Longing

It seems like every time I close my eyes and imagine Perugia, via Mazzini or our apartment, I can’t stop this awful ache from welling.  The details are easy to picture, yet it’s so inaccessible now.  It feels far, far away.

I had a good year, a great year; maybe the best year of my life.  It felt purposeful, alive, delicious, challenging, melodic and stunningly gorgeous.   I felt a lightness I haven’t felt in six years.  I miss those feelings, but mostly, I just miss being surrounded by Italy.

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It was a life-changing experience, and I was hell of lucky to have it.

Yet, truth be told, while I’d like to beam myself there for a couple hours every day, it’s not where I want to live with my family permanently.  It’s not even where we want to live for another year.  For the boys, the familiarity of friends and the freedom of a grassy back yard have rekindled their social lives and athletic interests.  For Matt, the stimulation of work and the warm embrace of the English language have elevated him to the top of his game.  We are here, to stay, by choice.

So now it’s time for the busy work of transition, or rather, integration: How to take all the richness of a year of art, tradition, and history along with that proud, food-oriented, family-centric, festive, passionate lifestyle and make it work here . . . in the suburbs of the East Side . . .

A couple ideas:

Clear cut the tangle of blackberry bushes at the end of the street and build a piazza where the local farmers could sell their grapes and cheeses and where a dapper barista could pull espresso for the neighbors (no caramel macchiatos).  A church, too.  I don’t really care what religion it is as long as there is a bell tower.

Offer Italian in the Bellevue public schools.  While it’s practically useless in the Pacific Northwest, it’s beautiful.  And there’s something to be said for speaking beautifully.

Throw annual medieval festivals in the neighborhood and hold raucous horse races with other neighborhoods.

Have all the working moms and dads come home for lunch and fill the streets with the aroma of garlic and tomatoes and the sound of pouring wine.

Decide on a neighborhood patron saint or some kind of folk hero with whom we can identify ourselves.

Honk our car horns more.

Transitions take time, and while we sort out the details of change, we count our blessings for the two most important aspects of Italian lifestyle going for us:  This hill is full of awesome neighbors (talented, creative, very smart, etc.) and most importantly, we have a community fountain.

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Culture Shock

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We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened.  It’s like a book we read or a dream we had.  Time feels distorted.  I feel disconnected.  It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight.  Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there.  But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes.  Then there are phantom sounds.  Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance.  This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing.  But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.

A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip.  I think I understand.  When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different.  We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings.  Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door.  However, these little tasks can surprise me.  My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning.  When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all.  My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home.  And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me.  And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there.  I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard  mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.

I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives.  I want to make the experience of our last year part of me.  I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.

I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today.  The first was with Sara.  When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms.  It was emotional and a little loud.  It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year.  It felt really good.  Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian.  So I quickly jumped in.  I told them I had just returned from Italy.  I asked where they were from.  We talked about Sicily and Umbria.  I helped them find the right cheese.  Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour.  We kept talking and talking.  Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am!  They are my new friends.  When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.

Leaving Perugia in 15 minutes

We have said goodbye to everyone and everything.

So many gut-wrenching hugs, final words and last glances that we knew meant forever.

Not just with people, but places and our lifestyle.

Yesterday we woke up early just to make sure we could see it all for the last time.  We stopped by every store and street and piazza.  We had lunch at our favorite counter, La Bottega, where Geraldo made us a plate of Umbrian meats and cheeses and gave us a bag of dried sausages to eat on the way home.

I just can’t sum it up.  It’s been absolutely incredible.  Unforgettable.  Beautiful.  I don’t have the adequate words to express how in love I am with this city (and all of Italy) and how much I am going to miss it.

For their last day, we told the boys they could eat as much gelato as they wanted.  Tom finished 12 scoops

For their last day, we told the boys they could eat as much gelato as they wanted. Tom finished 12 scoops

INTERVIEWS by guest blogger Tom

written by Tom

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

In two days we’ll be flying back to the USA.  I am super excited, but there was still one more thing I wanted to do in Italy.  I decided to ask four different Italians several questions about their lifestyle, interests, and dislikes.  Then I would ask the four people in my family the same questions.  Below are eight paragraphs containing each person’s answers.

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Alessandro is 11 years old and was my classmate this year.  His favorite thing about Italy is the food.  He really likes cheese pizza and pasta Norcina (sausage and cream).  His preferred gelato flavor is milk chocolate.  His favorite region is Lazio, mainly because of Rome.  The thing he dislikes the most about living in Italy is the amount of homework.  The most difficult English word for him to say is “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Giovanni is 17 years old.  He is going to America next month as a foreign exchange student for his senior year in high school.  He chose America because he thinks it’s the strongest country in the world and he wants to learn English.  The thing he likes most about Italy is the pizza.  His favorite kind is sausage and mushroom.  His preferred gelato combination is pistachio and pine nut.  He really likes Rome, but his favorite region is Tuscany.  He said the worst part about living in Italy is the bureaucracy.  The hardest American word for him is “rubber” (not because of the pronunciation, but because he learned in English class that it means “eraser”, when in fact, in America, it means something else…)

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Christiano is 45 years old.  He works at a pasta shop near our apartment.  He really likes Italy, especially the weather, the people, and the quality of life.  The only thing he doesn’t like is the lack of ability to get things done.  He will eat any food (pasta, meat, dessert, pizza, etc.).  His favorite gelato, by far, is chocolate chip.  He likes Rome and Perugia, but he doesn’t like Milan.  His preferred regions are Sicily and Sardinia.  His favorite word is sole (sun).  He has gone to America three times.  He likes how unique each city is.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “teeth”.

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Paola turns 50 today.  She tutored Ray and me during the school year.  Her favorite thing about Italy is the history and the food.  She really likes pasta, mushroom pizza, and coconut ice cream.  Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Lazio.  The thing that she dislikes most about Italy is the politics.  Her favorite Italian word is amore (love).  The hardest word in English for her to say is “literature.”

Ray’s favorite thing about this year has been meeting new people and eating Italian food.  His really likes chocolate ice cream, sausage pizza, and pasta Norcina.  His preferred cities are Rome and Perugia, but he also likes the region Sardinia.  Ray’s favorite word is buffone (buffoon).  The one thing he dislikes about Italy is that so many stores go out of business.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “world”.  His favorite thing about the U.S. is the way the schools work.

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My mom said the best thing about Italy is the evening walks before dinner with all the people.  Her favorite phrase in Italian is ci mancarebbe, meaning “don’t mention it.”  She likes any pizza with ricotta cheese.  When we go out for gelato, she usually gets blueberry, mango and chocolate with whipped cream. Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Sardinia.  The English words that she has the most trouble with are “epitaph” and “potable.”  She said the best thing about America is the movies.

My dad said the best thing about living in Italy is being surrounded by beauty.  His preferred food is pasta (sausage, carbonara, garbanzo beans, etc.) and his favorite Italian phrase is ho capito (I understand).  His favorite city is Rome, but he also likes the region Tuscany.  He usually gets strawberry, mango, and lemon flavored gelato.  The hardest part about Italy for him is not understanding the language.  He also misses the efficiency of America.  The hardest English word for him is “synonym”.

For me, the best part about living in Italy is the amount of time I get to spend with my family.  My favorite Italian food is sausage and cream pasta.  My favorite pizza toppings are sliced hot dogs and French fries.  The tastiest gelato flavors that I’ve had this year were peanut butter, lemon-mint, and bubble gum (all from a place called LatoG in Rome).  My favorites cities are Lucca and Taormina, and my preferred region is Sardinia.  My least favorite thing about Italy is the school.  My favorite Italian words are oplah (oops), and bimbo (little kid).  I am excited to get back to America because of my friends, the sports teams, the variety of food, and having a place to play outside.  The hardest English word for me is “abominable”.

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The End of Italian School

Ray's class presents a gift to one of the teachers

Ray’s class presents a gift to one of the teachers

The end of the school year is another cause for celebration.

Italian students and families commemorate with a big get-together centering (of course) around food.

Tuesday night was the sixth grade party.  We heard that it went so late that only two kids showed up for school on Wednesday.  However, we weren’t there; Tom didn’t want to go.  He said he would rather go to Rome for the day where he can buy glow-in-the-dark sling shot rockets from the unlicensed street vendors.  Since we all wanted to go to Rome, we took advantage of his request for a final visit.  Tom got his rockets but also got a talking-to by the police. He’s getting use to it.

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Ray’s party was yesterday.  This group of families is especially close since many elementary schools in Italy assign teachers in first grade who stick with the same kids for five years.  Even though Ray joined the class in its last year, he fit in well.  In the end, he made good friends.

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Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Marie Elena

Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Maria Elena

The festa was held at Il Pioppo, an agriturismo  outside Perugia where the ingredients are sourced right there on the farm.  And this was no light summer lunch.  Our plates were filled to capacity. We started with a black truffle pasta tossed with the chef’s homemade tagliatelle followed by a second pasta course with tomato and sausage. Then we had a plate of roast pork and sauted greens and finally jam crostatas. Pitchers of wine and sparkling water were abundant.  The kids’ menu was equally huge but styled to suit their tastes.  However, with a pool and grassy field, they chose not to linger at the table.

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Ray's teacher playing some type of volleyball game with the kids.

Maestra Rita playing volleyball with the kids.

While the kids played, some of the parents told us about a new thing that schools are doing in Italy.  It’s called “American graduation” and it entails a celebration after eighth grade and another one after high school.  Previously, a graduation ceremony was held only after someone finished college, but several schools are importing our excuse to pomp and circumstance more often.  We told them that American kids even get to wear graduation caps when they finish preschool and fifth grade.  That made everyone laugh.

Saying goodbye to Daniele.  After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Daniele. After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva.

Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva.

The Emergency Room (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

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Tomorrow is our last day of school.  Yeah!  So today our teachers let us go outside.  One of my favorite games to play with my classmates is nascondino.  It’s a running game of hide-and-seek.  Only today, it wasn’t very fun.  When I was it, I tried to catch two of my friends.  While I was running, I bumped into someone, fell and hit the pavement.  When I stood up and saw all the blood, I thought my nose was bleeding and I wondered why my mouth felt like sand paper.  The teachers ran over, and when they saw me, they gasped and covered their mouths.  Then I had a feeling that I broke my teeth.  Everyone stopped playing and came over to help.  A teacher walked me inside and got me some water.  Another teacher collected my teeth off the ground.  Someone called my parents.  Unfortunately, they were in Deruta so it took awhile for them to get me.

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When Mom and Dad came, they were worried.  The teachers told them to take me to the emergency room. The hospital was 20 minutes away.  It was a big place, and it took a long time to find the dentist department.  After my mom signed some papers, they took us to a room, and a doctor and two nurses started working on my teeth. I was scared.  I thought there would be a lot of pain, and I thought it was going to take a long time. First they cleaned my mouth.  I tried to relax, but it was hard so I clenched my hands over my legs.  The doctor was nice and tried to speak English to me, but after he heard me speak in Italian, we decided to talk in Italian.  He sanded down my teeth with an electric tool.  That was the most painful part.  Then he glued my old teeth back on and added a little bit of fake tooth to fill in the missing parts.

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We weren’t there very long.  I was glad when it was done.  It only cost 26 euros! (But I didn’t have to pay.)

The doctor told me to be very careful with my teeth.  He said to eat soft foods (like gelato) for a week and to not chomp with my front teeth.

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We drove back to our apartment for lunch.  By now, school was over.  All my friends and my teachers started calling.  Everyone was wondering if I was okay.  I told them that I felt good and that I would definitely be at school for the last day.  I’m excited for tomorrow because after school, everyone is meeting for lunch at a restaurant in the country that has a swimming pool.

My teeth are fixed!

My teeth are fixed!

Impressions

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It’s grey and cold in Perugia today.  We only have five weeks left before we pack up and fly home.

I can’t help getting into reflective moods these days.  I think about regrets and highlights.  I think about the year in Italy nearing its end.  I think about coming home.

Lately, whenever we bump into people, they ask us questions about our experience here and our return to America.

Several have asked us if we wish we could stay longer. The thought of leaving gives me knots in my stomach; however, I think a year is probably just right. We’ve seen the four seasons, experienced all the holidays and worked through an entire school year.  We’ve had enough time to really get to know Perugia, see most of Umbria and visit 18 cities outside this region (with six more planned).  We’ve lived big, and we’ve embraced each day.  We’ve been observers of the Italian culture for nearly 11 months.  However, by the end of June, I’ll be ready to return to where I belong.  I’ll be ready to be part of my own culture and be with friends/family who really know us.

Another common question people ask is what our favorite Italian cities are.  This is a tricky one to answer because Italians act offended if their hometown is not the favorite.  So naturally, we agree with them. Secretly, Ray likes Florence, Tom likes Lucca, Matt and I like Rome the best.

A few weeks ago, someone asked us to describe our impressions of Italy.  He wanted to know the little things that surprised us or struck us as unexpected.  As an example, he commented that on a trip to America, he was amazed that people bought milk in one-gallon containers.  How would you ever finish it before it expires? he asked.  He also thought Costco was weird.  After thinking about this question, we listed our observations:

The presence of hazelnuts.  It seems to be everyone’s favorite flavor of ice cream.  It’s often in chocolate bars.  And many breakfast pastries and desserts have hazelnuts or a combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.  I haven’t met an Italian who doesn’t LOVE HAZELNUTS.
Today's flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate chip/grapefruit and vanilla/hazelnut/strawberry

Today’s flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate-chip/grapefruit and hazelnut/vanilla/strawberry

School work is an art form.  The correct answer isn’t as important as color-coding each step.  It’s no wonder some of the greatest artists were Italian.  Grid paper is also used to align the various components of an assignment.  It’s taken the boys all year to accept the “form over content” mentality.
compare September vs. May

compare September vs. May

Regionalism.  Everyone is proud of their own city and their region.  Being Italian is secondary to being Roman or Florentine or Perugian.  At home, if I brought someone a gift from another place, it would be special, unique and cool.  Here, to most Italians, it would be an insult.  I tried this with Theos chocolate from Seattle.  I gave some to a friend and later wished I hadn’t.
Banana-chocolates from the local "Vanucci" chocolatier are a more appropriate hostess gift than an exotic brand from outside Perugia

Banana-chocolates from the local “Vannucci” chocolatier are a more appropriate hostess gift than an exotic brand from outside Perugia

Gestures.  Italians talk with their hands.  Someone told us this is because every region has their own dialect.  Sicily and Sardinia have their own language.  So before the peninsula was united and schools taught standardized Italian, people relied on hand motions to help communicate.
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Eating.  I don’t understand how Italians eat so much and so fast.  I can never keep up.  I’ve seen disapproving looks when we go out to eat with friends.  Someone once shook her head at my unfinished dinner and said, “What a shame.  It’s better your stomach bursts than leave food on a plate.”
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Drinking.  At sporting events and parties, Italians don’t drink much.  They act drunk, but they aren’t.  In America, we drink to liberate ourselves, open up, and feel happy.  Italians are like that without drinking.
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The customer is always wrong.  Here, you have to look out for yourself.  If you buy the incorrect size, you keep it.  If you buy a defective product, you keep it.  There are no cash returns.  You are responsible for leaving the store with the right merchandise.  I’ve been burned several times, even in a restaurant.  The other day I ordered cherries for dessert.  The waiter brought a bowl of wrinkly, sour, old looking cherries. I could only eat a couple.  When he asked how my dinner was, I explained the problem with the fruit.  He looked at me like I was an idiot and said that it’s still a little early for good cherries.  My fault.
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Protection of children.  Italians don’t leave kids alone, not even 14-year-olds.  It’s considered dangerous and bad parenting.  A couple times, Matt and I have left the kids in the apartment while we go across the street for dinner or on an evening walk in our neighborhood, but I’d never tell an Italian this.  Once, when Tom was playing by himself right outside our apartment, he was picked up by the police and brought home.  They told me that I shouldn’t let my 12-year-old play by himself outside even though it was still sunny out.  Ray, in fifth grade, is not allowed to walk five minutes home alone after school.  Teachers will not dismiss him without a parent.
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Finally, it is becoming evident to me that Italians don’t have a lot of experience saying goodbye.  This may be because an Italian doesn’t move around the country the way an American does.  They usually don’t live outside the town of their birth.  Many Italians live within a block of their mammas, papas and siblings. And several of our friends live in the same building as their parents.  So they don’t get much practice saying goodbye.  When we talk about leaving, Italians say, “Don’t worry, just come back and live here again.” They don’t seem to understand that while we may visit sometime in our life, we will never come back to live.  The awkward sadness that I’m feeling doesn’t translate well.
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Therefore, next month, when we say our final goodbyes and close the door to this apartment for the last time, I’m handing out postcards of Seattle with our address on it.  We have room in our house for visitors and I’d love to bring some of Italy to our home.  When they tell us to “just come back” I will invite them to come to America.  In the meantime, there are still five weeks if anyone can make it over here.