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.
There are many, many days when I question my own judgement for choosing–and continuing to choose–to live overseas, raising our children as global nomads.
I’m no one’s best friend anymore–I always leave before the relationship can get that good. I used to work for a non-profit before we moved overseas and, while I love being home all day with my kids, I wonder if the untold energy I put towards packing, unpacking, learning new languages and customs and metro routes every few years might be better spent back at some organization stateside working towards solutions to the social and environmental challenges we face there.
I struggle seeing the turmoil my sensitive son goes through adjusting to new places. Some days all he wants is just another kid to speak English to at the playground.
But I say all this knowing that there’s no way anymore to compare staying overseas with having never left in the first place. I’d be nothing were it not for all I’ve learned since we left 5 and a half years ago.
If I’d never left the States I wouldn’t know, deeply, instinctively, that there is more than one right way to do everything-everything from selling groceries to staying healthy to raising a child. I still remember the long drive from the airport into the city on my first trip to India and how I marveled at the way even the painted black and white stripes on the sides of the highway looked foreign to me. In China I laughed at first at the “split pants” babies wear instead of diapers–until I found out they all potty-train, seemingly trauma-free, by 12 months old.
And in Italy I think I’ve actually suffered more culture shock than in either India or China combined.
I don’t have a good answer to whether it’s better to live and learn overseas or whether I’d be a better person if we moved back home tomorrow to try to do some good in the homeland. But the fact that, so often, I still feel like I’m drinking from a firehose makes me think I’ve still have plenty to learn from this crazy nomadic lifestyle. And I have a hunch that when it’s really time to go back for good, it won’t be a question mark in my head so much as an exclamation point in my heart that won’t take no for an answer.
We’ve been in Milan just short of a year now and I’ve been thinking a little bit about what I’ve learned over the course of the last 12 months, not necessarily the big “meaning of life” lessons but the little things, the silly little things. The small details of daily life that don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but when they add up, make a big difference in how comfortable I feel here going about my day.
So in that spirit, here’s a short list of the trivial-but-life-changing-nonetheless little lessons I’ve been learning here in Milan,
When it comes to anyone outside my immediate family, I am not a hugger. I am not a kisser. I don’t snuggle with my girlfriends. I like handshakes. A lot.
I panicked a little when I found out we were moving to the land of air-kissing. I actually made my Aussie friends in Delhi give me a tutorial on the topic since they seemed better at the art of coming at a new friend like you want to make out with her ear and then pulling away at the last second without more than a whisper of physical contact at all (because lipstick. Guys, people wear it here all. the. damn. time.)
And then we moved to Milan and the only people I met for the first few months were all European. To this day, it’s possible for me to go weeks without seeing another American who isn’t my husband.
So I’ve learned to kiss. Not well, but adequately enough that I don’t freak out now when I meet someone and they lean in for the baci. Sometimes I’m even the one to initiate, wonders of wonders.
2) I eat pizza with a fork and knife. Because yes, if it’s good pizza, that’s really how it should be done.
3) For the first time in my adult life, I finally know exactly how much pasta to cook for however many people I’m cooking for. Here’s the rule: if the pasta is only a “primi” course to be followed by a heavier dish, every person should get 100 grams of pasta. If pasta IS your main dish, up the portion to approximately 150-175 grams. Voila. Now I know.
4) The Aperol spritz, the Negroni Sbagliato. Aside from a few hazy months in college, I’ve never been a big drinker. Luckily, drunkenness does not carry the same social currency here that it does in the States. People don’t humblebrag about hangovers in Italy. If you’re going to drink, it’s for enjoyment of the drink itself. Which might be why the cocktails are so darn good. I only get out for a drink maybe once every few months here but when I do, I never order my usual gin and tonic anymore. I’ll take a spritz or a negroni sbagliato while I can get it.
5) Looking “put-together” isn’t about the clothes you wear, but the way you…wait for it…put them together.
Let’s pretend for a minute that physical appearances matter everywhere in the world as much as they do here in Milan. For our first 6 months here I could not understand how every woman around me could be wearing the same basic things I was (jeans, knit shirts, tunics, maxi skirts, sneakers) and still look so much…better? More elegant? And yet, still casual?
I haven’t entirely cracked the code to looking fashionable but I think I’m slowly getting better. I’m learning both balance and commitment. Wide-leg pants are fashionable only when you pair them with clean architectural lines on top. The only thing that keeps a drapey maxi-dress from looking like a mumu is an eye-catching pair of shoes or some great accessories. Flowy, feminine skirts often look childish unless there is something unexpected about the look–an edgy shirt or a pair of high-tops. If you’re going to wear jeans and a t-shirt it better be the right jeans with the right t-shirt and you should probably be wearing some really cool sneakers that scream (tomboy chic).
When in doubt, wear a comically baggy white or black top with comically-baggy white or black pair of pants or skirt. Add your your most hipster glasses or lots of eyeliner. People will assume your either an artist or a fashion designer.
I don’t own anything designer, I don’t wear heels, but I think I’m finally finding my own way of feeling comfortable here. Or maybe it’s just because Converses and Birkenstocks are all the rage in my neighborhood right now.
6) Also, apparently it’s true, we should all wear our hair down more often. I still refuse to blow-dry my hair more than once every few months but I’ve realized that wearing my hair in a messy-bun everyday doesn’t make it look better–it just makes everyone else here assume that it’s really, really dirty. (which, yea, it usually is). It’s approximately 98 degrees in Milan here right now and the closest I’ve seen anyone to wearing their hair up is a loosely gathered low ponytail.
7) I know how to order my coffee (and more importantly: pay for it correctly). When Italy did away with tipping a few years back, bars and restaurants started instituting cover charges instead. Which is all well and good in a sit-down restaurant but what about in a coffee bar? What do you do if your toddler runs to sit down at a table after you’ve already paid for a drink at the bar? And if you sit at a table, do you go up to get your own brioche or wait 10 minutes for a waiter to come buy and ask if you’d like to order (always with a slight tone of surprise) Do you wait for a bill or pay at the register and how do they know you’re telling the truth about what you ordered anyway?
I’ve toyed with the idea of making a flow chart to help my fellow non-Italians with this conundrum because, really, it’s a thing. Until I do though, I’ll give you the quick calculus I use when I enter a new coffee bar.
Do you want to sit at a table? Do you see a “self service” or “no cover charge sign?” If not, wait as long as it takes for someone to come ask you if you’d like to order. To try and go to the bar and order will only cause horribly embarrassing confusion (Unless it’s the barista himself who asks you for your order).
When in doubt, stand at the bar to order your coffee and stay there. It’s easier.
Unless someone hands you a bill or asks you to prepay for your coffee, always go up to the bar to pay your bill right before you leave. Tell them where you were sitting so they can charge you the cover charge if necessary but know that most of the time, they will have zero record of your actual order. It’s all the honor system.
Really, the best thing to do is to find your neighborhood spot and just go there for every single coffee. In the United States this would possibly get a little awkward at some point. In Italy it’s what you are supposed to do. And it’s helpful. At our neighborhood place we don’t order our drinks anymore. The baristas always throw in two espresso cups full of steamed milk and caocao powder for the kids, the waiters run into the back to bring us industrial strength paper towel when the kids finish their gelato and no one says a word when I come camp out for a couple of hours to work and write (even though loitering in front of a laptop in an Italian cafe is pretty much the ultimate in cultural inappropriateness). They know it’s weird but they also know they are my only hope for getting any work done while the kids are awake!
8. I know how to have whole conversations that have nothing to do with either R&R, bidding, home leave, American current events or children. I am not a conversational genius but seeing as I know only a few Americans here in Milan, I’ve had to get better. I have a long way to go but I’m more comfortable than I used to be. I even chatted with a famous rugby player a few weeks ago and didn’t feel totally awkward the entire time.
9. I’m more American than I ever knew. My friends are from a lot of different places and we all tend to approach socializing and parenting in slightly different ways that can’t be put down to personality alone. There are things I’ve observed among them that I know I’ve internalized because I think they’re worth internalizing and there are other things for which I am proud to be a little different. I love the looks of horror on the faces of Italian moms at the park when they see my kids splashing in puddles or playing in the mud. I think there is something disarming about the frankness with which many Americans will discuss almost anything, with anyone.
I am in love with the fact that Americans are both born and naturalized. We are a deeply messed up country in many ways, systemically racist, hypocritical, unequal–but I think most Americans, from the right to the left, know that “American” is not any one skin color, any one ethnicity, any one family lineage. I think many–hopefully most–Americans truly believe that American is the great country it is because of our diversity, not in spite of it. I never realized until I moved overseas how unique this belief might be in the world.
10. “Ciao” is not for everyone.Due to timing conflicts, we didn’t receive any language training before we got to Italy. We did some self-study but it wasn’t until I’d been here for about three weeks that I finally, embarrassingly, learned that the word “ciao,” as a greeting, is not tossed around by Italians as casually as I had once thought.
Ciao is for children, family members and friends and acquaintances with whom you are roughly equal to in terms of age and/or social standing. For every other situation (read: nearly every single situation when you are new in town) it’s “Buongiorno,” “Salve,” “Arrivederci” or possibly “Ciao Buongiorno” if it’s a casual business transaction with someone roughly the same age or younger. Basically, for all but the people you either hang out with socially or greet multiple times in a day, anything less than “buongiorno” can be taken as a little rude and possibly insulting.
After a really, really embarrassing first couple of weeks in our neighborhood, I’ve only recently begun to overcome my paranoia of offending people and relax a little. You’ll hear me say “Ciao Buongiorno” to almost everyone on our block now, (except our landlord) but still, to this day, you’ll almost never hear me say “Ciao.”
I am so, so behind on this blog. I have several hikes worth of photos to share, I think I’ve finally found the best pizza in all of Milan. I took Shiloh on a very long, hot 3 mile walk a few weeks ago to go eat bread-and-marmalade flavored gelato (it was worth it). We’ve been to Expo, we taught the kids how to wash the car. I’ve written the first 30 shitty pages towards the novel I’ve been kicking around for the last five years. I got a (small) job writing the newsletter for the Consulate. The kids have been sick. I don’t know if I’ve slept more than 5 hours in a night in weeks (divided of course, into 2-3 hour chuncks by baby coughing fits and cries for snuggles). I think I might finally know how to cook fish.
My amazing sister-in-law came to town last week. So far on her visit we’ve hiked the equivalent of 50 stories along the Ligurian coastline with the kids on our backs and picnic’d on a rocky spit of land whose name I learned after the fact, translates roughly to “Point Butt” in Italian. Chris swam in the bluest water I’ve ever seen. The kids ate a lot of gelato.
Last Friday, Chris’ sister watched the kids for me for a few hours while I got to meet and photograph and interview a famous chef. To repay the favor I took her to dinner at the fancy restaurant he was cooking at that night and took her photo with an apparently super famous rugby player. At that point, I think we were even.
But then owing to a stupendous train-ticket mix-up yesterday, she and I spent 6 hours on two trains with two tired kids. The ticket mix-up left us with just 1 hour in the city we’d been hoping to explore (Venice). We had just enough time to walk across the bridge and duck into the first restaurant we found with an empty table. As soon as we finished, it was time to get back to the station. The air-con broke on the trip home. The train was packed to bursting. It was 95 degrees. The train got delayed when we were 5 minutes away from Centrale Station. My kids cried. We’re no longer even and yet she spent half of today drawing all sorts of amazing doodles for my kids.
I owe her a crazy good bottle of wine.
With Chris working late nights and weekends too, I don’t know quite what I’d do without his sister here. I mean, I’d be fine, but I doubt I’d be having quite as much fun. Most people seem to think we are both nannies who happen to be friends and that my kids actually belong to someone else. Why else would we be playing so enthusiastically? Why else would all four of us have such wildly different skin tones, eye colors, hair colors? We laugh because there’s no other option really. When we tell the people inquiring after our services that Will and Shiloh are my children and that Chris’ sister is their aunt, they don’t ever really seem to believe us.
Somehow, without my realizing it, we’re well into summer. I find myself longing for our annual trip back to the homeland the trivial comforts of America: the green grass in my parents’ backyard, paying less than $7 for a week’s worth of laundry detergent, and being able to go to the grocery store without having to dress-up. But what I’m looking forward to most I think is being able to walk down the street with my family–with my parents, my kids, my in-laws without a single passerby stopping to ask who among us might the nanny be.
We went to Venice a few months ago. It was a sort of impromptu trip which meant I had a roll of black and white film in my camera and just over 72 hours to use it up if I wanted to capture Venice’s vibrant green and blue and pink palette in color.
I love the look of film, I find it superior to digital in nearly every way, but for our kids I shoot mostly digital. It’s more cost-effective and, honestly, they usually move way faster than I can focus manually.
But…these photos remind me why I love film, why it’s totally worth it to chance a few blurry shots once in awhile, chasing my kids around with my film camera.
And these are the photos that make me glad I’m not a purist when it comes to film. I love taking my camera out with us when we hike even though it can be a pain in the ass to do so. The photos are rarely anything special from a technical perspective, but for the sake of the moment, I’m more than happy to just hold down the shutter button and hope for the best.
I’ve been working on a couple of projects and blogging has gotten put on the back burner again for now. But I do have a slew of Milan day trip photos and recommendations to compile one of these days.
And of course there is Venice to write home about…
Becoming a mother has turned me into a worrier. Not necessarily about the day-to-day things like whether its ok to let Shiloh chow down on almonds or whether Will will be alright when he flies around the corner on his scooter at 15 miles per hour. Those things don’t bother me much.
I worry about bigger things. Like global warming and whether there will still be avocados and limes in 50 years, whether we will still hear birds sing and whether people will still live in Florida. I worry about the hardships of refugees in Syria and around the world, and the growing inequality in the US. I worry about cancer and multi-drug-resistant bacteria.
I’ve known places where beggars don’t just go hungry, they actually starve to death. I’ve lived under polluted skies, hanging brown and ominous. It’s a panicky feeling to know that the very air keeping you alive may also be your undoing. Here in Milan I panic for different reasons. When the skies shine blue and clear I get agitated if we stay inside for too long instead of running outside to inhale deeply and cherish the breath. It makes me feel a little like a person without running water, desperate to fill up the bathtub and every bucket in the house whenever the taps do turn on.
And then I think, but I DO have running water, and a warm house, a machine that washes our clothes, and food in plenty. Green grass grows in the park near our house where my kids roll around without fear of anything more serious than dog poop. I get frustrated sometimes that my kids won’t sleep or that they cry when I try to wash the floor but then I think, seriously? These are my problems? How lucky am I.
Some days our living room looks like an army of dryer lint has decided to go to war with a legion of pulverized Cheerios. Some days I yell. Some days the most exciting thing we do is walk to the market around the corner to buy more yogurt.
Some of the moments I love the most are the ones I photograph the least. And the very most precious moments, the ones when one or both of my kids are snuggling in my lap, are the ones I have no ability to photograph at all.
Someone once told me that the reason we don’t remember our babyhood is because human beings are relatively coddled in our earliest years. Our brains only remember that which they deem necessary for survival.
I know the same will be true for my kids. They will remember strange, incoherent flashes of their earliest years, things like the smell of our rug or the way the water ran while I held them in one arm while washing dishes with the other. And yet, I find myself irrationally desperate for them to remember all of the moments that I, as their mother, will never forget.
The times when we all pile on the couch and snuggle and the kids give each other kisses and laugh and then pinch my nose to make me talk funny and then try pinching their own noses and each other’s noses and somebody probably eventually cries or rolls away from the group hug to go play with Legos and the moment is over as quickly as it began, like a giant soap bubble bursting, leaving behind a spray of a shining residue on our arms and faces.
The times when Will wraps his sister in a hug and says he loves her, when he wraps his stuffed animals in blankets and calls them his babies, when he tells me the sky is fantastic and asks to buy flowers for our house “to make it more beautiful.”
The times they run together in the grass, the times they hold hands and giggle. The times Shiloh won’t settle down for bedtime until she can give me a giant smiling kiss on the mouth, the way she likes when we dance around the room together, that moment when Daddy comes home from work and everybody comes running, squealing, to give him hugs and show him the pictures we’ve drawn.
I’m a worrier now because I’ve got more at stake. Because I don’t want my kids to have to remember what blue skies looked like, what birds sounded like, what it feels like to stand still in a field buttressed on all sides by cool spring breezes and the perfume of fresh blossoms. I want them to always see and feel and know these things just a few steps from their front door. I want them to put their own babies to bed in places as peaceful as this one.
As a kid I remember thinking that being a kid was the most wonderful thing in the world. I cried the day I realized I was no longer small enough to crawl underneath our dining room chairs, the day I stopped believing in Santa Clause, the day no one wanted to play pretend anymore.
Now, as a mother who loves being a grown up way more than I ever loved being a kid, I nonetheless find myself worshipping my children’s childhood even more fervently than I did my own. I get nostalgic for yesterday, for last week, for tomorrow, for next month. I want it all, all the time and forever. I wish I could bottle up all of the love and the giggles and the snuggles and twist off the cap sometime when my kids are teenagers and say “See! Remember this? Remember how we laughed? Remember how you held my hand? How you smiled?”
Or rather, I want more than anything that we don’t need that bottle at all. I want that we all still love each other forever the way we do now and that the world they grow up into is as crazy beautiful as this one–but better. A world in which they can work hard and be kind and do good and not be an especially privileged sliver of humanity for being able to do so. I want a world in which all people go to sleep at night wanting what they want, but always having what they need.
I want to be nostalgic for the patter of my kids’ tiny feet, for their childish giggles and soft warm hugs, but I want to live in a world with no nostalgia required for the big, important things beyond our front door. I want a world that knows more peace and less fear, a world in which the woods are still full of song birds and our lives are full of family and love; a world in which my children get to live lives as crazy beautiful as the one I have, getting to be be their Mama.
Driving through northern Italy is a tease. On the outskirts of every town, we see faint foot paths skipping away from the main paved bicycle paths, lost for a half a kilometer in the tall grass and then, suddenly, winking down at us from among the trees halfway up a mountain. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of beautiful trails winding around Northern Italy’s lakes and mountains and very few of them end up in our English guidebooks.
But guidebooks and Google searches are no match for the first hand knowledge of someone who’s been living among these lakes and mountains since childhood. Last week, on a hunch, I asked a new friend if she knew of any good day hikes, close to Milan and doable with young kids. She texted me back a few hours later. Her mountain-climbing Italian husband had a suggestion: Monte Barro. So Monday morning, a national holiday in Italy, I baked a loaf of bread, packed water bottles and plastic dinosaurs in a bag and we hustled everyone out to the car for a battle with big-city holiday traffic on our way out of town.
Monte Barro is no secret. You won’t find it in the Lonely Planet* or with a “day hikes near Milan” Google search (believe me, I know) but among Italians–at least the ones we met that day–it seems to share the same sort of notoriety that “Old Rag” has among people from the Washington D.C. metro area. Halfway up the mountain, there are multiple small museums, a bird-watching center, a picnic area, a popular restaurant and elderly men in fluorescent vests who wave flags and direct traffic on the busiest days. Parking is plentiful–so long as you have the nerves to parallel park backwards, up a 45 degree grade, along a switchback with no guardrail while dozens of cavalier once-a-week Milanese drivers hurl their rental cars down the road, braking only when death seems otherwise imminent.
It’s similar too in that, while nearly anyone of any age can summit safely, it’s a healthy challenge if you aren’t used to heights. Most of the trails simply require putting one foot carefully in front of the other but higher up it is possible to get stuck or seriously injured. On the day we hiked, we watched a rescue helicopter blaze over the ridge, drop a guy down on a line, hover and then fly away with two men dangling from a rope below.
So Monte Barro with two little kids? One of whom who routinely stands on the edge of couches, chairs and tables and then laughs maniacally as we race across the room to rescue her?
Doable. If not summit-able. Lovable. Easily one of our favorite days in Italy thus far.
We didn’t get all the way to the tippy-top of the mountain. It’s been five years since we’ve been on a real mountain** and we were a little hungry for a “two kids later, we’ve still got it” experience, but we are also realists. When we started walking with Shiloh strapped to my back and Will riding on Chris’ shoulders we figured we’d go as far as we felt comfortable or until Will’s knees wrapped so tightly around Chris’ neck as to completely cut off airflow.
The main trail up to the summit goes straight up a grassy field to a narrow ridge with one trail leading up to a bald scrambling summit on the left and the other to a more knobby false summit on the right. Straight ahead the ground gives way to a steep drop-off, all the better for framing the panoramic views of the “pre-Alps” across the valley. If you are in shape and moving without two kids on your backs– and you don’t stop to take in the views–I’d guess you could get from the parking lot to the summit in under 30 minutes.
But by the time we reached the ridge, Shiloh was throwing her weight around my back with force and I’m just not ballsy enough to take on rock scrambles with a flailing baby on my back–though I’m sure it is totally doable. Shiloh’s a daring little 15-month-old and she wanted to get down and walk for herself. Maybe next time. Chris snapped a photo of us just below the top of the false summit and then we carefully headed back down the mountain to see if we could find some old Roman ruins I’d heard about on one of the trails.
Our sweet cautious little Will surprised us up on the ridge. The path was narrow and slippery with loose rocks and gravel, but Will crawled off Chris’ shoulders, asked for some fruit snacks and then told us he could walk down on his own.
And he did. He tip-toed carefully down the ridge holding tight to Chris hand. As soon as we reached the wide grassy hill below the peak, he ran, face-planted and slid. He brushed the brown dirt off his pants, laughed and started running again.
We turned right from the summit trail to follow a trail towards an outcropping we’d seen on the way up. The path was narrow but strewn with fresh hay and relatively flat. Will trotted along in front of me, completely oblivious to the steep drop-off on his left.
We reached the outcropping in just a few minutes where found ourselves standing in the footprint of a 1500 year old Roman watch tower. Below us Lake Como and several other famous lakes sparkled into the distance.
The low walls of the ancient watch tower turned out to be both picturesque and practical; and while I’ve since read that picnics aren’t technically allowed within the ruins, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. By sheer dumb luck we had found the only level surface on the mountain, penned in on three sides by ancient walls just high enough to keep Shiloh from scaling them but not so high as to block the magnificent view.
Chris sliced bread and cheese with his pocket knife for us while Shiloh and Will squealed and giggled and ran back and forth from one end of the small enclosure to the other. By the time Shiloh started getting serious about her getaway plan, we’d all eaten and rested. After one more family selfie (felfie?) we packed up, took one more look out over the horizon, and started making our way slowly back down the mountain and back to Milan.
Find more information about Monte Barro here.
*you might find Monte Barro in a special “hiking Italy” Lonely Planet but it’s not in the big Italy book.
*China had mountains but there were no trails–only mile-long cement staircases dotted with tea houses and restaurants and packed with families in high heels and vendors selling cold cucumbers. Bare-chested sweaty men with skinny rib cages hauled enormous bamboo baskets filled with bricks up and down those mountains all day long. They were hauling materials for the construction of more stairs and more tea-houses further up, I suppose.
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Someone asked me recently to write about the sounds to which I wake up in the morning, living here in Italy.
Perhaps in more romantic italian cities the sounds are more, yes, romantic. Milano though is a not a quaint little village nor is it even anything like Rome. Milan is not Florence or Naples or Venice.
Milan is a metropolis full of loads of people wearing lots of black, striding across cobblestones in 6 inch stilettos the way New Yorkers might power walk the flat sidewalks of Manhattan in ever-so-slightly more sensible footwear. If you want to either compliment or enrage a Milanese person, tell them Milan reminds you of Switzerland or Germany. It’s hard to find someone in this city who doesn’t either secretly believe or fervently wish their city embodied more of the tidy bureaucratic organization of Italy’s two neighbors to the north.
Milan is a big city and one that, so long there is no paperwork involved, mostly works. Street cars rattle and screech down 19th century tracks from 5am onwards. When the trams aren’t on strike, they are mostly on time.
Twice a week, I hear the garbage trucks rumbling up just before dawn. No one sleeps through the shrieking, shattering sound of wine bottles crashing into the recycling trucks before sunrise. But regular garbage pick-up is noisily reassuring. For both better and worse, Milan will never be Naples.
Dogs bark, car doors slam, motorbikes rev, neighbors pull open their shutters. I could be living anywhere with antiquated street cars and garbage pick-up.
Ok so maybe not anywhere, but once we make it down to the street, out into the hazy early morning light, that’s when we know where we are. For all of the big city bustle, Milan is still a deeply Italian city.
Every morning I say “Buongiorno” to no fewer than 6 portanaio (doorman/woman) on our block and another half a dozen waiters and waitresses and barmen coming and going along the route between our house and Will’s nursery school. The vendors whom I always buy vegetables from at the market shout “Buongiorno!” to me as they whiz past on their delivery bikes, half a mile away from the market at which we usually see one another. There are the nonnas who stop to greet the kids and even the very sweet one who tries to carry my bags of market produce up to our apartment whenever she sees me.
These aren’t the “Americans are so friendly!” greetings we do in the States which are indeed genuinely friendly but often generically and anonymously so (the everyone’s special so no one is special paradox of America). In Italy these greetings may also be perfunctory but rarely are they anonymous. If you don’t know someone in Milan, you don’t bother saying hi to them. That would be insane, only something a crazy American lady would do.
But, once you DO know someone, once you can recognize them on sight no matter what time of day or what they are wearing, then there is an obligation to say hello and to say hello like you mean it. These are Italian social greetings in which the actual feelings you may harbor towards the other person are never as relevant as the fact that you have a relationship, however superficial, that requires acknowledgement.
It’s not that everyone is chatty, it’s not that I don’t hear semi-awkward getaway attempts from parties all around (just overheard a few hours ago: “Your bags of [paper towel] look heavy, I’ll let you get going!”). It’s simply that in Italian culture, you use your voice and your eyes to acknowledge the fact that you’ve been buying your newspaper from the exact same man for ten years straight in a way that feels very different than the same transaction might in the United States. Here, if someone is familiar to you, whether colleague or barmen or cheesemonger, you greet them that way: warmly, personally, maybe even teasingly. Even the woman who begs outside our nearest grocery store receives a regular warm “Buongiorno” and eye contact from many of the people in the neighborhood.
My husband postulates that the greetings and “acknowledgement of relationship” may not be an Italian thing so much as a “people who live in the same neighborhood for generations” thing and he might be right. Likewise, some of it is personality. For instance, my Dad is a fantastic not-one-drop-of-Italian-blood Italian. By the time he left our house after a two week visit, he was a regular at our local cafe and my favorite vegetable vendor was buying his coffee. But, like everywhere in the world, there are also quiet, private and introverted people in Italy who may never say hello to anybody.
Still, I know I am not imagining things. It’s hard to break into an Italian neighborhood. Before the portanaios started smiling at us on our way to school every morning, before the waiters at the cafes, the barmen, the cook at the pizza place started to say ciao whether in uniform or out with their families, before all of that, I used to feel so lonely walking around our neighborhood. I’d watch people, watching me pass in silence, an awkward interlude between the hearty exchanges happening just ahead of and behind me.
The day I knew I had truly “made it” in our neighborhood? I ran into our local express market with the kids after having not shopped there in over a month. The cashier lit up, asking me genuinely how we were doing, where we had been. She exclaimed over Shiloh getting bigger and Will saying “Ciao.” She helped me bag my groceries (in Europe, bagging is almost exclusively a DIY affair). We waved good-bye and as we headed for the exit, I turned just in time to see her checking out another woman with two young kids in a stroller whom I’d never seen in our neighborhood before. In the space between our two double strollers, the cashier’s featured transformed from long-lost best friend to stone-cold “bitch face.” The transaction was near silent. I felt a quick stab of pity for the stranger but deep inside I admit, I cheered for myself.
When we were in Venice last weekend I took an early morning walk through the quiet residential neighborhoods of Canaregio. At one point, I turned a corner to find two woman chatting animatedly. One was sweeping the cobblestones in front of her restaurant. The other was leaning out between white window curtains trimmed in lace, two stories up on the opposite side of their narrow alley. For 15 seconds, the scene in front of me embodied every single Italian cultural stereotype I’d ever held, and then some.
I don’t live in Venice, but I don’t really mind. We have some very nice people in our Milano neighborhood…and here the garbage trucks and trams almost always run on time.