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.
Someone asked me recently to write about the sounds to which I wake up in the morning, living here in Italy.
Perhaps in more romantic italian cities the sounds are more, yes, romantic. Milano though is a not a quaint little village nor is it even anything like Rome. Milan is not Florence or Naples or Venice.
Milan is a metropolis full of loads of people wearing lots of black, striding across cobblestones in 6 inch stilettos the way New Yorkers might power walk the flat sidewalks of Manhattan in ever-so-slightly more sensible footwear. If you want to either compliment or enrage a Milanese person, tell them Milan reminds you of Switzerland or Germany. It’s hard to find someone in this city who doesn’t either secretly believe or fervently wish their city embodied more of the tidy bureaucratic organization of Italy’s two neighbors to the north.
Milan is a big city and one that, so long there is no paperwork involved, mostly works. Street cars rattle and screech down 19th century tracks from 5am onwards. When the trams aren’t on strike, they are mostly on time.
Twice a week, I hear the garbage trucks rumbling up just before dawn. No one sleeps through the shrieking, shattering sound of wine bottles crashing into the recycling trucks before sunrise. But regular garbage pick-up is noisily reassuring. For both better and worse, Milan will never be Naples.
Dogs bark, car doors slam, motorbikes rev, neighbors pull open their shutters. I could be living anywhere with antiquated street cars and garbage pick-up.
Ok so maybe not anywhere, but once we make it down to the street, out into the hazy early morning light, that’s when we know where we are. For all of the big city bustle, Milan is still a deeply Italian city.
Every morning I say “Buongiorno” to no fewer than 6 portanaio (doorman/woman) on our block and another half a dozen waiters and waitresses and barmen coming and going along the route between our house and Will’s nursery school. The vendors whom I always buy vegetables from at the market shout “Buongiorno!” to me as they whiz past on their delivery bikes, half a mile away from the market at which we usually see one another. There are the nonnas who stop to greet the kids and even the very sweet one who tries to carry my bags of market produce up to our apartment whenever she sees me.
These aren’t the “Americans are so friendly!” greetings we do in the States which are indeed genuinely friendly but often generically and anonymously so (the everyone’s special so no one is special paradox of America). In Italy these greetings may also be perfunctory but rarely are they anonymous. If you don’t know someone in Milan, you don’t bother saying hi to them. That would be insane, only something a crazy American lady would do.
But, once you DO know someone, once you can recognize them on sight no matter what time of day or what they are wearing, then there is an obligation to say hello and to say hello like you mean it. These are Italian social greetings in which the actual feelings you may harbor towards the other person are never as relevant as the fact that you have a relationship, however superficial, that requires acknowledgement.
It’s not that everyone is chatty, it’s not that I don’t hear semi-awkward getaway attempts from parties all around (just overheard a few hours ago: “Your bags of [paper towel] look heavy, I’ll let you get going!”). It’s simply that in Italian culture, you use your voice and your eyes to acknowledge the fact that you’ve been buying your newspaper from the exact same man for ten years straight in a way that feels very different than the same transaction might in the United States. Here, if someone is familiar to you, whether colleague or barmen or cheesemonger, you greet them that way: warmly, personally, maybe even teasingly. Even the woman who begs outside our nearest grocery store receives a regular warm “Buongiorno” and eye contact from many of the people in the neighborhood.
My husband postulates that the greetings and “acknowledgement of relationship” may not be an Italian thing so much as a “people who live in the same neighborhood for generations” thing and he might be right. Likewise, some of it is personality. For instance, my Dad is a fantastic not-one-drop-of-Italian-blood Italian. By the time he left our house after a two week visit, he was a regular at our local cafe and my favorite vegetable vendor was buying his coffee. But, like everywhere in the world, there are also quiet, private and introverted people in Italy who may never say hello to anybody.
Still, I know I am not imagining things. It’s hard to break into an Italian neighborhood. Before the portanaios started smiling at us on our way to school every morning, before the waiters at the cafes, the barmen, the cook at the pizza place started to say ciao whether in uniform or out with their families, before all of that, I used to feel so lonely walking around our neighborhood. I’d watch people, watching me pass in silence, an awkward interlude between the hearty exchanges happening just ahead of and behind me.
The day I knew I had truly “made it” in our neighborhood? I ran into our local express market with the kids after having not shopped there in over a month. The cashier lit up, asking me genuinely how we were doing, where we had been. She exclaimed over Shiloh getting bigger and Will saying “Ciao.” She helped me bag my groceries (in Europe, bagging is almost exclusively a DIY affair). We waved good-bye and as we headed for the exit, I turned just in time to see her checking out another woman with two young kids in a stroller whom I’d never seen in our neighborhood before. In the space between our two double strollers, the cashier’s featured transformed from long-lost best friend to stone-cold “bitch face.” The transaction was near silent. I felt a quick stab of pity for the stranger but deep inside I admit, I cheered for myself.
When we were in Venice last weekend I took an early morning walk through the quiet residential neighborhoods of Canaregio. At one point, I turned a corner to find two woman chatting animatedly. One was sweeping the cobblestones in front of her restaurant. The other was leaning out between white window curtains trimmed in lace, two stories up on the opposite side of their narrow alley. For 15 seconds, the scene in front of me embodied every single Italian cultural stereotype I’d ever held, and then some.
I don’t live in Venice, but I don’t really mind. We have some very nice people in our Milano neighborhood…and here the garbage trucks and trams almost always run on time.
My old Minolta, purchased for about $30 in a dark alley of Old Delhi, stopped working soon after we arrived in Milan. Going back to shooting all digital bummed me out way more than I realized it would but, with all of the expenses that come with moving across the world and setting up house in one of the world’s most expensive cities, I didn’t feel like I could justify spending more money on what is, mostly, a hobby for me.
But I’m married to an incredibly kind and thoughtful man. For Christmas he did his homework and went out and bought me a used Leica R4 with a Leica 50mm lens. He knows me well. He didn’t buy me a camera so expensive that I’d demand he take it back to the store and put the money back in our savings account, but the Leica is a big step up from my Minolta and the let’s-keep-it-together-with-duct-tape aesthetic it had going on.
It took almost a month to get the camera fixed up and functioning and a few more weeks to happen upon a little Kodak shop that develops and scans for only €12 a roll. But finally I’m shooting film again and slowly getting the hang of this new camera.
The thing we are coming to love best about Milan is the ability to get out of town and get away so easily.
Even with two kids who are quirky in all the usual toddler ways–and then some–it’s often easier than we realized it could be. We wake up, we make our pancakes, we look up a destination in a book, or on Google. We rush around the house finding jackets, finding pacifiers, taking a casual peek into our
backpack diaper bag to make sure there’s at least one diaper in there to justify the label. And then we leave, usually not before 10:30am.
We drive, we get lost, or we take the train. Either way, we look for the mountains on the way out of town. We haven’t tired yet of seeing them in the distance as we leave the smog of Milan behind in our review mirror. It doesn’t take long to get somewhere new and interesting in Northern Italy–it’s rarely more than 90 minutes to get where we’re going.
We don’t make plans or set agendas for these day trips. We try to content ourselves with a walk and a very casual, quick meal. Anything else we can interest/cajole/con our little ones into is a bonus. We are usually home by dinnertime. We could push the kids to stay out longer but most times we don’t. We can get out of town more weekends than not if we don’t make every single trip into a grueling marathon for the kids. We can always go back if there is more we want to see. There always is and we often do.
A few weeks ago, we headed to Lago Maggiore. We were trying to get to Stresa but, owing to my excellent grasp of Google Maps, we ended up somewhere entirely different. We drove through a tiny town, the name of which I honestly don’t remember (though someone on Instagram saw the photo below and says it’s from Laveno-Mombello). It was touristy, there were expensive boats. I ordered something called “polenta e zola” from the only restaurant open at noon, (not necessarily a good thing in Italy) not realizing that zola is blue cheese, and in this case, a slice of it the size of my face.
But the memorable part of the trip was not the touristy town where I had rubbery polenta and an astonishingly large portion of blue cheese, where Will skipped rocks into the lake and where we drank macchati and eavesdropped on the cafe’s Chinese owners as they debated painting the cafe a brighter shade of red.
The memorable part was the windy, rocky coastline where we pulled off into the first parking lot we could find and found ourselves surrounded by two dozen scuba divers in thick winter-weather diving suits. The scuba masks scared our kids and they were hungry anyway, but before we had to high-tail it back into town for lunch, I looked down into the water and saw clear to the bottom. Divers used to come to dive down to a rare Bugatti car that a frustrated customs official pushed into the lake in 1936. I don’t know why they dive there now, but if the view underwater is even half as good as the view from above, it must be worth it.
Another day, when we were feeling indecisive, we drove to San Pellegrino–yes that San Pellegrino. We drove right past the factory on our way into town, passing giant red trucks heading the opposite direction, all carrying the famous water. We ate at a restaurant called Tirolese and this time, we picked well. The food was good, perhaps touristy still but no less authentic for being so. I tried pizzoccheri and, on a cold day, overlooking the river that fills millions of those green glass bottles across the world, it was filling and wonderful.
We walked a short ways up a hiking trail and fulfilled our promise to Will that we’d take him somewhere with enough snow to build a snowman this winter. Our snowman stood only 6 inches tall but Will seemed satisfied. There were so many hiking trails we wished we would have been more warmly dressed for. We will go back though. We hear there’s a great spot on the river too for kids to splash around.
We’ve been to Bergamo three times now which means I’ve taken enough pictures there now to justify writing an entire blog post about it and hopefully I will. We still haven’t gotten to any of the many art museums and galleries there or even any of the historical sites, but we’re hoping maybe the fourth (or fifth!) trip will be the charm.
One of the trips we took to Bergamo was just me and the kids by ourselves on the train. It went better than I thought it would and gave me some hope that maybe it’s something we can do more often when Will is out of school.
I’ve finally learned how to park our car in our teeny, tiny little box. There are only about 2 inches of clearance on either side of the car and I haven’t driven much in the last seven years so it’s been an intimidating project for me, but I can do it! Now I just have to figure out how to get the kids in and out of the car through the driver’s seat (the parking spot is that tiny) and then I’ll be able to take them out in the car all by myself. Here’s to warming spring weather and more new adventures in the coming weeks!
Five years ago I moved to China after having married into a half-Chinese family and 20 days of intensive Chinese language classes. Three years ago I moved to India after having both studied and lived in the country before.
6 months ago I moved to Italy after…a few dozen childhood meals at an “Italian” restaurant called Grazies in Northern Wisconsin? They were well known for the BBQ chicken quesadilas and “gourmet” Mac n’ Cheese so, yea. There was that.
I did read about Italy, I did log several hundred hours on Duolingo, but never have I landed in a country feeling so unprepared. Italian culture is lively and beautiful but, at least here in the North, it is also somewhat formal and a bit parochial. There are social mores to be observed and rules to be followed. Which is true of every place on the planet; but, for a variety of reasons, daily survival requires a much deeper relationship with the local culture here in Italy than it did in either China or India where there existed all sorts of infrastructure to keep expat communities afloat.
I’ve felt clueless and out of place a million times since we’ve arrived. Six months in, I still feel like I need a ticker celebrating the “number of days we’ve been gaffe-free” like the “number of days we’ve been accident free” signs you sometimes see at construction sites.
I haven’t written much about daily life in Milan mostly because I haven’t felt conversant enough about it yet to comment without errors. I have speak almost no Italian and, especially compared to my friends who’ve been living here for decades or who’ve married Italian men and raise Italian children, I have so much to learn.
But I am learning and with the World Expo in Milano this year and the New York Times ranking Milan as the #1 travel destination for 2015, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I would tell a fellow American about Milan and our Italian experiences.
After a loooong slump, I have a slew of blog topics on my brain. I’d like to write about all of the things we like about living in Milan. I’d like to write about when, where, and how to pay for your coffee in a cafe, (because there can never be too much of this sort of information on the internet for people like me) and what Italian babies eat (lots of parmigiano-reggiano) and the neighborhood bars, and where to find the best bread and the best pasta and how the Milanese manage to stay so thin eating brioche for breakfast and 2 scoops of gelato for an afternoon snack (actually, I don’t know the answer to this one but I think it’s an insane amount of housework and a lot of walking in heels).
Is there anything I’m missing? Any other topics you’d like to hear about?
Shiloh turned 1 years old on Tuesday, an Italian holiday by happy coincidence. We celebrated quietly. Shiloh opened a few presents (ok, fine, Will opened a few presents) we made pancakes, and played. We went out for some pizza and followed it up with what was probably Shiloh’s favorite moment of the day: her first solo cup of (yogurt) gelato. We walked, we played some more. Shiloh demolished a mini carrot cake after dinner and then it was off to bath and bed.
And in between we nursed and cuddled and I stared into her deep brown eyes a thousand times, willing myself to understand that my baby is hurtling towards toddlerhood faster than seems possible.
As much as I love throwing parties and entertaining, for the most important days we celebrate, I much prefer to spend the time quietly with our family, wallowing in nostalgia and sentimentality the way I do on this blog instead of rushing around the way I usually do in real life.
So, Shiloh, she is one. She is feisty and determined and fast. She points at everything, wanting words for what she is looking at. She is curious and head-strong and cries if we don’t let her touch the leaves on trees or the Christmas lights on the sides of buildings. For Shiloh there are no obstacles, only benches, boxes and challenges to be surmounted. She always, usually very quietly, finds her way.
She is so on-the-go, so independent, so easy-going in so many ways that sometimes I forget that she is still so very little–which in turn makes me treasure those moments when she does let me baby her even more. Those moments when she reaches up to be held, when she naps on my chest. When she covers my face in open-mouth kisses and force-feeds me orange slices covered in peanut butter. She still sleeps in our bed and spends hours attached to my hip. I know these days of babyhood are waning now and I miss them already even as I live them. She will grow up to be such an amazing and strong and fearless woman but for always she will be my baby.
That’s what Will has been saying to all of us lately, a seasonal adaptation of the usual “sweet dreams” nighttime routine.
And already, Christmas feels a little like a dream. I both cannot fathom that it is already New Year’s Eve and at the same time, I’m itching to tear down our Christmas tree already like it’s actually a vector for the winter flu. Which, who knows, it could be. I’m told by our pediatrician that the 104 degree “virus” I called her about the week before Christmas was probably the flu, followed by complications thereof for Boxing Day, and so on and so forth until, fast forward to New Year’s Eve, it’s antibiotic cocktails for everyone, yay.
So yes, Christmas came and went in a haze of present-wrapping, cookie-delivering, temperature-taking, tylenol-administering, sheet-washing, gift-giving and general mayhem. But the mayhem makes the magic doesn’t it? Because it takes a hell of a lot of effort for five adults to stay civil and sane while cooped up in a not-huge apartment with two sick kids and so those moments when everyone is feeling the joy all at the same for all the same reasons–those moments really make it all worth it. They are pure magic.
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This was the first Christmas Will has really understood and anticipated and Shiloh’s first Christmas ever.
I nearly cried watching Chris’ Dad read The Polar Express to Will for the first time (my italicizing button is just not working, sorry!).
And we logged many hours playing “tree football,” a game Will invented in which all of the adults in the room take turns tossing a soft, stuffed Christmas tree at him.
Shiloh and Will both obsessed over the Christmas tree,
attempting to eat redecorating the tree for days on end.
Babies in Christmas pjs playing with strands of Christmas lights, because, you kind of have to.title=”Shiloh setting up christmas tree-3 by Dani, on Flickr”>
Ditto with the Santa hat shtick.
Will decorated his first plate of Christmas cookies for Santa this year with both sets of grandparents (one set on Skype) oohing and ahhing over his careful work with the icing. He also brought home a slew of Christmas crafts from school that I’m pretty sure will live among our Christmas decorations for years to come.
On Christmas Eve Chris spent 3 hours assembling the play kitchen that Santa brought, but I think he’ll agree with me that the effort has been totally worth the hours the kids have logged already whipping up “breakfast” and handling the mini saute pan like a pro (Will) and flinging the entire contents of the pretend refrigerator on the floor over and over again (Shiloh). Having grown-up thus far with old-fashioned GSO refrigerators, Will does not believe that an in-fridge water dispenser could possibly be a real thing. He says it’s like the juice-pressers at the cafe bars we go to, it’s for making “spremunta”. He answers the kitchen phone saying “Top Chef here, what do you want?”
We had roast beef, latkes and gingerbread for Christmas Eve dinner and homemade Chinese dumplings for Christmas Day. And all of the leftovers from my “cookie diplomacy” efforts with the neighbors. We made Panettone french-toast (Panettone being a Milanese invention it gets passed around like, well, like fruitcake, during the holidays here) and the kids saw their first snow fall. Granted, they were both sick and we didn’t so much play in it as tiredly trudge through it on a particularly ill-timed run to the grocery store but in any case, snow! It didn’t stick but it still felt pretty magical.
And then, suddenly, Christmas was over. Chris’ family was packing their bags for their return flight, the doctor’s office was open again, prescriptions got filled and after a particularly grueling night with the sick, wee ones, we walked into our living room yesterday morning dazed and confused. Where was the houseful of people who needed little more than coffee and oatmeal and fresh towels and who gave so much in the way of stories and games and hugs and adoration? While Chris took the kids to the park yesterday afternoon, I cleaned the house and the silence sounded so very loud.
This morning, for the first time in nearly two months, there were no guests to prepare for, no cookies to be baked, floors to clean, parties to plan for. So we drove to Parma. But the real photos from that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got syringes full of antibiotics to administer and a hot New Year’s Eve date sitting on the couch next to me waiting for me to quit typing and start opening a bottle of wine instead.
Happy New Year!