Sunday, January 30, 2011

Una Festa
Our neighbors Stephanie and Marco invited us to a party last Saturday night--luring T and her friend G with the promise of a seven month old baby attending. The baby lived up to his billing. He is always happy, never cries, and adores being held by new people--especially eleven year old girls. How does someone get a baby like this? T spent her first seven months of life crying every hour on the hour all night and they just laid Louis down in the playpen and he was asleep within minutes for the next thirteen hours.

It was such an interesting mix of people. Stephanie is from Tennessee, but she's lived in China and Australia and a million other places. John (who plays a taller, buffer Babbo Natale/Santa Claus at Christmas)  and Hazel (who is Native American and calls herself Nocciola for the Italians' sake) are artists from Taos, but they have lived in Tuscany for years and years. All the others--Marco from Milan, Gianluca from Calabria, Lucy and Ludo--the parents of the amazing baby--from Bordeaux by way of Manchester--have come to Lucca to work for a giant Swedish toilet paper company. We all had stories of trans-location to tell and how we ended up in this particular place.

The food went a little awry. There were some exploding tuna croquettes and a pumpkin that got mistakenly baked with the stuffing inside rather than baked and then stuffed, but no one minded because they were having too much fun. And then the Wii came out and created the funny moment of a whole sofa lined with people driving virtual motorcycles while writhing and cursing in a great many languages.

We're all going to get together again at the end of the month to go to Carnivale in Viareggio for Marco's birthday.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

K's alter ego 
My whole life I have confused my fantasy world with that of reality.  For example, I really only realized how short I actually am (5 ft. one and a half inches) when I turned like 35.  Just like one of the chihuahuas that barks ferociously at the big dogs, I had no idea.  You would have thought that marrying a man who is 6 foot three would have cured me of this, but you'd be wrong.  In fact until maybe three or four years ago, I had been buying clothes out of the Victoria's Secret or J Crew catalogs based on the idea that for $59.99 I could somehow purchase the rosy cheeked athletic body with the giraffe legs that came with the sweater.  Now I know to look my personal best that I have to buy skirts that stop at the knee, tops with a defined waist and necklines that plunge just a bit, but that is another story.

My alter ego also is the type who packs up in two seconds for a spontaneous last minute trip to Paris for the weekend and not the real me that spends four years planning for our move to Italy, down to the classic wardrobe, the white linens, and the robin's egg blue suitcases. Therefore, when on Saturday I found myself in my pajamas on my hands and knees again, re-doing our floors for the fourth time (once with large grain cement, once with small grain, once with clear sillicone, once with the white flexible kind) so that the flea story could really be put to rest and having to come up with an excuse in terrible italian for why we couldn't join some new friends who were inviting us for a picnic on the beach in Viareggio -- I felt really kind of down, that is super giu'.

In real life I still get kind of agoraphobic at times, suffer with a kind of hyper awareness about what I imagine people think of me, and think that dessert will fill the void for sweetness that was lacking in my childhood.  Still when  F opens the curtains every morning and outside looks like a film set, I feel like I need to put a renewed effort into getting out there and finally living each day fully.  I am praying for the time in the immediate future when I get enough sleep and find a great fulfilling exercise routine and have a little hop back in my step and can really do this dreamy italian life up the way I want to.  The other day T joked that my life was not a mockumentary, it was a mife -- a mock life.  Ouch. Out of the mouths of babes . . . as they say.  So I'm starting now.  Watch, as they say at Bravo, what happens.

Gym Class, Flintstones style
Actually, the gym teacher does kind of remind me of Fred Flintstone.

This is what T told me the other night about her Italian gym class:  Basically, all of the girls play pallavolo or volleyball and the boys play pallamano, which is some weird combination of ultimate frisbee and soccer using a ball instead of a frisbee.  T prefers the boys' game because she is better at catching the ball than she is lobbing it over the net and because the girls are less than patient with anyone who is not the next Misty May-Treanor.

Despite a lack of open enthusiasm on the part of the boys of 1-H, T has persisted and the gym teacher has accepted that she is a testarda/hard head.

But the other day when "Fred" was giving the team a lavata di capo/scolding or good old fashioned telling-off, he chose the unfortunate words: "What do you think this is? This is not a game for little girls!" At which point every boy on the team looked at T as if to say, "Does he mean we have to man up or does he mean she can't play anymore?"
T just rolled her eyes and did what she usually does -- stand at the goal and wait for somebody to finally pass her the ball, per carita'!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The silver lining

Although after only one hour of school, T called home to be picked up because her stomach hurt and she felt awful, there was one good moment.  A quanto pare, when they sent the lady who works at the front door/la portineria up to T's classroom to fetch her, the Signora was very confused.
La Signora said something to the effect of "No, no I have to pick up the American girl."
T pointed at herself.
"No, the girl with the blond stripe."
T pointed at herself again, indicating specifically her blond stripe..
"No, the girl I need to pick up is the American with the blond stripe. Not you. You speak italian."
At which point T's professor said something to the effect of "This is the girl, per carita'. Take her."
And so T smiled weakly and let herself be escorted downstairs into the soda and cracker filled arms of her father. 

P.S. she feels just fine now and we hope she'll be back at school tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Class of One Might Be Better
The follow-up to the Italian after school class for T is that four older boys did show up, later joined by two giggling Romanian sisters.  The naughty boys spent the whole class, unbeknownst to the teacher, cursing in English and looking up inappropriate pictures on the internet.  The teacher had recommended, even before the arrival of the new students, that T try the more advanced class on Wednesdays, so we will have to see who is there and how that goes before deciding whether T is more helped or hindered by the class, considering that she has a very hard night of homework on Wednesdays and will have three fewer hours in which to do it.

Meanwhile at her regular school T continues to blow our minds with her good grades, in the 7 range, with 10 being an A+.  She received 25 out of 30 on an Anthology veriifica just the other day.  Although the art teacher marked her down during the grading of her lovely landscape she made just because the poplar trees, which did diminish in size as they extended in the distance down a curved country path, were not at a 90 degree angle with their point of departure on the ground.  Still T is hard on herself and seems to constantly forget that she is doing all of this in a foreign language and is frustrated that one of her best friends seems to get perfect scores every time.  Yes dear, but she couldn't do this kind of work in English!  But T won't hear of it.  She is particularly unkind to herself about learning to play the recorder which is known as a flauto because the other children who have been playing since elementary school are much more advanced.  She keeps asking why they sound like they are playing a piano and cleans the little instrument continually to make sure it is not just dirty or malfunctioning just to spite her.  But really she has improved a lot, lo giuro.
The American Circus
And in the center ring you find, K & F on their knees for the fourth time cementing between every crack and crepa of their glorious 500-year-old tile floor.  Yes, the tiles are beautiful and no, we would not ever want to tell Sig. Paoletti that we ruined them in the pursuit of insect control; but surely there was some way to fill all of those black lines between the colored squares.

It was a real head smacker when K sent F out to the hardware store to ask if there was any way to seal up the cracks and F came back mere minutes later with what the cute couple who run the hardware store recommended: simple cement.  Why didn't anybody tell us earlier? The couple argued furiously for a few minutes about whether he should use fast dry or slow dry, but in the end, luckily for us, the wife won and we got rapid dry.  Unfortunately all of those little volcanic fault lines re-opened up within two days.  So there goes F off on his bike, losing and re-finding the lock, yet again, to arrive at our version of Home Depot (Bricco) where he came away with finer grain cement and a square spongy thing with a handle on the top.  From 9:10 to 11:35 that night, we crawled around peering into every crevice and trying to refill until K's back was on fire and she had abrasions all over her knees and F looked like an extra large salted pretzel.

It will never be 100% perfect, but we hope for the best.  And so far we have bought seven 3-packs of white athletic socks from the O.V.S, four of which are now permanently covered in cement. 
Chasing my own tail
The other night--in the midst of the worst of the flea ordeal--I went out on my bicycle to the 24 hour farmacia/pharmacy to get some Capstar, a pill that (theoretically) kills all adult fleas on your cat. When I asked the farmacista, she said they didn't have any for cats, they only had it for dogs. I asked if they might have some for small dogs, but she said no, only for big big dogs.

Dejected, I got back on my bike and headed home. When I pulled into the bike rack, I looked in the basket and my lock was gone. Thinking that it must have bounced out when I rode over the bump in Piazza Napoleone, I got back on the bike and retraced my path. As I rode, I decided that I would go back to the farmacia and get the pills for big big dogs and cut it carefully into small small pieces.

I pass the Piazza, no lock... go out through the walls, no lock... get to the bike rack at the farmacia, no lock...

I go back in and wait on line, rehearsing my speech in Italian to explain why I want the pills for the big big dog, but I get seen by the other farmacista, ask for Capstar and she brings me out the regular box which has a picture of a Jack Russell Terrier and a cat, but the Jack Russell is looming close to the camera lens and so APPEARS to be a big big dog as opposed to a little yappy one that is the same size as a cat.

Then on the way home, I found my lock.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

High Heels/Trampoli
I fit every cliche on earth of the little hip-hop loving jewish girl from New York who moves to Lucca, Italy and can't walk in heels.  Well, that may a little specific as stereotypes go, but most expats have a reputation for having a potty mouth and wearing flats, and, unfortunately I fit the bill on both counts. T is mortified that I'm the only mom who shows up at school clomping around in flat motorcycle boots instead of click clacking in on refined points.

Well, listen up friends, I've tried those devices of torture and even my most vain impulses cannot allow me to break my already dance inflicted injury torn body into more pieces.  For starters, the streets here are made of ankle turning cobblestones. My calves stretch like cartoon rubber plants and make ripping noises when I even try on anything at the shoe store that is  higher than two and a half inches.

Still in the cut throat world of femininity and the catty competition that goes with it in this harder-than-cement paved little city of Lucca, all is fair in love and fashion. And sadly the higher you are from the street, the farther you have to look down on the rest of us flat footed, jelly kneed, prone to sciatica, sisters who can't rise above it. Drat!

For my birthday, though, T found a website called on which she designed me a pair of compromise toeless booties that are due to arrive  at the beginning of next month. She is a determined little fashionista, our T.

Tap Dancing
People always say that Lucca must be so very different from New York, but the conventions of apartment life are very similar. Like the imaginary fourth wall of the theater, you must pretend that the people in the next apartment don't exist (and that you are not watching everything that they do in the course of the day). For the most part we have observed this convention with our neighbors across the courtyard, though once in late summer F and the dad of the family said "Ciao" to each other and also once ran into each other at the Ortofrutta.

Now as we spend every day in an odd ritual of vacuuming and steaming the floor, then, dressed in white socks with our pants rolled up above our knees, tap dancing like Savion Glover (at least in our own imaginations) in order to lure out any remaining pulci/fleas. Plus also, they have had many occasions to watch the bioenergy treatments which involve a lot of waving arms and hands over clients' heads, that, out of context, must make no sense at all.

But we trust that they will just ignore us, just as we ignore the other couple and the dog who seem to have moved in a couple of months ago, and the man's strange lab coat and hip-waders, and the construction crew who have been renovating the same room for months and months, and the tall lady with the dark hair.

Nope, never saw any of it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Class of One
Having learned our lesson that in Lucca it is not considered bad form at all to keep bothering administrators and bureaucrats to make sure something gets done, we took T's professor seriously when he said we should follow up with the letter her school sent home advertising an Italian language after-school class for foreigners.

First there was an awkward phone call with the class coordinator. Several days later, we met with the Professor in question at a nearby professional institute/high school. Prof. M is a commanding presence (and not someone you would want to see mad), but he has the twinkly kind of eyes that give away that he has a good sense of humor. He explained to us that they had gotten a state grant for the class because of the large number of foreign students in recent years that are studying in Lucca.

We sought Prof. out early yesterday morning, the day when her class was supposed to start, so that we would know what room to go to after school and avoid bringing T in late, a pre-teen embarrassment to be avoided at all costs.  Then we met with him again that afternoon with T--the only one of the ten slated children to show up at all.  That's right, T was the only one who had type-A foreign parents that actually bothered to make an appearance for the free tutoring. As a consequence, T had a private two hour lesson with a lovely teacher whose husband works with J Crew on their Italian leather shoes. Since she has a daughter just two years younger than T so she knew how to chat her up and assess her language skills. We assume the other kids will show up by next week and that there must have been some confusion in communication between the two middle schools and the host school.

We actually knew that the other two American kids, twins who did not know any Italian when they arrived here in Lucca, would not show up at the class because they decided to home school and have dropped out of T's middle school altogether. This development helped T to understand why we had made her have so many Italian lessons before we came here and what a good job she is doing that she is able to hold her own language-wise after such a short amount of time.

Only in Italy, though... I remember waiting in line at 5 AM with a friend to get her into a Brooklyn pre-school and assigning all the subsequent arrivals numbers such as: "Hi, I'm crazy number one and this is my friend crazy number two, so that would make you crazy number three" and so on. But she got in. And in Lucca, like everywhere else,  persistence counts. We got our permesso, didn't we?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Survivor Tuscany
And then there were three. I'm talking people, not fleas of course. K continues to get bitten by the last dying stragglers, having discovered a flea colony living in her old boots. Today F laid down boric acid which should be our last bold strategy when it comes to outlasting, outwitting and outplaying the little hopping suckers. Maria Pia who we thought was in our alliance seems to have not grasped the emotional distress K is in about not having her beloved pets and continues to look at the situation from the cats' perspective. It is a sticky situation as Maria Pia's daughter really needs K to do the bioenergy treatments that have been helping her with a type of benign tumor she has in her shoulder joint. K has seen about 10 different clients, and some repeatedly, for the bioenergy treatments that you can learn about at which helped K together with Jim Sparandeo's constant guidance nutritionally to go from a life of no energy with her hypo thyroid condition to getting off the synthroid and having a more normal existence. That will be a longer post at a later date for sure.

I keep waiting for Jeff Probst to jump out at us and tell us we have won a great sum of money, but instead it has cost a ridiculous amount to save our home. There would be no point in moving as we could have to face the problem again in a new location and would have to spend months adjusting our documents and utility services, not to mention that police are due to knock at our door any time now--since we asked for residency--to verify that we live at this address.

T continues to face reward challenges with reluctance when it comes to getting the mountain of vacation time homework done, but wins immunity with her balance, puzzle solving skills and social prowess.

K of course has questioned every decision she has every made in her life that got us here, but can't imagine going back to NY where T was having nightmares and post-traumatic stress after seeing a man repeatedly cut his arm in front of her with a giant S-shaped martial arts knife on the 2 train one day when we wanted to ride into Manhattan.  It is brutal to see your child stop talking and then spell out the word k-n-i-f-e in the sign language alphabet and then turn around to see a mentally disturbed man with a blade dripping blood behind you. Should you pull the emergency cord, try one of the self defense moves you learned in Tae Kwon Do or wait for the train to pull into the next station? We don't ask that kind of question here.

F dreaded going to work every day and sitting in the little cubicle where for what seemed like it should be a lot of money we could hardly afford a small one bedroom where T did not even have a door to her sectioned off part of the living room. K was suffocating from a life that was increasingly small in proportion to her growing awareness of the truth about her relationships and her past and was getting to the point where it was painful to leave the house.

Still after all that studying Italian, communication is still a daily struggle. No one told us that there is a six weeks of solid rain from october to november. Everyone goes to do the same kind of shopping or the same road trips or the same bureaucratic business on the same days so there is always a line or a traffic jam that if we only understood a little more about we could probably avoid. On the plus side, the food is infinitely better and fresher--even if T would sell her her vintage Prada purse for a constant influx of vegetarian sushi. The air is cleaner. Everything is cleaner. The house, once we've seen the crisis through for another week or so, is worthy of envy by many who have seen it. The city is safer and T has more independence. The school work is brutal, but her education is top rate.  She will no doubt be attractive to many universities and be able to work anywhere in the world doing something that may both bring her pleasure and financial success. She has friends who adore her even if she wishes she could be with S from Brooklyn every day with whom she has a familial bond.

It is truly horrible not to have the cats with us, but we hope that they will be happy again one day soon in a new home. Jim thinks that K, but maybe T & F too, were allergic to the cats even before. K's constant colds and T's respiratory issues and F's eye irritations could be an indicator. It is impossibly hard to choose between living with the painful burning of the bites and the health risks that come with it and a child who is getting asthma attacks for the first time and the cats you love, but we have to survive as a family and we don't know how else to do it. I could write happy cheery under the Tuscan sun kind of poetry for y'all, but you can get that somewhere else. There's loads of it on Trust me, we've read most of it. And I hope will add our own lovely poetic family moments very soon. But that may have to wait for the Reunion Show.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The New Year
This is very sad, and we hope that you can understand us, but we had to find a new home for our cats Mango and Tivoli. Unless you have tried to stand up all day because you are too scared to sit on your chairs and have spent hours picking our insects from fur and crushing them between your fingers, except for the ones that escape and end up in your pajamas biting your chest and neck, it will seem very cruel. It has just been so hard for F and I not to sleep because of the bites and for T to have to deal with sleep deprived, grumpy parents who spend hours every day doing nothing but sterilizing the house. I have dreamt of nothing but my body crawling with insects for nights and nights in a row. There is sadly a phase of flea development where the cocoons are impenetrable to poison and it can take months after a severe infestation for them all to hatch, continuing the atrocious process. So in the end it seemed that to protect our own health we didn't have a choice. If we let them back, we take the risk that the whole thing could get started all over again. 

I have to say that the house is sparkling clean. Unless you have ever vacuumed for hours in continuation a house that has virtually no fabric in it other than the bedding and then steamed every surface with a steamer and then wiped it down with alcohol, you have not seen clean like this. 

Hours after sending the cats off with none other than our erborista Maria Pia of folletto/vacuum pushing fame (may she be blessed a million times) we haven't seen any bugs or gotten any bites.  Maria Pia is a true animal lover, feeder of pigeons, and pied piper of puppies. She volunteers at a local kennel and has two cats of her own. The traps of soapy water we left out haven't produced anything since yesterday afternoon and there was nothing jumping off from the bedding minutes before I could finally fall asleep. Yesterday I had teary phone calls with our landlord, real estate agent, and of course Maria PIa, after a night of forty minutes of shut eye and fourteen new swollen bites on my arms and legs. Today I am going to have to convince Maria Pia that she does not have to take T to Pescia to visit with the cats today because she knows that they will be taken care of and is very tired after staying up past midnight for the first time with her friend Chiara. It would be hard phone call, even in English.

Last night we celebrated the New Year at Chiara's house with her parents, little brother, and grandparents.  I got phone calls all week concerning the menu to find out whether we liked the proposed (vegetarian) dishes, just for us. The food was so scrumptious that it brought new meaning to "melt in your mouth." The golden potatoes could make a potato lover like T weep with joy as they dissolve under the tongue like heavenly clouds of sun-filled mother's love. Chiara's little brother who is eight is non-verbal and shows his love by grabbing your hand and choosing you to come sit on his favorite couch in the living room which made me feel very special, I have to say. They even had little gifts for us on the plates and then, to T's delight, there were fireworks close by that could be seen from the balcony, even crazy ones set off by the neighbors' on the wood pile off their terrace from the floor above. Now all I want to do is make up to T for all of the time that was robbed by this and all of the times that I was impatient and exhausted. Chiara's mom is an inspiration to me and I know it was not by accident that we were meant to spend capodanno with her.