Fifth Grade in Italy (written by Ray)

written by guest blogger Ray

This is me in front of my school

Elementary school is way different from Bellevue.  It’s all in Italian, it’s six days a week and I get out earlier so I can eat lunch at home.  I’m in fifth grade here.   I go to a different school than Tom since he is in middle school.  I like my teachers and my classmates.  School starts at 8:10, which means I have to wake up a lot earlier than in Washington.  When I wake up by a “beep beep” of my alarm clock, I am tired.  My school is only five minutes from my apartment walking.  When I get to class, my classmates say, “Come va?” which means, “How are you?” So I say, “Bene.”

One time my entire class went to a classmate’s birthday party.  We saw ICE AGE 4 in a movie theater.  Today I got another invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, but I can’t go because I’ll be in Rome.

This is my Italian and History teacher. I call her “Maestra.”

I have five teachers but a lot of subjects.  Every week I have History, PE, Math, Italian, Science, Art, English, Geometry, Geography, Music, and Religion.  Math is my favorite subject.  I understand it because it’s all numbers basically.  Right now, I need help in about everything but Math and English.  Whenever I say, “Non capisco,” everyone tries to help me understand.  Sometimes I get different assignments than the Italian kids.  One time, I got a worksheet that asked me what I eat for breakfast.  There weren’t very many choices.  The options were like chocolate, cookies, cake, sugar, coffee, milk, and jam.  I told my class that I eat cereal, and so my teacher added it to the list.  She wrote “cereal and sugar.”  But I told her I don’t add sugar, so she added the word “no” in front of “sugar.”   That was hard for everyone to believe.  No one here has milk without adding sugar.  And another thing weird, no one ever eats eggs for breakfast.

This is my assignment

One time in my Italian class we were talking about fall celebrations.  We had to write about our favorite holiday, so I wrote about Halloween.  The Italians don’t have Halloween.  It would be hard to go trick-or-treating here because everyone in the city lives in apartment buildings instead of houses.  Instead of Halloween, Italians celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  Those are vacation days, so I don’t have school for four days next week!

Translation: “I am an American. I would like to describe a holiday in the United States. The 31st of October in America, we celebrate Halloween. The kids dress up like ghosts, vampires, witches, zombies, and skeletons. They walk around to houses, knock on the door and say, “trick or treat.” The people give candy to the kids. This is the most important holiday in fall for American kids.”

The teachers are a little more strict here.  Sometimes when my Italian or Geography teachers get mad, they bang the roll of duct tape that is on the desk.  It makes a really loud sound because the duct tape has a hard piece of cardboard in it to keep the roll of tape in a roll.  Today my teacher brought a whistle to class and blew it loudly when we talked.  If we are working in class, they don’t want us to make a single peep.  Another thing that happened today was my Italian teacher left the classroom for about a half an hour.  I don’t know where she went, but the kids went crazy.  Everyone got out of their desks and talked.  One of my friends went to the front of the class and pretended to be the teacher. She wrote names on the blackboard.  Some of the other kids were watching out for the teacher and told us when she was coming back to the room so we all got back into our seats.

School is out at 1:10.  When school is done, I walk home with my mom, dad, and Tom.  Two times a week I have tutoring.  My tutor’s name is Paola.  She helps me spell words, pronounce words and understand words.  I like her.  She has made me better in school.

me and Signora Paola

This is another assignment I did. I had to draw a picture and write about myself. I said, “I am 10-years-old,” “I live in Perugia in Umbria,” “I have five teachers,” “I am in fifth grade.”

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Dressing the Italian Man

Fabrizia and Sergio in front of Donati

Sergio Donati is one of the most fashionable men in Perugia.  Twenty-eight years ago, he opened his eponymous men’s clothing store in the center of the city.  And for the past 25 years, his employee, Fabrizia, has worked along beside him.  Together they dress their customers in beautiful clothes of the highest quality.  Every single item sold at Donati, from shirts and sweaters to shoes and suits, is made in Italy.

We met Sergio shortly after we arrived.  He helped Matt choose a couple summer shirts and jeans back in July (Matt Hearts Shopping).  Since then we’ve become friends.  His small store is only two blocks from our apartment, so we get to see him often.  This week, we stopped by to ask him some questions about men’s fashion for fall and winter.  Using Matt as a model, Sergio demonstrated some of the most dashing Italian looks for the colder weather.  By the end of the day, I wished that Matt could take home everything he tried on.

Inside Donati

Sergio believes that it’s important to buy clothes that will last for many years.  Therefore, he steers away from fleeting trends and chooses classic styles with current, up-to-date details.  For example, this year, men are wearing more color than last fall; therefore, his collection of pullovers extends beyond the usual grey, blue, brown and black.

He began by dressing Matt in a bold suit with a principe di galles (Prince of Wales) checks.  Sergio told us that square patterns are gaining more popularity, so some of his suits have a more pronounced design than last year.

However, it takes a unique client to feel comfortable wearing this much pattern head to toe.

A close up of the Prince of Wales checks. Sergio recommends a flared handkerchief for a casual look; otherwise, a straight edged fold looks nice for a more elegant mood.

Every look needs to experiment with the ubiquitous men’s scarf. The popularity of this accessory is evident out on the Perugian streets during cooler days. All of Sergio’s scarves are made from soft,  lightweight cashmere.

This rain jacket is warm enough for cold winter days. The cream color is an example of how one might see lighter, brighter colors this winter.

Next, Sergio pointed out a couple shoes and coats with a slight military edge.  He dressed Matt in a super soft, grey, wool jacket stuffed with goose feathers for lots of warmth.  Matt is wearing cream-colored pants.  While white jeans are restricted to the summer months, Sergio advises wearing these off-white jeans only in fall and winter.

The Italians use the English phrase “field jacket” to describe this coat.

The military boot. Notice also the darker toe, a detail on many of Sergio’s shoes.

All of Donati’s shoes are handmade by one of two artisan workshops here in Italy.

For a sporty look, Sergio dressed Matt in a stone-washed leather jacket.  There are two zippers on this jacket so you can zip up the second one when driving to feel less restricted and more comfortable. Whenever possible, turn up the collar, he said.  This goes for casual shirts, jackets and coats.

Sergio said the jacket was made from vitello (which translates to “veal” which translates to “baby cow.”)

Add a scarf too.  This is a good view of the off-white jeans.  These grey suede shoes are 100% waterproof.

Next Sergio showed us his grey 2-in-1 winter jacket.  This is perfect for the man who wants some options with the weight and warmth of his coat.  The outer sweater can be unzipped and removed, thereby turning this piece into a lightweight but warm waterproof jacket.

Matt with the entire jacket and scarf.

Unzip and remove the sweater for a different look with the shiny under layer.

Finally, Matt tried on a wool, pin striped, dark blue suit.  As Sergio was tying the tie, he mentioned that Italians like to leave the narrow back half of the tie un-tucked.  It gives the appearance of imperfection.

Sergio purposefully separates the two flaps of the tie creating that “I’m-so-perfect-I-don’t-need-to-look-perfect” look.

Notice the neatly folded handkerchief to complement the formality.

Before leaving, we asked Sergio to recommend his one must-have item.  He said that the best article of clothing you can buy would be a Herno brand jacket or coat.   While all of the clothes and shoes in his store are classically designed and well made, the Herno jackets will last even more than 20 years.  And because they are so comfortable and lightweight, they are easy to wear every day.

And as for a gift, Sergio pointed to the obvious, a scarf.

Sergio paired the bright scarf with a dark blue, double breasted, wool jacket that has the feel of a comfortable sweater.

Eurochocolate and the Baraccone: a couple quick fixes

The majestic central piazza of Perugia has been transformed into a stage full of giant Lindt chocolate bears

Just when we needed a little distraction from the rigors of school, language, and missing friends, two annual events set up camp in Perugia.  The first, Eurochocolate, is right outside our window running up and down the main streets and piazzas in the historic center of town.  The 10-day festival includes hundreds of chocolate vendors from around Italy and all of Europe, and it attracts thousands of visitors who arrive by the bus-load every day filling the streets and leaving the biggest mess of wrappers and chocolate everywhere.

I think some of the wrappers got stuck to this lady

Our street

The theme of this year’s Eurochocolate is “iChoc.”  Besides an assortment of chocolate bars, many booths sell iPhone inspired designs on their candy.  You can also buy an iPad case that looks like a slab of chocolate.

Little chocolate app cakes

This event is less about sampling Europe’s finest chocolate than about merchandise and commercialism.  It does, however, provide for some entertaining walks around town.  And all chocolate, even that decorated like the Facebook icon, can momentarily ward off the challenges of a backpack full of Italian homework.

If chocolate isn’t your thing, there’s also a beer keg set up by 10am right outside our apartment.

The second festival is taking place in a nearby parking lot that has been transformed for one month into a swirling, circling, plunging, jolting, neon-colored spectacle of fair rides.  The Perugians refer to this carnival as the “Baraccone.”  We’ve visited twice.

The first time we came was last week with some local friends.  We had a blast.  (The boys had a blast; I had fun watching them have fun.)  They rode a roller coaster, a tunnel of horror, and lots of plunging, twirling rides.  Since neither our friend Sergio nor I can stomach the spin factor, we watched.  Matt, however, loves anything with speed and thrill, so he stood in line with the kids.  Milena hated to see him ride alone, so she often joined him.

for some reason Matt reminds me of Will Farrell in Elf

Tom found an NFL-themed ride that he couldn’t wait to try.  He went on by himself.  It went so fast and so high that I had to take a little walk to calm my nerves.  When Tom finally got off, he said it was fun for the first part, but he wouldn’t do it again.  And it seems like Italy doesn’t have the same concern for safety that America has, he added.

It got even higher, but I couldn’t watch

By Saturday, we had our fill of the crowds, the carnival and the chocolate.  We hoped on a bus to Assisi for the night.  After touring through the famous churches and visiting the tombs of St. Clare and St. Francis, we headed 4 kilometers into the hills above the city and saw the secluded caves where St. Francis and his friends lived.  Then we walked through the woods for hours.  It was silent and beautiful up there.  Ray said he would count it as one of the best side trips we’ve taken since we arrived in Italy.

heading into the woods

Overwhelmed (written by Tom)

by Guest Blogger, Tom

37 notebooks and textbooks for sixth grade

Five and a half hours of school a day, six days a week plus two hours of homework each night.  I am so overwhelmed.

One thing I noticed about Italians is they love to yell.  During math class, unless your equations are written very neatly in black pen and the numbers are perfectly aligned, the teacher will pound on your desk yelling, “piu ordinate!” which means more organized.  In Technology, if you get up to sharpen your pencil or blow your nose, the teacher will scream “seduti!” (sit down).  French is impossible, because they are teaching me a foreign language while speaking a language I don’t fully understand.  They have different names for their music notes in Europe, which doubles the frustration in Music class.  Even English is hard, because my English teacher can’t pronounce simple words like “umbrella,” “poison,” “daughter,” or “hello.”  The kids are somewhat polite, but they don’t help each other out, so if I don’t understand the directions, it’s tough luck for me.

Too many books

We have a dress code.  This is the first and only time that I have been forced to wear jeans.  And to make matters worse, I need to wear a button-up, white,  collared shirt.  Even on P.E. day I am not allowed to wear shorts.  I don’t think I will ever get used to the dress code.  I would run home after school and change into more comfortable clothes, but with the weight of my backpack, my top speed is only three miles per hour.

The steep hike home

I am so wiped out when I get home I feel like taking a three-hour long nap, but I have to complete my homework first.  My assignments wouldn’t be that hard if they weren’t written in a foreign language.  Just converting the text to English takes forever, and by the time I am finished there is very little time before dinner.  My parents got a tutor to help me out, but she just makes it worse.  Even though my tutor can speak a little English, she refuses to.  She won’t even allow my mom to translate the directions for me.  In addition, Paola (my tutor) is strict and the sessions are supposed to be 30 minutes long, but they wind up lasting an hour.  Sunday, which is my only day off, is equally difficult.  My family goes on small vacations every Sunday, so a third of my day I spend packing, driving, and unpacking. The only good thing about Sunday is that I get to wake up early to watch the Husky game.

Signora Paula and me

School has been ridiculously hard, but at least I have mid-winter break to look forward to… oh wait, I forgot they don’t do that in Italy.

Florence 23 years later

Florence back in 1990 with my mom, Stacia and Kelli

Twenty-three years ago, I spent my junior year in Florence.  This week I took a few days by myself for a little reunion with this incredible place.

Every hotel in Florence claims to be centrally located.  This dense city is tightly packed with a wealth of paintings, architecture, food, history, sculptures, craftsmanship, fashion and tourists.  I can’t imagine a greater concentration of art and admirers anywhere in the world.

Although my hotel room was dark and tiny, the view from the roof was stunning.

During the two-hour train ride from Perugia, I wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to do in Florence.  It quickly became apparent that three days is not enough time to get it all done.  It was time for an honest talk with myself.  Could I return from a stay in Florence without going inside the Duomo?  How shameful would it be to walk by the walls of the Uffizzi without going in to awe at Bottecceli’s Birth of Venus? Could I possibly pass up the chance to see the David in person?  The answer was yes, because when it gets right down to it, eating, shopping and aimless walking sounded like so much more fun.  (I can’t believe I just admitted that.)

Before setting out, I tried to look up some of the best streets to window shop.  As luck would have it, I found the website of Maren Erickson, an American woman offering shopping tours of the finest in Florentine leather, silk, paper and gold.  I met her at Piazza Santa Croce.  We hit it off immediately.  It turns out she is from Seattle but lives here six months out of the year.  (In fact, her daughter worked at my husband’s real estate company last year.)  Bottom line, we had a blast.  She took me to some of the most incredible stores where I met some people who have worked in the trade all their lives.  It was so fun to breeze by all the tourist traps of mass-produced, cheap goods and find the best that Florence has to offer.  

Ricardo in his silk store selling gorgeous scarves and ties

Nino’s shoe store. That’s him in the middle. Maren is on the right, and the cute girl on the left helps find the right fit.

After a couple hours, we stopped for an apertivo and decided to meet later for dinner.  So after a long walk through familiar streets and nostalgic piazzas, I met Maren on the site of an ex-prison converted-into-trattoria where we enjoyed a long, long dinner.  It was one of those nights where the problems of the world were solved, and I felt sure that I was in the company of a wise philosopher (and at times was one myself).  I’m sure it was due in no small part to the bottle of Chianti that we ordered, but nonetheless, we had such a good time that we made dinner plans for the following night.

Dinner with Maren

Big meals were sort of the theme of my stay.  The next afternoon I planned my day around a solo lunch at Zeb.  A friend from Perugia told me that it’s one of the best spots in town.  I was the first to arrive at this tiny place and sat at on one of the 15 stools surrounding part of the kitchen.  Behind the counter was Alberto and his mom, Giuseppina.  They were super sweet to me and called me “tesoro” (treasure) when they dropped off a new plate of food.  I went completely Italian on them and ordered every single course offered (pasta, meat, vegetables, dessert, coffee). I managing to finish every bite, more out of appreciation than out of hunger.  I loved it all.  The best plate was the pici al pesto.

The counter at Zeb

Mamma Giuseppina and Owner Alberto

Before dinner with Maren, I took my stuffed self to a couple alternative museums.  The Salvatore Ferragamo museum had a really cool Marilyn Monroe exhibit featuring all the shoes she owned by the famous Italian designer.  I also learned a couple things about Ferragamo himself.  For one thing, he studied anatomy so he could know how to build the perfect shoe.  Then I headed to Palazzo Strozzi to peek at a 1930’s art exhibit.  I don’t know much about designer shoes or 1930’s Italian art, so both made me feel a little clueless.  Then I took a long walk up to Piazza Michelangelo which looks out over the entire city.  And who should I see but a copy of the David!  I got a little Renaissance art after all.

On top of Piazza Michelangelo

The next day I had to pack up and head home.

I left Perugia kind of nervous about traveling solo.  Sometimes I feel self-conscious when I’m walking around by myself, or especially when I go out to a restaurant alone.  There’s no one with whom to share the new experience, and there’s no one to look at when I eat.  Sometimes I had to fight the urge not to think of myself as a bit of a loser.

I decided there are two virtues I’d like more of: courage and confidence.  The past few days taught me that courage is a choice.  I can identify my fears and consciously face them.  (This trip offered some opportunity for that.) Confidence, on the other hand, is not a choice, but is a result of acting courageously.  In other words, self-assurance was earned once I confronted my fears.

There, enough big thoughts.  Do you like my new leather boots?

Gubbio

Matt in front of Palazzo dei Consoli

For the past month, weekends have been dedicated to travel.  We’re only here a year, and there are so many cities to see.  On Saturdays, we usually meet the boys at school and head out for the night.  While we each have different interests and priorities, we’re learning how to explore new places together.  Gubbio proved to be a good attempt, but left much to be desired.

In theory, Gubbio is a must-see.  Our guidebook describes it as the most thoroughly medieval of Umbrian towns with picture-book pretty streets.   It also hosts a 900-year-old festival every May called the Corso dei Ceri.  It’s considered one of the most lively, rough and exciting festivals in Italy next to Sienna’s Palio.  I thought a town with this kind of edgy, competitive spirit might appeal to the boys, so we booked a room for the night.

Once we arrived, we knew we’d need to make some compromises with the kids if we wanted to spend time meandering up and down cobblestone streets while stopping into the occasional museum or church, so we found a hotel with a pool.  Unfortunately, the pool seemed designed more for meditation than Marco Polo.  There were contemplative, soft-edged shapes emerging from the ceiling and corners; there was droney spa music everywhere; and there were doors leading to hydrotherapy tubs that were restricted to adults only.

To make matters even weirder, big bathrobes and yellow flip flops along with swim caps were required in order to enter the pool area.  There were video cameras keeping tabs on everyone.  We saw a man get in trouble for not wearing his swim cap.  And I got in trouble for letting the boys jump in the water and make a splash.

After a few hours of quiet swim time, we figured it was fair to start our city tour.  We misjudged how close the historic center of town was to our hotel, so by the time we arrived at the main piazza, the kids were ready for bed.

On Sunday, we got smart and rented Elf.  The boys stayed in the room for nearly two hours watching Will Farrell while we explored Piazza Grande and tried to get into the Etruscan Museum before it closed.

Heading up the steps to the museum

A view of Palazzo Grande

We met the boys back at the hotel for lunch where, to our disbelief, they were each served a small glass of prosecco (yet another indication that the staff was not used to children.)  Ray was excited; he’s often asking us for sips when we pour a glass.  Tom, on the other hand, never wants to taste wine, but he made an exception.  Later he commented that while he didn’t like the taste, he kept wanting more.

On our way out of town, we finally found something for everyone to enjoy: a tram with little cages that lifted us to a church perched on the highest lookout over the city.  Inside was the nearly completely preserved patron saint of Gubbio, San Ubaldo.  He was suspended in a glass coffin above an alter.  The only thing missing were his three fingers which were cut off by his manservant as a memento to their friendship.

Kind of like Tom said, I didn’t really like it, but something about it makes me want to come back for more.

Our Apartment in Perugia

Looking down from six stories high

We’ve been here almost three months.  And while we have no intention of staying a single day over one year, we do refer to this place as home.  When we visit another city for the weekend, we come home on Sunday.  When we pick up the boys from school, we come home for lunch.  And after an afternoon navigating the foreign, loud, confusing city below, we can always retreat to our apartment and feel like it’s ours.  It’s a good place.

But not perfect.

By now we’ve had time to get familiar with the nuances.  The good has only gotten better, and for the most part, the bad is just a big inconvenience. For anyone interested, here’s a little tour.

I’ll start with the disadvantages

1.  The water.  One of the first things I noticed when we moved in, was a strange, filmy, white residue left in the pot after we boiled water.  And the tea always has the look of an oil slick floating around on top.  I thought the pot had some leftover toxins from the previous tenants, but after buying a new pot, I had the same problem.  So I Googled “white residue” which led me to “hard water” which led to “calcium and iron magnesium”.  It turns out this suspicious film is a result of all the mineral deposits.  Upon further investigation, I learned that we are getting a full day’s supply of calcium and magnesium just by drinking water from the facet!  So this actually might be a good thing.  But it’s gross.

left: the mineral deposits left over in the pot.      right: the sludgy look of tea made with a daily dose of calcium and magnesium.

2.  Old appliances that break or don’t work well.   Since we’ve moved in, we’ve had to replace the washing machine and the refrigerator.  We had to live without both for nearly four weeks.  Then last month we had to repair the hot water heater after two days of freezing, cold water.  And the intercom used to communicate with visitors when they arrive downstairs (and also open the door to our building) hasn’t worked for weeks, meaning one of us has a long hike every time a someone rings, which leads me to . . .

3.  Living on the sixth floor.  There is no elevator in our building.  We climb up and down 89 steps at least three times a day.  I never buy more than a day’s worth of groceries at a time, one reason being that it would be too heavy.  I dread the ascent after a weekend away with the extra weight of suitcases.  It’s tiring.  It’s sweaty.  But I think I’m getting stronger.

On our way to school this morning. No problem going down.

4.  The shower leaks and makes a puddle on the bathroom floor after each use.

5.  The toilets are really hard to flush.

6.  We have woodworms in all the antique furniture and wood shelves.  I’ve tried getting rid of them, but they seem to be very resilient.  They have burrowed themselves too deep in the wood for me to see, but they leave plenty of evidence with a brown, sawdusty powder all over.

7.  The bells.  Outside our bedroom window is the city bell tower.  It rings every hour.  It also rings every 15 minutes.   Matt did the math; that God forsaken bell rings 456 times a day.

A view of the bell tower from our bedroom. Each bell is 7 feet high.  Each bell is very loud.

I’m starting to detect a little whine in my voice, so I’m going to switch over to the benefits of this lovely place.

1.  The ceiling.  Above the living room is a bright fresco of a horn, a ribbon, and some holly branches.  Another ceiling has beautiful red stones mortared into it.  I love it.  When I look up, there is no doubt we are in Italy.

Our living room.  The fresco is above.  The stones are over on the right.

2.  The boys each have their own room.  This has been so nice, especially since there isn’t a back yard to play in or much space in the apartment to get away from each other.  When they need a break from the rest of the family, they now have their own place to be alone.

Tom’s room is decorated with football pictures he gets in the mail from friends back home.  (Those are all his school books stacked on the right.)

3.  The location.  No other detail about our life here makes as big a difference as this one.  We are in the middle of it all.  We are in the center of the center.  With the warm weather, we keep the windows open and can hear silverware and plates down below at Perugia’s most popular restaurant.  The boys can go downstairs and across the street to the best gelataria in town, and we can see them the whole time from our windows.  We are are less than five minutes by foot to the kids’ school.  From our dining room table, there is the frequent sound of street musicians.  Then there is the constant traffic of fashionably dressed Italians walking past down below.  We are surrounded with so much vibrancy and energy.  It feels great.

4.  The way our oven cooks potatoes.  This is weird, but every time I make roasted potatoes, they turn out perfectly.  I don’t even have to do anything except cut them up and pour salt and olive oil over them.   I don’t even know how hot the oven is because it’s in celsius.  I just turn it on the highest number and check on them every 10 minutes.  It’s amazing.

5.  The fireplace.  There’s a little fireplace built into the wall.  You can see it from the photo above.  It’s adorable, and I think it will be really cozy in the winter if we can find some place to buy wood.

6.  The postcard wall.  Every time we visit a new city, we add a postcard from that location to our kitchen wall.  As the postcards accumulate, the wall of this apartment record the highlights of our year.

We’re up to 13 now. We’ll add another on Monday after we spend the night in Gubbio.

6.  The photo wall.  Thank God the apartment came fully furnished.  The landlords have done a nice job decorating it.  Most of their paintings on the wall are fine, but we knew we would want something from home to make this place feel like ours.  So we brought pictures of all our friends and family and stuck them above the shelves in the entryway.  It looks fantastic.

If you look carefully, you’ll probably see yourself somewhere on the wall.

7.  A place for Luke.   The top shelf is dedicated to Luke.  In addition, we packed the pink candle that we light in his memory.  And I brought the framed picture that our friend gave us on the five-year anniversary.  It’s called Flight of the Recently Departed.  We keep them together near the kitchen table.  They hold a space for Luke.  While we didn’t bring very many personal items for home, these were essential.  These pictures and objects of Luke’s might be the most important features of our apartment.

For Luke

I just heard the town bell.  It’s time to walk down 89 stairs and cross the street to get groceries for lunch.