression that has become habitual—and I drive off once the beefy guards armed with sub-machine guns on either side of the entrance give me the thumbs up.

source: Armed America

At the supermarket, after passing through security, I try to hurry through my shopping list without looking like a mentally unstable person (I have the annoying and potentially life-threatening tendency to talk to myself: “Hmm. Let’s see, I need chives and avocado. Oops! Can’t forget the arugula!”) or someone in need of restraining because she squeezes the tomatoes to see if they’re ripe. I am careful to take even, measured steps and not make eye contact with the armed guards who patrol the cereal aisle, in the attempt to look normal without seeming like someone who needs to attempt to look normal, of course. At check-out, while I’m waiting in line, I pop some gum, a few 100-round clips, and a copy of Saveur into my cart.

I’m meeting a friend for lunch at a nice Thai restaurant. We arrive at the same time and the hostess asks us if we want to be seated in the assault weapon section, the semi-automatic handgun section or the revolver/pistol/hunting rifle section. “What’re you carrying?” I ask my friend. “Smith & Wesson double-action .45” she says. “Oooh, nice! When did you get that?” “A month ago. Anniversary present.”  I sigh: “I can’t wear Smith & Wessons. They make me look hippy. But you can carry it off, skinny girl!” I squeeze her arm affectionately. “What have you got?” “Oh, just a Glock 9,” I answer, turning so she can see it. “Cute holster!” my friend purrs. The hostess waits patiently. “We’ll take the semi-automatic section” we chime in unison, giggling. After showing our permits and a quick pat-down, we’re in.

Later, I do some online holiday shopping (only fools and outlaws and homegrown militia are crazy enough to frequent malls these days, and anyway, most of the stores have shut down. The in-mall mobile morgue probably doesn’t help matters). I’m sad we won’t be going to grandma’s this year for Christmas: she was killed a few months ago in the crossfire at Home Depot when an argument broke out over the last half-price dehumidifier. I go pick up the kids. With relief, I watch them come out of the school doors: they survived another day. I take my daughter to her ballet class, which is crowded—it’s the only dance school in town that offers bulletproof classrooms and employs former Marines as dance instructors. Then I wait while my son attends his mandatory 5th grade Gun Holocaust Preparedness course at the local Paramilitary Activity Center.

source: Armed America

After a quick stop at Starbuckshot for a coffee (I’m three mocha lattes away from earning free night-vision goggles!), we head home and meet the sitter, Rocky, also a former Marine. He’s armed like Rambo, as any proper sitter should be. I give him his instructions: make sure the kids wash up and finish their homework, heat up the lasagna for dinner, and be sure to do a perimeter check every 15 minutes. And stay away from the windows, of course; we’re still getting estimates on bulletproofing. I tell him my husband and I will be back around 11pm.

I slip the Glock into its holster and my husband, being Italian, grabs his favorite Beretta. “Really, honey? The Beretta? With those shoes?” He grumbles and switches it for his Browning 9 millimeter. Somewhat guiltily enjoying a rare evening out (it being generally unsafe to be abroad after dark), we go to a Mexican joint for burritos and beer. The place is run by drug lords so it’s the only one in town open after 6 and packs the kind of firepower that deters the lunatics or anyone checking Green Cards. Then we head to the BAC (Brink’s Armored Cinemas) multiplex for the latest Sandra Bullock rom-com. Armed guards patrol up and down the aisles and slim girls—chic in SWAT black uniforms— escort patrons to the restrooms or refreshment counter once the film has started and the Lockdown mode: kindly refrain from sudden movements light has gone on.

On the way home, we stop for a drink and a plate of fried calamari at a local eatery. The calamari is rubbery, so my husband sends it back. The manager comes over and asks, rather threateningly, if everything is alright. “The calamari is rubbery, so we sent it back. We’d like the shrimp instead,” my husband says evenly. “That’s impossible,” says the manager, leaning onto the table, “Our seafood is fresh and absolutely top-quality. It’s flown in daily.” “Nevertheless,” says my husband, looking him dead in the eye, “we didn’t like it and would prefer something else.” “You better stand down, mister, and take back what you said. Our calamari IS NOT RUBBERY.” “I say it is rubbery!” my husband stands up, “And whatever happened to the customer is always right?! Huh?”

Suddenly, too late, I see the kitchen doors swing open and the sinuous, ebony barrel of a Bushmaster grinning in our sights. I think to myself, fleetingly, “God, we should’ve brought the rifles!” And suddenly, in the merest of moments, my children have become orphans.


If there is to be a Bad Guy here, then fear is the Bad Guy: the kind of deep, entrenched, marrow-eating fear that makes people crave the terrible finality of guns. Fear that divides, that kills community. Fear that mutes discourse. Fear that derides common sense. Fear that would render Americans—so effing proud of their rugged individualism—into a homogenous herd of gun-waving homesteaders, running together in perfect isolation. As the civilized world moves increasingly towards the realization that it is our interdependence and interconnectedness that makes us human, these fear-mongering baboons would have us alienate ourselves from one another further and revert to some kind of misbegotten frontier mode.

Their world is no place I would want to live.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Lo and behold! A Christmas Metaphor

Dear Readers,

After some 12 years of Italian living, I've learned not to expect much from the Italian postal service (I want to add a snarky "bwahahahaha!" but shall refrain). So you can imagine my surprise when we received a mysterious envelope, addressed to my daughter, from the Poste Italiane in the mail yesterday.

I can only surmise that the postal service lifted her name and address off the letterina to Babbo Natale--wherein she detailed her preferences (anything having to do with dogs) and demands (along the lines of "I know darn well I've been good so bring me all this stuff no later than 6:00 am Dec. 25 or you'll be sorry, kiss kiss ciao ciao heart heart Gemma")--that she shoved into the little red mailbox down the street about a week ago. In this large blue envelope was a letter from Santa in which he tells how he lost his warm berretto and the elves, out of deep affection for their boss, bought him a straw hat with which to replace it, and that even though it wasn't really appropriate (given the temperatures at the North Pole during winter of course), he loved it because it was a gift from the heart. He admonishes, "You know, my dear children, that which makes us truly happy is not what we want, but rather that which we receive from the people who love us." (Nothing like a preemptive strike in case the little tykes don't get what's on their list). Then the letter says that Reindeer Matilda will help him find his old hat (because he still would really rather have that one, see, thus rendering moot his earlier magnanimity) with her glowing purple nose--you just have to build her, discover the internet address, and then go look up the webpage where you can experience all manner of fun hunting for Santa's hat on the internets.

Huh. Those knaves! Who do they take me for? Like I don't know that this isn't merely a diverting Christmas activity for a child. It's a metaphor, a metaphor for life in Italy. Naturally.

Italians love children, they really really do. To the extent that even the inept, malingering Poste Italiane will incur considerable expense at sending these little packets around. Of course, this also means they're apparently too busy to deliver the package I've been waiting three weeks for.

Italians are impossibly long-winded in print. Gemma took one look at the long-ass letter from Santa and tossed it aside, couldn't be bothered. I myself react similarly to the emails I get from the PTA--by comparison they make most Wikipedia entries look like something you'd find in a fortune cookie.

Italians need their parents for everything. The complexity of Matilda the Purple-Nosed Reindeer's construction is mind-boggling. Not only do you need a parent to build it for you, you need a parent with an engineering degree and a good dose of Mother Teresa's DNA.

Italians take a simple idea or solution and make it impossibly convoluted and unnecessarily complex. Matilda the Purple-Nosed Reindeer has some 20 small parts made of flimsy paper, requires legs and neck to be folded accordion-style with obsessive-compulsive precision, and needs all the minute intractable flaps to be glued together (and apparently handled with tiny surgical instruments)--at 9:30 pm on a school night with your daughter insisting adamantly that she won't go to bed until it's finished and you regretting that third glass of wine that shot your fine motor skills to hell. Then you're supposed to hop online, pray your crappy DSL connection holds out, and surf your way to holiday fun-time while Matilda's scrofulous, rickety legs start falling apart and her antlers go awry. Frack you, fracking Matilda the Purple-Nosed Reindeer!

Do not question life on this immutable peninsula, just accept things as they are. Why does Matilda have a purple nose? Why is she called Matilda? (Was Matilda the name of some tricked-out, nun-garbed floozy at one of Berlusca's bunga bunga parties, and is thus a kind of twisted yuletide homage to a pancake-faced man who sleeps in pickling liquid?) What diabolical nincompoop designed Matilda? And why does the postal service have all kinds of time on their hands? These and all such equally rational inquiries fall on the stone-deaf ears of the cold, indifferent Italian universe.

I cannot help but think, dear Readers, that it probably would have been better if Matilda the Purple-Nosed Reindeer had never entered my life, never clomped into my living room on her insouciant brown paper hoofs, as it were. But she did, and I--as usual--have to try and glue all the little pieces together and make some merry sense of it all.

Ho Ho and all that,


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lost in conjugation

Dear Readers,

Recently I've been in touch with an interesting American woman in Portland, Oregon who is of Italian origin and who has been raising her two children as bilinguals--not always easy when it's not your mother-tongue in the first place and when English surrounds you like a smugly conquering army. And let's face it, Italian isn't one of those scrappy, high-priority languages (though culturally-speaking it's an undisputed heavyweight champion); not many schools offer it as an item on their linguistic buffet.

So I've been thinking about bilingualism and how I'm going to keep it alive once we move back to the New World. I revisited this bit I wrote on my young bilingual children.

Where do we stand now, bilingually-speaking? Well, my kids pretty much still follow the pattern set forth in that earlier essay: Giacomo is the Staunch Purist and Gemma is the Great Mixer, or rather, Giacomo tends toward linguistic Republicanism while Gemma is an unabashed Democrat. At casa nostra we still vigorously stir the linguistic minestrone, tossing everything in as fancy dictates. For instance, we no longer say the very genteel, English "heel" when referring to the crusty ends of bread on which my daughter is inordinately fond of gnawing. We call them "butts", which is a direct translation of the very Florentine culacciolo. As in "Paolo, please toss Gemma that bread butt so you and I can get a word in edgewise!"

Recently my son--always polymorphic when it comes to language--has taken a fiendish delight in merging his screwball 10 year-old boy humor (which focuses primarily on all manner of bodily eruptions) with the intense study of Italian grammar undertaken at school.

"Mommy, I have to practice my verb conjugations. Will you listen and see if I'm doing them right?"

"Of course. Have at it."

Io farto
Tu farti
Egli/ella farta
Noi fartiamo
Voi fartate
Essi/esse fartono


Il sigh.

Yours from the linguistic trenches,


Friday, November 09, 2012

Bringing up baby in Italy, where the wild things are

Warning: scatological content of an extremely excremental nature
Cocktails and suspension of disbelief advised

Dear Readers,

As many of us expat mums know, bringing forth bambinos in Italy is not for the fainthearted. Apart from the scarcity of epidurals ("in pain you shall bring forth children"--Genesis 3:16 and apparently Holy Gospel here in the Boot*) and the crap-shoot (after seeing the state of their bathrooms I want to add "literally", but that's just sick) that is the birthing experience in public hospitals, the toughest aspect of new mommy-hood is undoubtedly navigating the Lhotse Face of traditional Italian child-rearing, typically embodied in the fearsome, meddlesome, and confounding creature that any self-respecting Sherpa worth his yak butter would steer clear of: the Italian mother-in-law.

Come, stroll down memory lane with me, chickens, while I cull a few cow patties from my experiences as an inexperienced American mother who sailed off through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year, to where the wild things are....

Not just a garnish

As we all know, Italian MILs are obsessed with bowel movements: their own, their neighbor's, their children's, and especially their grandchildren's. However, when my first was born, I wasn't quite prepared for the vehemence of my MIL's burning, all-engrossing desire and need to know the exact amount, consistency, color and character of every single one of my son's diaperial evacuations, and how often these occurred.  Poor little Giacomo--he never performed well enough for his nonna; it was either not enough not often enough, or too much too often, or just not the right damn kind. But as annoying as all this was, nothing was worse than the dreaded (oooh, I still get chills racing down my spine just thinking about it) stitichezza, or constipation--easily the dirtiest word in the Italian language.

I learned quickly to conceal the true nature of my son's cacca from her, like Yoda guarding the secrets of the Force from the future Darth Vader. But one day--perhaps my husband and I had hit the Chianti a little too hard and let our guard down--one of us let it slip to the MIL that our infant son hadn't pooped in five days.

And she roared her terrible roars and gnashed her terrible teeth and rolled her terrible eyes and showed her terrible claws

"O Santo Cielo! Non è possibile! Call the doctor! Call the doctor!"

So we did.

And SHE roared her terrible roars and gnashed her terrible teeth and rolled her terrible eyes and showed her terrible claws

The pediatrician pretty much made us feel like what should've been in my son's diaper. I thought she was going to sic social services on us because we were obviously such crappy parents. Needless to say, I learned the Italian word for enema that day (cristere, for those of you who give a shit--or want to give one to someone else).

Well, since that dark day Giacomo was forever labeled stitico in my mother-in-law's eyes (and me, stronza--i.e. turd), which of course meant that she began using all her old wives' tactics to scioglie (loosen) his sweet, innocent bowels, to most of which I simply turned the other cheek. Then, one fine spring day I wandered all la-dee-da out into the garden with himself in tow, so we could admire the flowers and take in a bit of fresh air. Little did I realize we were about to happen upon a witches coven: there gathered among the olive trees and rosemary bushes was the malevolent MIL, and my sister-in-law along with her mother and younger sister--who was also toting a newborn boy and had the cold, dead eyes of the thoroughly inculcated Italian female. My mother-in-law promptly introduced the two babies to one another, "Constipated, meet Emmanuele." Swift as hawks, they closed ranks.

And they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

They bombarded me with advice and remedies each more preposterous than the last; it was an all-out blitzkrieg of harpy-voiced grenades. And then the A-bomb: "You should use parsley! Yes--parsley! Parsley! Parsley!" they all chanted. "Just take the stem end and insert it into his...."

I said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once...


...and they were frightened and called me the most wild thing of all

Still more cow patties

There was the time I appeared in the MIL's kitchen with baby Giacomo buried deep in a sling over my abdomen, sleeping blissfully. She became apoplectic with holy indignation at my blatant attempt at infanticide and did a pretty good impression of someone in the throes of St.Vitus Dance.

And FYI, she wasn't at all impressed when I said that women in Africa use them.

There were numerous times we came to loggerheads over the infamous maglia della salute, or woolen onesie for newborns, held sacred here. I'd tell her "yes, that's just what a vellum-skinned infant who's been floating around in the soothing softness of amniotic fluid for nine months needs: A HAIR SHIRT!"

There was the time she--doubtless tired of the deaf ear I turned to most of her arguments--sent my sister-in-law into my bedroom to badger me into breastfeeding on a set schedule rather than on demand. I calmly confirmed my presence in the 21st century and said that she was welcome to remain in the 18th, if not my room.

There was the time the MIL, obsessed with Giacomo's weight and sure my breast milk wasn't enough and mystified by my adamant refusal to use aggiunte (formula supplements with crumbled cookies in them--yep, you read that right), forced my husband to rent a scale so that he (baby, not husband) could be weighed after every single feeding. I told her the only thing that contraption was fit for was weighing pork loins (or as a shoe horn for wedging her man feet into those outsize clodhoppers), and refused to use it.

Then there was the time my newborn daughter and I were visiting the Duomo one wintry morning and she decided to offload copiously while ensconced in one of those down-padded baby sacs. After heartily, if silently, cursing Arnolfo di Cambio for not including changing stations in his design, I decided to shrug it off. I figured I had about a half hour before significant seepage, so I went over to Max Mara and made a salesgirl hold Gemma while I tried on sweaters. This I did not tell the MIL. 

To all of these declarations of independence (and many more), the entire ferocious and fakakta Italian female Maternity Police--of which my mother-in-law is commander-in-chief--raised their collective shrewish voices in terrifying, hell-rousing, cacophonous union and


Yes they most certainly did.

"Now stop!" I said, and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper

Then I stepped into my private boat and waved good-bye, and sailed back over a year, and in and out of weeks, and through a day, and into the night of my very own room...

And there weren't any interfering bitches in there to spoil my supper.

The Queen of all Wild Things,
with her little fecal underachiever

As always, yours from the Tuscan trenches,


*The MIL would quote this verse to me during my first pregnancy, bless her idiotic black heart.

Monday, October 22, 2012

And the fat lady sang her ass off

Dear Readers,

Italians seem to have a penchant for things that go on and on: Mass, Sunday lunch, red tape, opera, the shelf life of politicians. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when I discovered that the average children's birthday party here in the Boot lasts a good 4 to 5 hours. Seriously. I have two kids in elementary school, a boy in fifth grade and a girl in third, and between them they've racked up enough hours at feste di compleanni to qualify for two master's degrees, a Ph.D, and a diploma from bartending school.

On quizzing my American friends, I found out that Stateside kiddie parties last 2 hours max. My ever-practical compatriots, you see, know that overlong exposure to gargantuan amounts of sugary snacks and drinks combined with the metabolism, energy level and excitement threshold of 7-year-olds is like putting a hand grenade in a Hot Pocket. You don't wanna be there to pick up the grisly pieces.

Indeed. This past Saturday, my daughter Gemma attended a classmate's birthday party that degenerated into the kind of chaos normally associated with nineteenth-century wilderness explorers who haven't seen civilization for months, have eaten too much whale blubber, and have too many firearms at hand. The first three hours went smoothly enough, with the kids indulging in gastronomic excesses worthy of ancient Rome and gamboling gleefully around the garden--as if in Charlie's Chocolate Factory--devouring an avalanche of panini, potato chips, candy, chocolates, muffins and cake, washed down with rivers of Fanta and Coke.

Well, cut to Lord of the Flies. The happy gathering went all Darwin and a massive brawl broke out--kids pummeled one another, pushed and shoved, got knocked backwards over chairs, pulled hair, attempted to strangle one another with sticky hands. It was Caligula meets the Three Stooges. The fiasco ended with a hearty "vaffanculo!!!!!" shouted over the roiling, sneaker-clad melee by a 7 year-old Napoleon hopped up on fructose, and much of the group in tears. The host father--it was his first party--was found hiding in a corner of the kitchen, ashen and babbling, "I did all I could, I did all I could, I did all I could, oh god."

My daughter, pre-holocaust

Gemma--in that strange, amnesiacal way children have--looks back on the event and says it was fun. She refuses to even look at anything sugary, however, and if you need an indication of the unprecedented nature of this phenomenon, let me say that if the dinosaurs possessed some sort of jurassic sweet tooth, my daughter would be among the T-Rexes. I expect it won't last long, though. Unlike that party.

Caligula, the partier supremus.
Take that Chuck E. Cheese.

We Americans like things short and sweet: the average sitcom is 22 minutes long, excluding commercials, for example. You could say we like our fun in manageable doses. On the other hand, modern-day Italians, like their Roman predecessors, can't seem to get enough of a good thing. Even, apparently, when it turns into a bad thing. Just think, in the time it took for this rather Wonka vs. Kurtz kiddie melodrama to play itself out, La Traviata could have been staged twice.

They say nothing's over til the fat lady sings. Here in Italy, the fat lady sings--and sings, and sings (or even shouts vaffanculo! to 7 year-olds)--but that don't mean it's over.

Yours from the Tuscan trenches,


Thursday, October 04, 2012

Impressions: ripples in a pond, and some thoughts on raising children in Italy

Dear Readers,

I've been uncharacteristically silent a long while, I know. Change is in the air, and I suppose I've been on mental (as well as physical) vacation from Italy and the expat rat-race. I still have plenty of stories about life on this cockamamie peninsula, but whether or not they will all get told within the space of this blog--whose days, I fear, are numbered--remains to be seen.

I had the good fortune to spend another summer in Portland, Oregon--three whole months this time. Goodness, how that place grows on you! We've decided to make it our next port of call, and plan on moving away from Florence and the in-laws (very important) as soon as this school year finishes. A brand-spanking new chapter in our lives yaws before us like a genial, benign blue whale--and we can't wait to let it swallow us whole.


His cardboard sign read "Free: smiles, kind words, listening, hugs. Just ask!" The scruffy, blissed-out young man sitting cross-legged on the pavement on Hawthorne Ave regarded us passers-by with unmitigated good will.

"How ya doin', Sister?" smiled the young guy holding a can of beer, sitting on his steps with the sun on his face. "You have a good one now." Okay, he was probably drunk off his ass, but how could a smile not overtake my mouth?

The cashier at the supermarket said to me after taking my money, "Have a great day. Thanks for shopping with us!"

The 15 Belmont bus driver, all smiles, catapulted out of his little cubicle to help the young mother struggling with newborn, gargantuan diaper bag and chariot-sized stroller off the bus, while I struggled to scrape my lower jaw off the floor.

Small-talk. Casual pleasantries with strangers. A kind word here and there. Gracious bus drivers. Polite postal workers. Everyday people paying it forward in countless small ways. It all made me realize how much I've gotten used to casual indifference, systematic abuse, stony faces and disdainful scowls at the hands of petty Italian functionaries, cashiers, receptionists, shop-workers and the like. Really, at times living in Florence feels like being an unwilling participant in a Mean Contest, with each Italian contestant trying to outdo one another in churlishness. In the face of such daily--and, I would add, altogether unfathomable and unnecessary--unpleasantness one gets to feel utterly beaten down. It just makes everything so exhausting, and it all seems so utterly pointless, though I suppose so many Italians in positions of "power" act like jackals with PMS because it makes them feel good about themselves in some way. Or they're all sadists. In any case, that mantle of negativity is tough to shake off. In Portlandia--admittedly famous for the preternatural friendliness of its locals--I was often rendered nigh speechless by the unwarranted kindness and good-naturedness of strangers. It made me feel good. Put a spring in my step (turns out a smile IS contagious!). And more importantly, it made me feel human--whereas endless interactions with surly Italians makes me feel like something that ought to be scraped off the bottom of their shoes. 

If our actions are like ripples in a pond, then kindness and friendliness make the pond worth diving into. Don't you think?

ancient buddha, photo by David Smeaton

I was once told that the reason a rather sizable Buddhist community exists in and around Florence (my hairdresser's a Buddhist, for example) is because it's such a center of negative energy--as if it bubbles up here from some malign source deep in the earth's magma--and that the Buddhist prayers and presence are necessary for offsetting it. Buddhist ripples in the old, stagnant Florentine pond.

Which led me to think about the omphalos. An earthly navel, as it were, according to the Greeks. The center of the world, a godly orifice, a portal. If Florence is a kind of omphalos of negativity--a bizarro navel crouching in its Apennine-encircled conca--then Portland sure feels like its opposite: the center of positive vibes and creative energy.


I look around me in Florence these days and I see so very many old people. So very, very many. Nothing against 'em, of course, but it makes for a fusty country that resists change and modernity with all the tenacity of a moth-ball-ridden old biddy clutching her support hose, glycerin suppositories, and tessera sanitaria. It makes for a country that, though it wrote such a splendid history for itself, is unable to outline a future because who cares, it'll soon be dead anyway. It makes for a country that feels more and more like a giant, albeit artful casket that needs to be buried posthaste before its contents begin to smell. Italy is a country that recklessly squanders its most precious natural resource: its young people. They are its most wasted potential. But, compared to the old folks who doggedly run the show and refuse to give up the ghost, there are relatively few young people to make Italy's history anew, even if they were equipped or inclined to do so.

The low birth-rate here is no secret. And I wonder about the reasons for it. While there are doubtless many factors--economic considerations being perhaps primary--I think the "Great Italian Bambino Paradox" is at the heart of it. On the one hand, Italians adore children--they are petted and fussed-over and cherished--enthroned is a better word--and encouraged to live at home for most of their adult lives. But on the other, very little is done for children and young people by the various governing bodies to enrich their lives and give them opportunities for growth and experimentation. Schools are bare-bones basic--with education varying in quality, just like anywhere--offering almost nothing by way of art, music, computer sciences, or sports (the concept of "extra-curricular" does not exist; hell, my kids don't even have toilet paper in their school). Nothing much to set the imagination aflame. It surprises me that in a country with such a rich artistic and musical heritage, little is done to foster this kind of creativity in children. In summer, kids' brains are left to lie fallow; cities do not offer activity programs, the centri estivi being an expensive, limited-term day-care option only. But it goes deeper than that. There is no overarching gestalt that puts a high value on the renewable energy that is the youthful outlook, the natural eagerness to see and do, the drive and fresh perspective that each age of humankind calls for. No wonder people don't feel like having babies.

Perhaps because of this decided lack of appeal to their imaginations, there seems to be some sort of malaise that afflicts many Italian schoolchildren at some stage in their academic life. And doubtless because of this, relatively few are motivated to go on to achieve college degrees. Of course, perhaps they think why go to college? Jobs are won not by merit but by who you (i.e. your family) know, and career success/recognition/advancement doesn't depend on individual achievement but again, on those many-tentacled familial connections. (The national motto really ought to be "Nepotism, Protectionism, and Cronyism--Evviva!"). The stagnant economy, corrupt politics, overburdened social security system (which treats old-timers like sultans and newcomers like buggered whores) and the decrepit machinery that is Italian labor law doesn't help matters, of course. With all these obstacles, it's easy to understand how apathy can take root, and I think it's safe to say that a kind of collective weltschmerz (see how cool-sounding German words roll off my virtual tongue today?) has overtaken the majority of Italian youth, whether they realize it fully or not. In fact, a point has been reached where intelligent, educated and energetic young Italians are leaving the country in droves to seek their fortunes elsewhere--Godspeed, I say. Meanwhile, the graying of the piazzas continues apace, and there's that electric-charged hush in the air as if before some kind of cataclysmic tempest or götterdämmerung (sorry).

Italy is not a place in which to be young.

A fresh perspective: Portland, omphalos of the Pacific Northwest

Portland feels so invigorating by comparison. Young people are everywhere, young parents toting their two, three and four children about, hipsters young and old crowding the outdoor tables of beer gardens and eateries, everyone seemingly so up on the latest technology and freshest ideas in everything. The place hums with creative energy, a vibe that can only be described as "happening," and an exuberant physicality typically exemplified by the enthusiastic and ubiquitous adoption of the bicycle as the preferred mode of travel. I could not help but fall under the spell of this evergreen Shangri-la. I realize that I have perhaps painted Italy in shades of rather stark black and white, and of course nothing in the world is either--subtle gradations are everywhere, good and bad make strange bedfellows but bedfellows they are, and exceptions take exception to being forced to abide by the rules. But in the end I decided that I don't want my children living in a place where they're so powerless to shape their future (two strikes against Gemma because she's female), where they're not encouraged to think outside the box and experiment because, for one thing, nothing could ever possibly come of it*, where enrichment opportunities are are so scarce, and where their precious youth counts for so little. So we're going.

Change is good. Change is needed. We need it; I need it. Time to splash around in this stagnant old pond and seek new shores upon which to stake our claim to happiness. There are risks, there are unknowns. Che sarà and all that. But to paraphrase the Bard: bless us, bless us indeed--we're about to be translated.

My best regards,


* I read a very thought-provoking piece in an Italian newspaper a while back detailing the reasons why Italy could never grow its own Steve Jobs. Essentially it said that any potential innovator must overcome the twin evils of a pervasive defeatist mentality and a ponderous, ham-fisted bureaucracy. Double-barreled death to entrepreneurialism assured. Plus broadband here sucks.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cops and salsa

A recent article for the Florentine wherein I discuss vacations, bilingualism, and kids who probably oughtn't watch so much goddamn American television.

Click here to go to article :-)

Yours, truly, currently from Portlandia, USA,


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Festa della Mamma, Bürgermeister-style

Dear Readers,

Italy has Mother's Day, too. "Well, of course--duh!" you may very well say. This is, after all, the land where mamma-hood was practically invented, the land of the cult of the virgin Madonna (the mother of all mothers), and the land where mammoni lurk and smirk in every coffee bar.

To be honest, I don't know how most Italians traditionally celebrate this day--but my guess is that they don't take their colorfully-corsaged moms, grandmas and wives to crowded, busy restaurants for bloody marys and mimosas and a nice break from kitchen drudgery, like us folks Stateside do. But I hope they make a better show of it than my brother-in-law, the Bürgermeister, does.

Here's how it goes down in the C______ Compound:

The Bürgermeister calls the MIL a few days before to inform her that he's bringing Frau Wiener and their two daughters over to celebrate Mother's Day. The MIL asks what they'd like to eat and the Bürgermeister discusses the menu with her. The MIL--who's pushing eighty--busies herself with preparations. The Bürgermeister and Frau Wiener arrive in separate cars--the Environment be damned--and descend upon the cramped salotto with blasé pusses and ravenous appetites. They are served, as usual, by the MIL, who's swathed in one of her chintz smocks and shuffles hurriedly back and forth from steamy kitchen to laden table, while everybody else sits on their cans and stares at the TV. When it comes time for dessert, the Bürgermeister unwraps with a grand flourish the torta he's purchased (being sure to intone solemnly that it's from one of the very best pasticcerie in Florence) and places it in the center of the table. He may even cut a piece and hand it to the MIL. The MIL scarfs down a slice before jumping up to serve everyone coffee, and then begins clearing the table and the long ugly job of cleaning up.

"Festa della mamma un cazzo!"

By way of contrast, my husband--a fine man by any measure--made this American mamma a meal of tender sauteed mussels and flavor-packed salmone in cartoccio, plied me with a crisp Umbrian white, and capped off our little party with a delicious blackberry tart and a hearty shot of grappa. Not bad. Not bad at all.

And he did all the clean-up.

Which, of course, begs the question of whether or not he was left on the in-laws' doorstep as an infant by self-sufficient and ridiculously thoughtful aliens.



Friday, May 11, 2012

Junkyard Sally

Dear Readers,

I apologize for the lack of posts, but ol' Campobello has been feelin' tired. Listless. Limp. I've been enshrouded in a tabarro of ennui.

But something has roused me from my stupor--a sight so ridiculous, so farcical, so indicative of how my life here in Italy is so NOT Under the Tuscan Sun. Or even Eat, Pray, Love (well, except for the eating part).

One recent morning as I lingered at my kitchen window, which overlooks the shared courtyard and the in-laws' lair, I saw my MIL's pious, narrow rump thrust meekly heavenward as she bent over a large, thick paper baker's sack the size of a petulant child, which was on the ground in front of her door, and was rummaging around in it like a raccoon at the dumpster of a Dunkin Donuts in Bakersfield. (I know, I really should avoid gazing out the kitchen window, or at least paper it over with Hello Kitty decals--I see far too many unappetizing things there, like this and this, for instance).

My MIL gathers all the day-old bread from the nearby alimentari--which is regularly set aside for her or even dumped at her doorstep. This stale bread is ostensibly for the chickens and rabbits the FIL keeps, but hey, if it's good enough for beast and fowl then it's good enough for my in-laws. Dozens of sacks of the stuff lie around the house and yard (yes, she even crams them into her kitchen), the once-bread petrifying into the stuff bowling balls are made of. They eat this bread, of course--God forbid they should live a little and, in the land of heavenly cheap baked goods, buy it fresh every day. The MIL was always trying to foist this travesty of flour and water off on us, too--even squirreling it away in our house (before I finally took my keys back) while we were at work--until I put my foot down and said "LOOK, I DIDN'T MOVE ALL THE WAY TO ITALY TO EAT STALE, MOLDY BREAD!"

But, my friends, this is merely the tip of the stale iceberg.

The larger issue is that my in-laws are known in the neighborhood as the folks who will eat anything, gladly and greedily accept anyone-and-everyone's rejects, and never, ever throw anything away. The MIL, in particular, is known in these here parts as the Queen of Salvage, the Countess of Cast-offs, the Duchess of Drek. As I write, rats are doing the tarantella on a pile of ancient wool mattresses tossed into the old, open-air fienile--I believe the MIL's great great grandparents slept on them and they still may come in handy one day. The property is littered with ramshackle shacks full of--er--litter. Detritus. Junk. What have you. It's like Sanford and Son.

Their dual reputation for hoarding is legendary. Once I answered the phone at the MIL's and an old biddy from the 'hood said, "Tell your suocera I have some yogurt that's expired and I wondered if she wants it." She did.

I am not making this up.

Contractors and construction guys, upon gutting nearby houses, regularly pull into the courtyard with their trucks and dump all the debris into great, dusty piles while the FIL looks on with glee. Then he spends hours with his table saw reducing the rubble to manageable bits, and carts off the bigger, un-sawable behemoths in an ancient wheelbarrow to his hidden cache at the back of the property, underneath the old acqueduct.

Their intercom is always buzzing:

"Hello, I have some old toys [mildewed stuffed animals with missing ears, scary naked dolls with scissored hair and the eyes permanently rolled back in their sockets] and wondered if you want them for your grandkids?"

"Hi, I've got a wicker chair [the seat has been eaten away by weevils, but if you have cholera it could be useful]--you want it? It's still in good shape!"

"Buongiorno, my mother finally died [in bed, and it wasn't pretty] and I don't know what else to do with her bedsheets. Will you take them?"

"Hey, I've got this set of cookware [a chipped set of crockery from the 1970's, festooned with flowers the color of which is not to be found in Nature, lids missing] and I hate to throw it away. Do you want it?"

All to which my MIL answers eagerly--a kind of perverse, dross-gathering Molly Bloom--"Yes, yes, yes and YES!"

A piece of freakish flotsam washed up on the MIL's effluvia-strewn shore
(It's been sitting there, creepily, for eight months now.
It smells like cat pee and my children are forbidden to touch it). 

Lucky me. I've landed in the one place in beautiful, heart-searingly scenic Italy where you can--upon seeing it and marveling that it hasn't been condemned as a squatters' den/gypsy camp/health code violation--quote Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest with absolute conviction:

Yeah, literally.

Yours from the scrap heap,


Monday, April 09, 2012

The Easter toenail

Dear Readers,

We decided to take to the road on Easter Sunday, picnic basket in tow, and head out to one of those picturesque, ancient Etruscan outposts that punctuate the Tuscan earth like somber stone carbuncles set into silvery-green filigrees of cypress, olive and macchia--that strong-willed, cliff-hugging Mediterranean shrub.

A bit of rain notwithstanding, it was a lovely day, with breezes off the sea washing over our city-dusted bodies and through our thirsty lungs in invigorating, salty blasts. We ate our lunch and cavorted on the beach at the Gulf of Baratti, under the watchful eye of Populonia's old, baleful tower.

Later, in the car, on the way to find some much-needed gelato, Gemma piped up:

"Mommy, you know yesterday when I went to Nonna's? Do you know what she told me?"

I inwardly cringed, imagining something along the lines of Tales of the Illustrious Exploits of Jesus, You're Growing Up a Heathen, or Why a 2-Pound Chocolate Egg is Good for You.

"No, what?" I said.

"She told me that her toenail fell off because it turned all brown and was marcia [rotten, putrid, decayed]."

"Thanks for sharing that, dear."

Of tides and toenails

One would hope the MIL spread the message of the Resurrected Christ with similar enthusiasm.

Yours from the Tuscan trenches,


Friday, March 09, 2012

The (un)making of the Italian man

Dear Readers,

Who doesn't like them? And who wouldn't want to have one (at least every now and then)? I'm talking about Italian men, of course.

A group of multigenerational Latin lookers
source: magtrends
They're well-tailored and stylish and typically fit at any age. They have great taste in shoes. They preen and strut like feral peacocks--though at the same time they're sweet and rather boyish. They enjoy good food and know about wine, but they don't get drunk and sloppy (if they make fools of themselves, they tend to do it sober). Yet for all their undeniable, perennial, animal allure, there's a dark side to the Italian man. There's definitely a dark side.

And this is it: behind every handsome, fashionable, charmingly bestubbled, motorino-revving Italian man are two women: the mother who ruined him and the wife who makes excuses for him. Both should be shot.

Pictured here is Captain Francesco Schettino, the man whose ego, irresponsibility, and lack of intestinal fortitude allegedly caused the recent Costa Concordia disaster which claimed so many lives. While I'm not saying that he typifies Italian men (after all, every nation has its moral and intellectual laggards), I'd argue that he's the inevitable product of certain cultural tendencies in Italy, and it is this culture--from whence such a lily-livered lounge lizard springs--that I'd like to explore. I'll begin with a few vignettes from personal experience.


When my Italian nephews were in high school, they used to come over to my MIL's house every day after school got out for a hot lunch, since their own mother was at work. She would have the table set and their primo of pasta ready as soon as they dumped their backpacks on the floor and flopped into their chairs. They'd flick on the TV and zone out to anime cartoons while she busily set the food in front of them, then she'd scurry back into the kitchen to prepare their secondo and side dishes while they wolfed down their pasta. If they needed a napkin (which were located in the sideboard about three feet from where they were sitting), they'd call out, "Nonna! Napkin!" and she'd scuttle out to get it for them and then scuttle back to her hissing frying pans. If she'd forgotten to give them a lemon wedge for their fish, they'd call out, "Nonna! Limone!" After they'd been served their last course of ice cream or fruit, they'd reluctantly switch off the TV, rise from the table with a carefree adolescent burp, volley a "ciao" towards the kitchen where the chintz-swathed MIL was vigorously scrubbing pots, and saunter out of the house--leaving the table strewn with dirty dishes, bread crumbs, spilled water, and orange peels.

I never saw these boys--who are as sweet as bomboloni, mind you--take out the garbage, or hang a load of laundry up to dry, or do any chores whatsoever around the house, and both of their parents work full-time. They always wore trendy jeans and sneakers, had cell phones, ample allowances, and rode to school on their own mopeds (one of them even had an additional motocross bike, just for fun)--which is fine, of course. It's just that nothing was ever expected of them in return. Their mother pampers them--still--even more than their nonna, treating them like babies who can barely be trusted to feed themselves or wipe their own behinds. When one of them--at age 21--was horsing around in front of his girlfriend and destroyed our large outdoor storage bin, my husband waited a week in vain for the young man to at least apologize before confronting him and letting him know that we expected it to be replaced. Rather than deal with it himself, his mother (my sister-in-law) knocked on our door and proffered €50, and somewhat in a huff said, "Matteo è rimasto male [is upset at being chastised]. After all, he's only a boy."


One of my husband's old school friends from the neighborhood, Guido, separated from his wife some years back. A 46 year-old father of two, he had a good job and a good income by Italian standards, and drove a late-model BMW. As nearly always happens in these cases, he moved back in with his parents and into his old bedroom, sleeping on the narrow twin bed of his childhood. His mother prepares all his meals, does his laundry, presses his shirts for work, and tidies his room--exactly as she used to before he married.


Okay, this isn't relevant but
I personally have a real thing for Carabinieri ;-)


Another twenty-something nephew of mine recently landed a decent job with a much-coveted permanent work contract. He has a longtime girlfriend and they talk of getting married. Since boyhood he's been sharing a 7 x 10 foot bedroom with his slightly younger brother and his sister who's younger by some 10 years. He still sleeps, contentedly, in the cramped upper tier of a bunk bed which is crammed into the suffocatingly close space, stuffed as it is with the beds and bulky wardrobes and computer desks of two grown young men and a 15 year-old girl. But there was no question of him moving out--instead he bought himself a new car.


One of my brothers-in-law who has two kids has never changed a diaper. (I'll pause to let that sink in fully). Another brother-in-law, once it was established that his gag-reflex was too pronounced, poor thing, never had anything more to do with the diapers, illnesses, or potty training (or much else related to child-rearing) of his three children, even though his wife, like most Italian women these days, works. A third brother-in-law--the one who lives across town--brings his laundry over for my MIL to do when his own wife is away, and insists on dragging his wife and daughters to the MIL's every weekend for a big lunch prepared by mamma's loving hands, even though her age and ailments make this an increasingly difficult burden. (And when the nonni moved into their small granny unit, this same brother-in-law insisted they keep the enormous refectory-style dining table--even though it makes their dwarf-sized salottino impossibly cramped--so he could dine in accustomed comfort on the weekends).


Laura, an Italian mom with whom I'm friendly--our sons go to school together--recently separated from her husband. She confided that for years her husband has simply not been "present" in the marriage (incidentally I've had one other friend and a hairdresser say the same thing about their husbands. They both chose separation). Like so many Italian men, he prefers to hang out at the coffee bar or soccer stadium, or surf the Net or peruse the Gazzetta dello sport, and tends to get restless and bored when forced to hang out with wife and child. He also seems to have had a dalliance with another woman (and the fact that she was a foreigner, to boot--a Filipina--counted as another black mark against him). And yet, like so many Italian men, he expects to find the cupboards and fridge full of food and his dinner on the table every night, his clothes laundered and pressed, and his child scrubbed, homework done, and ready for bed. Well, she'd finally reached her limit, telling me that she already has one kid to look after so why should she want another, one who's 40 years old? But marriage is a two-way street, of course, and knowing how Italian drivers are I think we can allow for a fair amount of  irrational behavior on both sides: in fairness, I have to say that all this woman does when she's not at work is clean her house (or the car, or the stairwell of the building, or the persiane). Seriously. Her house reeks of Lysol. Once when I was over there and she was attempting to converse while frantically scrubbing down the kitchen like some disinfecting dervish, her husband said to me, "Look at her! She's constantly cleaning; it's a sickness." Apparently her own presence in the marriage was up for debate. Anyway, she sent hubs packing and, in typical fashion, he moved back in with his parents.

Too close for comfort? This same mom recently gave her 10 year-old son an enema because "l'intestino era bloccato" (the poor little guy vomited afterwards). And now the two of them live like happy newlyweds in their cozy little love nest, without that pressed-jeans-clad non-entity of a husband casting a pall over the house, and she can coddle her precious, wavy-haired boy to her hearts' content for many long years to come.


Mammoni. We've all heard this term with regard to Italian men: mamma's boys. One thing's for sure, they don't exist in a vacuum; behind every Italian man there's an unbroken line of Italian mammas, nonnas and bisnonnas reaching back in time through conquests and cantos to the peninsula's murky origins. These are the apron-clad culprits who've perpetrated the irreparable warping of long, spooled chains of psychological DNA for generations of Italian men. From cradle to grave, by mother, wife, and eldest daughter--Italian males are pampered and spoiled, shielded from reality and consequences, and their behavior--no matter how outrageous--indulged. If my MIL is sick or otherwise absent, the FIL--who's in robust health--has his meals prepared and his clothes laundered by some female family member. He never, ever goes to the supermarket or picks up his own prescription meds. He certainly never participated in any of the child-rearing or care of invalid relatives (even his own wheelchair-bound mother)--that was solely women's work. In short, he--like so many other Italian men--has been kept in a child-like, irresponsible state, frozen in a kind of carefully cultivated uselessness and degenerative ineffectuality. I often think how surreally wonderful it must be to go through life like an Italian man--a pasha who merely has to sit down at table and a three-course meal magically appears. And when one has eaten one's fill, all one has to do is arise and go on to other pleasant diversions and let the scullery maid (i.e. the wife) worry about such trivialities as cleanup. And to have all one's clothing washed and ironed and neatly folded and arrayed in one's dresser or wardrobe--not knowing if elves or sprites did it, or one's tired, old, long-suffering handmaiden. And not really being bothered to care either way.

How can such men--grown out of this nascent ooze of medieval manhood--become fully functioning husbands and fathers and students and employees and managers and politicians? How can they become contributing partners in marriages, in companies, in the governing of a nation? How can they be counted on to do the just, right, selfless thing when the ship is sinking? How can they be proper lovers--real soul mates--or innovative entrepreneurs or resolute leaders of men when they can't even boil water for pasta?

The slimy shirker extraordinaire

Francesco Schettino comes from the small town of Meta di Sorrento, near Naples. In the aftermath of the disaster, journalists deluged the town and interviewed locals regarding the erstwhile captain's character. Not surprisingly, his wife vociferously lauded his prowess in all fields, and rose to the defense of his integrity and bravery. The local priest followed suit, proclaiming Schettino's unquestionable virtues, while asserting that the overly-aggressive northern journalists and media were demonstrating an age-old prejudice against Neapolitans specifically and southern Italians generally. In other words, the usual battery of excuses was invoked for a man who has doubtless been pampered his whole life and whose rectitude lies limp and flaccid within the starched, molly-coddled confines of his metaphysical Jockeys.

Adorable. But remember: they either live with their mommies or their wives.
Who do you think ironed their underwear?

Insomma, though there exist some notable exceptions, Italian men are like Italian fashions: lovely to look at and to drape over one's body--with some mighty fine detailing and workmanship--but which, alas, usually prove utterly impractical in the end. With every new season, they become obsolete. They become, regrettably, those rather embarrassing choices pushed far to the back of the closet.



*For a fun, informative and spot-on romp on the subject of Italian men, check out Sara's post at When in Florence.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A bit of dramatic foreshadowing

Dear Readers,

A fellow Italy blogger, Lisa over at Renovating Italy, inspired me with her post 'At the Back of the Beginning' which talks about a rather amazing coincidence regarding a photo taken in Venice long before she'd ever dreamed she'd make Italy her home.

This is a photo of me in my college dorm room at Michigan State, sophomore year, with one of my dearest friends, Kelly B. (who had recently had her own expat experience in Sweden). Forget Kel's über-80's hairdo, and notice the poster on the wall behind us.

In case you can't quite make it out, it's of A Room With a View, and that's Florence's Duomo in the background--little did I know then that one day this famous, eye-poppingly gorgeous cathedral would become a daily sight for me.

The movie came out in 1985, the year I graduated from high school, and I went to see it at a Dearborn theater with another very dear friend of mine, Lisa D. (who would eventually migrate to Chicago). We loved it, of course. And I still feel my soul flap its wings like mad when I hear 'O mio babbino caro.'

We never know where life will lead us, do we, if we're open to adventure?


*The wonderful Norwegian soprano, Sissel Kyrkjebø.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lessons of via Faentina, part 5 and finale

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the final installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

The shards of automobile littered the street and narrow sidewalk. Pieces of black and silver and red plastic, along with bits of metal--the detritus of the latest traffic accident--bore mute testimony to the dangers of via Faentina.

My children and I saw this as we walked to school last week, and I was overcome with a feeling of frustrated resignation. I had just read in La Nazione about another accident, in another part of the city, near several schools, where a mother and her 6 year-old daughter were run down in a pedestrian crossing by an 84 year-old man who claims he didn't see them because of the sunlight shining in his eyes. Analysis showed that he had barely even touched the brakes. Fortunately, the mother used her body to shield her daughter so the girl wasn't badly hurt, but mom suffered various fractures and injuries. Parents gathered around and complained to the reporter about the dangers of speeding traffic in the area, about the perilous nature of the local school/pedestrian crossings, and about the need for speed bumps and other traffic safety measures. The article also highlighted another issue here in Italy that tends to surface when such accidents occur: the ongoing controversy of allowing people over 80 to continue driving. (A couple of years ago, our gate at the bottom of the driveway was mangled by a 90 year-old man who had fallen asleep at the wheel--supposedly--and crashed into it. Luckily none of us happened to be coming or going at the time).

It's all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nothing will ever change. Accidents continue to happen, people get hurt or killed, there is outrage and complaining, the occasional article appears--and then silence. As far as my little corner of Florence goes--I have written countless letters to Palazzo Vecchio and to the various entities which oversee traffic issues, I have written to both local and national newspapers, I wrote an Op-Ed piece in the local English paper on this issue, and I began this blog series. I've talked to other parents--all of whom complain but none of whom seem willing to band together and do anything (but perhaps they know the system we're up against far better than I).

Italy ranks third in Europe for road deaths involving cyclists (preceded by Germany and Poland), and it's easy to see why--people on bicycles have to share the road with thousands of drivers with very dangerous driving habits who careen through the cities with seeming impunity. Pedestrians, too, as I have pointed out previously, also count for very little in this nation which privileges wheels over human beings.


Via Faentina continues to be throttled with heavy, two-way traffic. Years ago, the national railway spent loads of money building a train station (called the Salviati) in the neighborhood, with a huge parking lot--ostensibly aimed at commuters coming in from the north. For reasons perhaps only fathomable to the bureaucrats, it was never used, has been abandoned, and has fallen into disrepair--acting as a playground for vandals, a garbage dump, and a strange gypsy camp for RV's and trucks whose owners appear to live within.

Parking fees no one has to pay

Waiting for a train that will never come

Paths reclaimed by nature

It's a pity--because the views of Fiesole from here are lovely

Salviati changed to "save yourself?"

The wise know when to admit defeat. So, dear Readers, I raise my hands in that universal gesture of surrender and throw in the proverbial Tuscan towel. I don't know what else I can do in terms of "community action." I know that traffic safety in my neighborhood will never improve, that every day I walk my children to school shall continue to be fraught with stress and worry over their safety. My little patch of Italy apparently matters little to the powers that be, and it is no consolation to me in imagining that all the other little patches of this chaotic peninsula share the same fate. It would indeed seem that all one can try and do in the face of such civic indifference is--as the sign above so eloquently says--save yourself, as best you can.



Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Nonni Economy

Dear Readers,

It's common knowledge that Italy's economy and the policies governing it is a dinosaur that must either evolve or face extinction. Its infamous bureaucracy and age-old professional guilds have more in common with the Middle Ages than the Cyber Age. Its creaking political machinery is overseen by a bloated battalion of decrepit mercenary toads--whose median age is something like 105. Italy has almost zero population growth. On top of this, educated, energetic, and ambitious young people--faced with such dim prospects for the future--are fleeing the country in droves. As a result, living in Italy sometimes feels like living in a gigantic old folks' home--a Renaissance Retirement Village, if you will. Seems you can't throw a cannellini bean here without hitting a smug, sturdy-soled pensioner making her way to the pharmacy--in short, the atmosphere in this confoundingly beautiful country is so fusty, so entrenched in a mildewed past, I sometimes get the feeling that the whole peninsula is but wiping its feet on Death's doormat. If Italy was a patient in the hospital, the prognosis for survival would be grim: in a coma, hooked up on life support, facing a chronic vegetative state. I don't mean to go all Thomas Mann on you, but, along with the heavenly smell of dark-roasted coffee wafting from the bars, the stale reek of an imminent demise is in the air unless something changes drastically.

And yet, if you were to stroll around town and have a look--out there on the streets and in the piazzas--things wouldn't seem all that bad. Plenty of Italians wear expensive, stylish clothes; their children are garbed like midget runway models and have all the latest game systems; they drive late-model cars, an increasing number of which are of the luxury variety or benzina-guzzling SUV's; they are able to throw elaborate birthday parties for their children when the cost of one Fisher Price toy runs something like €40 ($52); they take costly vacations to the beach or to the mountains; many eat out at ever-more-pricey trattorias and pizzerias; they smoke--a lot (and cigs cost between $5-6 a pack). Strolling around thus, you might be tempted to think that surely matters can't be very dire at all. You might even be tempted to believe what Berlusconi--that pancake-faced charlatan--was insisting all along, that everything's swell and Italy's economy is as strong, solid, and vigorous as a blowhard politico pumped-up on Viagra.

So what lies behind these disparities, then? I call it the Nonni Economy.

Nonni are a silent, quasi-mythic force
here in Italy; they're the unglamorous, varicose-veined legs on which the entire country stands. They're the grandparents who stuffed their wool mattresses with money for decades, who lived like closefisted clerics, who scrimped and hoarded all they could and avoided debt of any kind. They bought property back when it was relatively cheap--usually crappy ancient apartments with sporadic plumbing or crumbling case coloniche. They darned their socks and knitted their own sweaters. They worked two jobs or more and took care of scores of children and invalid relatives all living under the same leaky roof. Thanks to them, most Italians (that is, those who aren't still living at home with their parents) now have homes--restored, of course--for which they never had to pay (I read somehwere that something like 85% of Italians neither pay rent nor have a mortgage, which is why there was never a real estate bubble to burst). That means extra money to spend on la dolce vita, of course. As a rule Italians still eschew debt, particularly personal debt--but this may have more to do with the national sport of tax evasion and the penurious character of banks than any inbred distaste for owing money. (Leaving a paper trail for the tax man is, for many Italians, like leaving a trail of pork loins for a rapacious wolf).

Some cold, hard facts

Consider that the average Italian monthly net income for a full-time job is about €1300 (or $1700). Consider that pay raises in Italy happen only when Saturn is in the fourth moon of Jupiter's house, when Hell turns to hazelnut gelato, or when pigs get their pilot license. Consider that the cost of living in Italy keeps rising alarmingly--with prices on utilities, gas, over-the-counter drugs and staple foodstuffs such as bread, pasta, coffee and milk experiencing dispiriting jumps. Consider that the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Florence (should you be one of the unlucky few without nonni to gift you property)--outside the historic center, of course--is €1000-1200. My husband and I are unfortunately among that small percentage who pay a mortgage, and it's a fairly modest one at around €1000 a month. Consider that an elementary-school child's mensa, or school lunch, bill is a good €98 (or $130) per month, unless you qualify for low-income reductions. Consider that the average monthly grocery bill for a family of four is about €375. Consider utilities, including garbage removal, which are all much, much higher than their American, bargain-basement-priced counterparts. Consider that gas costs about €1.80 per liter or the equivalent of about $8 per gallon. Consider that a monthly bus pass costs €35 ($45). There is universal healthcare but consider that the co-payments (or i ticket, as they're called) required for many visits, exams, and analyses can cost up to €38 (or about $50) a pop.

If, in considering these figures, you're beginning to wonder how an average family can get by much less demonstrate all the seductive trappings of Italian life on display in the piazzas, you're not alone--I've always wondered the same thing. (And it seems the new PM Mario Monti is wondering, too). For instance, my husband and I really struggle, and I know others in the same boat. We've seen our income dramatically dwindle in purchasing power over the last ten years (granted, we've since had two children, but even given that, we're worse off now than before*). This year we had to forego after-school activities for our kids. We both commute and run most errands by bicycle to avoid the costs of gas and bus fares (anyway, it's healthier and better for the environment, right?). We have one basic PC, two cell phones of the decidedly unsmart variety, a car that is 20 years old (and was recently awarded "antique" status--thereby qualifying us for cheaper registration rates, amen). We took out a small loan to pay for our last summer vacation. We rarely go out to eat or spend on trifles. The lining in my winter coat is being held in place by a safety pin and I haven't seen the inside of a salon in a year. I'm not complaining--it's just the way things are.

But it just doesn't add up, does it? Which means that...

La dolce vita is clearly not about doing the math

Italians tend to perceive well-being in different terms than, say, Americans. Not having much personal debt is part of it, but I think that the biggest thing contributing to Italian complacency is the family--and specifically, all the boons bestowed upon the current crop of citizens by their nonni or other elderly, hard-working relatives.

The family unit has always been the building block of Italian society--we all know this. It is typically the source of all security, both economic and emotional, and it is the fruits of these nonni's and bisnonni's thrift which are being enjoyed by many of their descendants today. Though it's hard to quantify the effects of the Nonni Economy, it does create a sort of protective bubble around many Italian families that makes them feel and appear more prosperous than they might be if left to truly fend for themselves amidst the tempest of market forces. It encompasses certain antiquated practices as well, such as the predilection for trade or cash-only transactions and the rather, ahem, creative accounting that results.

Italy's low birth-rate certainly contributes to the semblance of being better-off (if you don't have kids or have only one, obviously there's more money to spend on yourself or more to lavish on that figlio unico). But even many one-child households would be strapped if it weren't for the financial safety net provided by grandparents. The ever self-sacrifing elders of the Nonni Economy also provide less tangible benefits, the main one being unlimited free child care for their grandchildren. Put yourself on any street corner or in front of any elementary school and watch the endless to and fro of grandparents shepherding their young charges. They often function as full-time maids as well as babysitters, providing meals and even doing the laundry, ironing, and grocery shopping--a huge help to working parents. In addition, many provide gifts of cash or clothing--or even pay for cars or settimane bianche (ski vacations) for their grown children, and swim lessons and scuba gear for their grandchildren. Mind you, I am not talking about wealthy people--these nonni are ordinary folks who have managed to squirrel away significant savings, accrue zero debt, and have healthy pensions to live on. They have the lifelong habit of near-zero consumeristic consumption (why, merely turning on an electric light is considered an act of fiscal profligacy), which in turn enables them to lavish spending on their far more materialistic (and often more economically pinched) children and grandchildren.

To their credit, most Italians--whatever their economic status--find contentment in their little daily rituals of coffee and well-prepared meals; in socializing with the small circle of friends that they've known since childhood; in dolling themselves up in their best duds and strolling around town, stopping for an espresso or gelato or to gawk at shop windows. If these things remain unchanged, and if the overall health and well-being of the family is intact, then Italians generally feel themselves to be doing just fine.

How did they do it again?

As the recent rash of Monti raids has proved, tax evasion in Italy is rampant, pervasive, and often considered a kind of sacred duty--making it, and not Roman Catholicism, the real religion of the Italian people. For instance, it's common practice when inquiring about the cost of a service--say a teeth-cleaning--to be given two options: "85 euro with receipt, 60 euro without." (Now that the sober-faced Monti has put the fear of God into everyone, I'm curious to see if this will change).

So if today--with the albeit lackluster use of credit and debit cards, with computers and electronic banking--Italians are able to conjure financial smokescreens on such an epic scale, imagine what many cagey nonni were able to accomplish in their day? (My FIL, for example, worked three jobs but only ever declared income on one). This is not to diminish at all their hard work and penny-pinching ways--but you have to wonder if, along with a lot of choice real estate, the current generation of Italians has inherited public coffers that were already suffering from acute anemia.

What does all this mean for Italy's future? Given the nature of this Nonni Economy--the fact that frugality seems to be a lost art, that these traditionally selfless nonni will eventually die out--and the zeal with which Mr Monti is pursuing scofflaws, is the current brand of Italian-style "sweet life" a tenable one for the times to come?

Or will Thomas Mann indeed have his day?



* check out this article on Italian earnings