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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. 

 

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Retail Therapy

6 Apr
I hate shopping for clothes in Italy. No such thing as “petite” sizes for those of us who are height-challenged, and most stores are tiny boutiques, so it is a drag going in-and-out to find what you might want. There is little in the way of moderately priced clothing: it is either too cheap (and probably flammable) or ridiculously expensive. A 22% VAT doesn’t help. Shopping the bancarelle (outdoor street market stalls) is not something I care to do. Imagine trying on your clothes in a Fototessera booth.
Typical bancarella in Viale Parioli, near our flat. Seasonal clothing, very inexpensive. Probably made by Chinese immigrants in sweat shops in Prato, IT.

Typical bancarella in Viale Parioli, near our flat. Seasonal clothing, very inexpensive. Probably made by Chinese immigrants in sweatshops in Prato, IT.

 

The fototessera booth, where we go for ID pictures, and where shoppers can slip in to try on clothes. Note the handy location next to overflowing trash bins.

The fototessera booth, where we go for ID pictures, and where shoppers can slip in to try on clothes. Note the handy location next to overflowing trash bins.

With summer approaching, I was really missing the days when we had the ability to shop online in the U.S. (Nordstrom! Amazon! Talbot’s!) and receive our purchases duty-free thanks to the Diplomatic Post Office. Lo and behold, we found out Lands’ End has a U.K. web presence and I was able to order jeans that fit.
If the U.K. decides to leave the EU, this will no longer be possible as we’ll have to pay customs fees, which are very high. <Sniff> I also like U.K. retailer John Lewis. Great stuff at not-bad prices. We also shop (and have for a year now) at Amazon.IT, where eerily our login info, address book, and credit cards ported over from Amazon.com.
Online shopping is not nearly as developed as in the U.S., but it’s a start. Now, off to ECCO’s EU site to browse sandals. The warm weather has arrived!

NB: For info on the Chinese garment industry in Prato, see this article from the New York Times

Field trip: Eataly

19 Sep
Eataly is not on the itinerary of many who visit Roma. If you only have a few days in the city, trekking out to this distant-from-the-center-grocery-store-on-steroids is probably not how you want to spend a precious vacation day. We, however, are always on the prowl for a good field trip. (No permission slips required.) So one day this week, remembering a nice lunch we had there sometime ago, we made our fourth trip there in 3 years. No, we don’t go there often.
My lunch, Piadina "La Saporita" from La Piadina. True to its name, it was flavorful.
My lunch, Piadina “La Saporita” from La Piadina. True to its name, it was flavorful.
Eataly, to me, is not a place to do the regular shopping (for one thing it is a long way from home), although around lunch time, it gets busy with Italians who are snapping up the fresh produce and other delectables. To me, it is entertainment. Meters and meters of pastas, in shapes I have never seen accompanied by colorful produce, prime meats, abundant fish, hanging prosciutto and salumi of every kind, endless cookbooks, kitchen implements for which the use is obscure, row-upon-row of wine, a rainbow of preserved vegetables, a chocolate selection to make the Swiss jealous, and several interesting eateries. It is four floors of decadence. It is expensive. Everything sold there is Made in Italy. Bravo!
The produce area is almost unreal in its beauty and bounty. All Italian in season, of course.
The produce area is almost unreal in its beauty and bounty. All Italian in season, of course.
Tucked behind Stazione Ostiense, it can be difficult to find when arriving by Metro. The first few times we thought we should leave a breadcrumb trail as we traipsed through tunnel-after-tunnel. This time we noticed prominent signage that guided us. It was excellent, we thought. Perfect help for tourists: giant signs and arrows everywhere…until the last couple of turns where clearly the direction givers assumed “You can’t miss it.”  (This happens a lot in Italy: assumptions on way-finding.) The final leg has you traverse the entire under-track corridor at Stazione Ostiense on the hope that at the end one might emerge near the entrance to Eataly. If you decide to go, persevere.
Conservanti included these gorgeous peppers.
Conservanti included these gorgeous peppers.
There’s a new Eataly in Piazza della Repubblica.  (They took over an old MacDonald’s. Quite the change.) We have not visited yet, but certainly it is more central for most visitors. We’ll make that a future field trip.
This trip, we had a nice look around, and a fine lunch, but we did not buy much: an olive-pitter and some pretty orangey-yellow Moleskin notebooks, which I love for note-taking on trips.
Vino sfuso at a very good price. They even sell bottles in case you forgot yours.
Vino sfuso at a very good price. They even sell empty bottles in case you forgot yours.
The food outlets are called "Ristorantini" or little restaurants. They are semi-self-serve but food is made-to-order. This one empty at noon, because lunch here really does not start until 13:00.
The food outlets are called “Ristorantini” or little restaurants. They are semi-self-serve but food is made-to-order. This one, empty at noon, because lunch here really does not start until 13:00.
Long long shelves of almost everytning. Here, preserved vegetables. Not your Green Giant corn....
Long, long shelves of almost everything. Here, preserved vegetables. Not your Green Giant corn….
Riding the moving ramp down. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.
Riding the moving ramp down. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.
Prosciutti hang from the ceiling at the top of a moving ramp leading to the salumi department.
Prosciutti hang from the ceiling at the top of a moving ramp leading to the salumi department.

Paris bits and pieces

1 Apr
By now I am used to functioning in two languages. I understand most of what I see in print in Italian, with the exception of the newspaper as it is written in run-on sentences with obscure terminology and archaic verb tenses. When someone speaks directly to me, I understand most of what they are saying if I get the context to start. When I need to communicate me la cavo (I get along) even if my grammar is not perfect.
When we embarked on our trip to Paris I was hit by the realization that I would not understand much of anything from menus to street signs, and I certainly would  not understand spoken French.  Going to France was the most foreign thing we had done since we first traveled to Italy in 2010.
We found ourselves speaking in an odd combination of Italian and English. I am used to speaking Italian to our servers, technicians and shop people in Italy, so that’s the first language that sprang from my lips, combined with mangled French pronunciation. “Prendo il boeuf bourguignon, per favore.” I could not get past grazie to merci until mid-week. In one restaurant, we mixed up languages sufficiently to have the waitress convinced we were Italians who spoke little English. When we said “Merci bonsoir” at the end of the evening, she cheerily replied “Grazie, anche a te!”
There was little hope for me in pronouncing French street names. My Italian-addled brain insists that “Place” must be pronounced PLAH-chay. Once in awhile we’d hear Italian being spoken by other visitors and it was a joy to hear and understand.
Shopping in a French market reminded me of our first trip to Italy when we tried to figure out what things were. Like in Italy, lots of offal was available, from tripe to lambs heads (sorry vegetarians). The Super U was rather ordinary, but some of the shops are magnificent. We found ourselves taking a lot of pictures of store windows and displays.
Here are some Easter treats. Each store had a theme: fish, chickens, cows, even a little mole poking his head above the ground. All gorgeous and expensive. Click on any picture for a slide show.
Fashion windows are creative and the bakeries difficult to resist. The bejeweled athletic-style shoes are Dior. I love the ducks sporting sunglasses and the colorful men’s accessories. Ric showed no interest in blue shoes.

 

Avocados, artichokes and cabbages are arranged attractively. I wish I had taken a picture of the huge strawberries artfully displayed. In the Place du Madeleine area, boutiques with high-end chocolates, teas, cheeses, and wines seemed like museums. 

 

We also found time to see the major sites as we wandered the city. At the end of seven days of tromping about Paris my pedometer reported 162,222 steps. We covered some ground, but there’s so much left on the list that we must go back…but later in the spring so we can enjoy the gardens and maybe take our coats off. 

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015!

6 Jan
The last two weeks have been busy what with four – count ’em – four holidays in Italy! December 25 and 26 (Santo Stefano) we spent in Ortisei (see prior posts), then returning from vacation we had two more holidays to enjoy: New Year’s Day and Epifania.  Life is good!
New Year’s Eve we traveled to our favorite trattoria in Roma, Antica Taverna. The owner Paolo and our favorite waiter, Giovanni, took good care of us and we enjoyed a protracted dinner with too many dishes to name them all and a steady supply of good red wine. The dessert was the only item I managed to photograph, a delightful tortino al cioccolato.  It tasted 10 times better then it looks. It was THAT GOOD.  We slipped out before 23:00 in hopes of finding a cab before the whole city descended into chaos. The buses stop running at 21:00 on NYE because they can’t make it through the streets effectively. Can you imagine? Shutting down the buses because there are too many people in the streets? The Metro runs but unfortunately nowhere near our home. We can walk from Antica Taverna to home in 75-90 minutes, but it was really cold (for Roma) and walking did not seem like much fun. What luck! We found a cab at an obscure cabstand near the restaurant! Got home in time to endure 45 minutes of neighborhood revelry.  Some year we need to be brave and go down to the party in via Fori Imperiali and see the fireworks over the Colosseo. Some year.
This weekend was the start of the winter saldi (sales). We had a couple of purchases in mind and headed out into a bright if chilly Sunday along with THOUSANDS of people making their way to our destination, a major shopping street near the Vatican. We made our way by bus to transfer to the Metro at Termini. The Metro was packed like the Japanese subway on a business day. I wanted to take a picture of how crowded it was, but I couldn’t maneuver to do so packed in as I was with my arms pinned! We wondered at so many people heading out to shop! We might have bailed in the Metro station but by that time we were like cows going through chutes and there was no turning back. Moo. When we got to our stop, the hoards headed down the street toward the Vatican. It was then that we realized they were headed to Piazza San Pietro for the Pope’s angelis. Shopping was busy too, but not quite the cattle drive.
Today is Epifania, the official end to the Christmas season, also called Befana, when the witch La Befana visits the children leaving candy for the good ones and coal for the not-so-good children. Having no young children around and having spent Christmas out of Roma, we decided to have a small group of friends for a decidedly non-traditional lunch. Is Italian-Swedish a fusion cuisine? Our new friends and soon-to-be-landlords had voiced an interest in Swedish meatballs, and she wanted to make a special Neopolitan pastiera for dessert. Combined with a purè di patate casserole, Swedish pickled herring, Swedish cheese, a beet salad, and Italian salumi, it was cross-cultural event. Unfortunately as we got into entertaining we forgot to take more pictures!
So now we have to go a week-and-a-half until the next holiday, Martin Luther King’s birthday. Hope I can make it!
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