Driving through northern Italy is a tease. On the outskirts of every town, we see faint foot paths skipping away from the main paved bicycle paths, lost for a half a kilometer in the tall grass and then, suddenly, winking down at us from among the trees halfway up a mountain. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of beautiful trails winding around Northern Italy’s lakes and mountains and very few of them end up in our English guidebooks.
But guidebooks and Google searches are no match for the first hand knowledge of someone who’s been living among these lakes and mountains since childhood. Last week, on a hunch, I asked a new friend if she knew of any good day hikes, close to Milan and doable with young kids. She texted me back a few hours later. Her mountain-climbing Italian husband had a suggestion: Monte Barro. So Monday morning, a national holiday in Italy, I baked a loaf of bread, packed water bottles and plastic dinosaurs in a bag and we hustled everyone out to the car for a battle with big-city holiday traffic on our way out of town.
Monte Barro is no secret. You won’t find it in the Lonely Planet* or with a “day hikes near Milan” Google search (believe me, I know) but among Italians–at least the ones we met that day–it seems to share the same sort of notoriety that “Old Rag” has among people from the Washington D.C. metro area. Halfway up the mountain, there are multiple small museums, a bird-watching center, a picnic area, a popular restaurant and elderly men in fluorescent vests who wave flags and direct traffic on the busiest days. Parking is plentiful–so long as you have the nerves to parallel park backwards, up a 45 degree grade, along a switchback with no guardrail while dozens of cavalier once-a-week Milanese drivers hurl their rental cars down the road, braking only when death seems otherwise imminent.
It’s similar too in that, while nearly anyone of any age can summit safely, it’s a healthy challenge if you aren’t used to heights. Most of the trails simply require putting one foot carefully in front of the other but higher up it is possible to get stuck or seriously injured. On the day we hiked, we watched a rescue helicopter blaze over the ridge, drop a guy down on a line, hover and then fly away with two men dangling from a rope below.
So Monte Barro with two little kids? One of whom who routinely stands on the edge of couches, chairs and tables and then laughs maniacally as we race across the room to rescue her?
Doable. If not summit-able. Lovable. Easily one of our favorite days in Italy thus far.
We didn’t get all the way to the tippy-top of the mountain. It’s been five years since we’ve been on a real mountain** and we were a little hungry for a “two kids later, we’ve still got it” experience, but we are also realists. When we started walking with Shiloh strapped to my back and Will riding on Chris’ shoulders we figured we’d go as far as we felt comfortable or until Will’s knees wrapped so tightly around Chris’ neck as to completely cut off airflow.
The main trail up to the summit goes straight up a grassy field to a narrow ridge with one trail leading up to a bald scrambling summit on the left and the other to a more knobby false summit on the right. Straight ahead the ground gives way to a steep drop-off, all the better for framing the panoramic views of the “pre-Alps” across the valley. If you are in shape and moving without two kids on your backs– and you don’t stop to take in the views–I’d guess you could get from the parking lot to the summit in under 30 minutes.
But by the time we reached the ridge, Shiloh was throwing her weight around my back with force and I’m just not ballsy enough to take on rock scrambles with a flailing baby on my back–though I’m sure it is totally doable. Shiloh’s a daring little 15-month-old and she wanted to get down and walk for herself. Maybe next time. Chris snapped a photo of us just below the top of the false summit and then we carefully headed back down the mountain to see if we could find some old Roman ruins I’d heard about on one of the trails.
Our sweet cautious little Will surprised us up on the ridge. The path was narrow and slippery with loose rocks and gravel, but Will crawled off Chris’ shoulders, asked for some fruit snacks and then told us he could walk down on his own.
And he did. He tip-toed carefully down the ridge holding tight to Chris hand. As soon as we reached the wide grassy hill below the peak, he ran, face-planted and slid. He brushed the brown dirt off his pants, laughed and started running again.
We turned right from the summit trail to follow a trail towards an outcropping we’d seen on the way up. The path was narrow but strewn with fresh hay and relatively flat. Will trotted along in front of me, completely oblivious to the steep drop-off on his left.
We reached the outcropping in just a few minutes where found ourselves standing in the footprint of a 1500 year old Roman watch tower. Below us Lake Como and several other famous lakes sparkled into the distance.
The low walls of the ancient watch tower turned out to be both picturesque and practical; and while I’ve since read that picnics aren’t technically allowed within the ruins, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. By sheer dumb luck we had found the only level surface on the mountain, penned in on three sides by ancient walls just high enough to keep Shiloh from scaling them but not so high as to block the magnificent view.
Chris sliced bread and cheese with his pocket knife for us while Shiloh and Will squealed and giggled and ran back and forth from one end of the small enclosure to the other. By the time Shiloh started getting serious about her getaway plan, we’d all eaten and rested. After one more family selfie (felfie?) we packed up, took one more look out over the horizon, and started making our way slowly back down the mountain and back to Milan.
Find more information about Monte Barro here.
*you might find Monte Barro in a special “hiking Italy” Lonely Planet but it’s not in the big Italy book.
*China had mountains but there were no trails–only mile-long cement staircases dotted with tea houses and restaurants and packed with families in high heels and vendors selling cold cucumbers. Bare-chested sweaty men with skinny rib cages hauled enormous bamboo baskets filled with bricks up and down those mountains all day long. They were hauling materials for the construction of more stairs and more tea-houses further up, I suppose.
Someone asked me recently to write about the sounds to which I wake up in the morning, living here in Italy.
Perhaps in more romantic italian cities the sounds are more, yes, romantic. Milano though is a not a quaint little village nor is it even anything like Rome. Milan is not Florence or Naples or Venice.
Milan is a metropolis full of loads of people wearing lots of black, striding across cobblestones in 6 inch stilettos the way New Yorkers might power walk the flat sidewalks of Manhattan in ever-so-slightly more sensible footwear. If you want to either compliment or enrage a Milanese person, tell them Milan reminds you of Switzerland or Germany. It’s hard to find someone in this city who doesn’t either secretly believe or fervently wish their city embodied more of the tidy bureaucratic organization of Italy’s two neighbors to the north.
Milan is a big city and one that, so long there is no paperwork involved, mostly works. Street cars rattle and screech down 19th century tracks from 5am onwards. When the trams aren’t on strike, they are mostly on time.
Twice a week, I hear the garbage trucks rumbling up just before dawn. No one sleeps through the shrieking, shattering sound of wine bottles crashing into the recycling trucks before sunrise. But regular garbage pick-up is noisily reassuring. For both better and worse, Milan will never be Naples.
Dogs bark, car doors slam, motorbikes rev, neighbors pull open their shutters. I could be living anywhere with antiquated street cars and garbage pick-up.
Ok so maybe not anywhere, but once we make it down to the street, out into the hazy early morning light, that’s when we know where we are. For all of the big city bustle, Milan is still a deeply Italian city.
Every morning I say “Buongiorno” to no fewer than 6 portanaio (doorman/woman) on our block and another half a dozen waiters and waitresses and barmen coming and going along the route between our house and Will’s nursery school. The vendors whom I always buy vegetables from at the market shout “Buongiorno!” to me as they whiz past on their delivery bikes, half a mile away from the market at which we usually see one another. There are the nonnas who stop to greet the kids and even the very sweet one who tries to carry my bags of market produce up to our apartment whenever she sees me.
These aren’t the “Americans are so friendly!” greetings we do in the States which are indeed genuinely friendly but often generically and anonymously so (the everyone’s special so no one is special paradox of America). In Italy these greetings may also be perfunctory but rarely are they anonymous. If you don’t know someone in Milan, you don’t bother saying hi to them. That would be insane, only something a crazy American lady would do.
But, once you DO know someone, once you can recognize them on sight no matter what time of day or what they are wearing, then there is an obligation to say hello and to say hello like you mean it. These are Italian social greetings in which the actual feelings you may harbor towards the other person are never as relevant as the fact that you have a relationship, however superficial, that requires acknowledgement.
It’s not that everyone is chatty, it’s not that I don’t hear semi-awkward getaway attempts from parties all around (just overheard a few hours ago: “Your bags of [paper towel] look heavy, I’ll let you get going!”). It’s simply that in Italian culture, you use your voice and your eyes to acknowledge the fact that you’ve been buying your newspaper from the exact same man for ten years straight in a way that feels very different than the same transaction might in the United States. Here, if someone is familiar to you, whether colleague or barmen or cheesemonger, you greet them that way: warmly, personally, maybe even teasingly. Even the woman who begs outside our nearest grocery store receives a regular warm “Buongiorno” and eye contact from many of the people in the neighborhood.
My husband postulates that the greetings and “acknowledgement of relationship” may not be an Italian thing so much as a “people who live in the same neighborhood for generations” thing and he might be right. Likewise, some of it is personality. For instance, my Dad is a fantastic not-one-drop-of-Italian-blood Italian. By the time he left our house after a two week visit, he was a regular at our local cafe and my favorite vegetable vendor was buying his coffee. But, like everywhere in the world, there are also quiet, private and introverted people in Italy who may never say hello to anybody.
Still, I know I am not imagining things. It’s hard to break into an Italian neighborhood. Before the portanaios started smiling at us on our way to school every morning, before the waiters at the cafes, the barmen, the cook at the pizza place started to say ciao whether in uniform or out with their families, before all of that, I used to feel so lonely walking around our neighborhood. I’d watch people, watching me pass in silence, an awkward interlude between the hearty exchanges happening just ahead of and behind me.
The day I knew I had truly “made it” in our neighborhood? I ran into our local express market with the kids after having not shopped there in over a month. The cashier lit up, asking me genuinely how we were doing, where we had been. She exclaimed over Shiloh getting bigger and Will saying “Ciao.” She helped me bag my groceries (in Europe, bagging is almost exclusively a DIY affair). We waved good-bye and as we headed for the exit, I turned just in time to see her checking out another woman with two young kids in a stroller whom I’d never seen in our neighborhood before. In the space between our two double strollers, the cashier’s featured transformed from long-lost best friend to stone-cold “bitch face.” The transaction was near silent. I felt a quick stab of pity for the stranger but deep inside I admit, I cheered for myself.
When we were in Venice last weekend I took an early morning walk through the quiet residential neighborhoods of Canaregio. At one point, I turned a corner to find two woman chatting animatedly. One was sweeping the cobblestones in front of her restaurant. The other was leaning out between white window curtains trimmed in lace, two stories up on the opposite side of their narrow alley. For 15 seconds, the scene in front of me embodied every single Italian cultural stereotype I’d ever held, and then some.
I don’t live in Venice, but I don’t really mind. We have some very nice people in our Milano neighborhood…and here the garbage trucks and trams almost always run on time.
My old Minolta, purchased for about $30 in a dark alley of Old Delhi, stopped working soon after we arrived in Milan. Going back to shooting all digital bummed me out way more than I realized it would but, with all of the expenses that come with moving across the world and setting up house in one of the world’s most expensive cities, I didn’t feel like I could justify spending more money on what is, mostly, a hobby for me.
But I’m married to an incredibly kind and thoughtful man. For Christmas he did his homework and went out and bought me a used Leica R4 with a Leica 50mm lens. He knows me well. He didn’t buy me a camera so expensive that I’d demand he take it back to the store and put the money back in our savings account, but the Leica is a big step up from my Minolta and the let’s-keep-it-together-with-duct-tape aesthetic it had going on.
It took almost a month to get the camera fixed up and functioning and a few more weeks to happen upon a little Kodak shop that develops and scans for only €12 a roll. But finally I’m shooting film again and slowly getting the hang of this new camera.
The thing we are coming to love best about Milan is the ability to get out of town and get away so easily.
Even with two kids who are quirky in all the usual toddler ways–and then some–it’s often easier than we realized it could be. We wake up, we make our pancakes, we look up a destination in a book, or on Google. We rush around the house finding jackets, finding pacifiers, taking a casual peek into our
backpack diaper bag to make sure there’s at least one diaper in there to justify the label. And then we leave, usually not before 10:30am.
We drive, we get lost, or we take the train. Either way, we look for the mountains on the way out of town. We haven’t tired yet of seeing them in the distance as we leave the smog of Milan behind in our review mirror. It doesn’t take long to get somewhere new and interesting in Northern Italy–it’s rarely more than 90 minutes to get where we’re going.
We don’t make plans or set agendas for these day trips. We try to content ourselves with a walk and a very casual, quick meal. Anything else we can interest/cajole/con our little ones into is a bonus. We are usually home by dinnertime. We could push the kids to stay out longer but most times we don’t. We can get out of town more weekends than not if we don’t make every single trip into a grueling marathon for the kids. We can always go back if there is more we want to see. There always is and we often do.
A few weeks ago, we headed to Lago Maggiore. We were trying to get to Stresa but, owing to my excellent grasp of Google Maps, we ended up somewhere entirely different. We drove through a tiny town, the name of which I honestly don’t remember (though someone on Instagram saw the photo below and says it’s from Laveno-Mombello). It was touristy, there were expensive boats. I ordered something called “polenta e zola” from the only restaurant open at noon, (not necessarily a good thing in Italy) not realizing that zola is blue cheese, and in this case, a slice of it the size of my face.
But the memorable part of the trip was not the touristy town where I had rubbery polenta and an astonishingly large portion of blue cheese, where Will skipped rocks into the lake and where we drank macchati and eavesdropped on the cafe’s Chinese owners as they debated painting the cafe a brighter shade of red.
The memorable part was the windy, rocky coastline where we pulled off into the first parking lot we could find and found ourselves surrounded by two dozen scuba divers in thick winter-weather diving suits. The scuba masks scared our kids and they were hungry anyway, but before we had to high-tail it back into town for lunch, I looked down into the water and saw clear to the bottom. Divers used to come to dive down to a rare Bugatti car that a frustrated customs official pushed into the lake in 1936. I don’t know why they dive there now, but if the view underwater is even half as good as the view from above, it must be worth it.
Another day, when we were feeling indecisive, we drove to San Pellegrino–yes that San Pellegrino. We drove right past the factory on our way into town, passing giant red trucks heading the opposite direction, all carrying the famous water. We ate at a restaurant called Tirolese and this time, we picked well. The food was good, perhaps touristy still but no less authentic for being so. I tried pizzoccheri and, on a cold day, overlooking the river that fills millions of those green glass bottles across the world, it was filling and wonderful.
We walked a short ways up a hiking trail and fulfilled our promise to Will that we’d take him somewhere with enough snow to build a snowman this winter. Our snowman stood only 6 inches tall but Will seemed satisfied. There were so many hiking trails we wished we would have been more warmly dressed for. We will go back though. We hear there’s a great spot on the river too for kids to splash around.
We’ve been to Bergamo three times now which means I’ve taken enough pictures there now to justify writing an entire blog post about it and hopefully I will. We still haven’t gotten to any of the many art museums and galleries there or even any of the historical sites, but we’re hoping maybe the fourth (or fifth!) trip will be the charm.
One of the trips we took to Bergamo was just me and the kids by ourselves on the train. It went better than I thought it would and gave me some hope that maybe it’s something we can do more often when Will is out of school.
I’ve finally learned how to park our car in our teeny, tiny little box. There are only about 2 inches of clearance on either side of the car and I haven’t driven much in the last seven years so it’s been an intimidating project for me, but I can do it! Now I just have to figure out how to get the kids in and out of the car through the driver’s seat (the parking spot is that tiny) and then I’ll be able to take them out in the car all by myself. Here’s to warming spring weather and more new adventures in the coming weeks!
Five years ago I moved to China after having married into a half-Chinese family and 20 days of intensive Chinese language classes. Three years ago I moved to India after having both studied and lived in the country before.
6 months ago I moved to Italy after…a few dozen childhood meals at an “Italian” restaurant called Grazies in Northern Wisconsin? They were well known for the BBQ chicken quesadilas and “gourmet” Mac n’ Cheese so, yea. There was that.
I did read about Italy, I did log several hundred hours on Duolingo, but never have I landed in a country feeling so unprepared. Italian culture is lively and beautiful but, at least here in the North, it is also somewhat formal and a bit parochial. There are social mores to be observed and rules to be followed. Which is true of every place on the planet; but, for a variety of reasons, daily survival requires a much deeper relationship with the local culture here in Italy than it did in either China or India where there existed all sorts of infrastructure to keep expat communities afloat.
I’ve felt clueless and out of place a million times since we’ve arrived. Six months in, I still feel like I need a ticker celebrating the “number of days we’ve been gaffe-free” like the “number of days we’ve been accident free” signs you sometimes see at construction sites.
I haven’t written much about daily life in Milan mostly because I haven’t felt conversant enough about it yet to comment without errors. I have speak almost no Italian and, especially compared to my friends who’ve been living here for decades or who’ve married Italian men and raise Italian children, I have so much to learn.
But I am learning and with the World Expo in Milano this year and the New York Times ranking Milan as the #1 travel destination for 2015, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I would tell a fellow American about Milan and our Italian experiences.
After a loooong slump, I have a slew of blog topics on my brain. I’d like to write about all of the things we like about living in Milan. I’d like to write about when, where, and how to pay for your coffee in a cafe, (because there can never be too much of this sort of information on the internet for people like me) and what Italian babies eat (lots of parmigiano-reggiano) and the neighborhood bars, and where to find the best bread and the best pasta and how the Milanese manage to stay so thin eating brioche for breakfast and 2 scoops of gelato for an afternoon snack (actually, I don’t know the answer to this one but I think it’s an insane amount of housework and a lot of walking in heels).
Is there anything I’m missing? Any other topics you’d like to hear about?
Shiloh turned 1 years old on Tuesday, an Italian holiday by happy coincidence. We celebrated quietly. Shiloh opened a few presents (ok, fine, Will opened a few presents) we made pancakes, and played. We went out for some pizza and followed it up with what was probably Shiloh’s favorite moment of the day: her first solo cup of (yogurt) gelato. We walked, we played some more. Shiloh demolished a mini carrot cake after dinner and then it was off to bath and bed.
And in between we nursed and cuddled and I stared into her deep brown eyes a thousand times, willing myself to understand that my baby is hurtling towards toddlerhood faster than seems possible.
As much as I love throwing parties and entertaining, for the most important days we celebrate, I much prefer to spend the time quietly with our family, wallowing in nostalgia and sentimentality the way I do on this blog instead of rushing around the way I usually do in real life.
So, Shiloh, she is one. She is feisty and determined and fast. She points at everything, wanting words for what she is looking at. She is curious and head-strong and cries if we don’t let her touch the leaves on trees or the Christmas lights on the sides of buildings. For Shiloh there are no obstacles, only benches, boxes and challenges to be surmounted. She always, usually very quietly, finds her way.
She is so on-the-go, so independent, so easy-going in so many ways that sometimes I forget that she is still so very little–which in turn makes me treasure those moments when she does let me baby her even more. Those moments when she reaches up to be held, when she naps on my chest. When she covers my face in open-mouth kisses and force-feeds me orange slices covered in peanut butter. She still sleeps in our bed and spends hours attached to my hip. I know these days of babyhood are waning now and I miss them already even as I live them. She will grow up to be such an amazing and strong and fearless woman but for always she will be my baby.
That’s what Will has been saying to all of us lately, a seasonal adaptation of the usual “sweet dreams” nighttime routine.
And already, Christmas feels a little like a dream. I both cannot fathom that it is already New Year’s Eve and at the same time, I’m itching to tear down our Christmas tree already like it’s actually a vector for the winter flu. Which, who knows, it could be. I’m told by our pediatrician that the 104 degree “virus” I called her about the week before Christmas was probably the flu, followed by complications thereof for Boxing Day, and so on and so forth until, fast forward to New Year’s Eve, it’s antibiotic cocktails for everyone, yay.
So yes, Christmas came and went in a haze of present-wrapping, cookie-delivering, temperature-taking, tylenol-administering, sheet-washing, gift-giving and general mayhem. But the mayhem makes the magic doesn’t it? Because it takes a hell of a lot of effort for five adults to stay civil and sane while cooped up in a not-huge apartment with two sick kids and so those moments when everyone is feeling the joy all at the same for all the same reasons–those moments really make it all worth it. They are pure magic.
This was the first Christmas Will has really understood and anticipated and Shiloh’s first Christmas ever.
I nearly cried watching Chris’ Dad read The Polar Express to Will for the first time (my italicizing button is just not working, sorry!).
And we logged many hours playing “tree football,” a game Will invented in which all of the adults in the room take turns tossing a soft, stuffed Christmas tree at him.
Shiloh and Will both obsessed over the Christmas tree,
attempting to eat redecorating the tree for days on end.
Babies in Christmas pjs playing with strands of Christmas lights, because, you kind of have to.title=”Shiloh setting up christmas tree-3 by Dani, on Flickr”>
Ditto with the Santa hat shtick.
Will decorated his first plate of Christmas cookies for Santa this year with both sets of grandparents (one set on Skype) oohing and ahhing over his careful work with the icing. He also brought home a slew of Christmas crafts from school that I’m pretty sure will live among our Christmas decorations for years to come.
On Christmas Eve Chris spent 3 hours assembling the play kitchen that Santa brought, but I think he’ll agree with me that the effort has been totally worth the hours the kids have logged already whipping up “breakfast” and handling the mini saute pan like a pro (Will) and flinging the entire contents of the pretend refrigerator on the floor over and over again (Shiloh). Having grown-up thus far with old-fashioned GSO refrigerators, Will does not believe that an in-fridge water dispenser could possibly be a real thing. He says it’s like the juice-pressers at the cafe bars we go to, it’s for making “spremunta”. He answers the kitchen phone saying “Top Chef here, what do you want?”
We had roast beef, latkes and gingerbread for Christmas Eve dinner and homemade Chinese dumplings for Christmas Day. And all of the leftovers from my “cookie diplomacy” efforts with the neighbors. We made Panettone french-toast (Panettone being a Milanese invention it gets passed around like, well, like fruitcake, during the holidays here) and the kids saw their first snow fall. Granted, they were both sick and we didn’t so much play in it as tiredly trudge through it on a particularly ill-timed run to the grocery store but in any case, snow! It didn’t stick but it still felt pretty magical.
And then, suddenly, Christmas was over. Chris’ family was packing their bags for their return flight, the doctor’s office was open again, prescriptions got filled and after a particularly grueling night with the sick, wee ones, we walked into our living room yesterday morning dazed and confused. Where was the houseful of people who needed little more than coffee and oatmeal and fresh towels and who gave so much in the way of stories and games and hugs and adoration? While Chris took the kids to the park yesterday afternoon, I cleaned the house and the silence sounded so very loud.
This morning, for the first time in nearly two months, there were no guests to prepare for, no cookies to be baked, floors to clean, parties to plan for. So we drove to Parma. But the real photos from that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got syringes full of antibiotics to administer and a hot New Year’s Eve date sitting on the couch next to me waiting for me to quit typing and start opening a bottle of wine instead.
Happy New Year!
Oh where to start.
NaiNai came to visit. It was wonderful, amazing really. Where she gets all of her energy I don’t know.
5 days later, we celebrated Thanksgiving. Twice. Our little Euro kitchen produced 49 biscuits, 18 Parker House rolls, 4 pies, 1 turkey, 2 batches of life-changing spicy hazelnut sweet potatoes, green beans, truffle-spiked mushrooms, lots and lots of salad and a batch of cinnamon rolls. We celebrated on Thursday with some American colleagues and again on the following Sunday with the best group of Brits, Irish, New Zealanders, Italians and Germans I could have asked for. And we felt thankful. Really thankful.
36 hours and many dishes later, friends from Delhi came to visit for a week, Will and his best buddy reunited. We ate too much gelato, danced to “Pani Pani” and oohed and ahhed over every single Christmas tree between here and Lake Como. Shiloh came down with a massive ear infection and cut a tooth in the same week. So, you know, we were well-rested the whole time.
We’ve collected leaves and fed ducks in the park, played, written letters to Santa, water-colored, flooded bathrooms, scrubbed kitchen floors, chased Shiloh away from Christmas tree lights approximately 546 times, paid more than I ever thought possible for a 4 foot tall Christmas tree,. We’ve wrapped presents, made gumbo, fudge, gingerbread and at least 6 batches of Christmas cookies. We’ve hosted dinner dates, hosted playdates, watched Will decorate his first real, live Christmas tree, and laughed at Shiloh and Will wrestling in their Christmas pajamas. Will has sung Jingle Bells and Oh Christmas Tree for us approximately 326 times. We’ve walked like a gajillion miles. We’ve been introduced to the first version of eggnog we actually like (it’s Panamanian). We finally got our car and I’ve driven it exactly once (and was cut off by a Lamborghini for the first time in my life while doing so).
Shiloh stands up on her own and cruises around holding onto me with just one finger. Will knows how to ride a scooter and crack the eggs for our traditional weekend pancake batter. The stocking are hung, there are fresh pine boughs and candles all over our living room. Chris’ family arrived yesterday for the holidays which obviously coincided with both kids running 104 degree fevers for three days straight and Shiloh cutting another tooth. In theory, I’ll have the Christmas shopping for the family, the cousins, the neighbors, the portanaio, the school, the office, etc, etc done by..the 25th? Screw Christmas cards this year. We’re aiming for St. Patrick’s Day instead.
I am exhausted. My kids aren’t nappers, not even when they are really sick so there’s not a lot of downtime in our days. I thought by now, I’d have dusted off my nascent photography business or maybe even hired a babysitter. I thought by now I’d be speaking Italian. Instead, most days, I’m in the weeds, doing battle with dirty diapers and play-dough, hauling 30 pounds of groceries and 50 pounds of children from our neighborhood market upstairs to our kitchen counter.
I’m often surrounded by fellow stay-at-home mothers who don’t spend as much time with their children as I do, they have babysitters and nannies and time on the weekends that they spend away from their husbands and children. And while I try to take a very “to each her own” approach to other people’s parenting, there are plenty of days when I wonder if I should be more like these other mothers. Will my children really be better people for me being with them every single moment of their lives?
After all, my mother worked for all but two years of my childhood. I know for a fact my babysitters weren’t always the greatest. And still, my mother and I are incredibly close and always have been. Do my kids really need as much of me as I give them? Are they really going to benefit from all of the hours I’m here when I could be working or at least sneaking out to get a decent haircut instead of hacking away at my split ends in front of our bathroom mirror?
Definitely I need some balance. I miss working, I miss sleeping, I will someday hire a babysitter. I will someday go back to an office. I will do so many of the things that I cannot fathom getting time or head space to do right now.
But today I found a battered Thomas the Train paperback that Will used to make me read to him first thing in the morning, every single morning in Delhi. At the time, it sometimes felt like torture as I’d read and dream I was eating breakfast instead. Now I’m lucky if I get a minute of morning snuggles from my energetic little boy.
And I’m beginning to realize that so much of the time I spend with them, the hugs and kisses and snuggles I give are not really for them, they are for me and for the future me who will long for these days when every hurt can be cured with a kiss and every problem solved with a hug. I will long for these days when the sweetness of our breakfast conversations fuel me through the morning and the bedtime snuggles cap off our days more perfectly than even the best glass of Italian Barolo. These kids, they really do grow up so astonishingly fast.
I’ve been an absentee blogger these past few weeks obviously, but I do miss it and I think I’ll be around this space with hopefully a more functional website and more frequent posts in the new year. Until then, if I don’t make it back onto the site before the end of the year, Merry Everything and Happy New Year.
As much as I tried to think about some nugget of deeper meaning or insight to tie into this post, really the only thought sprung to my mind was: we did it, we clucking did it (only I didn’t say clucking).
We made it to the famous Alba truffle festival, we went “hiking,” we stayed at an agroturismo and we did it all in one weekend with a puking toddler and an insomniac baby.
And as Chris and I high-fived each other over the crying babies while tossing back a glass of Barolo less for the experience and more to get rid of it before Shiloh could grab the glass, I realized that our pre-kid selves might have been horrified.
Pre-kids I wouldn’t have found myself sleeping in the crack between two lumpy twin mattresses on a sofa bed sandwiched by two restless children. The sheets would not have been covered in toddler puke. We would not all have woken up at 4am for a puke-necessitated shower. We would have sipped coffee leisurely the next morning at a reasonable hour rather than from a dripping mug as we ran around saying good morning to various farm animals.
We would have eaten at fancy restaurants instead of making pasta on a cook stove in our bedroom two nights in a row. I’d like to think I would have worn something to the Alba truffle festival other than muddy running shoes and corduroys soaked from a backseat diaper change gone horribly wrong. Lunch would not have been a nutella crepe and half a rotisserie chicken eaten straight from the bag the chicken seller gave it to me in in–or maybe it would have–you really never know.
We would have actually gotten out of the car in the little town of Neive instead of lying through our teeth that this side trip was actually on the way home to Milan. We would have spent hours at the truffle fest instead of just minutes, trying wine and truffle-covered everything. We would have hiked for far more than 1500 meters before realizing we really weren’t up for carrying two kids down a trail into “the valley of death” on 4 hours of sleep. We might have visited a winery or two or three.
Chris would have driven like an Italian maniac through the gorgeous countryside instead of at less than 20 miles per hour while I consoled our nauseous toddler in his carseat.
Anyways. The point is, this was not a trip of luxury and leisure, but we made it all happen anyway and our kids had fun and we had fun. And it could have been so much more of a trip had we done it pre-kids but I know for certain that it would have also been so very much less.
We wouldn’t have gotten to hear Will say good morning to the sheep, we wouldn’t have heard him say “Bye-bye cows, we have to go now!” I wouldn’t have watched Chris carry our kids through a vineyard at sunset or watched Will and Chris share wine grapes straight off the vine. I wouldn’t have gotten to share one of the most gorgeous vistas I’ve ever seen with my little girl whispering in her ear that, as soon as she can walk, we’ll take her hiking for real.
We wouldn’t have gotten to watch Will smack his lips and smile after trying fresh milk straight from the farm for the very first time. We wouldn’t have seen Shiloh devour as much of the farm’s sheep’s milk pecorino as I’d let her have. And those Lightning McQueen napkins placed especially on the table just for us…they wouldn’t have meant a thing.
We’re entering a new chapter in Milan. There are orphan socks resting on a table in the corner of our living room (clean ones).
They are the kind of socks that will never find their mates, the kind that I’ll move to another room when company comes over and then move back again and then finally throw out two years from now when I realize that the baby who once wore the sock now runs around on feet twice as big as they were when the sock still fit.
They are the kind of socks that you really only see when home still doesn’t feel like home, when every single object–from socks to light fixtures–is noticeable, enhancing or detracting from some theoretical concept of what a nice-looking home should look like.
Until one day you don’t really see those things anymore. Until one day you realize there’s a pile of socks and you have no idea how long it’s been there but it’s comforting in a way to know that you didn’t see it, that the rooms of your new home are no longer an interior design challenge but instead finally just a backdrop to the living that happens there.
This would be a great segue to a tour of our apartment but, for all my orphan socks, our couch has yet to arrive from the factory and half of Will’s nightstand is still sitting in Chris’ office waiting for us to get our car so we can schlep it home. We’re still waiting for half the pictures to be hung and there are stripes of two different orange paint colors behind a door in the entryway that may or may not get painted over before we leave Milan. There’s duct tape covering a nasty bit of water damage that I swore I’d make “them” repair but have now given up on and we have some truly terrible Ikea lamps scattered across the house. Someday I’ll post pictures, in theory before we leave.
But in spite of or perhaps because of all these nagging little to-do’s, this house finally feels like home.
(not our house)
Home never feels homier than when you unlock the front door after having spent half the day out somewhere else. We aren’t ringleaders here by any stretch, but we finally have play dates and playgroups and trade text messages again with people who aren’t related to us.
It was hard going for awhile. For the past four years I’ve spent most of my time with other serial, mostly American, expats. In the past, conversations were easy, if a bit superficial. We could always fall back on bidding, next post, last post and how hard it is to get kids sleeping normally again after a 24 hour journey back to the States.
Milan is a whole different universe for us, full of European bankers and finance people– most of whom operate far above our income bracket. It seems that for half of the expat moms here, Milan is a one-off adventure, something for the scrapbooks. After their time is over in Italy, they’ll simply go back to their old lives, old house, old friends as if they never left. The other half of the people I meet are women who’ve married Italian men, speak fluent Italian and have lived in Italy for 10 or more years. Home for them, from now on, will always be somewhere in Italy and that’s a very different kind of expat experience.
For the first time since we’ve been overseas, we are the odd ones out, with a lifestyle people find curious but not enviable in the slightest. I’ve met only a few people who’ve ever had to move to a completely foreign country with young kids–much less who’ve had to do it over and over again every few years. It took me three months to meet another American here outside our tiny Consulate community and when we did meet it felt stranger than I had thought it could.
(A mostly unrelated but necessary aside here: the other day Will asked if he could have “uno (one) dosa (Indian snack) for dinner (aka lunch but a term he picked up at his British preschool) when his NaiNai (Chinese for paternal grandmother) comes to visit.” It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly expressed mash-up of his worlds than that)
I’ve never been very good at small talk and, amongst a crowd of Europeans and Australians, my usual foreign service-related conversational crutches don’t do me much good.
But a friend of mine from Delhi and I have a theory. We’ve found that, amongst expats, the people you get along with most easily on the first meeting always end up to be casual acquaintances at best. It’s the people with whom it’s not so easy, the people you have to work the hardest to get to know–those are the people who end up being the closest friends.
I hope our theory is correct because we’ve been working pretty damn doggedly here at making connections over the past few months. And if our theory is at all correct, we hopefully have some pretty great friendships in the making here Milan.
Last weekend I finally hit a stay-at-home-Mama wall in which I was so desperate to drink a cup of coffee sitting down and go to the market without balancing both babies and bags of groceries in my arms that I finally left the kids with Chris for a few hours and took a break. I hopped on the tram down to Navigli, took some pictures, sat in a hipster cafe that played an old Tracy Chapman album on repeat and went to a bustling market where I was free to buy several kilos of fruit and bread and nuts without having to wonder how I was going to get home with both kids and my produce intact. My film camera broke right before I left the house but that hardly took away from the glory of simply wandering quiet city streets alone with my thoughts. The next day a new friend texted to see if I wanted to go for a quick run around the park together. All in all it was one of the best 48 hours I’ve had yet in Milan.
Oh and Halloween. It wasn’t a huge party but maybe next year. I baked a cake for a party at the marine house that we ended up not getting to attend. We gave out cupcakes to the neighbor kids when they came around dressed in witch costumes and did some important diplomacy work in teaching the phrase “trick or treat.” Chris and I stayed up late peeling 60 clementines to serve as “pumpkins” at Will’s school and Shiloh’s playgroup. Will was predictably anti-Halloween and never even put on his costume, but he was thrilled to eat pumpkin pancakes and “traffic cone candy” (candy corns) with his yogurt for breakfast. Shiloh–being too young to protest–wore her pumpkin costume around town all day. People really like babies here but they like babies in costume even better I think.
Father Gilsdorf, this is the only essay I’ve ever turned in late and the only time it really mattered. It took me a long time to figure the assignment out but I think I get it now. Thank you for everything.
Father Gilsdorf was legendary long before I was old enough to sit in his class. At 79 years old, he ran 3 miles every morning rain or shine, published books of poetry, and opened every September with an infamous yet riveting lecture comparing ancient Greeks worshipping Dionysus to modern day high schoolers worshipping the god of bud.
Every ten days he assigned a piece of classic literature and an accompanying essay on the topic. Every two weeks, like clockwork, I’d breakdown at 2am in a fit of feverish writer’s block the night before our papers came due. Father Gilsdorf claimed to give only a few A grades every year.
I loved that class. I poured everything into those papers and practically memorized the comments that came back in perfect red script on our graded essays. One day in May I stopped by after school to pick up our latest essay and he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.
I told him gravely that I thought I might want to be a writer and his reaction will stay with me for the rest of my life.
He laughed– not unkindly but in that way adults sometimes laugh at kids when they’ve said something unintentionally funny.
Writing isn’t a job, he said. Writing is something you do because you can’t help it, but it’s not a job. You need to go out and find a real job and then make time after work to write.
I walked out of the classroom stunned. I don’t remember a single thing he said to me after that for the rest of the school year. In my tightly clenched fist I held an A+ essay that felt suddenly, mockingly, irrelevant. If sitting around all day writing essays wasn’t a valid option for future employment, I had no clue what I was supposed to do with my life. I must have still been in a daze when we rounded up everyone’s college plans for the school newspaper later that week. Instead of journalism or creative writing as I had intended, I put down pre-med.
I never took a single pre-med class in college, but, with Father Gilsdorf’s words still ringing in my head, I never took a single writing or composition class either.
In the last decade, I’ve thought back on that moment countless times. Sometimes, reading critically-acclaimed novels by writers my age, I’ve resented Father Gilsdorf’s advice. Sometimes, reading about the death of print and newspapers going out of business, I’ve felt grateful for it.
Then, last Tuesday, as I put away my computer for the night, Father Gilsdorf’s words flew inexplicably into my head once again and I realized, startled, that his advice had turned out to be one of the best things that could have ever happened to me.
In telling me I couldn’t be a writer when I “grew up,” Father Gilsdorf had given me his blessing to go do everything else instead, to travel the world, become a mother and take any job I’ve ever wanted. He never told me to give up writing, but, ten years later, he is the reason that I have a life full of characters and situations and experiences worth writing about.
It was Tuesday night in Italy, Tuesday midday in America, as I turned this new insight over and over in my head, feeling renewed and grateful for the upteenth time for every comment, every bit of guidance I ever received from Father Gilsdorf. I realized that, all these years later, I’m doing exactly what Father Gilsdorf had intended: writing because I can’t help it, late at night, after I’ve taken care of the people and obligations and challenges that feed my fiction now with a depth I wouldn’t have been able to muster up before.
Sleepily I wondered whether Father Gilsdorf was still teaching, what he was up to. I don’t pray, but I murmured something to the universe that night. “Thank you Father Gilsdorf,” I thought to myself as I put away my computer and crawled into bed that night. I get it now.
The next morning I woke up to a flurry of eulogies on Facebook. During the night, Father Gilsdorf had passed away.
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