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.
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
For the past two weeks I’ve spent my days acquainting the kids with the five block radius around our house and my nights doing battle with moving boxes and dirty kitchen corners. Unless you count the pediatrician, the market, the grocery store or the endless visits to the park where I look longingly at two and threesomes of fashionably-dressed Milanese mothers wishing I spoke Italian, I have not explored one iota of Milan.
But the house is nearly all put away and the kids seem reasonably well-adjusted now for three weeks in and so when Chris pulled me out from under a heap of laundry on Thursday night to ask if I wanted to take a day trip somewhere this weekend I must have said something like “yes, please, anywhere” and the train tickets were booked and purchased before either of us could stop to think “what about the weather?”
Thank goodness we didn’t though, for had we seen the forecast calling for a 90% chance of thunderstorms over Varenna, I doubt we would have made the trip. And while I’m sure Varenna, on the shores of Lake Como is a stunning place in the sunshine, I have a feeling we liked it better today for all of the mist and moss and quiet deserted cobblestone alleys devoid of all tourists and vacationers except those with either non-refundable plane tickets or possibly a few bad planners like ourselves.
Our excursion started out unpromisingly. We got off the train in a drenching hour-long downpour with two sleeping–the only reason I hope we ever have to pay 8 euro for the privilege of a 750 meter taxi ride. After which we promptly spent 10 euro on a cheap umbrella and nearly twice as much for some bad coffee and bad pizza (in Italy, yes, it’s true) at the closest place we could run to with two wet, disgruntled children. When cajoled into deploying the iPad not even thirty minutes into the trip, I secretly thought we were doomed.
But, buoyed by bad pizza and a little caffeine, we rallied. The rain never really let up completely, but we had miles (ok, maybe a mile) of winding cobblestone alleys to ourselves on which our little race car was free to zoom along as fast as he liked, free from the “slow down! Stop, stop, STOP! STOP RIGHT NOW!” mantra he hears so often in the city.
Gosh you guys, Italy is beautiful. All of it, even in the rain. I get it now. I know I’m still very much in the honeymoon phase here but after the places we’ve been the last four years (places I’ve loved wholeheartedly–it should be noted) this kind of cobblestones and courtyard beauty is thrilling in a way I hadn’t counted on.
Also, I have a new drink of choice for those rare moments when I have time to do more than slam an espresso standing up at the counter: the marocchino. Chocolate and coffee in perfectly bitter and just barely sweet proportion.
I brought three cameras with me to Varenna, including my phone, so eager was I to take photos after my self-imposed moving and two-children-plus-3-grocery-bags-in-my-arms related hiatus. I can’t wait to see what Varenna will look like on the roll of black and white film I shot, but for now the instant gratification of digital feels particularly soothing to my cooped-up heart.
Finding a place to get film developed is high on my list of priorities for the next week, but still competing with getting a cell-phone contract, a metro card and finding some merciful person to teach me Italian. Also figuring out how to sort the recycling without incurring a fine in the process. Oh and telling you all about Chinatown and the Italian recipe for a 7 month old’s first food and that one time we got caught in a downpour and a group of kind, wonderful nonnas fashioned a hat for Shiloh out of a plastic lingerie bag.
If I sound a bit flip or giddy it’s a bit of defense mechanism kicking in. Having done this new-country-new-city-new-language thing three times now, I wonder if I can write a single thing right now that will resonate with either you or me three months or three years from now. What feels like a revelation right now will be taken for granted in a few months. The road we took from the airport to reach our apartment already looks different to me than it did on that very first day. I don’t speak the language or have pictures on the walls, I don’t have any friends right now or even enough beds for everyone in our house, but of course, in a few months, with some effort, hopefully those things that will change too.
I feel a little extra…guilty, yes that is exactly the right word for it, this time around for having landed in a place that is so often romanticized–especially by so many of our colleagues out in less hospitable places. We are so very fortunate to be here and I think in some ways I’m struggling to accept that it’s ok to live in a place with clean air and beautiful produce and a recycling system that does not presuppose a class of poor scavenger families eeking out their living by sorting trash for valuable cast-offs. For the last two years we lived in relatively close proximity to hardship and suffering in a way that is mostly unfathomable here. Now it’s hard to reconcile what I saw everyday out my windows there with what I see outside my windows here. I’m working on it and in the meantime just so speechlessly grateful for this opportunity we have to live and travel here.
It’s been one week and two days since we touched down in Milan or Milano as it’s called here. I haven’t figured out which one sounds less presumptuous for me to use seeing as how my working Italian tops out somewhere shortly after “my kids are three and six months old” and “I’d like an espresso please”
The other night we pulled into a hotel parking lot across the river from Washington D.C. Chris ran inside to check us in, while the kids and I stretched and squirmed in the backseat.
“Mommy, where is home?” Will asked. Continue Reading
When people ask me how our time in America this summer, I hope I tell them about the lilacs. Continue Reading
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Two weeks ago a professional photographer and a fellow FS spouse based in Chennai came to Delhi for a scheduled portrait shoot. She needed a photo assistant and I realized that I badly needed to get out of the house to capture on film all of my favorite details about Delhi–unencumbered by irresistibly kissable baby limbs and funny, if distracting, toddler antics. Continue Reading