What I dread about returning to the U.S.

23 Oct
22 October 2016. I listed my beefs with Roma the other day. Turnabout is fair play, so here are the things I am not looking forward to in gli stati uniti.
  • Having to fly to go to Europe. How we have loved jumping on trains! 10 hours or more on a plane is not fun, even in Business Class. When we come back to visit, we will take long trips (we have time!) to make the flights worthwhile. In the meantime, I am overusing my United Mileage Plus Visa to accrue as many points as possible. I wonder if we can charge a house?
  • Incredible choice of squash, and the pumpkins--of various kinds--taste amazing, as does everything.

    Incredible choice of squash, and the pumpkins–of various kinds–taste amazing, as does everything.

    Food additives, wooden produce, and high prices. Food in Italy tastes like it should taste. Red peppers zing, potatoes require no butter for flavor, and the overall need for everything from basil to thyme is minimal because the produce is so darn flavorful. In the U.S. we wax our fruits and veggies to preserve them, and God-knows-what is done to cattle and chickens. I am hoping that between the Farmer’s Market and Nature’s Foods I can find good organic stuff. It will cost significantly more to feed us than it has in Italy. I shudder to think of what wine costs in the U.S! And good olive oil!
  • Car-orientation and having to drive again. Yes, the buses in Rome are problematic, but it is possible — even desirable — to live without a car. Unless we want to live in a 700 square foot condo in downtown Portland, we’re going to have to buy a car. It just is not feasible to depend on buses, light rail, and trains. Ric has not driven in 3 1/2 years, and I have not done so in 18 months. We may have to have our son take us to a big parking lot and give us driving lessons.
  • Few trains. Sniff.

    Now THAT's Italian...Pizzeria Al Forno della Soffita.

    Now THAT’s Italian…Pizzeria Al Forno della Soffita.

  • Pizza. Papa Murphy’s Take-and-Bake will no longer cut it. There is good pizza in Portland: Apizza Scholls and Ken’s Artisan Pizza are renowned, with wood-fired pizzas and high-quality ingredients, but you have to line up about 17:00 to get in. We can barely stand to eat before 20:00 anymore. Nostrana has great pizza, too, but costo molto!
  • Eating dinner at 18:00. In Portland, we used to go out on Saturday night and leave the house at 17:30 so we could get a table without a reservation. Now at 18:00 I can barely think about eating except on occasion a little aperitivo. We like to sit down at a restaurant between 20:00 and 21:00. Even eating at home we seldom tuck in before 20:00. By 20:00 in Portland, most restaurants are thinking about shutting down the kitchen. The afternoon just seems longer and more useful when you aren’t thinking about dinner at 17:00. 
  • Lack of social outdoor life. As much as the sidewalk traffic in Roma can make me crazy, I do love the passeggiata tradition in Italy. It is most fun in the smaller towns. Take a walk, have a coffee or an aperitivo, do some shopping or just lick the windows, as the French say. In Paris, there are the terraces and in London the pubs. In Roma, we have the tiny bars. It is an excellent pre-dinner habit to take a walk, sit with friends and visit. In the U.S., we all pull into our homes using an automatic garage door opener and settle in without chatting up the neighbors. 

    Giant cappuccino in the U.S. The Italian version costs us about €1.20, even sitting down at our neighborhood place. It is JUST RIGHT.

    Giant cappuccino in the U.S. The Italian version costs us about €1.20, even sitting down at our neighborhood place. It is JUST RIGHT.

  • Giant cappuccini. No, I did not mistype. cappuccini is the plural of cappuccino. I think I will have to order the child-size. No one needs 12 ounces of milk to one ounce of espresso. 
Maintaining our Italian lifestyle after our return is going to be about as difficult as playing darts with spaghetti. We shall persevere and let you know how it is going. Four days until we fly!!!

What I will NOT miss when I leave Roma

19 Oct
19 October 2016. When I was newly arrived in Roma I told my Italian teacher (and now good friend, Eleonora) that “È un sogno vivere a Roma!” (It’s a dream to live in Rome!) She replied that she hoped I would not become disappointed. A few months ago I had to tell her “Sono diventa delusa di Roma.” (I’ve become disillusioned with Roma.)
We will miss many things in Italy, However, bubbles are about to burst for some of you…. It is not always a bed of roses living in Roma. In fact, sometimes the thorns draw blood, figuratively. Despite the great food and wine, incredible beauty, and unbeatable coffee culture, the bureaucracy you’ve heard about is real. So is the lack of customer service and caring in some situations. People can be rather self-absorbed. Not in one-on-one situations, but strangers on the street.
This list helps me remember what we do NOT like about living in Roma and makes me a little less sad about leaving.
The offending little cars look more-or-less like this. They are two-passenger, unmuffled, and some sources call them "motorized quadricycles."

The offending little cars look more-or-less like this. They are two-passenger, unmuffled, and some sources call them “motorized quadricycles.”

  • The muffler-less little cars driven by teenagers roaring past at 1:00AM. What the F__ are they thinking to allow these machines that assault the hearing? They have two-stroke engines and sound like chainsaws, only louder, racing down the street. The kids who drive them have got to have hearing problems. But with a teenager, who’d know? 1:00AM and we awake to these ridiculous excuses for cars roaring past our window. These vehicles would be off the street in a heartbeat in most American towns.
  • On a related note, the lack of noise ordinances. A 30-minute fireworks show at 12:00AM on a work night? No problem, apparently, for the exclusive private club near us that has big private events featuring fireworks displays worthy of the 4th of July. On a Wednesday night or whenever.
  • Trash. Cigarette butts in the street and overflowing trash bins. Paris manages to be clean. So does London. I have never seen a trash problem in either city. In Austria where everybody smokes, there are no butts in the street.  Even in other Italian cities it’s not such a problem. In Venezia, there are city employees cleaning the calle by hand with brooms: ALL.THE.TIME. In Venezia, they pick up trash daily outside each door. Firenze is orderly, Milano not bad, and every Tuscan town is neat as a pin. Ortisei is spotless. In our particular neighborhood, the recycling centers are not where you need them. We have to walk two blocks to recycle although the trash bins for regular garbage are close by the apartment. Many of our neighbors cannot be bothered so the recycling gets dumped in with the putrescible trash. And if the bins are full, no one walks 10 steps to dispose of the trash or recycling in another bin. They just dump it on the curb. FYI, in our part of Roma we have escaped some of the worst of the trash problems because it is a bit upper class. In the poorer and middle-class neighborhoods it is worse. Far worse. 
  • Dog poop and pee on the sidewalks. Poor doggies have no greenspace unless they are walked in a park, so what are they to do? Still, it’s annoying, especially if it hasn’t rained for awhile. N.B: Do not step in a puddle on the sidewalk if it has not rained recently.
  • Things don’t change because people think nothing they do will make a difference. There is a fait d’accompli running through Italy. Why try to change because nothing ever does. There is little effective effort at process improvement to fix known problems, e.g., the buses or the recycling. Every new mayor promises to repaint the pedestrian crossings, but no one believes it will happen because it never does. 

    Not unusual to see the sidewalk as a parking lot for motorini, and frequently one or more are in motion.

    Not unusual to see the sidewalk as a parking lot for motorini, and frequently one or more are in motion.

  • Motorini sneaking up behind you or darting around on the sidewalks as though pedestrians are the problem. They drive on the sidewalks to find parking. They drive through red lights. They drive through pedestrian-only areas. Why have a pedestrian area in the city if motorbikes are allowed to drive in it?
  • Walking as a contact sport. Roman streets and sidewalks are like a giant game of “Frogger.” Walkers will run into you on the street, literally, because Romans cannot walk in a straight line and think a group of five people should walk abreast. To a person, our guests have commented on this phenomenon. Old ladies (not me) with two giant shopping bags walk down the center of the sidewalk and take up the whole thing. Narrow sidewalks do not help, but people do not anticipate oncoming foot traffic nor understand their spatial relationship to other pedestrians. All of a sudden they will realize you are there in “their” lane about a nanosecond before impact. Italians — at least Romans — do not naturally “keep right” when walking on a sidewalk. By my reckoning, about 60% try to walk on the left. Even the U.K. where they drive on the left, fewer people walk on the left! A friend raised in both Italy and the U.S. told me that in Italy they are not taught to walk on the right or in a line. People cannot even form an orderly queue. Staircases are a nightmare. Especially when some bozo decides to stand in the middle of it and carry on a conversation on his phone while people try to stream around him. Frogger, I tell you!
  • Buses that don’t show up. This drives me nuts. There is no schedule to Roman buses. Oh, ATAC publishes one, but do the drivers adhere to it? We have a bus app that is supposed to tell us when the next bus will arrive at our stop. But so often they don’t show up or (worse) the predicted one comes by as a dark bus: Fuori Servizio (out of service). We can tell it’s the bus we were waiting for because the bus ID number is the same on the app as the dark bus in the street.  So somewhere between the time it was supposed to leave the top of the line, the time the app said it would arrive at our stop, and the time the phantom bus goes by, it has gone off duty. This never happens in Paris or London. This may sound like whining but without a car and knowing a walk home is 70-90 minutes from the center of Rome — or a €15-20 cab ride — it is annoying. Especially in the heat or rain. This has never happened to us in another European city. You can set your watch by the buses in London, Paris, and anywhere in Switzerland. Closely related in annoyance: 2 or 3 buses on the same route traveling in a pack like a bunch of nuns. They all go by in a procession and then an hour passes with no buses on the line. Arrgghhhhh!
Italy is not perfect. Like any place, there are things that will make you crazy over time. (Yes, there are things in the U.S. that I will remember make me nuts about 3 days after we arrive. Our election process is one of them.) The list above makes me feel less sad about leaving Rome. Italy is still a wonderful place and we will always be happy to come back: as visitors!

We interrupt this move for a Swiss break

13 Oct
13 October 2016. We have mixed feelings about our impending departure. Many reasons we will miss our life in Italy yet in some ways we can hardly wait to get our butts on the plane. (See Missing the U.S.A.) We have a lot of little errands to do before we move back to Oregon, but most of them cannot be done until the final few days before we fly. So in fact, we have very little left to do until October 24. It’s not like we are packing up the whole household so why not take 10 days in Switzerland?
This little cow is at about 4900 feet. She has a freash dusting of snow and a great view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

This little cow is at about 4900 feet. She has a fresh dusting of snow and a great view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

The Bernese Oberland of Switzerland is one of our two favorite places to visit and to hike, the other being Italy’s Val Gardena. After our glorious month in Ortisei in July, we thought a compare-and-contrast trip to the Bernese Oberland — specifically the Lauterbrunnen Valley — was in order.
RIc brought his Swiss hiking hat along, luckily. On the trail from Grütschalp to Mürren.

Ric brought his Swiss hiking hat along, luckily. On the trail from Grütschalp to Mürren.

Last year we came at the very end of September and encountered eight days of Chamber-of-Commerce weather. This year, we are a bit later and the villages are definitely napping between the intense periods of summer tourists and winter skiers. Days alternate between sunny and clear and overcast. Supposedly tomorrow it will rain, but we’ve had some terrific hikes and it should be nice enough on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to hike again. This is our fourth trip to the area and proves once again that repeat visits are advantageous. With a base of familiarity, we are free to discover new facets of the region. Being here in almost-off-season gives more insight into local life and there are fewer tourist groups packing the trains and lifts. Click on any image below for a better view. 
This is the view from our apartment in the valley. Cows in the meadow, and a magnificent waterfall.

This is the view from our apartment in the valley. Cows in the meadow, and a magnificent waterfall.

We now have a favorite apartment here, at Ey-Hus. Owner James Graham (j.graham320@ntlworld.com) said I could share his contact information with you if anyone is interested. Two bedrooms, one with twin beds, one bath, small kitchen, nice big lounge, a view onto the waterfall and up to the mountains. The neighbors are grazing cows with their melodic Swiss bells. There’s a laundry, too, and a bus stop nearby allows one to easily travel the 1 kilometer to-and-from the train station with luggage or when one just does not feel like walking. As most of you know, we avoid cars when possible and this is the perfect place for a car-free holiday, with mountain trains and gondolas that go everywhere.  Renting an apartment and cooking most meals is a real budget saver in pricey Switzerland. James’ apartment even has a slow cooker so we can queue up dinner to cook while we hike.
The other direction off our terrace is this pretty house and the village church.

The other direction off our terrace is this pretty house and the village church.

The Val Gardena and our beloved Ortisei is less expensive, especially for food, and frankly, the restaurant choices are superior in the Val Gardena, but we don’t really visit either area for the cuisine. We come for the hiking and the scenery. And for the mountain transportation.
The Lauterbrunnen Valley has an incredible network of trains and lifts. It is thrilling to soar to the top of the Schilthorn and to chug all the way to the Top of Europe, the Jungfraujoch! It is also a delight to simply walk the easy hiking paths past the magnificent Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau, whether in sun or in snow. By comparison, the Val Gardena offers hiking in high meadows as well as along rocky ridges, and it has the rifugi that we love. In Switzerland, there are few places to refuel along the trail. There are restaurants at the lift stations, but few-and-far-between are rest stops to hike to for a meal or a bathroom. 
Like trying to decide which child is your favorite, I cannot choose between Ortisei and Lauterbrunnen and what each region has to offer. I love them both. For those looking for a unique European getaway, spend 4 or 5 nights each in Ortisei and Lauterbrunnen. The U.S. has nothing like this. Contemplate what it might be like to visit the North Cascades or the Rocky Mountains if served by transportation systems like in Europe, as well as rifugi where you can eat good food, drink great coffee, possibly sleep, and always find a toilet when you need one.

16 things I will miss when we leave Italy

7 Oct
7 October 2016. I have received many comments on Facebook, here, and via email about our impending departure from Italy. Some people are shocked as we are “living the dream.” Why give it up? My next few posts will address the good and not-so-good about both the U.S. and Italy, as places to live. Living somewhere and traveling there are entirely different things. First, what I will miss about Italy, i.e., the good stuff!

1. €1.00 shots of espresso and high-quality €1.20 cappuccino served in seconds at almost any bar.

Notice the cappuccino is not a Big Gulp, but a sensible size. Not so many calories so you can have cake, too.

Notice the cappuccino is not a Big Gulp, but a sensible size. Not so many calories so you can have cake, too.

Why does it take an American barista so long to make a coffee? An Italian has it in front of you in seconds! And it is good! No funny flavors, no 20-ounce mugs, and no paper cups! Even in the tiniest mountain hamlet, in a museum, or in a castle on a hill, you can get espresso. In a real cup. I love my coffee in a ceramic cup and a small cappuccino is just the right amount. 

2. Bars on every street where you can get the aforementioned beverages and good sandwiches for under €3.00.

Fast food is a sandwich you pick up in a bar for €2.70-3.00. Many varieties on a fresh panino with the best ingredients from prosciutto and formaggio to a vegetarian’s dream combo including my favorite, cicoria, They warm it and hand it to you. Maybe you sit down if it is your neighborhood place and not a tourist zone. It’s simple, fresh, delicious, and mostly healthy.

3. Trains

The train we take most often, Italy's Frecciarossa (Red Arrow).

The train we take most often, Italy’s Frecciarossa (Red Arrow).

OMG we love to travel by train. Go to Torino for a day? Sure! Venezia overnight? Why not? We have flown on only three trips in 4.5 years. Love love love the trains and the early-purchase discounts!
See Ric. Ric is happy. Ric in on a train in a sleeper compartment, How civilized!

See Ric. Ric is happy. Ric in on a train in a sleeper compartment, How civilized!

4. The ability to go almost anywhere in Europe with little planning

Instead of mounting an expedition from the U.S., we can explore Europe so easily from Base Camp Barton in Roma. Thank you, cat sitters, for making this possible!
Luscious, tender grilled octopus.

Luscious, tender grilled octopus.

5. Seafood

I always hated anchovies until I had them fresh, marinated. A plateful is a perfect antipasto. Mixed into fresh pasta they are heaven; with mozzarella, a delight! I love pizza Napoletana for its simplicity. Then there is calamaro. Not deep fried little Os, but lovely, fresh, grilled squid. Or polpo (octopus), gently grilled or sliced paper-thin as carpaccio. How about a hearty bowl of mussels in wine sauce? Good reasons to come back to Italy.

6. Wood-fired pizza

One of our four favorite pizzerias, La Pratolina. Smoked salmon and arugula with perfect mozzarella and no "sauce." Divine crust, wood-fired oven.

One of our four favorite pizzerias, La Pratolina. Smoked salmon and arugula with perfect mozzarella and no “sauce.” Divine crust, wood-fired oven.

Yes, there are wood-fired ovens in the U.S. We will seek them out. But simple Italian pizza will be hard to replace. Especially at Italian prices. Will I seem a pig when I order my own pizza in the U.S? Here it is the norm. To not order your own pizza is boorish.

7. Fresh mozzarella available in almost every little store daily

No pre-shredded Kraft plastic, please! Fresh mozzarella, whether mozzarella di bufala or fior di latte, there is no room in our lives for anything less than fresh. Praying that Pastaworks in Portland has it!

8. Wine that does not blow the budget

We spend 75% less on wine here than we did in the U.S., and that is not because we are drinking less of it or drinking bad stuff.

9. Being greeted warmly – even with un bacio – at places we frequent. Loyal patronage is recognized and rewarded.

My buddy il Commandante, aka Marco, and me.

My buddy il Commandante (The Captain), aka Marco, and me.

Yesterday I called one of our two favorite restaurants, La Fraschetta del Pesce to make a reservation. Il Commandante (The Captain) recognized me immediately, was delighted to hear we were coming back on Saturday, and I know we will be personally welcomed as friends. From the second time we dined there, we were “regulars.” This happens at so many places: the delivery guys from DOC, the bar at Piazza Buenos Aires, the salumeria in Campo dei Fiori. You feel like you — and your business — are appreciated. 

10. Our portiere. What a wonderful tradition this is! Someone to take care of the building, help the tenants, keep things safe.

There are no doubt fancy buildings in big North American cities with doormen and building supers, but we are privileged to have a portiere in even middle-class buildings in Roma. What does he — or she — do? Takes in the mail; holds packages; lets tradespeople in; ensures security by not letting solicitors in; cleans; welcomes; takes care of (our) cats for short absences; gathers intelligence. The portiere is the go-to person for neighborhood news. The portieri in both of the buildings we’ve lived in have been true blessings. They have helped me with Italian and befriended us. We shall miss them.

11. Produce that tastes like what it is and that will spoil in a few days because it isn’t treated with chemicals.

Ths bounty in the market in autumn.

The bounty in the market in autumn.

Carrots taste like carrots, but they only last a few days, turning limp soon after purchase. Peppers are sweet and crisp and add immense flavor to anything you cook. Apples are a miracle of flavor. How can the fruit be so darn good? I bought a red pepper in San Francisco last summer. It was organic. It tasted like cardboard.

12. August in Roma

We will not miss the heat, and August is somewhat a month to be endured, but it really is fun to wander around the neighborhoods when so many people are absent. Pedestrian crossings are passable as they are not needed for parking. “Rush hour” on our main shopping street is Christmas-morning quiet. Buses are empty and we get to sit down. It is a culturally significant event, this exodus.

13. The passaggiata and the business in the street, the sociality of it all, even if you don’t talk to anyone.

Getting out for a walk every day is part of the Italian lifestyle. So smart to stroll through the neighborhood, see what is new, pick up some ingredients for dinner. Maybe have a coffee, a gelato, or un’apperitivo. See and be seen, enjoy the weather, then go home to make dinner. Eating before 20:00 is declasse.

14. So many kind people and interesting acquaintances: Our doctors, our landlords, the Embassy people. 

Especially my friend Eleonora. Ele patiently tutored me in Italian until I am finally at the point where I can have a reasonable conversation. Now we are “just” friends and that is the best! We play Scarabeo (Scrabble) together and laugh a lot. She tries to explain Italy to me. I will miss her dearly! 

15. Speaking Italian

Tiring as it is, I do like to speak Italian and I shall miss that daily possibility. My comprehension has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 18 months outside of the Embassy. 

16. Telling people “We live in Rome!”

Piazza San Pietro at Easter. We've had a marvelous time here!

Piazza San Pietro at Easter. We’ve had a marvelous time in Roma!

When fellow travelers hear our English they inevitably strike up a conversation with “Where are you folks from?” We are proud to be Americans and Oregonians, but what a joy it has been to say “We live in Rome!”


2 Oct
1 October 2016. What to do with our stuff? Uncle Sam is not paying for this move, although he graciously shipped what little we declared precious-to-us upon our retirement. We did not want to pay for 18 months of storage for things easily replaced so we only shipped only 1100 pounds back to Portland. (For reference, when we moved to Roma, we shipped 11,000 pounds of household goods.) We have no furniture in storage and few household goods. Stored for our return are artwork, Ric’s collectible trains, some family crystal and other memorabilia, a few books. Not much more. We sold a lot of stuff when we moved from the embassy apartment to our own place on Via Ruggero Fauro.
My guardaroba or wardrobe. Much better than a closet.

My guardaroba or wardrobe. Much better than a closet.

We took a few pieces of furniture to our mostly-furnished retirement rental, but nothing worth shipping across the ocean. As most American homes come with closets, our guardarobe (which we LOVE) are unnecessary.
We had hoped to keep a few more things and ship them back, especially two 8’x10′ carpets we love. However, shipping is a very expensive prospect. After receiving a bid on sending back the rugs, clothes, pots and pans, and this-and-that, we decided it would be far more fun to spend that much cash on buying new than sending old. It was a crazy amount of money.
This is the first pass at clearing out. The JNRC will receive it all.

This is the first pass at clearing out. The JNRC will receive it all.

Our landlady will take some furnishings that add value to the apartment for the next tenants (our European T.V., the guardarobe, a desk, lamps). Other items will go to the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. They will take all the men’s clothes and shoes we can gather, my old and heavy sewing machine, some kitchen gear. Our Peruvian housekeeper is taking women’s clothes which her family in Peru is anxious to have. (This is a thing. Our doctor told us his mother and sister give their clothes to their foreign-born housekeepers, too.) What these sources won’t take will go to Roman recycling: the street, where the pickers will claim it in about 65 seconds. (See Changing House from May 2015.)
We are shipping things one 10-kilo box at a time through Mailboxes, Etc. The cost will be a fraction of that for shipping what we had hoped to send through the transfer company.
We will ship only clothes we love and that fit. We are not packing I-might-use-these tee-shirts or if-I-lose-five-pounds jeans. Only one pair of heels for me as I have worn heels about four times in the past 18 months. No sheets or towels (easily replaceable and pretty old anyway), no 15-year-old flatware, no toiletries except those we need for the trip home. I think Ric is down to owning three pairs of shoes instead of eight. I have a way to go on that front. Thinking about it, when we travel we pack only two pairs of shoes each, three bottoms, five-or-six tops, a couple of layering pieces, and a jacket, yet we manage for up to four weeks on the road. We don’t really need all that stuff in the wardrobe. The challenge is not getting caught up in replacing all of it. I sure could use some new pajamas, though. I haven’t bought new in about two years. I feel a Nordstrom order coming on….
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