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.