Breathing in the Past

I invited my dead grandmother into my kitchen this morning.

It was not intentional.  But there she was, arriving as the first in a long line of others, connected in the ether to her mother, her father, some long-forgotten uncles and a host of other shadow figures. They carried with them gifts from a world that I have lost.  Memories attached to place, senses, emotions.

Suddenly I am in our family’s German butcher shop in Passaic. Sides of meat are hanging from the ceiling, the large fan above calming the air with its almost silent whump, whump, whump. Continue reading

Living in a Foreign Language, or Your Vagina is Not a Fruit

At a gathering in Florence, she was proudly putting her fledgling Italian to the test. “Oh, I love this so much,” she said, using the Italian name for the sheep’s milk cheese –pecorino– they were sharing. The response from her new friends was not what she expected. Confused, she avowed a little more loudly, “No, really! I love it. In fact, I adore it.” When the Italians stopped laughing, they explained that she had ended the word with the wrong vowel and was actually professing her adoration of love-making in an um, certain…physical position. It did have something to do with sheep – and mammals in general- but what a difference an “a” makes!

No, it wasn’t me, but I am here to tell you that living in a foreign language is not for the faint of heart. Three years into this adventure in immersion I still have days when I want to crawl under the table and hide. Unlike my amazing friend Natalie who speaks several languages and can parlez with her French neighbors without a trace of an American accent, I struggle mightily to get it right. Left brain, right brain differences? Age? Or maybe it’s because I made my living with words in my madre lingua. As a life-long writer, playing with words, cultivating nuance and communicating complex ideas is fundamental to who I am.

And then this. Starting over again with “Hello”, “How are you?” “Where is the bathroom?” “I like your dog.” “Excuse me, I did not mean to say you are a dog.” Excuse my Italian. Pardon my Italian, I’m sorry for my Italian. Mamma mia.

Cari signori, thank you for asking. I really want to explain to you how I feel about the election. I want to share my opinions on immigration reform. I’d like to ask specific questions on how those ravioli are made. In my own language I am opinionated and well-spoken. But here, sometimes it’s better to smile, listen and make notes on new words and phrases I need to learn. Come si dice? Come si scrive? How do you say ____? How do you spell____? Sometimes when I am really lost and it seems as if a response is required, I do as the Italians do. I shrug, tilt my head and say boh, a wonderful word that means nothing and everything.

Most of the people I’ve met are very kind and patient. They offer gentle corrections and help me to say what I want to say. I’m no longer embarrassed to make mistakes but I’ve learned way too publicly, for example, that the words for fig and the slang word for vagina, are one tiny letter away from each other. “Cara,” corrected a funny friend with a grin, “Your vagina is not a fruit.” The word for “cool” as in hip, sweet, awesome, is also too close to that fruit for my aging brain and so I use gonzo which as far as I know is safe. For a long time I thought we lived in a former red light district until I found out that the street up the hill is named for stone (sasso) and not for sex (sesso). These things were not covered in my text books.

Alberto is also a great help, although at first our teacher/student interactions went like this:

Me (In Italian): Alberto, what does cerniera mean?
Alberto (In Italian): It means, uhhhh, cerniera. (Louder) Cerniera! (Really loudly                                                        and gesturing wildly), CERNIERA!!!

It means zipper, thank you Google translate. As a bonus, I also learned the word for deaf, as in, I am not.

Still, I would not trade this experience for anything. For a long time it was impossible to understand everything. I learned to trust and to be less controlling. I would figure out that we were going someplace to meet somebody but more than that was a pleasant surprise. When words are precious and sentences are a struggle, I can sit comfortably in silence. I reserve my energy for meaningful conversation and leave the blah blah blah in the ether. I have to listen closely here, there is no other choice. If I want to be part of the conversation, I need to jump in, be humble, make mistakes. So hard for perfectionist me. When I am tongue-tied, I’ve learned that sometimes a little wine helps. And yeah, I’ve also learned that too much absolutely does not.

When you begin to live in another language, there is the insult of speaking like a child but wonderfully, the opportunity to observe like a child. Every flower, insect, body part, appliance, food, experience…all of them have new names. I’m learning to be patient, to not assume and to wait for the meaning to come. As my next visit approaches, Alberto will tell me, Non vedo l’ora! Which taken literally means “I can’t see the hour” (what?) but actually means, “I can’t wait!” (Much better!) Tra il dire e fare c’è in mezzo il mare (between the said and the done there is half the ocean) means something is easier said than done -but how much more poetic!

The Italian language is passionate, playful, descriptive and melodic. I am always enchanted (and jealous) to hear tiny Italian children trill their R’s and roll long musical words off of their tiny tongues. In the meantime, my Italian friends tease me as I clunk tovagliolo (napkin), chiacchierone (chatterbox) or stuzzicadenti (toothpicks) painfully into the conversation. When I am lazy, I might resort to cosa, which means “thing”, although by cheating, I disappoint myself.  It helps to remember that there was a time when even the dogs in Siena spoke better Italian than I did.

In working so hard to learn this new language, I’ve come to appreciate even more the richness of the language I take for granted. To notice the differences is to be reminded of the beauty of finding just the right word, coining the perfect phrase. There isn’t just blue here in Italy, there is azure, celeste…descriptive words we have in English but don’t call on often enough.

Most profoundly, in opening my mind to this new experience I find I have discovered a better version of myself. Happier. Lighter. When I first arrived my vocabulary was focused on immediate needs and responses. Italian was the only language my new friends and I had in common, so our interactions were uncomplicated and straightforward. Past trials and tribulations were left unnamed because I simply didn’t have the ability to articulate them in this new adventure. By the time I learned those words, I no longer needed them to define who I am. I didn’t realize the weight of the past until it was lifted because the words were not there to describe it. I find who I am right now is abbastanza bene…good enough. Even when those pesky little vowels betray me.

Le Quattro Stagioni

It’s just after ten on Friday and the park at La Fortezza is full as is usual this time of day. The weather is cooler now with signs of fall changes everywhere. The leaves of the chestnut trees are crispy and yellow at the edges; the carcasses of the first fallen chestnut globes are starting to litter the walkway. I remember when I first saw them on the trees in the spring…bright green and spiny like misplaced sea creatures.

I’ve been lucky enough to be here in Siena for all four seasons this year. In January, the park is more open to light with bare tree branches at the top and darker and softer at the bottom as the stone pavement is covered with a ripening layer of foliage. In April the first buds arrive along with the first winter babies who are now old enough to brave a bit of chill and constant stops for admiring friends and neighbors. (“Come bellina sei!”)

By June my morning here starts earlier to beat the heat of the day. The runners are out in force and gaggles of gawking tourists clog the park’s pathways. The flowering trees make the entire place smell like heaven and the heaps of climbing jasmine we call “confederate” make it smell like home. The roses and lavender pop a little more every day. The windows of the music school in the center of the park are open and I hear drums counting out an Eric Clapton song on one end of my run and a tentative sax refrain on the other.

Today the lingering smell from the horses who passed through during the transumanza, the ancient annual ritual of moving the livestock from the highlands to the low-lying Maremma, instantly flash me back to a girlhood spent mucking stalls and wiping down sweaty ponies. The light here at this moment is similar the the light I remember from autumn days in the mountains of Pennsylvania. We witness the changes of the seasons, of the years, of our circumstances, but there are constants that keep us grounded as we pass these days of our lives.

Those constants give life here a comforting rhythm that is slowly opening itself to me. I pass the same people day after day at the park or the market or on the streets. They at first seem reserved but over time we begin to connect with a ciao or buon giorno from one of us or the other. I go home for a month or so at a time but when I return they are still here and I am happy to see that I have not been forgotten. The older man in the flashy running clothes and white rimmed sunglasses waved hello today to acknowledge my return. I share a smile with the two women who bring their ailing loved one -he appears to have had a stroke- and doggedly walk with him one tiny shuffle at a time around the park. It’s hard to tell how he is doing but the women seem to have gained strength and confidence in their mission since I first saw them in the spring.

The nonno with his grandbaby in the stroller who sits in the same corner day after day gives me a nod and a hello as we pass each other. Up ahead, Carmelo and his sweet dog Kenya wait patiently for me to catch up so we can spend a few minutes visiting. We know very little of each others’ backstory but in these moments in the park we connect like lifelong friends. The handsome man who sells wine at the Friday market reaches for my hand and wishes me “ben tornata”, welcome back!, as he delivers the Italian kiss to each cheek before handing over my wine. I don’t have to tell him what I want. It’s always the same.

In this place where rituals rule, the man in the wire rim glasses will reach into his pocket for a few coins in the same way, at the same bakery door, for the same loaf of bread he bought yesterday and the day before and will again everyday for as long as he is able. When the world outside of this precious place is completely crazy, I am grateful for the comfort that brings me. I am also grateful that there is enough room within all the ritual for the slow, steady embrace of a stranger making her way home.image

The Vignettes

She stands in the doorway of the tiny beauty shop, white coated, spiky hair the color of polished copper. Her eyes are blazing and she speaks quickly and with obvious annoyance. His feet are planted at an angle to her, his stance is relaxed, back curved, shoulders forward, one hand holding the elbow of his other arm. He gazes softly at her, a slight smile on his face.
I have three seconds to take this in. We’re banging through the stone streets of Siena in Alberto’s little scratched up Renault and as always, it feels like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. Hard left, hard right, hard brake, rapid acceleration, a sudden stop. Everyone drives this way here. No longer white-knuckled during these moments, I try now to stay present and delight in the little vignettes that appear around each corner.
The scolding aesthetician and her bemused-what?- boyfriend? brother? husband? – is the star of this particular scene. In the few seconds available, I take in the visible clues and use my imagination to fill in the blanks. What happened before this snapshot? Why is she angry? Is he the cause or a friend lending an ear? What happens next? And then I fall against the car door during the next turn and the scene changes.
This time it’s an older man. He’s outside of a home with a walled garden, hands behind his back in the way of so many older Italian men. He’s staring at what appears to be an air-conditioning unit. This is a sequel to a glimpse from yesterday, except yesterday there was a repair man taking the unit apart while the man watched from the same place, in the same stance. Why is he there again? Was it not fixed? Is he waiting for the repairman to return? Is he not the owner of the home but instead the nosy neighbor? With little prompting my imagination takes off again.
The scene changes. I see two little ballerinas, tights askew, arms and legs akimbo and intertwined, heads resting together as they sit on the hard marble doorstep of the dance studio. Another turn and there are a trio of teeny wiener dogs running in circles as fast as their little legs will move, sniffing, bumping, jumping as their respective humans exchange buon giorno’s. The road opens and there is a waiter at the corner cafe struggling with a broken awning as a group of regulars watch and gesture but at this moment at least, seem to offer only benevolent supervision.
Three seconds to tell an entire story. I love these moments; the punctuation of a point in time, a curtain opening to reveal an intimate- or ordinary- peek at the life of another person. The sense of commonality gained by observing what happens to complete strangers in the blink of an eye.
When I think about the 16,000 day quest- the effort to live my life to the fullest and not squander a second, I am grateful for these moments. Grateful that they don’t always go by in a blur while I am too busy thinking about something else. Grateful for the practice of awareness because it does make a difference in the quality of life.
Yesterday, I stopped to admire a beautiful wall of flowering plants on the street where my sweetheart lives. Today as we walked by there again, he told me that although he had passed those same flowers many, many times he had never noticed them. He called this a difference in anima, or soul, between the two of us.
It may be as intrinsic as the quality of one’s soul, but I believe that “seeing” is possible for all of us. And important. How can we stop to smell the flowers, appreciate a beautiful smile, comfort a friend’s sadness or delight in the playfulness of two tired little ballerinas if we never focus enough to see them? It only takes a second…or three.  


Grazie di Esistere

Grazie di Esistere

This little post is a birthday gift from me, on my birthday, to all of you, my family and friends. Lucky girl that I am, I woke up today to another gorgeous day under the Tuscan sun. When he heard my footsteps on the stairs, sweet Alberto put a song on the CD player to greet me. It's a beautiful song of love for another person with the refrain “grazie di esistere” or, thank you for being here, thank you for existing.

What more simple, wonderful statement of appreciation can there be from one person to another? Thank you for existing. No single reason is needed, but all are implied. Thank you for being here. For being a friend, for bringing happiness, for easing the pain when things are not going well. For kicking me in the ass when I need it. For biting your tongue sometimes and not saying the obvious.

My friend Richard was commenting this week on the devastation in Nepal. Homes and monuments lost. Ancient history and modern lives indiscriminately devoured in seconds. A reminder that every second is precious. That not only are we as individuals just a flicker in time, but whole civilizations come and go with relative speed. The same theme emerged as my friend Mari comes to terms with saying goodbye to her dad. Who will tease her when her car is filthy? Who will drink with her and her sisters? What happens when someone so integral to life is suddenly not there, no longer “exists” in the way we too often take for granted?

So today I say to all of you, grazie di esistere. Thank you for touching my life. For inspiring me and making me laugh. For saying the hard things. For keeping in touch over the years and miles. For so many heartfelt birthday wishes. But mostly just for existing. You make the people in your world that much better by just being there. Stop and savor a minute of your own unique existence. Know that you are loved and that you have made a difference. Grazie di esistere!





Swiffer People? Are You Listening?

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”

― Gene Roddenberry

This woman learned long ago that what makes us different makes us interesting. Travel is one of those things that can open our eyes to different ways of thinking and different ways of living. Or not.

It still amazes me that some people pay money to travel…plan trips, take time off of work, pack their bags, drive to the airport, sit on a plane for long periods of time and then proceed to bitch moan and complain about everything that is different where they, presumedly, wanted to go.

Toilets and bathrooms in Italy are one example of something that causes much lamenting. The facilities can range from what Americans might consider normal, to seatless commodes, to literally a porcelain lined hole in the floor with helpful footprints painted on either side so one knows where to stand to make the least mess -to put it delicately.

Some bathrooms, in restaurants and bars especially, are located downstairs in the bowels of the building somewhere behind a curtain or an unmarked door and are so small it is difficult to turn around. Some have shared sinks with toilet stalls and can be disconcerting as you enter the bathroom with a member of the opposite sex.

Most of these buildings are literally ancient and have been retrofitted with so much stone making renovation tricky. And so the sink might be controlled by a foot pedal or simply by a brass button sunk into the floor. Flushing is also often a puzzle to be solved with the actual mechanism not apparently connected to the “toilette.” Soap can be scarce as can toilet paper unless you are in a pay facility which may not be as clean as you would like but is usually adequately stocked.

Read the guidebooks, be prepared with a few supplies and small coins and it’s no big deal. But how many times in the Rome airport waiting to go back to the states have I heard someone complain bitterly that they can not wait to be home to use their own bathroom? Silly me, sitting there with my carry-on packed full of all things Italy, feeling so sad to leave. Reuniting with my toilet seat is definitely not top of mind.

As I write this, my host in Siena is hanging the laundry out to dry. Clothes dryers are rare in homes. Supermarket eggs are not refrigerated. There is a comma in numbers where we put a period. Temperatures are in celcius. Shoes sizes are different and here I don’t wear a medium anything, but usually a large. Air conditioning is not a given, nor is heat during certain times of the year. There is no tipping in restaurants and you can buy a bottle of great wine for a third or less than what it would cost you at home. When a commercial break arrives on Italian TV, there is a note on screen beforehand that a promozione is coming.

If you start to put these differences in mental pro and con columns, you are missing the point. These differences, as Roddenberry wrote, are part of the delight and variety in learning about different cultures.

I wholeheartedly embrace this diversity….with one tiny exception. Italian mops. Now that I’m here for long stays, I happily help out with the daily chores like grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. After vacuuming the apartment the first time and insisting on washing the floors, I was handed a basin, a cloth and a stiff push broom. Still hopefully looking past Alberto to the supply closet to see at least a sponge mop, he re-directed my attention to the process. Fill the basin with soapy water, dunk the cloth in the water, wring it out, place it on the floor, push it around with the broom. Repeat.

Now that it’s a familiar process, it’s not so bad. I usually shake my head and laugh then launch into a chorus of “this is the way we mop the floor, mop the floor, mop the floor” as I work. But I can’t help wondering if an O’Cedar spin mop is on the TSA list of forbidden items? Or better…Swiffer people, are you listening?


Il Mercado

It’s market day in Siena. Every Wednesday the area surrounding the park at Fortezza becomes the social, commercial and culinary center of this medieval Tuscan town. Juxtaposed next to the massive stone walls of the ancient fort, hundreds of awnings rise and spread in the early morning darkness.

Rain or shine, merchants of every sort set out their wares, flea market style. In this section there may be purses, shoes and other leather goods. Tablecloths over here and garden tools over there. Clothing vendors provide makeshift dressing rooms with full length mirrors tipped precariously against nearby boulders or trees. Women pour over tables with massive piles of coats, shirts, T-shirts and even bras and underwear. At one end, food sellers offer prepared foods, produce, herbs, meat and fish. My favorite, the ancient man who sells honey of every sort imaginable, wraps the precious jars in sheets torn from old phone books, slowly, carefully creasing the paper around the glass with his thick fingers.

I’ve come to the market this morning to look for a birthday gift for Costanza, the grand niece of my Sienese sweetheart. But truthfully, I would have come without any real reason at all. I love the mercado. It is early April and the weather has been stubborn about warming. Today’s sunshine has brought out both tourists and locals…we are elbow to elbow in the narrow aisles. The pace is a slow shuffle. Older italian men wander and watch with their hands clasped comfortably behind their backs. Young women with little ones balance their bags and their babies on their hips while searching for bargains. Older women shop in pairs or small groups and are more aggressive about quickly sorting through the offerings, commenting to one another and the vendors regarding quality, style and value. Mostly value. I’d like to stop and savor the little bits of sun filtering through the patchwork of awnings but as slowly as the traffic moves, it continues to flow and stopping for long is impossible.

Drifting by the tables and listening to the market sounds, I note that my italian has improved a bit. (Piano piano, they say in italian, slowly, slowly.). I smile as I recognize snippets of conversation. The ever polite italian discourse between two donne continues after one has provided her counter opinion to the other; comunque, hai un punto…(however, you have a point…). A vendor describes a frying pan as il migliore, the best, as a doubtful gentleman listens politely. A quartet of old friends converge near the gorgeous bundles of baby artichokes and create a knot in the flow of shoppers as they catch up on family news. (There’s a new baby! A brother is just home from the ospedale.) They are oblivious to the jam they have created.

I see a gaggle of tired tourists with their giant camera lenses bouncing off of backs and shoulders in the crowd. They grow frustrated as they discover there is no fast way out once tunneled in here with the masses. Relax, I want to tell them. You want to see Italy? It’s right here, all around you. Look. Listen. Go slow. And for heaven’s sake, stay the course. People watch. Taste a sample of salami and pecorino. Savor the sweet smell of fresh strawberries. Part with a few euro and bring home a jar of the best honey you’ll ever taste. Souvenier page of old italian phone numbers included, no extra charge.