Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A blog is born

Dear Readers,

Even though I still have a few more posts in the pipeline here at Letters from Florence, I thought I'd mention that the new, Portland-based blog is up and taking those first few tentative lurches toward a full-on writerly stride, as soon as I can settle a bit here and get my bearings.

The blog is called Bumblepuppy (*) and you can find it by scurrying over to

Here's the gist of it: a former expat (ahem, me) returns to America and tries not to pee her pants in gratitude and glee every time a random stranger or bureaucrat is actually nice to her, or when a simple task/errand does not take hours/days/eternities to accomplish nor requires buckets of angst/rage-induced perspiration and a marca da bollo. Kind of an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole sort of thing. Or a former Florentine Yankee in King Arturo's Court kinda thing. And probably a reverse culture shock kinda thing, too.

I hope you'll follow me over to the new digs, dear Readers, in order to accompany me on this mad maiden voyage among the tall timbers of the Portlandian northwest.

So come on: grab your kilt, bagpipes and unicycle and let's make some beautiful music together.

May the Force be with You,


* What is this 'bumblepuppy' of whom I speak, you ask? As we say around these here parts: GTS... (Google that shit)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A burglary and a departure

Dear Readers,

So Florence said to me, in that overdramatic way she has--you know, all Carmela Soprano after a bad manicure: "Get the f*** outta here, and pronto!" Or, perhaps like a cross between a miffed Mark Twain and an angry/drunk F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Take that pusillanimous Yankee derriere and those imperfect verb conjugating skills and be off with you! Back to the slimy green breast of the New World!"

On my penultimate night in the Bel Paese, I was robbed. The thieves entered my house while my family and I slept, spraying us with that nefarious narcotic aerosol that enables them to complete their villainous errand in undisturbed haste. They popped the living-room shutters and drilled a hole in the window casement, turned the handle and let themselves in (with great aplomb, I imagine), and ransacked the packed suitcases that were in our bedrooms. They took all my good jewelry which was conveniently nestled in my carry-on bag, including my impossibly lovely Torrini ring (given to me by Paolo when Gemma was born)--a great hunk of beautiful 18-carat gold with a glorious, domed citrine set into it like a blazing orb: the One Ring to Rule Them All. They took Paolo's handsome Longines watch--a gift from me--and even pried the wedding band off his finger.

They took our cash and Paolo's Ray-Bans, Gucci wallet and electric shaving kit (which leads me to believe that these thieves cut a rather bella figura). They left the credit cards and our passports and the vitally-important U.S. immigration documents. They helped themselves to a bottle of water from the fridge.

The shock of it was numbing, licking as it did at the heels of days of exhausting preparations for the big move. But there was little time to indulge the usual feelings of bitter regret, outrage and violation; we had a 20-foot container arriving in mere hours that we had to load with all our (remaining, less valuable) earthly belongings. Cut to the chase: we did the damn thing in punishing heat and the caustic glare of the sun, and uselessly--yet fittingly--spent our last evening in Florence filing a police report with a blue-eyed, raven-haired officer of the Carabinieri who was all sinew and bone and cold efficiency and who looked strangely like a sexy Sicilian version of Ichabod Crane.

So pretty, this den of thieves
photo by MarcusObal

The next morning, in that soft-edged early pink light, as we wended our way to the airport, Florence seemed like a sleeping infant--downy and peaceful as a pillow, sweet-smelling and cool. It was hard not to love her.

And like an infant in all its monstrous self-absorption, the city seemed callously indifferent to me as the taxi sped along the viali; indeed, why should it have been otherwise? Why should this centuries-old purveyor and repository of culture take notice of one puny human leaving, leaving with a capital L? No matter that I gave birth twice here, that I learned to speak its language (aspirated c's and all), that I navigated its ancient alleys and wrestled understanding out of its stubborn morays. No matter that I put up with with my fakakta in-laws for over 12 f***ing years.

Yeah, I got the cold Tuscan shoulder all right that morning. We sailed pass Piazza delle Cure where the market-sellers were setting up their stalls, stomping their feet to shake off the sleep that still hugged them like dew-drops on leaves. The first buses were careening freely through the traffic-less streets, hissing like beasts on the prowl in an all-but-empty savanna. A faint clinking of spoons on saucers danced on the air like a whisper of counter-melody as the coffee bars, their doors flung wide, served the first few customers: old-timers already on their second espresso and third cigarette; and that so-very-Italian smell of fresh coffee--deep, rich, all velvet and chocolate and pepper--filled my head and buzzed in my veins.

And it was all as soft and as rhythmic as a lightly-strummed guitar, and as graceful as an arc of water, and it flowed around me like the soft pink dawn-light that it was--a morning madrigal, a song of parting. The city was awakening and I was departing, and it seemed right, after all. That thing that is stolid and unyielding about Florence, that essence of the eternal, was soothing. Its impassive stones are my old friends and enemies, part of my foundation now, never to be hewn from me nor eroded into the mere silt of recollection. Though I no longer call it home, I carry Florence with me like blood.

But like the sea, Florence is a cruel mistress indeed. Like a thief.

Many moons to the day 
That I threw her love away 
Now every whale spouts "go to hell" 
As the wind laughs in my face 
I've grown harder on the eyes 
And salty to the taste 
My pride has gone with the wake 
As I wait a cold wet grave 
I rose to the smell 
Of a wet desert hell 
And I thought to myself 
How'd I wind up in this jail 
Till a voice called to me 
From deep within the sea 
Dry your eyes my dear fisherman 
Your ass belongs to me *

Semper fidelis,


*lyrics above from "Cruel Mistress" by Flogging Molly

Sunday, June 09, 2013

The not-quite-last post

Dear Readers,

As many of you know, very very soon I'm moving to Portland, OR. Time to begin a new chapter and all that.

I've been so busy this past month planning the move and packing (and purging--my God! the purging!) that I haven't had time for the blog. But I still have another several posts to spill forth from my frothing-over 12-years-in-Italy experience, once I settle a bit into my new Portlandia digs and discontinue the euphoric partying over the fact that I won't have to see my in-laws anymore. So if you haven't already, subscribe to this humble old blog by scrolling down the right side of the page, or at least join the Facebook page--that way you'll get the sparkling new posts/updates as soon as they hit the street, so to speak. Or just keep checking back and try not to curse me for not writing (keeping in mind I'm probably busy looking for a cute little bungalow to call home, learning to make my own beer, or training for the Naked Bike Ride).

And watch this space for my eventual new blogging incarnation, which is still in the embryonic stage.


Thanks for reading, friends.

Yours from the Tuscan trenches,


Friday, May 10, 2013

I died and went to Naples

Dear Readers,

Naples is a whore with a heart of gold.

Frowsy and magnificent, enchanting and appalling, exuberant and guarded, demanding of attention and cautious of careful scrutiny--it's impossible not to be seduced by this sybaritic siren and let her enfold you in her good-natured, knowing embrace. She may rob you, she may leave you spent and much the worse for wear, but you won't care--you'll only be thinking of how soon fate and smiling fortune will let you come back to her again.

This glorious, flamboyant city is the real deal: the deep, dark heart of Italy. Italia verace; Italy DOC. It's the Auntie Mame of Italian capitals; a bohemian rhapsody set in the most gorgeous bay on earth, watched over by a killer volcano as inscrutable as a reclining Buddha.

Like any woman of the world worth her salt, Naples is bursting with stories to tell: tales of passion, greed, calumny, corruption, love, politics. The whole bawdy history of the world is contained within her; no wonder the locals can't bear even the thought of living anywhere else.

Naples is a drug that no promise of rehab will ever entice you into eschewing. You can lose yourself in its exotic vapors and croak here spectacularly--but reluctantly, unsatiated--and spend Eternity plumbing its depths, never reaching the bottom.

The food alone is worth any effort to get here. It just may be the best place to eat in Italy these days: genuine and affordable, true to its roots, honest.

Sausage and friarelli pizza at Starita

If Naples is a whore, then Florence is the Homecoming Queen. Rather a bit too smug in her overwhelming popularity, this Renaissance city--art treasures aside--is in danger of descending into mediocrity and a sad, market-driven genericness. Like a beautiful woman so sure of her charms that she neglects to be kind, Florence lacks the soul--and that refreshing, exhilarating dose of genuineness--that Naples possesses in abundance.

Who wants a Heaven peopled by angels of perfection and symmetry? A clean, sterile, quiet mansion of soft footfalls and hushed voices where there are no more bawdy tales to hear but only pious contemplation? Give me littered streets full of noise and life, catcalls and cacophonous voices raised in joy and blasphemy. Give me beauty and ugliness jostling one another in a crowded metro, and give me human folly in all its splendid madness.

Give me Naples. And do with the rest what you will.

Forgive the veritable Vesuvius of exuberant hyperbole;
it was unavoidable,


Sophia Loren's got nothin' on my daughter

My son the aspiring pizzaiuolo gives Napoli
the big A-OK

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The skin they're in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women - Part 2

...continued from the previous post's Part 1

But do Italian women even want to shout basta? Are they truly unhappy with their lot? The Family is still the linchpin of Italian society--a fact which permeates every molecule of existence in the Bel Paese, every aspect of public and private life. It is both a great asset as well as, depending on one's point of view, a great hindrance. Maybe Tobias Jones's feminism wasn't so much forgotten in this land as it was never really of the kind suitable to the majority of Italian women--whose ties to Family run so deep--and perhaps they're waiting for something uniquely Italian to take its place, something that would better allow for the role culture plays in their lives. But isn't culture also the problem? The thorns on the rose, so to speak? The crux is that Italian women are themselves integral to and collusive in the very cultural constructs some of them would seek to change.

Basta! Well maybe, sort of....

La mamma è sempre la mamma

Italy is still a rigidly patriarchal society, and it's no secret that within this society women are essentially enshrined upon the pedestal of motherhood (while paradoxically, in the words of one of my favorite bloggers, often being treated like "second-class citizens"*). Men like to think they're in charge, and in so many ways they are. Men are the jacket-clad TV show hosts to the giggling, half-naked women gyrating on stage, who allow their impossibly perfect derrières to be man-stamped "approved for consumption". Men cavort at the stadio while their wives take little Marco or Francesco to soccer practice and the dentist, do the shopping and laundry, and make sure dinner's on the table at 8. Only in Italy can men live with their mothers, wear underwear ironed by her, and still demand (implicitly or explicitly) that their girlfriends mortify their flesh in all manner of ways in order to be considered f***able.

But unpack these stereotypes a bit and you start to understand the power that Italian women wield, at least within the domestic sphere. In many ways, Italian women move through life confidently. Their position is assured, taken for granted, a given: they are keepers of the flame, the guardians of home and hearth, the center of the (often extended) family. Within this tight circle, they are typically the supreme authority (though they may give lip-service to male domination)--and as such typically enjoy respect from both within their social and familial sphere as well a hearty nod of approbation from society at large. Only in this capacity, perhaps, is it so easy and natural for Italian women to make a difference, to matter vitally, to rule with benevolence (despotic or otherwise), to have their efforts rewarded and contribute to some greater corporate good. Thus the creaky and callithumpian machinery of patriarchal Italy is paradoxically oiled by the love, sweat and tears of Italian women.

source: Il Vescovado

I've observed my female family members**--my various Italian in-laws--and, forgive my congenital skepticism, part of me can't help but wonder if Italian women get off on the domestic power trip because it's so often the only game in town. Certainly my Machiavellian MIL operates like a gremlin-sized Genghis Khan or a shriveled Sun King.

L'état, c'est moi

George Bernard Shaw said "the domestic career is no more natural to all women than the military career is natural to all men." But is domesticity, and the sense of satisfaction it brings--as one Italian female commentator seemed to imply in Part 1--somehow more indigenous to Italian women? Is it what matters most to them? And if so, have they been culturally conditioned to this response or do they just have their priorities straight and aren't afraid to admit it? Or is the answer perhaps sandwiched somewhere in between? I suppose there's always a fine line between making real choices and cultural coercion--a sort of gender-based free will vs. determinism conundrum--but I'd say that Italian women often seem to follow a script not entirely of their own creation.

A Florentine friend of my husband, who is married to an American woman and lives in the States, was recently in town and staying with his elderly mother. During his visit, he insisted on doing his own laundry--as is his habit in the New World--and hanging it out to dry on the balcony of their housing block. His befuddled mother begged him to let her do it, pleaded with him to stop--or at the very least to let her be seen hanging it out to dry as if she'd washed it herself so the neighbors wouldn't think she wasn't taking good care of her son. While undoubtedly this kind of thing can be drawn along generational lines to a large extent, is an exaggerated sense of the importance of duty and the female domestic role within the larger cultural context responsible for such zealotry? We've all seen those Italian homes: gleaming, crumbless, dust-bunny-free floors you can eat ravioli off of; bathroom fixtures as resplendent as the Elgin Marbles and wreathed in fumes of bleach and lavender; neat stacks of pressed jeans in the armadi along with crisp rows of dress shirts like so many soldiers ready for victory or at the very least an honorable death. Such an edifice to uphold.

And yet, and yet... Italian women elude easy stereotypes while at the same time appearing to reinforce them. They truly are remarkable creatures: strong, resilient, hard and soft, and capable of such fierce familial love. I think back through those events of the 20th century that stained this peninsula with blood and suffering, and I hear the voices of my husband's elderly aunts from the Mugello, telling stories of hunger and making do, of large families reduced to terrible poverty, of births and deaths and living off the land, and it seems to me that it is always the women: the women who bear the heaviest portion and keep the family from sinking into the abyss. And how these aunts, these wonderful steely ladies, show their capacity for joy; their laughs are like the delightful twittering of birds, their smiles deep and profound. They've raised their families well and are well-loved in turn, and I sense the sure, square peace they've made with their own brand of dharma. These are women who could rule the world.


It occurs to me that perhaps cultures develop symbioses in gender roles, or even coping mechanisms. If the traditional Italian man is a bamboccione, then the role of the Italian woman has perhaps evolved in such a way as to both complement and compensate for this--a kind of gender Darwinism, if you will. Or yin and yang (or--forgive me--spaghetti and tomato sauce). But the problem with this line of thought is that it doesn't take into account the fact that it is these same women who seed and nurture traditional Italian manhood in the first place--and thus gender Darwinism is replaced by a kind of odd what-comes-first-the-mammone-or-the-mamma? sort of argument.

My three sisters-in-law are examples of this. Each are raising her boys to be essentially helpless things--sweet, kind helpless things, to be sure, but helpless things nevertheless***. I often think of their poor future wives. And my nieces have clearly been groomed to assume the traditional mantle of caretakers to the sweet, helpless things they eventually marry. I can only hope and believe that this sort of thing is on the wane, and that my in-laws are--as they surely are in so very many ways--an aberration.

But, in more general terms, how can things change for Italian women--in the ways that many seem to want--if something doesn't change in the way Italian men are raised? And changing how men are raised implies a radical change in the culture behind such gender roles, doesn't it? (Media representations of women, an issue which is at the forefront of the current women's movement in Italy, are manifestations of a male worldview that is surely equal parts culture-nurture, for instance). The power that Italian women wield on the home front seems to be the coiled serpent lying at the base of Italy's spine, a kind of glorious kundalini goddess who need only awaken herself to her own manifest potential; the choice to use her formidable and loving influence in raising responsible, sensitive and aware men--ever-mindful of their future roles as husbands and fathers--is surely the obvious step toward the kind of feminism that perhaps makes more cultural sense in Italy. Of course, this means relinquishing a certain amount of traditional female control and the kind of co-dependency that it so often fosters; when mamma bear teaches her cub survival skills, it eventually goes off on its own into the wild to fend for itself. It probably won't come back and live with her until it's 40.


As to whether or not Italian women are completely at ease in their skin and content with the status quo, or whether or not they would fight for or seek change--well, that's something that only each individual woman can answer. With all that she has on her brimming plate, amid all the tasks she performs for her family so lovingly and so well, let's hope she remembers to ask herself the question.

*For more on the cultural angle regarding women in Italy and a window onto some of the current activities of the women's movement, I highly recommend this wonderfully interesting post by the excellent blogger/writer Michelle Tarnopolsky

**I've written about my SILs and Italian housewifely duties here.

***More anecdotal evidence regarding the raising of mammoni here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The skin they're in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women - Part 1

The scene: an elementary schoolyard.

Little girls run about, playing tag, leaping like free-spirited gazelles on the African savanna; they fall down and scrape knees, kick balls and climb the perimeter fence along with the boys, their hair tangled and streaming behind them like the militant flags of some young republic. They loudly and forthrightly speak their minds, bellow their desires, call raucously to their companions, and flee their mothers or nonni with great rebellious whoops. "Non mi piace!" [I don't like it!]" Quello mi fa schifo!" [That's disgusting!] "Non voglio andare!" [I don't want to go!] There is nothing here, in this crystallized moment of exuberant youth, to cause them to doubt themselves or be conscious of the gazes of others: they are pint-size packages of pure self-awareness, pure potential, pure elemental force.

If you could catch them and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, you would get these answers: zoologist, teacher, bus driver, doctor, rock star or toy store owner or dog walker (those last three being my own daughter's peripatetic career goals).

Standing all around nearby, like fixed stars in a firmament of tiny hurtling meteors, the picture of Italian womanhood changes. There are the indomitable grandmothers in sturdy shoes and silk scarves, watching their charges with hawk eyes, cringing and shouting uselessly when tiny togs get dirty. There are groups of mothers--the ones whose schedules or housewifely status allow them to be present at this hour--chatting, smoking avidly, looking decidedly less carefree than the young females around them. Many are over-tanned, with deeply-lined skin and dark circles under their eyes, yet are very carefully and self-consciously tucked into tight, stylish clothing and heels, designer sunglasses perched just so on top of smooth dark hair. Trying to make themselves heard over the general din, they squawk with the shrill-edged voices of tropical birds too long in the sun, with colorful kid backpacks dangling off their shoulders like exotic plumage--and they seem manic, stretched too tight: like the skins of drums made for the manipulative hands of others, used to beat out rhythms not of their own making. On the surface of things, they seem happy enough.  But are they? If you asked them, what would they say? Would they speak their minds as confidently as the small, schoolyard sirens all around them? 

Anna Magnani: one tired mamma

Much of Italian life is marked by paradox: Italians adore bambini but little is provided for them by State or City in terms of services or enrichment activities beyond school; the Church is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; in general Italians have very little civic sense or regard for those not of their immediate conoscenza, yet have an extraordinary capacity for empathy. Italian women and their roles are marked by the same paradoxical nature, ambiguities, contrasts, and gray areas so common to this peninsula--and are similarly bound by history and tradition, along with an oppressively patriarchal society.

Here are some of the stats:

--In 2012 Italy fell from 74th to 80th place out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality (for comparison's sake, the USA is at 22 and Ireland, another traditional Roman Catholic country, ranks 5th). Countries like China, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Botswana rank higher *

--Only 48.5 percent of Italian women are employed, a gender gap that is the second-lowest in Europe, Malta being the lowest.

--the average Italian woman has 1.4 children (in the U.S. it's 2.1, in Ireland 1.9)

--In Europe, Italian women have the greatest household workload (Swedish women the least)

Though there are encouraging signs of change, traditional gender roles persist in that many Italian men (whom I've written about here) still see domestic chores, childcare and caring for elderly parents as women's work and show little interest in becoming involved. Beyond paid maternity leave, there's not much help from the State for working mothers, such as access to affordable daycare or more flexible labor laws that better allow for part-time employment, especially when compared to other European countries. The fact that the State provides so little in terms of services for the infirm elderly also means that this burden falls squarely on the shoulders of Italian women. The battalions of nonne that are depended upon to care for grandchildren are charming on the one hand, but speak of a general lack of State support and viable options for women on the other. These are all factors contributing to the low female employment rate (as well as the low birth rate) in this country; Italian women are like butter--they can only be spread over so much bread before becoming too thin and exhausted. Indeed, in the excellent documentary film about Italy, "Girlfriend in a Coma," a female minister describes Italian women as "the only effective and existing welfare system." Is it any wonder that those in power do nothing when there's so much cheap slave labor out there?

The issues facing Italian women make for a very complex topic, embedded as they are in tradition, societal expectations and even religion (the Virgin Mary being the predominant role model), while at the same time being influenced by BerlusconiVision: the media proliferation of scantily-clad showgirls and empty-headed gold-diggers (talk about your Madonna/whore syndrome). To me, the pressures on Italian women seem enormous: for the entire trajectory of their lives they must strive to be good, obedient daughters, mothers, lovers, wives and even grandmothers. And they must always look good, too: properly turned out in the latest fashions, groomed, coiffed, manicured, svelte, and ideally stuffed into skinny jeans and mini-skirts, regardless of age or inclination. How often have I walked behind a woman with long, wavy, luscious blonde hair, in tight leopard-print trousers and stiletto boots, only to have her turn her head and reveal the face of a hag pushing seventy sucking on a cigarillo. There is such pressure to conform, to submit to the traditional female roles and the tyranny of the ever-present male gaze.

Lorella Zanardo (of "Il Corpo delle Donne" fame) talks about this tyranny in the equally excellent documentary, "Italy: Love it or Leave it". She says, "women have a fear of losing that approving masculine gaze, a fear that is so strong in Italy. We need to work on feeling sure on our own legs." I would add that this critical male gaze, and the imposition of patriarchal codes of behavior, comes not only from husbands and lovers (real or potential), but also from fathers, brothers, bosses/male co-workers, clergy. The media is saturated with it. And the weight of this collective, subtle and at times blatant pressure and expectation to conform, as well as the obsessive female hunger for male approval, seems like a chunk of blunt travertine around the neck of the Italian woman.

Good mammas

Hot mammas

Tobias Jones described Italy as "the land that feminism forgot".** While I would agree, I do think there's a lot more to it than that, and while I acknowledge the complexity of the issues facing Italian women today, I can only share my opinions and observations based on my experiences living here among them all these years.

I must say that I am rather in awe of Italian women, and also perplexed by them. They've always managed to elude my complete understanding, which I've come to believe is due to their paradoxical nature (more on this to follow). I'm in awe of them because they are surely among the strongest, hardest-working and most chic women on the planet. They seem selfless, and yet I know things are not entirely as they appear: there is that element, to be sure, but I also get the sense that they are moving within tight, rigid grooves; that they are engines set in motion by forces beyond their control, carefully-calibrated mechanisms that will eventually spend themselves, never having set their own course. I am perplexed by how they so willingly mount the burning pyre, becoming satis to tradition and expectation, over and over again.

Will they never shout BASTA! with the same fiery passion and conviction of their wild-haired, 7 year-old counterparts?

Part 2 to follow in another post...

* Source: World Economic Forum Gender Equality Index
** Also check this out this link for another good take on the subject

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tight apron strings or tight economy?

scene from Fellini's Amarcord

Dear Readers,

According to a September 2012 article in the Guardian:

Nearly one third of adult Italians (31%) live with their parents
More than 60% of young adults (18-29 year-olds) live with their parents
Among 30-44 year-olds, over 25% live with their parents
Of those Italians who don't live with their parents, 54% said they lived within short walking distance of their parents

Culture, necessity--or a bit of both? Is la mamma a saviour or a sucker?

What do you think?


Friday, March 15, 2013

This mortal coil: another tale from the 'hood

There have been times when this neighborhood of mine has frayed this old heart and brought me to the brink of an unfathomable well of sorrow, begging me to drink of its chill waters. I am talking about the stories: the sad stories of its inhabitants, the sad stories that are everywhere--not only here--but in all places should you care to listen, to perceive, to imagine what others carry inside, in those places deeper than marrow or bone.

I find the stories of the elderly especially poignant, for these are people of a generation upon which therapy, self-help books, talk shows, anti-depressants and such have no purchase. When they've opened the musty, dank, hidden chambers of their hearts to me I've felt a great swell of honor and awe wash through me like storm-tossed waves. And I've felt a grief so strong it nearly buckled my knees.

I have related or alluded to some of these stories before: the sadistic tale of Mr. Rabbit, for instance; the elfin lady known as Maria "La Sarda" whose husband used to beat her; the Medusa-haired lesbian whose lover died suddenly and tragically and who lost her mind afterwards. Another old signora of the neighborhood, Renata, once confided in me her bitter regret at having children: her husband was utterly cruel to her and, exhausted and depleted physically and emotionally, she would rock her newborn child in her arms and pace the house all night, praying her baby wouldn't cry and awaken the wrath of her husband.

Today, by chance, while on the way to the shops, I heard another story. Roberta is the daughter of a very close neighbor, Lisetta, who died a year ago at 70-something and whom everyone considered (usually good-naturedly but not always) an odd bird. She told me that her mother suffered from terrible depression, marked by severe insomnia, for more than 50 years. This poor woman--who used to sit in the garden in summertime, swathed from the top of her head to the tips of her fingers against the onslaught of mosquitos, and cluck banalities at my children--underwent a long period of debilitating electro-shock therapy from which, in the end, she was rendered unconscious. In her last years she took meds that wreaked havoc on her body, a body that was still harboring a secret which had clearly metastasized and was consuming her. After three sleepless, torturous nights, not long before her death, Lisetta confessed to her daughter that she and her sisters had been systematically abused by their older brother when they were young, and that as a child she was mortally afraid of falling asleep at night, lest her abuser insinuate himself into her bed. The shocking confession, spat out like poison in the shadowy hours of deep night, provided the poor woman but a mere sliver of deliverance, hacked as it was from the stake of a lifetime of expanding pain driven through her heart. It was, too--this sudden awareness of the source of her mother's suffering and the reason she couldn't be a fully functioning parent ("my father was my mother")--but cold comfort for Roberta.

Up to now Roberta and I have only ever exchanged superficial, neighborly pleasantries, but she told me all this--with wet eyes and hands trembling--after I had shared my own story (which I'd told her smack on via Faentina, in fulsome daylight, tears running down my cheeks and all--gone native in a big way), and after she had embraced me on the street and kissed me and invited me in for coffee. She told me over tiny flowered cups of hot, strong, sweet Italian coffee, in the snug dining room of her old house with its corner chimney spent and filled with cold, gray ash. I don't know what strange, alien impulse made me tell her my story, truth be told; it's not at all like me. And I don't know what made me accept her invitation; I had hesitated, feeling already small and spent. But I suspect that in spite of myself, and in spite of my being an inadvertent inhabitant of this neighborhood--or rather, because of it--this was one of the things that Italy was insisting I learn.

And it occurs to me that this swapping of stories, this laying bare of pain like taut tendons under the surgeon's knife, regardless of reserve or shame: this is the nature of empathy. The action of empathy. It cannot be a static thing, nor something abstract. You have to enter into it. Condividere. You have to let it cut you to the quick.

And yes, though I've listened to their tales and watched the denizens of my patch of Florence come and go, I have been guilty at times of reducing them to characters in a film starring me. I've held myself aloof and have been a reluctant player in the drama of their own lives. As I walked on from Roberta's, across the little bridge over the Mugnone and down along the path next to the low wall above the rushing water, the sun glowing warmly and the air on my face deliciously cool, I thought: it's not enough to merely acknowledge that each human being holds within her, like a hidden spring, an astounding, wondrous, fearsome and forbidding potential for joy and suffering alike, nor is it enough to merely write about it.

You have to go inside her house and sit for a spell.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bring it on, Stendhal

Dear Readers,

Thank you for your continued readership, in these the waning days of Letters from Florence. My mind orbits around U.S. immigration documents and the wrapping up of the Italian phase of four peripatetic humans much like the earth turns around the sun: imperceptibly yet ploddingly relentless. It also, inevitably, circles around memories good and not-so-good, and--apparently unlike the grim majority of Italian politicians--looks to the future.

How does one wrap up 12 years of a life abroad, uprooting children to boot? One just rolls up one's sleeves and does it, I imagine.

I am sad to say that the Bürgermeister will get my house, even though he already has a largish home, another rental property, access to a beach house and two other dismal nuggets of real estate here on this benighted patch of my in-laws' earth. No, I am not happy about this. I wanted one of my young nephews to buy our cozy little casa--perhaps Daniele, who's nearly 30, with a fiancée and a decent job, who still sleeps in the upper bunk in the cramped room he shares with his younger brother and sister. But none of the younger generation stepped forward, nor did their parents for them. As often seems to happen in Italy, the incumbent old dude with the wheelbarrow full of money and his fingers in all kinds of crostata holds sway and youth is elbowed aside, forced to sleep precariously on the narrow twin bed of opportunity.

I'm also thinking about my next blogging enterprise, other writing projects, and the ways in which I might continue my own dogged brand of cultural contemplation in the land of my birth, with these rather bemused Midwestern eyes that have for a time gazed upon the enchanting and confounding Italian landscape.

My room with a view
Speaking of landscapes and gazing, my bedroom overlooks a nun's convent (their cells, actually), a fact which has proven absolutely worthless in terms of inspiring me to anything resembling saintly behavior. My kitchen window, on the other hand, overlooks that part of the FIL's garden which he apparently regards as his plein air pissoir. Now that I've always found very inspiring--it's why I write this blog, after all.

But I wonder: to what heights of repulsion and wonder will America inspire me?

Will I be afflicted by a kind of reverse Stendhal syndrome, where instead of swooning over Botticelli's nymphs I'll faint dead away at seeing the People of Walmart in the--ahem--flesh?

Well, it being America and all, there's probably a pill for that.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Italian school supplies, or, if you prefer: Italy in a nutshell

Dear Readers,

I realize this post about back-to-school supplies is about five months late, but that tells you how things are rolling here at Letters from Florence headquarters right now. We ask that you bear with us.

As I've noted previously, Italians have the uncanny knack of taking something simple and making it ridiculously complicated. It is their Achilles' heel as a nation. (Or, if the goal is to keep everyone in a perpetual state of stress and humiliated servitude, perhaps it is their Trojan Horse). At times I think there must be some sort of secret society at work in Italy, some diabolical clandestine group of ass-backward Masons whose sole purpose is to plot new ways of bureaucratic torture. I imagine that their secret meetings, held in dank old high-ceilinged halls and wreathed in stale cigar smoke, go something like this:

Il Presidente: "It has come to my attention that it is far too easy to do X; it only takes three simple steps. We cannot, in good conscience, possibly allow this situation to continue or the sniveling masses--with all that extra time on their hands--might realize that us power mongers are feeding this country to the dogs, like so many scraps of rotten manzo. Any ideas?"

Signore Sticuppaculo: "If I may, sir... Permit me to suggest that we add at least three dozen more hoops for the poor vermin to squiggle through. Thus, in order to do X, one must first do A, B, C, D, E, F and G, then jump to QRS and do H, I, J, and K. Pending the approval of W, and accompanied by the appropriately expensive marche da bollo (only to be obtained after having  performed 2(3x - 7) + 4 (3 x + 2) = 6 (5 x + 9 ) + 3, naturally), the pitiful rube need only complete L-M-N-O-P before being sent to the YZ office--which is of course only open between 9:55-10:06 every other third Thursday in a leap year--where he will receive an official printout (but only if the printer is working and/or an ink cartridge can be found, which it isn't/won't) detailing the applicant's paltry particulars which he can then present to the TUV bureau (which stands for Troppo Ubriaco per dirti Vaffanculo), thus, finally, achieving X--or insanity, whichever comes first."

Il Presidente [rubbing hands together with glee]: "Excellent plan! Keep them as busy as rats in a maze; after all, as we know, bureaucracy is the opiate of the people. Are we all agreed, then? Raise your withered talons. Good, agreed. I move that we break for two-hour lunch, subito." [much scraping of chairs and maniacal laughs all around]

School supplies are a case in point. As a non-native-born citizen, the whole Italian school supply thing has been uncharted territory for me: no trusty, straightforward Mead here to fall back on. Of course, it doesn't help that my kids' teachers never provide a detailed list at the beginning of the academic year as to what's needed, particularly in the area of notebooks (quaderni), of which a fiendishly bewildering array exists. Will someone please tell me why there's only, like, two kinds of deodorant to choose from in all of Italy but when it comes to notebooks--specifically the choice of line-rulings and squares available--there are more options than there are iPhone apps? When, like any self-sufficient American worth her spurs, I take the Italian bull by the horns and go forth on a quest for said notebooks, this is what I come up against...

Lines ruled for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th grade with and without margins. Lines ruled for middle school and high school. Squares, or quadretti, of 10 mm for 1st grade, 5mm for 2nd and 3rd grade (with or without margins), and 4mm for 4th grade and above (again, with or without margins). And I won't even get into the myriad Hello freakin' Kitty, slutty Winx or weirdly anthropomorphic Pokémon covers with which these notebooks are adorned.


It doesn't help matters in the slightest that while I contemplate the dizzying selection of quaderni at the supermarket on the day before school begins (okay spare me your eye-rolls), the usual seething mass of humanity roils around me like frantic tsunami-driven waves, crashing relentlessly against the half-plundered, decimated shelves and spurting glue sticks, colored pencils, and ring binders like angry foam. Parents shout and grab wildly at the stacks of notebooks and kids squeal and paw at pencil cases and markers, as if some bizarre scholastic apocalypse were about to befall the earth and there just might be a multiple-choice quiz afterwards.

But mwahaha! just because my kid is in 1st grade (or 2nd or 3rd or 4th grade) doesn't mean that that is the notebook I should buy. How could you ever think there would be such an internal logic to the enterprise, you hopeless fool? Sometimes the 2nd grade teacher wants the kids to use the 1st grade quadretti and the 2nd grade ruled quaderni without margins. Or the 4th grade teacher wants them to use the 5mm quadretti with margins for math, 5mm quadretti without margins for science, and the 3rd grade ruled quaderni with margins for Italian. If only I had a euro for every time I bought notebooks for my kids to take along on the first day of school, only to have them tell me afterwards that maestra said I got ABCD when I should have got WXYZ--I'd be, well, um, I'd have a lot of euros.

Nihilism: the belief that existence is senseless and useless. This is the word that dances in my mind like a malevolent mantra when I ponder this uniquely Italian back-to-school mad dash, this great September melee with everyone jousting and elbowing roughly and sorting and sifting frenziedly only to buy the wrong stuff because nobody really knows what they need until they buy it, send their kids to school with it, and have the teacher--like some cruel and indifferent deity--smite them with a word and point out the error of their ways.

That lovable old curmudgeon, Thomas Hobbes, said once that life during times of war is nasty, brutish and short. Oh, dear old Hobbesy, if only you had to face-off with the formidable and impossibly hydra-headed beast of school supplies in the Bel Paese--you'd realize that life isn't nearly short enough.

Yours from the Tuscan trenches,


Wednesday, January 02, 2013

At home in the world

That particular knowledge, that particulate sensation born from the intimate knowing of many cities, was metered out to me in the rhythm of my footfalls on the hoary cobblestones of Florence. The late-afternoon winter sun tilted feebly at stalwart old facades, burnishing their mellow ocher into deep gold; they glowed softly, with a radiating warmth, were hushed and serene.

Florence is a city of sinuous alleys and brooding buildings, adorned with somber stone rustications and cornices that stare aloofly down upon us souls who are merely passing through this earthly life. They have stories to tell, but rarely tell them. In the way of the old cities of this world, they withhold their true histories: the cries of infants swaddled within their walls; the feverishness of inflamed insurgents gathered round marred wooden tables; the tenebrous dealings of merchant men trading in wool and silk and the softer vices; the heavy clink of gold florins and the arcane utterances of 16th-century Tuscan. They do not deign to tell--why? Is it because we, too, are passing, will pass, and be no more, and that, as we canter blithely toward our inevitable end, they will eventually absorb us, too, and hold us just as dearly within the unyielding bosom of history--those cold, marble halls wherein the concerns of men are rendered moot?

Detroit, East Lansing, Paris, London, Dublin, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Sonoma, Pittsburgh. Geographies navigated through childhood, youth, my roaring twenties and beyond. Geographies in which I loved, let go, raged, and pondered this existence that seems as thin as vellum at times. Places in which I was tempered, challenged, chastened, enraptured, and even shriven. Places where I walked--oh, how much I've walked!--lived, and became.

And Florence, perhaps most of all. Florence has given me the lion's share: a heavy tapestry woven with the baroque pattern of human experience, a table laden with the things that would nourish me as much as they would have me poisoned--in short, an arc of such cosmic sweep that would see me catapulted into the heavens to regale the stars with tales of human achievement and folly.

This is what I know: that one can have many homes, that one's feet can walk many a street, in strange or familiar or far-off lands. And one's soul can be sheathed in casings of different stripes. But to feel at home in the world--that is true freedom. That is the place in which it soars.

Wishing all you dear Readers a wonderful New Year.