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Cose italiane (Italian things)

11 Apr

11 April 2017. This time of year I always think about cleaning out the closets, assessing spring and summer clothes, putting away the puffy jacket and wool sweaters. That inevitably made me think of how Italians do the seasonal cambio as well as other cultural difference. I hope you’ll enjoy this entry from a year ago. Happy Easter! Happy Spring!

The following was originally posted 11 April 2016.

Even after almost four years in Italy, there are things that strike me as uniquely Italian and a bit amusing.  

Cheek kissing

Funny how cheek kissing has become normal to us. You do not meet a friend on the street – male or female – without doing il bacetto, the little kiss. Even waiters and shopkeepers will do this with frequent and favorite customers. I’ve seen burly Carabinieri officers smooch my U.S. law enforcement colleagues. Famously, Italian politicians attempt to assault American presidents.  Il bacetto is a little air kiss, not a big wet smack and it takes some getting used to in order to execute one smoothly. When a group of friends breaks up after coffee, drinks, or dinner it can take a while for everyone to properly bid adieu as one cannot depart without giving il bacetto to each person. And then you have to say “Ciao, buonasera!” about a dozen times. No fast exits.  

 

President Bush doesn't quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

President Bush doesn’t quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

Il Cambio di stagione

Many Italians let the calendar decide their clothing. 80 degrees (F) in early April? Better keep a scarf around your neck just-in-case. You wouldn’t want to catch la cervicale (pain in the cervical vertebrae) or un colpo d’aria (literally “a hit of  air”)! These are Italian ailments that are hard to explain in English but are taken very seriously. A blast of air on your neck, throat, or head is the root cause of all illness. Although the temps have had Ric and I pulling out our short-sleeved attire, sending the wool sweaters to the dry cleaner, and assessing what new warm-weather clothes we need, we still see many Italians in their puffy winter jackets and heavy wools with scarf-wrapped necks. While in the morning it might be a pleasant 55F and the jacket is not too terribly hot, by afternoon it is 75F, way beyond needing the jacket. But it is too soon to do Il Cambio! Cold weather might come back!
When we lived in Portland, all of our clothes were in our substantial walk-in closet. I might shove the winter stuff to the back when warmer temps prevailed, and the short-sleeved tee-shirts came to the top of the drawer, but basically I could find warmer clothes in a couple of minutes.
The typical Italian household does not have a lot of closet space. We use wardrobes for what we are wearing now and some sort of under-the-bed or overhead storage for the other season. Typically, we have only about half of our clothes at hand. Il cambio (the seasonal change out of the closet) is a big thing twice each year. Sometime in April, but generally closer to May 1, Italians pull out the ladder to get things down from the overhead closets and unwrap the items in the under bed chests, deciding what to keep and what to recycle. Ric and I, in a decidedly non-Italian way, are well into il cambio but the temps did drop a bit the other day. I just hope we don’t freeze our necks when we go to dinner tonight. Maybe I’ll look for a scarf to wear with my spring jacket.
The only closets in our apartment are desigend for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

The only closets in our apartment are designed for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm -- about 39 inches -- wide.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm — about 39 inches — wide.

Il cambio mostly compelte, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

Il cambio mostly complete, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

I love the wardrobe versus the American-style closet. I can see everything and I am forced into being quite orderly. 

 

Scarves & sundresses

As I mentioned above, a scarf is a way of protecting you from la cervicale. If the wind blows on your neck, you could become very ill. (Yes, you can call in sick with la cervicale. Try to explain that to your U.S. or U.K. supervisor.) You can also get colpo d’aria. So you will see women wearing scarves with sundresses. Air conditioning is generally considered to be a hazard to health, so if you have to go into somewhere cold (i.e., below about 80F) you want to be protected.
She is not taking any chances at developing cervicale!

She is not taking any chances of developing la cervicale!

Cornetti in the hand

When an Italian goes into a bar and orders a cornetto (croissant) and un caffè, typically the barista will grab the cornetto with a napkin and hand it to the patron, then turn to make the requisite espresso. The cornetto is generally eaten standing up, using the napkin to hold it, and is eaten before downing the shot of espresso, which is liberally laced with sugar. It’s all very fast, maybe 2 or 3 minutes for consuming the pastry as well as drinking the coffee. In fact, Starbucks cannot make a shot as fast as an Italian can consume this entire meal in a bar.
While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. ONe always eats oneàs corentto wrappedin a napkin. More sanitary.

While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. One always eats oneàs cornetto wrapped in a napkin. More sanitary.

When we go into the bar and order cornetti, 95% of the time they pull out plates and set our pastries on them. I actually like that as we tend to linger a bit more, but isn’t it funny in this land of slow paced living and reverence for food, the bar breakfast is consumed at lightning speed? And how do they metabolize all that sugar every day? We can’t do it and we walk 6-7 kilometers a day.

 

August

August is a weird month. So many people go on vacation at the same time that the nightmare traffic disappears and parking places are everywhere. How can so many people arrange their lives to be on vacation at the same time? Hospitals send patients home. Doctors’ offices close. Restaurants close so the entire staff can be gone at the same time. Buses are on a reduced schedule , special for August.
I love it. You can’t get anything done, but the city is so empty it is marvelous. You have to live it to believe it. And this does not happen in the center, in the tourist area. That remains hopping.
This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening,. Usually it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening. Usually, it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

Portieri

When I was young and watched movies set in New York City, I would marvel at apartment buildings with “supers” and doormen. We had no such thing as far as I knew in St. Paul, Minnesota. How glamorous would it be to live that way!
In Italy, we have portieri. A portiere is a combination caretaker-concierge-postman-security guard. He – or she – will clean the common areas, collect your mail and packages, keep an eye out for trouble ensuring unsavory elements stay out of the building, and give advice. He’ll help you carry heavy packages to your door, assist the elderly up-and-down the stairs, and in our case, give the occasional Italian lesson.
One evening we lamented to Italian friends the problems we had with trying a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription because they’d deliver when we were not home and the produce would wilt in the sun in our driveway. Our friend  was shocked to hear we did not have a portiere to take the delivery in for us.
It is traditional to give the portiere a gift three times a year: Christmas, Easter, and Ferragosto. The latter is the mid-August holiday initiated by Caesar Augustus. Why then? Because the portiere stays on duty to ensure the safety of the property while everyone else is on vacation. If you have a portiere the incidence of burglaries is reduced.
Nothing happens in our building, on our street, or even in the neighborhood that our portiere doesn’t know about. He’s a font of intel when we need it.
Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired...but still helping us out every day. He calls himself "The Sheriff" and he is alwasy watching out for us.

Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired…but still helping us out every day. He calls himself “The Sheriff” and he is always watching out for us.

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Ex expat

15 Jan
14 January 2017. Twelve weeks ago we were still roaming in Rome. Seems like a distant memory, almost a dream.
When I see photos on Facebook by my friends in Italy, I really miss it. Walking around at Christmas was a biggie. My heart wanted to be there; However, my mind knew the crowds and the usual problems would make me crazy.
Personally, I don’t miss living in Rome, but I do miss our Italian lifestyle if that makes any sense.
We miss the being able to do most of our errands on foot.
We walked everywhere in Rome. If a bus was not coming, we walked home. That is not remotely feasible in Portland where we are staying with our son. Case in point, yesterday we spent 30 minutes waiting for a bus delayed due to the snow. In Rome, even if we were all the way across town we just would’ve started walking because it was possible to walk home in an hour-or-so from almost anywhere. There is no feasible route to do that here.
Not to mention it’s just incredibly beautiful to walk through Rome. Just saying. But then Oregon has some damn fine scenic elements. 
Walking was our major form of exercise, something we accomplished almost without trying. I cannot get to 10,000 steps here without making a major expedition. Hoping I can change that big time when we move to the Oregon Coast next month.
We miss being able to walk to-and-from dinner.
In Rome, we could not only walk across town but could walk to dozens of restaurants we would be excited to dine at. And we would work off the calories by walking at least one way most of the time. It’s terrific to walk 20, 40, or even 60 minutes after a nice dinner. 
We miss coffee bars and cheap, high-quality cappuccini.
In Italy, it is a God-given right to have a great cappuccino for about €1.10. That’s about $1.17. A great cappuccino served at a table outside a little cafe, possibly with a gooey chocolate cornetto that cost €.90. For €4.00 ($4.26) we would have our repast. Since we frequented Bar Ponte Milvio, we would leave a Euro now and then for our friendly server and the guys behind the bar.
By contrast, this morning, we paid $11.00 for two black coffees and two pastries, we served ourselves, and they expected a tip! The pastries were good, but seriously?
I miss speaking Italian.
Luckily I have a class “Keeping up in Italian” starting next week, and I play Parole con Amici (Words with Friends) daily to keep my head in it. OTOH, I do love understanding everything that is said and going on around me and being able to make myself understood in a grammatically correct manner. 
We miss hopping on a train.
Ah, the ease of travel in Europe! We could go anywhere as long as we had a cat sitter. Tuscany for the weekend? Venice just for dinner? (Yeah, we did that once and spent the night.) Joyriding to Paris via Milano beat flying. Now we will have to mount a major expedition just to visit. And flying is a necessary part of U.S. travel. (I can’t see hopping on the Empire Builder to go to Minnesota and taking 37 hours.)
We miss excellent wines at a non-budget-busting price.
Wine in stores in the U.S. is not priced too badly, but in restaurants, well, apparently thievery is not illegal. $11.00 for a glass of wine is not uncommon. We could buy a bottle of decent Sicilian wine in a restaurant for about $17.00.
We do have a fine Farmer’s Market in Portland. Fine, especially if the weather is good. It’s tough to get there in the snow.
OK, enough whining. Yes, we knew we’d miss this stuff. We knew what the U.S. was like and we came back anyway. You know why? Because STUFF WORKS HERE.
  • You can run all of your appliances at the same time without blowing a circuit and you can afford to pay the bill afterward.
  • We have a clothes dryer. I can do three loads of clothes before noon, including sheets, which would have taken an entire day to dry in our spare bedroom during winter.
  • You can buy anything you want at most large grocery stores. Not only food but lightbulbs, batteries, cosmetics, greeting cards, gifts, stamps. You do not have to go to four different specialty stores. And you can get cash from the cashier when you use your debit card. I’d completely forgotten about that convenience.
  • You do not need to have €200.00 cash in your pocket to get you through the week. Debit cards are magically accepted even for a coffee. (But then a coffee can cost $3.00 so why not?)
  • No one sneers at credit cards and you can return items if you make a buying error. This is no small thing.
  • Nice clothes are affordable and there are petite sizes for those of us who are height challenged. Funny how you can buy clothes made of Italian wool in the U.S. at an affordable price point but you can hardly find them in Italy.
  • You can go to a bank and talk to a teller without waiting 20 minutes. And the teller will be pleasant and bend over backward to help.
  • The Internet really is a fast web. (Play on words there. Our provider in Rome was “FastWeb” and they weren’t. Fast, that is.)
  • The buses come when they are supposed to, and tell you when they are late. We have an app that tells us when the bus is scheduled and that gives real time updates as to actual arrival. So if traffic is heavy and the bus is moving slowly, you know it before you leave the house. Buses never just disappear as they did in Rome. Knowing when the bus is coming is a big deal and Rome has not mastered that service.
  • My cousin calls the U.S. the “Land of Stuff.” That is good news and bad news. We over consume in the U.S. OTOH, you can satisfy a lot of desires and solve a lot of problems with the products available to us here.
  • Online shopping is superb. Amazon and Alexa, we love you.
  • The U.S. Post Office, bastion of good service that it is, should be a role model for the world.
People, of course, were a major factor in moving back to the U.S. We have enjoyed the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with family for the first time in years, and are enjoying dinners with friends when we can get out of the frozen wasteland of our neighborhood. (There have been two major snow events and one minor one since mid-December. Having a car has been a bit of a joke.) Being on the same continent as your family has benefits.
It is more expensive to live in the U.S. We did not move back as a shrewd financial move. It would have been more affordable to live in Italy, from a strictly dollars-and-cents perspective. However, I don’t think I would want to grow very old in Rome. It’s just not an easy place to live, period. We are, after all, and for better or worse, Americans.
We will be back, Italy! To visit. 

 

Cross-Cultural Experience

20 Dec
December 19, 2016.
I first posted the blog below on December 9, 2012. It is a happy seasonal memory I thought I would share again. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Last night we attended
As is tradition all over teh world, a girl is chosen to play Santa Lucia and wear her crown of candles.

As is tradition in Scandinavia, a girl is chosen to play Santa Lucia and wear her crown of candles and red sash.

…a Swedish children’s concert in celebration of Santa Lucia (whose feast day is Dec. 13)
…sung by a children’s choir from La Chiesa di Svezia (The Swedish Church), which is Roman Catholic
 
…held on the day Italians celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
…in a German Lutheran Church (the only Lutheran Church in Rome)
Half of the service was in Swedish, half in Italian.  It was sweet! I recognized a lot of the music from my Minnesota Swedish Lutheran upbringing.
Not your average Lutheran Church.... This one is German, the only Lutheran Church in Rome, built in the early 20th century.

Not your average Lutheran Church…. This one is German, the only Lutheran Church in Rome, built in the early 20th century.

The chorus ranged form 4 or 5 year-olds to teenagers, boys and girls.

The chorus ranged from 4 or 5 year-olds to teenagers,both boys and girls.

The Swedish ex-pats here, both from the diplomatic community and those who have married Italians,  support a lively Swedish language program to keep in touch with their heritage. There was a Swedish Christmas market last weekend at La Chiesa Svezia.Chorus by candlelight. Sweet sweet singing all in Swedish.

Back to reality

4 Nov
3 November 2016. Returning to the U.S. has not been without surprises. It still amazes us to walk into a grocery store and see the embarrassment of riches available in the land of stuff. Sure, the shelf space devoted to pasta is minuscule compared to that in Italy, but my God we have everything in our markets! From French cheese to cosmetics and prepared foods, we can get it all in one stop. Italy has its many charms, but I can appreciate an efficient supermarket and access to food items other than Italian.
Here are some of our observations after a few days of wandering around Portland:
Yup, lots of olives here, but at double the price we paid in Roma!

Yup, lots of olives here, but at double the price we paid in Roma!

  1. The reason people order 400-calorie flavored lattes at Starbucks is to cover up the taste of the coffee.
  2. Mendicants will give you a sincere compliment when hitting you up for a donation. Apparently my color coordination was quite stunning, according to one panhandler. I did not donate to his cause.
  3. People park where they are supposed to.
  4. We had forgotten about samples in the grocery store. You can practically have lunch walking through an American market.

    We had forgotten about samples in the grocery store. You can practically have lunch walking through an American market.

    Boxed wine takes more shelf space at Fred Meyer than pasta does in our little market in Parioli.
  5. You cannot live without a car if you live more than a couple of miles from the city center. It took me 2 transfers and 75 minutes to go 9 miles in Portland on public transportation: Bus to MAX light rail to Portland Streetcar. Ridiculous. 
  6. Food is crazily expensive in the U.S. and the price of wine is criminal. 
So many people have asked what’s going on with our return, I thought I would add a quick rundown of the past week.
We happened upon a wedding at the city hall while wandering around Frankfurt.

We happened upon a wedding at the city hall while wandering around Frankfurt.

We flew out of Roma to Frankfurt on Thursday, October 27. We spent two nights there so Janie, our sweet 20-year-old cat, could recover from the shorter flight before the long one to the West Coast. Just going to Frankfurt, she had to be in her carrier for 6 hours what with the transfer from home to FCO, waiting time, flight time, and getting to the NH Hotel at FRA. Janie did well with the flight and hotel stay. She explored our room extensively then settled in to take a nap.
Janie relaxes with her mousie at the NH Hotel, Frankfurt,

Janie relaxes with her mousie at the NH Hotel, Frankfurt,

On the 29th we took the overwater 10+ hour flight to Seattle on Condor Airlines. You might ask why the routing FCO-FRA-SEA when we needed to go to Portland. There are precious few carriers that allow animals in the cabin on an over water flight: only KLM/Delta, Lufthansa, and Condor. KLM/Delta out of Amsterdam to Portland was crazily expensive and Condor offered some attractive pricing out of Frankfurt. Our seats cost less on Condor and they charged half as much for the cat under-the-seat, for example, as Delta did four years ago.
Waiting at FCO, Janie has a look around.

Waiting at FCO, Janie has a look around.

The 29th was a long, long day for all of us. We nabbed premium economy seats so with Janie under my feet we had a little extra legroom. I took her out four times in flight, scofflaw that I am, for cuddles and to check the cleanliness of her carrier. Fifteen hours from hotel to hotel is a long time without a litter box. I had lined her carrier with a sheepskin pad and taped an absorbent “wee-wee pad” around it, which worked well to keep her dry.
We traveled light: a rollaboard, which we checked, and a daypack each. About 1/3 of the capacity was stuff for Janie: collapsible/disposable litter boxes, litter, food, dishes. We each had a couple of changes of clothes and a laptop. Our needs are simple. Arriving at the hotel in Seattle Janie wasn’t sure if she wanted dinner or a litterbox first!
On our walk yesterday, a little waterfall. So very Oregon in the rainy season.

On our walk yesterday, a little waterfall. So very Oregon in the rainy season.

Sunday, we drove to Portland, which was fun after such a long absence. It was raining, so we felt appropriately welcomed to the Pacific Northwest.
Our son invited us to stay with him while we search for a house and get re-established, so we are doing just that: settling in, overcoming jetlag (coming west sucks), getting pre-approval on a mortgage, shopping for a vehicle, and today we start looking at real estate. We are unpacking some of the 10 boxes we shipped from Italy and starting to reconnect with friends (thank you Voyageurs Femmes for the grand welcoming last night!) and learn our way around on public transportation.
We have only been gone from Roma for a week and the 4 ½ years we spent there is already starting to feel like a dream. Did we really do that?

 

What I look forward to in the U.S.

26 Oct
26 October 2016. One day to go! We walk around Rome alternately maudlin and delighted. While we are ready to move on to the next adventure, we will miss many things about this magnificent city. Walking to dinner in any number of neighborhoods, enjoying the architecture, stopping in any little bar for a good coffee. Pizza. But the romance of Roma and thoughts of staying can be dashed in an instant by a tangle with bureaucracy, and as we try to depart there are daily tangles. Save me from service businesses that close for lunch just when I need to run an errand, like at 2:00PM two days before we move!
This is part four of my four-part series on what I will miss and not miss in Italy and the U.S. Here’s what I am looking forward to in the U.S.
My clothes dryer in summer. In the winter the "dryer" is in the second bedroom.

My clothes dryer in summer. In the winter the “dryer” is in the second bedroom.

  • Clothes dryers. Hanging clothes out to dry is not too bad in the summer. In the winter it can take 48 hours for jeans to dry and I have to set up a drying rack in the second bedroom. Doing sheets and towels without a dryer is a chore I would gladly skip. And without a dryer, one has to do a lot more ironing. Dryers also take the lint and cat hair off my black tee shirts.
  • Running multiple appliances at the same time. I cannot iron while I wash clothes. We cannot make coffee and toast at the same time unless we are really lucky. The washer and the electric tea kettle running simultaneously can also pop the circuit. The cure is a trip down four floors to the basement to reset the breaker. We are looking forward to electrical service that can handle multiple appliances at one time, as well as to less ironing.
  • Ethnic food. Mexican, Tex-Mex, Thai, Sushi, Vietnamese, Indian, and HALIBUT! Oh, I have missed halibut! We have great food in Italy. GREAT food. But I miss having some good alternatives.
  • Using my superb English skills. My Italian has gotten pretty good but I still do not understand much about the culture and how things work. Politics defies understanding unless you grew up here, I think. It is difficult for me to stand my ground, to argue when something isn’t going my way. It’s a national past-time here. I do that VERY well in English.
  • Netflix and Vudu got all cranky a few months ago and will no longer stream dependably through a VPN so we cannot get all the American content we want in Italy. Luckily Amazon Prime Video works most of the time.
  • Family and friends and easy visits with the people we love. We have had a wonderful time hosting people here, but it’s not as easy as having a monthly dinner date. I miss my girlfriend time (Voyageur Femmes, I am speaking of you!). Looking ahead to Thanksgiving in Seattle and Christmas in Durango!
  • The Portland Farmers’ Market. While it’s only held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it’s only there for 9 months of the year, it’s a lot of fun. I am looking forward to finding more options to buy direct from the farmer and not only the produce but also meat and poultry. Santa Rosa-style burrito, anyone?
  • Talbots, Nordstrom, Zappos, and Amazon.com. I love online shopping. Period. Nothing more to say.
  • Pinot Noir from Oregon. There is wonderful wine in Italy, of course, and it is inexpensive, but Oregon Pinot Noir is something special. In the U.S., we can get wine from anywhere in the world. In Italy, you get wine from Italy. 
  • Going out to breakfast now-and-then. (Hashbrowns and bacon!) No one in Italy knows how to make a decent omelet. Frittata, yes, but not omelets. Hashbrowns do not exist outside of the commissary at the U.S. Embassy, and I don’t have access to that anymore. However, I don’t think Ric nor I can down the big breakfast these days. We’ll have to split a portion. 
  • Reading the Sunday paper. Such a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning. I might wait until after the election, though. Well after. 
We are packed. The last shipment through Mail Boxes Etc. was dropped off today. We have the travel certificate for Janie Gray. Now, what have I forgotten?
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