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 every few years and opened every September with a oft-repeated yet still 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. Father Gilsdorf claimed to give only a few A grades every year. 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.
But 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 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, 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. 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. Father Gilsdorf had just passed away.
It’s officially fall here, we cross a piazza shrouded in mist every morning on our way to preschool, a castle dark and moody looms in the distance.
The foliage here is not the brilliant riot of red and orange we used to revel in back home, but between the gloomy skies and piles of chestnuts and apples overflowing their bins at our neighborhood Monday market, everything feels wonderfully fall-ish to me.
Yesterday we had a few new friends over to bake mini apple hand pies and read one of my favorite books for the fall. I’m not usually one for tutorials and kid crafts, Lord knows I leave as many of those things up to Will’s preschool teachers as I can; but since our set up yesterday worked so well for even the 16-month-olds among us (no mess, when does that EVER happen?), I thought I’d share briefly how we do.
Were I more experienced with this Pinterest-y sort of thing, I probably would have taken step-by-step photos of the process but since it only occurred to me after the fact that this might have been the most successful kids’ activity I’ve pulled off yet, we’re going to have to rely on the strength of my prose here.
I made a couple batches of pie dough a few days before everyone came over (loads of European butter, a touch of whole wheat flour for some nutty flavor, all done in a food processor for minimal effort).
On the day of, I rolled out the dough about 5mm thick and stamped out disks with a coffee mug then I put them back in the fridge between layers of floured wax paper until everyone arrived. I broke down three fuji apples into a finer dice than you’d use for a full-sized pie (maybe 1 or 2cm pieces?) and tossed them with a few tablespoons each of lemon juice and flour as well as about a teaspoon of Vietnamese cinnamon and about 1/3 cup demerara sugar and a tiny pinch of sea salt. If you have the time, let this mix macerate and then drain and simmer the resulting liquid for an addicting sauce to top your pies with. If no time, just leave the apple pieces in their juices in the fridge until everyone arrives.
(Also to note: if I was doing this anywhere else in the world I’d be using whatever tasteless butter, sugar and cinnamon possible to find on the local market, but since we are here in Italy…)
When the kids are ready, put out:
your tray of pre-stamped dough discs,
a small bowl with either 1 egg (beaten lightly) or water in it to “glue” your pies (egg gives more sheen, water is a nice alternative for kids inclined to taste-test the raw egg wash),
your bowl of diced apples
a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
Let the kids brush one dough disc with egg or water and then spoon a tablespoon or 2 of the dice apple mixture on top. Cover with a second dough disk and let the kids pinch or crimp the edges together with either their hands or a fork. Brush the top with egg wash and poke a few holes to let the steam escape. Bake at 350F/175C for about 30 minutes or until the tops brown lightly.
Devour while reading The Apple Pie That Papa Baked with adorable children in your lap or, you know, at the kitchen table with the other adults while the kids run wildly around the house ignoring the finished pies and pretending to be airplanes instead.
Afterwards hopefully the kids will look like this:
And you will get to sit down and relax with something like this:
P.S. I’m slowly getting used to European playdate hours. Whereas in Delhi and, I believe, America, everyone hung out from about 3-5 here it’s more like 4:30-7pm. Culture shock…
Will starts school this week, Shiloh is crawling everywhere now and it’s finally occurred to me that, sooner than I may be ready for it, there will come a time when I’m not in a constant exhausted state of childcare, unpacking and settling in…for likely no more than a year before it’s time to pack up and move to a new country, but still. For the first time in nearly four years I can imagine a day in which I spend more time working for a paycheck than changing diapers or kneeling in a pile duplos. I’m terrified. I’m exhilarated. I’m terrified.
I breathe in Shiloh’s babyness and kiss her chubby cheeks a hundred times a day. I scoop Will into hugs as he crosses the room to pour a “pile of Cheerios” for himself. On week days, for now, we are a merry band of three doing everything together from folding laundry to buying paint to exploring the Duomo in the center of town. It’s thrilling, it’s maddening, it’s all-consuming.
It all leaves scant room for wondering what I’ll ultimately do with my life when the kids go off to elementary school, for wondering how or when I’ll go back to work before they get to elementary school, for wondering how I’ll make money, whether anyone will ever hire me or what kind of work I’d even like them to hire me for.
Back in Delhi a few months ago I had a conversation with a good friend who, unlike us, employed a nanny to tag-team her daughter’s care during the day and take her to a few nanny-led playdates every week. The reasons why my friend has a nanny and we didn’t are complicated and myriad I think but I’ll never forget the look of deep love mixed with fear in her eyes the day she said to me “I’m afraid of being with her too much, being too attached. If I am, when she leaves for school, I’ll be left with nothing. She will break my heart.”
I think back on the vulnerability in her words nearly everyday lately. My kids are still so all-consuming, so needy but someday, if I’m doing my job at all right, they won’t be. And I will miss these days of snuggles and struggles, of having my day job and the most important job of my life be one in the same.
I’m thinking too much, brainstorming too little, fruitlessly whiling away minutes and hours of those precious hours after they fall asleep for the night. I want to start a small business, write and photograph. I want to clean my house and throw a kick-ass Halloween party and pretend that I can live without professional fulfillment or a paycheck indefinitely. More than anything I want to bottle up the smell of sleeping Shiloh, peals of Will’s laughter, the scheming looks in their eyes when they play together. Because in a few years they won’t need me hovering around all day, but I will still need them.
Enough thinking for tonight. We took the kids to Bellagio yesterday. We went through multiple wardrobe changes, there was a 12-wipe diaper change on the floor of a men’s restroom, I made Chris bring me the smallest styrofoam cup of espresso I’ve ever seen when Will refused to let us leave the train station for fear of missing the train (not due into the station for over an hour).
Will made out with two lollipops from strangers, the guy at the gelato shop gave our “bella piccolina” a hug and a preciously-decorated cup of gelato. Will got to throw rocks into the lake. Shiloh ate a lot of pizza. The ferry ride was a hit. If you are a retiree looking to add to your scarf and tiny glassware collection in a beautiful place, it is the perfect place for you. As for us, we couldn’t take our eyes off the lake.
We went to Switzerland for a few hours last weekend. We practically collapsed into fits of giggles nearly every time we tried to talk about it nonchalantly. The novelty of living in Europe, of living less than an hour’s drive from a whole other country has not worn off yet.
We’re slowly settling in here. It’s hard to pinpoint that moment when figuring out our bus route stopped feeling like a calculus equation or when ordering an espresso stopped feeling like an anxiety-inducing dance step. But I do know that today was the first time I unconsciously answered a question in Italian without first having to translate my answer from English to Chinese to Italian in my head. For the record, I do not speak Italian–but at least I’m no longer using Chinese pronouns when people ask me questions about my kids.
We are getting used to city living again. Will loves the subway, the tram, the bus, the trains. I forgot how much I enjoy it too. I like the strange mix of proximity and anonymity on public transit. Smushed into a subway car with 65 strangers I feel enveloped in the rhythms of the city in a way I don’t get as we walk through our neighborhood watching fashionable friends meet and greet each other on the sidewalk. It’s nice.
So maybe this is a funny time to mention but we bought a car last week. And a couch. It was a very expensive Thursday.
It’ll likely be 6 weeks before we lay eyes on either our couch or our car (I’m told this is very Italian) but we think they’ll both be a little life-changing—not least for the people who currently have a 6 inch-tall wooden bench to sit on in our living room when they come to visit.
Take a seat
I doubt the car will get as much daily use as the couch but it will increase our range for weekend exploring around this part of the country. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted a car until our trip to Switzerland last weekend. Now I’m dreaming as much as my husband about all of the tiny little hillside towns and hiking trails there are to be found just a bit more easily by car than by bus or train, especially with two little kids in tow.
Last Wednesday I went to my first playdate in Italy with a few other expats. It was the first time I’d talked to someone unrelated to me by either blood or marriage who wasn’t a store clerk or a language tutor in weeks and weeks. Honestly, even if we had talked about nothing but watching paint dry I’m fairly sure I would have found the conversation stimulating. Luckily though it was far more interesting than that.
And just when I thought I couldn’t get any higher on human contact, I did. Will wanted gelato on our way home from the playdate and at the gelateria there was a man getting gelato with his two young kids. A banker with well-tuned English, he told me where to find the best cheese store and the best butcher in town. His kids ran off before I could ask him the name of the best bakery but he gave me my card and told me that Chris and I should get in touch any time we want to know anything about food or wine in Milan. Which reminds me, I should email him about the bakery question.
I’m learning, very slowly, how to do this Italian thing. I still feel very out of place most days but I can imagine that, with a little more language, we’ll get more comfortable here. I know how to order coffee and pick out vegetables at the market without being completely offensive (I knew before I arrived that it is technically illegal to touch fresh produce with bare hands but it took a language tutor to teach me the polite way to tell a market vendor that I’m done shopping. “Basta cosi” in case you were wondering).
I know how to haul two kids and 3 grocery bags on and off a tram at the same time now without bringing traffic to a standstill. I’ve blow-dried my hair three times in the last two weeks–which is more pomp and circumstance than my head has seen since my wedding day five years ago. I wear lipstick everyday now. I’m still a hot mess compared to three-quarters of the people around me but who knew it was possible for a little bit of red lipstick to make a person feel less conspicuous rather than more so. Through some observation I’ve also found the loophole in Milanese fashion culture: tomboy chic. Boyfriend jeans and t-shirts pulled together with trendy sneakers and great hair. It’s an unsurprisingly popular look among my peers on the playgrounds.
We visited the Navigli Antique/Flea Market for the first time the other weekend. When Chris was out of town two weeks ago, the kids and I took a double-decker tourist bus around town and surprised ourselves to realize we’ve seen more of the city already than we thought we had.
We tried our first Barolo the other night. Not being serious wine people, I can only say that it was by far the best wine I’ve had since a very specific bottle of Tempranillo that we had Thanksgiving weekend in Charlottesville five years ago. But last weekend our friend introduced us to Valpolicella and, at 4-6 euros a bottle, it’s quickly becoming our wine of choice. We won’t dwell here on the night in our first week in town when I accidentally brought home a bottle of fizzy red wine–except to say that it reminded me of a grown up version of something you might find being passed around at a high school house party. And that’s not necessarily a damning description.
Porcini mushrooms are in season right now and they are gorgeous, brown and white and covered in dirt at the market. I learned the hard way that we have to cook them the day we buy them but they are completely worth the effort. Stone fruits are just passing their peak but Shiloh ate peaches and nectarines nearly every day in August. I promise I won’t get too poetic about the tomatoes or the strawberries, but once the last of them finally leave the market in the next few weeks we will dream of them all the way until next summer. I never knew what a tomato was really supposed to smell like until we moved here. Artichokes and pumpkins are everywhere now and today I saw dark green leaves at a few stalls that may be heralding the beginning of chard and kale and winter greens season.
This summer has felt endless. We’ve had six months of summer now across three different countries and I’m so ready for a new season. I am so ready for our first real fall in years, for the chance to make soup and wear sweaters that haven’t seen the light of day since Will was a tiny baby. There’s a tree across the street from our house that’s sporting red and orange in shy little patches across the uppermost branches. I can’t wait to watch the trees change colors. And to maybe start feeling like this place is home, at least for a little while.
Switzerland, yes I did start this post with the intention of writing about our day trip to Lugano. I don’t think I’ve seen bluer skies and greener grass anywhere. We went for our annual Labor Day Hike (albeit two weeks after Labor Day) and I can’t wait to go back, maybe in our own car next time.
P.S. This girl.
She takes my breath away every single day. Especially now that she’s constantly attempting to dive out of my arms. Her hair is long enough for wee little ponytails. Her smiles and giggles make me melt. She eats everything from anchovies to roasted pumpkin soup. She refuses to crawl in a traditional sense but has developed a sort of lunging/scooting version of locomotion that serves her well. She’s fiercely determined in everything she does. Will’s toys are no longer safe but luckily he’s just about the sweetest, kindest big brother that a little sister could ever ask for.
P.P.S. Last week I finally developed the three rolls of film I’d been carrying around in my purse since June. I didn’t ask how much it would cost assuming it would be only slightly more expensive than the price I paid back in Wisconsin. I can tell you now that it’s about three times as expensive as Wisconsin and that things are going to be a leetle more digital up in here for awhile. But, here are a few shots from our summer in the States and a teaser I guess from Italy.
I’ve written and deleted at least five blog posts trying to get here and this is not the one I thought I’d be writing.
I am completely stupidly obsessed and profoundly grateful for every single beautiful thing about this country. I cannot stop looking up at the piercing blu skies. I love the coffee and the wine and the ancient hill-top towns and the piazzas. I love that the Milanese seem to eat chocolate-filled croissants (which go by the name of brioche here) for breakfast every single morning and teetering towers of gelato every afternoon. I love walking through the park at 7pm and seeing families out playing before dinner because why put the kids to bed at 7:30 when it’s still light out? I love the friendly helpful people and the fact that the Italian language actually has a whole separate verb for the action of walking through a particularly beautiful place in nature. I have a feeling Chris is going to have to drag me kicking and screaming to the airport when it’s time for us to leave three years from now.
And that’s the thing that fills me with both a sort of manic urgency and a kind of melancholy I have no right to feel in a place as beautiful as this. I’ve seen so very little of Milan and Italy so far but what I’ve seen is enough to know that three years will not be long enough.
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I’m tired, all the way down to my bones, of this international moving thing. At least for now. I’m tired of knowing that as much as we like it here, it’s only temporary. Next time could be somewhere we like so much less. I’m tired of the unpacking, of the faux pas I don’t realize I’m committing until after the fact. The need to decipher a foreign language with two whimpering children in my arms in order to figure out how to get across town, get a working cell phone, and obtain the all-important grocery store cards that magically make everything from groceries to dry-cleaning more affordable. I’m drained from 6 weeks of getting my toddler acclimated enough so that we can tackle multiple outings in one day without risking epic public meltdown. No matter how amazing his Dad and I might think this place is, Will is still adjusting. It’s not home yet and, for now, it’s still a far cry right now from the constant companionship and cozy community he enjoyed back in Delhi.
I was making the bed the other morning and for a few minutes I got lost in a fantasy of what it would be like to live somewhere for more than 2-3 years. I romanticize settling down and belonging to a place the way some people probably romanticize our lives overseas. I dream of friendships without expiration dates and visiting the same coffee shops and bakeries for years on end without having to leave just when we’re finally becoming “the regulars.” I wonder what it would be like to look for a job I could stay in for longer than 18 months at a time. I wonder what it would be like to own a home and actually live in it.
6 weeks from now, I’ll be over this phase, for now we still getting settled. Hell, we are still all sleeping in one bed while we wait for the last of our furniture to arrive from the States. I’d be crazy to think we should have everything all figured out already, but sometimes I’m a little crazy I guess.
My sweet and sensitive little boy is trying so damn hard to do all of the new things we ask of him here. Like responding “Ciao” and “Buongiorno” to people on the street who, for the first time in his life, look a lot like mommy and daddy but who don’t necessarily speak a language he can understand. Difficult things like walking 2 miles to the grocery store without running into the street. As he said to me today “Mommy, I stop at all the red lights now!” He does and that’s something and we can work on everything else. Kids are resilient sure, but I can’t imagine what must go through the head of a little person who’s already lived in four countries in his first three years of life.
The long lonely August holiday is nearly over and shops are opening for business again. Kids are returning to the playgrounds. The city no longer feels as deserted as it did. Today as I was bagging our groceries at the Esselunga grocery store the cashier asked me in English why I didn’t have an Esselunga card. “Points! Sales! You need one!” he said.
“I know!” I said, “but I don’t know how to get one.”
“Here, I do it for you right now,” he said and, astonishingly, with three people waiting in line behind me, he did. It was as if the clouds above suddenly cleared and all of the beatific angels in all of the church murals across town suddenly burst into hymns of rejoicing. I nearly wept with gratitude.
I haven’t gotten to go out shooting around town yet. Every film developer in town has been closed since the first week of August. I haven’t found the best little salumeria or bakery or paninoteca. I’ve had at least ten mediocre pizzas since we’ve arrived from the very appropriately named “Pizza Ok” pizzeria near our house–but not a single one from the best pizzeria in town. In fact, aside from our weekend trips, I haven’t made it more than a few metro stops away from our house.
But I’ve got my grocery store card now. My kid stops at all of the red lights. That’s really all I can ask for at the moment. We are going to be just fine.
Shiloh’s first appertivo