For most of my life, I’ve preferred autumn to the hot, wide-open days of summer.
We didn’t take many vacations growing up nor did we escape to a family “cottage” “Up North” on the weekends in Northern Wisconsin as was customary among so many of our friends and neighbors. Until I was a teenager, we spent most of our summers in the exact same places we spent our springs, falls and winters.
Summer was a time for long bike rides to the park with friends, to the community pool, to the video store. My generation in America may be among the last that was even allowed, by the age of nine or ten, to ride a bike two miles to a swimming pool, swim for two hours and ride home–without adult supervision or a cellphone.
Summer was the time when I’d lie on the couch for hours consuming as many books as I liked without a school schedule to interfere, when our friends and I would hold sleepover marathons for days, rotating houses whenever one parent got too fed up with the sleeping bags taking over the living room floor, when we would play in the ditch water creek behind our house, floating on rafts of fiberglass leftover from nearby construction sites coming home red and and itchy and badly in need of a shower.
It was all these idyllic things and yet, I feel a little weary just remembering the way those long summer afternoons felt so vast and endless. Time moves so slowly in childhood and sometimes I felt trapped by summer, dog-paddling in a hot sea of yellow, as though I might never escape the staidness of those hot, aimless days to reach the cozy shores of autumn on the other side of August.
As I’ve grown, summer has grown on me. Summer no longer feels endless nor does the break from school-year routines feel unwelcome. We may not spend a month on the beach or in the mountains like our Italian neighbors, but there’s a sweet sort of childish magic to our own summer visit to the grandparents’ homesteads.
In Wisconsin we help Papa mow the lawn, play “golf” in the driveway and poach my sister and my collection of Beanie Babies and Bernstein bear books for new favorites. We sleep with the windows open, waking at dawn to run through the cool dewy grass in the backyard, picking tomatoes and teeny-tiny carrots from Mimi’s garden.
In Charlottesville we visit the community pool, we walk along the river, the kids play with the same sturdy toys and read the same imaginative books which their Daddy played and read when he was a little boy. We visit the City Market and Whole Foods to stock up on a few of the “only in America” ingredients for our kitchen that we either can’t buy or can’t afford on the internet.
Whether in Wisconsin or Virginia, we eat well, we enjoy the freshest air we’ll get all year, we stock up on the kinds of extended familial togetherness we don’t get to experience first-hand for most of the year.
For the past five years, these summers have held a sort of rhythm for us the way the beach or the mountains or the “lake house” may keep a beat for other people. Our son always begins talking about what he will do at his grandparent’s house “next summer” within a few minutes of the plane touching down in whichever city we’re currently calling home.
This summer though, in spite of the beautiful weather, the faithful reappearance of treasured playthings from my husband’s and my childhoods, the wonderful meals and the dozens of ice cream sandwiches eaten, we all felt a bit more antsy in the States this summer than we have in summers past.
For the past five years, these two kids have been my rhythm, so close to me all day long that there’s rarely a moment in which one or both of them are not in my arms, in my sight or at least one room away from me in our apartment. I feel their presence around me in every breathe I take.
But in the past six months or so, I’ve begun to feel them slowly spinning away from me into new orbits, a bit larger, a bit more oblong. For the first time in over five years, I’m running regularly again–my kids no longer fly into an inconsolable panic if they wake up and I’m still five or ten or 30 minutes from home. This past March, for the first time ever, we had a babysitter come over before we’d put the kids to bed for the night. We told her to call us if they got upset without us. Instead, she put them to bed. It was the first time in their lives I wasn’t there in bed next to them when they fell asleep.
Will turned five a few weeks ago, Shiloh is two and a half. By any account, they are still babies in the world, Shiloh still nurses, I still snuggle both kids to sleep every night. But I can feel the shifting winds as we leave behind the years of dream feeds and diapers and set course for the deeper waters of Legos and chapter books and playground dramas for which I will not always be there to bear witness.
This year, for the first time, both kids will be in school. Shiloh starts preschool in September while Will will begin Grade 1 (kindergarten in the American system) at an international school. For the first in five years, I will spend nearly four hours each day separated for the warm, demanding company of our kids.
I’ll be going back to work very soon, part-time and at a job I’m taking for the paycheck rather than any career aspirations. But that’s life and I’m mostly just grateful for the opportunity.
The backpacks have been ordered, the school supplies purchased, I’m working my way through digital paperwork and trying to imagine how our lives will change now that I won’t be home all day, now that no one will be home all day. For years I’ve lived to clean up yogurt off the floor, help stabilize couch cushion forts and balance bundles on long walks home while carrying children, groceries and the surplus of sticks, leaves and conkers collected as treasures along the way. Shiloh will still be home in the afternoon, Will will still need me to read him to sleep (I hope!) but life is changing for us, as swiftly as everyone always told us it would–but still at a rate that feels unbelievable.
Trying to see through the humid sweaty mist of late August to the school year beyond, I feel a little like a first-time mother again. Except, this time, I know that the real hiccups and learning curves will only come in all the ways I haven’t prepared us for, the ways I can’t really prepare us for. It will be a roller-coaster for all of us for awhile as we three venture out of the nest–not together–for the first time.
For now, we are muddling through the end of summer, watching way too much Daniel Tiger and Dinosaur Train but also climbing ancient rock towers in the parks and visiting some of the museums I’ve been doggedly trying to get our kids to for the past two years. It seems they are finally ready to venture out into the world in a way we haven’t seen before.
We’ve one year left here in Milan and, as much as I despised this city for our first year here, I enjoy it now in almost equal measure. We move through our days here now as, if not insiders, than as people who have been jostled and knocked off balance enough and reformed enough to have gained rueful respect and maybe even passing glances of affection from the baristas and bakers and neighbors who fill our everyday lives.
When it is finally time to leave, we will miss the mountains the most I think. Even as I write this, I’m dreaming of our hike tomorrow up somewhere in the glacial borderland between Italy and Switzerland.
But there will be other things. As much as I complain about the extremes of the “bella figura” Italian mentality, I will miss the beautiful mosaics on the ceilings of entryways in stately old apartment buildings, the way women and men alike dress with such care for shapes and elegance and the ways different fabrics drape and move in the breeze. For as much as our oldest disliked Milan when we arrived, even he breathed a sigh of relief when we landed back in Milan a few weeks ago, back to the foccacia he and Shiloh request whenever we’re out of the house, back to the parks he knows, the relative freedoms of this place. America or wherever we end up next will certainly be adjustment in ways both wonderful and challenging.
And even if we had never found the mountains, the cafes where people gently correct our Italian and kindly overlook our more embarrassing faux pas, I would still owe this cold, aristocratic city a great debt because Milan is where I finally learned to live as an expat–as someone for whom home is a family of people and a frame of mind rather than a real place on the other side of the ocean. It’s taken me six years to get to this point but now that I’ve made it here, clawed my way up to this scenic overlook, I’m not entirely sure how or when I’ll be able to go back.
I don’t know what comes next. Life is full of unexpected surprises and, even when it’s not, this fall will be a whirlwind of school, work, bidding on my husband’s next assignment, and waiting with bated breath to guess at the aftermath of November 8th. Before I know it, it will be Christmas and then time to begin Organizing and Getting Ready for Packout. It takes my breath away to even type those words.
For now, I’m trying to enjoy this place we’ve arrived at, in this city, at this time, with our kids at ages which, I understand better than ever now, they will never be again. Whatever comes, we are lucky to be here and to be here together.
I wish I was there today to hold you, to hold you the way I hold my babies when they are sobbing so hard they can barely breathe, the way I hold my babies when they are stone-faced and lashing out, not as angry at the world as they appear to be, but angry at themselves for having done something for which they are ashamed.
I want to hold you America the way I hold my babies and smooth their hair and kiss their downy heads to say “I love you. No matter what, I always love you.”’
Because America, I do love you. I am angry, I am grieving, but I’ll never give up on you.
I read somewhere once that the most important thing a white person can do to fight racism is to call it out, all the time, in every instance—no matter how uncomfortable it might feel or how uncomfortable it might make someone around us feel. Because as uncomfortable as us white people might feeling calling out racism in our community, that discomfort is nothing compared to what a black mother feels having to explain to her young sons how to stay safe if approached by the police. That discomfort is nothing compared to what that a young man feels when white people cross the street when they see him walking towards them at night. That discomfort is nothing compared to knowing that everything from landing a job to getting approved for a mortgage is harder for no other reason than the “blackness” of one’s name, the darkness of one’s skin tone.
It is better to be uncomfortable, to be the “angry white person” than it is to say nothing. It is better to have well-meaning friends say “but don’t you care about police officers? Don’t you care about my husband who is a policeman and a good person and who has never shot anyone in his life?” than it is to say nothing.
I do care about policemen. My grandfather was a cop in New York City. He’s the one who taught my father to never judge a man by the color of his skin. I am in awe of anyone who gives their life to public service, and I am in awe of their families, loaning their loved ones to our communities every day and every night always with the understanding of the risk that they might never get to come home.
I don’t believe policemen are bad people, I believe most of them do the best they can. But I do believe that policemen — like all of us — are raised in a culture, trained in a system and set forth to police in communities that are inherently biased against people of color in ways that we can’t even see without the privilege of great distance and careful study and even then. None of us white people can say we wouldn’t have done what these police officers did. We don’t know. None of us know exactly how deeply or where racism lies within us without careful and difficult introspection — or until we are in a situation in which adrenaline ignites the most base of our assumptions about the world.
True equality and freedom for everyone in America is not a feel-good endeavor. It requires hard work, it might even be painful. It will require the dismantling and rebuilding of systems upon which most white people have come to rely so instinctively, for so many decades, that we may not even realize they exist.
It will require all of us white people to take an unflinching view at our own behavior, who we instinctively sit down next to on the subway, who we seek out as friends, how we react, what we feel, when we hear someone speaking with an American accent that sounds different from our own. Do we lean in towards our fellow Americans of color or do we shy away?
Those of us who are white have to imagine what its like to spend an entire life time in which every white person around you instinctively leans away, however subtly, wherever you go. What does that do to a person? It’s not an exclusive or proprietary experience for the black community of course — the disabled might understand, so does anyone who wears a turban or a hijab in American these days. But it’s that heavy weight of exclusion and discrimination that our brothers and sisters of color have borne since before the birth of our country.
To my brothers and sisters of color, I am sorry. I am sorry for the suffering of the recent days, for all of the days. I ache to think of what my fellow mothers of color have to anguish over in a world seemingly set up against their own beautiful, innocent children. I am sorry for every way I have wronged you. I have spent my life, up to this point, doing nothing to end the destructive forces of racism in our country. I am ashamed and I am guilty. And I cannot live with myself like that anymore. Not if I want a better world for my babies and for the beautiful babies of my friends whom come in all sorts of shades of brown and tan and peach.
I am in mourning for all of the young black people who’ve lost their lives to extreme violence, for all of the mothers for whom the odds are stacked against their kids. I am saddened for the good police officers of our country for whom their must seem to be no easy way forward. I cry for all of us that we have, up to this point, chosen violence and division over empathy and acceptance.
But I believe, I have to believe, that our grief is not in vain, that the tears that fall, the anguished cries, the rage, none of it is vain. The messages of solidarity and sorrow and rage spreading like wildfire across my computer screen are not in vain. The eloquent essays and opinion pieces I read every day, penned by people of color, are not in vain. the marches are not in vain, the discussions being had around dinner tables and at bars are not in vain.
Because I feel it in my bones that it is these marches, these essays, this unquenchable and hardened desire for a better way forward, these are the reasons why I am still proud to be an American.
Someone from England recently told me that the thing he found most unique about America is the enduring belief amongst Americans that, for every single challenge, there exists a solution. For everything — from dials on a washing machine to school curriculums, to the rights of transgender individuals, to fighting racism — there exists a better way to serve people.
This person told me that while the rest of the world has mostly given up and given in to the idea that some things will never change, that some things are beyond improvement, America keeps charging foolhardily onwards in its belief that impossibility is only temporary and that every tomorrow holds an opportunity to find a better way forward.
I have to believe my friend to be right. I have to believe that my America knows that what we are doing can’t be, won’t be, will never be enough. That we will always have to work harder, dig deeper and care more. That we will never take this day and the fact that “well at least we are having this conversation finally” as good enough.
We are burning right now at the center of a hot fire of our own making and it is breaking us down, melting us, forging us, I have to believe, into something stronger.
We will not let our failures become excuses for giving up. We will keep grieving, keep honoring our dead, keep holding the temptation towards numbness and apathy at bay.
We will rise up, we will keep burning the midnight oil, we will keep marching, we will keep fighting.
And in the end, because we are Americans, because we are a nation born out of impossibility, strengthened by failure, buoyed by the lights burning in the hearts of millions of people who’ve given everything to this country, because of all of this, we will, everyday, get a little closer to making things right.
Today, I am mourning and grieving and crying but, America, I love you, I wish I could hold you all in my arms. I have not given up on you yet. I will never give up on you.
I am the only person in my family who did not spend early childhood living overseas. It’s not something I think about very often unless reminded but I’ve been reminded quite a bit lately.
A few months ago, when we told Will we were moving to a new apartment, he cried “No! But I don’t want to go on another journey!”
When we explained that we were moving across the city park rather than across the world, he stopped crying instantly. Compared to a move across the world, moving across town barely registers apparently.
The other day, inspired by an episode of the Dinosaur Train, he asked me why my husband and I never take him and his sister on a “world tour” vacations. I had to laugh. He’s four years old and has either visited or lived in nine different countries already.
And when I asked Will if he wanted to dye Easter Eggs this year, he looked at me quizzically.
“You mean, make them so they are no longer living?” he asked worriedly.
We cleared up that mix-up but he still looked at me confused.
“But they aren’t real eggs right?” “You can’t eat them right?”
After a few more back and forth exchanges it became clear that this would not be the year to take on the all-American tradition of drowning hard-boiled eggs in a cocktail of oversaturated food-coloring and distilled vinegar. And then I remembered that our local grocery store doesn’t carry white-shell eggs. And brown eggs–while infinitely more delicious–don’t take dye. So really, why bother?
I don’t remember the first time I ever dyed Easter eggs–maybe I had similar questions–but I also don’t remember ever not knowing that such a tradition existed. Just like I don’t remember ever learning what the American flag looks like or why kids dress-up on October 31st and go door-to-door begging for candy. It was impossible not to know those things in the culture I was born into.
But growing up, I also thought castles were the stuff of fairy tales and that perfectly clear green-blue seas and waves as tall as houses existed only in story books. I found it inconceivable that whole countries could exist in the same amount of space on the globe as one state in the American union.
My kids don’t really know about dying Easter eggs or handing out Valentine’s–they read about those things in books but they’ve never seen them in real life. Just like they’ve never seen a neighborhood full of trick-or-treaters or a 4th of July parade. Will sometimes thinks he’s a citizen of United Airlines, not the United States.
But they know that castles and aquamarine seas and ancient towers of gleaming white marble and snow-covered mountains are real, not the stuff of fairy tales. They’ve seen them, up close–and our oldest isn’t even five years old.
I wonder sometimes whether all of the sweeping vistas, the hide-and-seek games played in the patchy grasses around ancient ruins, whether it’s wasted on them in a way. When you are a kid, every single little thing in the world–from rocks to bugs to fake plastic flowers in curbside flowerpots–everything is so new and different and interesting. What makes that sweeping vista that makes Mommy feel so small–why is that so special? After all, as a kid, you feel small all the time. From that perspective, plastic flowers that never die and never need water are infinitely more unexpected and thus intriguing.
I wonder but I don’t regret because I’m selfish and the joy my husband and I get out of taking our kids to these places, the scrapes we get into, the crazy roads we drive, the songs we all sing, the jokes the kids make–that joy is some of the greatest I’ve ever known.
Inevitably there are tears and plenty of whining. Our oldest pukes every time we drive on windy roads for too long at a stretch. Our youngest screams to stop and nurse when what we’d really like to do is press on to our destination. I tell the same made-up stories about toy dragons over and over. We play the same three songs over and over and over again. I keep bars of chocolate in my bag at all times to force-feed my family when everyone gets a little too hangry to accept my offers of whole-wheat zucchini muffins or apple slices with peanut butter–so essentially 99% of the time.
For all of the whining and crying and hair-pulling though, our kids are also usually game for the many times Mommy and Daddy pull the car over into the gravel and leap out for photos, for a quick walk down a little trail, for a short hike to a waterfall or down a not-quite-public-path to a giant primordial-looking lake. They love “hiking” even if we end up carrying them most of the way. They love seeing new rocks, new trees, new animals, new puddles and lakes and oceans. They might not appreciate sweeping vistas or the five hundred year old ruins the way we do, but they make us look at leaves and rocks and tree bark we would otherwise miss all together. They give us reasons to laugh, to be silly, to stop and think about things like how giant boulders end up where they do and why sheep poop so much. Doing these hikes, these road trips with the kids makes the very air we breathe feel rich and velvety and alive with meaning. It’s not just a walk in the woods when we get to do it with the kids. It always feels like something more.
Our first few years out of the US, right after Will’s birth, I clung to my cultural touchstones–Halloween costumes, Christmas trees, Easter decorations–as if they were lifebuoys intended to keep me from drowning in a sea of strange, unknowable, unfathomably exotic depths.
I think I thought that if I couldn’t provide for my children those little bits of culture and tradition that made me feel safe and secure as a child that there would be nothing else to fill the gap. I feared for them to feel as unmoored as I have at different times overseas–flailing around in search of a sense of security and familiarity that they might never find.
But the older the kids get, the more I realize that–for as much as I insist on hosting giant Thanksgiving dinners and carting boxes of Christmas decorations and holiday-themed cookie cutters around the world–these traditions may not make the memories that will shine most brightly for our children as they grow older. It might be all of these road trips and day hikes we get to do together instead.
Holidays on the calendar will not be the keepers of our family’s bonds. We cement those things elsewhere and in ways I couldn’t have dreamed possible when I was growing up as a kid in the middle of America. And that’s amazing. Different yes, but amazing.
I’ve gotten out of the habit of updating this space with travel photos and “life in Italy” posts. Offline, I make an annual “yearbook” for the kids filled with photos and anecdotes and stories. I fill my free quota on Evernote with different journals for everything from story ideas to travel ideas to a running diary of all the entertaining we do, the people we invite and the meals we serve.
But I feel less inclined as of late to post all of our trips and kids’ photos online and after a few months of occasional reflection on the subject, I’ve realized that the reason for my relative reticence is probably not so much any kind of growing maturity– it might simply be Italy.
Whereas in India I felt the compulsion of a zealot to share everything I found so beautiful about that country, Italy does not suffer from any sort of PR crises among Americans. If anything, this country is romanticized in outsized proportions to it’s merits. Don’t get me wrong, I could write for days about how much I love the wine, the coffee and what constitutes a so-so restaurant meal in this country, but that’s a given. You would know that even if I never wrote home to tell you about it. And of course, the wine, the coffee, the countryside are only part of the whole story.
In the course of research for a contract job I have, I come across dozens of blogs written by American women married to Italian men and the theme which seems to run through them all is “if everyone back home keeps telling me my life is something out of a Diane Lane rom-com, then why am I so miserable?”
I’m acquaintances with a fair number of non-Italian women married to Italian men so I can skim through these blogs with very real and knowing sympathy. I can imagine these bloggers are miserable for very valid reasons, but I can also imagine that they must make their readers back in the States want to throw up in their mouths a little.
And I don’t want to be in their company–obviously for several reasons.
Blogging while living in Italy feels less like travel writing and more like putting out a coatrack for everyone to hang their fantasies on. A picture from a weekend hike in the mountains feels like bragging and yet belies all of the not-so-magazine-spread-worthy details of our lives here. Alluding too regularly to those details or to the darker underbelly of the “bella figura” here feels like petty complaining.
You could say the same thing to a lesser degree about nearly any travel experience, really any lifestyle that is shared on the internet, but in Italy the tension between real and aspirational, good and ugly, feels particularly acute. For people around the world from Chengdu, China to Green Bay, Wisconsin, even the very word “Italy” embodies a wine and olive oil-soaked fantasy of “the good life.”
I’m not entirely sure what the takeaway here should be. I still post photos, I still share our travel experiences, just a little more judiciously than I would if I lived elsewhere maybe. The duality of the beauty and the “learning experiences” we’ve had here may be something I don’t really unpack for myself until I’m literally unpacking again, a year and a half from now, in a place that might feel more or less like home but probably won’t come with wine so good nor mountains so picturesque.
And speaking of unpacking, we’ve actually just finished another round of that after our landlord cancelled our lease at our old apartment. This is the eighth apartment we’ve moved to in the past six years. My 16th apartment in the past 12 years. The great news is that we like our new place even better than the old one. The bad news is that we like it so much we might be very sad to leave it in 18 months’ time. Again, does this admission count as bragging or complaining? I can’t tell anymore.
At least I know what the takeaway on this one should be: there are a number of lovely people who take time to comment here with the best words and kindest encouragement and if you were here in Milan, I’d mention the new apartment only by way of inviting you all round here for tea.
We are somewhere on a stretch of parenting between the adrenaline-stoked days of babyhood and the beginning of grade school.
Our children have never been nappers. Silence in our house is not yet golden– it is only ever the space between a thunked head and a loud wail or a tell-tale clue that we should rush off to find the baby lest she be climbing the kitchen counter or finishing yet another a marker sketch on our unforgiving plaster walls.
Our babies are no longer portable little bundles in a baby carrier. If not for the park or the mountains outside of town, it takes an amount of strategy and artful manipulation to get them out the door that I would find hilarious if only I weren’t in charge of the negotiations.
I was both calculating and naive when I told my husband that I thought we should start our family when I was just 25 years old. The math was in my favor: 5-7 years overseas would afford me the ability to stay home with our children until they started school–by which point we’d rotate back to the States where I’d theoretically be able to re-enter the workforce at the same time my peers would be leaving in maternal droves.
I was naive in every other way possible.
At 25, I told myself that there was a way to both work and nurture very young children at the same time. I told myself that, with all the money we’d be saving on childcare, we could afford for me to hire a babysitter once in awhile for me to get away for a few hours a few times a week.
But it didn’t turn out like that. Our firstborn defied expectations–as most firstborns do. He needed more from me than I ever presumed I could give. There was no question of anyone else caring for him. For the first six months of his life, he stayed in my arms both day and night, while I ate, while I brushed my teeth and while I slept at night in the short hours between our marathon soothing sessions in which I would pace our dark bedroom, swaying and singing to him for hours in the middle of the night. I lived on peanut butter toast and adrenaline until he was 18 months old, by which point I couldn’t imagine any other way to live.
When Shiloh came along, a sweet bundle of blessed tranquility, I found I could not leave her either. It felt vital that I should someday be able to tell her that everything I ever did for her brother, I did in equal measure and devotion for her as well.
So, we’ve never had a nanny or regular babysitters. Not once has either child ever fallen asleep without me in bed next to them. I’ve been breastfeeding continuously, every single day, and–still now–for the last four and a half years.
My husband is an incredibly capable, enthusiastic and diligent father but as is true for a lot of stay-at-home moms, it’s only recently that we’ve gotten to a place in which I can sneak out a few mornings a week for a pre-dawn run or leave the house with my laptop for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon without one of the kids protesting. very. loudly.
I trade sleep for a very meager paycheck and write for myself in the margins of our days. I cook and throw dinner parties so that I can talk to other adults without having to pay a babysitter.
My friends and acquaintances have done some amazing things back home. A guy I used to work with just finished writing, filming and directing a film. Another friend co-founded an organization that’s spread like wildfire across America, garnering press in mainstream magazines, NPR, academic journals and even CNN. Everyone’s gone to grad school, traveled the world, become the youngest/brightest at something.
But I am 30 and I have accomplished not one of the modest goals I once thought I might have achieved by this age.
Sometimes I feel like I am a cautionary tale of what not to do with one’s 20’s. Would I be a better parent had I taken a decade to pursue my own dreams and ambitions before becoming a mother? Would I have more and better parenting tricks up my sleeve? More patience? Would I have done more good for the world by now? Have I been selfish as I’ve basked in the glow of my kids babyhoods instead of doing time on some humanitarian frontline somewhere?
I was practically a child myself when I became a mother, still conditioned to respond obligingly to requirements and chores over which I exerted little decision-making power. Parenthood is not terribly unlike childhood in this way–except the obligations are weightier and self-inflicted, the chores more unforgiving. Having had so few years between the obligations of childhood and the obligations of motherhood may have made the transition less jarring. There was no peak of adult freedom from which to feel I had fallen. No heights of professional success to gaze up at in despair from within those long, dark nights spent bouncing babies on my forearms.
Motherhood is a trip all on it’s own and the emotional fallout for our eldest as we moved him across the world three times in the first three years of his life has humbled me above all else.
But for how much our son–and later our daughter–needed me in those early months, my life seemed to hold no other meaning. Such singularity of purpose felt almost like a relief in contrast to the soul-searching I watched my peers engage in from afar.
Now though, I am the one who soul searches. There are some woman for whom motherhood is a vocation in and of itself and I am often envious of those women because I am not one of them. Motherhood is not that which gives me purpose, that which makes me relevant. It is the inverse that is true. It is motherhood, above all else, that infuses everything I do with purpose and with relevance. It is motherhood that makes me wonder how much of my duty as a mother is tied up in making sure my children see me in roles that do not, on the face of it, involve them.
For all of the childrearing philosophies to follow, the “sensory-activities” to copy off Pinterest, the preschool curriculums that I used to fret over when our kids were really tiny, our children learn the most from observing us, where we go, what we do, how we act, what we appear to value.
My children watch when I am kind and when I am not, when I am patient and impatient, when I follow through on my words and when I don’t. They watch when I try new things, when I face challenges. They watch when I sit at our dining room table pouring over news stories and poems in paper magazines and look up recipes to try in my cookbooks. In fact, it was when I realized how closely they watched me that I started reading and writing the old-fashioned way again so that they can see exactly what I’m doing instead of having to guess at the contents of my iphone screen.
They will hopefully learn from the mud puddles we stomp in, the water color pans we empty, the parties we host, the friendships we nurture, that the most beautiful moments in life are always messy in their own way. Creativity is messy and vulnerability is messy.
And they learn from the nights my husband and I stay up until 2am cleaning up after a dinner party, from the hundreds of times I make them grab a clean cloth to clean up their spills, from all the times we, and later the world, will hand down consequences for their actions that, while messiness is nothing to shy away from, neither should they shirk from the duty of cleaning up, reevaluating or starting over because there is beauty and balance on that side of the equation too.
But the older they get, the bigger their world gets and the more keenly I feel the need to make sure they see me in service of that bigger world too. I don’t think every child needs to view their parents in this light, I just have this unshakeable sense that mine, in particular, do. It’s the how and the what and how many hours and how to keep giving my entire heart to the loves of my lives while still carving out time for work that matters to me and that might matter, however abstractly, for my children.
Sometimes I wonder what I might accomplish if on all those mornings when I get up early to write if I ever actually had time to write something instead of opening my eyes and shortly thereafter my laptop–just in time to hear the pitter patter of little feet coming to find out why mommy tried to get out of bed without them.
I don’t know though that without those blissful work-derailing morning snuggles that I’d actually be much further along than I am now. People and ideas bloom when they’re ready–and usually more spectacularly for not being rushed through the process. The ideas that will move me most profoundly in the next few years are still babies themselves, not solid enough yet to bear weight and put to work. They want for education and shepherding and patience.
And maybe like my kids too they will eventually grow up, seemingly overnight and I will feel a pang of nostalgia for the night before when I rocked them to sleep and they were still my tiny babies, in need of nothing more and nothing less than all of my love.
Months before our plane touched down in Milan, Italy in the summer of 2014, I was already obsessed with the idea of finding “real” Italy. I dreamt of standing over the shoulders of sweet old grandmothers in rural villages to learn their secret bolognese recipes and going truffle-hunting with their wizened old husbands.
I’ve had unrealistic goals for every country we’ve lived in but Italy–with it’s paved highways and European amenities–made me want to set the bar for our travel experiences a little higher. Whereas our road trips in Northern India sometimes felt like an accidental foray into poverty tourism and our excursions in China most often ended in frustration, Italy seemed infinitely more doable–if also infinitely done before. The goal would be to find the lost few corners of Italy that hadn’t made it into a gorgeous magazine feature spread yet.
But there is an Italian saying that goes something like “Non far sapere al contadino quanto é buona la pera col pecorino.” Or “Don’t let the peasant know how good the pear is with the pecorino.”
It might be uncharitable to read too deeply into this old saying, but there’s something revealing about the Italian mindset embedded in there (besides the obvious: pears and pecorino are really good together and Italy has some pretty long-standing class warefare issues). Northern Italians are not like me and my millennial cohorts. When the people of Northern Italy have something really great, they don’t tend to shout about it from the rooftops.
Which is why the best places in Northern Italy–and there do seem to be an infinite number of them–are the ones no Northern Italian in his right mind would ever tell a random foreign tourist about.
It took me awhile to figure this out about Northern Italy. And a little longer than that to get our toddler feeling settled enough to become a willing participant in any journey further than the gelato shop three blocks from our apartment. And a little longer than that before I wore down a few of the people I’ve met here into becoming my friends.
And I guess somewhere around that time–probably a full 9 months into our tour here, was when we figured out that the best of Northern Italy is no where in a guidebook, no where to be found on Trip Advisor and sometimes not even on a map.
I won’t sugarcoat the truth, a car is crucial to finding these places–as is the ability to reverse down a mountain switchback in order to find a space on the road wide enough for to cars to pass one another without going over a guardrail.
But they are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The best strategy we’ve found is simply to consult Google Maps and head for a small patch of green on the map, denoting regional or national forest.
Forests and state park land are different in Italy than in America. Back-country camping is forbidden everywhere in Italy (and in most of Europe) and there are few places you can reach either by car or by foot that haven’t been touched or altered in some way by farmers and shepherds either present or past. Ancient small towns filled with stone-roofed barns stand at the top of some of the most isolated mountains in Northern Italy, in the middle of national forests. There are bed and breakfasts and telephone lines strung up over even the most intimidating cliff faces.
In short, there is nowhere in Italy that can matched the breath-taking wildness and the rugged solitude of America’s greatest national parks.
But there is probably also no national park in America where you can pause on a mountain trail for a plate of house-cured salami and homemade goat cheese while sitting under a portico of grape-vines with a backdrop of ancient stone barns behind you and nothing but miles and miles of mountain views to the front.
And in America there are also not too many 15th century churches standing just a short walk in a direction I am not at liberty to disclose from a particular bountiful stand of old-growth, wild chestnut trees.
A few weeks ago, some friends here offered to take us chestnut foraging on public park land that had been a close-held family secret for at least two generations–on the condition that we told no one where we went.
They were deadly serious about this, despite the numbers of families we encountered on the trail that day all rushing back to their cars carryings sacks of chestnuts. And I’m sure all of the other families on the trail would have told their friends the same thing–if they’d even been willing to bring them along.
On the way back to our cars, my husband asked my friend’s husband–the native Milanese of the couple–why such a beautiful place with such interesting old ruins wasn’t more widely publicized online in either English or Italian?
My friend’s husband looked slightly taken aback by the question, “Why in the world would we want anyone else to know about this place?” he asked.
After our chestnut hunt, we went hunting for lunch. The nearest town was covered in blue and white ribbons for a wedding party and all of the restaurants seemed to be either closed or catering the event. So we backtracked to an ancient looking monastery just off the highway that promised a cucina (kitchen) within.
It turned out to be a UNESCO heritage site of sorts and we had to wait for a small Italian tour group to clear out before we could sit down. But the “little bit of antipasti” my friend’s husband requested turned out to be hysterically bountiful–paté and grilled bread, salumi and cheese, a sausage and sauerkraut dish–the main dishes were rustic and local and gorgeously flavorful. And at the end of it, after all that food, plus pasta for the four kids, a bottle of wine and espresso all around, the bill was easily half what it would have been in downtown Milan.
I’m sure the place is easily findable online, but I’m also sure we would have never found it, much less sought it out had we not been in the area with four starving kids between our two families. I still have yet to look it up because I don’t want to color our memory of it with other travelers’ opinions.
And maybe that’s the most useful way to consider the secretiveness we’ve come to expect from Northern Italians. If you tell everyone how to get to your most beloved of places, you invite not only them but their opinions as well. And you run the risk that, possibly, if your place doesn’t rank as the absolute best in the world for someone else, it may lose some of its sacredness for you as well. Comparison is the thief of joy and all of that.
Now I’ve lived other–far less beautiful, far less safe–places than this and I know I’d be a total a-hole to say “everywhere in the world is beautiful if only you venture off the beaten track!” In many parts of the world, that’s not even an option.
But objective standards of beauty/fun/feasibility aside, what I mean to say is that it’s the places that we find for ourselves, the places we don’t even know we will find when we start out, that are the best places we’ll ever go here. Because those places are the only ones in which I think we are ever fully present for the whole experience, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching without any 2-star review or wikipedia entry to subconsciously reference back to. And maybe part of the thrill in these places is that it reminds us a little of what life was like in the old days, before we had so much data at our fingertips to reference our every move against a framework of everyone else’s opinions.
I hope you don’t take this post as one big long humble-brag because that’s the opposite of what I’d hoped to convey. Instead, I think the takeaway is this: going anywhere can be special when you don’t know and don’t care what anyone else thinks about the place you are going. A good map is worth more than a good guidebook.* Italy isn’t always the easiest place to live (surprise!) but it’s unquestionably the most gorgeous place I can imagine in which to relearn how to travel.
*obviously assuming you are in a relatively safe place with plenty of food/water/fuel/etc. And yes, guidebooks and trip advisor reviews can be incredibly useful when trying to find a place to stay or a restaurant to try in a new city but I find that I can go a little overboard with too much information. I start getting a little too concerned with finding the absolute most “authentic” place for a given value of money, cleanliness and convenience and get totally overwhelmed. I’m slowly learning not to let those decisions make or break our trip. Sometimes picking at random from a sea of roughly equal options (and then putting every single thing you’ve read on the subject out of your mind) is the way to go.
We arrived in Rome on Saturday morning and I’ve been obnoxious ever since.
“The coffee in Rome is better.”
“The bread is better.”
“The buildings are prettier.”
“The light is more gorgeous.”
“This park is just stunning, so amazing–so much better…”
And finally, moaning as I twirled my fork around a plate of homemade pasta–a plate that was less expensive than a glass of fresh orange juice on a Sunday morning at the cafe near our house– “Even the mediocre tourist food here is better!”
I’m sure Rome is not all bread and roses. The tourists are omnipresent. Things don’t “work” quite the same way they do up here in Milan. Ummmm the tourists. I’m sure there many other things. Please tell me about them. I think it’s better for everyone around me that I find out all of the unpleasantness of living in Rome as soon as possible.
Doing Rome with two little kids who boycott baby carriers and strollers to the point that we don’t even bother packing them means that our site-seeing is never thorough nor leisurely. I’ve long since given up on either high or low expectations for our trips–no expectations is the key to family travel happiness. Also the ability to share just one plastic knife and one plastic spoon equitably among a group of 6 people trying to inhale a take-out dinner in a hotel room.
In short, I wasn’t expecting to do much in Rome and so I still can’t believe just how much we did manage to see.
I don’t remember much from the Vatican Museum except that Shiloh desperately wanted to nurse and there was nowhere in that museum to exit prematurely or even just get away from the slow-moving crush of shuffling tour groups. The place is laid out like an Ikea–if Ikea sold ancient Egyptian artifacts instead of furniture made out of cardboard.
But the claustrophobia was worth it. I think it’s for the best that photography in the Sistine Chapel is forbidden. No picture could capture that ceiling. The perfection of the perspective, the way the images twisted and turned in perfect dimensions as we moved across the room. To stare upwards at that cavernous space and imagine the sheer amount of mathematics that must have gone into every single tiny image overwhelmed me. How was such a thing possible 500 years ago?
We inadvertently left the Sistine Chapel through the “group tours” exit which turned out to be especially lucky: group tours proceed directly to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. Individuals exiting from the proper exit are dumped at the end of a very, very, very long line to get into the Basilica.
The kids were fried and clamoring for gelato but the glimpse I got of the Pietà was unexpectedly moving. I saw it from a distance, through the glare of glass and smartphone camera flashes but there’s a reason for all of that. It is a beautiful portrait of motherhood–so raw that it shines.
We finished our first day of tourism running around the fountain in front of St. Peter’s. By the time we got back to the hotel, the kids were done. We let them eat french fries for dinner at the edge of the bed and called it a day. On our second day in Rome, and for possibly only the second time since both kids were born, I snuck out early while they slept to go take a few photos near the Spanish Steps.
Then, it was off to the Colosseum on foot. My husband has told me stories of the marathon marches his mother used to treat he and his sister to when they were kids on vacation. Before they were even teenagers, they’d been made to walk the entire length of Manhattan island in a single day. Our kids are now apparently continuing in the tradition.
Which is a wonderful thing. You see a lot more of a city when you walk everywhere. Will loved looking out for the SPQR acronym that’s visible somewhere on nearly every public man-made structure in Rome and practically ran the whole way to the Colosseum. Shiloh was a little less clear on the letters SPQR and so made a game of stopping to show us every single manhole cover in all of Rome instead.
The only downside to walking everywhere, especially when little kids are involved, is that you may just see a little less of wherever you’re trying to get to. That’s not usually a bad thing. Museums don’t always live up to expectations, but Rome might be the rare place where the destination is almost always as interesting as the journey.
Entry into the Colosseum and the Roman Forum is free every first Sunday of the month. We skipped the lines at the Colosseum and headed instead for the Forum, hoping to linger long enough to get a sense for the immensity of the space as well as the antiquity.
We tried, but the kids were tired from the long walk and so we sped-walked through 1/10th of the grounds to the exit. Next trip! We stopped at a touristy restaurant for lunch, the sort of place where the wizened old waiters in accented but flawless English chant. “Come to our restaurant, beautiful meat, beautiful pastas, beautiful wine, only the service…ehhh…the service? The service is not so good.”
Predictably, the food was just ok, but the service was great with waiters stopping by our table every few minutes to tell our kids a joke or show them a magic trick. Will and Shiloh loved it.
Buoyed by food and a particularly caffeinated and boozy tiramisu we headed to the Villa Borghese to write some postcards to some of Will’s friends.
While Chris and I took dictation (“Dear R___, I love you. We are in Rome. We saw buses, puddles, and trains. And also the Sistine Chapel. love, Will”) Chris’ parents disappeared around the corner…
and came back with this:
We couldn’t get over the trees in the park, they are stunning, otherworldly almost. We couldn’t get over the vistas. The depth and breadth, the ruins the dotting the land, the old fountains, the multiple playground–and the fact that we all survived an hour on that group bicycle without crashing.
I took mostly film shots in the park and I’m still waiting to get those developed, but it was the perfect place to end our quick trip to Rome. Early the next morning we took the kids back to the park to let them run around for a few hours. We saw more beautiful statues, more beautiful trees and even ran into one of Chris’ colleagues from Rome at the playground–go figure. After a quick lunch, it was time to trek back down to the train station.
We’ve been back in Milan for over a week now and while I’m glad to be home and grateful for all of the wonderful things about living in Milan (it really is a far easier place to live day-to-day) it surely won’t be long before we head back south for another round of Rome.
There were cool mornings spent picking ripe red tomatoes in my mother’s garden, afternoons spent walking trails and seeking out homemade ice cream in Door County Wisconsin. The ice cream was ok, the ice cream slide was fantastic, the watching the kids run across the play area against a backdrop of Door County farmland–and just beyond that–Lake Michigan was amazing. Mostly though, we just relaxed. We filled our days with sunshine and garden hose negotiations and very few plans. We went to bed a little earlier and got up a little later. In Charlottesville, we snuck in our diner breakfast, visited a fresh water beach, and played at suburban life, taking the kids to a children’s museum, a very cool public pool and-need it be said? Costco.
We took a Will-mandated “flower walk.” We watched him pull a little wagon full of wild flowers behind him on the river trail in Charlottesville, stopping here and there to point out new specimens we hadn’t yet collected. We celebrated his 4th birthday 4 times this summer, but I don’t think anything drove home the point that he’s 4(!!!!!!!) now than watching him search so carefully for flowers, exclaim “Look how beautiful!” every other step, and then wait patiently for us to tell him whether we were allowed to pick his newest find or not. He’s a little kid now, full of energy and questions and with the vocabulary and comedic timing of someone a few decades his senior.
And Shiloh. Our sweet baby girl, she is as fierce as she is sweet and she is so sweet. She’s talking a bit and understands nearly every word around her. Watching her imitate every single thing her brother does–from the way he holds his spoon, to wanting to wear all his clothes–is something to behold. She “discovered” baby dolls in Charlottesville and then again at the airbnb we stayed at in Brooklyn. It was only a matter of days before I was on Amazon finding her one of her very own. She’s been carrying it around everywhere since the day it arrived.
Before we left the States, we took a train up to New York with Chris’ mother, met my parents at the train station and all drove (in a suburban-ridiculous) through rush-hour Manhattan traffic into Brooklyn where the 7 of us camped out in a Greenpoint airbnb rental. The goal? A celebration of my sister’s elopement and a reunion with Chris’ relatives–all in under 24 hours. At 7pm on Saturday night we picnicked in Bushwik Inlet Park with my father’s family to celebrate my sister’s wedding. At 11am on Sunday morning we brunched with Chris’ extended family. At 6pm SUnday night we got on a plane back to Europe.
It wouldn’t be worth it for anyone or anything except exactly the people who we did for and did it with. I felt such a happy rush of a adrenaline as we got on the plane in Europe as I thought about all of the relatives we got to see–many of them for the first time since before we moved to China over 5 years ago! It was a whirlwind–but of the best sort.
Summer isn’t quite over but sunset comes earlier every evening, the air feels just whisper-bit cooler in the mornings. As noted (and noted and noted again) on this blog, fall is my favorite and it’s even better when it comes in on the coattails of a wonderful summer, spent in the outdoors, with all the people we love best.
Not that Abbey Road, my Abbey Road. Zebra stripes no, but beetles, yes.
The Abbey Road is a private road belonging to the Norbertine Abbey not far from my parents’ house. The Abbey buildings stand near the top of the road along one of the main thoroughfares through town. At the bottom of Abbey road is the second main thoroughfare through town. At the top of the road there is a grocery store and a Little Caesar’s across the street. At the bottom you’ll find a gas station and a Dairy Queen.
But in between, the in between, is too good. It’s acres of cornfields and thickets of wild brush and a small pond near where the St. Norbert’s College football stadium used to stand just below one of the cornfields–across the road from the gas station and the Dairy Queen.
Between the cornfields and the pavement of Abbey Road, gravel gives way to soft lawns of mowed grass. Pines, willows and oak trees grow here, so old they may predate the abbey, so tall they actually change the way the corn grows in their shadows.
Even in a small town like this, maybe especially in a small town like this, every kid needs an oasis, a place to escape to. The Abbey road was mine.
On those days when I felt especially misunderstood, I’d ride my bike up and down the road, listening to the wind moving though the willows, watching the sandpipers playing in the gravel along the road.
When I needed to think, I’d take a well-worn foot-path to the small pond that stood just beyond the glimpse of the main thoroughfare at the bottom of Abby Road. Some days I’d find fathers and sons fishing on the deck or other kids like myself, escaping adult supervision; but often enough it was empty enough to feel like mine.
In the land between the road and the cornfields, I built forts in the woods and ran cross country workouts in the summer time. I once got terrifyingly lost in the cornfields trying to take a shortcut home with a friend. I once hopped the fence around the football stadium late at night to make out with a high school boyfriend on the 10-yard line.
But mostly, I went to the Abbey Road alone, to lay in the tall grasses in the summer and shiver under the pine trees in winter. To ride my bike a thousand miles in the space of less than one.
Along the abbey road, my senses heighten. I notice the sounds of the waving corn and the whispering willow limbs. I crush pine cones under foot and the crunch feels childishly satisfying. I notice when the breeze changes direction and the way the telephone poles running through the Northern cornfield perfectly frame the sun as it rises in the sky.
I can’t go to Abbey Road without coming home to write something. Just being in that space makes whole paragraphs of prose come to mind, fully formed. The Norbertine’s would likely call it divine inspiration. Maybe, but I’m inclined to thank the trees too.
I still go back to the Abbey Road whenever we make the long trip back to Wisconsin.
I married an amazing man who happens to come from elsewhere. He has no hometown. He has a place he was born and a list of countries in which he lived while growing up.
As one of the few kids in my elementary school classes who’d ever lived in another state, whose grandparents didn’t live just up the road, whose family name didn’t go back for generations in the area, I used to sometimes feel like I was from elsewhere too.
Home never felt like home until I ran far enough, for long enough, to turn around and finally feel adrift enough in where I was to see more clearly from where I came.
We’re back for a quick visit to Wisconsin right now and I tried to reach the small pond along the abbey road a few days ago. I looked for the narrow foot path in the brush behind the willow tree, along the edge of one of the corn fields, but I couldn’t find it. Everything is overgrown and waist-high. There’s no path there anymore. There’s no way back to my spot on the water–unless I want to visit the bird feed and garden shop that stands in front of the pond on the main-thorough fare now.
I came home after my walk to my mom and my kids playing in the yard.
“The path to the Abbey pond is gone now” I tell my mom as casually as I can manage, “there’s no sign it ever existed at all.”
“Oh yea,” she says, “I guess when they tore the old stadium down, people stopped going through there.”
“They tore down the stadium? When did that happen?” I ask.
“Oh gosh, years ago” she says.
An old colleague of mine performed a poem recently (you can watch it here) that sums up how I feel about home better than I ever could.
It’s all true.
My husband and I won’t be throwing up our hands and moving to small town Wisconsin anytime soon, no matter how thrilling it may be to my kids that fire trucks here sometimes drive around and pass out fire hats and stickers to little children working hard in the front yard.
But I am perhaps predictably craving a little patch of grass and dirt of our own, somewhere our kids can say they are from, maybe with a pond near enough to visit when they finally grow into angsty teenagers themselves. A place where they can go to feel alone in a place so familiar that loneliness is delicious and home is always only a bike ride away.